Saturday, July 30, 2016

Rwenzori: Mountains of the Moon. A Mountaineering report.

By Nico.

Images of elusive, jagged, snow-capped peaks towering above a thick jungle canopy flashed through my mind when I first read about this mysterious mountain, strutting the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I have always had a strange attraction to such seldom visited, remote and unrelenting places, and the Rwenzori and one of its host countries the DRC, definitely fits that picture. The DRC is one of the largest countries in Africa and endowed in mineral riches, but also hosts some of the longest lasting, most brutal civil wars on the continent fought by rebels whose hideout is and has been this very mountain range.

Jungles of Rwenzori Mountains.

As early as the times of the Ancient Greeks, there has been rumours of mountains of snow and ice forming the source of the Nile River. Aeschylus talked about "Egypt nurtured by snows" and Aristotle noted "Mountains of Silver", being the source of the Nile in the fourth century B.C. During this time, a number of ancient expeditions failed to reach the mountain until eventually, a merchant with the name of Diogenes stated that he had found the source of the mighty River, reporting that it flowed from a group of massive mountains with a permanent snow-capped peak, which the natives called "The Mountains of the Moon".

It was only in modern times that Europeans resumed their search for the famed source; the most well known of these expedition being led by Speke and Grant, as well as Stanley. While the former failed to reach the Mountain Range, Stanley, the well known and maybe slightly infamous American turned British explorer (yes he of the Famous "Dr Livingstone I presume") finally found the glacier capped mountains in 1889.

Henry Morton Stanley on the Rwenzori Expedition. (Source

Up until recently, the Rwenzori National Park was closed to all visitors due to rebel activity that killed a number of visitors in the region. The Rwenzori has been on many climbers lists as it hosts the third highest peak in Africa. Boasting the biggest glacier on the continent and reaching a height of 5,109 m, Margherita Peak is not that serious a climb, but reaching the base and scrambling through moorland and foggy old mans' beard forests up to the summit glaciers in a pair of rubber boots (surfaces are super wet and muddy) sounded serious enough for me. The added  fear (or maybe the allure - or maybe its both) of rebel activity makes the Rwenzori a peak that is unlike any other. Being located near the Virunga Volcanoes in the DRC this peak is in the middle of one of the greatest biodiversity hot spots on the planet, while also associated with history from Greek explorers to Stanley searching for the source of the Nile. What a story, what a place to visit. I simply had to see it for myself. Climb the mountain, face the fear of rebel activity and set foot on the summit glaciers - I had to go.

Margherita Peak from a distance.

The mountain is different to the other high peaks of Africa in that its not a volcano but rather a fairly large mountain range formed due to upliftment of crystalline rocks such as gneiss and granite. My visit was planned for July 2014 - one of the two season where the rainfall is measured in jugs,not buckets... The other favourable season being January. With that in mind I packed rain gear, an umbrella and more rain gear. I booked my flights and the climbing expedition through Rwenzori Mountaineering Services (one of two groups offering climbs on the mountain) and set off to fly from Namibia to Joburg and from there to Kampala, the capital of Uganda, followed by a short hop on a charter Cessna 210 which would deliver me to Kasese, the small town from the where the climb would start. En route to Joburg I got a familiar feeling in my gut... that little voice that told me not to go, to turn around and go home. I tried to ignore it but it kept pestering me. Its a strange thing - why would you pay the money, go through the trouble of allocating time towards the climb, book (and pay, by the way) the climb, all flights etc. and then actually consider not going, while on your first flight? Was it fear that lingered, or just a nagging thought of how I would miss my understanding, caring and loving wife, my beautiful boys? I don't know - but I do now this: if my mind is not a 100 % focused on a serious climb in a remote area of Africa, then I know I should not do it. Needless to say, when I got off the plane in Joburg I contact my Love and said I am coming home on the next available flight. As always, she understood and wanted to make sure that I was sure and then gave her unwavering support.

Mountains are strange creatures and summits even worse. I don't particularly like summits. They scare me. They allure and inspire to such an extent that it becomes an obsession. And having that obsession is what drives many climbers to excel; they pass the point of normality and enter the dreamlike realm where the climber and the mountain become one. You forget fear, rationality and better judgement. The only thoughts that linger are those of the summit, not of getting back down, just that place where the mountain tip and the sky become one, ever higher. Non stop. I have had those thoughts, I know many that have had them and reached the summit, never to come down again. Their bodies lie buried in the snow or rubble on some remote mountain in an unknown country. I have vowed a long time ago that, although I understand summit fever and know that it is required, I will trust my inner voice, trust my judgement and stick to it. I have turned around on many peaks, sometimes just below the summit and sometimes without even setting foot on the mountain, and for that reason I am still here to write about it. Maybe I am too careful, maybe I need more summit fever or maybe I am just lucky.

So the July window passed and I made plans to visit the Lunar Mountains again in January 2015. Months passed and eventually I packed my bags - again the rain gear, ice axes and crampons and took the first of four flights from Namibia. No voice, no lingering thoughts, but still plenty of fear. Maybe the word fear is not right here, it was apprehension with a tinge of fear. Will I be able to do it? What about the ice work, the altitude and then of course the rebels hiding on the DRC side of the mountain...

After 24 h of traveling I checked into the very colonial Margherita Hotel in Kasese. Beautiful, rustic old place with panoramic views of the surrounding countryside and of course the foothills of Mountains of the Moon. I packed, re-packed, met my guides and before I knew it headed for the start of the climb.

View from Margherita Hotel.

The first part of the climb passed through thinly populated, high altitude areas where huts clung to valleys sides and kids waved shyly to the lone Mzungu. The Mountain at this time was covered in cloud and although our hike was dry at this point, I wondered about those dark lingering clouds up ahead.

First part of climb through populated areas near Kasese Town.

We made good progress on this first day and arrived relatively quickly at the first camp. A hut located above the population zone in the so called old mans' beard forests. The jungle was thick and filled with life. We heard chimpanzee calls and saw White Colubus Monkeys (yes, those from Naro Moru River Lodge) roamed in the canopy.

Camp one with Old Mans Beard Forests.

The next couple of days actually blend into one with lots of slogging up steep mountain passes, down vegetated valleys and through moorland bogs.Here we had to wear rubber boots due to mud, water and more mud. It's here where you grasp the full meaning of rainfall measured in buckets. Luckily our days up to that point were still dry, but still very foggy. Some climbers we met on the way down also mentioned that, although they summited, the view was obscured by fog.

Walking in rubber boots.

We slogged ever onwards through some beautiful rocky scenery, in and out of thick forests up to a high point where I could see the peaks. What a sight. It was mesmerizingly beautiful. Snow capped peaks towering above a think high altitude jungle - just as I had imagined. Lets go, I can't wait (summit fever showing its face here...). 

Summit peaks from high point above pass.

The walk from the high point to the last hut was steep, crossing many streams and slugging up a hellish valley to our last camp where it was bitterly cold, windy and still very foggy. I lay down on my mattress and thought of Home. What were my Love and the boys doing at that very moment. My thoughts always cross over to them when I am not climbing. But as before, I knew that I had to focus the next day as we had to get up early (2 am) in order to reach the summit by sunrise and get back down the same day - almost 500 m of vertical ascent, some scrambling, abseiling down valleys, crossing two glaciers and ultimately climbing the last section over scree material to reach Margherita Peak.

Last camp.

Summit day was icy (for lack of a better word). Lots of crampon and ice-ax work up steep, long and unrelenting glaciers. The ice formations were beautiful. Deep, long gulleys leading up to meringues and vertical ice chutes.

Fantastic ice formations on Margherita Glacier.
Crossing Margherita Glacier.

After what felt like hours of scrambling, we reached the last glacier, a steep ominous looking beast leading up to a rocky chimney that would hopefully take us to the summit. I looked down into the valley and saw we were high above the clouds of earlier. As the Mountain Gods slowly opened the gates to the summit, just after sunrise, the summit post stared me right in the face - it was right in front of me! 


I could not believe it, tears of joy streamed down my face and as I looked down the steep slopes of the mountain leading into the ominous DRC. I thought I heard some hushed chanting of rebellious voices rising above the old mans beard forests...

Margherita Glacier.

The climb down was fairly serious, gently creeping down the same way we came, hopping over deep crevasses and ultimately reaching our camp for the evening. The next day we "ran" down to the gate, completing the climb in 8 days, 7 nights. I felt elated. What a tremendous experience on a high altitude peak in a remote part of the Dark Continent.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Women Who Run With The Dawgs

Maybe not as soul-stirring or profound as Clarissa Pincola Estes' Wolf-running version, but to this running lady it comes preeeetty darn close.

See, we've been running for longer than we have been raising and loving pups. And in the past 10 years or so we have tried and tried and kept loving and trying to stay patient, but running with our four-legged chidlers, with leashes or without, just never was any real fun. The Jack Russel really, REALLY wanted to run, oh yes. As soon as he saw any indication that we were even LOOKING at our running shoes, he approved with his high-pitched, incessant barking, quivering with excitement.

For the first 500 m of our seaside runs, Jack had to be on a leash, which we would take off once we hit the beach. If we survived the 500 m being dragged by what felt like a rabid kudu, an extended mandatory walk break would follow (for the human). Jack, of course would then celebrate his newfound freedom by flying off miles out ahead, scaring every biological being on the beach, from non-suspecting bird life to poor peaceful fishermen. So in the wake of this embarrassment the human would start running again sooner than the dragged-legs could recover.

Unlike other normal runners (or runners with normal dogs?), our beach running had to take place ON the beach. On the deep, sandy and bouldery section, and not on the compact walkway a few yards in. All this just to try and keep Jack from picking a fight with every other dog. Tiny woolly ones, rottweilers or boerboels were his favourites. Attacks on the woolly ones would usually entail an ears-down-tail-tucked-in run down of his victim, followed by a dusty brawl, while the hysterical owner (usually female), lashed out at us for not keeping our vicious dog on a leash. Luckily there was never any (serious) blood shedding (that we are aware of).

Attempted attacks on the larger canines would usually entail a nervous, flat-eared Jack going in for the kill without any pleasantries, straight for his opponent's throat, his irate prey just lifting his head away to avoid scarring. Often times WE ended up being the hysterical party, trying to call off our silly pup, not looking forward to what may have followed if the big dawg lost his or her temper.

Or Jack would just run. And keep on running without looking back. And we would get the all too familiar phone call from a kind stranger or the SPCA to come fetch our dog. That happened all too often. We met many new people like that.

Dear sweet Jack. Innocence personified.

On the complete opposite side is our big yellow Lab. Umfaan turned  10 this year, but he is every bit as cute and clumsy as he was at 6 weeks when we got him. Loving, caring and very attached to his humans. He always wants to be within 5 cm of us, or closer, if possible. So much so that, when he runs with us he will either step on our heels when he is following, or stop dead in his tracks when he is leading, turn sideways to check if we are coming, causing his human to stumble or jackknife over him. He just doesn't have personal space, and we love that about him. But not during a run.

And then there was Denali. The first puppy we had since the boys were born. Shortly after he came to stay with us I noticed that this pup was really very sensitive and bright. He could play a decent game of fetch before he was 3 months old, actually dropping the ball for his human to throw again (Umfaan would keep it, Jack would eat it. No comparison, we love our fur-boys equally, but eish, have we bought balls the last 10 years!)

Denali (8 weeks) napping on Umfaan.

The boys and their pups. 

About two months ago, when Denali was 6 months old, I started to take him on short runs with me. At first he was a little skeptical, not really sure what the point of the running without a ball or a short-term reward was. But we kept at it, running with him for short distances about once a week. Sometimes he needed a lot of encouragement. He would stop dead in his tracks while I ran out ahead. I would call him, praising him, to which he would respond very enthusiastically. So much so that he would come sprinting, leaping up on my unsuspecting calves (and later, as he grew taller, my lower back) in mid stride, sending his shocked human forward in a lunge or a crouch.

Well, after two months I can happily report that the 8 month old pup is a running dawg now. He gets it, and he loves it! This week he ran with me three times (only 5 or 6 k's at a time) and he also did some hill repeats with the hubs. He was an absolute star.

He is still very young, so obviously we don't want to exert him too much too fast, but for now we both really love our shortish runs together. His quiet, happy and oh-so-grateful companionship is such a tonic. For the first part, as we run out, he usually follows me, staying in my tracks, a step or two behind me. On the return trip he usually leads, right in front of me. Sometimes I try to run next to him, but he just scoots over to my side again. He wants to lead. And he doesn't take too kindly to walk breaks. He has his own steady pace and you better keep up, my Lady!

This morning as I headed out I called Denali and he didn't seem to be in the mood for running, just watching me leave over the hill. After about 5 minutes or so I heared footsteps behind me, skrikking me in a tizz, only to turn around to his friendly, panting black face (he is so black that my camera can't focus on his face if his tongue isn't hanging out!) He ran after me for about a kilometer or so, all on his own. I couldn't be more proud.

So after all these years of trying and trying and hoping and giving up, we are finally Running With The Dawgs. And we absolutely love it!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Xtrail Avis Dam 2016: Race Report

Knowing Windhoek in Winter, especially the Avis area in July, we packed exceptionally warm. By warm I mean I packed shoes and jackets for everyone this time, which is an extreme occurrence in this no-shoes-or-jackets family (read ‘boys’). I have raced in Windhoek in winter when temperatures in Avis read minus 4 degrees Celsius. It was bitterly cold, and my poor hubs had to entertain two toddlers for 2 hours on a frostbitten lawn while mama at least got to run up a little bit of body heat.

The second annual Avis Dam Xtrail, organised by OTB Sport, took place in Windhoek on Sunday 10 July. Although I love running early-early in the morning we were grateful for a slow start which allowed us some breakfast and temperatures to warm up to 11 degrees by times of the 8:30 am send-off.

Starting line-up of the 15 km Avis dam Xtrail, 2016.

It seems trail running is (finally) hitting this beautiful country of ours like a wild fire, as these are popping up thick and fast everywhere (please, yes, hallelujah!) Nico and I are absolute trail lovers but most of our trailing has happened on our merry own with very little trail races available within easy access in the past. In 2015 we started our own trail run, Brandberg Rhino Run, driven by our love for running in Damaraland and a desire to share the experience with our trail runner friends. As luck would have it,  the Standard Bank Khomas Xtrail had its inception race on that very same weekend in Namibia.

The Avis Xtrail comprised two categories, namely a 16 km trail run and an 8 km trail fun run/walk. The organisers were completely blown away by the 500 entries, which resulted in the biggest trail run in Namibia! A total of 190 participants lined up for the longer version, and I have to admit I was totally giddy with excitement. Standing at the starting line amongst the sea of geared trailie-comrades bearing rugged trail-gear and those familiar tenacious free-yet- nervous grins, I was in heaven!

Nervous energy before the race, it is simply intoxicating!
The hubs and Vee sending mama off with a last thumbs-up.

At the gun we were off on a short section of gravel road that was about the only level section on the entire race, before we embarked on the real trail and a very steep climb. By the time we scaled the koppie I was completely pooped (we weren’t 2 km in yet), but the views of beautiful Windhoek from up there were stunning.

The first half of the race was really tough as it comprised a nett ascend and we had the wind in our faces. I only managed 6.5 km within the first hour of the race, but it was such an awesome experience, I honestly didn’t want it to be over. The route followed single tracks through shrublands and grassy fields; we had to duck and dive to miss swarthaak thorns and carefully step on slopes of loose gravel. It was tough and fun and easy and hard and everything BUT never boring.

Absolute serenity and beautiful Windhoek Winter Wonderland.

As with the best trails where runners are expected to be self-sufficient, there was only one aid table roughly half-way. Yet this was no ordinary aid station, it was a bush-picnic! I have never seen runners so reluctant to leave an aid station during a race, calling out to their friends to go on ahead, promising to join them after they finished eating! There were bananas, Bar One’s, Jelly Babies, Coke and water, and the friendliest helpers this side of the equator. What a treat!

The route was just over 15 km all in all, but with a total of 500 m altitude gain and 500 m loss, which is quite significant for a short trail like this. The second part comprised a net downhill, and with the wind in our backs the going was much easier and faster than the first half. For me there is honestly nothing that comes close to the powerful feeling of pounding it out on a beautiful nature trail. The hurt, huffing and heaving it up on a steep slope, not knowing what lies beyond the summit, feelings of doubt setting in as the going gets tougher, and then the sweet release as the terrain levels out, endless vistas opening up and energy levels returning. Flying down the easy slopes on the other side, arms flailing and feet light, short little careful strides and new courage. You’ve got this, this is beautiful fun, you can do this! Just as intense as life itself. Trail running is an absolutely gorgeous and complete experience.

I came in at 2:04:55, 20th lady home (middle of the female field) and was welcomed by my beautiful support team waiting for me and cheering me on. What more can this mama ask from a perfect Sunday in beautiful Namibia.

Sweet sweet finish with supporting loved ones waiting.

OTB Sport did a stellar job at getting this trail run off the ground, with smooth online entries and registration. The route was extremely well marked with bunting tape in all the right places, as the scope for getting lost in this bushy terrain was quite big. Even though I am a firm supporter of ‘collect moments, not things’, I am a very big sucker for a race medal, and that was amiss for finishers of this race. I didn’t, however, mind adding another 5 or so minutes to my race time to stop for pictures, so luckily mementoes I have ample.

We will actively endeavour to support and even create more such trail events in Namibia, as this country renders itself perfectly to be one of the top trail destinations in the world. This was already proven this year with the Four Deserts Challenge that picked Namibia to host the Sahara event, which had to be cancelled in Egypt due to political uncertainty. We have one of the safest and arguably THE most beautiful, diverse country that one can run in. And I can’t wait to run the next trail!