TF2003 trip synopsis - "Climbing for Conservation"
by Jeff Martin

12 March 2003
As I sit here in front of my computer back at work in Boulder, Colorado it's hard for me not to get a bit saddened by the fact that I can't include in this final update of my African trip the happy report that I'm soon off to the "Mountains of the Moon", or to the Highlands of Ethiopia, or anywhere else of note for that matter. 

But as I reflect on the past three months, I know that I couldn't have hoped for a better experience and that the memories, friendships, and lessons-learned have made an incredibly rewarding and lasting impression. Plus, I'm back in a beautiful State surrounded by good friends, with family much closer, and here isn't a bad place to be either. Just different!

Since my last update, Dan and I spent three unbelievable weeks working alongside Friends of Conservation (FOC) just outside the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya and another 2+ weeks in Uganda climbing in the Ruwenzoris and tracking mountain Gorillas through the lush volcanic region near the Rwanda and Congo borders. 

I've written about the Volunteer component of this trip in a separate email, just to try to keep things reasonable. Plus it should all be updated on the website sometime in the near future.

As for the final climb, the Ruwenzoris proved to be something special. They are an entire range of lushly vegetated mountains straddling the border between Uganda and the Congo, rising almost 17,000 feet above sea level and acting as Africa's continental divide. 

The approach to the trailhead is through banana and cassava fields past small homes and villages until you reach park headquarters. After that, we hiked through a lush equatorial jungle with giant trees covered in moss and vines, and complete with monkeys, chameleons, and numerous species of birds. The trail then took us through dense bamboo thickets before entering an area of giant heather. We trekked through bogs, hopping from one grassy tussock to another to avoid going in up to our knees (Dan wasn't always so successful at this), and balanced precariously across moss covered boulders and on narrow logs spanning muddy spots along the trail. 

Eventually after some steep climbing we get to an area where the vegetation thins out a bit, and the rocky glaciated peaks loom above. The tops of the peaks are almost always covered in clouds, but we had some clear moments where you could see the glistening white of the glaciers and the craggy tops reaching towards the sky. All around are Giant Lobelias and Giant Groundsels, standing like sentries 6-12 feet tall, dotting the otherwise relatively sparsely vegetated alpine landscape. Of course, some of the lower cliffs and much of the surrounding features were covered in a beautiful orange moss that provided a lushness to these mountains, reminding you that you were still very much in an equatorial area.

The approach to the summit was made on Feb. 22 and started with a traverse across the Elana Glacier. We got another early start in a vain attempt to capitalize on clearer weather which supposedly occurred more often during the morning hours. We weren't so lucky this time, and walked up in the middle of a cloud with a fierce, cold wind nipping at us the entire ascent. But within a few hours of walking on the snow and ice in our crampons with visibility just about 100 feet or so, we find ourselves at the bottom of a short section of vertical rock. We rope-in and overcome this last obstacle to the summit, and by 9:30 am we were standing on the summit of Margharita Peak at 16,763 ft. (the highest point on the Mt. Stanley massif). Dan and I hugged; thrilled to have successfully summitted our 5th and final peak here in Africa, although the clouds prevented us from seeing much in the way of a view and the cold made us not want to linger too long at all.

We descended back down the glacier and then began our exit hike along a different route but with similarly difficult trails (steep, slippery, rugged - all of which I found to be great fun) and by the end of our 6th day in the Park we returned to the trailhead, having completed the Mubuku - Bujuku circuit. 

One interesting thing about hiking in the Ruwenzoris is that it is very heavily regulated in regards to hiking stages, porters, guides, huts, etc. For example, Dan and I were each assigned a mandatory two porters (in addition to a guide shared b/w the two of us) to carry our loads even though we still carried most of our stuff ourselves. But on top of that, each of our porters had ANOTHER porter assigned to him to help him with his supplies. So the two of us leave with a guide, an armed ranger, and 8 porters. Quite the entourage. We also had to pay for 8 days although we did everything in 6, and we paid a charcoal fee although we used our camp stove.

A great quote came from our armed ranger while walking through the valley near the park gates. He said: "during the war the rebels were fleeing through this exact spot". Dan says: "how do you know?" to which he replied: "Because I was chasing them!"

A few days later when we tracked the Gorillas in Magahinga National Park in southwest Uganda we were accompanied by no fewer than 25 rangers, all armed to the teeth with machine guns and rifles. This was to secure our safety from bandits, not from the gorillas!

A long series of bus rides back to Nairobi, and another long series of flights brought us back to the States. 

What was my favorite part? That's too hard of a question. I can't say that the dingy hotel rooms, the long bus rides, or the mosquitoes incessantly buzzing in your ear keeping you awake were highlights of the trip, but it was those experiences as much as the summits or the beaches or the wildlife that made my African trip what it was. It was a tapestry of all the sights, sounds, smells and countless personal interactions that molded my experience into something that I will always cherish.

But it's not too bad. After all, I'm going to the Rocky Mountains this weekend and they're glistening white from the winter snow and beckoning me as they always have. 

It's nice to be home, but a part of me still longs for those grassy plains and the view of a spectacular volcanic peak looming above the countryside through a veil of clouds. I guess I'll have to plan my return!


As volunteers in the Mara, Dan and I were thrust right to forefront of efforts being undertaken by FOC and other government and non-government organizations to protect the wildlife and the natural resources of the area while simultaneously addressing the needs and the welfare of the local communities (the very essence of community conservation). 

It's not an easy task, and I'm pleased to report that FOC proved incredibly capable at rising to meet the numerous challenges associated with their efforts. FOC's staff was excellent, possessing the resolve and collective knowledge (tempered with patience and political and cultural sensitivity) necessary to be successful. I was encouraged by their work and inspired by everyone's diligence and optimism throughout. And of course I thank them for taking Dan and me in and demonstrating such kind hospitality the entire time we were with them.

As for the work, we assisted FOC in a variety of projects that included: - building mud stoves that allowed for more efficient consumption of fuel-wood, - putting in almost a kilometer of fencing to keep goats and sheep from eating the young trees in FOC's managed wood-lot, - assisting a Peace Corps volunteer with educational material to be displayed in local schools, - performing soil-testing to determine the area's suitability for creating mud blocks for building construction (to replace the use of wood as the principal building material), - testing and interviewing applicants for scouting positions, and - painting the office and mending broken doors and gutters, etc.

Additionally, some time was spent visiting the area and the local communities to witness the work that was being undertaken and to learn of the pressing issues facing the region in regards to conservation and sustainable development. We visited several local tourist camps and met with their owners/managers to hear their input on certain issues (and as a fortuitous by-product we were able to enjoy their generous hospitality in the way of food, drink, and general delightful company). Furthermore, Dan attended a meeting between the Chief Warden of the Reserve and the local Maasai villagers regarding the illegal grazing of livestock within the boundaries of the Reserve (a significant problem). I inspected the site of a recent lion attack on 6 cows (outside of the reserve) and was able to meet with the owner of the livestock and see the situation obviously from his perspective. We visited the worksites of some missionaries involved in community-development projects. We also visited schools and met with the directors of the Conservation-Clubs that FOC has helped establish throughout the region to educate the youth and get them involved in conservation and become basically conservation ambassadors to the rest of the communities.

It was all an excellent time and a very unique and rewarding experience. It's nice (and I believe important and immensely beneficial to the full understanding of an area) to stay long enough in one place and to get involved in a manner other than just as tourists. This experience allowed us to get to know and befriend local villagers working or hanging out at local restaurants and other establishments, watching football (soccer) matches, etc. instead of just dropping into their lives for a few minutes and then leaving. We saw the way the Masai people truly live in this present age and learned of their relationship with the land, their value systems, their struggles, and how they relate to the tourist industry and conservationists working in the area. 

Furthermore we were taken to areas where the vast majority of tourists to the region never visited at all and were able to see things and interact in ways that were more authentic than what commonly exists in heavily touristed areas. We were able to break down (sometimes just a little bit, sometimes a lot) the cultural barriers and overcome some of the pretensions that often arise between tourists and the local population in the areas through which they travel. It basically just comes down to the fact that the more time you spend in one area (particularly doing non-touristy things) the deeper your understanding is of the area and it's people and consequently you develop a more intimate relationship with the land and the community. 

Of course it is important to realize that much of what I just laid our is, in some respects, a fairly selfish way of looking at travel, only in that you almost always get out so much more than you put in. Cultural sensitivity obviously becomes paramount to help narrow the gap in that regard, something Dan and I both strived for throughout our entire trip to Africa.

So all in all it was incredibly worthwhile experience, one from which I learned a great deal. Although, admittedly, we weren't working with FOC long enough to get involved in anything much more than smaller tasks, odd jobs, etc. I'm happy with what we were able to contribute. And, of course, the money that we were able to raise (thanks to you all!) ultimately has the greatest amount of influence as it has enabled FOC to contribute much needed resources to address very real problems in the area.

To round out things, there were two particularly noteworthy highlights of our time in the Mara that do come to mind: 

1) We became friends with the hot-air balloon pilot of a nearby tourist camp and he took us up one morning completely free of charge. Here we rose above the plains and got a bird's eye view of giraffe, herds of elephant, ostrich, gazelle, and even a pair of lions and a pair of black rhino. And this was followed by an elaborate breakfast buffet complete with made-to-order omelets, sausage, bacon, and of course champagne and bloody marys. A truly special experience.

2) Dan and I both learned to ride motorcycles (sorry mom) and there was definitely something intoxicating (and just plain fun) about cruising around on the small dirt roads and paths outside of the Reserve, seeing a hyena dart out in front of us, running over a snake by accident (and feeling it hit my leg), and passing grazing zebra and wildebeest and gazelle.

Thanks for listening and I've enjoyed all of the emails I've received from some of you all immensely. Feel free to get in touch if you have any questions or thoughts. I'd love to hear from you. 

Thanks again for all of your support,

Jeff Martin