A Place of Monstrous Beauty

A Place of Monstrous Beauty

I left Isaya to rest at the village of Bugoye, where I recruited three porter-guides. Was my start, that day of constant rain, delayed? For on the evening of this first day’s ascent in deep forest, we had not reached our night’s rock shelter when I lost my porter-guides. I was mounting third in our file of four, bearing a share of what load there was. It was steep and still raining, and the forest in murk under the dense upper canopy of leaf and fronds, rampant climbers and parasitic clusters. Such daylight as there was had begun to go. I was used to such forest and rain and ascents, battening down and pushing on. Yet we were well above the level of habitation; and the next moment’s fragmentary event was something new. On an instant, my two leading Konzo turned wordlessly about and brushed past me so swift and silent they might have been flitting shadows. They shadow-snatched my third companion, behind me, with them. So they were all gone by the way we had come, swallowed by the forest.

My feet took me three or four steps more, from where I saw the large cause of this mute scuttle: an elephant browsing obliviously half a clod’s throw up the track above and off to the side. A big beast in sudden proximity jolts a man. Yet here was my chance (I thought) to film old Noah’s largest mammal at intimate range in honest nature. I concealed myself behind a leaf or two and a drop or three of rain. I was grateful to the rain for its benefits of sound and scent suppression. I unslung and unzipped my Bell and Howell, parted my leaf, took aim and ran the reel, despite the rotten light. Mine was a carefree jumbo, foraging his or maybe her Eden so as to do it the maximum damage for one lazy supper. I gave him a good eight minutes of my nervous lens in disappearing light: one careless move, one unforseen click, and a great head could turn, ears fan, eyes grow small, and in twenty lumbering paces this mammoth could be upon me and with one insouciant swipe make mulch of me. This beast was no Babar in spats.

It behoved me to withdraw and be re-united with my companions. In the near-darkness now, within a minute I knew I had lost the trail. There was no question of calling out. A man thus placed is best advised to limit his wanderings. I was by nature and experience a jungle-truster, more Tarzan than Mowgli but either way at home in forest and content to share it. I transferred a packet of biscuits from my pack to my stomach and finding a hollow amid the buttress trunks of pudocarpus, curled up in my army-issue poncho-groundsheet to sleep the sleep of a cold damp pupa. There was, I knew, a local species of leopard unique to these mountains. Yet in my heavy sheath I was making little scent. I woke to the arguments of blue monkeys in the canopy. The rain had stopped. When soon enough I located my companions, I noticed Maseraka wore a blue monkeyskin bag, slung by its sewn-up back legs around his neck. ‘We are thinking you are dead, sir,’ he said. They had found the rock overhang and made a fire, and worried for me or their wages more than I for them.

On our ascending higher, the high forest gave way to bamboos, and at the bamboos’ upper contour began the bearded lichen. This trailing relative of the Mississippi delta’s Spanish moss lent to this band of highland Ruwenzori an unearthly eeriness. I had encountered it before. But here it dressed the bamboos and giant heathers – the next higher swathe of vegetation – as wraiths and blighted all. Glaucous beards of lichen fidgeted in fog with which they shared a ghastly conspiracy. Any man is ill-advised to wander off into Ruwenzori’s giant philippiae. I had a false familiarity with these heathers: they were identical to what I had grown up with in the Grampians but magnified twenty times – that is, not two or two-and-a-half feet but forty or fifty. The density and slipperiness of their surface roots, half buried by moss, comprised the surface for our scrambling feet. My all but studless leather boots were grossly clumsy. Repeatedly one foot or another slipped through the surface roots into a sort of dark void where, two or three feet beneath, evil water and black mud formed a lower base. A man must not lose the known route here. We attained an overhanging rock named Nyamuleju, Old Man’s Beard, at eleven thousand feet, and made a gloomy camp. Let me pause here, feeling odd and dislocated. From here the fantasia was beginning to change anew. Everything grew on everything else – the usnea lichen, the club mosses, ferns, and liverworts all aerial and in mutual grapple for space and light; but now the heathers began to give way to other giantized hosts – hypericums and lobelias and groundsels never less than twenty or thirty feet in height when fully grown.

I was in a place of monstrous beauty; unearthly in that there was no comparable surreality on any such scale on earth. I guessed that fragments of similar phenomena occurred on Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya. Yet here on Ruwenzori was a world entire that had minted its own many species of mammal, reptile, bird and insect, and its own spirits evoking awe, invoking divinity and provoking vision and rebellion. This was infinite redoubt for this race of man that honoured it by trust and intimacy. Every now and then from here, when the cloud cleared, from out of this fecund inventiveness I could glimpse the sharp white of a peak of glacier two days ahead.

IP and  © 2003 Tom Stacey