Trekking the Rwenzori Mountains

Kasese is the capital of Kasese District in west Uganda and the largest town of the Rwenzururu Kingdom. Historically it was a large copper mining area and the western most point on the British railroad stretching from Mombasa through Nairobi to Kampala and out through Uganda to Kasese. Along these rail routes laborers from India and supplies from Europe were shipped into Africa and tea and coffee, among other exports were shipped back east to the port at Mombasa. Lining the western edge of Kasese town are the lush green foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains. The name Rwenzori comes directly from the Rwenzururu Kindgom, with Rwenzururu translating basically to “Kingdom of the Snows” much like the literal meaning of “Himalaya.” The Rwenzori Mountains first appear in western records when in 150AD Greek philosopher Ptolemy made claims of a snowcapped mountain range in the heart of Africa feeding the Nile river, referring to this range as the “Mountains of the Moon.” It wasn’t for almost another 2000 years before the mountains were rediscovered by western explorers. Henry Stanley, who first circumnavigated the nearby lake Victoria, first spotted the Rwenzori Mountains in 1888 after the notoriously fickle clouds in this humid tropical rainforest decided to part one day finally exposing the snowcapped mountain peaks. The tallest peak was later named after Stanley, when the Duke of Abruzzi led the first ascent up the Rwenzori’s in 1906. Furthermore, we now know today that Ptolemy was actually correct in his assertion and that the melting snows from the Rwenzori glaciers do feed the Nile as they wash down the mountains pouring through the Mubuku river first into Lake George before winding around the mountains range into Lake Albert which cascades down into the Nile river through Murchison falls and continues its journey northward.

The Rwenzori Mountains are a wonderfully unique feature of this planet. Creating the border between west Uganda and the eastern Congo, this 75 mile mountain range running basically on the equator reaches altitudes up to 5109m making it the tallest mountain range in Africa and the only glacial range in all of Africa as the other African glaciers lie atop dormant freestanding volcanoes (Kilimanjaro, Mt Kenya). Due to the location, elevation and climate with around 2500mm (100in) of annual rainfall the flora is incredibly diverse ranging from tropical rainforest and tropical agriculture in the foothills at the base to bamboo and heath forests, the afro-alpine zone, and finally the glacial snow zone reaching up to the rocky peaks. The plant life found in the Afro-Alpine here in the Rwenzori is found nowhere else in the world outside of Africa and even within the continent only at elevations of about 3500m and above. Although this unique afro-alpine flora can be seen on other great African climbs like Kilimanjaro, Mt Kenya, or Mt Elgon, nowhere can it be seen in the same size and concentrations as here in the Rwenzori’s. I can only describe this place as Dr Suess meets “Where the Wild Things Are” in nature… It is truly a nature lover’s paradise.

To reach the trailhead it is a 30 minute motorcycle ride from Kasese up a long dirt road to a small outpost called Nyakalengija perched in the foothills of the Rwenzori’s. On the ride up there is a small market town where locals sell fresh produce & fruits from their farms during the week. Small farm plots can be seen dotting the surrounding foothills and pushing all the way up to the park entrance gate. Even on the steep hilly slopes crops of banana, maize, beans, potatoes and other fruits can be seen, irrigated by the regular rainfall of this tropical forest. Part of the reason for national parks in places like the Rwenzori’s is to protect the environment from the clear-cutting of native forest for agricultural land that has been so common around the world leading to issues with soil erosion and potential complications with pollution of important water sources. I spent a night camping by the trail head and preparing for the beginning of the 6 day circuit hike in the morning. The small camp provided views up the valley towards the heart of the Rwenzori range, but like so many other days in this place the mountain tops were enveloped in a thick cloud cover. It seemed that rain might be a common occurrence over the next few days on the mountain. I went to explore the surrounding area before dinner and discovered that besides one other low cost campsite there was a brand new eco-lodge funded by USAID. The camp included luxury stone eco-cabins all built with local materials and fitted with wood floors, stone fireplaces, and balconies perched overlooking the Mubuku River. The place was very well put together and the bar staff was very friendly and excited to see a visitor as Im not sure how many people have ever decided to spend the $200 per person per night to stay in this new eco-lodge, especially given the fairly hectic roads that would bring you here to the side of this mountain. From the camp a short walk through the forest brought you down to the raging Mubuku River, fresh with waters flowing down from the snowcapped mountains. This river was dammed further down the mountain side to bring electricity to Kasese town but even the small camp that I stayed in had its own micro-turbine capable of generating enough electricity to power the camps kitchen and a few light bulbs.

IMG_7598We had a leisurely start the next morning as the first day was the shortest. The day’s hike wound through the warm tropical forests, the trail lined with ferns and covered with a thick canopy including some massive trees easily a hundred years old. We crossed the Mubuku river a few times with the sounds of its rushing waters never far away and all the while climbing around 1000m to reach the first nights camp at Nyabitaba at 2600m. Just before reaching camp the first good viewpoint opened up allowing us to see out towards the eastern flatlands from which we were rising. After just a few hours of hiking we were completely immersed in tropical forest with nothing but thick forest cover along the steep mountain slopes being visible in any direction. Tracing the lines of the hillsides before us you could count 5 different hills and valleys laying out to the horizon. The open air and views back to the east were offset by the grey weather that lay ahead with the mountain tops still hiding behind a layer of clouds. The trail became ever muddier as we approached the camp and the signs of fresh rain were all around. We had missed the rains that day and were even greeted in the evening with a clear view of the portal peaks, a few jagged rocky outcroppings just across the valley north of our camp. Forest rangers were stationed here at this camp equipped with automatic firearms, a week’s worth of food and supplies, and a cave to sleep under for their week long rotation, supposedly to protect trekkers against the possibility of Elephants, however they stayed only at the first camp and did not continue deeper into the forest. I had to assume that the armed guards posting here at the only trail entrance in and out of this valley had to do with fact that the Congolese border was a mere 20 miles to the west through these mountains, and that rebel groups had previously occupied the Congolese side of these mountains.

IMG_7608The next morning we had an earlier start beginning by 7am for our much longer 900m ascent to the John Matte camp at 3500m. At the beginning of the hike we first descended to cross the Mubuku River one more time at the point where the Bujuku valley meets the Mubuku valley joining two rivers to create the Mubuku River, the accumulation of all of the waters exiting these two valleys. From this bridge we began our steep climb up the valley through forests with jungle vines dangling from the evergreen tree canopy above. As we continued ever higher we passed through a maze of bamboo forest before being opened up to the heath forest where aging trees adorned a common tree moss known conveniently as “old man’s beard.” The light airy arrays of pale green moss dangled from old branches on hundreds of surrounding trees contrasting nicely with the backdrop of grey skies and adding to the mystique among the twisted, gnarled & knobby trees. This moss is a sign of aIMG_7634 healthy forest ecosystem as it begins the slow and steady ecological process of reclaiming organic matter from the trees for the fertile forest floor. The forest giveth and the forest taketh away. As we continued up the open valley you could begin to see open rock cliffs lined with a thick blanket of red & yellow moss. Climbing ever higher, the flora only got larger, thicker, more colorful and weirder as the mystique continued to grow. We crossed through dense boggy forest sections that would completely engulf you for a time, transporting you into a place you thought existed only in your childhood imagination before kindly returning you to the outside world. Thick green & yellow moss carpeted the forest floor and fallen trees. Large mossy bulges clung to the twisted knobs of trees taking on a life of their own. The flash of deep red from the wings of the Rwenzori Turaco and constant swirl of bird calls around you only enhanced the sensations of the forest.

IMG_7630On the muddy trails your rain boots could sink up to the ankle with any step. Some boggy areas were simply unpassable and so horizontal ladders of wet and slippery wood had been constructed to aid the path. Climbing beyond the mossy forest we emerged to a flat portion of the valley where we would be spending the night at the John Matte camp. We had reunited with the Bujuku River which rushed past our camp trailing away down the valley. We were now perched at a point above the valley floor where we could watch the show of thick clouds and mist rolling in up the valley swallowing everything in their path. After some time the dissipating clouds opened up the world below again anew while small trails of fresh cloud condensed and formed indefinitely along the edges of the rocky peaks. Again we were lucky enough to be greeted by a clear view of the surrounding ridgelines as the sunset approached. The highest peaks of the Rwenzori’s were first visible in the distance from this camp with three peaks of Mt Stanley showing their glory just beyond the rushing river in the foreground. There isn’t a much better feeling in the world than resting after a long days hike on a nice patch of grass on the mountainside enjoying the everlasting dance of nature’s being.

IMG_7675That night the rains finally caught up with us and at 3500m it was cold. Freezing cold. Hat, jacket and socks on inside the sleeping bag cold. For being on the equator in Africa it was surprisingly colder than my trek not more than a month back in the Himalaya of north India. Luckily I had brought plenty of tea to keep me warm. The next morning we arose to greet a cloudy, rainy, freezing cold day. To avoid venturing out into this weather we waited around after breakfast drinking tea for a few hours and sitting by the slightly redeeming warmth of the fire under an open air cover with a corrugated iron roof and four wall sheets rising about half way to the roof. By around noon, the rain had slowed to a steady drizzle and we made the choice to venture on. Today we were marching on IMG_7677through the largest bog areas on the whole circuit known as the Upper & Lower Bigo Bog. The bogs are flattened stretches surrounded by streams and have accumulated tons of water from the melting snows above. With any wrong step you can quickly be submerged in the thick wet mud up to your thighs. Besides the boardwalks that have been constructed through two particularly deep and tricky 200m portions the best way to make it through these boggy areas is to play hopscotch on the top of the tussocks bushes that are so abundant in this ecosystem. The tussocks grass is a small shrub with a solid core that is capable of holding the weight of a person as opposed to the moss and other grasses that happily give way letting you sink gently into the mud. Either way it is inevitable that you will go boot deep into the mud at some point which is why it is entirely crucial to wear rain boots for much of this hike. As we entered Bigo Bog, the surrounding area was clouded in mist, and a light drizzle lapped gently against my forehead and face. Crossing through the first section of the bog, growths of giant lobelias began to spring up all around. The young lobelia is an agave-like plant with densely packed leaves arranged in a perfect spiral around a central cup which holds the bud. The leaves are a deep purple on the outside and retain a dark green on the inner side of the leaf facing the central bud. These peculiar plants have adapted a great resilience in order to survive in the harsh cold, rain & snow along with the tropical heat that envelops this part of the mountain throughout the year. They hold small pockets of water & secreted slime in their watertight center allowing the top layer of liquid to freeze overnight on the coldest nights, like a thin frozen layer above a winter pond, leaving the bud below submerged in water and protected from the dangers of the freeze. The flower of this plant grows up in a column from the central bud in a symmetrical flowering cluster rising perfectly from the spiraled leaves below with some of the plants reaching 3 meters in height.

IMG_7688After a short climb we reached the second bog and as we entered this perfectly flat boggy valley the mist and rain lifted to expose the sharp valley walls rising up a few hundred meters on each side. This section reminded me a lot of the flat Yosemite Valley surrounded by the shear granite walls, except for instead of pine & spruce trees, there were giant lobelias and instead of flat granite walls, there was wet mossy walls painted yellow & red. I imagine that over geologic time this area was once filled with a massive glacier, like Yosemite, that carved these walls and has slowly been receding over the years creating the bogs, rivers, streams and high altitude lakes that remain today. After crossing this second bog we started the final push for the day climbing 500m up to Bujuku Lake and our camp for the night. As we began the ascent we saw the giant groundsels for the first time. Groundsels have a woody trunk that can grow up to 8m with IMG_7737a wide green leafy top. With each flowering, the plant will fork causing a new branch to grow with a new leafy green top emerging from the branch. Most of the groundsels appear to have between one and four branches and allow their leaves to weep down onto the trunk in order to help maintain heat for the plants core. Like the giant lobelias, the giant groundsels also have learned the ability to store pockets of water overnight allowing the top layer to freeze as protection. What is incredible is that some of these groundsels are easily 6m (20ft), however they are said to grow between 1-5cm (.4-2in) annually meaning that some of these giant groundsels could be 200-300 years old! The ascent brought us through an entire alpine forest of these IMG_7729groundsels and these plants would stay with us for much of the rest of the climb. We emerged from the groundsel forest to the placid Bujuku Lake laying quietly beneath the towering rock formations of Mt Stanley, Mt Speke, and Mt Baker. The clouds were still enveloping the heights of the peaks, but by now you could feel how close we were to the summits. Looking back down into the valley you could clearly see the flat valley we had just emerged from. We went to sleep that night tired but hopeful for good weather in the morning. We would be crossing the 4400m Scott Elliot Pass with the best chance for great views of the surrounding snowcapped peaks.

I rose just before dawn. It was a crisp, cold morning in the valley. Sunrise hadn’t yet reached the valley although the light emanated from outside the mountain walls. Another warm cup of tea in the morning helped me to greet the day and the enchanting peaks that towered above. Finally visible were the glacial snows of both Mt Stanley and Mt Speke on the opposite side of the valley. A thin layer of cloud covered the mountain tops, and Mt Baker to the east was still completely engulfed, but a clear blue sky was visible to the west where just beyond the western saddle in between Mt Stanley and Mt Speke was a long descent into the forests of northeastern Congo. Today however, we were headed south, leaving Mt Speke behind and climbing 400m to cross the pass between Mt Stanley and Mt Baker before descending again to the shores of another high altitude lake, Lake Kitandara marking the border of Uganda & the Congo. After about an hour’s climb we had reached a viewpoint with Mt Speke and Mt Stanley looming overhead, however upon reaching, clouds had enveloped the entire valley. It’s amazing how quickly weather can change in the mountains and especially in a humid place like the Rwenzori’s the fog can roll in at any instant. The fog certainly adds to the mysticism of this enchanting place. As you are climbing an almost vertical rock scramble surrounded by giant groundsels, fallen trees blanketed with fluffy patches of moss and steep rock walls covered in red & yellow moss, the fog only serves to contain your focus to your immediate present, blocking out any external distractions. The fog leaves a cool mist on your skin and its transient nature keepsIMG_7808 you ever aware that the environment around you is as alive as you are. Within about 20 minutes of reaching the viewpoint, our rest stop quickly turned into another lively display of the fog battling against the encroaching rays of light. Slowly the fog began to dissipate and little by little the lake in the valley below showed its face again. Slowly, slowly the fog lifted from the base of the mountains flowing back down the valley like a stream with some pouring up over the saddle to the west. The cool air of the fog gives way to a feeling of warmth as the sun’s rays gently make their way into the surroundings. To watch this progression in time lapse video would be a beautiful thing, but to be able to perceive and embrace these gradual transformations in real time is something special and something that can only really be achieved in a natural setting such as this over an IMG_7825extended period of time. You just can’t rush the sunrise.  So after almost an hour of enjoying the fog streams, Mt Speke finally decided to show its full glory. To be fair these mountains are not the majestic Himalaya, but there is something uniquely different about the surroundings that make snowcapped mountains here above this tropical forest on the equator majestic in their own way. The climb from Bujuku Lake up to the viewpoint and then on to Scott Elliot Pass went from steep stair stepping to a full on rock scramble with some light bouldering in stretches. From the top of the pass the world opened up again to the south showing for the first time the Mubuku valley, views out to the neighboring ridgeline, and an up close view of the Mt Stanley glacier with a thin waterfall pouring down from the melting ice. The melting snows and glaciers are feeding lakes and rivers on both sides of this pass only to rejoin later at the base of the valley where we began our trek. That afternoon we rambled down into the Mubuku valley and IMG_7844arrived at one of the most beautiful camp sites I have ever been witness to, Kitandara Lake. This high altitude lake, secluded at 4000m was filled with crystal clear and ice cold, glacial waters. The lake was surrounded by thick forest, steep moss covered rock faces and Mt Stanley & Mt Baker loomed just behind. The clear waters of the lake glistened in the sunlight and as the sun began to set the lakes surface displayed a perfect reflection of the surrounding mountains. Pure, pristine beauty. We slept within 10 meters of the shoreline and the stars here were some of the clearest and most beautiful I have ever seen.

IMG_7874We awoke early again to hike out of Kitandara Lake and over the 4200m Freshfield Pass. The lake was surrounded on all sides by steep rock walls. Our pathway out to the east involved a steep rock scramble straight up the eastern wall of the lake. It was another crisp morning but with crystal clear blue skies surrounding the entire lake. From the top of the wall we could see clearly out west across the forests of the Congo. The glacier of Mt Stanley was still visible across the lake and we were now directly under the glacier of Mt Baker. From here we crossed a wide mossy bog before the Mubuku valley exposed our way down and wide views of the entire valley below covered in yellow moss radiating in the sunlight. The gradual descent seemed to breeze by with the understanding that we had reached our highest peaks for this journey and that it was all downhill from here. The going was still slow with wet and boggy conditions, but by now we had grown accustomed to the careful bog jumping using tussocks plants, rocks and whatever other natural balance points we could find. The final day led our descent literally through a small waterfall and stream bed. Climbing down the wet and slippery rocks turned out to be one of the more physically demanding and challenging parts of the whole trek, but with mindfulness and cautious maneuvering we were down safely. We passed again through the thick mossy forests entering the world of red moss blanketed trees again for just a short time but by the afternoon we had emerged from the forest and after a good wash in the Mubuku River we marched out of the Rwenzori Mountains. In almost an instant we had left behind the enchanting forests of the Rwenzori Mountains and returned to the small town of Kasese to continue the journey ever onwards.

Posted in Africa, East Africa Hiking, East Africa Travel, Hiking, Mountains of the Moon, Rwenzori Mountains, Travel, Uganda | 1 Comment

Crossing Uganda: Towards the Rwenzori

I awoke to the light sound of rain against the windows. We had arrived…at the border post at least. After a long night crossing the bumpy dirt roads from Nakuru to Kisumu in Western Kenya and on to the border crossing at Busia, we had arrived at the Ugandan border just before the crack of dawn. The light rain and the crowds made this border crossing a messy & muddy affair but within an hour we were off towards Kampala with the rising sun and the creeping shadows of the day slowly joining us from behind. Immediately upon entering Uganda I could feel the change in landscape and climate from the drier stretches of Kenya. The air was wet but pleasant and the hilly terrain leading out to Lake Victoria just south of the road to Kampala was green and lush, dotted with tea, banana crops & even rice paddies. On our way to Kampala we crossed the youthful river Nile at Jinja, the point where the Nile originates from Lake Victoria. It was about 150 years ago that this source of the Nile was first discovered by Western explorers. By the mid-1800s, Victorian era explorers like Livingstone, Speke & Stanley were off on expeditions throughout East, Central, & Southern Africa and in 1858, John Speke first sighted (and named) “Lake Victoria” claiming it the source of the river Nile. By 1875, Henry Stanley circumnavigated the lake and confirmed that it was indeed the source of the White Nile. From here at the source in Jinja, the waters of the White Nile emerge from the lake beginning their long journey north before joining with the Blue Nile from Ethiopia and continuing on through the Sudanese desert towards Egypt and the Mediterranean providing an essential source of water & life to myriad ecosystems & communities along the way.

The silt & nutrients that were carried by the river north into the Nile Valley of Egypt were fundamental in the success of the Nile River Valley civilization and ancient Egypt as the seasonal flooding of the valley allowed for the nutrient deposits to fertilize the soils providing a vital base for the regions agriculture. Since the construction of the Aswan High Dam in 1969 on the border of Sudan & Egypt however, the seasonal flows have been halted & controlled providing protection from the regular spells of flood & famine, a controlled irrigation scheme, which along with other agricultural advances has greatly improved agricultural productivity & output, as well as providing additional electricity generation.  Like most large dams in the world this one is not without negative externalities.  The dam has fundamentally changed downstream ecosystems of Nile River Valley by impeding the flow of nutrients north, causing increased erosion at the river mouth and forcing farmers to purchase ever more chemical fertilizers. Furthermore over 100,000 people were displaced from their homes, and numerous historical sights lost to the flooding that was a necessary result of the Dam. By 1954, the Owens Falls hydroelectric dam at Jinja, the first on the Ugandan portion of the Nile was completed and started providing electricity to Uganda, Western Kenya, and Tanzania although like many things in Uganda the condition of the dam deteriorated under the rule of Idi Amin in the 1970s. By 2011 the new Bujagali Dam was completed just down river with the help of mostly Western Investors including the International Finance Corp (a member of the World Bank Group). Again there are certainly benefits to these dams including job creation and the increased renewable energy production, however it is important to realize the potential influence that these dams may have on both local communities surrounding the lake as well as downstream communities thousands of miles away. Like other vitally important sources of fresh water in the world today, from the great rivers of the Himalaya in South & East Asia to the untamed rivers of southern Chile and Alaska, this watershed still has the potential to fuel local & international disputes from disagreements on water sharing & use.

Kampala was a pleasant city feeling much smaller and less “urban” than the big city lights of Nairobi. This feeling was enhanced by the pleasant climate aided by the surrounding lake & wetlands and the slight elevation. However, the local New Horizon Bus terminal which served as a gateway to western Uganda was anything but pleasant. Like many of the matatu stages (matatu’s are 14 person public transport taxi vans & the stages are basically terminals from where passengers board or disembark) I had encountered in Kenya, the chaos of these transport hubs is only enhanced by the fact that you are obviously a stranger in a foreign territory. Within seconds of walking into the madness I was approached by 5 different conductors physically pulling me by the arm to board their busses without concern as to where I actually planned on going. At this point I may as well have been a lifeless piece of cargo with each conductor just wanting their slice of commission from me. Luckily I have been trained to handle this sort of situation, so I thought, and so after having to forcefully detach myself from the grip of a few grown African men’s arms I sought the solace of some of the “quiet” stalls lining the side of the station. Rule number one in transport through chaotic hubs is don’t let the chaos confuse you into making an irrational & quick decision giving your money (or time) away to the wrong people. Take your time, breathe, think through your options, and plot a reasonable course of action. This is really like many decisions in life although it happens at a much quicker pace here in a crowded & buzzing bus terminal in the heart of Africa. Most busses here in East Africa don’t necessarily have set times for departure, but rather they leave as soon as they fill up with enough passengers. As such, a classic way that matatu conductors will try to rip foreigners off is to have you board an almost empty van, take your money, and have you sit in the vehicle for hours waiting for the van to fill while other vans, having already filled, are leaving. So after realizing that there were basically two bus companies that would be able to take me out west, I boarded the bus with the most people already on it, paid my fare to the conductor and got myself a good window seat. With word from the conductor that we would be leaving within the hour, my observation that the bus was nearly full, and a comfortable seat at the front of the bus I felt confident that I was in a good place. However within two hours we were still sitting in the busy bus terminal. Right around this time another empty bus rolled into the bus station and almost immediately the entire bus, disembarked and quickly boarded the empty bus. The few local passengers also travelling to western Uganda with me commented that this is a trick that the local conductors use sometimes; People who have paid for a bus ticket but whose bus has not yet arrived are directed to sit and wait on a different bus in order to give off the illusion that a bus is almost full and ready for departure. Feeling totally duped by this point and already having given my money away there was nothing else to do but wait. Eventually 5 hours later, the bus had refilled with passengers and was ready for departure. Our delayed departure had moved back our expected arrival time from around 6 or 7pm to closer to midnight…Never a great thing when arriving in a new foreign town in the heart of Africa. Luckily for me the bus driver was friendly enough to agree to take me directly to a guesthouse in town where he would spend the night as well so that I wouldn’t have to wander around the new place late at night. Knowing this the rest of the bus ride out west was quite pleasant with the almost full moon shining down on Queen Elizabeth National Park and her lakes as we sped through the night towards Kasese.

Posted in Africa, East Africa Travel, Nile River, Travel, Uganda | Leave a comment

Welcome to Kenya!

Early morning, as the sun rises over the Indian Ocean, a warm glow spreads out across the land. Starting slowly, a burning ball of fire emerges & rises out over the horizon, light unfolding out over the open ocean & twisted clouds dancing with the beams of light around the morning sky. The world begins to awaken on this fraction of the globe. Ghost crabs are stirring below the sandy shore, poking their eyes out for the first glimpse of the day. The world above can be a treacherous place, but it is a world of wonder and abundance. At first glimpse of the strange large creature staring back at him, the crab quickly scurries back underground, sometimes bobbing up and down like a curious lizard before finally retreating into the safety of the world below. Small seabirds sweep the shoreline looking for tiny morsels and maybe even an unsuspecting crab. The tide is high and the sharp coral outline of the water’s edge is completely engulfed by the tidal surge. Down below the scintillating ocean waters, a different world of sea turtles, sting rays, colorful reef fish and even the migrating whale sharks swim playfully in the currents as they begin to feel the encroaching rays of the sun.

I imagine the countless sunrises & sunsets witnessed by the numerous sailors and explorers, who have travelled these historic seas and coastlines, treasured the bounty of the seas, learned the shapes of the protective reefs below, and exchanged cultures, goods, people & technology across the centuries. In many ways this coastline is not so different from any coastline in south asia, the carribean or even the pacific. But with the splendors and hardships that spread out behind to the west and up and down the long stretch of coastline of this vast and curious continent, there is an air of something new, something unique…This is Africa!

The flight in was seemingly uneventful. Leaving a great reunion of trekking buddies and what I can only describe as my Indian family in their lovely home in Delhi, I headed on to the airport and after a few late night hours in the Mumbai airport I was off to Nairobi. After a short flight throughout the night, we began our descent as the morning sun raced towards us around the earth’s surface. Except that this was not Nairobi, the palm trees made that evidently clear. We had been diverted to Mombasa due to a slight inconvenience at the Nairobi airport that morning… namely that the entire terminal had been set on fire and in one quick flash was turned to ashes. After a two month long investigation in coordination with international partners and the FBI, they are claiming it was an electrical fire…just like Jack Black in the movie “Orange County”… Welcome to Kenya!

I was happy to be dealing with the confusion of being in the wrong airport in a new country with a plane full of Indians. If these were Americans, or Europeans for that matter, which there were many waiting in the airport delayed from the start of their once in a lifetime safari adventures, properly decked out in all the essential safari gear, we could have had a mutiny on our hands. But the Indians seemed very nonchalant about the whole thing. One man quipped to me that they were used to these sorts of things and it actually made him feel more at home. That’s the spirit! So after a bemusing few hours at the airport, the bags were sorted, the busses were loaded and the hundred or so of us weary travelers were off to Nairobi on our complimentary 12 hour cross country bus rides, tracing the old railway line from Mombasa upcountry to Nairobi straight through the heart of Tsavo, once home to the man eating lions which brought the British & Indians such headaches while trying to tame the wild lands and construct the railway.

After a few days getting settled in Nairobi, the hub of East Africa, we were off to Lake Naivasha for a few relaxing days along the lakeshore and the first glimpses of the rift valley as we ventured deeper into the African continent. Within an hour outside of Nairobi, the escarpment drops off suddenly down into the Great Rift Valley, an aptly named rift in the earth’s crust running from the Jordan River and Dead sea in Israel, through the Red Sea into Ethiopia and the Afar Triple Junction, then parting around Lake Victoria and stretching across Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania and before spreading down to Lake Malawi, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world and home to more fish species than any other freshwater body on the planet. Formed from the slow splitting and pulling apart of the tectonic plates beneath East Africa, the Great Rift Valley is home to some of the most diverse wildlife and ecosystems on the planet, including vast sweeping plains like the Masai Mara & Serengeti, with roaming herds in the millions and some of the final frontiers for big game like Lions, Rhino’s, and Elephants, great lakes like Turkana, Tanganyika & Malawi, with unique bird & aquatic life, and massive volcanoes, home to some of the only remaining glaciers in Africa, like of Kilimanjaro and Mt Kenya.

Great Rift Valley

Lake Naivasha is the closest fresh water lake to Nairobi and just next door to the interesting rock formations and geothermal activity of Hell’s Gate National Park. We stayed at a lovely little campsite along the shore of the lake, with a wonderful variety of bird life including pelicans, herons, and fish eagles exploring the shallow waters edge. A short boat ride along the lake shore exposes the hoards of hippos stacked lazily on top of each other throughout the shallows. The hippos have an interesting symbiotic relationship with small birds called oxpeckers who are often seen perched on the back of hippo, rhino, and buffalo, feeding off of small insects and parasites while helping to keep clean and protect their larger cousins. However upon further research into this relationship, scientists have found that the birds get a bit greedy with this food source and tend to peck at small wounds on the hippo’s back in order to keep the wounds, and their feeding grounds, open for business.

Naivasha is also home to about 85% of all of the flower farms in Kenya. Floriculture in Kenya is a $1 billion industry and one of the country’s main exports, sending around 150,000 tons of cut flowers, predominantly Roses, abroad every year and supplying about 40% of the annual flower imports for the European market. Naivasha flower farms are predominantly run by former European settlers and although flowers are one of the country’s main export earners and the industry is responsible for directly employing almost 100,000 people, some issues have surfaced related to the flower farms treatment of laborers, pollution and negative impact on the lake’s ecosystem. The flowers are grown in along the lake’s shore year round in greenhouses which draw on a free and continuous supply of water from Lake Naivasha for irrigation. Each day hundreds of potential workers line up at the gates of the farms hoping for some kind of temporary job if only to earn a day’s wages of a few dollars. With the increased employment opportunity brought on by the success of the flower farms, the population around Lake Naivasha has boomed resulting in ever more encroachment on the lake. News reports have highlighted possible health concerns of workers from working in greenhouses all day and breathing in chemical fumes along various cases of reported worker abuse. Furthermore, the water level of the lake is much lower today than it has been historically, although it has begun to rise again in the past decade, but also the wastewater from the flower farms, after various doses of chemical treatment can be easily seen pouring back into the lake. Environmentalists and local fisherman point to the direct pollution from agro-chemicals as the main cause of pollution and weakened fisheries in the lake. Some flower farms, like Oserian, the oldest flower farm in Naivasha, have taken a closer look at their impact on the surrounding ecosystem and attempted to address these concerns. They claim to have a high quality water & sewage treatment facilities and have also vastly reduced the amount of chemicals they use in production since 2005 by utilizing things like spider mites & steam as natural pesticides and fungicides, but the “eco-friendly” flower farming industry still has a ways to go in Kenya.

After the weekend, I parted ways with the crew from Nairobi and set off for a day hike up to the perfectly conical peak of the long dormant volcano, Mt Longonot. From the crater rim there were great views of the impenetrable crater forest a few hundred feet below surrounded by the steep rocky crater walls. If bigfoot ever fled the forests of Oregon upon seeing “the world’s only bigfoot trap”, he may be hiding out in this forest… From Naivasha I was on my way to Nanyuki, a small town at the western base of Mt Kenya, to visit a friend from the FMS program in Monterey, CA.  The ride was a few hours on two different matatu’s winding up and around the Aberdare Mountains, a range known as the headquarters of the Mau Mau leaders who sought respite in caves during their brutal uprising and the more deadly response by the British in the 1950s. Just before reaching Nanyuki, I crossed over the equator back into the Northern Hemisphere for the first time in Kenya. When the snowcapped glory of Mt Kenya’s rocky, jagged peaks finally shown out through the clouds, rising up to 5199m (17,000ft) from the deep green forest & farm lands surrounding the base, it was hard to imagine that we were literally on the equator in the heart of Africa.

Nanyuki, is a quiet and pleasant little town and at an altitude of about 1900m (6,250 ft) it has a very pleasant climate for being on the equator. Although Nanyuki is a jumping off point for one of the popular trekking routes up to the Mt Kenya summit, the main reason for my visiting Nanyuki this time around was to see an old friend and learn more about the start-up he was working for called Eco-Fuels Kenya. The company has a really great idea for turning a naturally abundant local resource with no other known uses into a valuable input, essentially creating value where there was none. An indigenous tree to the central highlands of Kenya called the Croton Tree, or Mukinduri in the local dialect, produces a small croton nut that drops seasonally all around the Mt Kenya area. This nut happens to have an extraordinarily high oil content which makes it prime for biofuel production. Conveniently again, the engineering process that produces the biofuel from the nut, also produces a moist cake residue and dry husks as a byproduct which can then be mixed to produce a natural organic fertilizer. EFK has a collection system set up where locals collect tons of the Croton nuts that are littered around forests and farms in the region and can earn supplemental income for every kg they collect. With a simple text message the collected bags are picked up, weighed, and transported back to EFK’s factory where they can then be pressed into the biofuel and organic fertilizer that is now being sold around the region.

Although Mt Kenya was looming ever present in the background for the week I was in Nanyuki, I decided I would return for the climb later in the year when the weather was better and so for now I headed off towards another unique mountain range and hiking region in East Africa. Towards the Rwenzori Mountains, so called “Mountains of the Moon”, in Western Uganda…

Posted in Africa, East Africa Travel, Hiking, Kenya, Kenya Travel, Social Enterprise, Sustainable Development, Travel | 1 Comment

Ecosphere Spiti Valley – A Spitian Adventure

IMG_7053Spiti Valley, “The Middle Land” is situated at an ancient crossroads of the Tibetan & Hindustani civilizations deep in the high Himalaya of Himachal Pradesh at altitudes ranging from 3000m up to more than 6000m. At least 3 days from the nearest airport this land is the definition of remote requiring a minimum 10 hour drive from the closest travel hub of Manali crossing two high mountain passes topping out at 4500m all on a crumbling, rocky dirt road where landslides & waterfalls breaching the road are a daily risk. Due to its location and close ties to Tibet and Ladakh, Spiti Valley has a culture steeped in Buddhist history with unbelievable cliff hanging monasteries surrounded by IMG_7503towering snowy peaks. Furthermore this valley is located at the convergence of two tectonic plates where 150 million years ago the Indian Subcontinent slammed into the Eurasian landmass, causing the closing of the Tethys Sea and the rise of the majestic Himalaya. This unique location has given Spiti Valley an ancient geologic heritage being home to an abundance of fossils of sea creatures like ammonites that made their home in the ancient sea.

IMG_7277Spiti Valley is a starkly beautiful landscape of high-altitude desert, ancient rock formations and high mountain passes, and people here are some of the friendliest I have had the chance to meet, but life here can still be quite a challenge for the local people. Situated in the rain shadow of the Himalaya, rainfall here is minimal leaving agriculture in this dry and desolate landscape fully dependent on the annual winter snowmelt from the surrounding glaciers. Winters here are some of the harshest in the world with temperatures dropping to -30 degrees Celsius (-25 degrees Fahrenheit) for the long 6 month winter where this valley is IMG_7290cut off from the rest of the world by heavy snowfall which blocks the surrounding mountain passes & entry points. As locals are unable to regularly receive supplies during the winter months they must stock up on fuel (gas & yak dung) & food supplies, which consist primarily of tsampa, local barley flour, in order to manage in this unforgiving season. For four to six months a year their diets can consist almost solely on this dry tsampa powder mixed with water to create a porridge or bread.

[Note: Tsampa flour is also a trekker’s delight as carrying one kilogram of dry tsampa flour is enough food to sustain you for about a week. By just adding cold water, and maybe some sugar, seabuckthorn or milk powder for flavor, to the mixture you can create a healthy, non-cook meal which is suited to this high altitude terrain.]

IMG_7196However as Spiti is slowly introduced to the ideas, culture, and impact of the “outside” world, the traditional ways of this mystical valley are slowly changing. Traditionally, the valley was a self-sufficient agricultural community reliant on minimal trade with Tibetan Kingdoms and mostly on local crops such as barley, black peas & seabuckthorn that are well adapted to seasonal growth in the unique climate of this high altitude cold desert. As the valley is slowly incorporated into today’s economic system, local agricultural production has begun to shift from locally adapted & naturally occurring food sources to more water & IMG_7119fertilizer intensive cash crops such as wheat, green peas, & apples that are in higher demand by the global markets. Furthermore, the ongoing changes in climate that have resulted in receding glaciers and reduced snowpack have a negative impact on the long term sustainability of local agricultural production by reducing the availability of water supply from the winter snowmelt used for irrigation.

[Other prominent examples of climate change impacting Himalayan communities include landslides creating enormous high altitude lakes (Pakistani Lake on Karakoram Highway), unpredictable cloudbursts & massive flooding (Ladakh 2010, Uttarakhand 2013) all causing unthinkable damage & destruction to communities throughout the Himalaya.]

Melting Glaciers breashears-mongbuk-compare-350

As tourism becomes ever more popular in this remote region, economic opportunity does increase for local communities, however the influx of tourism also brings with it the troubles of haphazard construction using tons of concrete rather than materials that are better adapted to local conditions, higher consumption of limited water resources, and increased waste generation and pollution further exacerbated from inadequate and underfunded waste management systems.

IMG_7430Seeing the immense beauty and potential of this region as well as understanding the grand challenges that it faces, Ecosphere Spiti Valley, a local community development social enterprise based in Kaza, was formed to address Spiti’s concerns through a variety of projects linking livelihoods, conservation and development. Ecosphere’s early projects included organizing a homestay network throughout the high altitude villages surrounding the Spiti Valley and setting up a local agricultural cooperative to harvest Seabuckthorn, a local & naturally growing citrus berry with one of the highest known sources of Vitamin C and numerous known nutritional & health benefits. In order to promote the village homestays & seabuckthorn products Ecosphere began operating a Spiti focused travel business to allow the increase in local tourism to directly benefit the remote villages & selling branded IMG_7269Seabuckthorn products like a jam & a liquid concentrate. Ecosphere’s travel business earns profits that further promote other community initiatives such as building local greenhouses, building energy efficient/solar passive homes and installing solar panels, wind turbines & solar hot water heaters in communities throughout Spiti Valley. The Ecosphere developed greenhouses enable local farmers to continue to produce green vegetables in the harsh IMG_7358winters providing increased incomes to farmers as well as providing healthy locally produced food to Spitian families during the winters. Ecosphere Solar Passive homes utilize simple & affordable technologies that allow for moderate room temperatures throughout the winters and up to 60% reductions in fuel consumption. Ecosphere has also facilitated installation of decentralized renewable energy technologies such as rooftop solar panels, wind turbines, solar hot water heaters in addition to providing solar cookstoves, all reducing the use of expensive fuel. To date Ecosphere has worked with over 50 villages around Spiti Valley to build 350 Solar Passive homes, 80 greenhouses, as well as installing solar panels, wind turbines, solar cookstoves & solar water heaters.

Overtime Ecosphere has moved away from relying on external sources for fundraising to use a more unique fundraising model for a non-profit organization. By choosing not to rely IMG_7071on external sources of funding, Ecosphere is able to maintain more direct & local control over the projects that they choose to pursue as well as saving the inevitable consumption of time & human resources that goes into fundraising. Ecosphere manages a successful travel business which provides direct funding for their various community initiatives and the main projects that a few volunteers & I worked on this summer were launching a restaurant & café/travelers lounge which would both provide additional funding for Ecosphere’s community initiatives.

IMG_7072The restaurant, based in downtown Kaza, is called Taste of Spiti and was conceptualized as a place with healthy, fresh & wholesome food and as a place to enjoy a “slow food” meal that is more relaxed & suited to the pace of life in the mountains. From the amazing work of Peter, a long term volunteer, & local master chef Angdui, the dishes were created to incorporate a variety of local ingredients blended with international tastes to form a menu of international fusion cuisine with a local touch including items such as a Spitian pizza, a Black Pea Veggie Burger with Humus, a local pasta called Keu with either a pomodoro or white cream sauce, & a variety of Seabuckthorn infused food & drinks. The restaurant provides IMG_7093food made fresh to order and prepared without the overabundance of oil that is found in foods prepared in millions of dhaba’s across the country. The atmosphere also provides a comfortable place where you can relax and share stories from the Spiti Valley as you await your meal with good music and a wide variety of books & games to entertain you. A large painted map of the Spiti Valley is prominently displayed for travelers to more easily visualize & share their adventures throughout the valley. There is further comfort in the fact that every delicious plate of food you enjoy at Taste of Spiti goes towards initiatives helping out local Spitian families, not to mention that the local ingredients used in the menu serve to promote local agricultural productions particularly of traditional crops like black peas & seabuckthorn.

IMG_7266The café, located just below the Ecosphere office in Kaza, is called the Sol Café & Travelers Lounge. The Sol Café is a place to relax and share stories from the road, while enjoying some of the finest cookies, cakes & coffee in all of Spiti. The menu & design of the café were created with the wonderful help of Anne, our resident French baker, Christian & Stefan. The design was heavily influenced by Buddhist, Tibetan & Spitian culture and incorporates the local colors, maroon & yellow, and a beautiful wall mural created by a past volunteer. The menu features a variety of cookies, cakes, & muffins as well as classic French crepes, waffles all with the local twist of using tsampa flour in most of the baked goods. We also offer a varietyIMG_7265 of juices, milkshakes, hot tea & espresso coffee (all you coffee drinkers in India know that good espresso coffee is hard to find!). Furthermore, the comfortable lounge seating, the company of fellow travelers & local children, and the occasional musical performances by our resident musicians provide a great ambiance and make it a place worth spending a lazy afternoon. Again, all of the money raised from business in the café goes directly towards supporting community initiatives undertaken by Ecosphere.

IMG_7096Both the Taste of Spiti restaurant & the Sol Café fit naturally into the image of Ecosphere’s work. The volunteers helping out in both places are well traveled, knowledgeable about the local area and are great resources for information about the villages, monasteries & trekking opportunities around the Spiti Valley. In addition to utilizing the help of volunteers, both establishments employ local staff year round in order to make the businesses sustainable for the longer term. Also, both businesses provide free water refill points in order to limit the amount of plastic waste generated in Spiti from the purchase & use of plastic water bottles. Furthermore, both the restaurant & the café include space for the Ecosphere co-op store which promotes & sells locally produced handicrafts & seabuckthorn products.

I had one of the best months of my life helping to set up and run these Ecosphere IMG_7303microenterprises with a great group of fellow volunteers in one of the most beautiful & fascinating places in India. I would highly suggest anyone to take the time to visit the remote hidden treasure of the Spiti Valley and while you’re there stop by Kaza to enjoy a great meal, great company and the great atmosphere of the Taste of Spiti restaurant and the Sol Café & Travelers Lounge.

Posted in Ecosphere, Himalaya, Himalayan Trekking, India, Kaza, Microenterprise, Social Enterprise, Sol Cafe, Spiti Valley, Sustainable Development, Taste of Spiti | Leave a comment

The Story of Goecha La – Insights on Sikkim & The Business of Himalayan Trekking

IMG_6510I have recently returned from the incredible experience of trekking Goecha La, a 5000m (16,500ft) pass in the North Eastern Himalaya in the Indian State of Sikkim. The state of Sikkim is a world of its own when compared with much of the rest of India. The least populous Indian state, squeezed in between China & Tibet to the North, Nepal to the West, Bhutan to the east and the Indian state of West Bengal to the south, may have more in common with Nepal or Tibet than with India. The state has a rich history of Buddhist influence largely stemming from Tibetan invasions as early as the 9th century. After invasions from the Tibetan, Bhutanese & Nepalese Kingdoms over the next few centuries, an initial popular vote in 1947 rejecting entrance into the Indian union, andIMG_6247 finally another referendum 28 years later in 1975 to abolish the Sikkimese Monarchy and join the Indian nation, the modern day Indian state of Sikkim was formed.  Still today the working language in Sikkim is Nepali with many other Himalayan languages such as Bhutia being commonly spoken as well (Many people, particularly migrants from the Indian plains would also speak Hindi, and many in the tourism industry will manage with a bit of English as well). Located at the union of two ecozones, Sikkim is also blessed with an extraordinary biodiversity rich in hundreds of varieties of flora and fauna and is home to 36 varieties of Rhododendron, more than 500 species of birds, and the endangered red panda.

IMG_6251The Goecha La (“La” is a Tibetan word translating loosely to “Pass”, as in a high mountain pass) trek starts from the lovely hill town of Yuksom, the first capital of the Sikkimese Monarchy established in the 1600s, with a modern day population of about 2000 people. The town is primarily reliant on income from tourism in order to supplement basic farming and tending to livestock.  Yuksom is a smooth 7 hour jeep ride traveling 150km (90miles) from the nearest airport in the neighboring state of West Bengal with the ride following a large and heavily dammed river up winding, crumbling mountain roads bringing you from almost sea level in West Bengal up to about 6,000ft at Yuksom in the foothills of the Himalaya.  Due to the numerous hydroelectric dams on the Rangeet & Teesta rivers in Sikkim more than 90% of the state has regular power supply, according to government figures (Compare this to the 25% of India, or more than 300 million people without regular access to electricity according to the World Bank), and the state is also able to export some of this power to the neighboring states of West Bengal, Orissa, Jharkhand & Bihar serving as an additional revenue source to be used ideally by the government for development projects, but also leaves the potential for corruption and filling the pockets of government officials. These dams don’t exist without concerns over negative impact on the environment and the local populations that depend on the livelihood the rivers provide and as such there have been a number of local protests against the expansion of hydroelectric dam projects. In a state where many high altitude mountains and almost all lakes are declared as holy sites, protected from development and banned from recreational use, it is interesting how this devotion has not necessarily been extended to the rivers, at least by the government. The conditions of the roads in Sikkim provide aIMG_6232 stark contrast to the electricity situation, with landslides regularly washing out the rickety roads and traffic jams grinding transport in and out of the sleepy hill towns to a halt. Unless you are ready to spring for a private helicopter ride, the only way to travel to these towns is by regular shared jeep service; service to hill towns like Yuksom, leaves only once a day and expect Nepali music blasting throughout the ride. Another noticeable difference of Sikkim as compared with the rest of India is the overall abundance and ease of access to alcohol. It seems that in most little towns in Sikkim there is a restaurant with a bar on every street corner, with the bar opened as soon as breakfast is being served. The increased consumption of alcohol may partially exist out of the “necessity” of coping with the tough conditions of mountain life (Tongba is a popular noncommercial alcoholic beverage prepared by the rural Sikkimese people consisting of fermented rice millet in a bamboo mug. Hot water is added to the rice millet to make it drinkable. Multiple pours of hot water can be added as needed.) but I imagine is also a result of the large amount of commercial alcohol production in the state of Sikkim. Sikkim is home to a number of large Indian breweries & distilleries, not to mention the collection of revenues by the Excise Department, the government agency responsible for regulating the manufacture, possession, sale & transport of alcohol in Sikkim, from license fees, fines & various levies on sale of liquor are one of the state’s largest sources of income. Alas, according to a pair of Sikkimese doctors who joined us on the trek, alcohol related illnesses & injuries are one of the main reasons for hospitalizations and doctor’s visits in the state.

[As a clarification, any “mountain” without snow in the Himalaya (Himalaya is literally Sanskrit for “Abode of Snow”) is generally referred to as a hill. These hills could be up to 10,000ft and beyond. Furthermore most “mountain peaks” below 6000m are generally referred to as a pile of rocks. This begins to make sense when you consider that the Himalaya contain all 14 of the world’s 8000m (~26,500ft) peaks and literally hundreds of peaks higher than 6000m (~20,000ft)]

IMG_6535Once the trek begins from Yuksom, you quickly enter Kangchenjunga National Park, an 850 sq. km (330 sq. mile), covering 10% of the land area of the state of Sikkim, and home to the world’s third tallest mountain residing on the border of Nepal & Sikkim, Kangchenjunga (Meaning “The Five Treasures of Snow”) at 8586m (28,169ft). To date there have been fewer than 200 ascents of this snowy treasure with 40 registered fatalities (compare this to the more than 5000 ascents of Everest nearby in Nepal); every climber of Kangchenjunga has stopped a few meters short of the summit to pay respects to the local Sikkimese people who regard the mountain as sacred and a guardian deity of the state.

IMG_6279The first two days of the Goecha La trek are a steep & steady IMG_6305ascent from Yuksom, climbing about 2000m (~6600ft) crisscrossing a rumbling high mountain river, passing through dense forests of magnolias, red, pink & white rhododendron, and hemlock, firs and other conifers as the elevation increases. As you continue to climb you reach the shifting snow line and the more permanent tree line where the IMG_6325world changes from thick surrounding forest to wide open views of the surrounding snowy peaks with the flora characterized by the shorter rhododendrons and hardy juniper bushes, some of the few plants that are able to survive in this harsh environment and known locally for their healing abilities. There is even a local tradition where the guides burn a small patch of juniper bush and wave it around the room as good luck for the upcoming day (This ritual also exists in Nepal). Eventually we reached the trekking hut in Dzongri, within an hour’s walk of some of the grandest views of the eastern Himalaya and the Kangchenjunga Range, where we would rest the night and prepare for our early morning hike to catch our first glimpse of Kangchenjunga.

IMG_6355The day started at 4am slowly rolling out of our sleeping bags, braving the ice cold air and still damp boots from the previous days trudge through wet snowy conditions. It was a nearly full moon and the light & clarity of the night sky quickly inspired any physical discomforts to easily dissipate. Under the stars of the night sky and the shining moonlight we began our short 40 min hike to the Dzongri viewpoint where we would watch the sunriseIMG_6357 over the Kangchenjunga Range. As we made our way around the curve of a hill blocking our forward view, the first morning glimpses of snowy peaks appeared to us with the snowy tops subtly reflecting the bright moonlight. After rounding the bend the massive Kabru peak & glacier appeared looming in the distance rising above Dzongri La starting to receive some of the earliest rays of sunlight. At this point I realized that this pass IMG_6373would be my morning destination. Rather than wait around at the hilltop viewpoint for the sun to rise I knew I had to press on towards the snowy pass in order to get a more up close and personal viewing with these majestic Himalayan peaks. With my destination clearly in view, I let summit fever take control and I hiked another 1.5 hours up the snowy trail to come face to face with these grandeurs of nature, Rathong Glacier, the source of the Rangeet river, & Kabru Peak, the southernmost 7000m peak in the world. By the time IIMG_6384 reached the pass the sun had risen and was beaming off of the thick white snow pack atop these glacial peaks, but I was still protected in the shade by a lesser Himalayan ridge line. By around 6am the sun started to creep up over the ridge line and as the rays reflected off of the blanket of surrounding snow the whole ground cover began to glisten. A smooth hours walk back down to Dzongri gave me the chance to make it up to the Dzongri IMG_6436viewpoint by a little after 7am where I was still greeted with clear skies showing a full panoramic view of the Kangchenjunga range including the views I had so recently seen of Rathong Glacier & Kabru Peak, but also my first glimpse of Kangchenjunga, and views of the right hand ridge of Pandim, another holy Sikkimese peak, Tenzing Khang, where three climbers from Colorado were beginning their 15 day ascent, & Japuno, aptly named after a Japanese man who was the first to summit this peak. From this viewpoint you couldIMG_6425 also see the valley where we would continue our trek with Kangchenjunga on our left and the 3 peak ridge of Pandim, Tenzing Khang, & Japuno on our right. This mostly barren valley was dissected by a meandering river fueled by glacial melt and served as a wind tunnel funneling high powered winds in between the high mountain walls on each side. The night before our camp at Lamuney, the final campsite before the long night trek IMG_6466to Goecha La, another group of campers at Lamuney lost their tent to the high winds during an overnight snowstorm. The weather can change in an instant in the high Himalaya and the landscape could turn from clear blue skies to thick fog rolling up the valley and completely enveloping the campgrounds, reducing visibility to 10 feet in under an hour.

After a short nights rest, the trek up to Goecha La began at 2:30am, again under theIMG_6473 company of the shining light of the full moon. The sound of the strong winds whipping through the valley and the snowy reflections under the moonlight create an otherworldly kind of atmosphere. Add in the night trail ascending up through fragments of rock and boulders that have made their way down to “ground level” through the constant process of erosion facilitated by landslides and avalanches and the diminished levels of oxygen at IMG_6510this altitude and it feels as though we could have been walking on the moon. Except for at this altitude of about 4500m (~15000ft) and climbing it is impossible to forget about the effects of gravity making each step forward and up more of a challenge than the last. After passing by a frozen alpine lake we continue or ascent to the first Kangchenjunga viewpoint reaching by around 4:30am just in time for the sunrise to come beaming in from over the eastern mountain ridge lighting up the western ridge with a morning glow. As the IMG_6511atmosphere heats the sun’s rays seem to dissipate the cloud cover opening up grand views of the Kanchenjunga Massif and close up views of Pandim. After soaking in the views over sunrise, we begin the final approach to Goecha La. The 2 hour trek starts through a flat, dry riverbed that could potentially be the future home to one of the world’s highest seasonal cricket fields and continues up through the bizarre high altitude landscape full of red IMG_6525moss and small plant life that look like they could be features in an ocean coral reef. The final ascent to the pass is a steep climb winding through massive fallen boulders and up the rocky side of Pandim’s base. For the last 15 minutes of the climb Kangchenjunga’s peak peers out above the clouds guiding us home to our final destination, Goecha La. From here we enjoy the closest views of the southern face of Kangchenjunga that can be seen anywhere in the world and are only a day’s walk from the Sikkimese base of theIMG_6536 sacred mountain. From this close range, the iconic pointed peak towers over us allowing you to easily see close up features and the dense icepack ledges hanging over the face and extended ridgeline of Kangchenjunga. Truly lying in the shadows of Kangchenjunga, the trail ends here at 5000m and we begin our steady multiday descent back to Yuksom with the vision of the Five Treasures of Snow forever ingrained in our memory.

IMG_6276Supplies for the trek including food, fuel, cooking supplies & camping equipment are carried up the steep slopes by a team of dzos, a local cross breed between a yak and a cow. Our trekking team also included a guide, 2 porters, a cook, and a “yakman” who tended to the dzos, including foraging for their food.  Although the average local cost for this kind of trek equates to about $30 USD per day per person (advertised as high as $90 USD per day over the internet by agencies run out of larger cities, predominantly aimed at foreigners traveling long distances to reach the trekking area who are more likely to confirm and pay in advance and have different ideas of “affordability”), a guide will only earn an average daily salary of Rs 1000 ($20 USD), while porters & cooks generally earn closer to Rs 250 per day ($5 USD), which is a general rate for day laborers of all kinds throughout India. The “yakman” will generally earn about Rs 250 per animal (Our team had 4 dzos). Assuming a group of 5 trekkers (some groups are as large as 40)IMG_6498 each paying Rs 1500 ($30 USD) per day for the 8 day trek, the agency takes in about Rs 60,000 for the group. The labor costs the agency Rs 2500 per day for the entire group totaling Rs 20,000 for the 8 day trek. Add in the cost of the trekking permits at Rs 1000 per person and the cost of simple vegetarian food for 8 days and the agency is still making around Rs 30,000 per trek compared with the Rs 20,000 earned by all 5 of the trekking staff combined. You can see how even at $30 USD per day the trekking agencies make a lot more money in this situation than the people doing the physical work, although the agencies are also responsible for maintaining quality gear. This is a classic example of abundance of labor impacting wages. The work performed by the guides, cooks & porters, although physically demanding, is easily learned by many of the young men in Sikkim and Darjeeling. The abundance of labor in this context is no different than the general abundance of unskilled labor throughout India keeping wages relatively quite low. However based on the costs of living in these remote mountain areas, the porters, guides and cooks are actually doing quite well for themselves, especially when it comes to living conditions, when compared to the urban and slum dwelling poor in India’s large cities. Considering that the 6 months per year of peak trekking season (Mar-May & Oct-Dec) provide almost solidly booked work for the trekking staff, just on wages alone porters can expect to make peak season monthly income of around Rs 7500, with guides earning closer to 30,000, not to mention tips which could easily add 50% to their income per trek. Generally, the trekking staff are part of a tight knit community helping to facilitate tourism throughout the surrounding local towns. Many of the staff therefore are able to secure temporary housing for the trekking seasons at around Rs 1000 per month, some even staying for free with extended family & friends. Add in 50kg of rice, going for around Rs 1000 and lasting for up to three months, some potatoes, lentils, and the occasional treat of some form of meat and their recurring monthly expenses aren’t much more than Rs 2000. Furthermore, some of the trekking guides & porters take advantage of the summer trekking season in Ladakh where they are able to earn income for the months of June-September during the rainy offseason for much of the IMG_6502Nepali & eastern Himalaya. It begins to make sense then how many of the trekking guides can be seen around town after treks wearing flashy new jewelry, watches, sunglasses & clothes, even if only for an afternoon before heading back up the mountain the next day. These men who make their livings trekking through the endless natural beauty of the Himalaya aspire to a level of materialism just like their western counterparts who arrive equipped with the latest trekking gear & technology and with whom they interact with so regularly on the mountain trails. Interestingly enough, many of the trekking agencies are headed by former guides who have aged beyond the time where it is desirable to haul goods up and down these steep mountain trails and are happier to use their accumulated resources, entrepreneurial spirit, and likely their good connections with the government officials approving trekking permits, to make a living closer to home.

It is really an interesting phenomenon taking place not just in Sikkim, but throughout Nepal, North India and most of the Himalayan trekking hotspots. Truly a colliding of two worlds, with western travelers and adventurers seeking an entrance to the wild, natural beauty of the high Himalaya and an escape from the materialism, hustle and bustle of modern day life. All the while their trekking & mountaineering guides, their eastern counterparts, are striving and aspiring to a better, possibly more western & consumption heavy, lifestyle where they are able to accumulate more resources to provide for their families in addition to showing off their status symbols around the community. This collision of worlds has the potential to fuel conflict, like the recent fight between European climbers and Nepali Sherpas at Camp 2 on Mt Everest at 21,000ft. Western adventurers who may not be so keen on the commercial aspect of Himalayan trekking & climbing may forget at times that they are in someone else’s home and workplace and that these people are just trying to make a decent living for themselves and their families, although there would rarely be reason for the violence seen in this case by the Sherpas on Everest. With each world, east and west, having an almost inevitable influence on the other we can only hope that people from both worlds will learn valuable lessons from each other through their ongoing interactions and are able to maintain and foster an atmosphere of understanding and mutual respect with a vision to jointly improve the fate of the entire Himalayan region, the heavenly abode of snow.

Posted in Himalaya, Himalayan Trekking, India, Kangchenjunga, Sikkim, Sustainable Development | 1 Comment

Microfranchising & Meso-Lending in India

According to a report from the Acumen Fund, a pioneer and leader in the impact investing world, microfranchising is “a development tool that leverages the basic concepts of traditional franchising, but it is especially focused on creating opportunities for the world’s poorest people to own and manage their own businesses.” In this way, microfranchising harnesses the ability of the traditional franchising model to easily replicate a proven business model in order to provide sustainable income generating opportunities through self-employment for people living at the base of the economic pyramid. Companies in India like Eco-Mithra & Orb Energy have both had success using the microfranchising model in order to grow their respective businesses while providing opportunity for aspiring entrepreneurs as well.

Eco-Mithra is a manufacturer of eco-friendly and biodegradable plates made out of areca plant bark. Local to South India, the bark of the areca plant was generally seen as a waste product and discarded as such. Yogesh, Founder of Eco-Mithra, saw this as an opportunity and created a business around the manufacture of these eco-friendly plates from the cheap and bountiful areca bark. In addition to manufacturing the plates, Eco-Mithra provides microfranchising opportunities by selling Areca Plate Machines to franchisees, providing basic training and even buying back finished product. Meenakshi, an Eco-Mithra franchisee with no formal education, was able to start her own business manufacturing the eco-friendly plates with the help of a 3 day training period provided by Eco-Mithra and a guaranteed contract to purchase plates for her first year of business.

Orb Energy is a provider of solar energy solutions from household solar power systems to solar water heaters and solar lighting accessories. Orb Energy’s solar products provide access to clean, reliable electricity for off grid households which have previously relied on costly kerosene lanterns which provide poor quality of light, emit harmful fumes and run the risk of in home fires. Access to electricity allows for increased productivity, as the day’s work can continue longer and children are able to study later into the night, increased connectivity, as mobile phones can be charged at home, cost savings and health benefits from reduced use of kerosene. Orb Energy is able to access a large customer base through its branch network of more than 100 stores, each owned and operated as a franchise by a local entrepreneur. Through these retail outlets spanning 5 south Indian states, Orb Energy is able to provide products, installation and maintenance support locally all with a focus on customer satisfaction.

In India, one of the biggest challenges for these micro, small & medium enterprises (MSME) is access to financing. In the current funding ecosystem for MSMEs this need has not been satisfied by the small loan sizes of the microfinance industry or by the restrictive demands of the traditional lending sector, which generally perceives lending to these businesses as too risky. Using innovative lending models, lending companies like IntelleGrow, a Mumbai based venture debt financing company, & Kinara Capital, a Bangalore based MSME lender, have been able to fill a vital need for these enterprises by providing growth financing and working capital loans which effectively fill the “missing middle” between microfinance and traditional lending. IntelleGrow provides early stage, flexible debt financing and skills support for growing impact focused businesses across India, such as Orb Energy, and to date has disbursed 20 loans totaling $3 million with an average loan size of $150K and zero defaults. IntelleGrow recently raised $2 million in Series A funding from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation in order to expand their successful lending practice. Kinara Capital provides working capital loans in the range of $2K-$20K to micro and small businesses in South India, such as Eco-Mithra & Orb Energy Franchisees, and to date has disbursed more than 100 loans totaling $550K with a 100% repayment rate. Kinara Capital also recently raised $1 million in Series A funding led by an investment from the Sorenson Impact Foundation in order to grow their field lending operations. By partnering with and lending to growing companies like Orb Energy & Eco-Mithra, lenders like Intellegrow & Kinara Capital are able to support job creation in addition to supporting the social missions of the respective organizations all while simultaneously growing successful enterprises of their own. As Thomas Friedman once wrote in the New York Times, “People grow out of poverty when they create small businesses that employ their neighbors. Nothing else lasts.”

Posted in Impact Investing, India, Kinara Capital, Meso Lending, Microfranchising, Social Enterprise, Solar Energy, Sustainable Development | Leave a comment

Kinara Capital – Borrower Profiles

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