The Mukutan Gorge looks like another country unto itself. From the low scrub and bush rises a splendid place of converging canyons, steep mountains, and tropical jungle-like vegetation surrounding crystalline waterfalls, pools and streams. Getting there is not easy, and not necessarily for the faint of heart.
Trekking through high grasses and down into riverine banks darkened by tropical plants and trees, the light changes once again as filtered sun-shards cut through dense foliage, playing hide and seek in the cool shadows. Across moss covered rocks and running water, through walls of dripping palm fronds and branches heavy with lichen and blooms, the hike continues through this moist and fertile world, offering no easy footpath or break in trees.
Today, I am hiking the gorge with Douglas, Jeffrey, two armed guards, and two young women, one American, one German, who are volunteering at the research camp. Not knowing that this trip would offer so many opportunities to be on foot in the bush (as previous safaris were confined to Land Rovers), I did not pack hiking boots appropriate for treks in the wild.
The German volunteer, Katarina, graciously offered me a second pair of boots she had packed, so today, I am lugging them along. If not for the boots, I could not have done this spectacular hike but unfortunately, the boots are at least a size 10 while I wear a size 6. Some four sizes too big and extremely heavy, I feel as though I am walking with bowling balls attached to my feet. They look like military issue footwear and with each step, my small feet which feel even tinier housed in these cavernous vessels, are swimming about with every move, regardless of the pair of socks I stuffed in each toe. This adventure promises to be a lot more challenging, if not precarious, due to my immense footwear and their weight. At this moment, my humor is intact, but my gut tells me things may change as the real physical challenges emerge.
Our first stop is the small waterfall, a gorgeous spot and respite in full sun. As we stand alongside the transparent pool waters at the base of the fall, Douglas pulls a plant from the bank and tells me to chew on it. He does the same, as does Jeffrey, watching for my reaction to the taste of the tiny, yellow bud. As I chew, my mouth begins to burn followed by the numbing of my tongue and throat. Douglas tells me that this medicinal plant is widely used as a remedy for sore throats and mouth ulcers.
Leaving the gentle sounds of the waterfall behind, we encounter the first of many walls of rock that must be scaled. In front of me is a vertical slab of mountain perhaps twenty feet high. The only way up is by grasping at tiny lips of stone ledge while finding the few spots where a foot can grip, then hoisting oneself up and onto the base of the rock wall. I watch as the guides scramble effortlessly up the wall face. Naturally, they have done it before. In fact, I am the only one here today who has not yet made the trek through the Mukutan Gorge so I am at a definite disadvantage, not to mention my feet.
I make many attempts but cannot seem to grasp enough exposed ledge to hold my weight while simultaneously finding a foot grip large enough to manage my massive boots. Finally, after numerous unsuccessful attempts, Katarina, below me, gives me a strong boost and push, which gives the momentum to pull myself up onto the top of the cliff wall. I do believe she owed me that considering my ankles are attached to an additional ten pounds of leather while scaling cliffs and trekking through jungle.
The next hurdle encountered on this area of higher plateau is a slippery river crossing. The fast running waters of the river are deceptive and potentially dangerous if one is not mindful. Where a small waterway crests at the river site, we must carefully move across wet, algae covered rocks and then, grasping the stone face of the cliff, maneuver our way across a piece of log, a fallen tree, that has wedged itself between the cliff and the water spillway.
This is a precarious spot at best, hugging the smooth, flat cliff face while balancing one foot in front of the other along the length of the log, maybe twenty five feet long. The drop below is far enough to be dangerous, into fast moving, murky waters and onto jagged rocks. I am told, the first of numerous times this trek, not to look down while crossing. I obey, and am relieved when my boots and I make it across the damp expanse of the log, over the drop, safe. What a pair.
I am aware that I am smiling broadly. I am by far the oldest in this group. The others barely top thirty. In fact, they are all in their twenties, with the exception I believe, of Philip, who may be just shy of thirty. In any event, as I have just celebrated my 45th birthday while at the research camp, and am now offically a "mama," the term of respect for an older tribal woman, I think I have held up pretty well. Jokingly, when I told Philip the day I turned 45 that I guessed he would now have to address me as "Mama Jan," he giggled, good naturedly. Actually, he laughed for some time.
In the paradise of the Mukutan Gorge, I feel as though I have been transported into the tangles and depth of primordial jungle. It is a breathtaking spot, this place, so very different from the areas I have trekked the past few days, through savannah and vast open plains, dry bush, thorn and scrub. I have always dreamed about hiking through the jungle but this adventure to come will surely test my will and endurance.
For some reason, I assume the most vigorous and challenging of cliff scaling is behind me. But as we continue the safari, our single file line of bodies moving through wet foliage, over steep drops, raging waters and chalky cliffs, a more ominous wall of rock looms ahead. This cliff, which offers no advantage of protruding ledge or lip to grasp, is higher than the last and has a far more frightening drop.
I watch as a few of the others slowly make their way along the face and to the other side. It is not so much climbing this wall that must be done, it is holding onto a flat surface in order to get to solid ground. The only grips are two strong tree roots that have grown within and alongside the surface of the cliff. This Tarzan challenge looks dicey, as I watch the others hold tight the dangling root grips and swing their way onto the other side.
The height of this cliff and the drop below into even deeper water and sharp rock does not bode well for me. I tell Philip I am worried, especially in these boots which offer less than ideal footage and grip. Mostly though, it is the vast drop, the distance below. "Don't look down," Philip tells me, yet again. "Here, no one looks down. If you don't, you'll be okay." He is sincere and concerned, and knows this spot is a challenging one.
From where I stand on the narrow ledge abutting the cliff, I estimate the fall is some thirty to forty feet. There really is no turning back and from what I've been told, the most breathtaking and glorious of the adventure is yet to come. So I take a deep breath and firmly grip the cool, smooth vine. It feels thick and sturdy in my hands and gives me some sense of security.
Slowly, I make my way along with cliff wall. Grasping for dear life, holding onto the arm-width roots and using every ounce of strength in my arms, I am able to hoist myself up, swinging, feet bouncing off the cliff face, then down the slippery precipice to safe ground. I cannot believe that I have just swung over a forty-foot drop hanging onto a vine growing from the innards of a cliff.
Finally, and with much relief and exhilaration, we reach the jewel of the Mukutan Gorge, the big waterfall. On this mountaintop, high above the Great Rift Valley, surrounded by the convergence of lush teal canyons and silver cliffs, the immense waterway spills with a powerful energy and life force into the raging river below.
This glorious waterfall, high above the world, rushes a torrent into the lower canyon, a hundred, perhaps two hundred feet below us, and where a family of baboons hunker, enjoying the cool, refreshing spray.
We have been hiking for hours now, and this spot is the perfect place to rest and marvel at nature's pristine bounty. Although everyone else has been here before, especially the guides and rangers of Ol ari Nyiro, they still look around as if witnessing this splendid paradise for the first time. It is a wonderful thing to see, not only the perfection of nature, but a unique spot on earth which inspires such profound awe and wonder.
We rest for some time but are mindful of the daylight and the ground that must still be covered. It is not until I stand up that I am aware of my exhaustion. My legs are incredibly weak, the boots feel like tonnage, and I have only had a few sips of water from the small canteens over the course of the hours we have hiked. I am worried. While we rested, I removed my boots and found my feet to be bleeding. Many blisters had formed and popped, and the roominess of the boots created an atmosphere for my feet to move enough to scratch, cut and bleed with every uneasy step onto cliff or across rocks. Pulling the unnatural weight around my ankles too, has made my legs weaker than they should be, and knowing that many hours of hiking lay ahead, I can only hope for the best. After a few hours of extreme exertion beneath a raging sun and with little water, I am not feeling as strong as I need to be.
Heading back is nearly unbearable. I say little, reserving my energy, as are the others, taking it slowly as the midday sun continues to weigh heavily upon us. We have managed to retrace our steps and now are hiking through a vast area of thick, tall grass, a spot that is known to harbor many species from big cats to elephant and buffalo. It is imperative that we remain silent, a place where only days ago, an employee was killed by an elephant.
Just as I am seeing the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, the head guide veers from the grass plain and into low, thick vegetation heading into the incline of a mountainside. I have forgotten that the guides promised to take us to see the drawings - the prehistoric cave drawings straight up the side of a mountain. The cave, now, is home to nesting birds of prey, but evidently, while they hunt and scavenge, the cave remains safe for the viewing.
All of this is beside the point. I know my limitations and by now, I have surpassed them. I am badly dehydrated and exhausted, my heart pounding rapidly and it is difficult to catch my breath. But this moment, in this spot, there is nothing to do but go on. We are in the middle of nowhere, literally, and moving forward is the only way out. The problem is we are now moving sideways, up the steep mountain slope.
The vegetation is dense but low, offering no sturdy tree trunks or limbs to hold onto while traversing the mountainside. One by one, we slowly make our way up, stepping through and over thick, damp, jungle foliage. I am panting now and feeling as if my heart is about to explode. I realize that heatstroke is not something to take lightly and I am fully aware that I am pushing my luck.
Many times, each one of us loses our footing on the mountainside and slips down - gripping onto anything - branch or bush that will break our fall down the steep decline. We are just feet away from the crest of the mountain where the darkened cave lies, but I cannot make it. The others have somehow lifted their worn bodies up the precipice and scrambled over the ledge and into the cave opening. They coax me along, saying I can make it - it is only a few more feet - but I cannot move another inch. I have never been so physically challenged in my life, and while in good shape, I have now pushed the limits of exercise and exertion in the relentless African sun, with nearly no water for hours.
A few feet from the top, I clench anything that will hold me and keep me anchored enough so as not to fall or slide down the mountain. I am holding on with my last bit of strength, damp earth and vegetation seemingly moving all about me. "Please be careful of safari ants," I hear someone say, as I grasp the soil, roots, anything offering solidity. But safari ants, snakes, scorpions, spiders, suddenly become of little or no consequence. For the first time in my life, I have reached a point where I truly do not care what happens next.
I think about John, about dying. I think about my own mortality and how fortunate I am to have come back to Africa, alone, to heal. If this was the place where I should go, from heatstroke, tumbling down a mountainside, snake bite, whatever, it was simply meant to be.
It is an amazing moment, letting go. I sit, my scratched hands and arms grasping anything and everything, feet and legs, covered with dirt and mud, planted firmly into the slope, bracing my weight. I hear everyone talking from inside the darkened cave, echoing voices across ancient stone, amazement at the prehistoric drawings painstakingly carved into cave walls.
My breathing has slowed, my heartbeat calmed. I am warm and tired. I watch insects move in and out of the soil around me. Through the watery sunlight, I see the magnificent birds of prey circling overhead in a sky so bright it hurts my eyes. I smell the lifeforce of the earth, hear the breath of the leaves. I gaze at the majestic mountain opposite me, and across the canyon below, at the ethereal scenery that has breathed me into its lungs and swallowed me whole, and cannot believe how beautiful it all is.
In resignation, hanging onto a mountain, I am part of a single moment in time. I am part of it all, past, present, and future, all one.
Excerpt from the memoir, In the Heart of the Lily, copyright 2007, by Jan Baumgartner.
Content cannot be reprinted without the express permission from the author.