Blog: Making ‘Reaching the Peak’

By Stuart Cohen

When I first received an email back in February asking if I wanted to volunteer as a member of the IUCN to produce a film about a national park in Uganda I’d never heard of, and at my own expense, my initial reaction was ‘no’. But it was my daughter who said, “Are you crazy, Dad?! Ask some more questions at least!”. Fortunately, I took her advice and I did ask and that set off a stream of emails back and forth between myself and the Uganda Wildlife Authority which finally saw me arrive at Entebbe Airport on April 28 this year to make what became a 24-minute documentary about the largest volcanic caldera on Earth, protected within the boundaries of the 1,200 square kilometre Mount Elgon National Park.

I spent 16 days as a guest of the Uganda Wildlife Authority, during which I hiked to the highest point in the park over four days. With me were a dozen UWA rangers and senior staff, half of which were armed with AK47s, another dozen porters and eight young European tourists. Parts of the climb were gruelling, but the scenery was spectacular and nothing like I’d ever experienced before. The climb begins at a remote Eastern Ugandan village at 1,100 metres, and winds along a very steep trail through montane forest, then rainforest and up to bamboo heath at 2,800 metres. The trail finally emerges onto the open alpine area at 3,300 metres where the temperature falls significantly. The final thousand metres is very hard work in the thin air. At best you can walk ten paces, pause, take in some air and sip some water and then continue on, to repeat the process until you arrive at the top. Most of the group made the summit known as Waggagi, at 4,321 metres, but altitude sickness got the better of two of the walkers. At the top it was bitterly cold in the howling winds but the views across the caldera were spectacular.

Throughout my time in Uganda what was clear to me was that the UWA staff have a sophisticated understanding of the environmental issues and challenges they face, particularly with regard to the obvious and highly visible impacts of climate change. What they lack are resources. The UWA has 1,800 staff managing 10 large national parks, 12 wildlife reserves, five community wildlife management areas and another 13 wildlife sanctuaries. They do this on a total budget of US$17 million and receive virtually no funding from the Ugandan Government. All of their revenue is raised from tourism and the UWA shares 20% of its gate entry fees with neighbouring communities. What was also absolutely clear was that through the work of Community conservation wardens and in sharing the gate entry fees, the neighbouring communities have come from a position of open hostility, when Mount Elgon National Park was first declared, to a real understanding of the environmental importance of the park and what it will provide for them in terms of clean water and other resources, and the need to do whatever it takes to protect and conserve this place. As largely subsistence farmers, locals feel so much more keenly the impacts of floods, landslides and drought. Climate change is presenting real life and death scenarios on a daily basis, whereas when natural disasters occur in western countries, for the most part we can still generally rely on being able to open the fridge door and grab food whenever we need it. Not in Uganda. And so the community has begun to understand and act on climate change.

In making ‘Reaching the Peak’, I got to meet some amazing and very dedicated people and I’d like to pay special tribute to two wonderful men who feature in the film, and they are Community Conservation Warden Richard Matanda, who was with me for the entire 16 days I spent in Uganda, and Assistant Tourism Warden Stephen Nyadru, who took me to the summit of Mount Elgon. These two men represent what’s really good about the parks service staff I have met all over the world. Dedicated, passionate, committed and hard-working with a deep and obvious love of the parks.

I have to say all the UWA staff I met exhibited the same sort of commitment to their job and even though I was in Uganda it reminded me of home in the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.

‘Reaching the Peak’ was made primarily to showcase the management of Mount Elgon National Park by the UWA at the IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney, and after months in the making finally screened at the IUCN Mountains Dinner for the first time on Friday November 13. The UWA now wants it screened on Uganda television.

Watch 'Reaching the Peak' on YouTube here.