On April 7 2018, at 11.30 in the morning, we stood in the breeze at 2,680 metres above sea level and beamed like children who’d just opened their Christmas presents. We stretched our arms into the sky and then embraced the boundary stone, finding ourselves at one moment on the Indian side and the next on the Burmese side – all entirely without bureaucratic red tape or customs and immigration officials.
We’d made it! And yet, until the week before, we had never even heard of this mountain; we only found out its name after days of research after our return to Yangon.
My thoughts flow back to the day when it all began: I was sweating in a gym when, out of nowhere, the thought suddenly struck me that I really needed to try again to climb Mount Saramati (which, at 3,841 metres, is the highest mountain in Nagaland). My first attempt in April of 2017 failed miserably, as I was not in good enough shape and had grossly underestimated the terrain. I trained for weeks and asked Jack, my Swiss friend, to accompany me on this journey. Two days before the start of the trip, we then received the devastating news that we would not be able to climb Mount Saramati. I still do not know the true reason why.
But now Jack was there, having specially travelled from Switzerland; our backpacks were ready and we had the tickets to Hkamti in our pockets. Ma San Su Shi from Layshi promised us that by visiting “little Mount Saramati,” we could climb a mountain on which no other tourist had set foot before us.
So on March 31 we were standing at the airport waiting for our bus to take us to the plane, when suddenly my wife and our two daughters came down the steps to fling themselves on me, shouting, “Surprise, surprise!” I embraced my family with tears in my eyes and couldn’t believe it.
Soon afterwards, we all sat on the plane and were on the way to Hkamti, a little town on the eastern bank of the Chindwin River. Once there, we explored the town on foot and had a fantastic view of the Naga mountains from the banks of the Chindwin.
Five days later, we found ourselves at the foot of the mountain chain which separates India from Myanmar, and followed a footpath through waist-high grass. A large group of apes bellowed to us from the mountains – were they pleased with our visit or laughing at us? Then the jungle swallowed us up.
The path first led uphill over the first rise and then steeply down to a stream which winds its way through the mountains. Crystal-clear water, giant trees and every shade of brilliant green. What a paradise! On the other side, the path rose steeply again, almost vertically, and the porters had to keep pausing to slash a way through with their machetes. We made our first camp at 1,350 metres.
Our team took an hour to set up the camp, prepare the evening meal and set up sleeping areas for the night. Then thick layers of fern were laid out on the ground, which strongly reminded me of gorilla nests in Uganda. We slept wonderfully.
We peeled off our sleeping bags at first light and resumed our climb by 8 o’clock. At first, we had to be pulled up on long lianas to get past a steep and difficult section. Then we followed a ridge through a dense pine forest and further up through thick scrub, passing rhododendrons and orchids. The route continued to climb, often steeply, but there was always a helping hand available. After 4 hours, we reached a fabulous forest of rhododendrons – red and white blossoms everywhere, intermingled with shimmering multi-coloured moss. Around 1 in the afternoon, we reached our base camp at 2,150 metres.
The next day, we were already underway at 7.15 in the morning. We kept moving upwards through a mixed forest of bamboo, deciduous trees and rhododendrons. After half an hour, we walked along a very narrow path on the edge of a chasm – so narrow that I often no longer knew where to place my foot next. From the last mountain ridge, we then had a fantastic view of the Naga Hills and the small Mount Saramati. From here, the path led back into a beautiful rhododendron wood, with red and white shimmering all around us. At first, the path went downhill, then steeply back up through a bamboo wood past a beautifully situated rest area and out of the wood – we were now above the tree line. A new world opened up before us: yellow grasses, colourful flowers, gnarled bushes...Enchanted, we followed the path, pausing frequently, took a few steps forward, turned in circles and persevered on our way to the summit as though intoxicated.
Towards midday, threatening dark clouds formed in the west; as the first raindrops fell, it became markedly cooler. In an instant, we were brought back to reality. A last look, a final picture, and then we started on the long march back.
Three days later, we reached Sapya, tired but overjoyed. The whole village was already in a festive spirit, as our intention had been to belatedly celebrate my 59th birthday here in the evening. Shwe Yee had already organised it on the way here – such a great idea. A pig was slaughtered, the party area decorated and firewood stacked; at 6 in the evening, everyone gathered – young and old. We ate at one huge table. We had rice, plenty of pork, soup and vegetables. We traded tales of the adventure, sang, applauded and laughed. It was a great party and the shining eyes of the children would stay in my memory for a long time.