In February 2013 we spent nearly two weeks in Uganda. Situated at the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo lies the Rwenzori mountains, which should take you a whole day’s drive from Kampala (capital of Uganda). We spent 8 days trekking Africa’s highest mountain range, the incredible “Mountains of the moon”. The trek had no easy stages as we walked from the deep jungle, to the strenuous bogs then to the ice and snow as we climbed Africa’s 3rd and 4th highest peaks, Mt. Stanley and Mt. Speke.
In the year 150 CE, long before any known European explorer had set foot in Africa, the Greek Geographer Ptolemy claimed that the Great River Nile had it’s source from some big mountains which he called the “Mountains of the moon.” Some hundred years later it was confirmed that he was actually right, as the mountains do supply water to Lake Victoria where the Nile originates from.
Here’s the first part of my 8 day trek through the great “Mountains of the Moon” in Uganda.
The Rwenzori Mountains are perhaps the most scenic mountains and without doubt the biggest range in Africa. Ranging from deep jungle, to Alpine meadows and over to the summit of the “Rainmaker” Mount Speke, Africa’s 4th highest mountain, Africa’s largest glacier and Africa’s third highest mountain the Margerhita Peak at Mount Stanley.
Climbing the Rwenzori mountains was much more challenging than my last Africa Mountain climb, at Kilimanjaro. I am not talking about these mountains being more technical than Kilimanjaro where one can walk to the summit, but the fact that one has to struggle through thick jungle, bogs, mud, rain and in general very wet conditions. We had on gum boots more often than mountain boots.
Last year I made the mistake of booking a flight out of Europe from Amsterdam. A little snow in Netherlands nearly set a stop to my trip to Africa. This time I went directly from Oslo to Doha, and onwards to Entebbe. The two flights went as scheduled, and we arrived in Entebbe Airport Uganda on time.
DAY 2: DRIVING TO QUEEN ELIZABETH NATIONAL PARK
It was what the Ugandans call a cool morning in Entebbe as we met up with our private driver and safari guide on the airport. After getting some local volunteers in the airport we soon settled in a 4WD Hiace and headed west to the Queen Elizabeth National Park, an approximately 2000 square mile wilderness oasis at the foot of the Rwenzori Mountains. However after just half an hour the driver decided to take a ferry, claiming it would take us an hour to drive around the bay. This turned out to be a bad idea in regard to time, the whole ferry operation took nearly two hours, but at least it was an interesting experience.
We then came to what the driver described as a highway. The only difference between the dirt road we came from and this one, was that it had asphalt. Our next stop was at the Equator, indicated by a line on the road. We had came from south and was now in the northern hemisphere. We stopped for food and drinks twice on the road. We stopped several more times to take photos of interesting things we spotted on our drive. A variety of animals, including Zebras, stunning sceneries, busy villages and towns were regular impressions. After 11 hours we reached the exotic Victoria Bush Lodge at the banks of the Kazinga channel. Hippos were loitering outside our lodge in the evening making it unsafe to wander around. This was suppose to be our resting day, but instead it became a 12-hour long chase after lions. We started driving around the park around six am. It was pretty cold with temperatures just above 10 Celsius. We spotted many animals but no lions. After lunch we were lucky to spot a leopard a few meters away, and on an afternoon boat trip on the river we got a safari-overload spotting hundreds of buffalos, elephants, crocodiles and so on. However our guide didn’t want to give up the lion hunt, so we headed back to where they were likely to feed. We were about to gave up when we late in the evening we finally spotted a Lioness in the grass .
DAY 4: DRIVING TO RWENZORI AND BEGINNING THE HIKE
We were very excited to start our trek, and enthusiastically jumped into the car around six that morning. On the way we spotted some hyenas in the road, making our safari experience complete. About two hours later we were inside the gates of Rwenzori Mountaineering Services in the village of Nyakalengija where our hike would start.
After sorting the money issues, weighing our equipment and getting porters assigned to us we were ready for the trek. It felt great to walk through the gate, and sign in at the park registry (and yes, like Kilimanjaro you need your passport number with you). Our group was composed of 14 porters, 1 cook, 2 guides and a student. That’s 17 people accompanying 2 crazy Norwegians (Andreas and I) heading for a 8 days long trek up the Rwenzori Mountains.
We walked along the Mubuku river surrounded by thick Rainforest much more impressive than what I witnessed in Kilimanjaro. The trees were gigantic. Along the way we played with chameleons, got bitten by aggressive red ants and heard numerous bird and animal sounds in the trees. We were told of Chimpanzees that reside in this part of the forest, but we didn’t hear nor spot any.
The sun was strong, and the heat was becoming unbearable, we didn’t get any respite from the tree shadows, that one could hope for in a rainforest, making this a difficult leg. We spent 4 hours climbing a distance of 1000 meters. I would actually advice people to spend much longer on this leg, the reason is that you will arrive the Nyabitaba hut long before your crew.
There is not much to do at Nyabitaba except wait on a bench. This place is also surprisingly cold lying on ridge exposed for wind. Therefore save your energy, and enjoy the nature.
It also turned out that the porters had forgotten our food. Some poor fellow then had to run all the way down to the village and back up again to get it – Imagine the effort! There is clearly nothing heroic about people doing treks like this, when you experience the hard work of the porters here, and other mountains.
DAY 5: HIKE TO JOHN MATTE HUT
The following day we climbed a further 700 meters using six hours in some hectic terrain with slippery roots, and bamboo-forest. The views were beautiful making up for the difficult trek, we could also hear the screams of monkeys warning their friends about the sweaty Norwegians making their way up the mountain.
Eventually we could spot the snow covered Mount Stanley and it’s peaks. This felt good as it’s always nice to see what one is aiming for.
We entered a different vegetation zone, a forest of giant Lobelias, much greater in numbers than what I saw on Kilimanjaro. It’ was like being in a fairytale.
We reached John Matte hut at 3380 meters above sea level, not feeling very good. We both had headaches, and I wondered if it was because of the altitude (I’d never experienced altitude sickness before) or maybe it was because, I was heavily burned by the sun in face and ears. Towards the evening we felt much better, and thankfully I didn’t experience such problems again on this trip. We however decided to slow down the following day. By the way, John Matte is a cozy hut in beautiful surroundings specifically amazing sunrise views behind the Portal peaks.
DAY 6: HIKE TO BUJUKU HUTS
This day we walked through a classic terrain the Rwenzori are known for, walking through the bogs, and especially the Lower Big Bog.
We had to discard our mountain boots and resort to good old gum boots. I bought mine in the village, and the soles were so thin that it felt like walking barefoot. This no easy stage on the Rwenzori trek, I almost broke my leg as I slipped between the boards on the board walk over parts of the bog. Lesson was learned – be attentive at all times.
After a few hours hike we arrived at Bujuku lake, an extraordinary scenery.
Still hiking here killed the excitement, as it was no walk in the park, but in deep mud. We arrived Bujuku huts early afternoon. This would be our starting point climbing Africa’s 4th highest mountain.
To be Continued ….
Tune in for part 2 as Jørn gets to summit Mount Speke, Africa’s 4th highest mountain, traversing through massive glaciers and Africa’s third highest mountain the Margerhita Peak at Mount Stanley.