[I decided to post this piece on my 2012 trip through the Rwenzori after reading the 2014 post concerning Rwenzori Mt. Services. I loved my week in Rwenzori. If you go to Kili, treat yourself and spend the extra time in Uganda!]
The bog stretched to the horizon. Footprints of thedikdik, a miniature antelope wove around giant lobelia plants. Snow capped
peaks beckoned. It was a fine spring-like day at 13,000’ in the Rwenzori
Mountains of western Uganda, the fabled “Mountains of the moon” and the true
source of the Nile.
A UN world heritage site, the Rwenzori mountains, stretch
some 80 miles along the border between the Congo and Uganda. While farming and
settlement is intense outside the park, the lands within the park are respected
by the people and are coherently managed. Moreover, important for tourists,
visiting the park is safe. Uganda’s government has been stable for years and
while Ugandans struggle for the basics in life, they are friendly and welcoming
The Rwenzori get a lot of rainfall, as much eight feet of
rain a year! The driest times and the best times to visit are December-January
and late June to late August.
Hiking has a long history in the Rwenzori. Henry Morton
Stanley (of Dr. Livingston I presume fame) was the first westerner to confirm
the presence of glaciated mountains on the equator, in 1888. The Duke of
Abruzzi led an Italian mountaineering expedition to the Rwenzori in 1906 and
named and climbed many of the peaks. The British have always enjoyed mountain
walks and during the colonial era, the Uganda Wildlife Authority in partnership
with the Uganda Mountain Club constructed a system of trails and huts known as
the “Central Circuit.” All of the major peaks—Mt. Luigi di Savoia, Mt. Baker,
Mt. Speke and Mt. Stanley (at 16,700’ the highest peak in Uganda (and the
Congo) and the third highest peak in Africa)—can be climbed from the Central
The trail system and the huts fell into disuse and
disrepair during the 1970’s and 1980’s, when Mt. Stanley was known as Mt. Idi
Amin. With the reestablishment of a stable government favorably disposed to
tourism, the US Agency for International Development, working with local organizations,
invested $1.5 million in the 1990’s to reestablish the trails and rebuild the
huts. Today, about a thousand western tourists visit the Mountains of the Moon
annually. Perhaps half that many complete the Central Circuit and perhaps a
hundred people scale the high snow and rock to the summits.
It had taken an all-night flight and an all-day car ride
across Uganda to reach Rwenzori National Park. My son and I drank Nile beer
surrounded by misty jungle. We slept in a simple cabin under a mosquito net,
listening to the roar of the mighty Mobuku River a few yards away.
The following morning we walked through the village of
Ibanda to Rwenzori Mountaineering Services headquarters, an unassuming compound
that is the focus of much activity as the occasional trekkers come and go.
Rwenzori Mountaineering Services is a non-governmental organization whose
purpose is to promote the economic well-being of the Bakonjo people. One of the
most enjoyable and interesting aspects of trekking in the Rwenzori is the opportunity
to get to know the Bakonjo on your expedition. Our guides, cooks and porters
all farmed small plots of bananas and coffee on the flanks of the Rwenzori.
They work in the mountains to supplement their cash income, mainly to pay
school fees for their children. It costs perhaps $100/yr to send a child to
secondary school, so portering on a week-long trek brings enough cash to the
family for one child’s school fees.
We had an introductory briefing in a wooden cabin with a
wall diagram of the classic six-day Central Circuit route. We planned to
walk the route with an additional day set aside to climb Mt. Stanley’s high
point – Margherita Peak – the highest point in Uganda—and the Congo (as it sits
on the border) and the third highest in Africa (behind Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt.
Kenya). We watched from the sidelines as Johnson was selected to guide our
expedition. Johnson’s brother Colonelius, introduced himself as co-guide. Colonel
had a big and frequent smile. Whereas Johnson would laugh pleasantly when
spoken to, Colonel conversed in English, sometimes loquaciously. Matthew, a
younger man in a floppy orange hat, signed up as a guide in training.
Then a cook, Gabriel, was selected and a cook in training joined him.
Johnson began to name porters in what looked like an auction. Villagers
stared from the street into the fenced compound through slats. Other men
and a few women milled around looking for work or sitting under trees that
lined the property
Our expedition of two tourist mountaineers ended with a
team of twelve, including two guides, a trainee guide, a cook, an assistant
cook, and ten porters. The porters make about $10/day and expect tips amounting
to about $5/day. Guides make about $25/day and expect tips amounting to about
$10/day. The porters carried burlap sacks on tump lines, bamboo or other
strings tied around their foreheads and connected to the sacks. They even
carried backpacks this way, refusing to use the shoulder straps.
Rwenzori trails are rocky, muddy and steep. The first
stage on the Central circuit is a 3,500’ climb up a ridge alongside and above
the Mobuku River. We climbed through thick, broken equatorial forest and then through
stands of giant ferns. We never saw a mountain elephant, but their footprints
were thick on the trail. After four hours we arrived at Nyabitaba Hut, at
8,500’, a large cabin with several bunk rooms and associated dining areas. Armed
park guards milled around in uniforms, presumably because of the nearby border
with the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
We descended on the second day to cross the Mobuku River
at its confluence with the Bujuku River, then ascended through bamboo forest
and moss-covered trees, arriving at John Matte Hut on the Bujuku River in about
5 hours. It was hard to believe that we were at nearly 12,000’ elevation.
As on the first night, and every other, we slept in
wooden bunks with dusty pillows and rubber-covered mattresses. Sometimes
the guides would sleep in the hut with us. The porters and cooks were
relegated to more primitive lean-to accommodations where they slept practically
on top of one another.
My son and I bathed in the Bujuku as the sun poked out
through the mist. The porters laughed at us bathing. We laughed at
how badly they smelled. During the meal, our cook, Gabriel, came in asking for
medicine. I asked what was wrong. Gabriel rubbed his hands across
his arms and body and said he felt “pains.” I surmised that he was
cold. (We were all cold.) He nodded when I said the word “cold.” The
Africans wore hand-me-down sweat pants, rubber Wellington rain boots without socks,
windbreakers, and threadbare sweaters with bad Christmas patterns. Some
wore slacks and ill-fitting button-down Oxford shirts. All had too few
clothes for the chill in the wet air. I gave Gabriel my down parka and an
Advil and Tylenol. He came back the next morning feeling better.
The higher you go, the stranger the misty, boggy
glacier-carved valleys of the Rwenzori become. The Bigo bogs start a few
minutes beyond the John Matte Hut. Sometimes on boardwalks, sometimes mired in
mud, rubber boots are the footwear of choice. Sometimes you are among giant
heather, sometimes the bog sports giant lobelias, groundsels, and so-called
everlasting flowers. The high bogs with their weird bog plants, thick mosses,
giant heathers and draping lichens transport you to Tolkien’s “Middle earth.”
The bogs lead you to Bujuku Lake and your first view of
the high snowfields on Mt. Stanley. After four hours, you reach Bujuku Hut, at
the far end of Bujuku Lake. Bujuku Hut (13,000’) is the jumping off place for
Mt. Speke (16,043’). We had company when we were there. Two British brothers
named Speke turned out to be the great great great grandnephews of John Speke,
the British explorer who confirmed in 1862 that the Lakes and mountains of
Uganda were the true source of the Nile. They had come to honor their famous
relative by climbing the massive rocky peak rising up from the Bujuku pass
(above the hut) that bears their family name. This illustrious party stumbled
into the hut as we milled around trying to acclimatize with cups of Ugandan tea
and Ugandan bee honey (made by international charitable cooperatives and sold
under names like “Not Tonight Honey”). With climbing ropes, boots, ice axes,
and other high-altitude equipment, the group looked ragged and overworked for
their 16,500 foot success. They promptly fell asleep in their bunks.
The fourth day on the circuit takes you over steep, rocky
terrain with unearthly vegetation to the true alpine high country. We camped
that night at Elena Hut, at nearly 15,000’, on the side of Mt. Stanley
(16,763’). Perched under a cliff band , the toilet hole sits in a wooden shed
across a small gully crossed by descending a ladder and then ascending a small
rock band. Because the rocks between the hut and the outhouse are often
covered with rime ice, “Going” in the middle of the night is considered the
crux of the climb!The altitude stirred our heads. We drank tea and
played rummy, crawling out of the hut periodically when the fast-moving mist
rose. A sunset shot across the cloudy sky, bright pink and
rippling. We snapped a group photo.
Darkness descends quickly at the equator. We crawled in
our sleeping bags by 8pm. We froze. The temperatures did not drop
especially low – barely into the 20s – yet the alpine zone in the Rwenzori felt
like one of the coldest places imaginable. Up at 2am due to the altitude and
discomfort, we chuckled at the chill and the Spartan surroundings.
Gabriel brought us hot water and porridge around 5am and, with Johnson,
Colonel, and Matthew, we set off at 6am under a bright moon.
The African glaciers really are receding, just as former
Vice President and Nobelist Al Gore says. Elena Hut was constructed in 1951 at
the toe of the Stanley ice field. Sixty years later, in 2012, we climbed for
nearly an hour before reaching the snow line.
We climbed through a cliff band with the help of a fixed
rope. The sky lightened as we reached a long striated, rocky
plateau. The day dawned clearly and the views were stunning, offering a
clarity and reach that was moving.
Rock turned to ice at the beginning of the Stanley
plateau. While the climbing is not very technical, there are some steep
drop-offs and crevasses. We roped up, attached crampons to our boots, and
crossed the Stanley glacier, first up and then down. We descended a steep
set of rocks, including with a fixed rope, and then crossed up to the
Margharita glacier. Back on ice, we curved up past a nasty, gaping hole
of black ice and traversed to the rocky summit approach on a snow-covered ice
shelf. The shelf looked unstable, like it could set loose in an
avalanche. Above us, a seraced, hanging waterfall of ice stared
imposingly at us, with a black open maw like a giant frozen face. We were
glad that this was not our first time on a glacier, or on a rope. We looked out
from the summit over the neighboring Congo and admired the other high peaks of
the Rwenzori. Rugged, jagged ice fields flowed off the mountain.
Our guides knew the route, but their technical mountaineering
skills were minimal. They occasionally stepped on the wrong side of the rope
and allowed a lengthy slack to build (slack in the rope can worsen the effects
of a fall). Johnson and Colonel suffered from the altitude. Johnson in
particular did not look well. (Two days later, in contrast to the
rest of the group’s eager withdrawal from the mountains, Johnson appeared dizzy
and unstable. He complained about a sore on his chin. His condition
reminded us that Uganda has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the
After a slow return to Elena camp, we ate a hearty meal
of ramen and vegetable soup. Colonel complained of a pounding headache
and asked for medicine. I asked how much water he had drunk during the
day. He pointed to his single, unfinished liter. I said, “Colonel,
you are dehydrated and will feel better if you drink more water.” Colonel
shook his head. “Drinking water makes you constipated,” he said. We
handed out Ibuprofen and Acetaminophen. Porters and guides alike crowded
around us like we were the Good Humor man.
The summit was a big day. We left the hut at 6:30 AM,
reached the summit at 11:30 AM, returned to Elena Hut in mid-afternoon, then completed
one of the most beautiful legs of the circuit, the descent from Scott-Eliot
Pass to Kitandara Hut (13,200’). We dropped steeply for a couple of hours
through a spectacular valley flanked by enormous cliffs. As we walked, we
looked back at Elena camp high above. Despite the long day, the beauty
around us and the warmer, richer air lent a sense of jubilance.
The twin Kitandara Lakes are bounded by cliffs and steep
mountains. The groundsel plants and moss-covered trees make the foliage looks
like an outtake from “The Hobbit”. The steely African sky reflected off the
still lakes in the evening, and again in the morning.
From Kitandara, the route climbs steeply up to 14,000’
Freshfield Pass. The pass is lush with green vegetation, and offers stunning
views of the surrounding peaks, as well as views into the Congo. Guerrillas and
war refugees inhabit some of the lower regions, probably just a few miles
down. Up in the thin air, we had little worry.
We continued over the pass and began a series of steep,
cliffy, colorful descents that took us in one day from the 14,000’ pass back to
Nyabitaba Hut at 8,500’, thus completing the Central Circuit. The steep descent
offers some of the finest scenery in the Rwenzori. Lush, muddy, rocky, steep,
and wildly colorful, the descent follows streams running down chutes next to
cliff bands. The waterfalls and cascades in this part of the trip are
spectacular. The route opens into a wide
valley flanked by Mt. Baker on the left and a monstrous rock outcropping on the
right. Lobelia covers the valley floor. To keep one’s boots out of
the mud, one must hop from one tuft of marsh grass to another.
Our final night at Nayabitaba camp, Gabriel prepared what
food he had left, spaghetti and half a chicken. He said: “In the
Rwenzoris, there are no bacteria so meat and other food last at least thirty
days!” This explained why the morning sausages had looked as if they
might get up and walk away.
After dinner, Johnson informed us that we were expected
to formally thank and tip our team. In a bizarre ceremony, almost comical
in its formality, we publicly thanked each of our porters, cooks and guides with
handshakes and cash tips.
Spirits were high as we walked out on the final morning. Colonel
babbled incessantly and convinced me to send him fishing tackle. Gabriel
and the porters ran out.
While walking through the village, Matthew pointed to his
brother. “He is HIV positive,” Matthew said. He noted that many
people are sick. I wondered if Johnson was ill.
After returning our Wellingtons and snapping another
group photo, we hired a driver in a beat-up Subaru and headed off to
Kampala. Whereas the driver on the way to the Rwenzori could not speak
the language of the local Bakonjo people – Lukonjo – our Bakonjo driver had to
speak English to others who spoke Luganda and other languages. As we
drove through tea and coffee plantations past Ft. Portal and all the way to
Entebbe, we reflected on the immensity of the natural and cultural experience
we had just completed.
Thirty thousand tourists a year visit Mt. Kilimanjaro in
Tanzania. A thousand or fewer come to the Rwenzori. Nowhere else can you enjoy
such stunning views of glacier and snow-capped mountains, fast flowing rivers,
magnificent waterfalls and strange, stratified vegetation, right on the
equator. Making the trip all the more worthwhile, visiting the Rwenzori, you
will get to know the local Bakonjo people and your patronage will support their
families very directly.
Guide Book, “Guide to the Rwenzori: Mountains of the
Moon”. By Henry Osmaston. 2006.
Rwenzori Mountaineering Services (RMS), Ibanda, Kasese
MAIL: PO Box 33, Saad House, Kasese, Uganda.
TEL.: 256-414-237497. EMAIL: Trek@rwenzorimountaineeringservices.com.
Rwenzori Trekking Services (RTS), Kilembe, Kasese