Learning To Walk On Water
You can be forgiven for not having heard of this mountain range because it seems few people have. But I don't know why not. It is the highest mountain range in Africa, containing Africa's third highest peak, and has the biggest ice caps left on the continent.
If the name "Rwenzori" is unfamiliar, perhaps you have heard of the Mountains of the Moon? The Mountains of the Moon, so named by Ptolemy and described as the source of the Nile, are believed to be the Rwenzoris.
Since the mountain range straddles the equator they get a lot of sun, and being downwind of the Congo basin, also a lot of rain. Consequently the vegetation is really bizarre. There are are forests of heather six metres high, giant lobelia, huge bamboo and lots of other plants that look familiar but are enormous. So bugs and animals that usually eat them are scaled up as well. Overall you get the feeling that you are trekking somewhere like Middle Earth. There are jungle elephants here too, but we only saw the dung. Leopards, chimps, gorilla, (didn't see any of those) and loads of endemic birds and butterflies too fast to photograph..
You must have a guide to trek here and I had splashed out and got a chef as well. The porters are strictly limited to 25 kilos and with the enormous gas bottle and stove, sacks of rice and live chickens, we needed four porters and ended up a team of seven. Seen as all I had to carry was a small day pack it fealt like a colonial expedition. I just needed a pith helmet and frequent gin and tonic breaks to complete the look.
The trekking each day is relatively short but very arduous. The paths are narrow and twist and turn, up and down, over roots and rocks. For every ten metres you climb you immediately come back down five before climbing again. But it gets really hard when the bogs begin on day three. Apparently it rains in the Rwenzori Mountains three hundred days of the year. I think this is an optimistic forecast. January is the driest month and we still had rain every day. Luckily though it was in the afternoon after we had reached the huts.
The huge volume of water that falls here has led to the formation of huge bogs and swamps. In fact these are the only mountains that you will trek in where the most vital piece of kit is wellington (rubber) boots. To cross the bogs you have to stick very close to the guide. They can somehow pick out the 20cm deep mud from the 200cm deep mud. Alternatively you can leap between the tussocks but when altitude headaches start kicking in its better to paddle.
I was really annoyed to find the altitude started affecting me at only 3500m. The headaches and fatigue got so bad that I spent an entire day screwed up in a ball in my sleeping bag. I couldn't stop thinking that I'd paid a fortune to be here, in this freezing tin hut, unable to even put my head on the pillow. Maybe I shouldn't have come to the Rwenzori straight after leaving home. The cold and discomfort got me down so much that after accepting it was a stupid decision to climb here I started to question travelling all together. Why had I left a nice flat in Leeds? Maybe I couldn't handle backpacking any more? Had I been right to quit a good job? Was I right to come away without my girlfriend when it seemed that a cuddle would fix everything?
I woke up next morning right as rain and raring to go. However, we did meet more people who failed to make the summit than achieved it. It tended to be older people who make it. The younger folk seem to waste too much energy jumping around in the bogs and climb too quickly to acclimatise. Fortunately Anthony, my guide, went very slowly. He was fifty-five years old but still as fit as a butchers whippet.
The final summit day is a rocky scramble followed by a long climb up the glacier. It was clear when we left but was soon belting it down with snow. There was a complete white out, I couldn't even see Anthony ten metres away on the other end of the rope. It did mean we climbed faster since it was too cold to stop for a break.
It is a final difficult rocky scramble up fixed ropes to reach Margherita Peak. The view from the 5109m summit is incredible. Several vertical miles below the rich green of the Congo Basin stretches unbroken to the west as far as the Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately it was entirely obscured in the blizzards and we spent no more than thirty seconds on the top.
While hopping down due to one broken crampon the clouds did part and the view was fantastic. In fact the whole trek, just when spirits are getting low as you fall thigh deep in another swamp, the moutains and weather team up for just long enough to reveal some cracking scenery and lift you right back up again.
I would undoubtedly recommend this trek to everyone, the place is like nowhere else on Earth. But would I turn round and do it again - no chance, it was just so tiring. Although in however many months time when I am sat in an office I bet I would give my right arm to be back in the Rwenzori.