On the evening of 28/6/2017 I wrote on Facebook: ‘If I didn’t die on this mountain, am not going anywhere. Am going to live! Ask my shoes!’ I had just descended from the Rwenzori Mountains and was back to civilization at a hotel in Fort Portal, Uganda. Flash back to June 19, 2017 when the first leg of the journey to Rwenzori Mountains began. We left Nairobi for Kampala at 6:30 p.m. via Mash East Africa Bus and arrived at 9:00 a.m. We drove to our hotel in Entebbe where we spent the day shopping and relaxing by Lake Victoria.
Early the next day after breakfast we set out to Nyakalenjija, the headquarters of Rwenzori Mountains National Park. It was a day’s journey with stop overs for lunch and toilet breaks. First, we snaked our way through the Kampala traffic to connect to the Kasese highway. The highway was in good condition even in the highland areas. The journey would not be complete without a stopover at Mubende to have a bite of the tastiest chicken ever! We had packed enough snacks but could not bypass this chicken or bird whatever the case might be! It’s too cheap to be chicken at least by Kenyan standards. At 3 p.m. we arrived at Fort Portal and had lunch before proceeding to Nyakalenjija. Staff of RMS Safari Lodge, Mihunga welcomed us when we arrived at 6 p.m. Rwenzori Mountaineering Services (RMS) guides and porters were our hosts for the next 7 days.
Thursday morning a group of 11 Kenyans were up and about packing and re-packing their back packs. Excitement and anxiety was evident as they partook breakfast, weighed backpacks and tried out safety equipment (crampons, harness, ice axes). Meanwhile, David Wachira, our Kenyan guide was at Kasese market with some of the porters shopping for food stuffs. After the preparations, we had a briefing by the Tourism Officer then left for the Mihunga park gate at mid-day.
Once at the gate we signed in, took photos and went into the park. At the start were notice boards about the park: facts and figures, central circuit trail, biodiversity, vegetation, attractions and camps. Mahoma Nature Trail cuts across the grassland past Bakonjo homes into the forest along the Mubuku River and Mahoma River. We were lucky to sight a male Jackson’s chameleon in the forest. A steep rocky ridge led us to Nyabitaba Hut after 4 hours of trekking. Uganda People’s Defence Forces and Uganda Wildlife Authority officers on patrol received us on arrival at Nyabitaba Hut (2570m). The hut has a spectacular view of Portal Peaks (4370m). We enjoyed it as we waited for the arrival of porters left behind at RMS Safari Lodge. Once they arrived, we freshened up, ate dinner and retired to bed after camp fire stories.
The next day we woke up early morning energized to face the day ahead of us. After breakfast we headed out in gumboots at 9:20 a.m., the destination being John Matte Hut (3420m). Yes (you read right), we climbed in gumboots to the last hut because of the deep bog on Rwenzori Mountains. Thirty minutes later we were at the Kurt Schaffer Bridge, the convergence of Mubuku and Bujuku rivers.
After crossing the bridge, the forest zone ends and the muddy steep trail leads into the bamboo zone. Along the way we spotted Mount Stanley with its snow capped Margherita Peak and glorious Margherita Glacier. It was great to see the target but at the same time anxious of the journey ahead. Four hours later we had half an hour lunch break along the river bank. In the afternoon, we came across everlasting flowers and wild straw berries before arriving at the Nyamuleju Camp/rock shelter. This is the start of the heather zone common with the old man’s beard. Thereafter, we traversed Lower Bigo Bog via a boardwalk then crossed Bujuku River into John Matte Hut at 5:30 p.m. It was a relief to arrive ‘home’ to soup, tea and snacks as we waited for the delicious dinner. Yes! Food on the mountains is of five star quality.
Day 3 on the Rwenzori Mountains began with a closer view of Margherita Glacier after clouds cleared at 7:50 a.m. Thereafter, we left for Bujuku Hut (3962m) crossing the Bujuku River into Lower Bigo Bog up to Bigo Camp/rock shelter.
A steep rocky section past Bigo Camp gives way to Upper Bigo Bog and alpine zone characterized by giant lobelia. Behold, above the ground was a long board walk to ease the trek across the deep bog. The guides narrated of the difficulty climbers had faced before its construction. Nevertheless, the half an hour board walk was not a walk in the park. I had to keenly focus on my steps on the board lest I lose balance. After the board walk, we went through giant lobelia up to the mountains view point where we stopped for lunch. Thereafter we went down a boardwalk to Lake Bujuku, a beautiful glacier lake. An hour later we got to camp at 3:30 p.m. before it rained heavily for the first time.
On Sunday, the trail took us through vantage viewpoints of Lake Bujuku, Mount Stanley, Mount Speke and Mount Baker. At 2:30 p.m. we arrived at Elena Hut (4012m) nestled between huge bare rocks facing Margherita Peak, the prime target. We retired early to bed after dinner to awake at 1 a.m. to prepare and leave for the summit. This included sporting the sitting harness required for this last stretch together with crampons and ice-axes. The previous day the team had discovered it was short of a pair of crampons owing to a misunderstanding. As a result, the guides had resolved to leave one of them behind and give up his crampons. Crampons enable mobility on the slippery glacier once fastened to the boots.
At 3 a.m. we left camp with hope of setting foot on Margherita Peak and return safely. The trek began with walking over bare rocks and rock climbing. The bare rocks left after recession of snow are a constant reminder of global warming. After 2 hours we arrived at the snowline of Stanley Plateau and put on crampons to navigate through it. Ten minutes later it was back to bare rocks till day break. It was a relief to walk in the light, with it came hope and strength. We eventually arrived at the start of Margherita Glacier. We were freezing, hungry, exhausted, anxious and excited at the same time. The glacier was finally here! After a breather, two guides ran up the glacier to belay as the other three hooked us to the rope. It was time to get down to business; belay and abseil business! The mystical challenge!
Once on safety, the climb began with left hands on the rope and ice-axes on the right chipping off glacier. It was a strenuous climb not devoid of drama! Into the climb we had crampons discharge out of some climbers’ boots and fly away. At one point, Nick hanged on to the rope after both crampons came out of his shoes. Thankfully, they did not disappear into crevasses or fly too far away from the guides’ reach. Meanwhile, we stopped and dug ice-axes into the glacier holding on to them for safety until we could move on. Throughout, the guides instructed us to stop! Or go! Interestingly, they addressed each other in Konjo, probably for the better lest the discussion was a rope or route issue.
After hours of hard work we got to the end of the rope but realized it was not the end. We sat down on the melting snow holding on to ice-axes as the guides secured the rope further up. This is the point at which you discover if your pants are truly waterproof. Woe unto you if they are not! We hit the ground running till the end of the beautiful glacier once the guides were ready. Lo and behold, we were finally above the clouds in the midst of beautiful Rwenzori Mountains. We unfastened the crampons and rock climbed a short stretch to the lunch point. After half an hour break, at 1:30 p.m. we left for Margherita Peak (5109m), the highest point in Uganda, thirty minutes away.
Half an hour later we embarked on the descent and arrived at Elena Hut at 11:30 p.m. Day 6 on the Rwenzori Mountains involved a long drop from Elena Hut to Nyabitaba Hut. By the time we got to camp at 9 p.m. I was kaput! I lay on my bed and cried as my whole body was in pain especially my knees. It took the intervention of fellow climbers to help me stretch my muscles for me to walk and laugh again. The last day we woke up energized after a good rest and ran down to the park gate. It took us an hour to arrive by 10:30 a.m. to a victory welcome.