In February 2004, 12 intrepid explorers, nicknamed ‘moonies’ for our desire to walk the mountains of the moon, ignored the news of violence in northern Uganda, and departed for a magical journey to walk the mountains of the moon.
We were lucky to have found a great tour guide, Chris Muriithi Kabiri, who is very experienced in all the mountains of East Africa. For 5 of us, he arranged a preparatory walk up Mount Elgon, a beautiful old volcano, whose crater is one of the largest in the world, roughly 30km in diameter. Thereafter, we were joined by the rest of the gang and departed for ‘the moon’… Although the summit of Margherita Peak remains a mystery to us as we were unable to see it or summit it, we had an astounding journey through this incredible country, and its magical landscapes.
First, a little background….
The Rwenzoris are a mountain range with the third highest peaks in Africa (after Kilimanjaro and Mt Kenya). At 5109m, Margherita Peak (highest) appeared fairly accessible in comparison to other major peaks. But what it may lack in altitude challenges, the mountains of the moon make up for spectacular forest (‘gorillas in the mist’ country), bog and glacier. And then there was the weather…..
For centuries, legend and rumour had told of the existence of snowy mountains that fed the Nile. About 1800 years ago, the 2nd century AD geographer, Ptolemy, showed them on a map and called them “Lunae Montes”, the Mountains of the Moon. Cartographers through the centuries have depicted these mysterious mountains and lakes on charts of Africa, but Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya and the Rwenzoris were not identified on formal maps till the late 1800s. Sir Henry Morton Stanley is credited with having ‘discovered’ them (a European-centric view!), and his name is given to the biggest mountain in the range, which contains the highest peak, Margherita, weighing in at 5109m. The peaks in this range of 100km by 50km, which borders the DRC and Uganda, were supposedly first scaled in 1906 by the famous Italian expedition of the Duke of Abruzzi, but this might be another European-centric perspective, ignoring that locals may have summitted it many centuries before. In May 1991, the area was proclaimed a national park and became a United Nations world heritage site by 1994. The park was closed in the late 1990s, due to the increasing danger posed by politically oriented unrest in the region, and re-opened in 2002. It is visited by less than 1000 intrepid ‘tourists’ a year. The truth is that this is not a place for the average traveler. You need to be prepared for an unusual experience, and need a minimum level of fitness or equivalent level of sheer willpower to deal with the “moon’s” peculiar terrain.
The mystery and conjecture surrounding these mountains is probably fuelled by their natural mystique : their misty wet climate. The mountains create a major watershed in this equatorial region of the continent, and ultimately feed the Nile river. The ‘dryest’ season is brief, lasting from about mid-January to mid-March, and the mountains are shrouded in mist and cloud, the snowy and glaciated peaks protected from intruders by infamous bogs. In and around the Rwenzori, the Bakonzo people on both the Ugandan and DRC sides, continue to lead a life of cash crops and other agriculture and now increasingly supporting tourism. It was heartwarming to hear after we had finished our trip, that a fair portion of the monies we paid would assist in supporting the local community. As with people from mountain ranges around the world, they are formidable climbers and guides. Their tenacity and skills at surviving tough conditions with almost no gear, simply blew me away.
The Rwenzori is protected in conservation terms through the Rwenzori National Park which was established in 1991 on the Ugandan side (four fifths of the range), and on the DRC side through the Pare National d’Albert since 1929. The area was proclaimed a United Nations World Heritage Site in 1994.
The bus ride was extremely interesting. In between stopping to push the bus out of a ditch, closing our eyes so as not to see the impending doom of accidents about to happen on the road, bouncing around as the bus negotiated massive potholes in the road, bird watching and Colobus spotting, we managed to make it in one piece to the Margherita Hotel, our overnight luxury retreat with a view on the Mountains of the Moon.
And then there was the weather. It poured an entire monsoon during the night, and it was clear things were going to be wet on the moon, despite this being the ‘dryest’ season.
The hike into the ‘moon’ starts from the Rwenzori Mountaineering Services. Here you pay your park fees, are allocated guides, porters etc for the trip. The 12 moonies resulted in a party of 60 in total – 38 porters, 6 guides, 2 cooks and 2 rangers. It was an incredible trek of bodies and kit up through a magical forest, with glimpses of Colobus, many different birds and general good humour accompanying us to Nyabitaba camp. This is a pleasant and roomy space on a narrow ridge, with a shelter for hikers and porters, and even piped water. En route to the hut we met hikers coming down from an attempt at summitting. It was clear they had not even tried to go to high camp as the weather was against them. This did not bode well for those who wished to include the summit attempt as part of their ‘walk’ in the mountains of the moon.
A descent to cross the Mubuku river at the confluence with the Bujuku, and was followed by a long day of climbing and clambering of the so-called ‘slippery rocks’. We also moved from sub-tropical forest through to heathland, with heather trees as tall as 10m trees, arriving at John Matte hut. The ‘slippery rocks’ are a seemingly endless stretch of massive boulders that have resulted after a landslide many years ago. The geology is such that when wet, the rocks are like skating on ice. And of course, there was the weather and it rained most of the day. We were greeted to some sunshine peaking through the clouds as we relaxed and dried out gear at camp. The rain in Rwenzori is very thorough. It soaked most people unless they wore waterproof raincoats on top of other waterproof gear. Even so-called waterproof jackets of ‘goretex’ appeared not to be up to the Rwenzori drizzle….
Having had a good sample of the weather to date, the moon treated us to its other infamous speciality, bog. Decked out in our Wellington boots, we gingerly (and some rather excitedly) hopped from tussock to foothold avoiding the deeper portions of bog. Those who misjudged their step, landed knee deep in mud that sucked boots in as one tried to heave the leg out. We were lucky of course, in the rainy season, it would have been hip deep and waders would have been imperative! Lower Bigo bog showed us the glory of the mountains of East Africa – the endemic Giant Lobelia and Giant Groundsel, unique and enchanting plants of the moorland. Upper Bigo bog proved a little easier to traverse, with a ladder having been laid out some years ago which made walking easier. But the wetness made the wood slippery and some of us learned the hard way to watch our step, even on this man made support. After Passing more bog along lake Bijuku, we arrived at Bijuku camp. Some people were starting to feel mild headaches and tiredness due to the altitude, but in general everyone was in great spirits. Three moonies had not had enough exercise and enjoyed a further return hike to glacial lakes. It drizzled most of the evening and again we were reminded that the weather would likely have the final say as to whether Margherita Peak could be conquered.
On day 5 we woke to winds, more drizzle and thick mist. Chris our guide called the group together to discuss decisions for the day. Today one could either proceed to high camp – Elena Hut – or decide not to attempt the summit and cross Scott Elliot’s pass (roughly 4300m) en route to Kitandara camp on the shore of Lake Kitandara. 5 of us elected the latter, whilst 7 moonies pushed on for high camp. It was icy above 4000m and the mist and wind and light drizzle did not let up. Those heading to Elena tackled treacherous icy rock faces which had more than one just a little nervous. Chris our tour guide, and Joel the chief RMS guide, amongst others, showed their immense strength and skill by guiding and physically helping folk over this tough terrain. And then, as each party dealt with the reality of their decision and what fortunes we were having, both parties – at Elena and Kitandara – were treated to the mountains’ incredible display of changed weather. The evening showed a clear sky, moon rising and spectacular sunset. But as many will know, the mountains like to play tricks, and a spectacular sunset often implies foul weather on the way. And so it was, at 04h00 in the morning, moonies at Kitandara were woken to hail on the roof of the hut. Summit hopefuls, 5 of the 7 at Elena) geared themselves with harnesses, crampons, ice-axes and courage and together with the guides tackled the glacier en route to Margherita. The mist was thick, and got even thicker. About a kilometer into the attempt, it had to be abandoned. They returned to Elena hut, collected their belongings and the rest of the group and began the equally tricky, icy descent down to Kitandara. At Kitandara, we dried gear over a fire, some walked up the ridge to try to get glimpses of surrounding peaks, and some of us just stuck it out in the hut watching the hail, which continued all day until early afternoon. By the time the Elena moonies arrived, the camp was covered in a white blanket, like snow. It was still fairly cold, despite the fact that Kitandara has the reputation of being fairly warm (at least warmer than Bujuku). Some were brave enough to bathe in the lake, and we all turned in for an early night’s rest.
As though the weather had not yet played enough games with us, Day 6 dawned much clearer, showing the ‘icing sugar’ look of the cliff faces after the previous day’s hail. We started out on Freshfield pass above Kitandara, and then descended steeply down the other side, wading through yet more bog on the way to Guy Yeoman camp, named after a British veterinary scientist who was instrumental in achieving national park status for the Rwenzori in Uganda. The camp is nestled in a valley whose sides are sharply steep cliff faced mountains. The hut is on a rise providing a lovely view and great ambience for relaxing, playing chess and listening to Tony’s tunes. On arrival at Guy Yeoman, there was some discussion about potentially walking off the mountain early. In the end, a few of us elected to do so, one of us to get off the high altitude and recover over cups of tea and 3 others who hadn’t had anywhere near enough adventure and were off to trip down the Nile at it’s source at the end of Lake Victoria
The 4 moonies who were hiking two days in one to get off the mountain early all made it safely down late in the afternoon, arrived at Margherita hotel and enjoyed a fun evening having cleaned up and climbed into the drinks early on. The rest of the party walked as far as Nyabitaba camp at a leisurely, relaxed pace, enjoying the stunning scenery and wildlife.
Whilst Piers, Karen and Simon boarded a bus in the early morning headed for Kampala to discover the source of the Nile, Ela sipped endless cups of ‘t’ (sometimes ‘tea’ and sometimes ‘g&t’) at the Margherita Hotel and the rest of the group wound their way through the forest from Nyabitaba back to the starting point. An visit to the local ‘pub’ with guides delayed the group’s return to the hotel, where they continued the party. Supper was served at a table specially laid out on the patio, with night time views o the mountains of the moon. The evening was made more mystical through the flight of what appeared to be thousands of giant bats out of the mountains and heading south, and the visit of a barn owl in the corridors of the hotel. G&T, beer, Waragi gin and other drinks resulted in the party of moonies having great difficulty in helping the owl on its way back into nature. Eventually deep into the night we concluded our reveling and went to sleep.
The bus trip back to Kampala proved almost as adventurous as the one to the ‘moon’, although this time we didn’t get stuck in any ditches, and we were all most pleased to be back in Kampala, where we stayed at the Gouri hotel, with first floor views of the activity in the streets. Our sundowner entertainment was a jackfruit. Jackfruit is something between pineapple and banana, and we are of the firm opinion that it offers a low cost solution building material, based on our assessment of it’s incredible gluey stickiness! Supper was enjoyed again at the Tandoori restaurant of the Havana hotel where paneer and other Indian delights were enjoyed amongst yet more booze and fun conversation with Chris our guide and Paul our logistics man in Uganda.
Last thoughts …
Incredible Guides and Porters
Anyone who has hiked in big mountains like Nepal or Kilimanjaro, will know that the people who act as guides and porters are tenacious and strong beyond what most trekkers can imagine. The guides, porters and rangers of the Rwenzori exhibit equal tenacity, ingenuity and sheer resilience. They have no proper gear to speak of, except for what they may receive as gifts from travelers into the area. Even if they had the money, the local town sells second hand t-shirts, not mountain gear. And so donning gumboots, t-shirts and only lightweight pants, they fetch, feed, carry, prod and protect one through this incredible terrain without complaint and with apparently no sense of the cold, wet or anything else. These people were what made our trip profoundly luxurious, yet they had no luxuries to speak of. They are remarkable.
Uganda and its people
Uganda is a beautiful place. After decades of despotic and insane rule, the country is filled with educated, enthusiastic people who make a living with pride and dignity. Mountain guides and porters only wash once on the mountain – on the last day when they are returning to their homes and wives. They return with not only money, but their immense dignity worn on their sleeves, so to speak.
People dress carefully and sit elegantly ‘sidesaddle’ on bicycle and scooter taxis. The traffic appears not to obey any rules, yet everyone is considerate of others and somehow even the bicycles weave their way through intersections without a scrape or injury. It is a country of hope and optimism for the future. Cities and towns are abuzz with shop fronts lining streets for miles, product advertisements on every façade, cellular telephony and beer selling a ‘yuppy’ lifestyle. There may still be disputes and problems causing fighting with rebels in the north, but at least most of the chaos is settling and what is left is a land of great beauty, and immense promise.
Moon booties and other requirements for aspiring moonies
The Rwenzoris, as you will have gathered by now, are no ordinary place. Good rain gear, gumboots and a great sense of humour are imperative to get you through. And of course, make sure you build a trust relationship with your guide, real fast….
The Moon …
We may not have climbed the summit of Margherita Peak, but as it turns out, we did see it. An analysis of a map Tony put together with GPS route mapped out of our hike (see route page), showed that the following picture taken by Jono just shows Margherita Peak. She may have been a shy maiden, but eventually she revealed a piece of herself as we climbed out of Kitandara on our way home.
· I’d like to take this opportunity to thanks 11 amazing explorers (and a few others who aspired to be moonies but didn’t make it) for taking this journey with me, keeping me smiling even when I felt like $#$%@!, and putting up with my bullying. And for two and half weeks of laughter and fun.
· Thanks to Paul Marais for running a giddy glacier training event on his farm in the Magaliesburg for those of us who honestly didn’t know the ropes.
· And a huge thank-you to our guide in chief, Chris, together with all his able men associated with Africa Big Mountains – Paul, logistics and financial director, Alfonz and Alex our amazing chefs, the daring drivers and various hotel staff who smiled, fetched carried and generally made our lives so easy – without their good organisational skills and contacts we would not have had so much fun for so few Rands.
 The original name given was Ruwenzori, but of late it is often referred to as Rwenzori…