We began from Entebbe with four of us traveling by road via Mbarara and onto Kasese which is approximately a 7 hour drive. We arrived in Kasese around 6.00pm and checked into what we heard was the best “local” hotel in town the Sandton hotel. It is in the centre of town, not too noisy a street and does not look too flash from the outside but is actually quite large and extends back into the next street behind and with an inner “outside” courtyard with tables and chairs. Although alcohol is not sold on site they gladly went across the road to the bar to bring us beers to have with our fish, chips and avocado salads. Our first floor en suite rooms were very pleasant with fans, comfortable beds and a TV. The bathroom is a rather small room and the shower sprays almost over the toilet but for one night it’s fine.
An early start the next morning with a traditional Western breakfast with a bit of added local items too including potatoes, chapattis and eggs available from 6.30am. Help yourself tea, coffee and fresh juice also all available.
Then off to our meeting point for the start of our Rwenzori trek – approximately a 30min drive out of town up the hill along the road past the Margherita Hotel and onward towards the Kasese cobalt mine. We had been warned that we could not get right the way up to the Rwenzori Trekking Services (company who arranged the mountain trip) offices due to a flood and rock slide which had taken out the bridge over the river and last part of the road. So finding our guides Moses and Richard en route, we picked them up and then they helped us haul our luggage as we walked up the hill to the RTS offices. It was time for the formalities – details of medical issues, insurances, food allergies and of course emergency contacts too. We also had our luggage weighed out (15kg each allowed per porter) and allocated to the porters. We had one extra bag and so needed 16 porters between us to carry our luggage as well as all the equipment, fuel, food and other supplies we would need up the mountain.
Off we set at 9.45am up the road past the rather dilapidated looking mine housing estate area which was buzzing with life – ducks in the muddy gulleys, chickens, goats and even a pig or two as well as people going about their daily life in the little “duka” shops, bars and houses with long lines of washing out the back. A little further up the hill we came upon some small holding farms and then the entrance to the Rwenzori National Park. Again a few formalities including payment of Park entry fees ($40/day) and we started up the path in single file through the forested slopes.
A quick lunch of a salad sandwich, banana and boiled egg and on we went. We arrived at the first hut – Sine Hut at 2596Metres) at around 4.00pm which looked very much like a traditional Alpine wooden hut with a terrace and 4 sets of bunk beds inside. It is situated on top of a long ridge amongst pine and other trees with steep slopes on both sides leading down into deep valleys with good sized rivers flowing down them. A flask of hot water for tea and bowl of fresh warm water for washing was waiting ready for us. We explored the area a little bit on foot including one nearby valley river with a small waterfall of icy water. Then it was time for our first dinner up the mountain – three courses – soup, main and dessert – very tasty, with huge quantities of carbohydrates that we struggled to finish. A couple of rounds of cards and soon we were feeling rather tired and so not long after dark (7.00pm) we all retired to bed as mist started to roll in with the cool air.
An 8.30am start the next day after a hearty breakfast of cereal, omelet, toast and bacon too! We continued through the forested area with glimpses of other hills through the gaps in the trees en route. We were lucky to see some l’hoests monkeys and heard Rwenzori turacos too but did not see any yet. Due to the excessive rains of the last few months we also saw areas of landslides where the ground seemed to be continually still sliding down the mountainside. Then we saw no more as the mist rolled in – we walked along a path on the edge of the mountain and whilst we figured there was a steep drop there, we could not see anything and anyway the path was starting to get more rough and involved some climbing over rocks in the pathway and so most of our energy and vision was focused on each step in front of us.
At lunch time we stopped at a fast flowing river and just as we settled down to our sandwiches the heavens opened. We changed into our gum boots (or wellington boots as those of the UK call them) and rain gear and set off again almost immediately trying to beat the weather. After some time I realized that I was feeling very cold and wet – guess what – that wonderful North Face jacket from Kathmandu, the rain was simply going directly through it and freezing cold it was as we were now over 2000metres high. Luckily my porter was nearby and I had a spare jacket (a cheapie security guard style one from Entebbe supermarket) and I was able to retrieve that along with a dry sweater too which saved the day, even if not looking too fashionable as the rest of the party in proper quality rain jackets – so my advice is, when shopping for the Rwenzoris ensure you only buy and use the best quality and tested rain gear as it’s a vital part of your kit on this mountain where it can rain for days on end.
Helen had decided that she needed to travel a little faster than the rest of us and so she went ahead with a guide whilst we continued along the route slowly and steadily enjoying the heather and Alpine zone plants that were starting to appear. Shrouded in mist and wet from the recent rain down pour they were almost a little unreal and I had the feeling of being in a wonderland of large over powering plants and trees covered in “old man’s beard” and like on the set of a movie.
By around 5.00pm we arrived at our next camp – The Mutinda Cave at 3688M. A rocky overhang under which a couple of tents were placed making a rather makeshift but very welcome overnight stop. The best part of the camp was that a fire was allowed and we enjoyed an evening around it keeping warm and chatting with two very energetic and fit Dutch ladies who proudly told us they had just managed the peak, lost a day due to weather and so now had done two days in just one day – 10 hours of fast hiking – so that they could keep to their tight schedule. A little daunting for us not quite so fit ones…….
The next morning, being now seasoned mountaineers, after 2 days on the go we were up and ready to go in no time at all with our gum boots on and taped to our waterproof trousers, just to be sure. Sun gear, rain gear and enough layers to put on or take off as the need arose, our preferred snacks ready at hand and lots of drinking water (they fill your bottles at night with boiled water which then cools nicely for the next day’s use) which you need even with the cold weather to keep you hydrated as you hike.
The day begun a little cool and dull but no rain to begin with and we were pleased as this was our first day of really having to move through the bogs. It involves picking your route carefully by choosing a general direction ahead and then watching your every step to ensure it really is solid, or at least a shallow bit of mud as you move along zig zagging upward. A nice long walking pole at this time proved to be well worthwhile and I found it very useful to help keep me balanced as I went along.
By 11.00am the heavens had again opened and we trudged along in the rain for a good part of the day with visibility not much more than a few metres at a time. Sometime after lunch though the weather changed and the sun came out and we suddenly saw the wonderful views – mountains – range after range. It also became very noticeable how the whole area we had been walking through had been badly burnt and damaged during a fire that took place in February 2012. Burnt stumps of trees or bushes were everywhere but also new small plants and shoots were fortunately coming up but I have been told it may take up to 20 years for these areas to fully recover as many plants grow at quite a slow rate at this altitude.
We started to get really excited now we could see more of the beauty of the area and kept stopping for photos and just to enjoy the scenery including the giant groundsel plants and so only arrived at our next camp around 5.00pm, even though it was a relatively short day’s hike. Bugata camp at 4062M is situated on top of a large flat rock, overlooking a large valley with a mountain lake, was very comfortable indeed. We had the place to ourselves and were given hot showers (bowl of warm water and flannel wash) and tea to warm us further as it’s quite chilly at this camp as it’s high and also quite exposed to the wind. By 8.00pm we were all in bed tucked up for the night having had another huge and wonderful meal – chicken soup, pasta and vegetables and even dessert again, though I can’t quite recall what it was. By this time we had worked out the wonderful plan of using our “boiled” water for drinking the following day as “hot water bottles” in our sleeping bags to help keep our feet nice and warm through the night.
Day four dawned wet and chilly. The wonderful views around us were closed in again and we set off upward (pretty steep) again. At certain points it looked and felt like we were climbing up the path of a river as we climbed around and over water covered rocks and small pools of water with mist all around us. Then the ground started to soften as it became less steep and soon we were back in the bogs trying our best to avoid the deep bits. As the day continued we began to feel the Rwenzoris really was tough as everyone had said to us who had previously done the trip – they were not joking at all! By 11.00am we had reached the high point of 4400metres and were at the top of the pass where you have views towards Mount Stanley and Baker’s. The sun had decided to shine again and although an altitude headache was there for sure we could not have enjoyed clearer, better views all round and this was what we had come to see – wonderful indeed!
Then we began the descent down another river valley/gorge. You’d have thought going down was easier but no it’s not in the Rwenzoris – still you need to balance, check where to put your step and also stop the continual knee impact as you put your weight on each one. The sun birds were out to enjoy the good weather and we saw the scarlet tufted malachite sunbird which was a nice sighting. It took about 2 hours to get to the bottom of the hill where we agreed to a break for lunch before setting off again for around the edge of the lake and “just around the corner” as our guide Richard called it. We continued around the serene and tranquil looking lake on what appeared to be a used route but not really a path as there were huge boulders higher than me en route as well as dips, hills and weaving areas of mud that we had to make our way through. By this stage our fit and fast hiker Helen was way ahead with Moses our one guide and then there was me with Andrew and Paul bringing up the rear all coping in our various personal ways with the conditions. Our guide Richard was doing a wonderful job spending time helping show me the best routes and foot step points as well as also hanging back at other times to help ensure Andrew and Paul were coping well too. By around 4.00pm we were around the corner (which you may have gathered was not quite the usual corner we imagine but rather longer indeed) and in a valley from where we could see the next section of our hike towards our camp for the night Hunwick’s Camp 3974M which of course was over the next hill and into the next valley. We started through the bog again – tussock hoping and choosing as many low mud impact foot places as we could and then up the hill…….quite a tough one for the end of a long day like this and we eventually rocked into camp at around 6.00pm totally exhausted and feeling like we were up to the end of our energy levels. Thank goodness the weather had held and we were able to see the wonderful views of Mount Baker with its snow and glacier blinking in the late afternoon sun. The headache was there again and some swelling of our ankles and face were starting to be apparent (first signs that our bodies are not doing well in the altitude). Andrew’s feet were killing him as he had gum boots with such thin soles he felt he could tell if a coin placed underneath was heads or tails! Helen of course was in fine spirits having washed up, changed and spent the last hour or two taking photos and chatting with a German lady who had stayed at the camp awaiting her husband’s return from the peak.
That night I recall being cold even though I had two sleeping bags, two layers of clothes, my hat on and also a fleece over the top of that as the wind whistled around our camp and seemed to find cracks to blow directly into my back. Getting up for the inevitable night time pee was not fun and you came back to bed exhausted from the effort, feeling quite short of breath at times. I did begin to wonder what I was doing this all for at this point in time.
The next morning I found my very small mirror and saw a new face – one that was puffy and swollen so that my eyes were only small slanty slits. The effects of not coping well with the altitude I was told and so at this time I decided I would not go on further to the peak but rather have a rest day, enjoy the area around the camp and then return downward (especially as this actually involved going up again to 4400m before really going down). Andrew and Paul followed suite whilst Helen decided to push onto the peak and we waved her off as she headed down to the valley ahead.
We spent the day relaxing enjoying the wonderful sunshine whilst taking a nice stroll down into the nearby valley that was situated near to the twin Lakes of Kitandara. It felt wonderful to walk without time pressure and be able to stop and enjoy the scenery, taking photos en route. The everlasting flowers (helichrysun) and other bushy plants provided excellent photographic material as well as one very cold small mouse that seemed to hardly notice us as we snapped away. We also stopped by the RMS controlled Lake Kitandara hut where we met a geology student with her team who were measuring the mountain movements. Apparently Mount Baker has risen at least 3mm each year for the last few years and they think this may be sure to extreme heat and pressure from way down in the base of the mountain range in the earth’s crust. The other fact she told us was that the mountain was actually moving slowly Northwards too – but apparently no one knows why that is yet.
The whole day the weather held out and we basked in the late afternoon sunlight until it went behind the mountain tops and evening arrived quite suddenly. An early dinner and then bed time all wrapped up again.
The accommodations were very comfortable, especially considering where we were – two rounded framed tent/huts with waterproof covers and insulated walls with 4 bunk bed sets in each. There is a separate dining tent too with tables and benches where meals are served and copious cups of tea are taken.
After a rather restless night worrying about going back up the mountain to go down we awoke fairly early and set off after our usual hearty breakfast. We hiked back down into the valley, “around the corner” and then back along the lakeside before taking a short break and then heading up the river valley again which was essentially a pass through to the next part of the mountain. It was tough going and quite warm too and so we were down to one layer pretty soon. The stream we were walking up provided wonderful clean cool water to help quench our thirsts en route. As we got closer to the top we started to look backwards as we were then in full view of so many mountains – Mount Stanley with several peaks including Alexandra and Elena and Mount Speke, Mount Bakers, Weisman and other peaks we tried to identify as the skies were lovely and clear and blue.
By around 2.00pm we made it over the top of the Banwanjara pass and we sat for some time watching the clouds move up and around Mount Stanley tantalizing us as we kept hoping to see Margherita peak as it almost seemed to clear but then at the last moment the clouds would change their minds and u turn to block out that section again and again. The sun was lovely and warm and the striking views all around us were perfect and just what we felt we deserved after all the tough hiking.
However it was not over yet for the day and reluctantly we moved on towards our night time stop. This time we were going down the open rock areas, bogs and river beds full of boulders and we could clearly see where we had climbed previously in misty, wet conditions. Evidence of the fire of 2012 was quite prevalent in this area and looking back towards Kasese we could see range after range of mountains, making us realize the large distance we had covered over the last few days.
We arrived back at Bugata camp in the late afternoon and it was like returning home as we now knew the routine. Nice warm showers and hot cups of tea were ready for us. This time we did not have the camp to ourselves, but had the pleasure of sharing it with other visitors who had just completed Margherita peak and were also on their way down and so we swopped mountain stories. Small world that it is, it turns out we had mutual friends from the UK who had recently been out in Uganda visiting us and so we caught up on all the common news.
From this point we had to decide which final routing we would take down the mountain – the harder, different route or the same easier route by which we came up and would mean we could meet up again with Helen who was now a day behind us. We opted for the easier in the end and I think our guides and porters were quite pleased with our choice too.
The route that had taken us over 7 hours up, now only took us around 5 hours and that was with some stopping to photograph many of the plants and scenery we had missed due to weather on the upward journey. We were back at the cave by mid afternoon. Time to reorganize our luggage, dry out our socks with the fire and also munch our way though some of our snacks that were left – suddenly with the lower altitude we were feeling quite peckish. After dinner we sat around the fire recounting various stories and sipping our little flask of whiskey or amarula that we now felt it was safe to consume (apparently alcohol is not good for you at altitude) until we finally retired to bed feeling rather relaxed and more comfortable at this lower altitude.
A relaxed start to the day, leaving camp around 9.00am and heading for Kalalana camp at 3134M which we had seen on our route up, but not stayed at. We passed through where the area where the beautiful giant lobelia plants are up to almost two metres high with their long stems with purple flowers and special leaf areas which hold the rain water like a basin for later use. Then into the heather zone where the same plant variety of small heather bushes of the English countryside turn into tall trees of over 15metres high in places and often their branches are covered in old man’s beards amongst the rocky ground. Presumably we had become more hardy and also a bit fitter and so whilst the route was still quite rocky and undulating or boggy at times, we found it quite pleasant and enjoyable. The weather was changeable and so we at times were fine in t shirts and at other times had to again adorn our rain gear. Through the day we had wonderfully clear views back towards Kasese town and could see how many ranges of hills and mountains there were in-between making us realize how far we had hiked and why we felt quite tired overall from the exertion of the last week.
By around 3.00pm we were in camp and we immediately relaxed in the afternoon sun shine feeling so much more energetic now that we were down to about 3100metres only. Not long afterwards Helen arrived in camp to join us having done in one day to catch us up what we covered in two relaxed days. We sat down to hear all about her journey to the peak – Margherita – which she had managed to do after we had split further up the mountain. She had enjoyed a cloud free morning with no wind and so perfect conditions for a summit day. We heard how tough the hiking in crampons up the two glaciers was and also how she’d had to step over deep, dodgy looking crevices in the ice en route. The fact was there though that Helen had succeeded in reaching the peak at 5109metres above sea level – quite an achievement for sure.
That evening, being our last up the mountain, we celebrated with the last few snacks, a good diner of fresh roasted chicken that had miraculously arrived up the mountain from a resupply from Kasese and the last of our “bar” stock with a good rendition of anecdotes from the journey of the last eight days. By 10pm we were all fast asleep, even with the wind howling and the rain battering down on our hut’s roof.
The last day arrived with gloomy skies and us wondering when the heavens would again open but nothing could scare us now and so off we set again downwards. Through the bamboo zone slipping and sliding down the slopes and into the afro alpine mountain forest zone as we wound our way down some very steep paths that I could not quite believe I had actually managed to climb up only a week earlier. The path seemed to go on forever and it was only around 2.00pm that we made it to recognizable way points including the park entry gate where the same clerk who had signed us in to go up the mountain now wanted us to sign out to ensure he could account for us all. The final hour or so was through the hillside villages and finally onto the road through the Kasese Cobalt Mine village and then to the RTS office and home base were we were warmly welcomed back and offered an ice cold beer which was just the ticket indeed! A few photo sessions and a small reward ceremony with our guides and porters who had been so patient and helpful the whole journey and then we headed for the dodgy bridge (most of it had collapsed in the floods earlier in the year) and our vehicle and guide who was to take us to Ndali lodge for a couple of nights of R&R after this epic journey.
What a sense of achievement we all felt having made it up the mountain and back and had the privilege of enjoying all it had to offer – both positive and negative – sunshine, rain, cold, mud, wonderful views, plants, birds, beauty, balancing challenges and much more