Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Rwenzori Mountains

Our first adventure as fully unemployed travelers was to head west from Kampala to the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo to hike in some of the most remote mountains in the world, the Rwenzoris (the Mountains of the Moon.) The Rwenzoris house the highest non-volcanic peak in Africa and the 3rd highest peak overall, Margherita Peak on Mt Stanley. The Rwenzoris have been in a conflict zone for so much of the past 30 years that they have very little traffic and these days see about 500 visitors each year, making them extremely isolated and untouched and pristine. We signed up to do the “Central Circuit” which is a 6 or 7 day hut-to-hut trek that follows two rivers, the Bukjuku and Mobuku Rivers, in a circuit that passes below the 3 highest massifs in the range. As with most East African expeditions, a guide and porters are required and we met up with Peter, our guide, who has been taking clients into the Rwenzoris since 1971, and our 3 porters: Matthew, Gideon and Bonfast. Peter is from the Bakonjo tribe, the people who are native to the Rwenzori mountains, and while he is a bit past his prime, at 48 years old, he rocked the hike and put us to shame on the downhills.

The hike starts at the village of Nyakalengija at an elevation of about 1000 meters and climbs from there. The hike is a trek between huts that are 7-8 km apart, but covers elevation gain and terrain that make the distances seem far more challenging. Most of the hike is through bog, which if you haven’t encountered it, is thick mud, up to your knees or even thighs, that must be negotiated by walking on logs that have been placed in it, or by hopping from tussock pads or patches of grass, or basically anything that can keep you out of the deep mud. The mud us negotiated in rubber boots and waterproof pants and if you happen to land in the mud, you have to be very careful to keep your boot on.

Day 1 climbs 1600 meters of vertical and put us at the start of the circuit, a hut called Nyabitaba. On that first day we got our first glimpse of the intense greenery that can only come from one of the wettest places in the world, the Congo basin. The flora is enormous and moisture is everywhere, hanging on the leaves of huge, broad-leafed plants.

Day 2 is an introduction to the bog. After crossing the Bujuku River, we slogged uphill to 3500 meters, crossing kilometers of wet, sludgy, bog and neon green carpets of moss. If you didn’t get a walking stick at the start (as Guy did not,) your balance is truly put to the test as you negotiate little branches and rocks in the mud in order to progress. On the second night we slept at a hut that allows the first views of the glaciated peak of Mt Stanley as the clouds cleared for some minutes before dusk.

Day 3 we entered the surreal landscape of the Rwenzoris, walking through thigh-deep mud and little tussock hills (grass mounds that offer a chance to hop and avoid the mud,) the plants are unlike any we have ever seen and are endemic only to this range: purple cactus-like plants and bizarre trees. We were supposed to stop at the Bujuku hut, but we asked our guide if we could instead divert to the highest hut, Elena hut, that also happens to be the staging ground for climbing the highest peak in the range, and he obliged. So we trudged straight uphill to 4550 meters (about 15,000 ft) thankfully leaving the bog behind and entering a range of boulders, rocks, and sheer cliff faces at the base of the Stanley glacier. Now, here is where Africa works well: our guide, seeing our strength and interest in the peaks and Guy’s particular interest in mountaineering, suggested that if we were to compensate him appropriately, he would lead us up to Margherita Peak, the highest point in the mountains. We gladly obliged. We had been paralleling our hike with a couple who had plans to climb Marghertia Peak all along. Our job was to convince them that they wanted us to join them on their summit ascent and share their rope; our guide Peter’s job was to convince the other guide, who happened to be his nephew, that he wanted to share the equipment with us. Luckily, our hut-mates were

game for us to accompany them.

Day 4 started after a mostly-sleepless night of nausea and headaches due to the altitude, we were up at 4 am to attempt the peak. After several hours of hiking to reach the base of the first glacier, we roped up and put on whatever motley equipment

was leftover: Guy had a homemade harness and Rusha had ill-fitting crampons. Our guide was missing both and was hiking the glacier i

n rubber gumboots and a walking stick. Thankfully this sketchy situation was ameliorated after our companions decided to turn back after a semi-technical down-climb, and we were lucky enough to continue with their equipment: ice axes, crampons, harness, and rope. Our guide also got sunglasses from the other guide which made his life much nicer and made us feel safer that he could actually see. We proceeded to climb 2000 vertical feet on a crevasse-strewn glacier, then a short technical rock climb and summited 16,763 ft margherita peak (5109 m) in the clouds and gale-force winds, with enough time to document the moment and revel in our accomplishment: the highest Rusha has been in her life and the highest non-volcanic peak in Africa. We finished the day by returning to the hut and descending to Kitandara hut, at a much nicer elevation of 4000 meters to rest up.

Day 5 started with a climb to 4300 m (the highest point on the central circuit) and then descended steeply to a hut at 3900 meters, Guy Yeoman hut. We enjoyed not suffering from headaches or nausea but Rusha managed to touch some plant that caused her to have a major allergic reaction with some angioedema. Luckily the reaction was limited to eye and lip swelling and was improved with some Benadryl and Prednisone in the trusty first-aid kit.

Day 6, our last day, was an amazing amount of downhill. We dropped 2500 vertical meters (about 8000 feet!) Most of it was clambering over the usual Rwenzori terrain of rocks, roots, bog, and mud. It was steep and directly straight down. After several doses of Alleve we arrived back at our starting point in the village where we said our goodbyes to our group of porters and guide and hopped on bodas down to the town of Kasese, where we took our first shower in a week and fell exhausted into a real bed. The next day we left for Buhoma, the entrance to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest where we were to track the mountain gorillas.


  1. Wow, Stephen and I are totally in awe of you guys and this leg of your trip. Stephen's sister spent some time at a gorilla and chimpanzee rehabilitation institute in Zambia; she's going to love to hear about your gorilla tracking. Hugs. And keep safe! Amanda & Stephen

  2. Sounds amazing! Congrats on the impromptu summit...sounds painful.

  3. i really can't fathom this. i thought bogs where were the hobbits lived. did you see hobbits? SMOOCH!

  4. I love reading of your adventures and I can't wait to hear about Gorilla tracking!

  5. You two are simply amazing---is there any adventure you are not ready to endure? Congratulations on your summit! I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your journal and continue to live vicariously through you!