Trekking to the summit of Africa’s third highest mountain standing steeply at 5,109m Above Sea Level (ASL) along the Uganda-DRC border is no mean feat. Mountain Rwenzori is such a feature, on the continent, it is only dwarfed by Mt. Kilimanjaro (5895m asl) and Mt. Kenya (5199mm asl).
This is probably one of the most exhausting, stunning and yet rewarding extreme adventures I have taken on. I would precisely describe it as an icy conquest of a tough love story that inscribes a lasting memory!
Having only hiked and summited Mount. Muhavura (4,127m asl) as a first-timer two months earlier, taking on Rwenzori was a “David-Goliath” case-in-point.
With a support team of four guides, two cooks and 26 porters on a jovial Sunday afternoon off we went via the central circuit to embark on a seven-day trek through the Rwenzori Mountains National Park for a first-hand experience of the legendary Mountains of the moon.
From the base camp at Nyakalengija, the trail took us on a gradual seven-hour trek through farmlands, thick tropical rainforests and magnificent rivers before we reached Nyabitaba, our first sleep-over camp at 2651m ASL. This welcomed us with chatters of chimpanzees, humming birds and mist-shrouded mountain ranges overlooking the camp as we gazed in admiration.
With a round of applause and cheery faces, the porters gave us a resounding welcome; “welcome to Nyabitaba” they shouted; “wasingya” in their dialect, it loosely translates to “thank you” .
The sunny disposition, hospitality and humility of these indigenous Bakonzo people for a moment blind you to the coldness of this alpine region—the people are a mirror of the notable brotherhood, warmth and grace embedded within the fabric of the Ugandan culture.
Inspite of the chilly weather which is typical of alpine regions, the next two days presented even a deeper love of this place which gets more scenic as you proceed to higher altitudes—like a caterpillar that radically transforms its body, eventually emerging as a beautiful butterfly, Uganda’s natural beauty is highly underrated!
The trail treats you to a unique experience through a pristine landscape studded with unusual charismatic flora like the giant lobelias, groundsels and heathers some of which have been dubbed “Africa’s botanical big game”. Diversity truly defines this alpine region.
Day three found us at Bujjuku Camp also known as the “heart of the mystical challenge’’. Standing at 3962m ASL, this camp is critical for acclimatization to those looking to summit Margherita. We spent the frosty night here to garner energy for the next day. The challenge got tougher as we drew closer to the dream.
Under radiant weather on our way to Elena Camp, we traversed a soggy section of bog onto an uphill rocky trek where we made a brief stop to soak up the stunning views and a glimpse of lake Bujjuku in the valley as we glanced at Mount Baker and Mount Stanley gloriously covered in clouds at a distance.
After a five-hour uphill trek via a rugged path, we made it to Elena camp towering at 4,541m ASL. This is when you come to terms with reality that it heavily snows too in a country predominantly covered by tropical climate all year-round.
First snow experience
For a person physically experiencing snow for the first time outside a movie cinema, this place feels like travelling through a mystical land or getting lost in a fairy-tale on a strange planet other than earth. It is a hotspot for picturesque moments and for the social media slayers who seek to launch instagram careers, you will have arrived. It’s beauty is surreal to say the least!
The day we had for so long worked towards and looked forward to—the summit day—had finally dawned on us. At 2am on a snowy morning of day five, we set foot out of the wooden camps to take on the last mile!
As difficult as the ascent is; characterised by sheer steep rock climbs, glacier treks and bone-chilling coldness of its rapidly changing brutal weather, summiting the UNESCO World heritage site scares you while putting your courage and endurance to test before you can ever enjoy its glorious striking views—you will earn it!
The higher you go..
Somewhere, above the 4,900m altitude beyond the Stanley plateau, the weather rapidly and devastatingly changes for the worst. With a tough tone, the guide says; “this is a very dangerous zone, you can’t stop however tired you are”. With sorrow-stricken eyes but an unbreakable spirit, we keep taking weak steps in silence as our breath slowly fades— and at this point, the common Ugandan glum mantra; “bulyomu agumye mune” silently comes to mind.
Finally, setting our tearful eyes on the peak which towers steeply at a distance along the DRC border was a sigh of relief, a glimpse of hope that instantly evokes a cock-a-hoop of wearing a victor’s crown. “we have made it” “the efforts have paid off and the reward is here”yaaaay! Even though we still had some 30 minutes to the coveted peak...if achieving a dream was a moment, this was it!
With such big mountains, summiting is never guaranteed until you actually do. Anything can go wrong at any moment. It is only God’s mercy at play. It is a combination of resilience, determination and a measure of luck.
Rwenzori will bring out the best or worst in those who dare to summit Margherita, Africa’s third highest peak—the experience of this trek is a tough love story that inscribes a lasting memory!
Rwenzori is, without a doubt a world-class mountaineering destination that has a lot to offer for everyone including those who do not intend to summit Margherita but just wish to enjoy simple short treks through its exceptionally beautiful landscapes.
Uganda definitely has a top spot on the World’s crown of tourism. You just need a visit to experience it!
Lying above Africa’s largest ice sheet, the ascent leads past the Margherita Glacier, up a final rock scramble to the summit of the Mount Stanley - the third-highest mountain in Africa - in the Rwenzori Mountains. Margherita Peak is the highest peak in Uganda.
The summit was first scaled in 1906 by the Duke of Abruzzi, J. Petigax, C. Ollier, and J. Brocherel.
The route many guides use - via Elena Hut - is similar to the one taken by those pioneers all those years ago.