King Oyo hikes Rwenzori in bid to conserve environment

King Oyo and UNDP communications specialist Ashley Prigent at the Margherita Peak. PHOTO/COURTESY 

What you need to know:

The team that ascended the mountain as friends has descended as a family of brothers,” King Oyo said after returning from the King Oyo Rwenzori Expedition’ this month. It was the first time a modern day monarch had hiked the tallest mountain in the country

Rukirabasaija Oyo Nyimba Kabamba Iguru Rukidi IV, could have continued hiking Mount Rwenzori, had the highest point, the Margherita Peak, located 5,109metres above sea level been another metre higher.

That is how much energy and passion the Omukama of Tooro Kingdom still had in him during the extra two days spent at the Margherita Camp as he and fellow hikers waited for a snowstorm to calm.

The king had arrived at the Margherita Peak on  Mount Stanley on the fifth day of the aptly titled the ‘King Oyo Rwenzori Expedition. Like all hikers before, he had planned to spend seven days to the summit of Mount Rwenzori and back.

However, he did not.

Airlifting him back to base was not an option.

“When we found out that we could not make it back because of the snowstorm, we sat down as a group and discussed our options and we all decided that we could stay together and summit together,” one of the hikers told Saturday Monitor.

And so they waited and began their decent from the Margherita Camp to the Hunwick Camp on the seventh day.

A few days earlier, on Thursday, July 28, 2022, King Oyo had embarked on the hike up the Rwenzori Ranges with the aim of sensitising government, private sector, development partners and the public on the role of tourism development as a driver of sustainable development in Uganda, as well as the influence that tourism has on environmental conservation and inclusive economic growth, according main partners United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

King Oyo takes in the views on top of Mount Rwenzori.

Major aim

The hike also aimed at promoting Uganda as a mountaineering tourism destination and drive domestic and international tourist traffic to the Rwenzori Mountain range and surrounding towns, parks and tourism locations.

The mountain straddles the districts of Bundibugyo, Kabarole, and Kasese and is renowned for species of conservation concern.

The ecosystem hosts 54 Albertine Rift endemic species which include 18 species of mammals, 21 species of birds, nine species of reptiles and six species of amphibians. The Rwenzori Mountains also support one of the most important bird communities in Uganda with a total of 217 unique species recorded.

“We need to collectively invest in Uganda’s many unique tourism products and activities as unique drivers of sustainable development for the people of Uganda. Together we can showcase all that this beautiful country has to offer, and we can encourage investors to work with local communities to produce and refine world class tourism products,” Ms. Elsie Attafuah, the Resident Representative, UNDP Uganda said.

But it was King Oyo who summarised the exceptional beauty of the Rwenzori Mountains, from the snow-capped peaks, glaciers, V-shaped valleys, fast flowing rivers, magnificent waterfalls to the unique flora and fauna species within the mountain ecosystem.

“I led a team up the Rwenzori Mountains to help justify the claim that Uganda is truly the Pearl of Africa and to position Uganda as a unique mountain tourism destination. This will play a great role in driving both domestic and international tourists to not only explore the Rwenzori Mountains but Uganda as a whole. Uganda is a beautiful country that is worth exploring,” the monarch, who ascended the throne aged three in 1995, said upon return.

The feat made him the first modern day king to summit to the top of the Mountains of the Moon.

The Rwenzori Mountain comprises Mount Stanley (5,109metres), Mt Speke (4,890m), Mt Baker (4,843m), Mt Emin (4,798m), Mt Gessi (4,715m) and Mt Luigi di Savoia (4,627m).

Abur and Ajarova during the 2020 Rwenzori Mountain Expedition. PHOTO/COURTESY 

The plan.

During his welcome-back reception, King Oyo encouraged women to also take on the challenge of climbing Mount Rwenzori. He cited Lily Ajarova and Ms Lorna Abur, as “two inspirational women that have done plenty of hiking in Uganda.”

These two women, he said, had inspired him to undertake the adventure.

Ms Ajarova is the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) Chief Executive officer (CEO) while Ms Abur is the Associate Project Officer, Tourism Rapid Financing project at the UNDP.

Ms Abur is also an avid mountaineer, who has scaled several mountains in Uganda and abroad over years.

She has been to the Rwenzoris thrice, the last excursion being in 2020 with Ms Ajarova and kickboxer Moses Golola, among others.

Then, the main objective was to showcase the Rwenzori as a tourist destination and give mountain tourism visibility.

According to Ms Abur, the planning process started after the launch of the Ekyooto Ha Mpango Cultural Festival in November 2021. 

The Ekyooto Ha Mpango, sponsored by UNDP, showcased the Kingdom’s rich history and cultural heritage and provided a platform to engage in inclusive conversations on the integration of culture and communities in the tourism business ecosystem.

It was at the festival that the ‘Rwenzori Mountains of the Moon 2022 Documentary’ featuring Ms Ajarova, Ms Abur and Golola, was premiered.

“During the premiere, the King was there and watching. Then he saw me and Lily talking and he asked ‘you two went up the mountain?’ And I told him the 2020 expedition was my third time,” Ms Abur says.

Own initiative

“He joked, ‘how do you two go up yet I have never gone up?’. And so we laughed about it.”

A few days later, Ms Abur says she spoke to her bosses at UNDP, Prince Jonathan, Ms Ajarova and her team at UTB, and a few others sector players about the possibility of interesting the king to hike Mount Rwenzori.

“Of course when he asked the question, it occurred to me, and UNDP that he was the ideal person to champion environmental conservation in the region and position him as an ambassador for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),”Ms Abur says, adding that the hike would not have been possible, if he was not interested in taking part.

“He was obviously inspired by various other factors ranging from his love for sustainable tourism, environmental conservation and the urge of wanting to summit Uganda’s highest point as the youngest reigning monarch in Uganda,” Ms Abur says.

Indeed, King Oyo said he had taken on the king Oyo Rwenzori Expedition Challenge to shed light on the glaciers of the Rwenzori Mountain ranges that are melting due to increased temperatures caused by climate change.

“This can lead to shortages in the local water supply, increased land degradation, and increased incidences of flooding and landslides,” the king.

On his own, the King also sends out a powerful message that if he can summit the Rwenzoris, then everyone should in order to ‘ensure that these mountain ecosystems are protected.’

“We need to preserve the biodiversity of mountain ecosystems that provide a habitat for some of Uganda’s most unique species such as the Duiker. To protect this unique mountain ecosystem, we need to have collective action to stop deforestation, encourage climate-smart farming practices, encourage sustainable land and natural resource management, and implement more nature-based solutions for sustainable development,” he has often stressed.

But before he could start summiting, organizers were notified of the insurgency in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with the country’s army has been fighting the M23 rebel group.

Uganda shares the Rwenzori Ranges with DR Congo.

In June, the Norwegian Refugee Council declared the situation in the DR Congo as ‘the world’s most neglected refugee crisis – for a second year running’ with at least five million people internally displaced and one million more fleeing abroad.

“This put the King Oyo Rwenzori Expedition on hold for some months until his team was assured of security,” Ms Abur said.

In the meantime, King Oyo continued fitness training, which lasted about two months, as talks with the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF) progressed.

Doing exercises before a hike reduces injury risk, improves flexibility, and can help one, especially first timers, hike longer distances. The main types of exercises one should focus on before hikes include strength training and balance. Cardio and endurance training decrease stress on your joints and improve your hiking performance.

 Setting off

 With everything in place and talks with security agencies concluded, King Oyo set off from the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) gate in Kilembe.

He was several kilogrammes lighter and fitter.

The Kilembe Trail which lies at 1,450m above sea level, is one of the two climbing routes – besides the traditional central circuit route - on the Rwenzori Mountains established in 2009.

Flanked by his personal assistant Prince Jonathan Baguma, fitness trainer Justus Koko, two private guards, and a diplomat from Barbados, the king, who recently celebrated his 30th birthday in April, embarked on the Rwenzori Expedition to the third highest mountain in Africa.

James Mboinja, a Tourism Development Officer represented the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities (MTWA).

Besides his inner-circle, the King was also accompanied by Ashley Prigent, the Communications Specialist at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), UWA rangers, and guides from Rwenzori Trekking Services.

Throughout the hike, the UPDF provided security with advance teams stationed at the various camps ahead of him, while another closely followed.

A different security team walked with him alongside his two personal body guards.

On the first day, the king hiked through forest and valleys to the first camp on the Kilembe trail, to the Sine Camp at 2,598 meters above sea level.

Here, they spent the night and made plans for the next day.  The next day, the king hiked through stunning views to the 3,588m high Mutinda Lookout before night camping at the Bugata Camp 4,062m on day three. The following day, the king and his team made it to the Hunwick’s Camp at the base of Mt Stanley.

By then, the diplomat was unable to complete the hike after falling sick mid-hike.

The final ascent up to the summit of Margherita Camp was achieved on the fifth day. Here, they were required to rope up and use crampons - a traction device that is attached to footwear to improve mobility on snow and ice during ice climbing.

But the king’s plan to start descending the mountain on the sixth day was halted by a snowstorm, which forced him to spend the next two days enjoying the beauty of Uganda’s best kept secret.

On the eighth day, they descended to the Hunwick’s camp before spending the ninth night at the Bugata Camp from where he would leave for Forest View Camp. Here, the team spent the 10th night.

He was welcomed back at the Kilembe Gate by a team from MTWA, Uganda Tourism Board, UNDP, sector players and the Queen Mother Best Kemigisa on Sunday, August 7.

Two international videographers f captured the experience which will be documented and launched at a red carpet event on Friday, November 4, 2022 in Kampala.

According to Ms Attafuah,  the documentation of the King Oyo Royal Rwenzori Expedition will significantly boost the promotion of the tourism potential of the Rwenzori.

“It will also highlight the need for concerted effort to tackle biodiversity loss and combat climate change which has caused rapid loss of the glaciers on the mountain which birthed 18 rivers. There are other new initiatives in the pipeline which builds on our support to promote mountain tourism,” Ms Attafuah, who is very passionate about Uganda’s tourism potential, said at a reception in King Oyo’s honour.

“Together, we can truly make our beloved country, the Pearl of Africa! I have fallen in love with this country and I hope many will be inspired by your story today and fall in love with the beauty of Uganda, one more time,” she said, glad that all the time, resources and energy spent planning the hike had come to fruition.