Ascending to the top of Mt Rwenzori had for a long time been Kenneth Asiimwe’s dream destination. But he had pushed it to the bottom of priorities. On his 39th birthday, during the lockdown, he embarked on a seven day mountain climbing experience and he narrated the story to Zadock Amanyisa.
For a very long time, hiking Mountain Rwenzori was on my bucket list. But the cost of the trip and the stories about the weather on mountain ranges kept holding me back. Despite this, I badly wanted to be counted among people who took on the mountain challenge and made it to the the peak.
So, I prepared myself mentally and I knew I was ready for this. I needed as much information as I could possibly get, especially from people who have hiked mountains before. I reached out to Peter Nabimanya, a friend, whose love for mountaineering is contagious.
A first, I thought all I needed was a gear and money for the hiking. But I was wrong. As much as money is key in this adventure, physical preparation is equally important and it takes some good days.
In fact, my friend advised me to mobilise a team to travel with. So, the preparation was going to take a bit of time than what I had initially anticipated.
I reached out to friends, who I know love adventure. We all depended on individual strengths and formed a formidable team. Daniel Bwambale was our treasurer, we identified a sporty fellow to lead our physical training, Aggrey Nshekanabo was in charge of our transport and Diana Nsereko in charge of welfare. I was the team leader.
From August 23, to 31, October 2020, we embarked on a routine to build our physical fitness. In hindsight, we had a lot of information about altitude adaptation and the reduction of oxygen levels as you ascend closer to the summit.
Apart from Albert Abayo, the rest of us were first time mountaineers. Our training was mostly long walks and cardio exercises. We all decided to download a pedometre on our phones to monitor the number of steps we would make everyday.
We walked 35km every Saturday and 45km once a month in preparation. This proved to be the wisest thing as far as mountaineering is concerned. On October 24, 2020, we did our last 45km walk covering Kampala and part of Wakiso.
Although we had initially planned to use one car, the group eventually grew bigger and we settled for two vans that transported 14 of us to Ibanda-Bugoye at the base of the Rwenzori ranges.
Rashid Walulya, a seasoned driver and Davis Ashaba, a tour guide were in charge of transport. We set off from Naalya Motel in Kampala at 10:20am and arrived in Ibanda-Bugoye at 6pm.
We were a group of fourteen people and we were joined by another two. Our first stopover was in Mubende considering that hunger pangs had set in.
I would never advise someone to plan a trip to Rwenzori with strangers. There is a tendency to disaggregate ininto cliques of people you know too well when your mental and physical abilities get challenged.
The chefs have menus tailored for the gruelling hikes. Our breakfast on all occasions had powdered milk, oats, English pancakes, and omelette according to individual tastes, millet porridge and assorted fruits. We would then be given a lunch pack with a banana, a sandwich, packed juice and energy bars.
The beauty of the boulders on River Mubuku was breathtaking. The way the bright boulders blend in with the vegetation and the silver colour created by the water flowing over them, created a heavenly scene. The sound of the flowing river is like a lullaby playing deep in the night.
Weather at the Rwenzori
We went to the mountain during a rainy season in November. The ranges have the most unpredictable weather. The intervals between the rain and sunshine change so rapidly for one to keep up. It rains and before you find your rain gear, it is shining again. When you travel there, be ready for weather extremes. A team from Rwenzori Ranges Hikers Association welcomed us at Rwenzori Base camp Holiday Inn. This team was professional and made our expedition memorable, considering we were largely mountaineering novices.
Climbing Rwenzori evokes a mixture of all emotions. There are not many things that make me cry as a man, but this experience threw me into unimaginable state that left me helplessly tearing. The descent is more tasking than the ascent. You must use two days to cover the distance you covered in five days. We did it and nothing was as wonderful as a warm shower at base camp.
It is freezing cold up there. No amount of cardigan can warm you up. The weather conditions at camp Elena at 4541 metres above sea level, are cruel. It was snowing when we arrived at Elena. If you are looking for an adrenalin-filled experience, think of hiking mountain Rwenzori. This is an experience that challenges you mentally and physically.
The unforgettable moment of this expedition was the kindness exhibited by the mountain guides. From cheering us on an experience that I almost gave up on, to ensuring that we were warm and well fed, they were there for us.
My worst moments happened every time I arrived at the camp. As a team leader, I would be restless untill the last member arrived. Those moments were very worrying, especially when it got dark before everyone was in camp.
Nothing beats the joy of seeing your teammates reach the summit. The Rwenzori ranges have beautiful scenery. The boardwalks after John Matte camp on day three of the expedition were captivating.
You have got to love them on your way up and hate them on your way your down. One of the mountaineers joked that climbing mountain Rwenzori is like partner who abuses you and rewards you with gifts you cannot resist.
The bittersweet experience made me feel like I had won the lottery at the end of the expedition. After this trip, we returned to Kampala to get ready for the 80km walk to Jinja that is due in March.
We are planning to send a group of 20 hikers every month to the Rwenzoris. Quite an ambitious plan, but we are starting with doing it every three months until we settle for a monthly plan.
The Bakonzho, who are the major tribe living in this area and who make the team that provides guides, chefs and the manpower to ferry luggage are an exceptionally patient breed of people. They accommodated our endless complaints and frustrations with so much grace. Mountain climbing is a unique adventure. All ascents are timed to make sure the body acclimatises to the altitude. This is specifically done to ensure mountaineers do not suffer from adverse effects of altitude sickness, which could be fatal in extreme cases.
The climbing exercise takes seven days, five for leaving base camp to Margherita and two from Margherita to base camp. You have to add an extra day for recovery at basecamp before departing.
Day one is concluded at Nyabitabe camp, 2,651 metres above sea level. Day two is concluded at John Maate camp at 3,505m. Day three ends at Bujuuku camp and day four ends at Camp Elena. Day five is the longest day since you use almost all of it to leave Elena to Margherita, through the Stanley glacier and return to Elena. This trek is averagely 18 hours. Could be less if you are fast. Day six was our descent day and we spent the night at John Maata Camp. Day seven was concluded at basecamp.
Variety of attractions
If you are a sports person like myself, this is an experience that brings you back in touch with your athletic self. If you are struggling to lose weight, a hike to Margherita summit is worth trying out. The entire team shed all the lockdown weight. I am glad I am the only one in my clan to reach the Rwenzori summit.
Visiting Mount Rwenzori exposes you to a variety of attractions including wildlife, beautiful vegetation and bird species. The mountain is a habitat to more than 70 species of mammals including elephants, chimpanzees, Rwenzori otter and leopard.
But wildlife is difficult to spot in the dense forest. There are primates such as colobus and blue monkeys- small antelope such as bushbucks; and unusual reptiles such as the three-horned chameleon.
Rwenzori Mountains National Park is known for its distinctive flora. On the route to the peak, hikers climb through distinct altitudinal vegetation zones; montane forest, bamboo, tree heathers and afro-alpine.
The park is home to 217 bird species including the Rwenzori turaco, barred long-tailed cuckoo, long-eared owl, handsome francolin, cinnamon-chested bee-eater, archers’ robin-chat and white-starred robin, among others.
The key activities are mountaineering. Currently, there are three major trails namely; central circuit (50km-7-9days), Kilembe trail (40km) and recently Mahoma Trail (24 km). These are operated by the local community, private concessionaire and Uganda Wildlife Authority, respectively.
In spite the beauty and uniqueness of Rwenzori, the number of visitors to this park has stagnated. This is due to inadequacies in tourism infrastructure such as slippery trails, worn out bridges, inadequate accommodation facilities, lack of safety facilities, poor sanitary facilities, poor state of the road from the tarmac of Kasese- Fortportal road to the UWA and limited marketing and promotion.
Whereas the number of visitors to the park increased from 435 in 2003 to 2,723 in 2013, the visitors to Mountain Kilimajaro increased significantly from 28,000 in 2003 to 52,000 in 2012.
The tourism assessment report of 2011 by World Bank highlights the poor state of infrastructure to and from the tourism facilities as a major constraint affecting the growth of tourism.
People who have hiked mountains should serve as the gateway to such tourist destinations by encouraging others to go visit. The general outlook of people who interact with the park directly was not very impressive in terms of livelihood.
Discussing the value added by the paltry 20 per cent of the gate collections given by UWA to excluded communities neighbouring these parks is very depressing topic.