Rwenzori - Mountains of the moon, Uganda June 2009

- or "Mt. Speke or NOT Mt. Speke"



Intro

This is a travelogue of my visit to the Rwenzori park in western Uganda – trekking through the mountains for a week, and if time permitting, climbing Mt. Speke – the 4th highest mountain in Africa. The trek was the sole purpose of this trip, and you will not learn a lot about Uganda and it's people by reading this story - now you are warned. Plane tickets were purchased directly on the internet with the air companies; the transport in Uganda was organized by a locally based tour company – Kabarole tours and the trek directly with the Rwenzori Mountaineering company.

Practicalities


Rwenzori Mountaineering – the company with concession for trekking in the park - you make the booking here
www.rwenzori.com with good descriptions of each stage and how to get there
Kabarole Tours – a locally bases tour company – swift response every time from Richard, the owner

Most of the trek, I was traveling with Sepp from Spain - he has better descriptions than mine, so do read it - here in original in Spanish or in English (translated with google translater)

1 US$ = 2100 Uganda Shillings
Language: English, though it is not the first language for the people in the mountains

Living in Jutland, Denmark – it once again it paid off to fly via Gatwick in London. Emirates had super tickets – Gatwick – DubaiEntebbe, but weekdays and hours did not match perfectly with the connection from Billund. But literally while I looked at departure Sunday, the price fell 200$ - I asked permission from my wife and the ticket was booked. The total was 900$ for the airfare in late June – the rainy season ends mid June. I booked a month before, so I bought a month membership in the local gym the next day and started training legs. The dry season starts in mid june. I needed to have as little as possible local travel time, so I hired a car with driver - 920.000 Sh. (440$) and the trekking was 1300$.

Relevant guidebooks - get them from here:

 


Sunday 14.6.2009 Home - London

Fly bus at 15:00 from Århus – good bye to Birgitte and the children. 1½ hour to Billund. London. Out with my luggage after 10 minutes! Transfer from south to north terminal. Check-in – the flight is 1½ hours delayed – this is going bad, I thought. Only 75 minutes to change planes in Dubai, UAE. Sigh. Three scenarios: 1) the plane waits in Dubai (unlikely) and everybody is happy. 2) We make it, but the baggage doesn't make the transfer (meaning lot's of shopping in Kampala) or 3) we don't make it and I have to stay 24 hours in Dubai and no Mt. Speke.
Emirates is the only long distance flight this evening (except for Male), so when we are delayed, we are by far the latest flight at 22:45.
Good wide-screen personal monitors with lots of movies – good food

Monday 15.6.2009 Nowhere, Somewhere in Arabia/Africa

The title of my Lonely Planet book was the same. Had just bought and read Matheson: I am Legend in Gatwick (see link above). The Entebbe flight is still on the ground when we land, but just barely. So I'm rebooked for a Nairobi bound flight at 15:00 and onwards with the last flight of the day to Uganda. The mobile works here in Dubai, both for SMS, e-mail and talk, so starts off with Richard (Kabarole tours) who have arranged my driver. He'll make sure he is there tonight, and then we'll stay the night in Entebbe and drive early morning – yes! We are still on for Mt. Speke – had almost given up on it.
In all the glimmer of Dubai airport, I find a set of free internet terminals. Hazy outside, so cannot even see the highest tower in the world being build (until later when we fly). Reading and free lunch.
Flying over the empty quarter (sand, sand, sand), couldn't get my head from the window flying over beautiful mountainous Yemen  (have to go there some time), right over Djibouti (on my top two future destinations), Ethiopia (thunder clouds all the way). In Nairobi (Kenya) at 19:00 – considered a dinner-visit at the Carnivore, but didn't go. Departure at 22:00 with Kenya Airways (25% full) to Entebbe, Uganda. 1 hour. Five nurses welcomed us with masks and formulas to discover if we had A H1N1 flu. Easy getting a Visa (50$) at the two left hand booths (everybody got it there) – even got a receipt for my money. Outside all shops and banks were closed, but a guy quickly opened up his phone-store and changed money for me. Kind of no other options. 2030 Shillings / US$, which was not that bad. Vicent, my driver, was outside with his Toyota Corolla and we drove to the nearby guesthouse Kabarole Tours used – forgot its name, but they had a company called Gorilla Tours. 70.000 Sh times 2 since I had to pay for my driver. So we had a quick good night 'Nile' beer with Vicent and the host. They laughed when I asked if we could go at 5:00 next morning – better at 8:00 they said. But I had to be at the park gate at noon. Was only able to negotiate it to 6:30 – sunrise.

Tuesday 16.6 Entebbe – Nyakalengija (Park entrance)

Something was different about Uganda. Many things were right – the red earth, cicadas, etc. Then I realized: It was not full of trash everywhere! And that actually makes a difference.
North along the lake Victoria - congestion around Kampala before going west. Vicent stopped a couple of times – once he pointed at a tree with big blue birds, and another time a tree with 6 Columbus monkeys. Realized at 11:40, approaching Fort Portal, that we would not make it to the gate for noon. I saw that there still was 75 km to Kasese :-( Visited Richard at Kabarole Tours and then on south along the high mountain range that had appeared not long ago. Saw the first sights of the core-peaks of the mountains. At the gate at 13:30. Had thought it was necessary to go to Kasese to pay and rent equipment, but it could be done here at the entrance. Well, it was still too late and even though I had had much writing with the Kampala office on e-mail, it didn't seem as they knew that I was coming. It turned out the next morning that it is more based on who shows up in the morning, and then the trek is organized immediately. But no Mt. Speke – there were just 6 days now to trek. We continued 1½ km to a lodge with good views. A nice cabin and full board (65$). There were several other community camps nearby, so that would probably have been better. Only I was here. The staff was friendly and after afternoon nap, lunch at 15:00, I had a walk into the park with a guy from the lodge.


Wednesday 17.6 Nyakalengija – Nyabitaba Hut (Stage 1, 4:30 hours)

Breakfast and pick up at 8:30 – to HQ where there was great activity. Sepp from Austria/Spain was also organizing his trek. The lady in the office said it was possible to include Mt. Speke in a 6 day trek – "if you are strong". A guy had done the circuit and both Margarita and Speke in 5 days… Well, then I needed more porters and the Park entrance fee which was included on pricelist from Kampala was not on hers – so 1500$. I didn't have that. How much do you have? 1300$. The boss was summoned – and it was OK (!). My guide was Jomado and Sepp's was Peter. We were briefed and driven to the park entrance – near the lodge where I stayed. 15 rangers where at the entrance ready (for what?). We left at 10:00. The four of us walked together, slowly – amazingly quiet. No rain, not humid and nice weather. The most of the way we only had views behind us, but after lunch we could see the Portal Peaks to the North West. Not the big animal life, except a totally multicolored chameleon – wow. Up a ridge to Nyabitaba Hut – arrived at 14:30. Today's walk had been through the forest and zone.
Then the porters, cooks and workers started arriving. Sepp asked his guide how many people he had – 8 porters! My backpack had not arrived and when my cook came, I could see that Jomado was not looking happy. He ran down the path and was back around 18:00. It turned out that one of the porters had forgotten the ice axe and had gone back, so Jomado had taken the backpack up. Wonderful views to the Portal Peaks (Rutara) when the clouds opened up.
Chicken with rice – fine – and pineapple. Each of our cooks served us our dinner, and they did not seem to cooperate a lot. Rained this evening – maybe 12-15 degrees.
Had not been stung by mosquitoes, so stopped with my Malarone, since we are over 2500 m in altitude.



Thursday 18.6 Nyabitaba Hut – John Matte Hut (Stage 2, 5:30 hours)

Up at 7, breakfast, started walking at 8:30. First we walked down to a bridge crossing a river and still a nicely cleared path. We soon saw why – many of the people we had seen arrive yesterday was path-clearer. We passed 15 today whacking the path clear. Soon in zone 3 with bamboo and then to zone 4 – the heather zone with bearded trees. The most of the walk was up a ravine. Several books and descriptions had said this was the hardest part, but is was not so bad. Vertical walls several places and more and more of the mythical forest – a ghost forest some would say. The clouds changed positions all the time, so the views were different constantly. Lunch at noon by a streak and then: bogs. Strenuous but very, very beautiful. Surreal – but nice. Difficult to describe, but they have put out many logs to walk on, but hard not to step wrong. Your brain runs on full speed to calculate the next position of your foot – if I was a computer, I would have been very warm. The porters had put my boots before the bogs, so that was helpful.
John Matte hut was in a very nice place, though the peaks were hidden. The first glimpses of the glaciers could be spotted. ½ hour of rain, but then sun, clouds – yes, it changed all the time. The guide and ports kept to them selves.
I don't really feel the heights, except that it is cold – 10-12 degrees. Every minute reveals new views, so have been watching mountains, nature and sky for hours, drinking coffee and relaxing.
I measured my pulse – it was 107 while resting…


Friday 19.6 John Matte – Bujuku Hut (Stage 3, 5:00 hours)

Sepp had measured 7 degrees in the hut this morning. My personal butler, Vincent served 'plain omelets' and coffee. Again a fine morning. Had a little headache, but don't think it is the altitude but my usual neck problem I get when I don't have my usual pillow. And the small backpack weighing down on my shoulders.
Left at 8:15 – first jumping from plant to plan. Today is rubber boot and swamp day. But after 10 minutes we were into the lower Bigo Bog and there was a nice new bridge spanning the whole bog – wow, nice work. Good views all around – specially north towards the Mt. Speke massif. Next hard walking up towards Upper Bigo Bog which was very tiresome. A few places there were remains of an old bridge, but mostly nothing. Lunch a little higher up with views down the valley we had climbed. From before Lake Bujuku and around the lake – that was the hardest part. Totally buggy. At one point, I fell in all the way up to my groin and maybe I had continued if Jomado hadn't caught me. At Bujuku Hut at the end of the valley at 13:15. Views to Mt. Stanley (Margherita and Alexandra peaks) from the time we got to the lake. Speke is not easily seen, since the hut is right at the mountain base. Mt. Baker to the south east was not seen today – in the clouds.

Coffee and a mini tour up to the Stuhlmann pass – the pass into DR Congo. Only 45 minutes. Not a great view since the valley on the other side twists. A few minutes from the hut, there is the Garden of Eden – super, super beautiful and lovely. Spend a couple of hours there by the small stream, the mountains, the small blue birds, the giant lobelias all around. I had brought a Coca Cola and a Mars bar for each day, so it was a good spot to enjoy it.



Saturday 20.6 Mt. Speke – Kitandara Hut (Peak 8 hours, Stage 4, 5 hours)

Up at 4:15 (!) and left at 5. The hut is at around 4000 meters, so we were climbing about a kilometer up today. The temperature was just below freezing point. We were again the 4 of us going, wearing head lamps and the gear for today. The first 20 minutes up to just below the Congo pass. Then the hardest part with (a little) rock climbing, zero degrees, water, ice. That was tough going. Next up along the South West ridge. Clear skies. Beautiful vies to Mt. Stanley to the south. Sunrise at 6:30. Views west, down to Congo, but clouds covered the whole basin, way, way below. Below the glacier, we done the crampons, walked up the glacier (about 300 vertical meters) and the last bit on ice/snow/rocks. And suddenly we were there at the top. Mt. Speke – Vittorio Emanuele Peak – 4890 meters. My first 'real' peak. And it was beautiful beyond measure. We were there 20-30 minutes, taking a lot of pictures while watching small clouds blowing away below us. Now I was a real Mountaineer, Sepp told me. Well, Sepp was the real mountaineer, and I was happy for the things he taught me on the trip. Peter told us that it was him who had brought the sign to the top of Speke, Margherita and Baker. He had been on Speke about 60 times after putting up the sign, he said.

Down the glacier again; this time it went very quick and also ok down the ridge. The 'hard' first part was not so difficult going down in daylight. Back 8 hours after starting up (13:00).
Well, I was somewhat tired, but I had to be back Monday, so decided to take another stage. Said good bye to Sepp and Peter, and left at 14:00. The swamp was a killer, and it was the hardest climbing up to Scott-Elliot Pass – the pass to next valley. Phew. Quietly and slowly down again towards Kitandara Lake and Kitandara Hut – arrived around 18:00. Could not really enjoy the nature on this stage. Vertical cliffs towards Mt. Speke and good views to Mt. Stanley. The hut was just next to the lake.
Congo basin from Mt Speke
Margherita Peak from Mt SpekeErik on Mt Speke

Mt Speke from Scott-Elliot pass

Sunday 21.6 Kitandara – Guy Yeoman – Nyabitaba Hut (Stage 5 & 6, 5 hours + 4 hours)

Up, up, up – hard – to the Freshfield Pass. 1 hour. Bog, mud, down, down, bog, mud – to Guy Yeoman Hut. It was the normal 'today's stage', but after less than 5 hours, we decided to continue. Mud, bog, swamp, vertical cliff side which took ½ hour to descend. Ladders a couple of strategic places. Before the descend, Jomado said that 'this is the last dangerous place'. Thank you, but he didn't tell me about the other dangerous places before. The porters waited below and when I took the last hop down, they applauded... Jomado held a small speech for all of us about the place being named from old times where the baggage was thrown down, or somebody was paid to carry it – or something like that. Vincent translated. Next – surprise – bog, mud, swamp, mud, bamboo-swamp, bamboo-mud. Getting warmer but we had also descended from 4100 meters to 2700 meters. But all the time down, so it was an easy stage. Thought it was like 'the earth is poisonous' like we played in school – jumping between the logs put down in the bogs. My guide showed me a place where the chimpanzees had split and eaten the bamboo.
Warm and sunny at 17:00 when I was back in Nyabitaba Hut – finishing the circuit and back where I stayed the first night. The air was rich with Oxygen. Had asked Vincent about soup and it was the best soup from a bag I have ever had.
Jomado, my guide, is 58 years old and was a good guide. Easy to understand, though not a very large vocabulary. Had 8 children of which one was dead. One of his boys was with us as a porter.

Monday 22.6 Nyabitaba – Park HQ – Fort Portal (Stage 7, 2 hours)

After breakfast I should give the porters 'the word'. I thanked them, and said they should take good care of the park for the rest of us. I quoted a passage from the book of psalms, and after being translated by Vincent, they all laughed – the obviously all knew this by hearth. Tipped the porters 15$/cook 30$/guide 55$. The porters looked surprisingly happy and a bit further down the path, the cook said to me: "look porters are very happy". Going down didn't take long – 2 hours. Jomado knew all we met after leaving the park – many related like a son or a daughter in law.
Picked up at park HQ at 11:30 by a new driver. Had used all my shillings for tips, so visited a bank in Fort Portal to change money. Then to the Rwenzori View Guesthouse (70.000 Sh). Had a great bowl of tomato soup and a beer. I was more hungry than I had thought. Took a motor bike to "internet café" – which turned out to be a copy-center with a few computers in the back – but worked ok and I could upload my Mt. Speke picture to facebook.
The Rwenzori View Guesthouse is a couple of kilometers out of town, but still in walking distance. It has 7 rooms and dinner is together around a big table with the other guests. It was great to discuss travel experiences over dinner and I could only recall one similar experience – the La Casa del Mundo in Atitlán lake in Guatemala. I went to bed smiling. The guest house is run by a Dutch/Anglo couple and comes highly recommended.

Tuesday 23.6 Fort Portal – Home (Stage 8, 30 hours)

Travel day – picked up at 7 and at the airport around 11 – much faster and in too good time for the afternoon flight. A short stop in Addis before onwards to Dubai. Change of flights in the night and on to London on time.


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