LORNA’S RWENZORI TREKKING EXPERIENCE
My interest and inspiration in the Rwenzori’s all started over a year ago around August 2016 to be precise, on one boring Sunday afternoon as I was lying on my bed and lazily flipping over the pages of the Uganda wildlife Authority Magazine and reading about the various national parks we have in the country. They all seemed interesting, but as soon as I opened the page titled Rwenzori Mountains National Park-The mystical challenge I was extremely fascinated. At that exact moment, I started to envision myself trekking up for about 7 days to get to the famous Margherita peak that stands at an astonishing height of 5,109m. The idea of the highest point in Uganda covered in ice and snow sparked off so much excitement inside me that I knew right away I had to hold the ice in my hands.
I spent the next months doing my research on the Rwenzori Mountains, I wanted my dream of holding ice in my hands at the highest point in Uganda to come true. I contacted various trekking services e.g. the Rwenzori Mountaineering Services (RMS), Rwenzori Trekking services (RTS), and compared prices. I read stories of a few people that had been up the mountain and contacted them for their personal experiences during the trek, from all the responses and advices I attained it was quite obvious it was going to be a strenuous hike to be attempted by experienced mountaineers. I am no experienced mountaineer but either way I knew I had to get to the peak.
As months went by, I got to know of a club known as the Mountain slayers Club of Uganda, A group of young energetic men and women with the desire to hike mountains and climb rocks, I contacted the team and agreed to join 14 of them to accomplish the great task of conquering the mystical challenge.
Rwenzori Trekking-Day one –Sunday 09/July/2017-Kebitakuli Camp
Due to a few delays our trek started a bit late in the afternoon with the scorching sun aiming for our heads. We were introduced to our guides and porters that were to guide us during the trek, carry our luggage and prepare our meals. We were meant to start our hike using the Nkurungu trail that was not officially used before, this meant we were officially opening the trail. I stuffed my day pack with energy drinks, chocolates, energy bars, crisps, sanitizers making sure I had all I needed and that it was not so heavy.
The trek involved us going up and down a few hills, it was a bit tiresome as the sun was hot. We made a few stops under tree shades, munched on some energy bars, drunk some water and went on trekking for 6 hours till we got to our accommodation for the night at the Kebitakuli camp. It was a bit cold in the night, but lucky for us we were sharing tents and had a nice fireplace set right outside to keep us warm. A deliciously made dinner was served, we cracked jokes by the fire place, the guides briefed us about the next day’s journey and went to sleep.
Rwenzori trekking-Day two-Monday 10th July-Kambeho camp
Our day started as early as 6.30am with a warm bath for some of us under some trees, a tasty breakfast of eggs, sausages, bread and milk tea. This was followed by the day’s 5-6hour trek to our intended camp for the night called Kambeho camp at 3700m ASL.
I found the trek very relaxing with plenty of heather trees, Giant Lobelias, a variety of beautiful flower species and vegetation to marvel at along the way. The water flowing down the streams of Mount Rwenzori is so clean, pure and cold.
I must confess drinking water from a stream is not necessarily a good idea, but up in the mountains it´s all pure and safe. We had a few breaks for lunch and relaxation during the day which was lovely as it granted me a perfect opportunity to take memorable photographs.
Rwenzori trekking-Day three-Tuesday 11th July-Mughuli Lake camp
After an early breakfast we were up again for a 6-7hour trek for the day with a climb along the beautiful river Lhume. The vegetation was spectacular, the sceneries were eye catching, my mood and spirits were extremely high. I had plenty of time pretending to be a diva in front of the camera. This was so much fun….we had our regular breaks for energy drinks/bars and Lunch. We set camp at Mughuli lake camp where we did the usual relaxing by the fireplace, cracking jokes, dinner and retiring to bed.
Rwenzori trekking-Day four-Wednesday 12th July-Bukurungu East Lake camp
This was one of the toughest days during the trek. We had two options, to either climb the Portal peak which is 4627m or proceed for a less strenuous 6-7hour trek to the Bukurungu camp which was meant to be our resting camp for the night. As usual, I love to take on a challenge, I agreed to join the group that went up the portal peak. We had to wear gumboots as the ground was boggy and I found myself sinking into it several times, lucky for me my personal guide Denis was always by my side, front or back to hold me at my weakest moments.
Going up the Portal peak was a very steep rocky climb for all of us and extremely energy draining as well. I had to mix lots of glucose in my water to keep my body going. It was a long devastating climb, I remember asking Denis several times if we were almost getting to the top and he always responded with “just a few minutes Madame” but these few minutes turned into hours that I eventually stopped asking. We finally got to the top but felt battered , I could easily compare the portal peak trek to an abusive marriage with a husband that beats the hell out of his wife, not that I have been married before, but portal peak could easily be described a s a husband that beat me up.
Going down the mountain was quite difficult, this I felt was one of the greatest challenges of being tall, my knees felt weak, if it wasn’t for the knee braces that tightly held my knees in place, I suspect my knees would have given way.
We got back to camp relatively late, had a shower, dinner and went straight to sleep. I was too exhausted mentally and physically for any chit-chat with the group.
Rwenzori trekking-Day five-Thursday 13th July-Bujuku hut
After breakfast we were out again, this time for an estimated 5-7 hour trek to the Bujuku hut where we were meant to sleep for the night. My mood was a bit low, I am naturally an introvert and extrovert at the same time, yes I am as confusing as that sounds. I am naturally very friendly and outgoing but I value my personal space a lot as well. Being around 14 other members all the time was starting to frustrate and irritate me, I craved for time alone, I wanted time to mentally reflect, think and derive energy from within. Sadly the group later on mis-interpreted this act as a selfish one, but well I guess I can’t fully explain myself to other people all the time.
I was getting irritated with the constant muddy boggy terrain and am certain my personal guide Denis noticed the look of disgust on my face, he surprised me when he asked me to follow him to a route he said was less strenuous, and just as though my prayers were answered, this was a totally different route from the rest of the group.
Denis and I walked on our own for almost 40 minutes in total silence, my mood was getting better, the terrain much drier and easier to walk on, my pace greatly improved. “Madame you are walking fast” he broke the silence as he looked at me with a smile on his face. He noticed the sudden calm and relaxation on my face compared to a few hours earlier. I laughed hard and took out two mars chocolate bars from my day pack, handed him one and we started to chat.
It finally hit me that I had not said much to him since the trek begun, other than the usual “Madame step here”, “Madame step there” “Madame you are walking too fast or too slow “or “Madame drink some water” it finally dawned on me that we had not said much to each other and I was curious to know all about him.
“Call me Lorna not Madame” I said to him…but after various attempts he failed to pronounce my name right and so we stuck with “Madame”.
I asked Denis about his family, I was impressed that he had only one wife and three children as the majority of African men living in remote areas tend to be polygamous with a large number of children.
I was impressed to know that his children were in school studying, the conversation got very uncomfortable when I asked how much he earned and he said only UGX 10,000 a day, that is about USD 3, Only USD 3 a day and yet he walked tirelessly with my day pack, holding my hand, encouraging me to keep on moving, he dealt with my tantrums, frustrations and mood swings and always remained calm. I have not meant a man with such a calm, patient spirit in a long time, I can tell it’s not all about customer care but he was naturally a very calm man, I doubt he ever got angry in his life, I highly doubt it.
As we kept on talking I found myself more and more confused about his financial situation, not only for him but for all the guides, porters and cooks, according to his revelations they all earned very little and it perturbed me. Denis being my personal guide, I felt a sense of responsibility and asked him to hand me my camera bag, I had hidden some emergency cash just below my camera, I took out a UGX 50,000 note and handed it over to him and then I went ahead and promised to pay school fees for a term for one of his daughters, not because I am rich, but because I felt a need to step in and brighten his life in a way.
Denis´s face brightened up, he was smiling and laughing, he started to talk so fast, he opened up and told me so many stories that I could barely keep up, his English was not so good, I struggled to understand some of the things he said but I was content he was happy.
We got to the central circuit and I was glad with the pieces of timber that were lined up above the bog, this was just a brilliant idea, I remember stopping to take pictures with Denis, we laughed, we jumped up and down, it was so beautiful glazing at Lake Bujuku.
Denis joked about how cold the water was and claimed only the Russians could swim in it.
The rest of the trek towards the camp was interesting, I was glad for taking some time away from the group and bonding greatly with him. I dedicate this day of my hike to Denis….it started on such a bad note but ended up really well.
Trekking the Rwenzori’s- Day 6-14th July 2017-Ellena hut
Before proceeding from Bujuku hut its very important to read the warning information that is stuck on the glass window. Once one is at Bujuku hut they are automatically at the heart of the mystical challenge. I remember reading through the instructions and getting extremely nervous “You should not attempt to go any higher in elevation but descent to a lower hut incase you are coughing, have difficulty in breathing, shortness in breathe, severe headache or nose bleeding” it read.
“It is difficult to effect a rapid rescue to Bujuku, Kitandara or Elena huts as they are the worst places to have a serious illness at the central circuit”.
The more I read the more nervous I got. I had been coughing the whole night, had difficulties breathing at one point during my sleep I felt like I was chocking and had to sit up on my bed for almost an hour, I wore five pairs of socks but my feet still felt cold, I noticed some blood when I blew my nose that morning, it was quite obvious the mountain sickness had gotten to me. I quickly swallowed my tablets and tried to remain calm. I remembered how long I had planned for this trip, the amount I spent on the trip and equipment almost USD 850 (I would have flown to Mombasa on holiday and back for this amount), I remembered the pressure and expectations of getting to the peak from friends, family and my poor boyfriend who had to bring me a sleeping bag, skiing glasses, a brand new camera, hiking shoes, warm socks all the way from Norway. A trip he was not even part of but had spent a fortune on. All these thoughts ran through my mind and I decided I was going on till I got to the peak, there was simply no way I could give up at this moment. I would have failed myself and all the people who were looking up to me.
As soon as we were done with breakfast, we posed for some photos with beautiful sceneries at the background and went on with the day´s trek. It was a bit of a tough trek, started off with bog and mud then rocky and steep terrain, the rocks gave me a hard time, Denis had to stretch out his hand every now and then to pull me up, I started feeling the fatigue accumulating around my muscles from days of trekking, I could feel the altitude and that we were elevating fast. We eventually got to camp exhausted after 5-6 hours, we had very few hours to sleep as we had to be up by 2am and begin the walk up the glacier.
Just as soon as we had supper and settled in, we met the guides for a briefing on the do’s and don’ts up the glacier, axes, crampons and harnesses, I was a bit disappointed as the equipment seemed old, the crampons were rusty and felt weak, but I was too exhausted to worry about that and retired to bed for the night.
Trekking the Rwenzori’s- Day 7-15th July 2017-Ellena hut
We were up by 1am and had a quick breakfast to enable us leave by 2am so we up Margherita and down by 10am. It was really dark, I took a dose of acetazolamide to fight the altitude sickness, we all had our head torches firmly strapped on our foreheads, we finally got to the snowline area, wore our crampons and practiced walking on ice, it was a bit hard at the start but eventually eased out.
I took some time to hold the ice in my hands just as I had wanted, it was beautiful, spectacular, the sceneries blew me away…..my dream was starting to turn into reality.
We climbed up and down a few more steep rocks and finally got to the base of the glacier, it was now time to wear the crampons again, get hold of the axes and summit, the time had finally come. I felt nervous and anxious, it looked dangerous, I was not quite familiar with how I would get up there, I had never done this before, it was a mixed feeling of excitement and fear.
Denis asked me to stick to him, there was a gentleman behind him whom I shortly followed, it started out well with us pulling ourselves up with a rope until the situation started to slowly get way out of control.
The guy ahead of me was slowly slipping down because of my weight on the rope, I didn’t know how to use the axe, the guys behind me were yelling at me to get out of the way, I felt so much anger and confusion targeted towards me that I decided to give up.
I remember yelling out to the professional guide named Herbert that was at the base to kindly evacuate me, I had totally lost interest in summiting, all I wanted was to get out of the way, it didn´t matter anymore, It took about 40 minutes for the guide to get to me, I immediately asked him to take me down.
“No Madame, you have trekked 6 days to get to this point, I have been watching you, you are a strong woman, follow me and we will get to the top” the rest is history. I forever remain indebted to Herbert, for being extremely professional and encouraging at my weakest moment, I pulled myself to the top, took amazing photos on the Margherita, I was very proud of myself and glad that despite of the negative energy derived from the group, there was one positive person that made my dream come true.
Coming down the glacier was a lot of effort as well, I remember breaking down into tears at some point as I was exhausted, fatigued and dehydrated. Herbert didn’t look so well either, my crampons came off so many times that I nearly gave up and opted to spend a night on the glacier, either way Herbert never gave up on me, I remember us getting down at 7pm. We had spent almost 12 hours struggling to go up and get down, this is not recommended at the glacier as its risky. I was back at the camp by midnight, totally devastated and torn, I had dinner, didn’t bother to have a shower and instantly fell asleep.
Trekking the Rwenzori’s-Day 8-16th July-John Matte hut
The trek down was really painful as my legs were hurting from the previous day, I walked really slowly with Denis, I was very exhausted so we maintained a really slow pace. I spent most of the day taking pictures and wishing to get out of the mountain. The trek took approximately 7 hours, we continued to bond as usual till we got to the camp. I was not comfortable being around the group after all that had transpired at the glacier, I had my supper in silence and spent most of my time outside speaking to the guides, I went to bed early and asked Denis if we could wake up as early as 5 am before the others so that I could leave.
I was up at 4am, packed my bags, woke Denis up and one more guide and we were off on our own. This was one of the best days for I knew I was finally going home, it was also relaxing for me because I was away from the group. We cracked jokes, laughed, finished up my chocolates, we were later joined by two of the other porters who were carrying my heavier bags, we all walked joyfully till we got to the exit gate. I have never felt so relieved to be back to civilization, I quickly signed out as I waited for a boda-boda to pick me up and transport me to the Sandton hotel in Kasese town.
It was very emotional for me to say good-bye to all these lovely people that had carried my bags and guided my walk, they felt like family, we exchanged contacts and bid each other farewell. I was so emotional. I wanted to cry so much. I wished I could offer them a better life, I felt they deserved a much more rewarding pay for their efforts, since I work for a tour company I promised to recommend them to any of my clients or friends who would wish to trek the Rwenzori’s.
One lesson well learnt from the Rwenzori’s is negative people and negative company are dangerous in our lives. We should always try to surround ourselves with positive people especially during strenuous/difficult situations.
I forever remain indebted to Herbert, Denis, Hannington , Robert all the guides, cooks and potters that work tirelessly to ensure we have a safe enjoyable trek yet they earn peanuts for their hard work. It is my wish that one day I will be in a position to transform their lives and ensure they earn a much more rewarding pay.