Outdoor World

Mountains of the moon: climbing Uganda’s highest peak

The remote Rwenzori mountains, on the Uganda/ DRC margin, offering treks through differed and stunning sceneries and a fulfill but challenging peak, with none of the crowds found at Kilimanjaro

Adventure travel

Claudius Ptolemy, the Greco-Roman mathematician, astronomer and parent of geography, called the Rwenzori range the Mountains of the Moon, and I think he got it about right. Starlight beamed down on the convex glaciers surrounding our camp near Uganda’s western margin, causing them to glow like resting lunar crescents.

I should have been sleeping the nighttime before my endeavor on the Rwenzori’s loftiest crest, 5,109 -metre Mount Stanley’s summit, Africa’s third-highest mountain, but altitude headaches continued me awake. I supposed back to a similar sleepless night at Kilimanjaro some years earlier. I remembered then seeming sure I would succeed, and when summit day came, I duly trudged along in a torchlight procession to the top, one of 50, 000 climbers who attempt Kilimanjaro each year.

Uganda map

Yet this endeavour stirred self-doubt. Little-known and less frequently climbed, the 120 km-long Rwenzori range, on the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo( DRC ), isn’t as high as Kilimanjaro but involves greater technical knowledge and an endurance I wondered if I possessed. The name Rwenzori intends “rainmaker” and the mountain can be notoriously muddied and tiring to clamber, though this was the comparatively dry season, from December to February.

Rwenzori national park, nine hours’ drive west of Kampala, offers crowd-free hiking and a sense of wilderness absent on Kilimanjaro. Official statistics been demonstrated that between January and October 2017, only 693 people trekked its higher reaches. During this eight-day trek with a friend, we satisfied simply 10 other hikers- and not one tearful celebrity doing their bit for charity.

Climbers
Climbers sleep in static tents or wooden shanties, spacious enough for bunkbeds

So why do so few people come trekking here? Australian, John Hunwick, 69, who runs Rwenzori Trekking Services, first came in 1991.” I recognized so much promise and wanted to open up the trails, but then the Rwenzoris were overrun by Congolese rebels ,” he said.

In around 1996, as retaliation for Uganda supporting breakaway commonwealth South Sudan, the North Sudanese helped Allied Democratic Forces( ADF) rebels in Congo to launch attacks from the Rwenzoris aimed at destabilising Uganda.” It certainly wasn’t safe to trek then ,” Hunwick said. Uganda drove the ADF back into Congo in around 2001 but they continued to launching sporadic forays.

Hunwick assured me the Rwenzoris have been safe and tranquil since 2009, and his outfit has opened trails and camps all the way to Mount Stanley’s highest spike, Margherita Peak. The FCO advice on visiting western Uganda has softened in recent years: it reports no incidents involving visitors but alerts travellers to be vigilant of political demonstrations.

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The bamboo region, at 2,800 metres

Hunwick’s treks range from a day or two to full-on seven- or eight-day expeditions to summit Margherita. But even those merely dipping a toe inside the national park will be awed.

During two breathless first days we moved through tropical woods of gargantuan fig trees that chattered with blue monkeys into the bamboo region at 2,800 metres, with percussive accompaniment from stems rattling in the crosswinds. The ascending is steep and trekkers need a degree of stamina-based fitness training to cope with the rapid gains in altitude. A head for statures is preferable for the summit push, but no technological climbing abilities are required.

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The mossy heather region, above 3,500 metres

The mossy heather zone above 3,500 metres was surreal: Unesco calls it” Africa’s botanical big game “. Its supersized heather trees looked like Dartmoor on steroids, and lobelias the size of Mexican cacti were all draped with lichen beards more Gandalf than hipster. In these higher zones we saw scat from a rarely learnt feline, the Rwenzori leopard, and marvelled at the iridescent colours of endemic sunbirds probing blooms with their curved bills.

The daily routine proved simple. We’d walk up to eight hours between campsites with static tents resembling Anderson shelters or wooden shanties, spacious enough for bunkbeds with comfortable mattresses. Days began with porridge and conclude with hearty pasta bowls or local fare such as rolex ( eggy chapatti wraps ). At Mutinda Camp, on day 2, I rained under a glacier-fed cascade, my yelping maybe outdoing the nocturnal rock hyraxes, whose default call is just like they’re being savagely murdered.

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Porters cooking on the climbing.

My presence was also contributing to the economic prospects of the local Bakonjo people, a Bantu ethnic group who farm the gradients of the Rwenzoris. My guide, Bwambalee Joshua, was heading a group of nine porters.” I was a geography educator but the wages were poor, so I became a guide ,” he said. He told me that mineworkers at the Chinese-owned Kilembe copper mine in the foothills are paid about 3,000 shillings( 66 p) a day, while doormen earn PS3 a day and guides double this, plus a PS20 bonus for getting clients to the summit.

After five days, my first view of Mount Stanley from the 4,450 -metre Bamwanjara Pass was of a slightly sinister and brooding multi-peaked massif shrouded in cloud, with glaciers that is actually did shine like little moons.

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A opinion from one of the mountain camps

Mike from Minnesota was on his way down: looking much younger and fitter than me, he pulled me out of my daydream.” What a clamber ,” he exclaimed.” Man that was tough clambering over stones and ice. I intend this to be a warm-up for Kilimanjaro, but I should have done it the other way around .”

The last vegetated scenery before the bumpy Margherita summit camp at 4,485 metres is the magnificent Scott Elliot pass, stately as a Scottish glen with cliffs stained orange with lichen. Elliot comes within the framework of the team who first defeated Mount Stanley in 1906. It was led by an Italian aristocrat, the Duke of Abruzzi, who named the highest point after Queen Margherita of Italy.

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Margherita camp, towards the summit

Summit day started around 3am with the clatter of harnesses and crampons being fitted. Joshua appeased my anxiety by reminding me that 90% of climbers induce the summit. In the event, while the morning demonstrated many times more gruelling than summiting Kilimanjaro, it was thrilling to evolve from trekker to mountaineer.

Several non-taxing clambers on fixed ropes took us in quiet darkness to Stanley glacier. With crampons secured, we crunched across an ice plain of disintegrating slush.” These glaciers have halved in size over the past five years ,” noted Joshua.

Stanley
On Stanley glacier heading towards the summit. Photo: Mark Stratton

Dawn cracked over Margherita glacier: a steep icy stairway towards the summit that took us two hours to climb. I scaled it pace by exhausted pace, gulping air profoundly, temples pounding as we approached 5,000 metres, crampons biting from time to time into 40 -degree slopes. Joshua ran ahead belaying by rope and secure ice-pins. Crevasses exposed fairy grottoes of blue icicles.

Beyond a ridge joining Alexandra( 5,091 metres) and Margherita crests, I clambered over frozen boulders to the summit. Upon realise the sign welcoming me to Uganda’s highest point I welled up like a, umm,” tearful celebrity”, intense joy mingling with tirednes. The cloud had cleared to uncover a vistum more complex and striking than I recollected from Kilimanjaro’s volcanic rim. Surrounded by glaciers and bumpy crests, I looked south down the Albertine rift valley to Lake George and west into DRC.

A number of escapade tour operators have added the Rwenzoris to their booklets for 2018, so its popularity seems set to increase. But for those working moments standing fatigued and instead emotional at having completed one of Africa’s greatest adventures, we revelled in being the only summiteers that day.

Way to go

The trip was provided by UK tour operator Gane& Marshall, which offers eight-day treks to Mount Stanley for PS1, 098 pp for two , not including flights. Flights were provided by Visit Uganda: Ethiopian Airlines flies from Heathrow to Entebbe( via Addis Ababa) from PS483 return. Help with in-country logistics was provided by Rwenzori Trekking Service

Read more: https :// www.theguardian.com/ travelling/ 2018/ jan/ 08/ climbing-rwenzori-mountains-uganda-africa-third-highest-mountain

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