The sun was all out while a fresh breeze from behind the swaying trees hovered over the tremendously hilly Kyanjuki Village in Kilembe Kasese district, at the foot of the famous Mountains of the Moon.
I together with a group of colleagues under our umbrella group, the Conservation Media Camp, are gathered at the Rwenzori Trekking Services (RTS) hostel where we spent the night in preparation to take on a challenge seemingly alien to us, climbing the Rwenzori Mountains.
The Mountains located in South Western Uganda are the region’s highest block mountains which include Stanley at 5,109 meters, Speke at 4,890 meters, Baker at 4,843 meters, Emin at 4,798 meters, Gessi at 4,715 meters and Savoia at 4,627 meters above sea level.
These are separated by narrow valleys with steep, rocky walls.
Our target was the highest peak Margherita on Stanley, a journey that takes an average of 8 days, ascent and descent but we only had two days to spare and therefore we would not make it to the summit.
It’s 11:20 am we, the Chief Executive Officer of the Uganda Tourism Board Lilly Ajarova and 63-year-old renowned Australian mountain climber Tim McCartney- Snape who has climbed several world peaks are preparing to set off.
A short brief from the operators of the Kilembe trail, RTS ensured to mentally prepare us for the adventure.
The trek then started a little later, taking a small trail through the community of the local Bakonzo people accustomed to building houses on hilltops and setting up gardens on steep slopes.
You only have to walk for a short time before entering the gazetted Rwenzori National Park.
A Uganda Wildlife Authority collection center welcomes you and after a few payments and registration, you can continue deep into the dense and cold rainforest.
We went through the process and off we continued onto a muddy path that snaked further into the forest.
We didn’t know what challenge awaited our unfit selves as we went further.
Meanwhile, the porters carrying our luggage kept loudly whispering to themselves in a local language about how they thought many of us couldn’t make it up the Rwenzoris because of our Kampala lifestyle.
With sincerity, for a minute l was unsure if l could personally make it.
Thousands of questions ran through my mind. How the experience was going to be like? Will I reach the destination? Was l dressed right for the trek in my small sweater, sports bra, smooth trousers, and sports shoes? God l was very comfortable!
In a bid to pump up confidence, my colleagues came up with a saying that somehow gave me courage, “If we die, we die,” which meant that we were determined to climb in all conditions and by all means.
Have courage, I said to myself and of course never have I doubted my ability to do anything like that.
The easiest trick to get to the top according to Jessica, one of our lady guides, is to move at your own pace and not to compete with faster fellows.
I can’t thank her enough for that advice for it surely worked for me.
Rwenzori Mountains National Park
Rwenzori Mountains National Park where the mountains fall, lies in South Western Uganda along the Uganda- DRC border.
The 996 kilometers sized park was gazetted in 1991. It was also recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994 and Ramsar site in 2008.
The park is home to over 70 mammals, 400 species of birds, unique vegetation types at different altitudes of the mountains with the glaciers that melt downstream inform of tiny rivers believed to be a permanent source of water for River Nile.
Some of the mammals are the Rwenzori Leopard, Bush Elephants which are very rare to see. The African Buffalo, Golden cat, long-haired chimpanzees, rwenzori colobus monkeys, and the outstanding three-horned chameleon.
A few minutes into the forest, we were broken into several groups with people walking at different paces. We are still on seemingly flatlands. On either side are lush impenetrable foliage with the sound of insects and birds gracing us with their melodies from high up the forest’s indigenous trees.
My body friction had started to make me sweat and I took intervals of resting and drinking water.
The day’s journey would take us 5 to 7 hours of trekking to the first camp, Sine, which is located at 2,585 meters above sea level where we would spend the night.
As the walk continued through the forest under the scorching sunshine, many of my colleagues, one by one began putting off their heavy clothes as they dripped in sweat.
To navigate some points along the way as tired as I got, I decided to use most of my body parts to push on. When my legs got tired, I supported them with my hands and when I couldn’t move further I rolled on my buttocks, sliding into falls on some occasions.
When our adrenaline was pushed to the wire, we decided to have our packed lunch of roasted chicken, a rolex, mango juice and bananas. The bush lunch in itself was memorable.
We embarked on our trek and the first thing we saw was the three-horned chameleon endemic to these mountains and a particular plant that the locals believe is a good luck charm.
John Hunwick, the Director of Rwenzori Trekking Services said that he first visited the park in 1991 and opted to milk the potential of the place through mountain climbing. After a rigorous exercise to get permission from government, he was able to put up the trails and facilities in the mountains with the help of locals who call him Uncle John.
“The locals have played a big role in developing the mountains, they carry up all the materials used to build and also put up the structures. They are the backbone of all the developments that have taken place,” he said.
It’s around 5pm and we are all finally at the Sine camp. After we fresh up, a warm dinner is served to us that we saw as a relief given our hunger and the stinging cold high up the mountains.
Culture, myths and conservation
After dinner, we had a quick chat with the UWA rangers and our guides. One guide called Joshua was keen on emphasizing the dos and don’ts of the mountain.
For example, it is a taboo to point a finger at any point within the mountains.
“We fold the finger because we believe those mountains are gods. Also while here, no having sex for the spirits will get disturbed by the sounds unless you do it quietly which is hard,” Joshua told us, sending out a thunderous laugh from the group that ran through the forest.
Solomon Mbusa an UWA ranger said that before, women especially when on their periods were not allowed into the mountains for it was believed that they would defile the sanctity of the lands of the gods. Now however, they do.
“It was a big taboo for women to climb the mountains because they believed the mountains were a sacred place for gods. Even up to now people come to perform rituals here,” he said.
The snow on top of the mountains, locals believed was sperm of their ancient great warrior kings.
Mbusa added that the myths together with a traditional attachment of the locals to the mountains has played a key role in the conservation efforts of the national park.
We would later retire to our dormitories for a night’s rest and get ready for the journey back down the following day. As it proved, it too wasn’t an easy one.
We went down steep slopes sliding and falling on several occasions. The journey downwards was however shorter.
The mountains have also played a tremendous role in improving the economy and incomes of the area as tourism booms.
Each tourist climbing the mountain, for example, is accompanied by at least two porters above the age of 18 paid per day.
Climbing the Rwenzori’s even when we didn’t get to the summit was not easy but it was worth it.
The beautiful scenery, obstacle challenges, cool air and the stories told of these mountains are the reason I am already in the gym getting ready to return even fitter for the Margherita Peak challenge sometime this year.
You can, however, get the mountain experience even when you cannot make it to the summit.
Rwenzori Trekking Services offers packages from one day to the ultimate challenge of 8 days at affordable rates.