Exotic Hikes: Rainmaker. The Rwenzori Mountains of Uganda

It was raining monkeys. Colobus monkeys, that is, flinging themselves through the air, 50 to 70 feet, from tree to tree, leaves drifting downward on top of us. Between the cascading river and the colobus thrashing through the treetops, the rainforest of Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains was nearly deafening.

It was raining monkeys. Colobus monkeys, that is, flinging themselves through the air, 50 to 70 feet, from tree to tree, leaves drifting downward on top of us. Between the cascading river and the colobus thrashing through the treetops, the rainforest of Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains was nearly deafening.

This was just one of the many unexpected moments experienced while trekking in the Rwenzoris. It was a journey full of unknowns, through knee-deep muddy bogs from 10,000 to 14,000 feet, across open moorlands and up steep glaciers to the highest summit of Mount Stanley, Margherita Peak, at 16,763 feet, the highest point in Uganda.

I had good luck convincing friends Craig Fernandez, 52, and Danny Trudeau, 65, to accompany me on my fifteenth trip to Africa in January 2019. The Rwenzoris had played on my mind since 1990, when the film Mountains of the Moon was released, starring Patrick Bergin and Iain Glen as British explorers Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke. The film follows the two men on an epic quest to discover the source of the Nile in 1857-1858. It was a brutal journey full of hardships and with the men eventually becoming bitter rivals.

The Rwenzori Mountains were mentioned on multiple occasions in the writings of Burton and Speke as they searched for the Nile’s source. After several more difficult expeditions into Africa’s central interior, Speke was credited with the discovery of Lake Victoria, the true source of the Nile although a small portion of the Rwenzoris also feeds the Nile. Later, in 1906, Italian Luigi Amedeo, Duke of Abruzzi, led a team on the first successful ascent of Margherita Peak, naming it after Queen Margherita of Italy. Today the mountain range is a World Heritage Site.

Peaks and Valleys

The Rwenzori Trekking Services website didn’t lie. It sternly warned potential trekkers and climbers that the terrain is steep, difficult, with lots of muddy bogs and that a certain fitness level is required.

After summiting Mount Kilimanjaro twice (1996, 2009) and Mount Kenya once (1997), I realized the first week that to reach the tallest peak in the Rwenzoris required more effort. In fact, the Rwenzoris possess six of Africa’s ten highest summits, with Margherita Peak the third highest in all of Africa.

For me, the mud was the biggest surprise. On Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya it was located in the dense tropical rainforests at their base. That wasn’t the case in the Rwenzoris. The only region we didn’t encounter huge swaths of mud was at Margherita Camp (14,700 feet), the last camp before going for the summit.

From the moment we left the Trekkers Hostel in Kilembe (4,785 feet) with our guides Samuel and Rogers, we began our ascent through the incredible vegetation zones for which the Rwenzoris are known. The walk leading into the rainforest was brimming with smiling, laughing and playful Ugandan kids, my digital camera being all the rage when I played back those beautiful, curious smiles.

There’s a lot of wildlife in the Rwenzoris, but spotting any of the forest antelopes, reptiles, birdlife and raucous primates was another matter. The rainforest was dense and wet, and the steady rush of creeks and waterfalls helped conceal the sounds of the forest.

Transition Zones

Beyond the rainforest, thick stalks of bamboo sure came in handy as we ascended the narrow spines of many narrow ridges. They provided sturdy hand-holds when the ground became steep and slippery. It felt like we were trekking the back of some type of sea serpent, its rolling spine never ceasing until we reached our first overnight at Kalalama Camp (10,276 feet).

What was most impressive during this time were all the mountain guides and porters lugging huge packs, bags of food and other essential items to the camps hidden throughout the vegetation zones and up to the higher elevations. Not one of the porters was without a smile on the ever-changing terrain, and they always offered a hello even when the terrain was at its most challenging.

We were in a transition zone at the Kalalama Camp. The bamboo was on the wane and the tall canopy of the heather forest was hovering above our first significant plateau. Wisps of usnea beard lichens clung to the heather trees offering much-needed shade on a precipice where cozy cabins awaited several tuckered-out trekkers.

But fatigue was soon forgotten with our first sunset and the next morning’s sunrise, a fireball of orange rising above Uganda’s sweeping eastern savannah. The dawn of a new day in the Rwenzoris was thoroughly enjoyable with a cup of hot tea and a brimming bowl of porridge with honey and chunky peanut butter, fuel for the trek to the next camp.

Of Boardwalks and Ladders

The long stretches of muddy bogs were something to behold, especially above 12,000 feet. The guides and porters, doubling as trail crews, had constructed long sections of boardwalks above some of the worst of the bogs and also built ladders up and down the most challenging ascents and down-climbs. We were above treeline, leaving the wisps of the heather forest in our wake and forging ahead through the impressive moorlands of the Rwenzoris.

Trekking across the moorlands was stunning. The throng of otherworldly vegetation that cloaked those daunting peaks sometimes made us forget about the mud entirely. Every now and then we would stop and simply look around, the 360-degree mountain views were utterly breathtaking. Giant lobelias, forests of giant groundsel trees, endless mounds of tussock grasses, Saint John’s wort and other vegetation dominated the mountain landscape.

Above 13,000 feet we began to experience the alpine lakes hidden in the Rwenzoris. The first one we came to was Bugata Lake. It seemed every lake was an excellent place to spot some of the impressive birdlife in the range. More than 1,000 species of birds have been documented in Uganda, representing over half of the species found on the entire continent. One of those is the brilliant scarlet-tufted malachite sunbird, endemic to the high-altitude zones of East and Central Africa. Its curved beak, forked, elongated tail and shimmering feathers make it stand out against the vegetation, especially around the nectar-rich giant lobelias.

Well above Bugata Lake we took several moments to soak in the epic views from Bamwanjara Pass at 14,685 feet. We had the first real look across a deep valley toward Margherita and the other high peaks of Mount Stanley, Mount Baker and Mount Speke with swirling plumes of wispy clouds ascending skyward. Then it was a slow, muddy, 2,000-foot descent eventually leading around a couple of tranquil lakes, then down a series of well-placed ladders. From there, it was a 500-foot ascent to Hunwick’s Camp at 13,114 feet.

Into the Mist

Hunwick’s Camp is situated on a plateau overlooking a boardwalk that crosses a valley splitting two vegetated peaks with three lakes. The giant groundsel forests are tall and clustered leading to Margherita Camp. It was our shortest day of trekking, and we were grateful to rest for the ascent to the summit.

The high camp was busy with climbers finishing their summit push, resting, eating and packing up for destinations unknown. All the eating cabins have wood-burning stoves and Margherita Camp is no different. We found it the place to be, to huddle up and stay warm, sort gear and tell stories, the guides and porters chiming in with their own tales of the Rwenzoris.

We were up at 1 AM. It was clouded over but unusually warm outside. Headlamps burning bright, Craig, Danny and I placed one foot in front of the other. I’ve always theorized that it’s better to ascend in the dark because you can’t see how far you need to go, and the darkness doesn’t reveal how difficult the terrain might become. I relayed my theory to my companions, and they bought into it with a subtle nod or a reluctant thumbs-up as we traversed our first glacier, our breaths wafting above our headlamps.

We kept on our crampons while scrambling through a rocky section toward Margherita Glacier. Samuel warned that this glacier was steep, a 70 percent grade and that it would take nearly two hours to traverse. Samuel, Danny and I were tied together and in a good rhythm. Rogers and Craig were tied in together just behind us. One other small group was ahead of us from Switzerland; other climbing teams were behind us.

As we continued our steep ascent, visibility deteriorated to less than 25 feet. Because a series of crevasses crisscross the glacier, Samuel and two of the other lead guides set ice screws into the glacier and fixed lines for everyone to follow. Steadily we traversed, giving each crevasse a wide berth, visibility virtually nonexistent.

Once we reached the overhanging portion of the glacier, visibility slightly improved. From there it was a snow-covered, rocky scramble to the summit. If it had been a clear morning, we would have been able to look across the valley toward Bamwanjara Pass where we stood two days prior. Instead, we settled for milling around the summit post at 16,763 feet.

An Animalistic Descent

Sometimes it’s tougher coming down than going up.

That was clearly the case in the Rwenzoris. Many of those descents were in slippery mud. We’d been lucky up to that point in not having to endure any rain. However, when we left Hunwick’s Camp we were in a lot of mud, steady rain and some snow. Plus we were on a different route and two days away from the trekking hostel. From Hunwick’s it was almost a 2,000-foot ascent to the top of Oliver’s Pass (15,000 feet); then an arduous descent through narrow gorges to each plateau where giant groundsels soaked in all the moisture. They acted as natural water catchments, and I sipped occasionally from those smooth, thick leaves.

On the descent, we did enjoy some nice diversions. The first was the best, albeit brief—the sight of a red duiker, a small, stocky, but shy, mountain antelope. Once back in the rainforest, the head porter, Paul, and I veered off briefly on an alternate route for more bird sightings. That produced a cinnamon-chested bee-eater and another sunbird of the red-chested variety.

Farther along, Paul spotted in dense vegetation a pair of blue monkeys tight-roping with utter aplomb a narrow branch. They were across the river from us, but when they spotted us, they made a point of creating a lot of noise either by vocalizing or thrashing through the rainforest.

Danny, Craig and I had made a special request of the guides and porters. We wanted to see a chameleon, which initially felt like spotting a dime at the bottom of the ocean, but they came through in a pinch, showing us not just one, but two different species of chameleons in the rainforest all within a few feet of each other. A young, three-horned chameleon scaled Roger’s sleeve. The other species was a giant chameleon. Away from vegetation it flashed at least six different colors. Once back in the trees, it blended in only like a chameleon can, vanishing in the rainforest of the Rwenzoris, a mountain range brimming with natural wonders from its highest peaks to its smallest inhabitants.

Photo: David Anderson