Mountaineering :: Trekking :: Ski touring

 

Rwenzori Mountains Uganda Dec 2002/Jan 2003


I was approached and asked to organise a 2 week climbing expedition to Uganda leaving the UK at the end of December 2002. The party comprised of six climbers plus myself. The outline itinerary prepared for this group is reproduced at the foot of this page. The main narrative of the expedition was written by Simon Stubbings, one of the members of the group.


David Hamilton

 

A Lunatic Walk

An Account of an Excursion to the Mountains of the Moon in January 2003.

 

The Rwenzori Mountains lie on the Uganda/Congo border.  It is claimed that they are the "Mountains of the Moon" referred to by the Greek geographer, Ptolemy in his maps showing the source of the Nile which he produced in c.AD 150.  With Mounts Kilimanjaro and Kenya they form a triarchy of snow clad peaks close to the equator in East Africa.  The vegetation is unique on all three mountains, moving as one ascends through a tropical rain forest zone via alpine with its giant tree heathers to semi desert with its giant groundsels and lobelias and ultimately ice and snow.  However such is the topography of the Rwenzori that the zones are less clearly defined than in the other two mountains with flora associated with different altitudes frequently overlapping.


The expedition was inspired by Malcolm Alexander, a stripling of 59 years, who had spent some years in Uganda on leaving university and had long planned to return to explore the mountains.  In recruiting companions, he unwisely treated his original selection to a slide show illustrating the walk.  This was so accurately presented that they all with one exception turned the opportunity down.  The exception was John Brocklebank who mentioned the trip to me.


Brought up in Tanzania I had heard of the Rwenzori as representing a rather more vigorous challenge than the clean cut climbing that was to be had on Kilimanjaro.  I had also barely been in Uganda before.  A trip that combined an opportunity to experience both therefore seemed too good a chance to miss, especially as I learnt that Malcolm had asked a professional British guide, David Hamilton, to lead the expedition thus relieving my concerns about the technical difficulties involved.


The party was completed by three climbers who had been on other expeditions with David.  Patrick Bird worked for a British oil company in Pakistan.  Leslie Oqvist had a job with the United Nations co-ordinating aid into Afghanistan; while Ruth Credo hailed from Johannesburg where she worked in the investment field.


The ages in this party of seven ranged from early-40's to late-50's and the speed of progress generally reflected this disparity in years so that the older and more sluggish members were able to keep to their own sedate pace confident in the knowledge that the young athletes would be comfortably ahead of them and that the arrangements for the night would be well in hand by the time they tottered into the camp.  (We were initially impressed that David spent most of his time with the slower group, appreciating his sense of caring and self-sacrifice.  However, this feeling of appreciation dissipated somewhat when he explained that he was compiling a photographic record of the trip and felt that he was more likely to get a disaster picture of walkers floundering in the bog with our group than by accompanying the more experienced walkers.)


We set off on New Year's Day.  We had met the head guide, Joel, the previous evening when he came to our hotel in Kasese at the foot of the mountains.  Early the following morning we were driven to Ibanda by Daniel Lule who had undertaken the job of transporting us around Uganda.  At Ibanda some time was spent selecting porters and weighing and distributing the loads.  The porters' loads, which weighed 22kg each, were carried in hessian bags.  The mouths of these bags were closed with strips of bark, a loop of which was fashioned to fit over the porter's forehead.  The weight of the load was therefore balanced on the porter's back supported by his neck.  Good training for front row forwards no doubt, but perhaps not recommended for the uninitiated.


Our allocation of porters seemed enormous.  The cooking was done on charcoal, which is of course bulky to carry, and in addition to our own provisions there were those of the porters themselves to be borne.  In all our party comprised 48 people of whom only seven were climbers.  This employment is doubtless good for the local economy but placed heavy strains on the rudimentary paths on the mountain, which were for the most part a morass.


In addition to Joel, we had an assistant guide, Samson.  Cooking was in the hands of Buluku who produced excellent meals throughout.  We were also furnished with a game ranger, Hamid, complete with Kalashnikov rifle.  Hamid was to prove himself a mine of information and good company on the walk.  The rifle was allegedly to keep the elephants at bay.  Since we saw no sign of these animals throughout the eight days we were in the mountain, as a deterrent it was clearly effective.


An Austrian party of 10 climbers with its accompanying entourage of guides and porters was also starting on the same day, as were one or two others.  There would thus be over 100 pairs of feet walking on our route every day.  It was also clear that hut space would be at a premium.


The walk started from Ibanda at about 11:00 am.  Initially it comprised a gentle stroll along a road to the entry to the National Park.  We did this in the company of our guides while the porters hurried past at a much less leisurely pace.  This was to be the daily pattern of events.


Once we were in the Park the road ended and was replaced by a very reasonable path, which gave us no inkling of what was to lie ahead.  At the bridge over the Mahoma River, Hamid produced a three-horned chameleon, which he had discovered.  This is a creature apparently peculiar to the Rwenzori.  Once over the Mahoma the path rose steeply until the camp-site at Nyabitaba (2650m) was gained.  We reached this at about 4:00 pm.


At Nyabitaba our premonitions on the paucity of hut space were realised.  With the Austrians and sundry others there was not room for all of us in the hut so two of our tents were brought into commission and I gave my bivouac tent an airing under a rock shelter.  The evening was clear affording us a fine view of the Portal Peaks opposite the Nyabitaba ridge.  In addition, during a walk along the next day's path, members of the party saw the colourful Rwenzori Turaco.


The following day our travails began.  We started about 8:30am.  This was to be the pattern except where ascent called for an earlier commencement.  About a quarter of a mile after the camp the path split.  Since we intended to proceed round the Rwenzori Circuit in an anti-clockwise direction we branched right.  The path was reasonable enough down the hill to the bridge over the Mubuku River, at that point having just been enlarged by its junction with the Bujuku.  Thereafter, however, it clung to the hillside and progress was made by clambering over boulders and tree roots.  Indeed from this stage until the end of the walk the going was tough almost without remission.  One found oneself yearning for any terrain other than that which was under foot at the time.  Accordingly while plunging through a bog one pined for boulders; in clambering over these boulders even slippery tree roots seemed preferable; and it did not take much time amongst the trees before one's thoughts turned back nostalgically towards bogs again.


With this erratic terrain, it was difficult to maintain any sort of rhythm and the combination of the effort and altitude (coupled with my general lack of fitness) found me frequently breathless.  The boulders seemed to go on interminably.  However eventually we lunched by a stream, which effectively signalled the end of them, for that day at least.  Lunch was meat sandwiches.  The bread, which had been bought in Kampala three days before, was already showing its maturity and was difficult to swallow.  (Nor did it improve over the ensuing days when nursery-like we were urged by David to force it down on the grounds that "it did us good").  The rain that had held off hitherto decided at this moment to pelt down, as indeed it did every day we were on the mountain at about this time.  All in all lunch on our second day was not a repast to relish.


Shortly after the picnic we passed the old Nyamuleju Hut (3320m) in which the majority of the Austrian party were sensibly sheltering.  We plunged on however.  The boulders had given way to a boggy path providing a foretaste of the next day's journey through the notorious Bigo Bog.


Eventually we reached the John Matte Hut (3380m).  This was a relatively new, three roomed, affair, which provided accommodation for almost all the climbers, although some had also pitched tents alongside.  The Bujuku River flowed close to the hut and gave us an opportunity to wash.  The temperature of the water did not encourage a lingering immersion, however.


At the John Matte Hut we saw the first giant lobelias.  These were to be a great treat later where we to enjoy the sight of sunbirds feeding on their blossom.  Generally we were to be well served by flora with the white and pinks of everlasting flowers providing a staple in addition to which orchids, St John's Wort and others bloomed in profusion.


As it turned out the navigation of the Bigo Bogs was less arduous than I had imagined although my boots were soaked early on.  In passing the lower bog we clung to the side of the hill and avoided most of its enormities.  The transit of the upper bog was made easier by a horizontal log ladder that had been constructed.  For the most part it was only necessary to adjust one's stride to the rungs to avoid putting one's inadequate gaiters to the test.  These rungs were not always evenly spaced however, producing results as predictable as they were amusing to all but the victim himself.


Once through the bogs we climbed up a steepish path following the river to its source at Lake Bujuku.  This we reached in the afternoon mist and it presented an eerie sight.  Skirting the lake we had a foretaste of bogs to come and it was a mud-bespattered group that eventually assembled at the Bujuku Hut (3977m).  The Austrians had decided to make a short day of it and stay at the Bigo Hut so for once we had plenty of room in which to spread ourselves.


An early start the following day saw us on our way up Mount Speke.  Before sunrise we enjoyed a pleasant walk up to the Stuhlmann Pass (4160m).  Sunbirds were feeding on the giant lobelias and the giant groundsel provided a picturesque foreground to a view of the dawn lighting up Mount Stanley.


From the Stuhlmann Pass we started the ascent with a climb up some rock slabs.  These provided an interesting scramble culminating in a slight overhang.  This was followed by a pleasant walk in the sun, before some more scrambling over rocks brought us to the snow.  Here we donned crampons and roped up.  The going became more laborious as the progress of the experienced climbers was hampered by me and the other tyros.  In addition the weather had closed in and the route became a dreary upward plod with no views to refresh one.  Eventually however we reached Vittorio Emanuele Peak (4890m) at about 1:00 pm.


The journey down was also slowed by the need to rope up to protect the less experienced.  By the time we arrived back at the Bujuku Hut some of us had been on the move for just under 12 hours.  The Austrians had arrived and Patrick and I shared a tent rather than endure the crowded hut.


The following day was to be a short stage to Elena Hut so that we were poised for our attempt on Mount Stanley.  The route from the Lake Bujuku Cirque up Groundsel Gully however was very boggy and it was with some relief that we climbed the ladders to the point where the routes to the Scott-Elliott Pass and Elena diverged.  From there on a certain amount of rock scrambling brought us to Elena.


Elena Hut (4540m) is a simple structure perched among the boulders beneath Mount Stanley.  We nestled into sleeping bags while David wrestled with paraffin stoves and I had my most restful night of the trip before we woke up next day at 4:30am for the climb to Mount Stanley.


Scrambling over the boulders in the dark was a little tricky at first but we reached the snow before dawn and put our crampons on.  From here we slogged in clear weather up to the Stanley Plateau.  As it was still frozen the snow was quite firm and easier to walk on.  We plodded across the Stanley Plateau (4850m).  The peaks of Margherita (5109m) and Alexandra (5091m) beckoned at the northern end.  To the northeast we were able to catch glimpses of Mount Speke through the cloud cap that it seemed perpetually to attract.  This walk, whilst reasonably gentle, was my undoing.  The angle of the plateau put pressure on my right knee, which had given me problems in the past.  When we came down the slope before the final climb to Maragarita I slipped and twisted the knee.  David concluded that with this injury I would be too much of a drag on the rest of the party.  This was disappointing since we were not much more than an hour from the top.  However it was clear that I would be a liability if I were to continue.  Accordingly he cut the rope and I plodded back down with Samson.


After pausing at Elena Hut to get into lighter clothes, we went back over the Scott-Elliott Pass (4370m) down to Kitandara Hut.  Apart from the last muddy section, the going was reasonably good.  Samson warned that we should move quickly when in the shadow of Mount Baker lest we were hit by rocky debris shed by the mountain as the overnight ice thawed.  Fortunately we survived.


Kitandara Hut (4027m) is splendidly situated beside one of the two Kitandara Lakes.  Because it seemed likely to be crowded, I shared a tent outside with John.  The campsite was graced with a number of friendly seeming rodents.  They eschewed our tent, however, sensibly concluding that there were richer pickings to be had elsewhere.


Because David and Patrick had hurt themselves on the way down from Mount Stanley and due to a general inertia, the decision was taken to abandon any attempt on Mount Baker.  There was no dissension.  We thus set off for Guy Yeoman Hut up the steep Freshfield Pass (4280m), which rises directly above Kitandara.  Once over the Pass we progressed over some fairly boggy terrain before coming down to Bujongolo rock shelter (3760m), the site of the Duke of Abruzzi's 1906 headquarters when he embarked on his major exploration of the range.  We then plunged down to the beautiful Kabamba waterfall before ending the day at the Guy Yeoman Hut (3450m).


As it was to be our last one on the mountain, the evening here was characterised by an end-of-term spirit with reserves of alcohol being disgorged and passed around.  The hut too was a pleasant one similar to the John Matte Hut with room for all who needed it.


The final day started early, although I personally postponed for as long as possible the discomfort of donning wet boots and sodden clothes.  Whilst we did not have to struggle with snow and ice, the route managed to combine in one day all the other unattractive features of the rest of the walk.  The Rwenzoris were not going to release us easily.  After tripping over tree roots we came to a precipitous drop where we slid over boulders down to the river at Kichuchu (2900m), thereafter there was much plunging through bog into which slippery bamboo poles had been placed to provide insubstantial footholds, walking through streams, more bogs, until finally, just as we were despairing of its ever appearing, the junction at Nyabitaba was reached and the Rwenzori Circuit had been completed.  On this last stretch the bamboo zone appeared to be much more prominent than it had on the Bujuku route, but perhaps it was just that everything seemed to take much longer!


After a brief pause at Nyabitaba, we blundered on with our waterlogged boots adorning mud-bespattered legs, down the path to the Mahoma bridge and thence to Ibanda which we reached after 5:00pm.  On this section we saw a blue monkey, which thus joined the chameleon and the rodents at Kitandara as the only fauna encountered on this trip.  At Ibanda our dues were paid, the porters tipped and Daniel was at hand to drive us away, all in various stages of exhaustion.


For me it was an extremely tiring trek comprising eight days of unrelieved hard walking.  Although the actual daily distance covered was minimal (as David's global satellite positioning system tiresomely reminded us) each one of these days seemed longer, and each section more gruelling, than the one before.  Nevertheless as I write this, a mere fortnight later, a feeling of nostalgia is creeping in.  I must fight against it if I am to be true to my pledge: never to find myself battling through the Bigo Bog again in my life.


As with every such venture it is one's companions that make it enjoyable.  Although they were recruited on a fairly haphazard basis, we were lucky in ours.  If they did regret being burdened with a bunch of geriatrics, the younger and fitter members of the party were generous enough not to show it and were always ready with help and advice.  The geriatrics themselves managed to maintain their morale through mutual abuse and encouragement.  Credit for achieving this harmonious mix must go to David's leadership.  He kept us in good humour throughout, despite his despotic insistence that mountaineering is best done on a belly full of stale bread!

 

Simon Stubbings

23 January 2003

 

Rwenzori Mountains Uganda Dec 2002/Jan 2003


Trekking / Climbing Expedition

Itinerary


29 Dec    Overnight flight from UK. BA063 dept LHR 21.25


30 Dec    Arrive at Kampala's Entebbe airport, 08.50. Buy supplies. Overnight in Kampala.


31 Dec    Drive (5-6 hours) to Kasese the regional town, stay overnight in Margherita hotel Kasese .


1 Jan    Drive to Ibanda, the park gate, 1hour from Kasase. Start walking to Nyabitaba hut (2650m, 4-5 hours) through thick rain forest into predominantely Podo forest around the hut. Chance to see Colubus,blue and black monkeys and possibly hear the calls of wild chimps.

 

2 Jan    Begin the circuit to John Matte hut (3380m, 6-8 hours). Walking from Nyabitaba to the confluence of the Bujuku and Muhuku rivers and walking through bamboo and yukka forest and into thinning afro alpine forest band into the heather zone (erica arborea).


3 Jan    Cross and follow (in the river in places!) the Buguku river passing the Bigo hut (3442m). Wet feet today! Cross the lower and upper Bigo bog and negotiate the bog around the Bujuku tarn. The walk is predominantly through typical afro alpine moorland, tussocky with senicio's and the exceptionally large groundsels found here and a chance to see the Rwenzori turracco and hyrax. Continue to Bujuku Hut (3977m) 5-7 hours.


4 Jan    Climb Mount Speke - one of the best ascents in the region (4890m) after a hard approach and return to spend the night at Bujuku hut.


5 Jan    Ascend to Elena hut ( 4540m, 2-3 hours )


6 Jan    Ascend Margherita (5109m) cross the snow saddle, down to Kitandara hut (4027m)


7 Jan   Spare day for attempting Margherita

 

8 Jan   Descend to Nyabitaba (2650m) hut - this is a long walk (7-9 hrs)


9 Jan   Trek off mountain  and drive to Queen Elizabeth national park. o/n lodge


10 Jan  Day in National park.


11 Jan  Day in National park  - trip to visit chimpanzees


12 Jan  Drive back to Kampala. Overnight in Kampala


13 Jan  Daytime flight to UK. BA062 dept 10.25, arr LHR 16.40.

 

On returning from this expedition I refined the itinerary and wrote supplementary information that enabled Jagged Globe to add this expedition to their programme. The most recent version of the itinerary can be found on their website. This has been updated by the guides who have led the Jagged Globe groups in recent years.

 

 

 

 

David Hamilton
High Adventure
67 Castle Road
Hartshill
Nuneaton
Warwickshire
CV10 0SG

Email:  david@highadventure.org.uk

Telephone:    From UK    02476 395422
From other countries     +44 2476 395422

Skype:  davidhamilton8848

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