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Published: November 7th 2013
We left the lake and drove through Queen Elizabeth National Park, stopping as we crossed the equator to pose for the obligatory photo next to the sign. We were heading for a three day trek in the Rwenzori mountains. In contrast to the rest of the roadtrip, this had actually been planned quite carefully in advance. The Rwenzoris have a reputation for being extremely beautiful, and much less touristy than most trekkable mountains in East Africa. They also have a reputation for rain… in fact, they’re known as “the rainmakers”. When we asked the course director what the place was like, he pulled a face and gave a one word answer. Wet.
The sky clouded over as we got closer, and things started looking stormy. Just as someone said “I’m sure the weather won’t be THAT bad”, the most impressive stormcloud I have ever seen broke on the horizon. It looked exactly like a mushroom cloud, the column of rain was so dense it seemed to be exploding from the ground up rather than falling from the sky. We never drove through it, much to my disappointment, because I do love a good storm. It skirted around us, spattering just
a few fat drops of rain on the windscreen.
We drove though Kasese towards Kilembe, attempting to follow directions to the headquarters of Rwenzori Trekking Services, but could go no further after the road lead to the remains of a spectacularly collapsed bridge dangling over a river. Clearly something strange had happened here quite recently. Several buildings nearby were split open down the middle, with all the rooms on display, like a doll's house. The whole area had a ghost town feel, heightened by the stormy weather. Later we learn that a huge flood swept through here a year ago, but the town had already been partially abandoned after the closure of a local mine. Unable to go any further, we call the trekking company and they agreed come meet us. While we waited (a long time) we amused ourselves playing a ball game with some kids who appeared out of nowhere. Getting overly competitive because I don’t like being beaten by 8 year olds, I somehow managed to lose a shoe whilst running, then trip and faceplant into a pile of rocks. The children, obviously, are delighted by this. Someone from the trekking company eventually turns up to
rescue us, explaining that we have to drive over the makeshift bridge a little way downstream. This bridge appeared to be constructed entirely from twigs and string. Some members of our group had grave concerns about the structural integrity of the bridge. As we lined up the car, with six people inside, to make the crossing, one of the locals started recording us on his phone. Presumably he was hoping that we would plunge into the water, so he could sell the video to some kind of Ugandan version of You’ve Been Framed. This didn’t happen, and with a little help from the 4WD we slithered up the bank on the other side.
The slight inaccessibility of the Rwenzori Trekking Services (and its associated hostel, where we stayed before and after the trip) is more than compensated for by the prettiness of its location, a valley at the foot of the mountains in a small village that clearly doesn’t see many tourists. I would happily recommend these guys, the trip was brilliant, everything was organised flawlessly, the food was great, all of the staff we met were lovely, I can’t fault them on anything. They also have the hottest
shower I’ve had so far in Africa.
So the morning of day one we set off in our walking boots and daft trekking clothes, hit the first steep climb on the way out of the village and were promptly overtaken by a small lady in flipflops with a toddler strapped to her back. Two kilometres later, having scrambled up through fields and villages to the entrance of the national park, we flicked through the sign-in book for October and September. There were gaps of up to a week where not a soul had passed through here. That’s the best thing about the Rwenzoris. It feels genuinely remote. We didn’t run into another person, never mind another tourist, for three whole days. Contrast this to Kilimanjiro national park, which sees something like 30,000 a year and has been described as “a traffic jam”. The highest peak in the Ruwenzoirs is 5000m, which is pretty impressive, but since we only had 3 days we never made it much above 3500m.
In defence of the mountains, we didn’t get rained on once. Not while we were walking. Each day we reached camp at around 2pm, just in time to dodge the
The view down over the border into the DR Congo.
afternoon downpour. I don’t know whether this was luck, or if there’s a predictable pattern to the weather. Even so, wetness was a prominent feature. We were often surrounded by thick damp fog, which soaks you insidiously. It feels like being inside a cloud and makes for some very dramatic, murky photos… trees in silhouette draped with wispy tendrils of moss, colloquially named “old man’s beard”. There were also swamps that forced us to change into wellies and pick our way through, balancing on rocks and tree roots, where taking a wrong step plunges you into deep, thick mud that sucks the boots off your feet.
There are lots of little mircoclimates within the mountains, which keeps things interesting. As well as the swamp and the mist we also walked through woodland that reminded me of home, something that looked like tropical rainforest and an incongruous, confusing ‘bamboo zone’ (not a plant I ever associated with Africa). My least favourite part was the place the giant Labelia flowers grow, where the ground was made up of strange spongy moss which on closer inspection turned out to consist of around 25% tiny jumping spiders. Another low point was having to
I don't know what was in the grim tent, but we slept in nice huts.
sit down while giant biting ants were picked out of my hair. We saw groups of Blue Monkeys, flinging themselves around over our heads, far above in the tops of the trees. They were wild enough to have the decency to be scared of us, unlike the monkey we met in Tanzania that stole my banana. On the final day one of our guides found a chameleon, with jewel coloured skin and swivelling telescopic eyes. When I picked him up he dug in his sharp little claws and hiked determinedly up my arm. He’s my favourite wild animal I've ever been lucky enough to hold. Beautiful tiny little dinosaur.
We stayed in huts on the mountain, which felt like cheating, and got fed incredibly well (one morning we were astonished to find they’d produced a full English cooked breakfast). Reaching camp so early each day meant we had spare time to go searching for waterfalls, and lots of evenings with nothing to do. This lead to much setting fire to things, silly games and singing. My advice to anyone reading this would be to bring a pack of cards, or you might end up resorting to singalongs with no
music and make the disturbing discovery that one of your friends thinks the lyrics to Summer of 69 start with “I had my first real sex dream”.
After our trek finished but before we left the Rwenzoris, I had a 4 wheel drive lesson in the car (having previously been banned from touching the ‘special gearstick’). This is so much more fun than it looks. We crawled up into the hills at impossible angles on paths I would have thought should be completely impassable. Eventually we reached a village which, judging by people’s reaction, doesn’t see many vehicles. Swarms of local kids left sticky handprints on the car, climbing on the bumper and on us, pulling at our hands and clothes and hair, demanding to take us to see their school.
At some point on the way to Kampala the next day, we stopped to grab food at a tiny roadside hut with the word RESTAURANT painted on the side. The only other customer seated at the rickety wooden table was one of the dreaded traffic policeman, in immaculate white uniform, complete with hat. He was friendly and polite and helpful, chatting away to us in perfect English,
interested in our journey, giving advice about roads and directions. At this point I felt a degree of guilt for regarding him and his kind as the natural enemies of the Mzungo Roadtrip, but mostly I’m just happy he didn’t ask to see my expired drivers licence.
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