Trekking in the Rwenzori Mountains
by Stuart Williams
During a rather busy summer, a window of time opened, and my two sons and I had the opportunity to spend four days trekking in the Rwenzori Mountains. After consulting various guidebooks, we opted to travel to Kasese and onto Kilembe – which is the base out of which the Rwenzori Trekking Services (RTS) operate. After contacting the RTS just two days before we hoped to set off, we found that they could fit us in. A deposit was paid at their offices in Kampala (at the Backpackers Hostel and Campsite on Sir Albert Cook Road in Mengo Lungujja) and, relatively early in the morning two days later, we set off from Kampala with all of our trekking kit loaded into the car.
On arrival, some hours later, we witnessed the destruction that the floods in May 2013 had wrought on Kilembe. A repair was being made to the first bridge over the Nyamwamba River but we saw ruined houses, others left standing and isolated on their tall foundations. Further up, the road was cut because the second bridge had not yet been repaired, although there was a temporary structure suitable only for boda-bodas and pedestrians. This meant that we parked the car at RTS’s training centre and carried all of our kit the final few hundred metres, once over the makeshift bridge, to the hostel.
The Trekker’s Hostel itself was perfectly functional, with piping hot showers (something to look forward to when descending from a trek), dormitories and a small restaurant (at which it is advisable to order one’s dinner early). That evening we met with our guides, Karusu and Godwin, who proceeded to give us our briefing for the following day’s activities. (This was the first of our briefings which were to become a daily ritual that invariable began with thanking us for having made it through the day’s trek as if it were for them and them alone that we had performed this favour …)
After a relatively leisurely start, the trek began the next morning. We were to walk from the Trekkers’ Hostel to Sine Hut which at 2,596m was a vertical climb of over a kilometre! There is a walk of just over two kilometres through smallholder farms to the (characteristically pronounced) park boundary and the outpost at which one registers before the path leads into the forest and onto Sine Hut. Sine Hut was small and seemingly plonked on the path that was leading up a ridge. Close by there was a tumbling stream and small path leads from the hut to Enock’s Falls – a small but pretty waterfall. It was here that we learned a lesson: if one wishes to wash in these frigid mountain streams, it is better to do it soon after arrival at the hut – when one is still hot from the climb – rather than waiting until one has cooled down and one is even more susceptible to the bracing water … Back at the hut, we were joined in the bunkhouse by a French woman, trekking alone with her guide and porters, and a Norwegian family of three. Luckily, they were considerate companions, neither taking to snoring nor other less sociable traits when sleeping.
From Sine Hut, the next day, we climbed a further vertical kilometre to spend the second night of the trek in Matinda Camp (3,688m). This camp was tucked under a large rock overhang. If archaeologists were to excavate the floor below the overhang, I would not be surprised to learn were they to find artefacts in the layers under the tents now pitched there. Like all caves or overhangs, there is a fair bit of dust underfoot and the smoke from the cooking fires lingers a little.
Matinda Camp was to be the highest point of our four-day trek and the following day we re-traced our steps for a portion of our walk before branching off along a new path which was to take us to Samalira Camp. Samalira Camp was perched at 3,170m at the top of another ridge but it had views over expanses of Erica (or giant heather) woodlands and down onto the bamboo forests below. Again, there was a small stream nearby and, drawing off our earlier lessons, we took a refreshing wash in it soon after our arrival. Our final day took us back down to the Trekker’s Hut in Kilembe after rejoining our original path not far above the ranger’s post and close to the park boundary.
Trekking in the Rwenzoris may not be for all. While the majority of people snorted in derision as to whether Leo, my younger son, would make it through the four-day trek, the truth is that he fared better than myself or Gabriel, my other son – and I dare say we didn’t do too badly! The walks are steep – and that means steep up (i.e., tiring) and steep down (i.e., tiring and hard work on the knees). Luckily for us, the Rwenzoris – which translates into “the rain-maker” – were sleeping and we were blessed with overcast skies at worst but bright sunshine for much of the time. Others may not be so lucky!
If one does make it, though, it is a magical world in which one travels. Most obvious are the changes in vegetation as one climbs. Walking through the thin line of Eucalyptus trees that mark the boundary of the park from the smallholding farms, one enters a leafy world of life. One is struck immediately by the birdsong. This is the rainforest zone that gives way at around 2,600m to the bamboo zone. Here one walks though the closely pressing, vertically orientated world of bamboo stems. It is here, too, that one appreciates the efforts that RTS has gone to in making the paths for otherwise this world would have been virtually impenetrable. Further up and one enters the Woodlands of Middle Earth. The giant heathers reach for the sky carrying with them enormous cushions of dripping mosses. From other limbs, old man’s beard hangs and sways in any movement of air. We were struck by these ancient woodlands, their thick gnarled trunks and extensive root systems. Again, these roots were cunningly incorporated into the paths as they made convenient ladders up some of the steeper slopes. Among the trees we caught flashes of red and heard the cries of the Rwenzori turacos that frequent these areas. Brightly coloured sunbirds flitted among the diversity of flowering plants. In the valley floors, we came across the unreal gardens of giant lobelias and flowering St John’s Wort. Late at night at Matinda Camp, we awoke to the harrowing screams of the tree hyraces which, curiously, live at ground level here in the Woodlands of Middle Earth.
In stark contrast to this abundant, verdant life, the path to Matinda Camp leads through a section of Erica woodland that has been burned. This area has the appearance of one of the battlefields of Flanders during the Great War. Given the age of the trees and the vast cushions of mosses, one cannot but feel regret in this burned area – all of which leads one to wonder how, in such a moist area, such a fire started and how long it will take for the woodland to re-establish itself. For answers, we only had whispered rumours swirling like wisps of mist among the charred trunks.
In summary, then, it is a trek worth taking not least for the endorphin highs that result from a number of days’ hard walking. We shall be back, next February, with more ambitious plans to go further, to go higher … In the meantime, there are a few things that RTS might think about. First, when we return in February, we would not like to ascend quite as fast as we did on this four-day trek. Climbing or trekking to high altitudes dictates that one should climb 300m per day and take a rest day every 1,000m of ascent. We climbed two vertical kilometres in two days, the effect of which was to be observed in one of the three Norwegians who were walking in tandem with us. Second, I would have also have expected the areas surrounding the huts and camps to be scrupulously clean. Third, while we recognise that some of the huts have been already been renewed or rebuilt, other tents and huts are getting a little tired. Fourth, other people might not have access to lists of recommended trekking equipment and this is an environment in which one needs to be properly equipped. Having such a list on their website should not be too difficult. Finally, RTS will have to be clever and creative about maintaining their paths. They are already expanding their network of paths to accommodate a wider diversity of trekking routes. This is a good thing for it will invite people to return to further explore the area. However, the use of bridging, walkways, boardwalks, and cleverly designed and built steps will be necessary to ensure that the paths remain passable and that the impact of thousands of passing feet remains small. Using the right materials when doing this will be equally important.
Rwenzori Trekking Services