Summit special: Climbing Uganda's highest peak requires stamina, an armed guide... and a pair of Wellington boots
Saturday 22 May 2010
"Bring your right leg up to that little ledge. Come on, it's just one small step." Our guide, Joel, was doing his best to encourage me, at nearly 5,000m up Uganda's Mount Stanley, that the summit was within reach. It may have been a small step to Joel, but to a rock-climbing novice like me, it required a leap of faith to expect one spike on my crampon to support my weight as I clung like a limpet to a four-metre wall of sheer, icy rock.
Mount Stanley is the third-highest mountain in Africa – after Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Mount Kenya. We were climbing Margherita, the higher of its two peaks; the other is Alexandra. Mount Stanley is the greatest of the Rwenzori mountains that stretch 120km along Uganda's border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. The range was called the "Mountains of the Moon" by Ptolemy in the second century AD.
Most visitors are happy to hike the seven-day circular route that omits the peak. For me, the summit was essential: it was my final challenge in a quest to trek the five highest peaks on the continent.
In the four years since we first climbed Kilimanjaro, my partner Will and I had discovered the charms and challenges of high-altitude African peak-bagging. We'd seen Kilimanjaro's ice cliffs turning gold then baby blue as dawn broke over the world's highest free-standing mountain. Also in Tanzania, baboons had stared at us as we ate sandwiches after climbing Mount Meru. On our moonlit ascent of Mount Kenya, we'd seen the reflection of Venus shining like a diamond from the depths of a tarn. And despite the heat of Ras Dashen in Ethiopia's Simien mountains, we'd taught giggling children the hokey-cokey at 4,000m. Now the last few metres to Margherita's summit was all that stood between us and achieving our personal take on Africa's "Big Five".
A week earlier, we'd left Kampala, Uganda's laid-back capital, with our driver, Moses. We stopped on the journey to the gateway town of Kasese to collect climbing equipment. Unusually, perhaps the most essential items for survival on this trip were wellies. Our trail started at the Rwenzori National Park headquarters at Nyakalengija, 10km north of Kasese.
Rwenzori means "rainmaker". The mountain range, which gets around four metres of rain annually, is notorious for its bogs.
After sorting out porters, a guide and an armed ranger (all mandatory and included in the permit fee), we left Moses behind and ambled past banana and coffee plantations to a rainforest where chimpanzees were squealing. Our path followed the Mubuku and Mahoma rivers, negotiating ankle-twisting tree roots, then climbed to Nyabitaba Hut for a welcome night's sleep.
I'd never climbed a mountain in wellies before. By day two, I would not have been without them. Past bamboo forests and giant lobelia, we reached our first bog. But it was merely practice for the Bigo Bogs we encountered the next day.
Our sanity depended on jumping between tussocks peeping from muddy waters, or balancing on the occasional boardwalk. Bogs aside, the landscape was mystical. Montane forests dripping with lichen (aptly called "old men's beards") gave way to giant heather and huge ostrich plume plants, with glimpses of Margherita's snow-capped summit through the clouds.
That evening, it poured as we reached the Lake Bujuku Hut, and mists obscured the views of Stanley's fellow peaks: Mounts Speke and Baker. Rafes, our cook, cheered things up. "Here, my special recipe will make things better," he beamed, and offered tuna fish and tomato stew over steaming mashed potatoes. At this, the mist lifted, revealing views of peaks and lakes reminiscent of England's Lake District.
The next morning's three-hour trek to Elena Hut took us over rocks and groundsel gullies with fixed ladders to help us along the way. The hut was perched on a rock shrouded in cloud. We said goodnight at 6pm, and woke to see cloud smothering Margherita's summit. "Don't worry! These winds will wash away the clouds," Joel said as, swapping our wellies for crampons, we headed towards our final challenge.
We needed fixed ropes to negotiate exposed rocks, then had to avoid crevasses on the Margherita Glacier. The winds swept away the clouds as we approached the rock wall, revealing Margherita in her glory. Joel hauled me up the final two metres of the wall using a fixed rope and the one tying us together.
Once Will had joined us, it would be a short scramble to the top, but his old rugby injury chose this moment to return. He couldn't lever his leg on to the ledge Joel had earlier tried to persuade me to reach and we couldn't haul him up by rope. Still tied together and anxious not to be separated, we headed back to base.
Our descent revealed some beautiful views and helped to soothe our disappointment. We skirted past the base of Mount Baker, then looked down on to the Kitandara valley with its two lakes twinkling in the sun. Sitting outside the hut by the lower lake, our aches drifted away in the silence.
Two days later, after a descent passing waterfalls, bogs and lush forests, we were back at our hotel in Kasese, enjoying a beer. Trekking the Rwenzoris won't be everyone's idea of a holiday. But if you're lucky enough to dodge the rains, the rewards are well worth the effort – and exhaustion.
British Airways (0844 4930 787; ba.com) flies non-stop from Heathrow to Entebbe five times a week, though this route is one affected by the impending strike. Kenya Airways (020-8283 1818; kenya-airways.com ;) flies from Heathrow to Entebbe via Nairobi.
Tour operators providing treks to the Rwenzoris include Volcanoes Safaris (0870 870 8480; volcanoessafaris.com ) and KE Adventure Travel (01768 773 966; keadventure.com ). The best time to trek in the Rwenzoris is from December to February and June to August (although there's no guarantee that you'll miss the rain). The seven-day circular hike is available for those not wanting to attempt the summit; another two days are needed if you want to climb Mount Margherita.
Rwenzori Mountaineering Services ( rwenzorimountaineeringservices.com , firstname.lastname@example.org) provides the guide and porters for all treks, included in the permit fee of £350-£460 (depending on the trek).
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