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Mountains of the moon: climbing Uganda’s highest peak

October 15, 2019

The remote Rwenzori mountains, on the Uganda/ DRC perimeter, offer treks through varied and stunning landscapes and a meet but challenging summit, with none of the crowds found at Kilimanjaro

Claudius Ptolemy, the Greco-Roman mathematician, astronomer and father of geography, called the Rwenzori range the Mountains of the Moon, and I think he got it about right. Starlight beamed down on the convex glaciers surrounding our camp near Uganda’s western border, causing them to glow like resting lunar crescents.

I should have been sleeping the night before my try on the Rwenzori’s loftiest peak, 5,109 -metre Mount Stanley’s summit, Africa’s third-highest mountain, but altitude headaches kept me awake. I believed back to a similar sleepless night at Kilimanjaro some years earlier. I recollected then feeling sure I would succeed, and when summit day came, I duly trudged along in a torchlight procession to the top, one of 50, 000 climbers who endeavor Kilimanjaro each year.

Uganda map

Yet this endeavour stirred self-doubt. Little-known and less frequently climbed, the 120 km-long Rwenzori range, on the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo( DRC ), isn’t as high as Kilimanjaro but necessitates greater technical skills and an endurance I wondered if I possessed. The name Rwenzori entails “rainmaker” and the mountain can be notoriously muddy and tiring to climb, though this was the relatively dry season, from December to February.

Rwenzori national park, nine hours’ drive west of Kampala, offers crowd-free hiking and a sense of wilderness absent on Kilimanjaro. Official statistics is demonstrating that between January and October 2017, only 693 people trekked its higher reachings. During this eight-day trek with a friend, we satisfied only 10 other hikers- and not one tearful celebrity doing their bit for charity.

Climbers sleep in static tents or wooden shacks, spacious enough for bunkbeds

So why do so few people come trekking here? Australian, John Hunwick, 69, who runs Rwenzori Trekking Services, first came in 1991.” I insured so much promise and wanted to open up the roads, but then the Rwenzoris were overrun by Congolese rebels ,” he said.

In around 1996, as retaliation for Uganda supporting breakaway nation South Sudan, the North Sudanese helped Allied Democratic Forces( ADF) rebels in Congo to launch attacks from the Rwenzoris aimed at destabilising Uganda.” It certainly wasn’t safe to trek then ,” Hunwick said. Uganda drove the ADF back into Congo in around 2001 but they continued to launch sporadic forays.

Hunwick assured me the Rwenzoris have been safe and tranquil since 2009, and his outfit has opened trails and camps all the way to Mount Stanley’s highest spike, Margherita Peak. The FCO advice on visiting western Uganda has softened in recent years: it reports no incidents involving guests but warns travellers to be vigilant of political demonstrations.

The bamboo zone, at 2,800 metres

Hunwick’s treks range from one or two days to full-on seven- or eight-day expeditions to summit Margherita. But even those merely dipping a toe inside the national park will be awed.

During two breathless first days we moved through tropical woods of gargantuan fig trees that chattered with blue monkeys into the bamboo zone at 2,800 metres, with percussive accompaniment from stems rattling in the crosswinds. The ascent is steep and trekkers need a certain degree of stamina-based fitness training to cope with the rapid gains in altitude. A head for heights is preferable for the summit push, but no technological climbing skills are required.

The mossy heather zone, above 3,500 metres

The mossy heather zone above 3,500 metres was surreal: Unesco calls it” Africa’s botanical big game “. Its supersized heather trees looked like Dartmoor on steroids, and lobelias the size of Mexican cacti were all draped with lichen beards more Gandalf than hipster. In these higher zones we received scat from a rarely seen feline, the Rwenzori leopard, and marvelled at the iridescent colourings of endemic sunbirds probing flowers with their curved bills.

The daily routine proved simple. We’d walk up to eight hours between campsites with static tents resembling Anderson shelters or wooden shanties, spacious enough for bunkbeds with comfortable mattresses. Days began with porridge and ended with hearty pasta dishes or local fare such as rolex ( eggy chapatti wraps ). At Mutinda Camp, on day two, I showered under a glacier-fed waterfall, my yelpings possibly outperforming the nocturnal boulder hyraxes, whose default call sounds like they’re being viciously murdered.

Porters cooking on the climbing.

My presence was also contributing to the economic future of the local Bakonjo people, a Bantu ethnic group who farm the slopes of the Rwenzoris. My guide, Bwambalee Joshua, was heading a group of nine doormen.” I was a geography teacher but the wages were poor, so I became a guide ,” he said. He told me that mineworkers at the Chinese-owned Kilembe copper mine in the foothills are paid about 3,000 shillings( 66 p) a day, while doormen earn PS3 a day and guides double this, plus a PS20 bonus for getting clients to the summit.

After five days, my first view of Mount Stanley from the 4,450 -metre Bamwanjara Pass was of a slightly sinister and brooding multi-peaked massif shrouded in cloud, with glaciers that really did glisten like little moons.

A view from one of the mountain camps

Mike from Minnesota was on his style down: seeming much younger and fitter than me, he pulled me out of my reverie.” What a climb ,” he exclaimed.” Man that was tough scrambling over rocks and ice. I meant this to be a warm-up for Kilimanjaro, but I should have done it the other way round .”

The last vegetated scenery before the bumpy Margherita summit camp at 4,485 metres is the magnificent Scott Elliot pass, stately as a Scottish glen with cliffs stained orange with lichen. Elliot was part of the team who first conquered Mount Stanley in 1906. It was led by an Italian aristocrat, the Duke of Abruzzi, who named the highest point after Queen Margherita of Italy.

Margherita camp, towards the summit

Summit day started around 3am with the clatter of harnesses and crampons being accommodated. Joshua squelched my nervousnes by reminding me that 90% of climbers construct the summit. In the event, while the morning proved many times more gruelling than summiting Kilimanjaro, it was thrilling to evolve from trekker to mountaineer.

Several non-taxing scrambles on fixed ropes took us in quiet darkness to Stanley glacier. With crampons secured, we crunched across an ice plain of disintegrating slush.” These glaciers have halved in sizing over the past five years ,” noted Joshua.

On Stanley glacier heading towards the summit. Photograph: Mark Stratton

Dawn cracked over Margherita glacier: a immerse icy stairway towards the summit that took us two hours to climb. I scaled it step by weary step, gulping air profoundly, temples pounding as we approached 5,000 metres, crampons biting at times into 40 -degree slopes. Joshua ran ahead belaying by rope and fixing ice-pins. Crevasses revealed fairy grottoes of blue icicles.

Beyond a ridge joining Alexandra( 5,091 metres) and Margherita peaks, I scrambled over frozen boulders to the summit. Upon seeing the sign welcoming me to Uganda’s highest point I welled up like a, umm,” tearful celebrity”, intense joy mingling with fatigue. The clouds had cleared to uncover a panorama more complex and striking than I recollected from Kilimanjaro’s volcanic rim. Surrounded by glaciers and rocky peaks, I stared south down the Albertine rift valley to Lake George and west into DRC.

A number of adventure tour operators have added the Rwenzoris to their brochures for 2018, so its popularity seems set to increase. But for those moments standing fatigued and rather emotional at having completed one of Africa’s greatest adventures, we revelled in being the only summiteers that day.

Way to go

The trip was provided by UK tour operator Gane& Marshall, which offers eight-day treks to Mount Stanley for PS1, 098 pp for two , not including flights. Flights were provided by Visit Uganda: Ethiopian Airlines flies from Heathrow to Entebbe( via Addis Ababa) from PS483 return. Help with in-country logistics was provided by Rwenzori Trekking Service

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