The mythical mist-shrouded Rwenzori Mountains form Uganda's western border with the Congo. We embarked on a six-day trek to climb the 4619m peak Mount Weismann and explore the "Mountains of the Moon"
We arrived in Kilembe in a torrential downpour; a booming thunderstorm that cracked across the emerald hills and sent goats scuttling for shelter. Incredulous villagers laughed as we sped past on the boda-boda motorbike taxis, jeans drenched and rucksacks dripping, heads bowed against the stinging rain. They call the Rwenzori the Mountains of the Moon. After just 20 minutes, faced with a six-day trek, I wondered if Mountains of the Monsoon might be more accurate.
Verdant green and lusciously wet, capped with glaciers despite being just 36 degrees north of the Equator, the Rwenzori stretch along the Uganda-Congo border and have fascinated explorers for centuries. Their name, quite aptly, translates as the rainmakers. But don’t be put off by the risk of getting wet. Even in November, the tail-end of the rainy season, we enjoyed clear blue sky mornings and views straight out of Jurassic Park.
These densely forested peaks, closed to trekkers for years because of insurgency in the Congo, offer a secluded alternative to the hordes on Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya and an exploratory adventure of the purest kind. On clear nights the equatorial glaciers can be seen glinting under moonlight – the inspiration behind their ethereal nickname – and by day colobus monkeys, chimpanzees and even leopards patrol among the trees.
Lured by the legends a friend and I planned a six-day trek to climb Weismann, the highest peak on Mount Luigi de Savoia. To keep costs down we arranged everything the night before leaving through Rwenzori Trekking Services (www.rwenzoritrekking.com), based at the popular Backpackers Kampala in Uganda’s thumping capital. Just two kilometres outside the city centre with spacious open grounds, the hostel is a great place to meet other travellers. Accommodation ranges from basic dorms with no linen or mosquito nets at 6,000 shillings a night to comfortable double rooms costing 40,000.
As a new company they are keen to impress and for 1,210,600 Ugandan shillings ($630) each we had a huge team of one guide, a Uganda Wildlife Authority ranger, and seven porters. Park fees, tented accommodation, transport to and from the hostel to the trailhead and food and water were all included. Meals consisted of average trekking fare - porridge, eggs, toast, and bacon for breakfast, and chicken, pasta, lentils or potatoes for dinner. Decent waterproofs are the only specialist kit needed, although many of the porters wore wellies which in retrospect was a pretty savvy idea.
To reach the hills we caught a 15,000 shilling public bus for the seven-hour ride to Kasese, where the improbably named Bongoman met us and sorted out bodas to Kilembe and the clean and friendly Rwenzori Backpackers hostel. This relatively new hostel is perched among the foothills of the Rwenzori and commands great views as well as wonderful cooking from manageress Karen. A double room will set you back 35,000 shillings per night and frequent power cuts add to the frontier feel.
We woke early to pancakes, coffee and glorious sunshine. Our first day’s destination was Kalalama camp, ‘’the place where you can see heaven’’ at 3,156m. During the leisurely seven-hour trek we climbed a steep 10km and passed through four vegetation zones – the grassland zone, the echoing montane forest zone with giant trees and filtered light, the cool bamboo zone and, finally, the mist-shrouded heather zone.
Luckily we hit Kalalama ten minutes before the afternoon downpour – a regular occurrence in the Rwenzori - hit us. Around twilight the mist cleared, and we were rewarded with a glimpse of Lake Edward and the lights of Kasese twinkling far, far below on the shore.
Nights are cold in the Rwenzori but the trekking company has set up permanent tents with the luxury of proper mattresses at two of its three camping sites.
We set off in warm sunshine towards the Motinda Rock shelter, a natural haven for generations of hunters. As our path snaked around the lush hillsides we had spectacular views of the plunging waterfalls of the Kamusoni River but also a sobering glimpse of the white carcass of a UN helicopter. In 2007 during violent storms a helicopter returning from the Congo crashed at Rutamagufa, a high cleft in the rocks translated as ‘’the place that breaks bones’’, killing three people.
By lunchtime the well-defined path cut into the forest was rapidly disappearing into bogs housing spectacularly fertile vegetation. We splashed our way through lobelia gardens, and past countless other types of exotic fauna. The Rwenzori are a botanist’s wet dream with the permanent high-altitude swamps ensuring lush fertility all year round.
By mid-afternoon the group was settled beneath the ancient haven of Motinda Rock shelter. Perched on the side of a steep emerald valley, we felt like pioneers blazing a trail through unmapped lands.
Our seven kilometre walk took us from Motinda at 3,600m to a non-permanent camp near Lake Kopello at 4,185m via a narrow pass out of the densely vegetated Namusangi Valley. Once on the high plateau the vista opens out to reveal the numerous peaks of Mount Luigi de Savoia and a first glimpse of Weismann itself.
By afternoon the air was chilly as we skirted around two lakes to reach Camp Kopello. That evening I succumbed to a bout of altitude sickness – it is worth noting that you sleep at the highest point every night – but high altitude tablets and an early night soon set me right.
Seven of us set off early under grey skies to tackle Weismann. Our guides Josiah and Enoch warned it would be a long day and we scrambled across giant boulders choking Oliver’s Pass at a gentle pace. After three hours of steady climbing we hit a saddle that, in theory, afforded an unparalleled view of the Democratic Republic of Congo – in clear weather.
The scrambling became more technical but never difficult, as we picked our way through the jagged rock folds of the Afro-alpine zone, and came across our first patch of African snow. Beth and I called a halt to build a pygmy snowman, and by the time we neared the summit the clouds were lifting to give breathtaking views of the steep jungle we had negotiated over the past four days.
Wind whips across the top of Weismann and rolling clouds gave up tantalising glimpses of the permanent glaciers on Mounts Stanley and Baker. We hugged, clapped, grinned and saluted each other before posing for a triumphant summit shot on one of Africa’s highest peaks.
We spent an easy morning descending back down to the beautiful Motinda shelter, followed by a memorable lunch of chips and cheesy pasta and a relaxed sunny afternoon reading books – and swapping cultural comparisons with the friendly porters.
To cut costs we pushed the last two days into one and tramped 16k from Motinda all the way back to the trailhead in one day. This section can be split into two days for a more leisurely finish to a truly inspiring trek.