Trekking Up The 3rd Highest Mountain in Africa: Rwenzori (Part 1)

Trekking Up The 3rd Highest Mountain in Africa: Rwenzori (Part 1)

Growing up as a child I often traveled between Kasese district and Fort Portal in Western Uganda. One of the most baffling things for my young mind was; why the rolling hills followed me on the side and the sun from above. 

I used to think I could vanish from them by hiding myself but every time I peeped out of the car window there they were in their full glory. 

One time I managed to catch the sun rising over the Rwenzori mountain ranges exposing their rugged look and lush green valleys. Overwhelmed with the beauty and size, I asked my dad, “why are they so many hills.” He chuckled and went on to say, 

“Those are the mighty Rwenzori Mountain Ranges. They’re so vast, they run from Kasese, through Kabarole and Bundibugyo districts all the way to the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

“So does that mean we can climb them when I grow older,” I asked. 

“I have climbed them before when I used to serve in the Ugandan army,” he replied. 

Like a kid who has just been granted his wish to go to the candy store, I pressed him further on how it’s like. 

“Did you know Rwenzori Mountain is the third highest mountain in Africa? It’s 5109m above sea level. So that means it’s extremely cold up there and guess what? The higher you go, the more snow you see.”

“No way, maybe one day I will also climb it and see what it’s like,” I responded 

The opportunity to climb the mountain came 25 years later and nothing I read or the stories of my father could have prepared me enough for what lay ahead. 

The incline through the tropical rainforest and bamboo zones was modest and I hardly broke a sweat because of the cool weather but things started to get rather interesting as we hiked from Nyabitaba camp to John Matte which is located at 3,414m.

Without any sort of fitness training prior to the hike, I relied on my mental strength. “I can do all things if I set my mind to it” were often the words I whispered to myself when the pain intensified in my knees. And when I couldn’t take it anymore I opted to reduce on the load I was carrying. 

“Would you please help me and carry my bag?” I asked the guide. With a smile on his face, he added to his luggage and then he said, “move at your pace, there is no competition.”

The sound of river Mubuku gushing down the valleys, the wind blowing through the trees, the jaw-dropping view of the valleys and rich flora within the heather zone was enough to distract my mind from the pain I was feeling. 

As we approached John Matte camp after about 9 hours of hiking, the guide saw how exhausted my friends and I were and then he said,

“Don’t undress for the mountain”

Excuse me? My friend responded.

“Don’t undress for the mountain. You will anger the gods,” he said. 

My friends and I were completely shocked because there was no way we were going to shower in ice-cold temperatures.

“We will just wipe down,” I assured him. 

From a distance, I could see the snow-capped peaks and if my sight was anything to go by, I would have said we have a day to the summit but realistically it was 3 more days of climbing. 

Lake Bujuku

As altitude sickness kicked in for some of my colleagues, I started to discover that maybe just maybe, I have old man knees. There was no amount of deep heat that could reduce the pain in my left knee especially. I opted to tie it up as we made our way to Bujuku camp which is at 3,962m.

Without the help of these amazing gentlemen climbing the mountain would have been a myth

The 5-6hr hike took me about 10 hours to complete, it’s no wonder almost everybody around me thought it was my last stretch and honestly I almost believed it myself until I saw the awe-inspiring reflection of the snow-capped Mount Stanley off lake Bujuku, the stunning Alpine savannah vegetation like the giant lobelia.

“I can’t come this far and this close to the peak and choose to give up,” I said to myself

Walking through the waterlogged bogs was strenuous because I had to use all the energy in my reserve tank and yet all I wanted was to levitate to Bujuku camp.

“You have made it this far, you are already a winner. You have nothing to prove if your body can’t take it anymore,” the writing on the wall read.

After adding extra clothing on my body, I slept off and woke up to the best backdrop I could ever hope for. The early morning sun-brushed off Mount Stanley exposing its rugged look which was covered with snow.

With every resolve, I knew I couldn’t give up no matter how badly my knees hurt at least not when I was this close.

I proceeded to Elena camp which is located at 4,541m. Never have I ever felt like my heart wanted to jump out of my chest. I had to catch my breath every after 4 steps.

The rocky climb, steepness, and shortness of breath made me forget about my knee problems. For as long as I managed to put one foot in front of the other I was good.

The people who had counted me out were shocked to see me pushing through. I took plenty of rests, kept a positive attitude and tried to focus the insane beauty the Rwenzori had to offer. All was okay until I made it to the Elena camp a few minutes after 3 pm.

After celebrating for about an hour or 2 something was brewing on the inside. I got nauseated and didn’t want to taste anything. All the energy I had was dwindling so fast even talking felt like a task. I had never experienced altitude sickness before, so I didn’t even know what to do but force myself to sleep.

Still to come: Part 2

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Kahuma Walter

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