Adventures must be done!

Rwenzori (Christmas 2009)

The Jungle

Day 1 of our excursion into the famous Rwenzori Mountains, situated where Uganda borders with Congo, began in the run-down town of Kasese, more precisely in the breakfast room of the Hotel Margeritha. My guidebook had been correct in stating that the best days of this establishment had long gone by and the alluded dining hall permeated a blandness and glumness that could not be lifted by the tasteless Christmas decoration, which had been erratically scattered throughout the room.
Mathias and myself were already anticipating a further mystifying incident, which, according to our travel plan, was to happen this very morning:

" ... our baggage, which will be left in the hotel, will be countersigned for in total ...".

We hauled our gear bags into the lobby and lingered around; soon the great moment of the countersigning of all baggage would come about! Nothing of the sort happened, our luggage was unceremoniously and separately dragged from the hall, destined to vanish in a dusty boiler room, as we found out upon return.

Our bus took us within one hour to Ibanda, characterised by ramshackle brick and clay buildings lining the dirt track amidst banana and coffee plantations. We stopped on the premises of the Rwenzori Mountaineering Services (RMS) and were ushered into a room with an enormous couch facing a large wooden board onto which the Central Trail has been carved and colour painted. A guy explained us the trail, pointing out the various sections of mud:

'And from John Matte, you will come into the Lower Bigo Bog, very muddy, you will have to hop from tussock to tussock', I sniggered appreciatively, ', then you climb up to Upper Bigo Bog, for more mud. After that you sidle along lake Bujuku, a very muddy section, to reach Bujuku Hut!'

The chief guide filling us in.

Details of the trail.

We then supervised the weighing of the bags. We had already weighed the luggage in the hotel, both Mathias's and my bags were between 8-9 kg, however, not very surprising, the RMS scale was somewhat biased, showing a fat 12 kg! Twelve kilos was a magic number, as a porter would not take more than that. Having more gear would necessitate another porter.

The weighing of the bags.

Beyond the hedge separating the RMS grounds from the road a large number of people hung about, eagerly observing the proceedings. We later figured out that all these guys were members of the RMS, with their names written down on a long list. When a new safari starts, the RMS executives call out the names on the list and whoever happens to be there, gets the job. It is thus, that the potential porters hike every morning to the RMS (which may take them over an hour), to hang about all day waiting for the chance of getting a job. If so, they start immediately without bothering to return home, i.e. they are always prepared to leave for a good week without prior notice!

We however missed this porter selection procedure involving a lot of shouting, as we had already proceeded up the valley towards the park entrance. At first, plantations surrounded us, changing gradually into tropical forest. It was very humid, warm and mostly overcast. After the park entrance, we got into primeval tropical forest, wild banana trees of magnificent green and huge tree ferns were among the many plant species that grew along the banks of the rushing Mbuku river. The air was full of the chirping of the cicadas and the musty smell of decaying plant materials, which we so readily identify as the odour of the tropics.

Wild banana tree.

Tropical forest with tree ferns.

The trail led gently but steadily uphill till we crossed a stream and reached a lunch spot beyond. From thereon, the path was steep and the warmness of the air made me even take of my gaiters. I was still feeling very hot, but watching my mates toiling along in their long pants and the porters in their gum boots, I considered myself to be well off.

We topped out onto a forested ridge that allowed some views over the deep V-shaped valley with the Mbuku flowing at the bottom and slopes dominated by bracken glades opposite of us. The potential peaks were hidden in the low clouds. The vegetation reminded me of New Zealand's subtropical forests, and indeed, even here grew a member of the podocarpus family: Podocarpus latifolia.
While following the ridge, we heard the crashing of branches ahead and I spotted something dark leaping onto the lower boughs of a tree. With our binoculars we could easily make out the monkey sitting among the foliage. It sported a long tail, was rather black in colour apart from the face, which had a sliver hue. The mountain guides declared it to be a Black Monkey, but my research suggests that it was a Blue Monkey (Cercopithecus mitis stuhlmanni).

Blue Monkey.

We reached Nyabitaba hut in the later afternoon and soon a drizzle developed, while the surrounding hills were hidden in the mist.

Rwenzori forest in the mist.

This would have been the right time to have a cuppa and a biscuit, but as we were depending on porters and cooks, neither was available. At last, the porters started to trickle into camp, along with another group of tourists from Austria. It seemed a cheerful lot, I was however surprised and somewhat taken aback by the boxes full of beer cans, they drew from the depths of the bags the porters had hauled up. I deem it morally wrong to have people carry alcoholic drinks up a mountain. It's a luxury good, if someone wants it, they should pack it in themselves. These dudes even complained that they had to pay more porters because they exceeded the 12kg limit by far; no wonder given the number Castle and Heineken cans!

Monstrous worm.

Dinner consisted of rice with a stew based on mushy peas. At seven thirty it began to darken rapidly, as always when being close to the equator. We soon retired, slipping into our sleeping bags, but neither Mathias nor I could fall asleep. The rain had almost ceased but single drops continued to fall onto the corrugated roof in a most annoying fashion. We were just getting a bit drowsy, when there was a rustling from the direction of our packs. Mathias lit up his torch, but could see nothing. I was now fully awake as well, straining to hear what was going on. There it was again, some scratching and nibbling, which reminded me vividly of similar sounds I had heard when mice and rats were about! Mathias got up and inspected his backpack; a zip was not properly closed. He pulled out a packet of crackers and swore under his breath: "Stinking, filthy vermin! Dammit!". Then he whispered furiously: "Been shitting over my biscuits!"
I remembered that my packliner was not properly closed, but felt too lazy to get up and check. Instead, I lay back again, but kept listening intently. There it was again! Grunting, I wriggled out of my sleeping bag, lit the head torch, approached my bag and peered into it; there was a mouse scuttling about, looking for a hiding place among my stuff bags. Determined I started grabbing at it through the fabric of the packliner. The mouse tried to scamper, but had nowhere to run. I caught it and, feeling its head between my fingers, gave it a squeeze till I could feel the skull break. There was silence and I was letting out a long breath, noting with astonishment that I had a quickened heart beat and felt a bit shaken. I picked the mouse by the tail, pulled it out and laid it on the floor, then used some toilet paper to wipe the blood from the packliner. As I went back to bed, I muttered: "That's a kill!"

Dead mouse.

After that nightly small game hunt, my nerves were still tingling and sleep did not come easily. At least I felt happy that the mouse was removed and my bag securely closed. A horrible thought struck me, what if there was a second mouse in my bag and I just had locked it in?!? Don't be stupid, I told myself, the chances for that are really minimal. 'Ahh, but not entirely impossible', said a little voice in my head. Just then I heard some more scuttling, but this time it seemed to come from the ceiling, followed by some nibbling like a rodent gnawing its way through solid wood, resonating from the chewing action. There was a prompt reaction from Mathias; a soft cursing followed by a searching sweep of the torch, illuminating the underside of the bunk above him. Nothing was to be seen. The light went off, a few seconds passed, then the gnawing resumed. In the dim light I could see Mathias's fist shoot up to pound the bunk above. Silence fell. For a while the only thing we could hear was the snoring of the Austrians through the thin wall the split the hut into two compartments. The mouse took up its work with new fervour, there was also a faint, many voiced squeaking, hinting towards a nest full of young mice, who lodged in the mattress above Mathias. The rodent was apparently expanding its living and breeding quarters. There was more cursing when some debris caused by the continued wood work dropped onto Mathias head. At least, one could only hope it had been wood chips! This was answered by severe pounding of the upper bunk, causing the mouse to flee from the mattress and shoot up a ladder a few inches in front of my nose, disappearing into the darkness above. There was a quiet period after that and I dropped into a flat sleep from which I awoke a few more times, as the mouse was returning to its nest, at least once racing over Mathias sleeping bag, promptly causing more swearing and furious walloping up the bunk above.
"Gosh!", I uttered next morning, "I'm glad that night is over!"

Into the Heather Zone
Our cooks impressed us this morning by turning up with a bowl of hot water to wash ourselves before breakfast; it was however a unique, probably random event, which was not to be repeated during the trip. Breakfast comprised tea, omelette and banana.
The trail followed the ridge for a short while, then dropped into the valley to our right side. It was a slightly slippery trail through a bracken field. On some muddy, slimy patch I slipped and instinctively held out my left arm behind me to stop the fall. The force on my wrist was surprising and I could feel a distinct 'pop'. Glancing down, I noticed that my ganglion, which had bothered me for some months was gone! It had obviously popped open and the fluid spilled into the surrounding tissue. It did not hurt at all, nor did it feel particularly numb, in fact, it seemed quite functional. I was not sure whether this was good or bad, after all, I had had it checked by a doctor before and was told that an operation would be in order, should it bother me too much. The only sensible thing to do was to tramp on and monitor the development of the wrist over the next days.

En route towards the confluence of Mbuku and Bujuku.

Confluence of Mbuku and Bujuku.

The trail was more demanding than on day one, somewhat muddier, with slippery logs and boulders, rendering it generally more interesting.

Porters .

We crossed the bamboo zone, but saw only a few specimen; according to the guides they were to be more abundant in the valley that would take us back to Ibanda at the end of the trip. I personally found the subsequent heather zone far more interesting. The European variation of the heather (Calluna vulgaris) reaches a height of around 15cm in the Alps and up to half a metre e.g. on the West coast of Scotland. In the Ruwenzori, the Erica arborea reaches 7m and is generally thickly hung with greenish to grayish lichen.

Giant Heather.

Porters on the slippery logs.

I reached to Bujuku stream after an extremely slippery section of logs that formed a path suspended half a metre above the forest ground. Here I stood at the bank and admired the scene; the brown Bujuku leaping and gurgling swiftly in its rocky bed, the thick forest, mostly heather, the long lichen swaying in the wind, all features fading into greyness in the mist that seemed to hang eternally in these ranges.

Lichen and mosses at the Bujuku.

Everlasting flower (Helichrysum formosissisimum)

Forest at the Bujuku.

Today's goal was John Matte hut, situated in a grassy glade above the Bujuku, surrounded by heather trees and some of the first Lobelias and Groundsels. We enjoyed a cuppa tea in the hut and gleefully noted the start of the afternoon rain; the Austrians were still on the trail.
"Maybe the rain intensifies!", I remarked hopefully, while taking a sip of the brew.

Porters arriving at John Matte.

When the Austrians finally turned up, I noticed with satisfaction that some of them were extremely dirty. I watched with fascination as one of the dudes was utilising liberal amounts of toilet paper to clean his gum boots and trousers!

"Will you look at this! How useless is that?!?", I mouthed to Mathias.

The weather cleared up in the evening, it really seemed to be a pattern of the Rwenzori microclimate. Upstream we got some first glimpses of the snow caped Margherita.
Our cooks were forced to prepare tea and dinner hunched under the front porch, as the Austrian porters and cooks occupied the other buildings. It was a strange sight, observing our chief cook and tour leader Joel, clad in an old mountaineering jacket and gum boots, sitting close to the gas stove, handling the pots with his pinkish mountaineering gloves, which he was invariably wearing all day long. Was this the same guy who had picked us up from the airport, sporting elegant black loafers and cream coloured shirt and trousers?

Joel, sporting his pink gloves.

Porters digging into their usual diet of Kasawa.

The Austrians once more showed their tactlessness by crushing beer cans on the front porch, just over the heads of our cooking team.
We got into bed soon after dinner, there was nothing else to do, but the Austrians had another raucous evening, which culminated in their dismantling of the table. It appeared that one bloke stood onto the table top when trying to get up to his bunk, it tipped to the side (it was apparently not nailed to the legs) and crashed to the floor along with all the bottles and other gear that had been on it!
I tried to fall asleep but was plagued by nasty imaginations about my ganglion, making me feel queasy. Bother!

Through the Bigo Bogs
I awoke with a headache and consequently took an aspirin. We continued our journey, first down to the Bujuku, then through a first section of bog, bringing us to a makeshift bridge which was quite interesting to cross. It consisted of heather twigs, nailed together and providing a rather fragile looking structure.

Me crossing an interesting bridge.

Beyond stretched the Lower Bigo Bog, made passable by a board walk. Bigo is taken from the local language, it apparently means 'to fall in', thus, this was the 'Fall in' Bog. Scattered across the swamp were Lobelias and towards the slopes some giant groundsels.


Lower Bigo Bog was followed by a steep climb towards Upper Bigo Bog. I felt fairly crap, the headache had worsened despite the aspirin and frequent sips from my Platypus.

Tramping towards Upper Bigo Bog.

There was no board walk in the upper bog and we learned a new form of travel: tussock hopping!

Tussock hopping.

Mathias and Kule at the end of Upper Bigo Bog.

Towards Lake Bujuku.

Besides tussock there were shrubs of Everlasting Flowers and more Lobelias. Upper Bigo Bog filled the bottom of a U-shaped valley, the flanks were partly bare, partly covered in thick orange moss. The valley ended in a slope thickly covered by groundsels, leading up towards Lake Bujuku.

Slope near Lake Bujuku, dominated by groundsels and everlasting flowers (Helichrysum stuhlmannii).

I tried to focus on breathing and moving regularly, the pressure on my head was getting worse. Towards the end of the climb I spotted some animal scuttling across the path; similar to a stoat in size and shape, of blackish colour. The guides were of the opinion that it had been a Rock Hyrax, but that that was of course an uneducated guess: the are no sleek hyraxes with tails!
I found the rest of the team at the end of the slope, sat down on a rock, head swimming, and forced myself to eat some of the lunch, consisting of an omelette and a banana. It was hard work, but seemed to reduce my headache in the following section, which sported some of the best mud yet. We were sidling along Lake Bujuku, steep cliffs rising on our side, leaving a strip of hillside swamp that lead towards Bujuku hut. At the end of the lake, a gently rising slope , dotted with groundsels, eventually brought us to the hut.


Lake Bujuku.

The trail had been fairly swampy, judging from the amount of brown water I managed to squeeze out of my socks.
There was also a group of Japanese occupying a few bunks in the hut, they had just come down from Margherita. I was just concentrating on tea and freshly cut pineapple, when I noticed that the Japanese were cleaning the floor, looked like some spilled soup to me.

"Uh, what's up?", I enquired from my mates.
'One of them just threw up!'

We then took the chance to sit outdoors, listening to the music that played from a transistor radio the porters had tuned to a local station and watching the mice that were plentiful around the hut and quite unafraid of humans.

Kasawa preparation at Bujuku hut.


I felt plagued by another nasty headache, despite having sipped from my Platypus during the night. It was a rather sunny day and we set out towards Scott Elliot pass by tramping through another tiring Bigo Bog section.

Ascent to Scott Elliot pass.

I was clearly not at my best today and jumping from tussock to tussock with my head being pierced by stabs of pain was not helping to improve my condition. I tried to drink a lot of water but the pain remained and was joined by a notable dizziness, which manifested in my field of vision being somewhat restricted and the landscape sampled at a low frame rate when I turned by head to fast. By the means of a metal ladder we got to a view point and I felt pretty stuffed, happy to sit down on a rock, force down a muesli bar and keep breathing.

Break at the view point with Bukjuku hut visible in the valley below.

It was here that the paths split, Mathias tramped on towards Kitandara, led by Lazarus, while the rest of us continued uphill. I had meant to decide if I wanted to go up or rather join the tramping option, but was thrown by the sudden parting of the ways. In any case, we kept ascending, now moving through shrubbery dominated by everlasting flowers, giving the mountain a greenish-whitish tinge.

Ascent to Elena through everlasting flower shrubbery.

Justus on the trail to Elena.

Once more, I concentrated on moving steadily and in this manner, after scrambling over some glacier polished rock sections, reached at last the hut.

Elena Hut.

It was good to sit down in the sun and take in the surroundings, although I was not much in the condition to fully savor the cliffs above us with a glacier tongue extending towards our current position. As I looked up, it was still 600m to the summit, I just couldn't imagine doing any cramponing and rope work at all. My head was swimming and felt oddly wooly.
After a cupa and about one biscuit, which I nibble very slowly because of a developing nausea. I then took out my sleeping bag and lay down, just to see whether things were about to change. After half an hour I decided it was no good and that I had to descend while I still could. The symptoms were all pointing towards a brain oedema and I had no inclination to become a liability for the rest of the group. Having resolved to retreat, I talked to the guides and they agreed that one of them would accompany me down to Kitandara hut. One of the remaining porters grabbed my luggage and left at an incredible speed. Soon afterwards my guide and I started downhill. We moved at a seemingly tremendous pace, which, otherwise, would have suited me fine, but as things were, did not allow me to properly see where I was going. I must account it to muscle memory that my body just moved over those rocks, there was no way my vision system was able to provide timely, conscious feedbacks anymore. In this manner we approached Scott Elliot Pass, when I slipped on some slimy rock slab, half falling into a groundsel and giving it a good hug. At the pass we stopped for a photo take, but I felt it best to keep moving, I had a funny tingling in the ears and considered it wise to get further down asap.

At the Scott Elliot Pass.

The humming in my ears ebbed away as we continued our downhill jog. I had a fleeting view of the Upper Kitandara Lake, then had to concentrate as we climbed a slope without much slowing down.


Lobelias and groundsels, looking towards Elena hut.

Finally, we reached Kitandara hut, where Mathias was lounging on the front porch, enjoying a tea. I slumped down and gradually related my story, then took a special headache pill Bernd had given me, which I had not wanted to take on the mountain, is it might have impaired my ability to descend. Most amazing was the effect of the tiger balsam type of essence that was provided by the guide. It really helped a good deal and a couple of hours later I was almost back to normal. Most excellent to have a clear mind again!
That night's dinner was excellent, consisting of rice and a mash of baked beans, tomatoes and onions, flavoured by some local spices.

Lazying around at Kitandara

There was a constant drizzle during the night, continuing into the morning. We stayed in our sleeping bags and waited for the breakfast to appear. It didn't. We eventually got out of the hut, enjoying a rain free period and some irradiance. In fact, the hut was clammier than the outside.
More rain showers forced us indoors again and we started to develop some mild form of cabin fever. Mathias sat wrapped in his sleeping bag while I spent considerable time cleaning the only table in the hut, covered with a thick layer of grime accumulated over the years. Layer upon layer of candle wax, muck and food was unearthed by the help of my knife, finally revealing a nice, dark brown wooden surface.

Lazarus toasting bread and cooking tea.

Olive trush (Turdus olivaceus baraka) sitting on groundsel stem.

Mathias and I hanging out in Kitandara hut.


Groundsels at the rivulet behind Kitandara hut

Lower Kitandara Lake

Lazarus bringing new coal for the next cooking.

Hypericum bequartii

The wx shortly cleared in the afternoon, allowing some excursions around the hut and even up to the Upper Lake.
By the evening it was clear that our two comrades would not join us this evening, despite the continuos assurances by our guides :"Yes, yes, they have climbed the peak and will be here for afternoon tea!". At was what we guessed all along; just unfounded guesses and provision of dangerous half-knowledge.
Even in the evening, our guide had the nerve to assure us that our friends were to have an early start and be at Kitandara by 8am, ready to hike with us to Guy Yeoman hut. We managed to convince him that we would leave by 8am in any case, independent of our friends. We then had the impertinence to ask for hot water, a wish that kept our cook Lazarus fanning the coal fire for another hour.

Freshfield Pass, Chutes and Swamps

We left after 8am, our two comrades had of course not turned up. As we ascended through Lobelias and everlasting flowers we gained some views of the Kitandara Lakes and the near Congolese lowlands in the West of the Rwenzori Range.

Looking towards the Congo.

Groundsels near Freshfield Pass.

Freshfield Pass (4280m) was not very well defined; in fact, it just marked the start of a flatish section of terrain. This plateau was fairly open country, dotted with groundsels. It then dropped suddenly and the trail changed into a slippery chute formed by bedrock. Obviously, the erosion was due to the path usage, rendering away the thin layer of hill side swamp. The rock was quite treacherous as Mathias figured out not long after by performing a graceful sideways fall which destroyed one of his hiking poles.
Slipping and sliding we found ourselves reaching another Bigo Bog of yet unprecedented muddiness. After that, there was some more rock scrambling and bog bashing, leading into the Upper Mbuku valley.

Mathias looking down into the Upper Mbuku valley.

From there, the trail followed a cliff through more mud mingled with slippery tree trunks. Finally, the Mbuku stream was gained and followed downstream by river travel. I was in excellent spirits; it had been a long time since my last proper river travel and I enjoyed the boulder hopping and wading immensely.

River travel.

In this way we reached Guy Yeoman hut in just under 5 hrs. As soon as we were there, rain set in and we sat on the front porch, sipping our tea and trying to keep warm; despite having descended 600m in absolute elevation the temperatures combined with the humidity made us envy our porters huddled around an incredibly smoky fire.

Mathias at Guy Yeoman hut.

Lazarus and the porter team in the cooking shack.

Once more, we skeptically listened to our guide ranting on about our friends having descended this morning from Elena and soon being with us, "Yes, yes, they will be here for dinner!".
We however could not stop admiring Joel, that man in the back pulling all the strings: he somehow managed to keep up our supplies by sending forth one or two porters per day, who would bring along some items. On this very day, another tin of milk powder had arrived, half full with four tea bags added to it!
Mathias: "Joel is THE God!"

Back to 'Civilisation'

Our last day in the Rwenzori started out sunny and we made our way towards the famous Kichuchu Rock, negotiating over the usual combination of mud and slippery logs. At the Rock, a ladder aided our descent and only a little chute that needed to be cross added some excitement.

Negotiating a slippery section.

From here onwards, the trail was characterised by mud of all varieties, made passable by slippery tree trunks and branches laid in along-track direction into the swamp.
We had some good fun trying to balance on the logs:

"The path of the Just is not easily trodden!", I said, in reference to some similar saying we had heard in Israel.

Beards of lichen hanging from trees.

Tramping through bamboo towards Nyabataba.

On the way to Nyabataba Hut, we crossed a considerable stretch of Bamboo forest till we reached the familiar ridge leading to the hut. Here we had a short lunch break and met some day tourists. We noticed the perfume of the woman wafting over to us and smirked at the overall cleanliness of the two. The following descent to Ibanda had us revisit the forest gradients once more and soon we trudged once more along the rushing Mbuku, the air heavy with the smell of the jungle and filled with the ceaseless chirping of the cicadas.

Sunday afternoon in Ibanda.

At RMS, our guides organise motorised transport, which means motorcycles in this part of Uganda. Our baggage rested in front of the drivers while we sat behind them, and off we went, over the rough trail through banana plantations and passing astonished locals waving and cheering.

Our taxis with our back bags in front of the drivers.

In this way we got to the Rwenzori Tours Holiday Inn, a place recommended by our guides. According to the visitors book, we were the first foreigners to hit this place since three months.
We were then shown into our room. The guides followed us and had a proper look around, making sure it was fit for us, proudly pointing out that the room even featured a mirror: "Please, here you can see yourself!"
Our chief guide Justus was deliberately lazying around in our room till he had received his tip, only then he consented to leave , promising to be back next morning (he would have another hour march to his home from here).
"Hey, I reckon it's about the time for a beer!"
'Correct, more important than having a shower!!!'

With that we got settled in low chairs on the terrace facing the road and had the first Bell. Most excellent! The air temperature was for once very agreeable, the beer was cold and the road provided a constant source of changing vistas.

Our hotel room held a few features worth noting. Most prominently, there was a TV encased in a steel construction, such that no one could nick it. The beds were covered with thick blankets with revolting tiger motifs, straight out of the 80's. The bathroom was spacious, fairly empty but also somewhat filthy, however, that did not matter much; by the time we were through it was a right mess!

In the evening, we had a curry, followed by some more beers. Meanwhile, the upper class of Ibanda seemed to congregate in this hotel. It was in this way that we met the Master of the Stairs, a respectable looking bloke wearing his best suit and tie and being fairly drunk. He informed us, slightly swaying on the spot, that he were responsible for all the ladders and stairs in the National Park.
"Yeah, awesome! Very good stairs! Thanks a lot, very good job! You know, we've been at Kichuchu Rock today!"
'Ah!!!', he cried jubilantly, 'I've also designed the ladders at Kichuchu Rock!!'
"Nicely done! It really helped us a lot!", I congratulated him, grandly dismissing the fact that all the steps had been slanting downwards, providing an excellent start for a bum slide!

Beers at the Rwenzori Tours Holiday Inn.