The cold was unbearable! Even after wearing two pairs of long warm socks, two pairs of warm trousers, two t-shirts, a warm sweater, two pairs of woolen gloves and a warm cap over my head, I still felt the cold seeping through to my bones. I tried to lay still underneath my sleeping bag to try and keep warm, but the hard ground forced me to change positions every now and then making sleeping unbearable for the night. I was extremely fatigued and needed as much rest as possible to gather energy for the next day. Katharina, Emma and I had hiked for 28km from the Kapkwai Forest Exploration Centre to our camping station for the night at Kajeri. The trails were moderately easy during the first phase of the hike with plenty of plants and bird species to see along the way, but got really steep by the time we got to the camp. The porters were really helpful; lighting up firewood to keep us warm and boiling water for baths and hot coffee. This didn’t seem to help much in the long run, but was a good temporary solution. I almost thought we had walked to Alaska and were not in Uganda anymore, because the cold was so extreme…..
After having several cups of coffee the following morning, we hurriedly picked up our walking sticks at about 9 am – keen to get going and to try and stay warm though the exercise. We walked for a while through flat plains and steep slopes till we got to the Jackson Pool, a beautiful water source with an interesting history. We took some photos and later proceeded towards the caldera. The beauty was unbelievable, the vegetation was sol lush and green. I felt so relaxed and out of this world. I realised the porters had walked way ahead of me, as they were expected to set the camp for our team, whilst Emma and Katharina were way behind me. I felt a sense of guilt leaving them behind, but the fact that I have very long legs and had hiked seven mountains prior to Mount Elgon, meant my pace and fitness levels were quite good. It was interesting to know later on that Katharina got cut off from the group at some point and decided to play reggae music with hopes of scaring potential wild animals away. I was laughing so hard at the Mude camp as she narrated the story. We walked for 20km that day starting at 9am and finishing at 4pm.
I decided to act as brave as a lion on the morning of the third day and had a bath in the open. It was essential to wash away the dirt and sweat from the previous day, wear very warm clothes and head out to the summit point. The most exciting day for all hikers is reaching the summit point of any mountain; it is such a rewarding and fulfilling moment. After dressing up in my warm clothes, I picked up a piece of coal from the ground and proudly wrote my achievement on the wooden wall of Mude Camp. It said, “Pascqa Lorna Abur, 08th-July-2018, my 7th mountain in Uganda, Mountain Club of Uganda.” Katharina took a lovely photo of me standing next to it, which was a great souvenir of a special moment.
We all headed out as a group towards the summit point. After several hours of walking, I felt that the pace was a bit too slow for me and informed the group I would walk way ahead; thanks to my long legs that constantly take large strides! The path to the summit point was a combination of easy trails and rocky surfaces; it was very cold and foggy making it near impossible to see where I was going. My toes felt frozen and numb, my lips were dry and partially cracked. In fact my entire body felt extremely cold despite the fact that I was warmly dressed. For a moment I thought I was lost, everything around me was calm and quiet, a bird flew from one tree top to the other just in front, scaring me shitless. I almost thought a wild animal was ready to attack me. Though my eyes were partially blinded by the mist and fog, I caught sight of the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) sign post at a distance. The summit point was about a three minute walk from where I was, but due to the excitement, I decided to run there instead. My cold and fatigue was temporarily forgotten, I dropped down my back pack, and yelled “summit point’’, at the top of my voice for the rest to know that they were close by.
After taking several photos at the summit point and taking in some refreshments we quickly retraced our steps back to camp. It was an extremely cold day and we wanted to warm up at the fire place. We had hiked for 18km that day from 8.30am-4pm. At the camp, we had a warm meal with coffee and tried to fall asleep on the cold, hard floor of the camp.
The fourth day was the last day of the trek, which meant we were finally heading home. It was also one of the most difficult days as it had rained so much, leaving the trails muddy and slippery. We slipped and fell down numerous times, it was a frustrating walk. The strain on the ankles and knees was extreme resulting in a lot of pain. We were very excited to see Allan our driver waiting for us at the base of the mountain; it was such a relief and the end of a physically challenging but mind blowing hike.
The following is essential for the hike:
Water proof quality boots or long gumboots.
Light weight back pack-Hikers should ensure to pack as lightly as possible especially if they prefer to carry their own bags during the hike. The weight of a heavy back pack is troublesome and plays a great role in slowing one down.
A head cap for sun/rain protection.
A hand watch
Light rain jackets/ponchos preferably with a hood and water proof pants
A camera/phone camera
Walking sticks/bamboo sticks are always provided from the office at no fee.
Long sleeved shirts and pants.
Drinking water, plenty of streams and a tap on a few of the camps to supply you with water.
Sleeping bag, tent and a warm blanket; the nights are quite cold.
Altitude sickness medication i.e acetazolamide
The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) hiking fees for Mount Elgon national park;
Foreigners USD 75 a day
Ugandan Nationals is UGX 75,000 a day.
The total amount depends on the trail chosen. There is a 3,4 and 5 day option , the more days you spend the more you pay.
Hiking Mount Elgon is a good option for those who find Mount Rwenzori costly or strenuous, it is also a good acclimatization option for those preparing for the Rwenzoris.
“I have forgotten my handbag in my bedroom” I uttered out in dismay as Ivan our Uber driver parked the car in front of the Namayiba bus park where we were meant to board the bus to Moroto. Cyndee pelt, an amazing friend of mine that works for the American embassy in Kampala, said to Ivan and I, “Let’s drive back to your home and pick it up’’. With that, we put our seat belts back on and began to hurriedly drive back to Bukasa a Kampala suburb where I reside.
“I forgot to re-fuel the car and it looks like we are running out of fuel’’ uttered Ivan as we glanced at him in distress. It was about 02.45am and the bus was meant to leave at 3am. I wondered why any driver would drive clients around with a tank that was almost empty but at the same time I didn’t want that to heap blame or lose my cool as it was not necessary. After trying and failing to get fuel at three different petrol stations In Kabalagala one of the liveliest suburbs in Kampala, we were lucky to finally get a fuel re-fill at the fourth petrol station along the road. We hurriedly rushed to my house shortly after to fetch my bag and rush back to the bus station.
The air in the bus was quite stale as some of the passengers had been sleeping inside for hours, myself, Cyndee and Paulinas, a brother from the Tapac monastery in Moroto, were seated closely to each other at the back of the bus. Frederic Lepron, a former sports journalist & professional photographer in Paris and Les herbiers in France was also coming along with us. He was luckier than us, as he had found himself a much more comfortable seat at the center of the bus.
“Are you sure you never want to get married?” I asked Paulinas again (I have asked him this samequestion several times before). “Yes! I want to be free and dedicate my life fully to God.” He responded as Cyndee and I looked at him in dismay. I still have difficulties understanding why a young aesthetic man like himself would choose that path in life.
‘Do you have mountains in Burkina Faso?’ I continued to pester him with various questions. ‘Of course, we do, but they are not as high as the ones you have here in Uganda. “You should Google about it and learn more” he responded as I laughed. I have never met anyone from Burkina Faso before hence was intrigued with Paulinas and wanted to find out as much as possible about his country, the people, culture and lifestyle.
We were in Soroti at about 1pm; the scorching heat could be felt from within. The driver halted to take in more passengers in a bus that was already bursting with passengers. More passengers poured in carrying plenty of luggage, chicken, food stuff and children. The bus was carrying more passengers than the legal limit opting some to sit on tiny stools and buckets along the bus corridor rendering movements within the bus almost impossible.
By about 4pm we had safely arrived in Moroto town, the alluring mountain ranges could be sighted at a distance. After bargaining for several minutes with the boda-boda riders we finally heaped our bags on bikes as we sat and headed out for the 47km ride to the Monastery in Tapac where we would rest for the night.
The surrounding mountain ranges were prepossessing; I have always considered Moroto as one of the most unique districts we have in Uganda ranging from the semi-arid climate in some months of the year, the pastoralist background of the locals and their unique form of dressing, culture and lifestyle which they have maintained to date. The Karamojong can easily be compared to the Masai of Kenya and Tanzania who are among the most admirable tribes in Africa.
“I think we are going to fall!” I said to my boda-boda rider as we fidgeted through a muddy path on the road. He narrated how the heavy rains had poured in the past few days rendering some parts on the roads impassable. “I think it’s best if I get off the bike and walk a bit ahead to make it easier for you to ride through”, I continued to say to him as I got more and more uncomfortable. I was seated with a heavy bag, a tent, hiking sticks and a sleeping bag. I felt like the weight on the bike needed to be lessened especially during the slippery part that we were heading for.
“Don’t be afraid Madame we are going to pass” said our rider. As soon as he had completed that statement, the bike gave way making us fall hard in the middle of the road! I watched as my oranges scattered all over the place, my bananas were mashed into a pudding, my elbows and knees were grazed and bleeding. Luckily for us an ambulance was passing by and offered to clean and disinfect my wounds to avoid an infection.
“I think I will walk to the monastery “I said to him as he urged me to jump back on to the bike. “It’s almost 8km between here and the monastery Madame. It is very far come and we go’’ he insisted.
“Don’t worry about it, I will still pay you fully for the entire journey” I insisted and grabbed a bottle of water from one of my bags and started the long walk to the monastery. Frederic and his boda-boda rider caught up with me and he decided to get off the bike and walk with me.
I was in a bit of pain but tales of France from Federic played a great role in keeping me distracted. We walked for about 2km until Paulinas caught up with us riding a massive CTX200 Honda motorbike. “Let me carry you Lorna, the monastery is still far ahead. I will come back and pick Federic up as soon as I drop you off.’’ Paulinas said to us as I jumped on to the back of the bike without any hesitation. I insisted on wearing his red helmet and comfortably held on to him as we set off. I was fascinated by the size of the motorbike, I have always been a huge bike lover but I would never attempt to ride one.
“Am glad you kept your word and came back” Father Hans said to me as I arrived at the monastery. Father Hans is a German priest who has lived in Uganda for almost 20 years, serving in different monasteries within the country.
“Are you all okay?” Cyndee asked. She had arrived an hour earlier before the rest of us and was worried about us, as we had taken a while to arrive. She was relieved when we all safely got to the monastery.
After settling into our rooms we sat down for dinner at the monastery living room. Being International Women’s Day, Cyndee and I were treated like royalty by the gentlemen. They set the dinner table for us, served us food and even offered us a tasty bottle of whisky to celebrate womanhood. Cyndee and I felt quite honored, but were careful not to drink too much as we had a long hike the following day.
We were up by 7am Friday morning and by 7.30am we were gracefully walking past the fields and on to the trail that led to the ascent of the mountain. The distant views of the mountain peaks got clearer prompting us to take out our cameras and capture some memorable shots. We had agreed to hire some local porters from the community to help carry our bags so we could pay them in return; money they could use to buy food and cater to their personal needs.
There were plenty of massive cactus plants along the trails that highly fascinated all of us especially Cyndee. Our first stop was at a small Tepeth community of Karamojong that spend most of their time in the mountains and rarely descend to socialize with neighboring communities and villages that surround the parish. They barely go to the health center when they fall sick; they would rather visit the neighboring forest to hunt for medicinal roots and leaves to treat their illnesses.
“She is asking you to give her soap or salt as a token’’ one of the guides translated to me as an elderly woman pulled out her hand towards me and spoke to me in the local language. Federic was kind enough to give away a bar of soap with a lovely floral scent that got her excited and the rest envious of her. We gave out salt, biscuits and oranges to the rest of the women and children as we taught the men how to hold the camera and take pictures.
We got to the forest and pitched our tents leaving most of our luggage behind alongside two guides. We recruited 2 more local Karamojong guides who diligently led us through the various trails within the mountain.
I rated this particular hike as one of the easiest I have ever done because we set a comfortable pace for everyone and hiked as a group, unlike a few previous hikes I have done before where some hikers were a bit too fast and others too slow. We put emphasis on sticking together as a team, which is usually much easier when hiking in a small group. The sun was not as strong as it was in the previous months and this worked to our advantage. The skies darkened at some point threatening rain but luckily there was no downpour, whilst the distant views of Mount Kadam and other ranges were mesmerizing.
I noticed Federic was extremely excited, he was constantly recording videos of the views and speaking in French. I imagined he was eager to share the beauty of the mountain with his friends back in France, probably entice them to visit the country and do the hike themselves. Cyndee on the other hand pulled out her camera and was busy capturing photos of various bird, insect and plant species. Uganda boasts about 1,000 various bird species, making it an ideal birdwatching destination for bird lovers like my dear friend Cyndee.
We successfully summitted the Imagit peak by 2pm, captured lovely photos with the Ugandan flag and later begun our descent towards our camp in the forest. The Karamojong guide and I were feeling exceptionally energetic and opted to compete by running down the mountain towards the forest every now and then, until we got to camp. I could tell he was impressed with the fact that I was running after such a tiresome day of ascending.
We were all settled in at the camp by 6pm. The guides were busy cooking beans at the fire they had set up, Federic was making some tea and noodles on a tiny stove he carried along, the rest of us were munching on various snacks to get our energy levels back as we sat around the fire to keep warm. We hung a speaker on the branch of a tree and started to play and dance to all sorts of music from France, Uganda and West Africa. The best moments of every hike to me are the excitement and celebrations that come after the descent; the feeling of accomplishment is always so good that it makes me want to dance and be merry. I barely slept as it was extremely cold in the night and the guides could not stop laughing and cracking jokes by the fire, this went on till dawn. It was a beautiful experience for me, very different from my usual comfort zone.
We were up by 7am, had some coffee and begun our 2-3 hour descent back to the monastery where we were welcomed back with a feast fit for a king by Father Hans and Father Jimmy. After lunch and a few beers, we took showers and jumped on motorbikes in preparation of the 47km journey to Moroto town to board the evening bus back to Kampala.
The alarm tone on my phone was so loud that it made my heart skip a beat. I was certain I had set the alarm for 3am but was shocked and started to panic when the time on my phone read 3.20am. I had asked the driver of the bus we had hired for the trip, to come pick me up at 4.00am yet I had barely packed any of my hiking equipment. I had no idea where my hiking boots were, I could barely find any matching socks in my drawer, I needed to have a shower and a strong cup of coffee to keep me sane and awake yet time was not on my side.
It was 4.30am and the cold outside was unbearable, I was hesitant to go back into the house and pick up a sweater as my mother was fast asleep and I didn’t want to wake her up with my frequent movements in and out of the house. I had sat at the balcony in front of the house for almost thirty minutes, impatiently waiting for the driver to show up. I had rung him about six times and all he said was “Madame will be there in five minutes.” Thirty minutes had passed and there was still no sign of him and the vehicle. At about 4.45am I started to get suspicious and decided to ring my friend Charles who was meant to be our leader for the hike to voice my concerns. “The driver is still not here. What if he has tricked us? I think he has run away with the cash deposit we gave him for the bus’’ I whined to Charles as he quietly listened to my concerns.
“I think you are over –reacting Lorna, he will show up’’ he responded to try and calm me down. “I think he is here, I said to Charles as I heard the bus come towards the compound. “We are coming to pick you up, I hope you are ready” I said to him as soon as I saw the bus trying to park on the compound. I hung up on Charles immediately without waiting for a response, I was relieved and disappointed at the same time because the driver had not kept time yet we had a long journey ahead of us. After countless apologies from the driver and the conductor for showing up late, I hurriedly carried my bags inside and asked them to quickly drive to Charles’s residence to pick him up and later head to the Fat back packers in Kisementi by 6am to pick up the rest of the hikers.
Matt Battani the secretary of the Mountain Club of Uganda had requested Charles and I two months earlier to lead the mountain hike up in Moroto on his behalf as he was unable to do it. A few representatives of the mountain clubs of Uganda, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Kenya and South Africa were merging together to do this exciting hike. After introducing ourselves to the group and exchanging all the necessary pleasantries we boarded the bus at exactly 6 am and set off for the Karamoja region which is located on the North Eastern part of Uganda, about 10-12 hours drive from Kampala with a few stop overs along the way. The team in the bus was extremely friendly and cheerful, we all spoke about the political situations in our various countries with our favorite topic being Robert Mugabe ex-president of Zimbabwe, and we compared cultures and economic situations among many other topics. Michael the team member from Zimbabwe was receiving plenty of questions from me as I have been intrigued by Robert Mugabe’s governance in Zimbabwe for a long period of time.
We stopped at Java’s café in Jinja for breakfast and later on had lunch at the Endiro café in Mbale where some members went out shopping for food supplies and safe drinking water for the week ahead of us. We arrived at the Pilas primary school which is situated in the Iriri trading center in the village of Lothaa in Napak at around 6pm; this was meant to be our camping area for the night. My phone had been ringing frequently as 2 of our group members from Japan, Ryutaro and Taiju had gotten into a bit of trouble with the local police and sub-county officials. They had travelled before us and had somehow been arrested for looking ‘’suspicious’ as the police explained to me over the phone.
Miha a Slovenian-Ugandan who owns a lodge at Lake bunyonyi, Charles and I rushed to the sub-county office to try and rescue the situation. After several arguments, debates and tempers flaring left and right with the various officials at the sub-county we decided to make peace and offered them a UGX 200,000 fee instead of the UGX 1,000,000 they were demanding to allow Ryutaro and Taiju to return with us back to the camp.
We were up and ready by 6am the morning of Sunday the 14th of January, we posed for a group photo with the Ugandan flag and begun to walk towards the starting point of the mountain. Mount Napak is the third highest mountain in Karamoja with a starting elevation of about 1,268 meters and a summit elevation of about 2,530meters. It is also considered to be one of the toughest mountains to climb in Karamoja as it has stiff cliffs and a few scramble sections that may require hikers to use a rope of about 15 meters to aid with the ascent. The ascent and descent on Mount Napak is about 18.9km if it’s hiked in a day like we planned to do, it takes a good 12 hours, 10 hours of hiking and 02 hours of breaks during the hike. The view of the sun rising in the horizon was spectacular; it colored the skies with a beautiful golden-brownish color. The pathway was bushy with plenty of tall grasses; we occasionally stopped to greet the locals who had their homesteads at the base of the mountain, took plenty of photos and kept on trekking.
The hike started to get really steep at about 10 am. Steep rocky parts usually make me nervous as one wrong move could result into serious injuries and even death if the fall is severe, but luckily we had excellent team work and helped each other up where it got difficult. Charles, Wieslaw a skilled polish hiker and the local karamajong guide were extremely helpful and ensured all of us were safe.
The decision to make Charles the leader of the hike was a good one. He is one of the most patient people I have ever met, he always stayed at the back of the group, whistling, singing and cracking jokes to ease the tension and fatigue that was starting to slowly build. Karamoja is a very dry semi-arid region and the heat is a bit extreme, the gruesome weather conditions made our ascent really challenging.
We were at the peak of the mountain by 1.30pm the views from the top were perfect for photography as it unveiled jaw dropping panoramic views of the famous Alekilek rock, distant Karamoja plains and Mountain ranges. The breeze was calm and relaxing providing the perfect environment for us to relax and have lunch. Most of us were falling asleep shortly after lunch when Wieslaw decided it was best we begun our descent to avoid hiking in the night.
We had assumed our descent would be much easier compared to our ascent but it turned out to be equally challenging. Some paths were slippery making some of us lose balance and slide every now and then luckily there were no injuries. By 5pm we were all exhausted and extremely dehydrated, we had run out of water and our pace had slowed down slightly.
I was forced to sit down at a rock for about 15 minutes as my head was spinning and my sight had gotten blurry, I was extremely dehydrated, luckily the hikers from South Africa and Malawi had some spare water and rehydration tablets to share that aided in getting me back on my feet.
At 7.15PM we slowly walked towards our camp site at the school, extremely exhausted. I remember being so dehydrated and fatigued that I could barely talk. After an hour of taking a power nap, having dinner and a cold shower we sat at the bonfire with some cold beers and vodka to celebrate our success. Mount Napak had been successfully conquered.
“I appreciate MCU members for giving me and Taiju an opportunity to trek Mt.Napak and for having us released from Jail”-Ryutaro Onda a member of the mountain club of Uganda
“A huge THANK YOU to matt Battani for the invitation to Uganda and the planning, to Charles and Lorna for being our local charming hosts (the charm extending to the smooth release of our friends from the authorities at the Napak base camp), to Weislaw and Carolina for the daily nourishment, and lastly to the delightful group members with whom we hiked and shared stories and laughs. From the first Rolex in Jinja, through our interactions with the fascinating Karamojong, to the stunning top of the mountain we were smitten by this interesting and diverse country, Uganda. We had FUN-representatives of the mountain club of Malawi.
I sat inside the bus to Mbale impatiently waiting for Spacey to show up. The driver seemed fed up with my countless pleas of “she is on her way, ssebo (meaning sir in Luganda) “please be patient she is on a boda boda(motor-bike) and will soon be here!’
“But Madame you have been saying that for the last 15 minutes. It’s 10.00am and we are supposed to take off right now’’ he argued back as I sat helplessly wondering why she was taking so long.
Just as the driver was about to leave the bus station, she breathlessly appeared, and jumped into the seat next to me. “I am never on time, Lorna, and am always late!” she said with an apologetic grin. She could see that I was exasperated after repeatedly calling her to hurry her along and cajoling the bus driver not to leave without her.
Spacey and I were in the same class in 2016, we both pursued an IATA course, graduated and started working in the Ugandan tourism industry. However, we had never done a tour together. This was our chance! We dreamed up the idea of exploring Sipi Falls in Kapchorwa, a beautiful series of three waterfalls that lie on the edge of Mount Elgon and the Kenyan boarder.
The Sipi Falls area is perfect for a number of exciting activities like trekking along the magnificent water falls, rock climbing, nature walks, coffee farming tours, cave visits and birding safaris. We opted for backpacking since we were both on a shoe string budget. That is why we were using public transportation through Mbale town to Kapchorwa. The drive to Mbale was rather long and uncomfortable, inside the rattly bus. It was really hot inside, and the dusty road outside made it unbearable to open the windows. It was a huge relief to finally disembark in Mbale, and take a few photos with the famous Wanale hill in the background. We ate a quick snack at a restaurant then grabbed a taxi to to take us to our accommodations in Kapchorwa.
We chose to sleep in a back-packer’s lodge since most of the Accommodation in town were fully booked. Of course, it was also the option that perfectly fit our budget. We got to our room late, and the weather had turned extremely chilly. The water in the shower was cold enough to induce hypothermia. I squealed, shivered and danced around until I felt clean enough to get out of the frigid water.
The next morning, we awoke to a lovely sunny morning. We were super excited about the Adventure that awaited us. Sheriff Chebet, one of our guides, picked us up on a motorbike and drove us to the office to register, make payments, and to meet our other guide, Juma Chebet. We safer with each of us having our own guide to provide the information and assistance we needed.
Grabbing long bamboo poles that aided us in our trek up and down the falls, we set out. The view was captivating and gave us the chance to pose for pictures inside the caves and to dance under the water falls. One of the three water falls had a massive pool underneath it that prompted us to quickly change into our swimming attire and jump into the water. We splashed water on each other, screamed our lungs out, and danced as we sung off-key to Beyoncé’s songs. Juma and Sheriff watched with amusement, and took photos of us.
We decided to wind up the day by walking to another fall and abseiling 100meters beneath it. As soon as we arrived, we were welcomed by Robert, the Director of Rob’s Rolling Rock Company. He helped us each to wear a harness around our waists in preparation for our decent.
Even though the guides had warned me not to look down, my curiosity got the best of me and I did. ‘’Girl, I don’t see myself going down there ‘’, I muttered to Spacey as I was overwhelmed by fear. I started to wonder why we ever came up with this idea, I knew we were out looking for adventure but we didn’t need to risk our lives in the process. We had already paid a non-refundable fee of UGX 100,00 (about 30 USD). If we decided to walk away, we would have lost our money and feel disappointed for the rest of the day. We decided to go for it, with Spacey opting to go first. I watched her shake like a leaf as Robert instructed her to place her feet on the crossbar, hold tightly to the rope, and let go. She tried at first but then begged to be pulled back up, she was really frightened and wanted to give up. “Lorna come and do it first, I will follow after you’’ she said. ‘’No, you can do it Spacey, it’s going to be fun!’’ I yelled back. In reality I was even more scared than she was and probably didn’t sound too convincing.
Photo:Spacey getting ready
Robert did a great job of encouraging Spacey’s confidence. “I won’t let anything happen to you. Just relax and trust me!’’ he repeatedly assured her. “What if the ropes break?” What if I fall down?’’ Spacey stammered out a number of anxious questions, and he answer them reassuringly until she eventually gained the courage to let go. Her first screams of fear were followed by shrieks of laughter and excitement ‘’I love you Robert. This is so beautiful!” she screamed. “I love you too Spacey. Now look at me and let go of the rope” he shouted back as he shot a great memorable picture of her.
Fifteen minutes later, Spacey was safely on the ground 100meters below and it was time for me to give it a try. I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up, my heart was beating faster than Usain Bolt has ever run. My stomach churned so loud it sounded like an active volcano was about to erupt through my mouth. “Spacey did it, I need to do it too!’’ I repeated over and over again to calm my jittery nerves.
“Place one foot on the crossbar, place the other against the wall, hold the rope and slowly let go. Be careful not to get too close to the wall as you may hurt yourself.’’ I heard Robert say as I fumbled around to put my feet on the crossbar. It felt so unstable, and I could barely stand on it since the wind made it shake from one side to side.
‘’Do I have had to stand on the crossbar?’’, “Can’t I just hold the rope and go down? ’I asked as I struggled to get my feet firmly on the pole.
‘’Yes, you can…Are you ready?’’ he asked. I was too nervous to reply and quickly let go of his hand, held the rope tightly and let go. My eyes were tightly shut until I heard Robert shout “You are doing it Lorna, open your eyes and look at the beauty around you.’’ I slowly opened my eyes and glanced at the Jaw dropping beauty that surrounded me. The reddish-golden sun sinking in the horizon, the rays of light glimmering in the clouds, images of a magnificent waterfall as white as snow, all dazzled me magically. The waterfall roared majestically as the perfect background for the stunning view of the distant hills and beautiful valleys. It was spellbinding!
I could hear gleeful cheers from Spacey and Sheriff who were watching from below. My spectacular ride lasted about ten minutes. On the ground, Sheriff hurried towards me and helped take the harness off my waist. Spacey was jumping up and down in excitement “Lorna we did it!’’ as we both hugged and laughed. It was such a great experience from fear to a rush of utter joy and excitement.
We all posed for more photographs and then jumped on Sheriff’s motor bike to ride back into town. We went laughing, screaming and singing. It had been such a lovely day. We ended it that evening by drinking Ugandan Waragi, eating chicken, listening to music, dancing, gossiping, and laughing out loud until we finally fell into an exhausted sleep.
We woke up to a lovely breakfast the next morning at Noah’s Ark hotel. We took a lazy walk around the town, and then grabbed a taxi to head back to Kampala that afternoon. We felt brave and content from our great adventure!
Many thanks to my friend Spacey for going on this adventure with me, and of course to our lovely guides Juma, Sheriff and Robert for their commitment and professionalism. I highly recommend them as the best guides to contact at Sipi Falls. You need to experience this too!
I had never heard of Mount Gahinga prior to Matt Battani, the secretary of the Mountain Club of Uganda, who mentioned it to me. He recommended it as a less technical 6-8 hour day hike that could easily be fitted in over a weekend. This sparked so much excitement inside me as it meant I could head out to Kisoro, very close to the Rwanda-Uganda border, on a Friday afternoon after work, hike on Saturday and then return to Kampala on Sunday.
At first I thought about hiking Mount Gahinga on my own, hiring one or two UWA guides for protection and guidance, but I later thought involving other friends and club members would make it even more interesting.
So, on Friday the 18th of August, 5 of us were seated comfortably in a super custom van we had hired, 2 lovely American ladies named Pam and Kate, 2 amazing brothers Andrew and Richard that took the initiative to drive, and myself. Our Journey towards Kisoro commenced at around 3pm on that Friday afternoon amidst the chaotic Kampala traffic jam where vehicles on the road were either stationary of moving very slowly. It was such a relief to finally get out of Kampala by 5pm and to enjoy a more relaxing drive towards Kisoro.
Pam and Kate had carried along enough food to feed all of us (a very kind gesture that I still appreciate). We had chicken, salami, cheese, bread, chapatis and Crisps. Andrew brought along some Juice and alcohol one could easily think we were headed out for a feast rather than a hike. The journey took us a lengthy ten hours prompting us to fall asleep in the vehicle, we got to Kisoro town at about 2.30am, rung our UWA guide Zachariah (a lovely gentleman who was recommended to us by Matt). He was kind enough to ride his bike in the cold as he guided us towards the park entrance.
Andrew and I were struggling to set up the tent and catch some sleep. Pam and Kate were luckier as they opted to sleep at the Cabin lodges. I usually prefer camping and sleeping in tents but the idea of setting up a massive tent at 3am in the brutal cold in Kisoro was not such an appealing idea. Richard opted to sleep in the car, but helped us pitch our tent and we all went to sleep. I felt my head had hardly touched the pillow and it was suddenly 7am and we were up.
I headed out to the communal bathroom to have a shower, an act I greatly regretted in all the ten minutes I was in there! The water was extremely cold that I almost thought I would die from hypothermia while showering. However, after dressing I was glad I had the shower as it played a great role in waking me up and getting me both mentally and physically prepared for the hike.
After posing for a lovely group photo, our trek begun. Our team of 5 plus Zachariah had been joined by another guide, Ambrose. As we climbed, we could see the Mountain Gorillas in a nearby bush shaking leaves as they ate them for breakfast, Golden monkeys jumping from one tree to another, Astonishing views of Mount Sabinyo and Mount Muhavura from a distance that made me eager to return to Kisoro at a later date to hike them as well.
We encountered different types of vegetation with every ascent we made towards the summit of Muhavura. The bamboo trees were my favorite part of the hike. A set of tall, slender trees lined up against each other with hundreds of bird nests resting high up in the branches undisturbed. The trees provided a cool shade that made walking underneath them very mentally & physically relaxing. We occasionally halted at resting points for refreshments and to take memorable pictures.
The trek was quite easy in the start as the ground was quite level. However I started to feel a bit nauseous and dizzy as we began ascending towards the peak. I regretted the fact that I had not swallowed my Acetazolamide tablets to help with the altitude sickness. By slowing down and drinking plenty of water each time I felt nauseous, I was able to control it.
Pam was way ahead of us and at 62 years of age, I greatly admired her zeal and energy. She was as fit as a fiddle and she didn’t seem exhausted as she ascended the mountain like a true warrior until reaching the peak. She greatly inspired me and I am working hard to ensure I am as physically fit as Pam is when I get to her age.
The view at the top was eye-catching and I took off my Ugandan flag and proudly raised it in the air. Pam, Zachariah and I took amazing photos at the top as we waited for the rest of the group to join us. The peak of Gahinga is the central location of all the borders of Rwanda, Congo and Uganda. That explained the various “Welcome to Congo” and “Welcome to Rwanda” texts I received from Tigo and Airtel telecommunication providers on my phone! It was a bit confusing as we were in three different countries at the same time – even the time zone had changed as we had adopted the Rwandan time zone that is an hour behind Uganda’s.
The rest of the group arrived and we all settled down for delicious chicken sandwiches, cheese and salami, some fruit and juices. I usually avoid eating a lot during a hike so I opted for smaller food portions. We rested a bit, took some more photos and then began the descent. The hike downwards was much easier than the ascent and I admired how fast and comfortably Zachariah ran down the ladders. I felt jealous and secretly wished to get as fit and as steady on my feet as he was. I always feel a need to be extra careful while descending a mountain as the gravitational force seems stronger hence easier to slide and fall.
There was plenty of fresh buffalo dung along the trails which meant a heard of buffaloes had just walked passed the trail. This prompted Zachariah and I to wait for the rest of the group that were lagging behind for safety purposes. Ambrose had a gun with him which would come handy in case we needed it. Zachariah and I sat under the shade of the bamboo trees, watching music videos on my phone, laughing, dancing, singing and just being silly till the rest caught up with us after an hour.
There was a bit of a downpour as we walked towards the camping site, resulting in a beautiful rainbow arcing across the sky in the distance. Too good a photo opportunity to miss, so we stood and posed for more photographs and walked back to base. It felt good taking off my shoes after an 11-hour hike. I opted for a hot relaxing shower and relaxed with a glass of vodka. I scrolled through the pictures on my phone and sent them to my friends to intentionally make them jealous and to obviously market the beauty of Uganda.
The night was extremely cold but we managed to get some good sleep, woke up to an early start and drove back to Kampala.
I am glad to have added Mount Gahinga off my hiking conquest list and I am eagerly waiting to go back and hike Mount Sabinyo and Mount Muhavura to successfully complete the peaks that make up the Virunga Mountains.
My interest and inspiration in the Rwenzori Mountain Range all started a year ago, around August 2016 on one boring Sunday afternoon as I was lying on my bed and lazily flipping over the pages of the Uganda Wildlife Authority Magazine and reading about the various national parks we have in the country. They all seemed interesting, but as soon as I opened the page titled Rwenzori Mountains National Park -The Mystical Challenge, I was extremely fascinated. At that exact moment, I started to envision myself trekking up to get to the famous Margherita peak that stands at an astonishing height of 5,109m. The idea of the highest point in Uganda covered in ice and snow sparked off so much excitement inside me that I knew right away I had to hold the ice in my hands.
I spent the next months doing my research on the Rwenzori Mountains. I wanted my dream of holding ice in my hands at the highest point in Uganda to come true. I contacted various trekking services; Rwenzori Mountaineering Services(RMS), Rwenzori Trekking Services (RTS), and compared prices. I read stories of several people who had been up the mountain and I contacted them for their own personal experiences during the trek.From all the responses and advice I received,it was quite obvious that it was going to be a strenuous hike, normally only attempted by experienced mountaineers. I am no experienced mountaineer, but either way, I knew I had to get to the peak.
As months went by, I got to know of a club known as the Mountain Slayers Club of Uganda; A group of young energetic men and women with the desire to hike mountains and climb rocks. I contacted the team and agreed to join 14 of them to attempt the great task of conquering the mystical challenge.
Rwenzori Trekking-Day One – Sunday 9th July 2017 – Nkurungu Trail to Kebitakuli Camp
Due to a few delays our trek started a bit late in the afternoon, with the scorching sun beating down on our heads. We were introduced to the guides and porters who were to guide us during the trek, carry our luggage and prepare our meals .We were meant to start our hike using the Nkurungu Trail(which had not officially been used before) and this meant we had the honour of officially opening the trail. I stuffed my day pack with energy drinks, chocolates, energy bars, crisps, sanitizers; making sure I had all I needed but that it was not so heavy as to cause me additional fatigue.
The trek involved us going up and down a few hills and it was draining as the sun was very hot. We made a few stops under the shade of trees, munched on some energy bars, drank some water and went on trekking for 6 hours until we reached our accommodation for the night at the Kebitakuli camp. It was cold during the night, but fortunately we were sharing tents and had a nice fireplace set right outside to keep us warm. A delicious dinner was prepared and served by the guides and we ate heartily. We cracked jokes by the fire place and the guides briefed us about the next day’s journey and then we went to sleep.
Rwenzori Trekking- Day Two-Monday 10th July- Kebitakuli to Kambeho Camp
Our day started at 6.30am with a warm bath for some of us under some trees and a tasty breakfast of eggs, sausages and bread, washed down with milk tea. This was followed by the day’s 6 hour trek to our intended camp for the night called Kambeho camp at 3700m ASL (Above Sea Level).
I found the trek very relaxing with plenty of heather trees, Giant Lobelias and a variety of beautiful flower species and vegetation to marvel at along the way. The water flowing down the streams of Mount Rwenzori is so clean, pure and cold.I must confess drinking water from a stream in Uganda is not usually a good idea, but up in the mountains, it´s pure and relatively safe. We had a few breaks for lunch and relaxation during the day which was lovely as it granted me a perfect opportunity to take some memorable photographs.
We arrived at Kambeho Camp in a relaxed mood, enjoyed another lovely meal prepared by the guides, swapped some more stories and then retired to bed for the night.
Rwenzori Trekking- Day Three-Tuesday 11th July-Kambehoto Mughuli Lake Camp
After an early breakfast we were off again for a 7hour trek for the day, with a climb along the beautiful river Lhume. The vegetation was spectacular, the sceneries eye catching too and my spirits were extremely high. I had plenty of time pretending to be a diva in front of the camera. This was so much fun so we had our regular breaks for energy drinks/bars and Lunch. We set camp at Mughuli Lake Camp where we did the usual relaxing by the fireplace, telling stories, cracking jokes, dinner and retiring to bed.
Rwenzori Trekking- Day Four-Wednesday 12th July-Mughuli to Bukurungu East Lake Camp
This was one of the toughest days during the trek. We had two options; either climb the Portal Peak which is 4627m ASL or proceed for a less strenuous 6-7hour trek to the Bukurungu Camp which was meant to be our resting camp for the night. As usual, I love to take on a challenge and I agreed to join the group that went up the Portal Peak. We had to wear gumboots as the ground was boggy and I found myself sinking into it several times. Luckily for me, my personal guide Denis was always by my side, front or back to hold me at my weakest moments.
Going up the Portal Peak was a very steep rocky climb for all of us and extremely energy draining as well. I had to mix lots of glucose in my water to keep my body going. It was a long devastating climb, I remember asking Denis several times if we were almost getting to the top and he always responded with“Just a few minutes Madame”, but these few minutes turned into hours and I eventually stopped asking. We finally got to the top but felt battered.
I could easily compare the Portal Peak trek to going 10 rounds with Moses Golola (a famous Ugandan Champion Kick Boxer). Not that I have tried kick boxing before – or would want to, but Portal Peak could easily be described as a fight that you’re fortunate to survive.
Going down the mountain was quite difficult too and I felt it was one of the greatest challenges of being tall.My knees felt weak and if it wasn’t for the knee braces that tightly held my knees in place; I suspect my knees would have given way.
We got back to Bukurungu Camp relatively late and had a shower, dinner and went straight to sleep. I was too exhausted mentally and physically for any chit-chat with the group.
Rwenzori Trekking-Day Five-Thursday 13th July- Bukurungu Camp to Bujuku Hut
After breakfast we were out again, this time for an estimated 5-7 hour trek to the Bujuku Hut where we intended to sleep for the night. My mood was a bit low this morning. I am an introvert and extrovert at the same time (yes I am as confusing as that sounds). I am naturally very friendly and outgoing but I value my personal space considerably as well. Being around the 14 other members of the group all the time was starting to frustrate and irritate me and I craved for some alone time. I wanted time to mentally reflect, think and derive energy from within. Sadly the group later misinterpreted this act as a selfish one, which is truly wasn’t, but I can’t fully explain myself to other people all the time – more so when my full focus was on conquering the Mystical Challenge.
I was getting irritated with the constant muddy, boggy terrain and I’m certain my personal guide Denis noticed the look of disgust on my face. He surprised me when he asked me to follow him to a route he said was less strenuous, and just as though my prayers were answered, this was a totally different route from the rest of the group.Denis and I walked on our own for almost 40 minutes in total silence.My mood was getting better and the terrain was much drier and easier to walk on, allowing my pace to increase greatly.
“Madame you are walking fast”.He broke the silence as he looked at me with a smile on his face. He noticed the sudden calm and relaxation on my face compared to an hour earlier. I laughed hard and took out two chocolate bars from my day pack, handed him one and we started to chat.
It struck me that we had not engaged in much conversation since the trek begun, other than the usual “madame step here”, “madame step there” “madame you are walking too fast or too slow” or “madame drink some water”. It finally dawned on me that I had not said much to him and I was curious to know all about him.
“Call me Lorna not Madame” I said to him…but after various attempts he failed to pronounce my name correctly and so we stuck with “madame”.
I asked Denis about his family and I was surprised that he had only one wife and three children. The majority of African men living in remote areas tend to be polygamous with a large number of children.
I was impressed to know that his children were in school studying but the conversation became very uncomfortable when I asked how much he earned for his work and he told me he was paid only UGX 10,000 a day (around USD 3). Only USD 3 a day and yet he walked tirelessly with my day pack, holding my hand, encouraging me to keep on moving. He dealt with my tantrums, frustrations and mood swings and always remained calm. I have not met a man with such a calm, patient spirit in a long time. I could tell it was not all about customer care but that he was naturally a very calm man and I doubt he ever got angry in his life. I highly doubt it.
As we kept on talking I found myself more and more confused about his financial situation, not only for him but for all the guides, porters and cooks.According to his revelations they all earned very little and it perturbed me. As Denis was my personal guide, I felt a sense of responsibility and asked him to hand me my camera bag. I had hidden some emergency cash just below my camera so I took out a UGX 50,000 note and handed it over to him and then I promised to pay school fees for a term for one of his daughters. This was not because I am rich, far from it, but because I felt a need to step in and brighten his life in a way.
Denis´s face brightened up and he was smiling and laughing.He started to talk so fast, and he opened up and told me so many stories that I could barely keep up.His English was not so good and I struggled to understand some of the things he said but I was content he was happy.
We reached the central circuit and I was impressed with the pieces of timber that were lined up above the bog, this was just a brilliant idea. I remember stopping to take pictures with Denis, we laughed, we jumped up and down. It was so beautiful gazing at Lake Bujuku.Denis joked about how cold the water was and claimed only the Russians could swim in it.
The rest of the trek towards the camp was interesting and I was glad for taking some time away from the group and bonding greatly with him. I dedicate this day of my hike to Denis….It started on such a bad note but he turned it around for me and it ended up really well.
Rwenzori Trekking– Day 6- 14th July –Bujuku to Ellena hut
Before proceeding from Bujuku hut it’s very important to read the warning information that is stuck on the glass window. When one arrives at Bujuku hut they are automatically at the heart of the mystical challenge. I remember reading through the instructions and getting extremely nervous. It read:
“You should not attempt to go any higher in elevation but descent to a lower hut in case you are coughing, have difficulty in breathing, shortness in breathe, severe headache or nose bleeding. It is difficult to affect a rapid rescue to Bujuku, Kitandara or Ellena huts as they are the worst places to have a serious illness at the central circuit”.
The more I read, the more nervous I got. I had been coughing the whole night, had difficulties breathing and at one point during my sleep I felt like I was choking and had to sit up on my bed for almost an hour. I wore five pairs of socks but my feet still felt cold. I noticed some blood when I blew my nose that morning and it was quite obvious the mountain sickness had got to me. I quickly swallowed my tablets and tried to remain calm. I remembered how long I had planned for this trip, the amount I spent on the trip and equipment – almost USD 850 (I would have flown to Mombasa on holiday and back for this amount). I remembered the pressure and expectations of getting to the peak from friends, family and my poor boyfriend who had to bring me a sleeping bag, skiing glasses, a brand new camera, hiking shoes and warm socks all the way from Norway. A trip he was not even part of but had spent a fortune on. All these thoughts ran through my mind and I decided I was going on until I reached the peak. There was simply no way I could give up at this moment. In my mind, I would have failed myself and all the people who were looking up to me.
As soon as we were done with breakfast we posed for some photos with beautiful scenery in the background and then went on with the day´s trek. It was a bit of a tough trek, starting off with bog and mud, then rocky and steep terrain. The rocks were giving me a hard time and Denis had to stretch out his hand every now and then to pull me up. I started feeling the fatigue accumulating around my muscles from days of trekking and I could feel the altitude taking its toll as we were elevating fast. We eventually arrived at Ellena Hut exhausted after 5-6 hours and we had very few hours to sleep as we had to be up by 2am to begin the walk up the glacier.
Just as soon as we had supper and settled in, we met the guides for a briefing on the do’s and don’t s up the glacier and instructions and familiarization with the axes, crampons and harnesses. I was a bit disappointed as the equipment seemed old, with the crampons appearing rusty and weak, but I was too exhausted to worry about that and retired to bed for the night.
Rwenzori Trek – Day 7-15th July 2017- Ellena Hut to The Summit
We were up by 1am and had a quick breakfast, which enabled us leave by 2am. This was important so we could be up to Magherita and down by 10am. I took a dose of acetazolamide to fight the altitude sickness and as it was still pitch black night time, we all had our head torches firmly strapped on our foreheads as we set off. We finally got to the snowline area, fitted our crampons and practiced walking on ice. It was a tricky at the start but eventually became easier.
I took some time to hold the ice in my hands just as I had wanted. It was beautiful, spectacular. The views blew me away…..my dream was starting to turn into reality.
We climbed up and down a few more steep rocks and finally arrived at the base of the glacier. It was now time to wear the crampons again, get hold of the axes and summit.The moment was upon us. I felt nervous and anxious as it looked dangerous. I was not quite sure how I would get up there, I had never done this before, my emotions were a melting pot of excitement and fear.
Denis asked me to stick to him and there was a gentleman behind him whom I shortly followed.It started out well with us pulling ourselves up with a rope until the situation started to slowly get way out of control.
The guy ahead of me was slowly slipping down because of my weight on the rope and I didn’t know how to use the axe properly. The guys behind me were yelling at me to get out of the way, making me feel so much anger and confusion targeted towards me. I decided at that point to give up.
I remember yelling out to Herbert (the professional mountain guide who was at the base), to kindly evacuate me. I had totally lost interest in summiting. All I wanted to do was to get out of the way.Reaching the summit simply didn´t matter anymore. It took about 40 minutes for Herbert to reach me and I immediately asked him to take me down.
“No madame, you have trekked 6 days to get to this point, I have been watching you, you are a strong woman, follow me and we will get to the top” The rest is history.
I will forever remain indebted to Herbert, for being extremely professional and encouraging at my weakest moment. I pulled myself to the top, took amazing photos on the Magherita and was very proud of myself. I was glad that, despite of the negative energy derived from the group, there was one positive person at that crucial time to make my dream come true.
Coming down the glacier was a lot of effort as well and I remember breaking down into tears at some point as I was exhausted, fatigued and dehydrated. Herbert didn’t look so well either.My crampons came off so many times that I nearly gave up and opted to spend a night on the glacier. Herbert never gave up on me and I remember us reaching down to the base of the Glacier at 7pm. We had spent almost 12 hours struggling to go up and get down and this is not recommended at the glacier as it’s risky. We arrived back at the camp by midnight and I was totally devastated and torn. The challenge of Portal Peak was now remembered fondly as not so challenging in comparison. I had dinner, didn’t bother to have a shower and almost instantly fell asleep.
Rwenzori Trek -Day 8-16th July – Ellena to John Matte Hut
The trek down was really painful as my legs were hurting from the previous day. I walked really slowly with Denis as I was exhausted, so we maintained a really slow pace. I spent most of the day taking pictures and wishing to get out of the mountain. The trek took approximately 7 hours but we continued to bond as usual until we arrived at the camp. I was not comfortable being around the group after all that had transpired at the glacier, so I had my supper in silence and spent most of my time outside speaking to the guides. I went to bed early and asked Denis if we could wake up as early as 5 am before the others so that I could leave.
I was up at 4am, packed my bags, woke Denis up with one more guide and we were off on our own. This was one of the best days asI knew I was finally going home.It was also relaxing for me because I was away from the group. We cracked jokes, laughed, finished up my chocolates and we were later joined by two of the other porters who were carrying my heavier bags.We all walked joyfully until we arrived at the exit gate. I have never felt so relieved to be back to civilization. I quickly signed out as I waited for a boda-boda to pick me up and transport me to the Sandton hotel in Kasese town.
It was very emotional for me to say good-bye to all these lovely people who had carried my bags, guided my walk and supported me in achieving what I had set out to do. They felt like family and we exchanged contacts and bid each other farewell. I was so emotional and I wanted to cry so much. I wished I could offer them a better life and I felt they deserved a much more rewarding pay for their efforts. As I work for a tour company, I promised to recommend them to any of my clients or friends who would wish to trek the Rwenzoris.
The Uganda wildlife Authority and Rwenzori’s Mountain National Park management sent one of the guides to come up to the Sandton hotel where I was resting and awarded me with a certificate of appreciation. This made me very happy, to think that despite of all that I went through, my efforts were recognized and appreciated. What an amazing feeling!
One lesson well learnt from my experience is negative people and negative energy are dangerous in our lives. We should always try to surround ourselves with positive people especially during strenuous or difficult situations.
I forever remain indebted to Herbert, Denis, Hannington, Robert and all the guides, cooks and porters who work tirelessly to ensure we have a safe, enjoyable trek yet earn very little in comparison to the job they do and the risks they face. It is my wish that one day I will be in a position to transform their lives and ensure what they earn is relative to what they are truly worth.