By Rehema Aanyu
A few months ago, a friend asked if I could join her and two other friends to trek the Rwenzori Mountain and its summit, Margherita, the highest point in Uganda and third highest peak in Africa sitting at 16,763 feet above sea level.
“It will be fun,” she said. I casually agreed. Bookings were made with Rwenzori Trekking Services (RTS) and a training schedule developed. The months that followed involved intensive training in the gym, hiking up a number of hills in Kasese district and jogging every morning and evening. My body was in the best shape ever and I thought I was ready.
As the days drew nearer, I read a couple of blogs by people who had reached the Margherita peak and they all painted a touristy picture of how wonderful it was up there and how beautiful it looked. I could not wait.
The trek begins
We began our eight-day trek on May 31, 2013, through Kilembe town, hiking over broken bridges that were swept away by recent floods. At RTS offices in Kilembe we changed into gumboots, signed documents that, in essence, said we were responsible for our lives and should anything happen to us, the trekking company was not liable. We were later briefed about our journey and told to look out for blue monkeys, a number of unique birds, mountain goats, leopards and lots of interesting flora.
To reach Margherita peak, we were to trek through seven biospheres, namely the savannah grassland, the natural rainforest, the bamboo zone, the heather zone, the alpine zone, rock zone and lastly, the snow zone. I looked forward to experiencing these great wonders.
At 9:03am, we each set off into the Rwenzori Mountains National Park with our guides and a group of porters carrying our luggage, food, utensils and mountaineering equipment. We paid our entry fees into the world heritage site at the Uganda Wildlife Authority offices.
At this point, we were all in high spirits, chatting, joking and laughing with our guides and porters. It was mostly cool because we were covered by the green canopy of giant ancient trees and plants. We trekked through this lovely forest for six hours, all the while listening to the beautiful sounds of birds, blue monkeys and the endless sounds of River Nyamwaburi. I took my time breathing in the fresh unpolluted air, thanking God for the marvellous beauty.
On this trail, we had a view of the landslides caused by last month’s floods that devastated parts of Kasese town. Even here, landscapes, river paths and trails were redefined by the heavy rains. Gigantic trees that once stood for decades lay uprooted on the shores of the river, while stones as big as small cars that were carried down by the floods remained scattered in the forest. This senseless devastation unsettled my nerves. For the first time, I thought about the potential danger I had put myself in. The angry roaring of River Nyamwaburi and the unsettled rocks used as stepping stones made crossing it particularly hard for me.
The writer with fellow trekkers
Right after crossing River Nyamwaburi, the unannounced steep climb upwards began. For the porters and guides, it was an easy climb. It was particularly hard for me, but with the help of a walking stick and words of encouragement from my faithful guide, I successfully made it to the first camp located 2,596 meters above sea level, drenched in sweat.
We spent our first night here listening to the endless roaring of the river and a nearby waterfall. We woke up to a chilly foggy morning, which made it impossible to see more than two metres ahead. After breakfast, we began the day’s trek through the bamboo zone, which is characterised by very steep climbs through thickets of bamboo trees. This biosphere is also home to a number of herbal plants such as the scardosas plant, whose sap is used to treat snake bites. And the Lobelia gibberoa plant, locally known as the ekihibira, a plant believed to ease labour for pregnant women.
The trek through this serene zone lasted four hours before we were ushered into the colder and misty heather zone. It is treacherously wet, misty and freezing cold, with numerous streams of ice cold water flowing downstream. This zone gets its name from the heather trees that abundantly grow in this area. They grow light-green moss that hangs on its branches like an old man’s unkempt beard.
I solemnly trekked through the heather zone, much of the time wondering if I had lost my mind. The mist made it impossible to see more than two meters ahead. It was freezing cold, despite the fact that I was wearing thermal underwear and four layers of thick clothes.
My nose kept running. We reached the third camp where we spent a night after trekking through the heather zone for eight grilling hours. That night, I slept like a log with three hot water bottles in my sleeping bag for warmth.
I woke up on the third day feeling extremely fatigued. My knees and Achilles tendon hurt from trekking for hours in gumboots. We set off at 8:30am through the Alpine zone, best described as incredibly beautiful, yet oddly hostile to its visitors. The mist loomed around us like a vengeful ghost waiting for an opportune time to snatch us away. We trekked through knee high mud, all the time braving against the cold wind that threatened to blow us away.
By the time I reached the third last camp to the peak, I had completely lost my sense of humour. Suddenly, the idea of travelling this far in such a harsh environment just to take a picture at the wooden post signifying Margherita peak seemed completely ludicrous.
At 4,450 meters above sea level, I began experiencing altitude sickness, mostly dizziness, headaches and shortness of breath. My heartbeat increased abnormally and I had to stop every three minutes to catch my breath. I reached the fourth camp at around 6:00pm, extremely exhausted and convinced that I had completely run mad. At this point, it did not make any sense to me to go through all this bodily pain to have a picture taken at the highest peak in Uganda.
At the fourth camp, one has a clear view of the snow capped peaks of Mountain Baker and Stanley. This was good enough for me. In spite of the nine hours of rest in the night, my body was completely worn out the next morning. My knees hurt horribly and I was still experiencing shortness of breath. This was the fifth day and the second last camp to the peak. We had planned to reach the peak on the sixth day.
In my condition, my guide ruled that I could not make it to the next camp because the terrain was more hostile. It was the snow zone and given the fact that I was already having breathing problems, there was no way I would survive up there.
“There is no life up there so please do not beat yourself up. Just be proud that you came this far,” my guide told me as they prepared to travel to the next camp where my two friends would spend a night and summit the peak the following day.
I stayed at the fourth camp to rest for my journey back to Kilembe the next day. The trek back was mostly downhill which was not good for my tired and hurting knees. By the time I reached home the next day, I was walking on all fours, but so glad that I had seen this side of Uganda, which is still unknown to many.
The hot springs and cool birds of Semiliki
By Titus Kakembo
The Semiliki female hot spring is a sight to behold
Semliki National Park is famous for the Sempaya male and female hot springs. They bubble up from the depths of the earth to demonstrate the powerful subterranean forces that have shaped the Rift Valley over the last 14 million years. “These natural springs have a geyser shooting up from an eight-meter wide hole at hot temperatures. It is the largest of its kind in the country,” says Noel Bayo, a tour guide. His narrative is interrupted by tweets and flapping wings. “See, there flies the blue–breasted kingfisher and Frasier’s ant-thrush,” he says.
On the same trail are primates like the grey-checked mangabey, the red-tailed monkey, elephants, chimpanzees and the more localised De Brazza’s monkey and pygmy antelope. The Mungilo waterfall is a haven for attractive birds, especially if you are a birder. Hassan Mutebi, a bird guide, says some of the most sought-after species of birds include the black dwarf hornbill, shining blue kingfisher and the yellow-throated nicator.
The 220 square kilometre national park sprawls across the floor of the Semliki Valley on the remote western side of the Rwenzori. The park is dominated by the easternmost extension of the great Ituri Forest of the Congo Basin, one of Africa’s most ancient and bio-diverse forests and one of the few to survive the last ice age, 12,000 to 18,000 years ago. Geographically, the Semliki River (which forms the international boundary with D.R. Congo) is a miniature version of the Congo River.
The forest is home to the Batwa community. Other ethnic groups living near the park comprise the Bwamba farmers living along the base of Mountain Rwenzori, while the Bakonjo cultivate the mountain slopes. Batuku cattle keepers inhabit on the open plains. This park provides a taste of Central Africa without having to leave Uganda. Do not miss out on a boat trip on Lake Albert.
The black-headed weaver. The area has over 40 bird species
Getting there, monies, accommodation
Semliki can be approached using two major roads from Kampala city via Fort Portal. Via Mubende is about 290km, which is about a four- to five-hour drive. Via Masaka, Mbarara and Kasese is the alternative route, though longer, at 465km (seven- to eight- hour drive). From Fort Portal, a 59km tarmac road hugging the northern tip of the Rwenzoris leads you to Semliki’s Sempaya Gate. Ntandi Park headquarters is 6km further along the road.
Public transport from Fort Portal to Bundibugyo passes through the park headquarters. It can also be accessed by air. Uganda Wildlife Authority has comfortable self-contained accommodation within the national park, while neighbouring Fort Portal and Bundibugyo towns offer a wide range of alternative accommodation Foreign Non Residents pay $ 25 for adults.
Children of five to fifteen years pay $15 per 24 hours. Foreign Residents in East Africa pay $15 for adults. Children part with $10 per 24 hours. East African citizens pay sh5,000 adults and sh2,500 for children. School children in groups pay sh1500 each