Rwenzori Rains

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Rain falling in the Rwenzori Mountains, Uganda

It has been over two months since I flew out of San Francisco and began this journey across three continents. It is also past the halfway point of my trip, and as I start my trek in Turkey I recall fondly (mostly, with the exception of a couple unfortunate bus/matatu rides) the weeks I spent traveling around East Africa. It was my first time anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, and though I am now in a very different part of the world, I know one day I will return.

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The largest banana tree I have ever seen, growing wild near Fort Portal

Since my arrival in Uganda I had been looking forward to seeing and doing some hiking in the Rwenzori Mountains, the highest mountain range in Africa and home to the continent’s third highest mountain (Mt. Stanley, at 5,109 meters). Without the time or funds to launch a full summit expedition, I opted for a three-day trek among the cultivated lower slopes, walking through a number of villages and culminating in an ascent of 3,000 meter Karangura Peak in the north of the park.

 

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I set out on the first day with a guide and guide-in-training, walking on a dirt road directly out of the town of Fort Portal toward the countryside. We passed several schools along the way (basically just a single room with chairs and a chalkboard) as well as fields full of banana trees and cassava plants. Climbing to the top of a small hill, we were rewarded with sweeping views of the Rwenzori foothills and valley below dotted with crater lakes (a legacy of the region’s volcanic past). We also visited the famous Amabere Caves, one of the “Seven Wonders of Uganda” according to the guide, with its refreshing waterfall and stalactites that local Toro legend says are the breasts of an ancient princess (they drip a whitish liquid of hydro-calcium carbonate).

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The famous stalactites of Amabere Cave

We stayed the night at an eco-camp consisting of local style bandas where I enjoyed some of the local food and drink (lots of peanut, or “groundnut/g-nut”, sauce and rolex, a fried egg rolled up inside a chapati, along with a variety of herbal teas). The next day my guides led us on a merry stroll around the terraced foothills of the mountains, stopping by villagers smashing river rocks into small stones to sell for use in road-building as well as the house of a local fortune teller. Reading how five short sticks fall into a bowl of water, he foretold my safe return to the US at the end of this trip. I also asked him if I would ever return to Uganda, and he read that I would indeed come back one more time (there is still so much to see in the country!). At the end of the day we entered a tiny village just as the rain started to fall (it was the very beginning of the rainy season) and took shelter in a teahouse, drinking milk tea with bread and watching the drops of water quench the dry earth.

 

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Traversing the Rwenzori foothills

The major distributor of bottled water in Uganda is called Rwenzori, and I soon found out why as we began the peak attempt in a raging downpour the following morning. Despite a waterproof jacket and boots, I was completely soaked within 20 minutes and was about ready to call it off when we took a break at the ranger station. However we pressed on, two rangers with automatic rifles accompanying our struggle up the steep, muddy hillsides. The head ranger explained that as the park is located along the Congo border rebels from the DRC sometimes enter the park, though it was more of a problem six years ago. Luckily we didn’t meet any rebels but we did encounter a number of people who were in the park without a permit (either passing through or collecting plants), who the rangers proceeded to punish either by slapping them pretty hard in the face, forcing them to walk back up the mountain with us, or both.

 

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It was extremely wet

After endeavoring up the steep path in the rain for hours, the skies finally cleared and we reached the peak of Karangura. Collapsing onto benches to ravenously devour our lunch of chapati, hard-boiled eggs, and (you guessed it) peanuts, I admired the gorgeous view of green mountains falling away into the mist in the distance. We slipped and slid our way down a different (but no less steep) path, spotting some of the giant lobelia plants that are endemic to the high mountains of East Africa. I celebrated our successful summit back in Fort Portal with pizza and beer, and promptly fell asleep exhausted and ready to relax at my next destination, Lake Bunyonyi.

 

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View from Karangura summit

The Falls and the Forest

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From Kampala I headed north to Uganda’s oldest and largest national park, Murchsion Falls. Traveling with a tour company recommended by my friend, it was about a five hour drive to get there. Just before the park gate we turned onto a dirt road where the driver, Sam, explained, “The tarmac road ends here. Now we are going to experience the dust.” And indeed we did. Faced with a choice between closing the windows to avoid the rolling clouds of orange dust or leaving them open to relieve some of the sweltering heat,  most of us attempted to do both by leaving just a small crack open, which made neither problem better.

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Rolling down the dusty road, Murchison Falls National Park

The falls themselves are very impressive. Almost the entire flow of the Nile River is forced through a narrow, 6 meter wide opening in the rocks and plunges 45 meters into the valley below. An additional falls, named Uhuru (independence), was created in 1962 after extreme rainfall made the Nile flood, burst its banks and create a new channel. We were able to follow a rocky hiking trail right to the top of the falls; standing so close to the Devil’s Cauldron, a churning mass of water and mist, definitely makes one appreciate the force of nature. Across the rocks stood the remains of a bridge over the falls built for the Queen of England’s visit in the 50’s, which had been washed away by the power of the river.

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Murchison Falls, Uganda

We stayed in a camp above the ferry dock on the south side of the Victoria Nile. Immediately upon arriving, our host explained that wild animals, including hippos, baboons, and a family of warthogs, often wandered through the camp and warned us to carry a light at night lest we bump into a wayward hippo and experience its ‘terminal’ bite. I shared a tent with a Serbian-German filmaker who was also visiting a friend in Kampala, another German who is working to develop the Uganda Film Institute. The night passed without incident (hippo or otherwise, although I did spot a warthog tearing up the grass outside the bathroom) and the next day we took a car out to the region between the Victoria and Albert Niles (the river as it flows out of Lake Victoria is called the Victoria Nile, which then enters and flows out of Lake Albert), which is full of buffalo and different species of antelope. The real highlight of the day, however, was a cruise in a small boat 17 kilometers up the river to about 400 meters from the base of the falls. Spotting crocodiles, fish eagles and innumerable hippos from on top of the roof, along with simply watching the lush green banks roll by as the afternoon waned, was pure bliss.

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Full speed ahead on the Victoria Nile

After Murchison Falls I caught a bus to the town of Fort Portal at the foot of the Rwenzori Mountains in western Uganda. Most public buses in Uganda wait until they are fully packed with passengers to depart, and mine was no exception with a three hour wait at the station in Kampala. A woman wearing a bright yellow headscarf sat down next to me and though I was becoming impatient, she was completely exasperated and began berating the bus workers to start the journey. We eventually got going and made it to Fort Portal by midafternoon (I bought a couple roasted bananas for lunch along the way). During a communal dinner at my guesthouse that night I took part in an interesting discussion on Uganda’s unemployment problem, which my host argued would only be solved by young people moving back to their parents’ farms and becoming ‘professional farmers’.

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Young crocodile, Murchison Falls National Park

Instead of gorilla tracking on the Congo border (which costs upwards of $600 for a permit, if you are lucky enough to obtain one) I decided to visit Kibale National Park, where tracking one of the 12 troops of chimpanzees is one of the more unique wildlife experiences in all of East Africa. Following an armed guide into the dense forest (the rifle slung over his shoulder was in case of any encounters with the aggressive forest elephants), my small group discovered some fruit branches that had been picked over by chimps and fresh chimp scat (complete with dung beetles) before spotting one in the bushes ahead. We lost him pretty quickly, but soon discovered an entire group of 15-20 chimps swinging through the trees, grooming one another, and rambling around on the forest floor. These chimps are habituated to the presence of humans and more or less ignored us the entire time, but that didn’t stop me from holding my breath as a large male walked by about 3 feet away. It was fascinating to observe the closest living relatives to humans in the wild, with all of our similarities and differences.

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