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