Mountains of the Moon-walking
The fabled Rwenzori Mountains of western Uganda are a sight to behold – if the cloud breaks long enough to see much more than the end of your arm. Our expedition to this massive watershed of the Congo forest and the fabled (and sort of actual) source of the Nile took 10 days in Wellies and crampons, a lot of hard trekking, and a litre of a good scotch. It brought us up through terraced farmland, bamboo forest, primeval groves of giant moss, giant heather, giant lobelia (giant everything), afro-alpine moorland, equatorial glaciers, snowy peaks and enough bog to drown a giraffe. The clouds broke frequently, the view emerged and rock prongs (most notably McConnell’s, I believe) were resplendent on the horizon.
We had two guides, as such, for the adventure: one the sturdy and stoic Mr Uziah (for he really has to be Mr Uziah for this narrative). He was our local Lakonzo leader: utterly indefatigable, almost invariably taciturn – the warm embraces awarded on the top of our three ascended peaks (Speke, Weisman and Margherita, 5109m above sea level and the 3rd highest peak in Africa) were pleasant exceptions – and possessing of a supremely withering look of contempt for any hiking inadequacies on our part: ‘walk on the logs!’, ‘that umbrella is useless!’ In short, an utter legend.
NB: Mr Uziah, during one of our solemn nightly briefings, made it clear to us that we should voice all concerns immediately instead of bottling up complaints to later express to ‘the internet’. To ‘the internet’ I say this now: if it should find itself in the terrace-housed mining town of Kilembe preparing to start a trek into the high Rwenzori then I highly recommend that it asks for Mr Uziah as a guide. It will not be disappointed.
Our second guide took the form of Mr Henry Osmaston’s marvellous mountaineer’s guide to the Rwenzori which constitutes pretty much the only comprehensive overview and expedition guide available in print to this remarkable area. The book is a true labour of love by a man who was clearly besotted with the oft-cloud shrouded peaks and smacks of a different era of trekking, exploration and Ugandan off piste-skiing. His tone is as understated, British, and dry as the place is wet, summed up marvellously by this, my favourite photograph caption:
‘This skull was found by Anna Osmaston in a Huntley and Palmers biscuit tin in the consequently named Skull Cave, [and I love this…] a very poor rock shelter, where drips fall from the roof in wet weather. It is probably one of Jackaman’s porters in 1932, who died from HAPO [high altitude pulmonary oedema] as did Jackaman himself. ‘
Not speculating himself on quite how the head of this unfortunate fellow found its way into a biscuit tin in the Mountains of the Moon, and not ourselves finding any further clues on our way past this very poor rock shelter, the mystery endures. It seems as though skulls in biscuit tins are just the sort of thing one finds when poking around in caves up here, just like the weird, wonderful (and did I mention, giant?) flora that pops up all over the place. The fauna is somewhat more reclusive though Mr Osmaston assures us that there are leopards ranging up to and even beyond the snowline, and Mr Uziah did find us one, rather modest looking, footprint in the mud. I myself came across some distinctly feline looking scat on our ascent of Weisman. Had I not been puffing so hard and lagging so far behind Mr Uziah ploughing on ahead I may have managed to recover a sample and would now be waiting for confirmation from the lab. Alas….
For all its beauty and uniqueness as a set of ecosystems, the trekking is certainly tough going. Almost constant concentration is required over the rocky spurs and dark bogs to avoid a precipitous drop or inglorious plop. This, and the range’s fearsome reputation for wetness and the rather large probability of not being able to see much at all, undoubtedly contributes to the fact that relatively few people make the hike. Whilst of course Mr Osmaston and other early pioneers such as the dashing Duke of Abruzzi who first made it up Mt. Stanley, would think the place teeming with foot traffic, the sense of separation from the rest of the world is utterly palpable and rather thrilling. One of our porters spent most of the ten days clad in a t-shirt reading ‘Thank God for beer, football and women’. I couldn’t help but think that he’d possibly chosen the wrong line of work… or perhaps he just appreciated the irony.