Mark G. reports on Uganda/part 1- a forgotten treasure and MM’s first expedition there
It is with hesitation that I write a blog about MM’s first expedition to Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains. Be it climate change or luck, we experienced the best imaginable weather in one of the wettest places on the planet, in a range that straddles the rugged eastern slopes in Uganda and the western slopes that plunge into the vast greenness of the Congo Basin and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Day two of the trek. Mark Gunlogson photo
Located near the equator, it’s no surprise that on the first day of our eight-day trek that all of us were dripping in sweat as we climbed up the lush montane forest to our first hut. The dense vegetation that hid many of the natural wonders of the park, including the elusive chimpanzee, contributed to the sweat-inducing humidity that, coupled with a trail that had no switchbacks, smacked us down with a Rwenzori wake-up call. Even the porters and the local guides we were working with all succumbed to the heat.
The sweaty tropics. Mark Gunlogson photo
As it turns out, this was the first of numerous days that make this trek, which is certainly among the world’s most incredible mountain journeys, also one of the most challenging. We counted no more than five switchbacks the entire trek, bogs that would suck you up to your hips with one wrong step, ”trails” consisting of roots and mud-covered rocks, and knee high mazes of grass tussocks that stood above the muck and provided passage through muddy sections. My hesitation about talking about the trek comes from a daily conversation we had, “Imagine what this would be like if was raining!” In the good conditions we had, the trip was plenty challenging, but throw in a couple of hours of torrential rain and it’s hard to fathom the challenge and hazards the terrain would provide.
Bill getting sucked into the Bigo Bog. Mark Gunlogson photo
Jim after extrication from the Bigo Bog. Jim Crosslin photo
But, herein lies a true, rewarding adventure. For me, it was also an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of legendary explorers, those whose challenges go well beyond any discomfort we experienced. In the late 1800s and into the early 20th century, the likes of Speke, Stanley, the Duke of Abruzzi, and Shipton all hacked trails through the dense lowland forests to reach the alpine zone where today the glaciers are in rapid retreat. Many of the early explorers were, of course, after sort of a geographical holy grail, the source of the Nile River, but they also seemed to take an almost morbid delight in the adventure and hardships travelling to untrodden places, making a first ascent, and being far from any sort of civilization.
Not a switchback to be found. Mark Gunlogson photo
While our adventure was perhaps not so noble, it was in these days of formulaic adventure travel packages, something that was certainly off the beaten path and with something new and interesting to explore at every turn. Uganda, the Pearl of Africa, is like other forgotten places Mountain Madness seeks out, like our trip to Colombia. Both places are stigmatized by guerrilla warfare, corruption and real or perceived danger for tourists. But, with relative calm these days, Uganda’s people welcome would-be adventurers — and so we went.
Friendly ranger staff. Mark Gunlogson photo
Our group consisted of eight MM climbers, three MM guides, Rubin and his cooking staff, five local guides as required by the National Park, and 45+ porters, 17 of which were women. Our trip started in Entebbe, a town on the shores of Lake Victoria and a place with the dubious distinction of once being the home of the brutal dictator Idi Amin and the site of the hostages taken in 1976 and eventually rescued by the Israeli Defense Forces. It’s also a suburb of the densely populated Kampala, a vibrant East African city and Uganda’s largest, with over one million people of diverse ethnic backgrounds and languages.
Women porters at the trailhead. Mark Gunlogson photo
In the busy streets of Entebbe. Mark Gunlogson photo
From Entebbe it was a 10-hour bus ride to the town of Kasese- cobalt and copper mining sparked the economy here in an otherwise somewhat desolate place where the plains abruptly give rise to the dramatic uplift of the Rwenzoris. On the way to Kasese we saw bustling little towns, subsistence farmers working their fields in the clay red soil, and extensive tea plantations covering the rolling hills with the vibrant green shrubbery. In Kasese, the jumping-off point for expeditions into the Rwenzori Mountains, we hunkered down for the night in the Margherita Hotel, the nicest place in town where tourist infrastructure has been in slow deterioration with the unfortunate decline in tourism over the last decade. But, all was good for our expedition and everything in place for an adventure in one of the most incredible mountain regions in the world.
Park ranger with a friednly chameleon. Mark Gunlogson photo