You comb through your vocabulary for all kinds of superlatives, put them in a pot and, after stirring well, distribute its content evenly over this blog entry. It’s a similar thing for us now, because there’s a very great risk that we’ll squander all the relevant adjectives in the first paragraph. The 8-day Kilembe Trail , which we are now going to tell you about, was really unbelievable, overwhelming, fascinating, beautiful, exhausting, impressive (list incomplete)!
So there we were, in Kasese, and our burning desire was to hike Rwenzori National Park . The latter is located at the western end of Uganda and extends far into the Congo. It is known for its untouched and literally fantastic nature. This largely undeveloped area makes it impossible for individual trekkers to explore the national park on their own. Rather, you have to contact one of the two trekking agencies that offer appropriate packages. Their virtual monopoly has led to astronomical prices, so that we turned a blind eye to this and filed the company in the category of treats . We opted for the widely recommended Rwenzori Trekking Services(RTS) offering the Kilembe Trail. After a short conversation with his manager, everything went very quickly: two hours later we were already briefed by our guide Sam, and the next morning was the start date. Until then, there were still two things to organize: missing equipment and fresh laundry. We borrowed the former directly from RTS at the last second, because Kasese offers almost no infrastructure in this regard. Fresh laundry wasn’t a problem either, especially since our good old fan doubled as an express dryer.
The highest mountains in Uganda are in the Rwenzori, above all the Peak Margherita in the Stanley massif with its 5109m. The special feature here is that these mountains were created from pure plate tectonics, so they are also particularly attractive for mountaineers. This makes Peak Margherita the highest non-volcanic mountain in Africa. You guessed it: we opted for the full load and eight full days of trekking, including a glacier climb of Peak Margherita. So much for indulgence!
However, there was little sign of ice and snow on day 1 . We started in the village of Kilembe (1450m), whose image is characterized by dilapidated barracks (including a completely rotten chairlift) from the mining days before Idi Amin. The Canadians once dug there for cobalt and copper, for which the population still weeps today. On the other hand, people do not like the Chinese, who are about to take over the business. Past the last houses, waving children and plowing peasant women, we marched into the green mountains. The weather was good, which is not a matter of course here. In Rwenzori it rains about 320 days a year. Or as Sam puts it: If you come to the Rwenzoris, you have to expect nothing but rain!That was also the reason why we wore rubber boots for almost the entire trek . Yes, there was mud waiting for us. Mud, mud, and more mud. However, not too much of that was noticeable: We walked through the entrance of the park in the greenest greenery, past avocado, jackfruit and coffee trees, and immediately noticed how the cultivated, deforested hilly landscape turned into an impenetrable thicket. It was as if the already densely wooded hills were dormant under a densely woven carpet of lianas, creepers, mosses and the like. Welcome to the Rwenzoris!
It was steadily uphill, sometimes flat, sometimes steep as a monkey, so that we sometimes had to crawl up on all fours. Strange, sometimes colorful plants and animals on every corner. Unfortunately, we were denied a chameleon, but we spotted wild orchids, colorful butterflies and blue monkeys staring at us curiously. When we finally arrived at our first camp (2600m), we not only became aware of the comfort of such a booked tour, but also realized very clearly that individual exploration of this area is in fact almost impossible. The paths are hard to find for people unfamiliar with the area, frustratingly impossible to walk on with heavy luggage, and above all there are no camping facilities. No square meter is flat, and if it is, it’s swampy. On the first evening we also made short-term acquaintances with Lutz and Philip, two nice Germans with whom we spent pleasant hours on the four-day trek until they returned.
If the first day already made you want more, then on day 2 we finally got down to business. After only a few meters of altitude, the landscape changed abruptly and we found ourselves in the bamboo zone . Straight as arrows, these pretty sticks shot meters high into the sky to the right and left. Out of sheer fascination and looking up, we had to be careful not to step on one of the innumerable black and yellow caterpillars that live in this belt. From about 3000m the picture changed again and the bamboo forest turned into an erica forest. That’s right: what we know from Europe as a cute little plant, towers meters high here and is covered with dense lichen ( old man’s beard) draped, gnarled in the sky. At the same time we reached about the height of the clouds, so that from now on mystical wafts of mist became our constant companions.
During the lunch break, our second guide, Benard, was joined by the heavily armed rangers who had to protect us from the dangers of the park (big cats? Wild Congolese?). The porters also paused for a quick game of cards. We were a little relieved that these often borderline young boys and even girls not only worked but also had fun (which was evident from the late-evening laughter from their tent). They often sang us awake early in the morning.
As we slowly but steadily approached the second camp, the landscape became more and more mysterious and mystical: rampant lichens, ancient trees, rocks with brightly colored moss, in between a small waterfall, wafts of fog, strange plants and noises, … the list could go on and on the impressions could hardly be captured with pictures. The highlight, however, was clearly the acquaintance with the giant lobelia and senecia , which gradually began to shape the landscape from this height. Known to us at most as ornamental objects, these impressive plants, which are two to three meters high, grow in the hundreds, even thousands!
Arrived at the second camp (3585m) Eva had a break, but Johannes wanted to know it again and went with Sam and Lutz to the Mutinda Lookout (3975m). It was a beastly drudgery scaling this almost vertical muddy thicket, but in the end it was the view that counted, and it was just awesome. We marveled speechlessly to the south and east, where the Queen Elizabeth National Park with Lake Eduard and Lake George lay at our feet. In the west the clouds were playing over the peaks, and that in the glaring light of the soon-to-be setting sun. Heading north, Sam explained where the route would take us the next day. We even recognized the next camp – or at least we thought so.
On day 3we advanced again to higher altitudes and the vegetation became lower and lower. In an interplay of damp fog and some sun, we reached one of the many high plateaus at 3800m, which seems to be completely overgrown with tufted grass. But hidden creeks and knee-deep swampy pools lurk beneath, so the path has been partially boarded to make walking easier. We walked over there like mad, amazed at how easy it could be if you didn’t have to pull your rubber boots out of the mud with every third step with an exhausting effort! At the end of the plateau, there were already signs of a barren rocky landscape. But we were still miles away from the really high peaks. Incidentally, a day-long forest fire had destroyed all the senezia in this area,
Unfortunately, Eva’s condition did not improve. In a mixture of cold and altitude sickness, the penetratively running nose was accompanied by a headache, so that the not particularly difficult path to the fourth camp (4050m) cost her quite a bit of nerves. Short rain and hail showers included – but that was statistically long overdue anyway. Unfortunately, Eva was no longer able to enjoy the great view from the camps constructed on a rocky outcrop to the valley below in the evening sun, including glacial lakes. Even worse – the headache, dizziness and nausea got worse and worse, so that she soon had to crawl into her sleeping bag, whimpering. And anyone who knows Eva knows what that means… With the guides we thought back and forth. Should we cancel? Was it irresponsible Are you in poor health and want to continue climbing with symptoms of altitude sickness? Eva had long since begun to write off the summit. We decided to wait until the next morning and then decide. There was a stage to a pass at about 4500m, whereby the subsequent camp was still below the current one. This gave hope:Train high, sleep low is the old mountaineering adage.
With Diamox , a medication against altitude sickness recommended by the guides, Eva saved herself halfway through the cold night. The next day her condition was not great, but at least a little better. Her waterfall nose caused a toilet paper consumption of about 3 rpt (rolls per day), but fortunately did not pose any problems for our excellently equipped providers. It even went so far that Guide Benard always carried a backup roll with him. As I said, we were in good hands here!
Day 4 certainly had it all. Both in terms of landscape and effort. So the Bamwanjara Pass (4450m) was on the program first, which we tackled in a beautiful high valley almost overcrowded with senezia. In between, huge slabs of rock covered with pitch-black and orange moss. Before we got there, however, we had to overcome this treacherous tufted grass that simulated solid ground. Sinking in and fighting out orgies included.
We soon reached the pass. Hoping that the worst was over and that we would soon be able to get to the camp where Eva could continue to rest, we started the descent. This was once again top notch: The pass, which climbed relatively gently on one side, broke off vertically in huge rock faces on the other side. In between, our path meandered somewhere, whereby the once loosely growing Senezien had turned into a real forest. So it went quickly downhill between massive Senezien tribes, until we soon reached the (dreaded because swampy) level of the other valley. But it couldn’t be that far, we thought optimistically, and had a leisurely lunch. But happy far too soon. Especially Eva’s energies seemed to fail completely afterwards, not least because because she hardly brought any food down. So we reduced the planned food intake to at least 2 cph (cookies per hour). The remaining hours of the march fell into that category, at least for Evajust somehow persevere .
Even though we already knew many landscape elements, a lot was new here as well. So we roamed through an area of dead trees, almost overgrown with lichen, which gave silent evidence of a carpet bombing by rebels a few years ago. We continued through unbelievably muddy mud to a place that almost seemed like the end of the world: We looked down on two idyllically embedded lakes, whose outlet turned away from us into apparent nothingnessflowed. The sight was surreal: we were looking down at a bank of clouds that had formed over the Congo Basin, blocking our view. You read that right! We had almost reached the border with the Congo, so we had already crossed some of the mountains. Eva managed the remaining few hours somehow, until we finally arrived at camp number four (4005m). The first thing to do here was to consolidate – but unfortunately there was hardly any improvement in sight. Together with the guides, we agreed that Eva would wait down with Benard until Johannes and Sam returned from the summit. So we left it and waited for the next morning.
The night brought a positive turn. Eva had overcome the cold and slept without any painkillers. On day 5 , at least one climb to base camp was conceivable. Fortunately, this stage was rather short, so that we arrived at the camp (4475m) after just a few hours. Eva’s condition also improved during the day, so we wanted to try the unthinkable just a few days ago: climb Margherita Peak together!
What had already become apparent in camp four was clear here at the latest: We had left the vegetation zones and were in alpine terrain dominated by rocks with sparse vegetation. Whereby, almost as a visual icing on the cake: one or the other Senezie has also got lost up here!
Now it was time to prepare for the summit storm and, above all, go to bed early! An absolutely starry evening announced at least good weather. But here in the Rwenzori you never know… Or as Sam likes to say: we have luck with the weather – so far!
Day 6– brrr. Getting up early is never particularly pleasant. But 1:40 in the morning, with temperatures below freezing – there really are nicer things! After a quick breakfast and everything set up, we left the hut, which was covered with ice on the outside, and set off with headlamps. Difficulty II-III was a steep climb over blocky terrain, with the stones being icy. What creates a pretty glitter in the light of the headlamp can unfortunately be very treacherous when climbing. After a little over an hour we had reached the first glacier on the Stanley Plateau at 4800m. Luckily the ice giant was very flat and crusty so we could get used to the crampons and rope walking. The guides had now turned from funny fellows into concentrated mountain guides who not only knew the terrain inside out,
After the glacier we went down a few more meters, partly on the rope and still in the dark, until after a short climb we reached the actual Margherita Glacier. Mounted crampons and rope, the first thing to do was climb an icy gully with a gradient of more than 60 degrees – of course with exemplary protection. With such gradients you can really feel the height! We were already at almost 5000m, there is not much space left for spompah needles. The Margherita Glacier is still quite steep after this key point, but thanks to the frozen snow it was relatively easy to climb. A single pleasure!
That was also the moment when the sunrise struck with drums and trumpets. There are no words to describe the feeling at that moment. The glacier dropped steeply below us into the nowhere of the still nocturnal Rwenzori. The much lower-lying peaks and passes were surrounded by soft pink clouds, becoming increasingly reddish and glistening towards the horizon, announcing the approaching sunrise. Above it the endless expanse of the sky, which displayed the entire color spectrum from light orange to dark blue. As a contrast to this, opposite, the setting moon, embedded in the still dark blue remains of the night sky. Time to pause and understand what you are experiencing!
At some point we had to tear ourselves away and move on. It was still a short distance to the summit, past gigantic icicles and daring steep sections. Eventually we reached rocky terrain again and walked/climbed/crawled towards the summit. Standing up there might have been the crowning glory, but the king under the crown was clearly the sunrise a few moments earlier.
As is well known, you should stop when it’s at its best (or when the pizza is waiting, like just now), but in fact days 7 and 8 are quickly told. This has nothing to do with the fact that they were short, quite the opposite. We had to do the whole five day stretch in twogo back, so we missed several camps. By the way, there was also a fairly high pass on the program. Then it was time to reduce almost 3000hm in a hurry. As if in reverse, the landscape changed from alpine-rocky back to damp-stuffy-jungle. The vegetation became greener, denser, taller, more fragrant, wetter, more animalistic and – finally! – warmer. Spring feelings were awakened. It was very nice, very very long and very very very muddy! The antelope -like red duckerseemed to have fewer problems than we did. And the fact that we hadn’t spotted any chameleons on the way there in lower regions was made up for by the extremely hard-working Benard: shortly before the end of the last stage he conjured up a young, shy chameleon thingy out of the hat or out of the tree. Such a cute thing! We could watch the seemingly randomly rolling eyes forever.
Last but not least, we could only sympathize with the porters: when they were released from their duties, they rushed down the valley, hooting with joy, home to their families – like ten-year-old schoolchildren at the long-awaited bell for recess. And let’s be honest, despite these unforgettable experiences, we were more than happy to return to civilization after the eight days. As we walked down the main village street, a friendly welcome back sounded from left and right! opposite.
Finally, we provide the hard facts for all interested parties. Times given are the pure walking time without breaks.
Kilembe (1450m) – Sine Camp (2600m)
10.0km // 3:40h // +1240m // -90m
Sine Camp (2600m) – Mutinda Camp (3585m) – Mutinda Lookout (3975m) – Mutinda Camp (3585m)
9.3km // 5:30h // +1395m // -410m
Mutinda Camp (3585m) – Bugata Camp (4050m)
6.0km // 2:55h // +515hm // -50hm
Bugata Camp (4050m) – Bamwanjara Pass (4450m) – Hunwick’s Camp (4005m)
7.7km // 4:10h // +585hm // -630hm
Hunwick’s Camp (4005m) – Scott Elliot Pass (4325m) – Margherita Camp (4475m)
4.9km // 2:35h // +580hm // -110hm
Margherita Camp (4475m) – Margherita Peak (5100m) – Margherita Camp (4475m) – Scott Elliot Pass (4325m) – Hunwick’s Camp (4005m)
10.6km // 5:35h // +815hm // -1285hm
Hunwick’s Camp (4005m) – Unnamed Pass (4565m) – Kiharo Camp (3450m)
12.6km // 5:50h // +745hm // -1300hm
Kiharo Camp (3450m) – Kilembe (1450m)
17.5km // 5:05h // +240hm // -2240hm
78.6km // 35:20h // +6115hm // -6115hm