Rain and Hindsight in the Rwenzoris

Even the most Zen of travellers knows that keeping your spirits up in bad weather can be challenging. Especially if you are cold and wet, physically tired, mentally exhausted, or experiencing any other common travel-related ailment. Yet more often than not there are hard-won views, memorable experiences or at the very least, an important lesson to learn to make continuing on worthwhile.

After an inspiring time in Murchison Falls National Park, Philip and I headed to the Rwenzori mountains in Uganda full of anticipation. To us, the Rwenzoris would be a welcome change of scenery from the Canadian Rockies, where we usually play, which are craggy and barren but only climb to just shy of 4000m. The Rwenzoris reach up to 5109m and the highest peaks are snowcapped year round even though they are in the equatorial zone. Since they are so close to the Equator, they are lush and tropical despite their sky high altitude, so we would be hiking through a rainforest at similar heights that would have us on a rocky summit back home.

We’re used to hiking in scenery like this. I know, hard life right?

After several hours of African massages in the back of our driver Bosco’s car, we arrived at our beautiful stopover at Ruboni Community Camp near Kasese in Uganda.

Thea inspects a flower on the way to the hut. 
Our hut at Ruboni

Ruboni is a community-based guesthouse right outside of Rwenzori Mountain National Park (RMNP).  From the camp you can do hill walks up the sides of the Portal peaks, cultural tours in the nearby villages and interpretive nature walks in the forest. There is also a restaurant at the top of the property that has a nice view, provided the clouds break long enough to notice.

After being showed our room, we dined on spaghetti in the restaurant while our driver worked out the details of the trek. For other parts of our trip, we had done a lot of the research and planning ourselves, so it was bit strange for us to leave it in someone else’s hands.

We should have clued into what we would encounter on the mountain when after dinner, the front desk clerk handed us each a hot water bottle to take back to our room. The night at Ruboni camp was a chilly one to say the least.

There is not a lot of information about the shorter hikes that can be done in RMNP, and our original booking to overnight in the Trekker’s Hostel and hike to “scenic vistas” was oversold so we planned on doing the new Mahoma Lake Loop 2 day hike. After a restful enough sleep at Ruboni, we headed up the mountain with our guide, cook and porter from Rwenzori Mountaineering Services (RMS), organized by the otherwise stellar Amagara Tours.

There are two main trekking outfitters for RMNP, Rwenzori Trekking Services and RMS. We had read some horror stories about RMS on Trip Advisor, but put our trust in the very well-reviewed Amagara tours for a portion of our time in Uganda since our itinerary was pretty ambitious. Of our 11 days on the Amagara organized tour, these were the only days that left us less than impressed.

For starters, despite telling the RMS guide that we were more interested in animals, they sent us the plant guy who solicited a tip before we even left for the hike. We couldn’t hold it against him too much though, since he did find us the rare 3-horned Rwenzori chameleon within a few minutes of starting hiking.

This guy! He was probably the highlight of the trip, but he doesn’t know it. 

Our enthusiasm began to wane when we climbed and climbed steeply through dense forest with very little scenic vistas to speak of. In addition, our guide was more interested in impressing the female trainee that he brought along than helping us understand what we were trudging through and rain clouds seemed to threaten to foul things further.

Thick forest obscures any “scenic vistas” for most of your trek. 

It rained off and on as we snaked through dense forest, sometimes so thick the guide had to swipe at the branches with a machete. We eventually climbed to the camp at about 2:30 in the afternoon and not a moment too soon. Pretty much immediately after we arrived, the skies opened up and poured for hours. Our lovely cook Johnson prepared us a nice meal of veggie spaghetti, hot tea and cookies which we devoured gladly. Afterwards, Philip and I wondered what to do with the rest of the evening. The hut was cold, dark and wet and we sat at the kitchen table playing cards, huddling in our sleeping bags and wishing that we had brought more warm clothes to Uganda (or hot water bottles for that matter). Our boredom was interrupted only by a brief view of the Portal peaks when the clouds cleared for a moment.

A “good” view of the Portal peaks after climbing to 2651m. 

The next day we carried on being ignored by our guide while climbing up to 3500m to our destination, the “lake.” Mahoma Lake is really nothing more than a slough which you view from a narrow bank. This is one of the only occasions where the pictures do more than enough justice for a place.

Mahoma Lake at 3500. 

Elephants were seen on the trail the day before so a Ugandan Wildlife Authority ranger had joined us to escort us down. It was a good thing since he ended up being an amazing guide. While at Mahoma Lake, he pointed out a brief view of Mount Luigi so at last we actually set eyes on one of the Rwenzori mountains. Our RMS guide hadn’t even bothered to identify any of the peaks for us. The UWA ranger also informed us that we were hiking the hardest part of the “Central Circuit“, a multi-day trek that takes you to 6 huts on the mountain at various elevations. Knowing that we had already done the hardest part of a worthy challenge only made us want to finish the whole circuit, but we didn’t have the time.

Mount Luigi, 4626m.

Despite Bosco having told RMS that we had a very long day transfer ahead of us after the hike, we had a big trek out of the park. About 18km one way and lots of elevation gains and losses, to the effect of 900m gain and over 1000m loss. So in other words, a long, challenging day even for seasoned hikers like us, which was meant to be accomplished in half a day. We struggled to keep our spirits up and wondered why we couldn’t have done the trek in reverse in order to have a shorter second day. Meanwhile, our guide kept telling us to keep walking since it the trail was “gentle and rolling” to the end.

We trudged through lush green hills, bamboo forests, and dense rainforest until finally descending to the park gate without having ever really been rewarded with a great view, or a guide that cared enough to truly show us around. For how steep and long the hike was, we felt like we had worked really hard to achieve the same result as a short, interpretive nature walk in the Park would have offered us. Despite not being treated well by the guide, we also felt obliged to give a good tip since it would go to the him, the porter and the cook Johnson, who was fantastic, but we did not really like our overall experience with RMS.

We were rewarded with a little bit of sunshine during the long descent. 

The Rwenzoris demonstrated potential, but it seemed like they are best visited if you have ample time. In hindsight, since we weren’t able to commit to attempting a summit in RMNP like Mount Baker or complete the Central Circuit, we would probably opt for the nature walk or hill climb with the people from Ruboni. They were so kind and RMNP just does not deliver as much as an eager hiker might hope in a short amount of time.

Even our driver was mad about having to wait so long since it meant he had to drive in the dark along Uganda’s infamously scary roads to our next adventure: gorilla tracking in Bwindi National Park. Still, we could not say that we regretted going, only that we had wished that we had booked with Rwenzori Trekking Services and that we had more time to do a hike that may have been more rewarding.

At the very least, the trek was instrumental in getting us shape for the increasingly difficult adventures that we had planned ahead of us. In addition, we learned that even when relying on a tour company to organize a trip, it is worthwhile providing feedback to the organizer. We simply should have told Amagara to book our hike with RTS instead of the poorly-reviewed RMS. Amagara may have had their reasons for partnering with RMS, but at the end of the day, it was still our vacation, so we had the final say. Finally, the experience also endowed us with a tendency for healthy scepticism every time a Ugandan guide refers to something as “gentle and rolling” which would serve us well during our adventures to come.

Baboon Theft and Hippo Threats at Murchison Falls National Park

After a peaceful first day driving and animal watching in Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda, Philip and I were excited to explore the park both by boat and by foot.

We started the day with an early morning game drive and then headed toward the boat launch where we had crossed the river the day before. As we went to eat our packed lunch under a tree, our driver Bosco warned us to “watch out for the baboons!” How could baboons be so bad? We thought naively. 
Cute? Don’t be fooled. 
We had not been sitting on the bench under the tree more than a few minutes when a baboon descended on us fast. I spotted him out of the corner of my eye so I tucked the food back inside the bag and folded it over thinking that would stop him, while Philip held the rest of it up high. The baboon was smarter than my ruse and just grabbed the whole bag, taking the samosa that I really wanted to try. The pancake that was in the bag too fell on the ground so I snatched it back while Phil swung his leg at him in a last ditch attempt to not lose our lunch. His kick was in vain because the emboldened ape just reached back and grabbed the pancake too. He then perched himself in front of a tree opposite us, flung the plastic wrapper off in one swift movement and smugly enjoyed our lunch as we watched helplessly. 
We used to think baboons were kind of cool, now we thought they were jerks. The jerk baboon came around one more time until the locals finally showed us how to dispatch him by throwing rocks at his feet. We enjoyed what was left of our lunch in relative peace until I went to throw our garbage but the can was being guarded by our old world monkey nemesis. Bosco saw what was happening and took the garbage from me. “Let me throw it out,” he said, “they’re not afraid of white people.” Nevertheless, he armed himself with a stick for good measure and the baboon scrammed at the first sight of him.

Yeah you eat those leaves and leave my samosa alone. 
With the lunch hour unpleasantness behind us, we crossed the river to wait at a boat launch on the other side. Eventually, two boats arrived at the same time. One two-storey booze cruise type thing and one understated, dented aluminium beauty pulled up too. Ours was the latter. I climbed somewhat reluctantly into the small boat not entirely sure it could handle the trip to Murchison Falls, some of the most powerful falls in the world. Our skipper James reassured us that the boat called “Hippo” was safe and not to worry about the hippos in the water since “hippo + hippo = hippo”. Well that settles it, or does it?

From the boat we were able to get so close to the animals on the shore and were plenty impressed by drinking elephants, creeped out by basking crocs, and threatened by hippos.

Elephant comes down to the river to drink
Perspective shot as the boat pulled away. 
Creepy croc just hangs out on the bank with his mouth open. 
Hippo to humans: “Soon.”
The Nile boat cruise was an incredible way to do some wildlife watching and our excitement wasn’t over yet. Our captain steered us to the closest point where we could safely view the impressive Murchison Falls.

The water gets a little too turbulent after this to let our hippo boat go any farther. 

As our fun Nile River boating adventure came to an end, our Skipper dropped us off at the beginning of a short hike to the top of Murchison Falls. The hike is straightforward and not too strenuous so most people could enjoy it. It winds through lush forest and climbs up a cliff to various viewpoints along the river. After our game drive the day before, getting out to hike and move was most welcome and the views were very rewarding. 

A closer look at the Murchison Falls. 

The famous Murchison Falls is where the mighty Nile squeezes through a 7 meter gorge and then falls 43 meters below. The result is one of the most powerful waterfalls I have ever seen. Other falls may seem more majestic, but Murchison Falls is a worthy competitor in demonstrating moving water’s awesome power.

Thea, between two falls. 
Philip admires the falls from close to the top. 
From the top the mist from the falls floats up and provides welcome reprieve from Uganda’s daytime heat. Despite our exhaustion, the hike was the perfect way to cap off our second day in Murchison Falls National Park. While MFNP might not be the first destination that comes to mind when one thinks of game watching and hiking in East Africa, it proved to be a very worthwhile destination on all fronts. The park is quiet, teeming with animals and dedicated to conservation. A must see for any adventure-loving traveller. Just be sure to watch out for the baboons!

Peaceful Safari in Murchison Falls National Park

Few things can harsh your Zen while travelling worse than dealing with massive crowds. Murchison Falls National Park is Uganda’s lesser known answer to the more crowded parks in east Africa so we were keen to add it to our East African itinerary. 
After a long drive from Entebbe, which included the requisite car troubles leaving us stranded in sleepy Masindi for a couple hours while our driver sorted things out, we finally arrived at our place to stay for the night just outside the park. 

 Warm Boomu welcome
photocredit: www.boomuwomensgroup.org
The Boomu Women’s Group is a women-led camp close the Murchison Falls National Parks gate. 
We were warmly welcomed, shown our room in a thatched banda and advised what time we could expect dinner. One thing I learned while working in West Africa, is although cold showers are offered, they are not the only way. Uganda despite being tropical, is very mountainous and can be quite cold at night, so I asked if a warm bucket shower could be arranged. Much to our delight, it could but we would have to wait until after dinner. 

Bandas at Boomu
photocredit: www.boomuwomensgroup.org
After spending almost an entire day in the car and teeming with excitement from our close encounter with two rhinos at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary earlier that day, we had some energy to burn. We started walking to a nearby village when our driver Bosco joined us. As we walked the sky darkened both from diminishing daylight and storm clouds so we decided to run back to camp. It was a funny scene, the three of us jogging in flip flops in the dark under a light drizzle. It was a good thing that we picked up the pace too, because it started pouring hard right when we returned to camp. 
Our dinner of warmed beans, rice and roasted cassava was very welcome once the chill from the rain set in, as was our warm bucket shower. We retired early that night, and were up on the sun with the hundreds of noisy weaver birds that call the Boomu camp home.

Weavers, hundreds of weavers.
Photo credit: www.scienceblogs.com
After a simple breakfast of tea, bread and eggs, we bid adieu to the ladies and noisy weaver birds at Boomu and headed to Murchison Falls National Park for our first safari. When we arrived at the gates, Bosco hopped out to pay he entry fee and we were excited to see some baboons running down the road right by the gate. This was before we knew what baboons were all about; more on that later.

Baboons, while we were still excited to see baboons!
The park is lush, green and positively teeming with giraffes, ungulates, baboons, monkeys, elephants, many different birds, cape buffalo, lions, hippos and even the very rare leopard. After a short drive in the park, we took a ferry across the Nile to see more animals on the other side of the park.

Giraffe party 
Cape buffalo love to stare at you
As do Jackson’s hartebeest

We had our fill of  big game animals and thanks to Bosco’s persistence, we were able to see lions…lions (!!!). Noticeably absent from MFNP were crowds. Compared to the massive clusters of white safari vans than indicate an animal is nearby in other parks in East Africa, such as Masai Mara, Murchison Falls was refreshingly quiet. There were times where ours was the only vehicle on the track for as far as the eye could see.

Lioness posing for her glamour shot
Elephant strutting in the park
Elephant becoming a bird perch just outside of the park

We were amazed at just how many animals there were in the park and at how knowledgeable our Bosco was. After a long day of driving through the park, we arrived at the stunning Fort Murchison camp which overlooks the Albert Nile just outside of the park.

There we enjoyed a big, tasty meal and watched the sunset from the roof with a few lukewarm Nile Specials and retired early. Little did we know, our second day in the park would prove to be very eventful. Keep reading in the next post!