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.

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