Trekking the Rwenzori Mountains in the Rain

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.  This was the case when we went trekking in the Rwenzori Mountains of Uganda…in the rain.

Why the Rwenzori Mountains?

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 an interesting change of scenery from the Canadian Rockies, where we usually play, which are craggy and barren but only climb to just shy of 4,000m.

The Rwenzoris reach up to 5,119m and the highest peaks are snowcapped year round despite the fact that they’re in the equatorial zone. Since they are so close to the Equator, they are lush and tropical at the base 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. Crazy!

Northover Ridge hiking along the stream with Warrior Mountain in the distance
We’re used to hiking in scenery like this – tough right?

The Rwenzori Mountains also boast the highest peak in Uganda, and the third highest in Africa.  Margherita Peak is the highest peak on Mount Stanley, it stands at 5,119 metres (16,759 feet).  Hiking in the Rwenzori Mountains you can reach the summit of this peak, although it typically takes up to 8 days to complete the hike.  Those that do so can expect mud, snow, ice, and stunning views at the summit if you are lucky enough to have clear the skies.

If you’re not up for the summit you can hike the central circuit. Other trekking options in the Rwenzori mountains include the Rwenzori loop, which circles the Rwenzori range, giving you close up views of all the major peaks.

Finally, you can also hike the Mahoma Lake Loop, which is a 2-3 day trek covering 28km.  It was designed for those that are tighter on time and follows a portion of the Central Circuit.

Our Trip Trekking the Rwenzori Mountains

Ruboni Community Camp

As we had been in Uganda for a few weeks at this point we had endured several hours of “African massages” in the back of our driver Bosco’s car, (the roads in Uganda are famously bumpy) we arrived at our beautiful stopover at Ruboni Community Camp near Kasese in Uganda.

Inspecting flowers at Ruboni Community Camp
Thea inspects a flower on the way to our hut at Ruboni Community Camp
ruboni community camp hut
Our Hut at Ruboni Community Camp

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.

Mahoma Lake Loop in the Rwenzoris

There is not a lot of information about the shorter hikes that can be done in Rwenzori Mountain National Park, and our original booking to overnight in the Trekker’s Hostel and hike to some scenic vistas was oversold so the guides arranged a new plan to hike the Mahoma Lake Loop over two days. 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 the National Park and all visitors must go with a guide.  Your options are to hike with Rwenzori Trekking Services and Rwenzori Mountain Services.  We had read some horror stories about Rwenzori Mountain Services 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 Rwenzori Mountain Services 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.

The Rwenzori Three Horned Chameleon! 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 the lush plant life that we were hiking through.  Rain clouds seemed to threaten to foul things further.

hiking the rwenzori mountains
Hiking in the thick forest of the Rwenzori Mountains

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 afternoon and 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.

Faint view of the Portal Peaks
A “good” view of the Portal peaks after climbing to 2.651m.

Mahoma Lake Trek Day Two

The next day we carried on being ignored by our guide while climbing up to 3,500m 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 Rwenzori Mountains
Mahoma Lake at 3500m.

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 Rwenzori Mountain Services guide hadn’t even bothered to identify any of the peaks for us. The UWA ranger also informed us that this loop (And what we were doing) was the most difficult part of the Central Circuit. Knowing that we had already done the hardest part of a worthy challenge only made us want to finish the whole circuit and get up close the the mountains of the moon, but we didn’t have the time.

Mount Luigi, 4626m.
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 the trail was “gentle and rolling” to the end.

We wouldn’t Recommend Rwenzori Mountain Services

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 Rwenzori Mountain Services.
Only two agencies are allowed to operate in the park, Rwenzori Mountain Services and Rwenzori Trekking Services.  (And isn’t it confusing how they both basically have the same name!?)  We would recommend going with the better reviewed Rwenzori Trekking Services if you’re planning a similar trek.
trekking the rwenzori mountains - some sunlight!
We were rewarded with a little bit of sunshine during the long descent.

The Rwenzori Mountains in Hindsight

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 Rwenzori Mountain National Park or complete the Central Circuit, we probably should have simply opted for a nature walk or hill climb with the people from Ruboni. They were so kind and Rwenzori Mountain National Park 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 Rwenzori Trekking Services instead of the poorly-reviewed Rwenzori Mountain Services. 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 in the future..

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