SNOW ON THE EQUATOR? Photo courtesy of Adrift Adventures Co., Kampala, Uganda

Adventure Sports - Trekking the Mountains of the Moon

by Cam McLeay

I pulled my sleeping bag over my head and tightened the drawstring around my face. I have been living in Uganda for over 3-years and couldn't remember the last time I had actually climbed into my sleeping bag, let alone pulled the hood over my head - we live on the equator and we are not used to feeling that cold.

The next thing I knew it was morning and light crept through the window of the Guy Yeoman hut. I ventured outside and mist swirled around in the valley below. A brisk wind dispelled any ideas I had of an early morning swim. Smoke poured from beneath the roof of the porters huts - a good sign that the fire was warm and the day had begun. Putting on the porridge seemed as good a start as any but not before that first cup of tea. On my way to the creek to fill the teapot a mostly grey streaked between the giant heather and I was able to make out clearly at the end of the streak a Ruwenzori Turaco. Even while half awake, I knew that this would cause your most enthusiastic twitcher to wet his pants with excitement. I stood still to watch this remarkable bird preen himself only meter's away and reveled in the again in the magic of the Rwenzori and mystery that still surrounds the Mountains of the Moon.

I had climbed Mt. Stantley 17-years earlier from the Congo side but this was my first time to climb the mountains from Uganda. The Mountains of the Moon have lost none of their charm. The mighty forest giants are as majestic as when the first explorers ever saw them, elephant trails still cross the foot highways in the lower forests, chimpanzees make their home near giant fig trees, one is never far from the sound of running water and the dramatic peaks are obscured from view for most of the year.

Our team from Hima Cement had been in training for months beforehand to get in shape for what is probably the toughest climb on the dark continent &endash; third highest (Margherita 5189m) but physically the greatest challenge. Charles had grown up in the foothills of the Ruwenzoris but had never ventured beyond the village trails, Christian had flown in from La Farge - Hima's parent company in France and Pal had joined us from Bamburi Cement (another La Farge company) in Kenya. The local team had underestimated the importance of footwear. Despite my detailed advice on what kind of boots to search for in the 'Owino' of Kabale, they had turned up with shoes more suited to a night on the dance floor at Club Silk. What were they thinking? They were making this too much of a challenge for themselves. It was challenge enough to wade through the Bigo bog in gortex boots let along the 'silk slippers'. But I had to remember they had never seen snow before. Bosco could not imagine beyond his wildest dreams how difficult it is to balance on wet and greasy logs knowing if you slipped you would have to extract yourself from knee deep mud renown for claiming the shoes of intrepid hikers.

We had chosen to attempt the Ruwenzori in August when the clouds should be near their thinnest and the rain should be somewhere down in Zambia. However, it seemed like someone forgot to pass the message on. Swirling clouds of mist swallowed our views of the peaks for most of our trek and the bogs of the Uganda Rwenzori were overflowing with water. A huge amount of work has been done on the trails and without the thousands of logs laid across the swamps, I shudder to think of how much greater our challenge would have been. This was a teambuilding exercise and it certainly brought all of us closer together. Each day, we dragged tired limbs from our sleeping bags, wrestled with wet boots and climbed at a steady pace toward those elusive peaks that we glimpsed occasionally in the clouds. The trails were littered with large rocks and we spent a great deal of time clambering over these on all fours, large sections of the trail were sodden from heavy rains and the bogs ruled supreme. My gortex boots and gaiters feared well but those porters really put on quite the show.

Carrying large loads, they were a wonderful advertisement for gum boots (Wellingtons) as they leapt nimbly between rocks, hauled themselves over tree trunks fallen on the trails or skillfully balanced in the bogs. We had about 30 porters to support our team and they were enjoying the experience as much as we were. Aside from the sound of squelching boots, distinctive bird calls and thundering waterfalls, one of my endearing memories from the climb is the constant banter of the porters. These little men of the mountains seemed really at home here dashing ahead of our team of climbers each day, pausing occasionally to suck on some battered cigarette or huddling together around the fires in the evening for warmth.

At Bujuku Hut, our hopes of reaching the summit of Margherita peak rose and fell with the brightness of the stars. Each time I dashed outside, a sky full of stars made me hopeful we could summit in clear weather. The promise of the summit had me excited for myself but especially for my new Ugandan friends who would see snow for the first time. We departed for the summit of Mt. Stanley in the dark and it wasn't long before our feet were wet and our heads were pounding from the altitude. The pace had slowed considerably and there was plenty of time to take in the magnificent views down the mountainside to Lake Bujuku. A fresh dusting of snow had settled into the wet moss and ice cold streams trickled beneath the giant groundsells. I had forgotten the simple pleasure of filling my mouth with fresh snow crystals and gazing down on the clouds from above. One foot up, balance, then place the next. My breathing was becoming shorter and and my steps closer. I always feel that a large part of the magic of the mountains is that my mind wanders, I wonder what lies behind that large cloud or over the next ridge or under the rock I just stepped on. The thin mountain air might make for vivid dreams and light sleep at night but day is also full of visions of hope and wonder.

Soon we have reached the ice fields and I wander around the party checking the fit of crampons. Each time I bend down my head throbs and soon I am delighted be swinging my ice axe into the glacier. A prolonged coaching lesson on the fixing of ice screws, some instruction on how to use crampons and the team is soon traversing the steep ice face that looms above us. Water rushes rapidly toward the Mediterranean from beneath our feet, the sun burns a bright hole through the cloud and our crampons bite into the blue ice. It is hard to believe that the retreating glaciers of the Mountains of the Moon are headed all the way for Alexandria via the Nile. Roped together for danger of falling into a crevasse, we walk slowly across the ice field to the high point amidst the mighty peaks of Mt. Stanley &endash; ironically named after the man who initially dismissed that they existed. I am able to take a few group photographs before a chilly snow storm drives us back down the mountain.

We settle for less than the summit but the Hima Cement team were tough challengers. On summit day, we stumble into camp well after dark but justifiably pleased with ourselves then revel in our next few days in the mountains. No-one said it was going to be easy but what a place to spend some time. The Turacos call up the valleys of their misty home, a lone chimpanzee races across the rocks after a brief encounter with Joe Hudson and our footprints have long since been washed away by the heavy rain. However, the Mountains of the Moon leave another impression that will not waste away quite so quickly. For thousands of years, these mountains have made a lasting impression on those that saw or visited them and today little has changed in the high valleys and mighty peaks.


Cam McLeay

Adrift Adventure Co.



Photos courtesy of Adrift Adventure Co., Kampala, Uganda


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