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Mountains of the Moon

Getting lost in the Ugandan jungle

In early 2016, Ed, Seb, Graham and myself decided to travel from Johannesburg in South Africa to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, documenting the burgeoning youth along the East African coast. While mostly traveling by car, skateboarding was going to be our secondary mode of transports, and we were going to leverage its unique status to connect with the urban youth, allowing us to dive deeper into the local art, music and food scenes.

Our itinerary was solid and we were ready for an adventure, so we reached out the the Imperial College Exploration Board for a sponsorship - which they didn't give us. They thought our trip was too dangerous. I suppose the compound risk of driving a car for 7,000 km on dirt roads, crossing multiple borders, carrying expensive equipment and in areas with threatening wildlife increases the possibility of finding ourselves in catastrophic situations.

But none of that really mattered because we were thirsty for an adventure, with or without their support. In order to keep our expenses down, we going to limit the number of kilometers traveled, and we had a new plan. Graham flew to Tokyo for work, while Ed, Seb and myself flew to Nairobi.

PLAN B: MV Liemba

Our new plan involved a WW1 steam boat on Lake Tanganyika, originally used by the Germans to control the area, then scuttled, then salvaged by the British Royal Navy, and which now goes up and down the 700 km waterway forming the border between the DRC and Burundi, and Tanzania. We had already arrived in Nairobi (our pied-à-terre in the area) when we finally managed to get in touch with the captain who gave us his detailed itinerary for the coming weeks, and it didn’t look good. Our schedules were out of sync. Besides, thanks to political unrest, getting visas to cross Burundi to the northern tip of the lake in Bujumbura was complicated.

PLAN C: Rwenzori Mountains

East Africa is the home to the tallest mountains on the continent. The most famous ones are Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya, but there is also, at the border between Uganda and the DRC, a more mysterious mountain range called the Rwenzori Mountains (also known as The Mountains of the Moon). The ice-capped massif, once thought to be the source of the river Nile, has a vegetation so rampant that it remains widely unexplored. The thought of it tingled my senses.

So we got on the road, and started this epic journey through Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. Let’s just say it was a eventful, and what follows describes the 8 days we spent in the jungle in the Mountains of the Moon.

The Mountains of the Moon

Traveling exclusively by public transport (bus, mutatu, boda boda) and in critically overloaded vehicles we made our way to Kasese at the foothills of the mountain range. My Ugandan colleague tells me not many tourists go there, not even Ugandan tourists. It made me happy.

Seb’s father’s fixer Derrick (a wild Ugandan womaniser who happens to have in his possession valuable information about most things) recommended us to talk to some men about our plan to climb a peak at the heart of Africa.

Given we were going travel for over a week in a thick, wet, wild and mountainous jungle, we accepted that a having a guide with us would not be superfluous. Little did we know that we weren’t actually getting just a guide. After lengthy negotiations, struggling to convey our desire to be independent as much as possible - carrying all we needed to survive during those few days in isolation - we were forced to accept 2 guides and an additional porter. We departed the next morning, and the adventure began.

Our ride to the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains.
The van struggled uphill, so at times we had to step walk while the engine would cool down.

Our van stopped in a field where men were waiting for us while packing crop storage sacks with miscellaneous items. They seemed determined to come with us and we were confused. What our 2 guides had omitted to tell us was that there would actually be 3 guides, and each of them would need porters to carry their food and equipment. They had also recruited a ‘chef’ to cook us regular meals that would ‘suit our western diet’ (hum what?!)... Oh we also needed 2 men to clear the path ahead of us everyday, and of course, they needed someone to carry their things. They insisted on carrying our bags. We insisted on carrying them ourselves. Time was passing and we were getting increasingly frustrated. They let us take our things, but not our food as doing so would undermine completely the necessity for them to join us. Many men disappeared into the mountains and we followed them.

The men all prepared the bags they would carry during the expedition. Most of them used banana leaves, which they would hang on their foreheads and their craftsmanship led me to believe it wasn’t their first time.
The porters of things were very organised and weighted their loads to ensure they remained below 20kg.
The WFP probably didn’t have that in mind.
There was no easing into the trek. The vegetation was thick, and the ground kept slipping under our feet.
Two of the men accompanying us were designated fellers. They would leave 1h before everyone else to clear what we called a path. They did some serious chopping and sharpened their machetes every day.

Bukurungu trail

The Bukurungu trail is a forgotten trail once used by hunters and DRC guerillas which would cross the invisible border to pillage Ugandan villages. That is the trail we took. Our guides assured us that the area was safe, which made me question the presence of the Ugandan soldiers carrying machine guns we met a few days later. Later that day, two Ugandan Wildlife Authority guards and two soldiers joined us on our expedition - they were, all carrying AK-47 to protect us from animals. During that week, the only animals we saw were a dead hyrax and a chameleon, but the lower altitude forests used to be home to wooly elephants.

Every living thing in these mountains, flora and fauna, is sacred. In practical terms, this means that if one forages or picks a flowers, one will be punished by the multiple gods of the area. Punishments can take the form of bad weather, injuries or worse… So I was told.

While being on the equator, the Rwenzori Mountains are high above sea level, which results in tropical days, and glacial nights. These particular climatic conditions give birth to an extravagant afroalpine flora varying widely at different altitudes.

There was no easing into the trek. The vegetation was thick, and the ground kept slipping under our feet.
Two of the men accompanying us were designated fellers. They would leave 1h before everyone else to clear what we called a path. They did some serious chopping and sharpened their machetes every day.
The sacred chameleon.
The indigenous lifeforms below the trees covered a large spectrum of colours.
Approaching the summits, the ground was covered in bright amber fur.

Living in the jungle

We left the camp by 8 every morning after eating a caricature of a western breakfast. Our days involved 6 to 12 hours of trekking through difficult terrains. The jungle is not particularly hospitable to human presence, and walking through the forest can often feel like trying to run in a mud bath.

Despite claiming to know the Bukurungu, our guides would often give us the impression that we were lost. One time they even admitted it. The supposedly short and easy days would end up being the longest and most demoralising ones, while the days meant to be the hardest were often over in 6 hours.

Every evening, the men travelling with us would arrive at least an hours before us at the camp. Neither the heavy loads carried on their foreheads, not their rubber boots seemed to slow them down. The number one priority was always to light up a fire, which would allow them to cook and stay warm throughout the night.

Early morning at a camp near Portal Peaks.
While the crew cooked their food on the open fire, ours was cooked using a gas canister which one of the men carried.
Modest shelters like this one was where the crew would spend their nights.
Their diet consisted mainly of boiled cassava, millet bread and a very simple meat stew prepared using the half goat carried around throughout the week.
The men had hands made of leather and could easily handle the aluminium pots used to cook cassava or millet bread.
We got the opportunity to superficially wash ourselves once that week, after a few days of intense activity.

Portal Peaks

We reached Portal Peaks on day 5. The peak has an elevation of 4,309m and is only a few kilometers from Mount Stanley, Africa’s third highest summit. We approached the mountain through an ocean of bogs at 3500m above sea level. The three guides and one porter reached the summit with us while the rest of the crew went straight to the next camp. The summit is only 30km from the equator, but as we approached the last section of the climb, the mountain gods rewarded us with some white fluffy snow.

Overcoming the bogs involved a lot of jumping, slipping, ankle spraining, swearing, and getting lost. Fun times. I wore my wellies.
The climb was very steep and the rocks were soaked from the regular showers sustaining the local ecosystem.
The coulds were moving fast and the landscape experienced from the top of the peaks was lunar.
Mount Stanley and the remains of its glacier.

It was quite an unusual trip

Despite often feeling like we were crashing someone else’s party, having all those men around living their lives independently of us made it a very special experience. Besides, that’s how business is done here, and we had an unspoken obligation to support the livelihoods of the local community. Although frustrating at first, having such a big crew travelling with us was easy to rationalise. So the fee we paid our guides was split amongst all the men on the last day.

Flexibility is key when travelling, as without following opportunities as they presented themselves, we probably would have never ended up spending a week with lots of strangers, lost in a mountain range in the center of Africa.

We came back down the mountains on a popular trail, which took us to an official entrance to the park. It’s only after taking that photo that we realised there were actually 20 of them, 20... 20:3 seems like a reasonable ratio right?

August 2016, with Ed and Seb