The Christmas season had gone like any other, but this time, I would crown the year in style-daring the Rwenzori Mountain ranges. My friend, Daniel Muhanguzi, and I had planned this hike for two years in vain but we were determined to make it happen this time. Daniel, another free-spirited adventurous young man and a talented photography enthusiast, hails from Fort Portal in a village of Kitumbi in Kihondo sub county right in the foot hills of the eastern ranges of the Rwenzori Mountain, about 12km from Fort Portal town.
I left Bushenyi, my cradle land, where I had been for the Christmas season, on 29th December 2013, for Fort Portal where I would join Daniel in his home village to dare the ranges overlooking his village the next day on 30th. We estimated the elevation to about 1500m above sea level of the free standing range that we conquered.
With my rack sack weighing about 6kg on my back, we started our long day of adventure. With five of Daniel’s cousins, making seven of us, we began trekking from Kitumbi, their immediate village, toward Kihondo trading center along the Fort Portal-Bundibugyo road, where we would begin our hike. At Kihondo, we got our guide, a Mukonjo from the mountains, and he would be very helpful to us throughout the long day adventure. Taking us to the LC1 chairman, we got a permit that would allow us access to the Rwenzori Mountain National Park for one day. And we were now headed up the ranges for what would be a great physical and mental challenge.
Going up, the sun was getting hotter but thanks to ‘the higher you go, the cooler it becomes’ principle. I saw the practicability of this principle at work because the higher we went, the temperatures kept dropping. Somewhere in the early stages of our hike, Joyce, our only female hiker, was beginning to give up on the challenge but we could not let that happen. Though she was becoming physically weak, she grew mentally stronger and I was particularly sure she would make it when she said ‘guys, your destiny is my destiny today’. That was reassuring and step by step, looking down the valley to great sceneries, we kept moving. Meanwhile, Daniel, our official photographer for the adventure, could not miss the most captivating moments and sceneries. Meeting the Bakonjo who harvest bamboo up in the forests, we moved on up, albeit with many stopovers to capture shots, admire the sceneries or wait for Joyce, whose pace was not as fast as ours.
Finally we conquered our first challenge of the main elevation. At this point, temperatures were about 5 degrees Celsius. It was incredible! We had a short rest and ate our Bogoya. Meanwhile, a typical Mukonjo woman and her daughter were from the forests to harvest fire wood, carrying it typical of the Bakonjo and any other mountain people; we asked to capture a light moment and take shots with them and they allowed. It was breath taking and if it were not for the interest of the whole group, I would have sloped back carrying the fire wood the Konjo style.
It was slightly past mid day at this time and our adventure was only beginning. We energized and headed deep into the bamboo forests where we tracked a marshy place that fills into a small lake during the rainy season. Otherwise, the place is characterized by ‘Enjezi’ (several very deep points in a marshy area that would swallow and drown you if you dare stepped there). Coming back to the main track, we had two options to take; one was to continue in the well marked tracks in the bamboo forest until we see Bundibugyo and the Semuliki valley and the other was to slope down creating our own track to a distant isolated place called ‘Kayanja’ right in the middle of frightening forest. We choose the latter option because we needed a bigger challenge that would give us an unfair advantage!
Sloping down, with our guide taking the lead, we created our own trail. Passing under undamaged thickets, our spirits were longing; we could not change our minds to take a back step. Somewhere in the middle of nowhere, we found ‘amatunguru’-the red wild fruits whose English name I don’t know (and who said everything must have an English name? ok, call them ‘amatunguru’ or go find your own name!). So we sat in the middle of the jungle, albeit with little undergrowth, to feast on the ‘amatunguru’. If I remember properly, I had last eaten ‘amatunguru’ when I was 5 or 6 years. It was an awesome moment, taking us back to the childhood memories of grazing goats and the rare interaction with one of the most indigenous wild fruits!
Going down further and deeper into the jungle, passing through spots you ordinarily would least expect a human being to pass, we finally reached ‘Kayanja’ valley. There was a stream of clear flowing natural water, making soft mumblings through the still rocks; we had reached the ‘oasis’. Without hesitation, we started quenching our thirst cattle-style at this stream whose water was at about 2 degrees Celsius. We refreshed and re-energized for we needed to go further and further to reach some virgin places, becoming modern-day explorers. We followed the stream up and reached a point where there were reservoir tanks and huge gravity water pipes. No one would have anticipated that an enormous project like that had taken place in that undisturbed jungle. It was surmised that the gravity water that supplies the whole of Rwenzori sub region comes from that point.
We felt a great sense of accomplishment at this point but the greatest highlight of our adventure was yet to unfold. My anxiety for more kept pushing me and I followed on up in slippery rocks, very glossy and on tight angles that with any slight mistake, one would be no more. The boys followed on carefully and Daniel was, amidst mind boggling surfaces, covering the moments, capturing some of the most unprecedented shots. We finally saw a water fall, water falling from up in deep rocks down at a height of about 10m. We were all silently saying ‘WOW’. Asking our guide about this water fall, he said he had no clue and he admitted he had not heard anything about it despite his deep knowledge of the ranges and the entire catchment area.
At that moment, I am tempted to think that I had discovered a water fall. Well, I know some people had been there but I named it ‘Kayanja Falls’ after Kayanja Valley, the name of that catchment area. We were taken into deep awe of the magical falls. The boys did not mind removing their shoes or having their shoes soaked in water in a quest to reach at the exact water fall. This was magical redefined!
Retreating down along the stream, we decided to move up and conquer the subsequent hill to what would prove the most demanding elevation passing through a thick jungle creating our own trail amidst myriads of itchy plants, the soil too was too loose because of the high concentration of humus since the area has most likely never seen a hoe! The guys, who were following from behind, risked being covered by piles of huge loose earth that were being pushed behind by the leading guys in a struggle to push through one of the most horrific terrains and elevations. But we maneuvered! Though we did not reach the top of the elevation, not because we had given up, but because we were calculating to remain with enough time to retreat the whole slope down before dark, we reached some unprecedented height. The feeling on all our faces (in the subsequent shot), is a perfect reflection of what we went through, but we emerged with an unfair advantage!
And we hurriedly began our trek down to where we began. Going down through the Kayanja valley, we ended up in some gardens where we found Bakonjo natives planting their crops. This was late afternoon coming to evening, but traditionally, Bakonjo, like the Bakiga of South Western Uganda, carryout gardening from morning to evening so they carry some food along with them to their garden. That tradition worked in our favor that day because we found these Bakonjo roasting maize and because of the severe hunger we had accumulated, we did not even ask whether to join them or not. We run directly to the fire place and began eating the maize they had roasted and roasting the fresh ones which were remaining. They were so good to us and to me that was just more than ordinary, that these people would sacrifice their day’s meal for a bunch of wandering strangers who had popped out of the bush. That’s how I view the universe, it knows no boundary, no color, no religion, it knows all of us as just one and that’s what the Bakonjo natives displayed that day.
We would later continue our retreat making it back to Kihondo before dark. Tired, still hungry and physically drained, but the level of accomplishment was commensurate!
- You need to be physically fit before undertaking a demanding adventure like this. Your mental preparedness is equally imperative.
- Need to prepare in advance, have some knowledge of the route, and carry enough food and water, rain coat or a simple tent. Must not forget your cameras in excellent conditions because if you do such an adventure and lose out of the pictures you would have sold out. A GPS would be a good gadget to carry along.
- Have a guide with deep knowledge of the area and route and get clearance from the local authorities.
- Just be open-minded and try out different things as your spirit leads you. Don’t just be row by column!