Sunday 8 November 2015

#019 Quest For The Source

I return to Africa for this blog and an expedition I made several years ago to Uganda. My inspiration was to follow in the footsteps of the great explorers in their quest to find the source of the Nile. The following feature was printed in Adventure Travel Magazine.


Climbed Kilimanjaro? Trekked Mount Kenya? Stared in awe across the Ngorongoro Crater? Then you could be forgiven for thinking that you have experienced the finest that East Africa has to offer. But, if you haven’t visited the Rwenzoris then you have missed one of the best wilderness adventures on the continent. Stu Westfield puts on his waterproofs and sets out in a quest to re-discover the glaciers at the source of the Nile.

The position of the Nile’s source has long been a hot topic of debate. For a while, in the 1800’s, it was accepted to be Lake Victoria. But, if you consider the Rwenzori range acts as a massive reservoir, constantly filling the Victoria basin, then I can argue that the source of the Nile is really on top of Mount Stanley. Which is a good thing for us adventurers as the Rwenzori mountains are readily accessible in a two week journey through a lost world of bizarre plants, infamous bogs and remote peaks.

Shortly before our arrival in the dusty town of Kasese our mini-bus clattered loudly over a concrete bridge. The river underneath was in full flow, having been topped up by recent storms.
Does it go all the way to the Nile? I asked our Ugandan driver.
Sure, it will find its way there eventually. He said. ‘But we prefer to think of it as ending in that swamp on your left.
I looked across a sea of green papyrus reeds into which the white water magically disappeared.

That evening, on veranda of the Margherita hotel, I gazed out to the surrounding hills as the equatorial light faded. A rumble in the sky announced the impending arrival of a thunderstorm. There was a heavy smell of ozone in the air and a couple of minutes later, a bolt of lightning found earth nearby. My irises contracted in reaction to the intense flash. Thunder clapped and the hotel generator tripped out, plunging me and a marabou stork, sitting on top of the tree opposite, into darkness. Torrential rain followed. I sat into a chair and drained my beer. Welcome back to Africa. I thought in romantic contentment.

All expeditions to the Rwenzori National Park start at the headquarters in the village of Nyakalengija, where my fellow adventurers and I were introduced to our guides and porters. Formalities taken care of, it was only a short walk until we entered the jungle, which grew with a vigorous wild beauty in the saturated soil.

Long before we reached a mass of huge granite blocks deposited on the banks of the Mubuku river, I could hear the roaring noise of water crashing over boulders.  It was a sound that would accompany us for most of the trek. It took four and a half hours to walk the seven kilometres and ascend 1000 metres to Nyabitaba hut.  Night arrives quickly at the equator and in the flickering light of a candle there was lively conversation over dinner. But, surrounded by pitch blackness, there wasnt much else to do before going to bed.

When trekking the Rwenzori circuit each day brings a different ecological zone and new obstacles to overcome. After breakfast, we passed through a dense thicket, stepping over thick roots and ducking under low slung branches. The rungs of a makeshift, wooden, ladder dropped down ten metres to the riverside where the equally rickety Kurt Schaffer Bridge crossed the Mubuku.

At an altitude of 3000 metres we entered the bamboo zone, the thick poles of this tall monoculture blocking out much of the sunlight. Beyond, the going became much more boggy and on several occasions I sank calf deep into soft ground. At home in their environment, the local lads made light work of it as they seemed to float over the mud.

Our picnic lunch was abruptly curtailed by a rapid drop in temperature and another heavy cloud burst. The rain fuelling a return to high humidity, mid-afternoon. A section of boardwalk made life easier underfoot as the trail wound through giant heather, ferns and moss in a dense ericaceous forest. I paused beside a tree stump, around which grew liverwort, lichen and a few small yellow mushrooms. Growing through the moss, vibrant magenta coloured orchids were scattered over the forest floor. 

I once read that the infamous Rwenzori Bigo Bog makes the vertical bog on Mount Kenya look like a walk in the park. I was curious to see whether the reality lived up to the reputation of this all consuming quagmire. It turned out to be the most testing terrain I had ever walked through. The mud was relentless and the best encouragement we could offer one another took the form of crazed humour.
“Embrace the mud!” We called out as we plunged onwards.
Five hours later I arrived at Bujuku Hut thoroughly knackered and the remainder of the team were strung out in various states of fatigue.

Feeling the effects of the altitude, I had an awful nights sleep and so got up early in the morning. With a refreshing cup of tea in my hand, I stood outside and was joined by Finn.  The sun bathed the snow on Mount Baker in a crisp light which had just begun to illuminate the valley down to Lake Kitandara.
Beautiful, isnt it? I said in reverence.
Yeah. Replied Finn. Its just like Scotland but with funky trees.
Out of Bujuku hut and we were straight back into the bog, tracing around the opposite shore of the lake before following the trail up a narrow gully set into a steep cliff face. The exposure was disguised by thick groundsel until we reached a fixed ladder, constructed from heavy steel tubing. This brought us out onto a high pass, where the path eventually dried out. Three hundred metres of hard gradient was followed by a scramble up several rock steps, the tops of which were glassy smooth with frozen melt water or coated in frictionless lichen. It wasn't the most elegant style with which I negotiated the hazard, I admit, but safer than a tumble none the less.

More boulders impeded progress before we arrived, tired and cold, at the bleak Elena Hut. Inside, it was cramped with twelve of us packed into the small space. I was awoken several times in the night by the ominous sound of rock fall and avalanches. One of them rolled on for so long, becoming progressively louder, that I wondered where it would stop. Just after midnight, by the light of our head torches, the team crossed the slabs surrounding Elena and started scrambling up a steep gully. The first thirty metres presented no problems and on the wide ledges I stepped upwards without relying upon the rope. However, our progress slowed as a sheen of ice crystals clung to the face. So, we each tied in with a prussic loop to safeguard against a slip becoming a serious fall.

On the straightforward gradient beyond our fixed line, I used my ice axe on the mixed ground, as fresh snow had fallen overnight. The white patches glowed with a blue luminescence where my torch cut into the darkness. 

Daybreak gave form to several moderately exposed ledges. I paused and remembered I had seen a similar formation on the north ridge of Tryfan in Wales. I worked my way across the rocks, around an outcrop and up onto flat slabs leading to the snout of the Stanley glacier. The rising suns rays bounced off it with blinding intensity. Squinting, I fished out the sunglasses from my pack and sat down to put on my crampons. With excited anticipation, I tightened the straps. 

A layer of cotton wool cloud hovered below us at four thousand metres. Above, Stanleys twin peaks of jet black stone pierced the blue above their snow covered saddle. Once on the glacier, there was a half hour of easy walking which lead to a down climb over steps covered with scree. 

Our guide looked concerned and he called for our attention. ‘Theres a large serac above our route, which is in danger of collapsing.’ He informed us. Usually Mount Stanley is swathed in mist, keeping the temperatures low and the ice solid. The glorious sunrise which had allowed us superb views of the peaks had also left the withering equatorial heat beating down on the high ground. 

There was no safe option other than to retreat, our crampons points squeaking and scraping on the bare rock as we climbed out of the couloir. But, instead of walking directly down the Stanley glacier we made a small diversion to its crest and hence claimed victory in reaching the highest watershed of the Nile. Here lay the mythical source and our efforts were rewarded with a magnificent view down onto green expanse of the Congo basin.

Once off the glacier, we rappelled back down to Elena hut and trekked for three hours via Scott Elliot Pass, the highest point reached by non-climbers on the Rwenzori circuit, to Kitandara Hut: Which was positive luxury in so much as it was windproof, more spacious and had a covered veranda. The sleeping arrangements were still very communal, but once settled, I quickly dozed off to sleep. Beside the hut ran a stream, fast flowing over a bed of clean gravel, feeding a tranquil lake. It was a perfect place to rest.

The steep hike out took us over icy boulders and above the snowline to Freshfield Pass. Here we found a winter wonderland with scarlet chested sunbirds busy drinking nectar from tall giant lobelia flower spikes. 

Then we were back into bog country with waist high tussocks choking up the valley. Progress was infuriating as not all the tussocks could hold the weight of a person and when one of them gave way I was pitched downwards into the marsh. Instead, I tried walking at ground level, only to be slowed by thin tendrils which attached themselves to my gaiters and wrapped around my trekking poles. It took twice the effort to walk half as far, it seemed like the Rwenzori was alive and unwilling to release me. I extricated myself from another tangle, muttering ‘Bloody tussocks.’

We followed the foaming roar of white water. It came back into view transformed into a vision of paradise. The river had widened, making a soothing swoosh as the crystal clear flow slid over an almost perfectly flat bed of solid rock. For the rest of the afternoon we feasted our eyes upon an inspiring sequence of natural wonders and panoramas which looked like scenes from pre-history. The only things missing from the valley floor were iguanodon browsing on the lush vegetation and pterodactyls flying overhead. 

The final day in the Rwenzoris began with a steep descent on a muddy path hugging the side of a precipice. The last major hazard was a tower of chaotic wooden ladders. At the base, I saw that our porter team had gathered. They welcomed the arrival of their colleagues and clients with equal enthusiasm, cheering and clapping.

The trail was once again bathed in sunshine, so I paused to take off my fleece. In the silence my ears tuned into the natural rhythms of the forest.  A chorus of cicadas and birdsong echoing from the canopy brought serenity and calm. Sun dappled light danced over the bushes, chasing a multitude of yellow and tortoiseshell coloured butterflies.

At the edge of the park, in an abrupt contrast to the enveloping jungle, cultivated fields and terraces reached high into the hills, showing the changes that agriculture has brought to the environment. Chickens strutted around the rough built huts in Nyakalengija. Tethered goats picked over thin grass, women carried produce and small children ran around playing.  Men stood around in small relaxed groups, smoking and watching the world pass by. At the headquarters we parted from our guides and boarded our mini bus for the dusty ride back to the Margherita hotel.

Within two hours, our group was relaxed on the terrace and watching the setting sun as we awaited our drinks order. There was a sense of anticipation which reminded me of the final scene in the film Ice Cold In Alex, where John Mills paused, caressed the dew on his cool glass of beer before downing it in one long draught. The waiter arrived with a tray of drinks and I could not resist a homage which was so apt for the moment, finishing my first mouthful of Nile Special with, “Aaah, worth waiting for!” 

‘In a world which has lost all sense of perspective, there is a sense of timeless energy in East Africa which is food for the soul.’ 



WHERE: Rwenzori National Park, Uganda.

ACTIVITY: Jungle trekking, scrambling, glacier travel, safari.

TOTAL TIME: 2 weeks or more. Trekking to the source of the Nile is one heck of a ‘top that’ when it comes to answering ‘where did you go on holiday this year?’ It took the best explorers the Victorians could muster, months, if not years just to reach the African lakes. On this expedition you’ll truly be standing on the shoulders of giants. 

DIFFICULTY: Strenuous trekking at altitude.

LOOK OUT FOR: The infamous Bigo Bog. Scenery from a lost world. Glaciers on the equator.

GETTING THERE:  Unfortunately British Airways have since canned the direct Heathrow to Entebbe route. As an alternative , look at Kenya Airways, via Nairobi Stay overnight in nearby capital city Kampala, then bus to Kasese (300 km). Driving yourself is not recommended. At Kasese, Overnight at Margherita hotel. Transfer to the road head at Nyakalenjiga if using Rwenzori Mountain Services guides. Nowadays there is another guiding company to choose from based at Backpackers in Kampala, with a hostel local to the Rwenzori. 

LOGISTICS: It’s worthwhile joining an organised expedition, whether from the UK or booked with a Ugandan operator who can arrange your pick up from the airport, in country transport, hotel accommodations and liaison with the Rwenzori Mountain Services. Doing it all yourself on this trip probably isn’t worth the money you’ll save. Let someone else deal with the hassle and you’ll then have more time to enjoy the journey.

SWEET DREAMS: Hotel accommodation is generally comfortable, if a little dated. On the trek, sleeping is in bunk huts, some with separate rooms. Elena hut is cold, draughty and very basic.

HOW MUCH: Once in Uganda, costs are affordable and unlike Kenya where traders start bartering at silly prices, souvenirs are generally good value for money.  Tips form an important part of guides and porters wages. But remember that disproportional gratuities can create a culture of expectation as has often been experienced by trekkers on Kilimanjaro.

WHEN: The dry seasons in Uganda are from June to early October and late November to early March. But, the Rwenzoris are known locally as the rain maker, constantly filling the Victoria lake system, so expect wet weather at any time of year.

WHAT TO TAKE: The peat ground is like walking on a saturated sponge so you’ll need trekking boots with yeti gaiters or Wellingtons to cope with the bogs.  Weather ranges from tropically hot and wet to chilly in the evenings. Waterproof over trousers and jacket with light base layer works well for walking. If heading above the trekking circuit, to the peaks: Ice axe, 4 season boots, crampons, rope and harness are required for an attempt on the Mount Stanley summit. Warm sleeping bag.

ON THE TREK: Get to know your guides. Theyre a great bunch of guys who are a mine of information regarding plants and animals and are keen to share their knowledge.

Assuming you have a reasonable level of fitness, there is adequate time each day to cover the relatively short distances between huts, so take your time. A relaxed pace will also help with acclimatisation.

Stop and enjoy the views. The Rwenzori mountain environment is unique and spectacular. When walking through the bogs, its easy to spend all day watching where youre treading! At the end of each day, look after your feet by thoroughly drying them and using foot powder.

WHEN SCRAMBLING: These remote mountains are not the place to be taking unnecessary risks. With a multiple day stretcher evacuation required before motorised transport can be used to the nearest hospital, the consequences of any accident are serious.  So use the protection of a rope while scrambling and be aware of the changing weather conditions.

ADD ON EXCURSION:  No trip to East Africa would be complete without a safari. For a luxury treat, wash off the Rwenzori mud at the Mweya Lodge before returning home. Situated in Queen Elizabeth National Park, with stunning views overlooking the Kazinga channel, it is one of the best places in Uganda to view wildlife. Photography enthusiasts and bird watchers will be glad they brought a long telephoto lens (300mm or more). Game drives and boat rides can be arranged by the lodge. Got some extra time (and dollars), head over to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest for Gorilla watching. Or, if you can call the right people, Chimpanzee tracking in Kyambura Gorge. Both are unforgettable and very special experiences.

UGANDA POLITICS: Uganda has come a long way since the despotic dictatorship of Idi Amin in the 1970’s. Readers over forty-something will no doubt remember how bad things got from the BBC television news coverage at the time. But as with other war torn African nations, the people of Uganda have shown a remarkable ability to heal their country’s wounds. There are still areas where tourism remains inadvisable, notably north of Murchison Falls, due to the activities of the Lords Resistance Army rebel group and in some border regions with the Congo. However, as important sources of tourist revenue, the Rwenzori and Queen Elizabeth National Parks are well protected.

Guide To The Rwenzori - Henry Osmaston (The Rwenzori Trust)
Trekking In East Africa (Lonely Planet Guides)
Ruwenzori* Map And Guide - Andrew Wielochowski (EWP)  * alternative spelling

Stu Westfield
Ranger Expeditions
07890 620274