Planks leading through the forest of Uganda
© Kirsten Milhahn

Swallowed by the jungle

  • TEXT KIRSTEN MILHAHN
  • PHOTOS KIRSTEN MILHAHN

Mountain rainforests and giant flowers, carpets of moss and magical groves – a hike through the Rwenzori Mountains of Uganda is like a fantasy film expedition.

The Rwenzori Mountains, as the legendary “Mountains of the Moon” are officially called, extend far into western Uganda, into the area bordering the Congo. Some days earlier: We begin our hike at the foot of the mountains. The Rwenzori Mountaineering Service, a local association of mountain guides, has its base camp in the village of Ibanda. In the blazing heat, we distribute our baggage among a team of bearers, most of them Bakonjos, who are native to the region. They pack food and cooking utensils, roll mattresses into sacks, and stow the ropes, ice axes, crampons and harnesses we will need on the glacier.

Our group of six is planning to devote a whole week to hiking the Rwenzori National Park, where we will spend the nights in huts or tents, and finally climb Mount Stanley and its summit – the 5109-meter-high Margherita Peak – which is the third-highest elevation on the contintent after Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Mount Kenya. Unlike the two highest peaks, however, Rwenzori is not volcanic in origin; it’s a mountain range, and Africa’s highest. Among mountaineers, our project is considered difficult and relatively challenging given the fairly inaccessible paths that will take us over rocks, roots, and marshland, and the steady rain and cold that test the limits of even experienced mountain climbers. But awaiting those who conquer the glacial peaks of the Mountains of the Moon are not only one of the most wondrous forests, but also dream gorges and fairy-tale highland panoramas. Legend has it that even the source of the White Nile is somewhere up there.

A senecio, meters tall, beyond it, a glacial lake

Wondrous world: a senecio stands meters tall thanks to the rainfall and the intense UV rays of the sun, and beyond it, a glacial lake

© Kirsten Milhahn
Jockim Muhindo (left) and Henry Bwambale accompany the troupe through the mountains

Jockim Muhindo (left) and Henry Bwambale, both born and raised here, accompany the troupe through the mountains

© Kirsten Milhahn

  The trail first passes through banana groves and coffee plantations. A few women dressed in traditional, colorful robes and scarves on their head, giggle and wave from the roadside. Children yell “wazungu, wazungu” after us, “white strangers.” Men buzz by on mopeds loud as circular saws. Then suddenly, behind the gates at the entrance to the national park, the jungle opens its maw and we are swallowed up. The human hubbub falls silent. All we hear is the sound of a mountain river plunging full throttle into the valley. A sweetish-warm fragrance fills our nostrils. The vegetation forms a canopy above our heads so that now the path resembles a green, ever-ascending tunnel. After eight hours and roughly seven kilometers of hard walking through the mountain rainforest, we reach the first waypoint on our hike, Nybitaba Hut, 2650 meters up. Any secret hopes we may have had of spending the night in an idyllic lodge overlooking the slopes are disappointed here: It’s just a ramshackle cabin in the middle of the forest with small, dark rooms, homemade bunk beds up against bare timber walls, and an entrance hall dominated by a long table of coarse wood and two bare benches. Headlamps supply all the light there is. This is as cozy as it gets.

Mountain guide Patrick Marahi poses for the camera 4215 meters up

Mountain guide Patrick Marahi poses for the camera 4215 meters up

© Kirsten Milhahn
The Margherita Glacier, the final and most perilous stage of our climb

The Margherita Glacier, the final and most perilous stage of our climb

© Kirsten Milhahn
Backpack leaning against a giant lobelia cactus

A welcome breather beside a giant lobelia cactus

© Kirsten Milhahn
A chameleon sitting on a hand

Encounter with a chameleon

© Kirsten Milhahn

 Day two brings rain. Our first rain shower arrives at breakfast time. We sit it out in the hut, then stoically march out into the lush, dripping greenery. Streaks of mist billow above dark-green mountain slopes. On the trees, pale outcrops of old man’s beard flutter like pennants in the wind that drives heaps of clouds our way at regular intervals. Then the heavens open and it buckets down. The mountains certainly do justice to their name, Rwenzori, which means “rainmaker” in one Ugandan language. There are more than 300 days of rainfall a year here, and most of the time, the mountaintops are obscured by towering cloud. That’s why even into the late 19th century, no European was aware of the existence of the Rwenzori Mountains. Although the scholars of Ancient Greece suspected that the Nile was fed by a giant snowy massif in the south, all proof remained hidden – and the theory was forgotten until the year 1889, when Sir Henry Morton Stanley, the British-American Africa explorer, happened to pass by on one of those rare days when the massif is not swathed in cloud.

The Mountains of the Moon are inscrutable and do not surrender their secrets lightly, our Ugandan mountain guides tell us. The higher we climb, the better we understand what these local Bakonjo men mean. The rain and the constantly high humidity here create ideal conditions for some wondrous vegetation: intertwined tree heather with balls of moss resembling cotton batting running riot on their stems, lobelia cactuses, and senecios, in Germany well known as dainty flowering succulents, but here growing several meters tall.

The John Matte Hut at around 3500 meters above sea level

The John Matte Hut at around 3500 meters above sea level

© Kirsten Milhahn

  We reach the heights at which first signs of altitude sickness can appear. The bearers hurry on ahead of us, slender figures balancing as much as 20 kilograms on their brow bands as they traverse marshy ground and mountaintops with admirable grace. From day three onward, it is so wet that we can only continue our trek in gumboots. Miss the planking in the bog and we end up calf-deep in mud. On this particular afternoon, the clouds have once again brewed up a murky soup over Lake Bujuku, the largest of the area’s four glacial lakes. I am glad to say that our guide, Patrick Marah, has not strayed from my side since base camp. I ask him where the waters of the Nile come from. He points first to the Bujuku and then to the cloud front up ahead before giving a dismissive wave of the hand and muttering something about a storm on the way and also something like, “You’ll see.” Then he hurries on. Not two minutes later, the first hailstones come pelting down. We have reached the alpine zone.

The days grow even wetter; the paths, steeper; the nights, colder. All we have in the mountain huts is hot tea and our sleeping bags. Some people cough themselves to sleep. The air up here is so rare that our exertions sap our energy and fray our nerves. It’s a real effort to peel yourself out of your sleeping bag in temperatures below zero, and it’s particularly tough at the Elena Hut, our temporary camp just below the summit. Slowly I count to five, take a deep breath, open my sleeping bag and slip into my clammy clothes. It’s three in the morning and pitch-black outside. Before us likes the final stage of our climb, the ascent to Margherita Peak. An icy wind lashes our faces, each breath is painful. We trudge off, step after step up icy ledges in the beam of our headlamps. I listen to my rasping breath interrupted only by the crunch of the snow beneath my feet. Our bodies have long since been concentrating on the essentials: walking, breathing, walking. Roped together and with crampons beneath our soles, we stomp across the Stanley Glacier, which resembles an elephant’s gigantic back. My lungs burn. We take enforced rests.

Heading back down into the valley from the Guy Yeomann Hut

We made it: Heading back down into the valley from the Guy Yeomann Hut

© Kirsten Milhahn
The traveler's tent between rock and ice at the summit camp

A night between rock and ice at the summit camp

© Kirsten Milhahn

  The first rays of the sun are just appearing as we reach the edge of the Margherita Glacier, a meter-thick carapace of aquamarine ice and snow. Once we have put that behind us, we have reached our destination. Exhausted, I flop down onto a ledge and stare up at the glacier’s icy tongue, shimmering before my eyes. I spot Patrick, who waves me over. He points his ax toward a rivulet welling up from beneath the ice. “Nile water,” he says with a grin. And then I suddenly notice the dripping, burbling sounds of water all around – glacial ice more than 10 000 years old melting faster than ever before due to climate change. It trickles down the rocks, collects in glacial lakes and plunges down through rugged gorges to the plains below; it pours into the large lakes of the Ugandan savannah and from there makes its way to the Nile. It is a fantastic sight.

We climb the final 200 meters to the summit. The climb is truly intoxicating! Three of us make it to the top of Margherita Peak and pause for a few moments, proud and enraptured. Then we head right back down again, rushing valleyward, breathing in the air as it finally becomes less and less rare and richer in oxygen. We leave behind the blue-green Kitandara glacial lakes and Freshfield Pass with its vegetation resembling a garden of oversized cactuses. We attempt to keep pace with our bearers – and naturally have no chance of catching up with them. We pass through the vegetation zones of the Rwenzori: the lobelia cactus jungle, the meters-high tree heather and bamboo groves, the mountain rainforest, moss, ferns, streaks of mist and white waters everywhere. And then the gates of the national park spit us back out into civilization again.


This story first appeared in Lufthansa Exclusive, the frequent traveller magazine. For more information about Lufthansa Miles & More offers, please click here.


Kirsten Milhahn lives and works in Nairobi, Kenya as a freelance correspondent for Africa. What made her leave Hamburg and move to Africa? She loves the wildness and wide open spaces in that part of the world, people’s spontaneity, their warmth and talent for improvisation – and living life on the edge. Africa is a continent in transition. Many African countries are currently undergoing change, and centuries-old traditions exist side-by-side with a younger generation living a modern life in the big cities. These constrasts are what inspire her as a photographer and author. In images and text, she documents the current situation and shows her deep admiration for the creativity, courage and hope shown by so many brave people, often in the face of great hardship.

www.kirstenmilhahn.com