Expedition over Mount Stanley from DRC (Congo) to Uganda, 2009
Report by Felix Berg
Our plan was to traverse the Ruwenzori Mountains, the third highest African peak, from the West to the East. Not due to technical difficulty, but for political reasons, this route has most likely not been done for the last 20-30 years. After 16 years of civil war, maybe even longer unrest, we have used the late seize-fire-agreement to explore this long-forgotten mountain from the unknown Congolese side and traverse the highest peak, Mount Stanley (5100 meters), to the more travelled Ugandan side.
Our trip started in Uganda’s capital Kampala, where we hired a car for 5 days. A days drive brought us to the Bwindi National Park, where we enjoyed the mountain Gorilla trekking. An unique experience, well-organized with professional local guides, we found these wild and friendly beasts after 2 hours and could spent one hour with them. At $500 US per person the permit was expensive, but definitely worth every Dollar. Afterwards we drove through Queen-Elizabeth National Park to the Congolese boarder at Mponde and went shopping for the necessary gear and food on the way. Crossing the border on our third day took five minutes of checking out in Uganda, and almost three hours of checking into Congo: visa-check, yellow fever card, yellow fever fees, car import fee, visa for our local driver, and so on… With a local security officer from the Virunga National Park, armed with a AK47 machine gun, we found the 77 km distance to the Ruwenzori head courters quite well. Still, on quite rough roads this took another two and a half hours.
We discussed permit fees ($100 US per person for a week), porter arrangements, bought some more food (even though it is hardly available), so we were ready on the next morning. With just one small EU-delegation, a single traveler and our three man group the total foreign visitors of the park for 2009 reached eight people by mid July. We started with seven local porters, very simple men, and one English speaking guide. Compared to the little tourist service knowledge, the infrastructure was extremely good due to a WWF project financed by the EU. We enjoyed a wild pass and great huts on the first three days going through different vegetation zones from tropical forests to the afro-alpine zone at 4200 meters. Then the pass got rougher and harder to find, leading us past the most amazing giant groundsels and sczenia plants to the last bivouac style hut. With the amazing glacial background of the Ruwenzori mountain range, surrounded 5000 meter high peaks with step granite and gneiss faces this was one of the most scenic landscapes I have seen on the planet.
The next two days we spent scrambling across the glacier on the lower slopes. Then we started the climb of the main peak of Mount Stanley. We climbed to the glacier plateau marking the board, from where we climbed the ridge separating Congo from Uganda to the summit of Peak Alexandria (5092 meters). Just below the peak one member hurt his angle thus we aborted the traverse to Margarita Peak and descended immediately to the Ugandan side. Partly in white-out we could not find the way to the Elena hut, instead took a direct way down. From my memory that seemed the most obvious route to descend, but quite slowly we had to bivouac on a grass field at 4400 meters. Chilled out, it still froze at night, we reached Bujuku camp on the next day around noon. From there followed a 16 hour transport-rescue to the base of the mountain. At the end we lost a day of exploring the Ugandan side, but could reach Kampala well. On the way we rearranged our "illegal" entry into Uganda with a very helpful Ugandan boarder officer we had informed beforehand. Kindly he even arranged our official exit from Congo. Our sick member could get treatment and recovered fast to go on his next expedition a month later. So we were all happy after all, and glad to have achieved our goal of the traverse.
The unique landscape of the Rwenzori mountain range is outstanding, with still by far the biggest glaciers in Africa, incomparable beautiful, and of very different character to the high single standing volcanoes of Kilimanjaro or Mount Kenya. The Congolese side, which are a lot drier, gives an easy and beautiful approach off the beaten track to reach the summit range. Opposing the political hassles touristic activity could although prove strong help for stabilization, and definitely the rewarding nature is worth the extra risk as long as the situation does not deteriorate.The unique landscape of the Rwenzori mountain range is outstanding, with still by far the biggest glaciers in Africa, incomparable beautiful, and of very different character to the high single standing volcanoes of Kilimanjaro or Mount Kenya. The Congolese side, which are a lot drier, gives an easy and beautiful approach off the beaten track to reach the summit range. Opposing the political hassles touristic activity could although prove strong help for stabilization, and definitely the rewarding nature is worth the extra risk as long as the situation does not deteriorate.