Kayaking Africa: The Mountains of the Moon

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The Mountains of the Moon (called the Rwenzori by the native people) literally inspired our expedition when planning began six months ago. Before friend and trip advisor Dr. Jessie Stone first mentioned the Rwenzori, I had little knowledge of the highest mountain range in Africa. With its rich precolonial history and position as the political boundary between Uganda and Congo (DRC), it is fitting that our last stop in the Nile watershed precedes our upcoming attempt to kayak 1000 miles through the upper Congo watershed.

These equatorial mountains have perplexed explorers and intrigued geographers for nearly 2000 years. When word of 'salt-capped' peaks in Central Africa reached Greece, geographers and philosophers alike pinned the so called Mountains of the Moon as the source of the Nile. Finally, in 1888, members HM Stanley's team were the first to confirm the existence of snow capped peaks just fractions of a degree from the equator. Of course it was Stanley's quest to settle the question of the Mountains of the Moon as the fountains of the Nile that ultimately led to his exploration of the Congo. 

Although today scientists recognize that the Mountains of the Moon are not the main source of the Nile's water, they provide a unique source of clean water to the Nile system that in many regions is plagued by water-born illness.  For that reason, along with their historical antiquity and one of a kind biodiversity, the Ruwenzoris are recognized by the UN as a World Heritage Site.

Since our last stop at Murchison Falls on the Nile,  the searing heat and constant threat of wildlife has been replaced by subfreezing temperatures and the very real danger of altitude sickness.

Our route into the Rwenzoris follows the two major tributaries to the Mubuku River, forming a week-long circuit to the 16,700 foot apex of the mountains. Our plan was to hike the route, scout the rivers along the way, then be the first to paddle the Mubuku. To put it mildly, we were shocked by the beauty of the mountains and canyons in just the first few kilometers of trail, but dismayed by the lack of water in the river.

How could this be? Rwenzoris are famous for being one of the rainiest places in Africa with massive bogs that sustain runoff and large remaining glaciers. Hendri Coetzee, our expedition leader, was unfazed by the trickle in the river. “Don't worry bru,” he assured us. “This is one of the wettest places on earth this time of year, and to go more than a few days without rain would surely be some kind of a record.” The following afternoon a several hour long rainstorm seemed to prove Hendri's point. 

Over the next six days we trekked through a dreamlike landscape of giant plants like Lobelia and Groundsel that, any where else, rarely grow more than knee-high.  Even with hour-long slogs through knee-deep mud, this place was like no other that we had seen. Incredibly, the forest reminiscent of “Alice in Wonderland” continued to well over 14,000 feet, but elevation brought altitude sickness to the majority of our team, probably due to the quick ascent of nearly 12,000 vertical feet from the valley below.

Feeling better than most, Hendri stayed behind with other sickened team members because he had previously summited the peaks, and we only had one pair of suitable glacier footwear for our team.

The Guide to the Summit
On our 5th day in the mountains, I followed our Guide, Hubert, to the crest of the Mountain range at 5,109 meters above sea level. Despite intermittent snow, extremely low visibility, and an equatorial glacier now riddled with many crevasses induced by global warming, Hubert never missed a step in making his 70th ascent of the highest point of Margarita Peak. This is no surprise considering that Hubert is a Bakonso, a tribe that has inhabited these mountains for at least 1000 years.  According to Hubert, the glacier that we ascended has shrunk nearly a thousand vertical feet in the last century, and in the last year alone the glacier has shrunk nearly 2 meters off a ladder that descends a vertical rock face near the summit.

Of course these are not simply just the musings of a local guide, many of the glaciers that were first named by the Italian Duke of Abruzzi and the first climbing party in the Rwenzori's have already melted into history. Despite the doom and gloom forecasts for these glaciers set to expire completely in 10 – 20 years, the Bakonso people are confident that the deep mud and bog will maintain the perpetual flow of water even after the ice is gone. This positive outlook is not surprising from a Bakonso people who have persevered through so many generations of tribal warfare, colonial subjugation, and a civil conflict that closed the Park until little more than a decade ago.

Rain on Rain
On our 5th day, the slog through mud turned into wading. By the end of the day, the non- stop rain made it feel like we were swimming down the trail. We knew there would be water in the main drainage of the Mubuku and we made a 10-hour push to attempt the river. With the major goals of the expedition still to come, and scouting the flooded extremely steep upper portion of the river, it seemed wise to utilize a less hectic, lower put-in. The next day there was a more manageable flow, and ended up being a classic river run, full of big, continuous rapids and amazing jungle scenery. The day ended at a bridge and water diversion for the small community that lives at the base of the mountains.

After drinking (unfiltered and untreated) the extremely clean water of the Rwenzoris throughout our journey, it was surprising to see that communities at the base of the Mountains still struggle to meet their clean water needs. One of the biggest problems that we have seen throughout the trip is the lack of infrastructure for available clean water sources. The Mubuku river is full of drinkable water, but the further the people live from the river, the further they walk and the more time they spend each day filling their water needs. 

Saying our farewell to the incredible Bakonso people and their Mountains of the Moon, we say farewell to Jesse Coombs and Darin McQuoid. Schedule conflicts and security concerns about the Congo leg ahead have them returning to Central Uganda to continue their study and research of the clean water crisis with the previously mentioned Basoga Trust. This should be an extremely insightful time for them, considering that Basoga Trust is already supplying clean water to more than 1 million Ugandans.

Next up, Hendri, Chris and I will connect with the International Rescue Committee in Kigali, Rwanda on route to the Upper Congo basin and the south end of Lake Kivu at Goma, DRC.

–Ben Stookesberry and Chris Korbulic
  Photos by Chris Korbulic

Read previous Kayaking Africa dispatches:
Kayaking Africa: Hippos, Crocs and the LRA

Kayaking Africa: Landing in Kampala, Uganda


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