After devastating floods, mountain guides in western Uganda have begun rebuilding the lost trails, carving 22km of new routes through one of Africa’s most beautiful alpine areas
Even from our 3,000m altitude, the Nyamwamba River in western Uganda cut a stark path through the valleys below. The river meandered and spread as it reached sunbeaten savannah and merged with Lake Dweru, straddling the equator. Clouds rolled in around us, across giant heather trees draped in bearded moss, and the panorama disappeared. Save for the trill of a plump pair of Rwenzori turacos – flashing scarlet, blue and green against the grey sky – there was silence.
We’re here rebuilding for our survival
From our vantage point, it was difficult to imagine the destruction wrought by the Nyamwamba River six months earlier. The once-modest riverbank now stretches more than 100m wide, layered with reflective boulders carried downstream from Uganda’s Unesco-inscribed Rwenzori Mountains National Park.
On the morning of 10 May 2020, mechanical engineer John Tinka, 69, had just opened up his workshop in the nearby copper mining community of Kilembe when he smelt something strange and earthy. Looking outside, he noticed the river water had turned brown, and upstream a distant roar was growing.
“It sounded like bombs going off. Boom! Boom! Boom!” he remembered. Tinka fled to higher ground with his co-workers as a 10m-high tidal wave of water flattened a path through the valley, carrying clashing rocks in its flow – some the size of a football, others bigger than an elephant.
Heavy rains in the days before had brought landslides that, in a freak event, dammed the river upstream. When the water eventually broke through, it tore across Kilembe: dozens of houses, a school, a medical clinic and several bridges were washed away. Eight people died; thousands more were displaced. But the damage didn’t stop there.
In recent decades, as the copper mines fell into disuse, the local community came to depend on tourism for its livelihood. Around 1,000 people are employed as porters and guides throughout the national park, leading hikers though a series of artfully placed trails and camps that wind all the way up the glacial peaks of Mount Stanley at 5,109m – Africa’s third-highest mountain. Many of these trails, too, were taken by the landslides.
“It really was catastrophic,” said John Hunwick, 72, founder of Rwenzori Trekking Services (RTS), which opened a series of trails and camps leading from Kilembe up into the mountains in 2009. “But we had to start doing something.” Mountain guides and porters picked up pangas (a traditional knife similar to a machete) and hoes and began rebuilding the lost trails. Since May, they have carved 22km of new routes, opening up previously inaccessible valleys to hikers
“The work is hard, but everybody’s getting involved,” said Joy Biira, 26, a mountain guide for RTS. “Clearing the trails is really helping the community, it gives us money which supports our families.”
The weather is usually unpredictable up on the mountains, with brilliant sunsets over distant ridges met by a thunderous barrage of raindrops on the steel roof of our bunkhouse at night. But in recent years, climate change has made it even more volatile. The permanently glaciated peaks – so expansive in the 1950s that it was possible to ski on them – are in retreat too. Once thought to be the source of the Nile, these snow-white caps were coined the “Mountains of the Moon” by the ancient astronomer and geographer Ptolemy, but geologists expect they will disappear altogether within the next decade. Uganda faces significant impacts of climate change , with floods and droughts increasingly common.
The recent landslides came as a double whammy to the trekking industry that was already reeling from the spread of coronavirus and the subsequent closure of Uganda’s international airports. Now, as the country opens its borders once again, and with these revitalised trails and camps, Biira is hopeful that tourists will begin to return.
Africa’s botanical big game
The Rwenzori’s snow-capped peaks are the pinnacle of a near 4,000m ascent through a phenomenally diverse wilderness. Setting out from the terraced foothills tended by the Bakonzo people who call the Rwenzori mountains home, we hiked up through tropical hardwood forest and towering bamboos before reaching surreal, boggy Afro-alpine moorlands that were dotted with giant flowering lobelias; aliens in the mist. BBC
“People may have heard about Uganda’s safari parks, but this is Africa’s botanical Big Game,” said Edison Kule, chief guide at RTS. As we ascended, Kule leading the way, co-guide Enock Bwambale stopped frequently to point out medicinal plants: soft pink impatiens flowers that are said to ease delivery during childbirth; and the thick bark of symphonia trees used to treat diarrhoea. “People can live here for a long time without needing to visit the hospital,” he said
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