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How to climb Mgahinga on a budget

I had never heard of Mt. Gahinga until Matt Battani, the secretary of the Mountain Club of Uganda, told me of this marvelous trail. He recommended it as a less technical 6-8 hour day hike that could easily be fitted in over a weekend. This excited me so much because I could take a bus to Kisoro in Uganda’s southwestern highlands on a Friday after work, hike on Saturday and return to Kampala on Sunday.

At first I thought about hiking Mt. Gahinga on my own, hiring one or two Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) guides since the mountain is part of a national park. But that did not look like the exciting weekend hike I wanted. What about going with friends, and mountain club members, I thought?

Off to the gorilla highlands

The climbing team with Uganda Wildlife Authority rangers at Mt. Mgahinga National Park headquarters before the hike
The climbing team with Uganda Wildlife Authority rangers at Mt. Mgahinga National Park headquarters before the hike

It was a Friday afternoon when five of us were in a hired van heading off into the southern highlands. I didn’t have to take a bus alone. As a group, I hired the van that I shared with two lovely American ladies Pam and Kate, and amazing brothers Andrew and Richard. And they guys did the honors to drive. We set off from Kampala at 3pm weaving through the chaotic Kampala end-of-week traffic with cars crawling along in the hot afternoon. Two hours later we were out of the city and we began enjoying the relaxing drive through the plains and rolling hilling on our way to Kisoro.

Pam and Kate had carried along enough food to feed us all. We had chicken, salami, cheese, bread, chapatis and Crisps. Andrew brought along some Juice and alcohol one could easily think we were headed out for a feast rather than a hike. The journey took us a lengthy ten hours prompting us to fall asleep in the vehicle, we got to Kisoro town at about 2.30am, rung our UWA guide Zachariah(a lovely gentleman who was recommended to us by Matt). He was kind enough to ride his bike in the cold as he guided us towards the park entrance.

Andrew and I were struggling to set up the tent and catch some sleep. Pam and Kate were luckier as they opted to sleep at the Cabin lodges.  I usually prefer camping and sleeping in tents but the idea of setting up a massive tent at 3am in the brutal cold in Kisoro was not such an appealing idea. Richard opted to sleep in the car, but helped us pitch our tent and we all went to sleep.I felt my head had hardly touched the pillow and it was suddenly 7am and we were up.

Hiking with gorillas and golden monkeys

I headed out to the communal bathroom to have a shower, an act I greatly regretted in all the ten minutes I was in there! The water was extremely cold that I almost thought I would die from hypothermia while showering. However, after dressing I was glad I had the shower as it played a great role in waking me up and getting me both mentally and physically prepared for the hike.

After posing for a lovely group photo, our trek begun. Our team of 5 plus Zachariah had been joined by another guide, Ambrose. As we climbed, we could see the Mountain Gorillas in a nearby bush shaking leaves as they ate them for breakfast, Golden monkeys jumping from one tree to another, Astonishing views of Mount Sabinyo and Mount Muhavura from a distance that made me eager to return to Kisoro at a later date to hike them as well.

We encountered different types of vegetation with every ascent we made towards the summit of Muhavura. The bamboo trees were my favorite part of the hike. A set of tall, slender trees lined up against each other with hundreds of bird nests resting high up in the branches undisturbed. The trees provided a cool shade that made walking underneath them very mentally & physically relaxing.We occasionallyhalted at resting points for refreshments and to take memorable pictures.

The trek was quite easy in the start as the ground was quite level.However I started to feel a bit nauseousand dizzy as we began ascending towards the peak. I regretted the fact that I had not swallowed my Acetazolamide tablets to help with the altitude sickness.By slowing down and drinking plenty of water each time I felt nauseous, I was able to control it.

Pam was way ahead of usand at 62 years of age, I greatly admired her zeal and energy.She was as fit as a fiddle and she didn’t seem exhausted as she ascended the mountain like a true warrior until reaching the peak. She greatly inspired me and I am working hard to ensure I am as physically fit as Pam is when I get to her age.

Summit sandwich between three countries

Lorna Paska and Pam at the summit of Mt. Mgahinga in Uganda. #KweziOutdoors
Lorna and Pam at the Mt. Mgahinga Summit

The view at the top was eye-catching and I took off my Ugandan flag and proudly raised it in the air.Pam, Zachariah and I took amazing photos at the top as we waited for the rest of the group to join us.The peak of Gahinga is the central location of all the borders of Rwanda, Congo and Uganda. Thatexplained the various “Welcome to Congo” and “Welcome to Rwanda” texts I received from Tigo and Airtel telecommunication providers on my phone! It was a bit confusing as we were in three different countries at the same time – even the time zone had changed as we had adopted the Rwandan time zone that is an hour behind Uganda’s.

The rest of the group arrived and we all settled down for delicious chicken sandwiches, cheese and salami, some fruit and juices. I usually avoid eating a lot during a hike so I opted for smaller food portions. We rested a bit, took some more photos and then began the descent. The hike downwards was much easier than the ascent and I admired how fast and comfortably Zachariah ran down the ladders. I felt jealous and secretly wished to get as fit and as steady on my feet as he was. I always feel a need to be extra careful while descending a mountain as the gravitational force seems stronger hence easier to slide and fall.

Over buffalo dung and back to base camp

There was plenty of fresh buffalo dung along the trails which meant a heard of buffaloes had just walked passed the trail. This prompted Zachariah and I to wait for the rest of the group that were lagging behind for safety purposes. Ambrose had a gun with him which would come handy in casewe needed it.  Zachariah and I sat under the shade of the bamboo trees, watching music videos on my phone, laughing, dancing, singing and just being silly till the rest caught up with us after an hour.

There was a bit of a downpour as we walked towards the camping site, resulting in a beautiful rainbow arcing across the sky in the distance. Too good a photo opportunity to miss, so we stood and posed for more photographs and walked back to base. It felt good taking off my shoes after an 11-hour hike.I opted for a hot relaxing shower and relaxed with a glass of vodka. I scrolled through the pictures on my phone and sent them to my friends to intentionally make them jealous and to obviously market the beauty of Uganda.

The night was extremely cold but we managed to get some good sleep, woke up to an early start and drove back to Kampala.

I am glad to have added Mount Gahinga off my hiking conquest list and I am eagerly waiting to go back and hike Mount Sabinyo and Mount Muhavura to successfully complete the peaks that make up the Virunga Mountains.

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