Today we took a stroll with Jay’s family through Nairobi City Park and watched the monkeys play in the trees. We walked home through a fruit and vegetable market with avocados the size of cantaloupes for USD 0.20 cents.
We also celebrated Jay’s brother, Josh’s, 32nd birthday a day early with some cake from a local bakery and a delicious Ethiopian dinner. Anne Elise, Jay’s cousin, left for the airport after dinner and Jay and I leave tomorrow morning for Zanzibar. Jay’s parents and brother leave tomorrow evening to go back to the states. We were happy to have some familiar faces on our journey and were sad to see them go.
Jay’s family arrived in Nairobi today. We were very excited to have some family here for some extra company and people to hang out with. The safari was also one of the first things we planned for our three month adventure, so we were eagerly anticipating this part of the trip.
Jay’s parents, Dan and Molly, and brother, Josh, were staying at the same Kenya Comfort Hotel as we were. We met them in the morning, and they got settled. Then we headed out to the Nairobi National Museum and Snake Park.
Jay’s cousin, Anne Elise, arrived later that night. However, it took a little finagling with the tour company driver via Jay to get her from the airport to the hotel.
Nairobi, Kenya – July 29th
We had another day in Nairobi before the safari began, so we took advantage and saw the sites in Nairobi. Jay’s family went to do the Elephant Orphanage and Giraffe Park today. Since Jay and I had already seen these sites a couple days before, we went on a nature hike on the Oloohua Nature trail. It was also a primate research center, so we had hoped to see some primates, but no such luck. We did see a small deer called a dic dic. Otherwise, the nature trail consisted of a man made waterfall, a cave, and a swamp. It was a nice trial, but after being in the Rwenzoris for 8 days, it seemed less impressive. I have to admit, it was nice to be out of the busy city. We basically had the trail to ourselves.
After our hike, we decided to see the Karen Blixen Museum which was a short walk up the road from the place we were hiking. Karen Blixen is a famous Dutch author whose most famous work is Out of Africa. The museum is her house which was preserved as she lived in it. Although I’d never read the book, or even heard of it, the number of streets, schools, and buildings named Karen in this area tell you that she is a big deal here. Out of Africa has been added to our list of books we need to read.
Depart for safari from Nairobi, Kenya – July 30th
Today, we left on our safari. If anyone has ever been on a safari, you know they can be quite expensive. So when we found one for a reasonable price online, we jumped at the opportunity. This particular safari had you sleep in tents rather than staying at lodges, so we figured this was the reason for the cheaper price. Soon after meeting our tour guide, Moffat, we discovered a couple of other ways money was saved on our budget safari. Instead of small land cruiser cars which are common safari vehicles, we piled 15 people into a large converted bus called Simba and took off to our first destination. We were also required to help cook and clean which turned out to be kind of fun. We helped our cook, Eunice, with the chopping and she taught us how to make some traditional African dishes.
Our first day on safari was a commute to our first site called Masai Mara National Reserve. The Masai people are a tribe that used to live in the park, but were relocated outside of the park when it became a national reserve. It was the first of many long drives in Simba, but was broken up by a lovely stop at an overlook of the Great Rift Valley.
We eventually arrived at our first camp site location. After setting up our tents, we were greeted by a person from a nearby Masai village who was going to take us on a tour. There are a total of 42 tribes in Kenya, the Masai tribe being one of them. The Masai people are known for being tall and thin and wearing colorful red, orange, and yellow cloaks which help to scare off lions and other predators.
We walked a short distance to the village and then were shown some traditional dances done by the Masai men consisting mostly of rhythmic chanting, grunting, and jumping. Then, they included our men in a jumping contest. The highest jumper wins the best wife, so the Masai men practice jumping every day. Next we entered the village and joined in with the traditional songs and dances of the Masai women.
We were also allowed to go into one of their houses. We followed a young gentleman dressed in bright clothes to his mother’s house, and he showed us inside. Their houses are made of cow dung and our host continually patted the wall and said it was very strong material. It didn’t seem to have a smell that I could tell. They also used special olive wood and sandpaper trees in the construction of the houses which helped repel mosquitos.
We asked the Masai man giving us the tour about his culture. We learned that the Masai people are polygamous. The chief picks each man’s first wife and then the men are able to pick their own wives after that. Each wife gets their own house and the wives actually build the houses. In the houses, there is one place for the father to sleep, one place for the mother to sleep, a small space for the kids to sleep, and another small room to keep an animal such as a cow or goat. The middle area is where they cook their meals.
The Masai people revere their animals. They keep large herds, sometimes in the hundreds, of cows, goats, and sheep. When they need food to eat, the chief will chose an animal and that one will be killed and fed to the community. The Masai people are no longer allowed to kill wild animals.
In the past, Masai men would go out in the bush at 15 years old. They would not return until they were 25 years old and they would have to kill a lion before they returned. It is now not allowed for the Masai to kill lions, but the men can still choose to go out into the bush if they do not wish to go to school. When the men return from the bush, they are ready to be married and the chief will select their first wife. While men usually marry at 25 yo, women marry at 18 yo.
After visiting the houses, they showed us how they made fire by rubbing sticks together, and then took us to their “gift shop” where they sold Masai beads and wood carvings. Then we headed back to the campsite. That night, it poured rain which would prove to be challenging for our vehicle Simba the next day.
Masai Mara National Reserve – July 31st
Today was the first actual day of safari. We woke up early, ate some breakfast made by Eunice, and packed a lunch. Then we all loaded up into Simba and headed out on the drive to Masai Mara. The rain from the night before left the dirt roads quite muddy. Our driver, Steve, was taking the side roads because they were less bumpy than the main roads and that made it easier on Simba. However, when we got to a spot where we had to get back onto the main road, Steve turned the wheel and we slid backward into the mud. When we tried to get our again, the wheels spun deeper into the mud. We were stuck. After several unsuccessful tries, we all got out of Simba and started throwing rocks under the wheels to try to create a path for some traction. Some Masai men also came by to help get us out. They all carry machetes and were going and cutting branches to stick under the wheels. The Masai women came and tried to sell us bracelets. This didn’t help us get out of the mud, but it was entertaining to see these women pulling the jewelry off their own bodies to try to sell to us.
After about a hour and a half of trying to get out of the mud, we were still stuck. So Steve, our driver, hopped on the back of a passing motorcycle to head into town and get some help. He returned a short time later with a tractor and we were free!
Then we headed into the game park. We saw so many animals immediately – huge herds of zebras and wilderbeasts were speckled across the countryside. All of these animals had migrated here from the Serengeti to mate and would be heading back in about 4 months. We also saw giraffes, families of elephants, and water buffalos.
The big cats were what we were on the hunt for though. We got a tip from another car that there was a male and a female lion in some bushes, so we headed over. We were able to see them, but they were pretty obscured.
Next we started heading over to look at a family of elephants, when someone on the bus spotted a leopard in a tree. Steve turned Simba around and we darted to the tree. Unfortunately, Simba is not the quietest of vehicles, and it scared the leopard away before we all got to see the leopard.
The five brothers, which is a famous band of cheetah brothers in the park, were much more relaxed about Simba being around. They have been in the park for 10 years and always hunt together. You can imagine 5 cheetahs is much better than 1 at getting a wilderbeast for a meal. We drove up and they didn’t even flinch. They even walked up to some other jeeps near us and rubbed on the cars. It was amazing to get to see them so up close.
The final cat we saw was a male lion. It was sitting behind a bush on our way out. We “snuck up” on it, as much as a large noisy bus can. It got spooked and moved back behind another bush. But our driver Steve was persistent. We circled it in Simba until we got a good look. I honestly felt bad that we were disturbing the lion so much, but we did get a good look and some good pictures.
Right before we left the park, we did have one scary moment where we almost got stuck in the mud again, but Steve held steady and we made it out. It would not have been as fun to get out of the bus to help when lions, elephants, wilderbeasts, and who knows what else were right down the road.
We headed back to camp and Eunice had dinner ready for us. It was raining again by this time, so we huddled around a small table in the camping reception area and then headed to our tents for bed.
Drive from Masai Mara to Lake Nakuru – August 1st
Today was another commute day. It was raining again, but we packed up our tents and got back on Simba to head to our next safari spot. Moffat, our guide, assured us that Steve would stay on the main roads so we didn’t get stuck in the mud again. We arrived at our campsite, reset up our tents and helped Eunice cook some dinner.
Nakuru National Park – August 2nd
Today was our game drive in Nakuru National Park. We were very lucky because we saw a lot of animals. It started out with baboons and impalas. We wound up the mountain in Simba to the highest point in the park which overlooked Nakuru Lake. Here, there were many more baboons and we were able to get out of the vehicle and walk up to them. You just couldn’t have any food around or they would become aggressive.
There were also some rock hirax (large rat-like animals) that lived right under the ridge. After leaving the high point, we headed around the park and saw some Rothschild giraffes, water buffalo, and black-faced monkeys.
We were very fortunate to see some black rhinos which are very rare. Black rhinos eat the bushes so they’re usually more hidden. Plus, they are very shy and run whenever others get close.
Down by Lake Nakuru, we saw some flamingos. Then we took a turn down a muddy road to see several white rhinos. White rhinos eat the grass so they’re usually found out in the open and are much less skidish than black rhinos.
Unfortunately, the turn down the muddy road proved too muddy on the way out and we got stuck again. The entire tour group rocked back and forth on the bus to help our driver Steve get us out of the mud and it worked! The whole truck erupted in cheers when we finally rolled out of the hole our wheel had fallen into.
After heading back to camp, we were scheduled to go to an orphanage that was adjacent to the campsite we were at. Molly, Jay’s mom, had been planning for this part of the trip for months. She brought soccer balls, bubbles, books, crafts, and all kinds of things to give to the kids. We met with the toddlers first, then we played a soccer game with the older boys. We lost 0-2. Then we met with the older girls. The girls took us to dinner. We ate vegetable stew and chapati with the kids. Then they sang us some songs and we called it a night.
Drive from Lake Nakuru to Kerecho – August 3rd
Today was another commute day from Lake Nakuru to Kerecho. As we drove, we saw the countryside turn more hilly. Here, there were many tea farms. When we arrived at our campsite, which was on a tea farm, we set up our tents and then got a tour from a tea plucker.
Many people in this area are employed as tea pluckers. The company will give you a house, water, and a small stipend to spend on food and other necessities. Then, you pick tea leaves for 6 hours a day, every day except Sunday. The tea pickers are extremely fast and pick between 35 and 60 kilos of tea leaves a day. They also have to be precise because only a branch with two leaves and a bud is good for making tea.
Although some farms do have machines that can pick the leaves more quickly, they are not liked because they take away jobs from people, they are heavy and hurt the plucker’s backs, and they pull all the leaves instead of just the new leaves and buds. Therefore, the time saved on plucking with the machines is lost on sorting the good leaves from the bad. We bought some tea from our guide, thanked her, and then headed back to camp.
Tonight for dinner, our cook, Eunice, taught us how to make traditional African chapati and ugali. Although I really liked the chapati which is basically fried flat bread, the ugali is a corn mash without much flavor. We ate with our hands that night and had an authentic African meal with beef stew and cooked greens. The ugali and chapati are traditionally used to scoop up the stew and greens in place of utensils.
Drive from Kerecho to Lake Victoria – August 4th
Today was another commute day from Kerecho to Lake Victoria. It was also our last day in Kenya. We left the Great Rift Valley and headed to a town called Kissii. We left behind the tea farms which were replaced with fields of banana trees and sugar cane. They also have a lot of soil rich in iron which makes it red. You can see red bricks being made and fired on the side of the road.
While the smell of the bricks being fired was present, we started to notice a different smell like burning rubber. We pulled over to the side of the road a short time later and started seeing smoke from the right side of the truck. Steve got out and started to inspect what was going on. It appeared our breaks were on fire.
So, Steve put on his mechanic jumper and got ready to take off the tire to inspect the breaks. He poured water on the breaks for awhile until they cooled off. Then we replaced the tire and were on our way like nothing happened. I did find out later that Steve made some adjustments to the break pads, but it was a little unsettling that the breaks were on fire and we were still riding in the bus. I guess that’s how they do it in Africa. I have been very impressed with the ingenuity and outside of the box problem-solving skills the people have here.
A short while later, we reached the border crossing between Kenya and Tanzania. We all filed out of the truck with our passports and yellow immunization cards. We had to first leave Kenya and were filed through a line to do so. Then we had to go to another part of the building so that we could enter Tanzania. Overall, it took less than an hour, but it took a lot longer for Simba to get through. While we waited for the bus to be inspected, Eunice showed us a place to buy some beers.
Then we were off into Tanzania. Along the drive, Moffat showed us a spot which inspired some scenes from The Lion King.
We arrived at Lake Victoria later that afternoon. We camped at the beach at Lake Victoria. It was nice to be on the beach and hear the waves. We couldn’t swim in the water, however, because Moffat said we would get parasites.
Drive from Lake Victoria to Serengeti National Park – August 5th
Today we drove from Lake Victoria to the Serengeti. We were camping deep in the park, so we basically did a game drive on the way to our camping site.
Moffat had warned us the day before not to wear blue because it attracted the tse tse flys. Tse tse fly bites are very painful, and they can cause sleeping sickness, so we didn’t want to get bitten. Steve, our driver, warned us when we got in the tse tse fly zone and almost immediately there were flys swarming everywhere. We would swat them out of the windows and people were using sandals to squish them on the windows. Moffat told us to be careful because the fat ones were full of zebra blood. Sure enough, you would here a splat and blood would be smeared across the windows. It was quite comical to see everyone swatting at flies. I managed to escape without getting bitten, but not everyone was so lucky.
On our game drive, we saw hippos, water buffalo, impalas, warthogs, a hyena, and a jackle.
We stopped for lunch and Eunice made us some special guacamole which was a treat. Almost everywhere in Eastern Africa that we’ve gone, there have been avocado trees and avocados as big as cantaloupes for sale for about 0.20 cents! It’s a hipsters paradise.
We arrived at our campsite which was a grassy area in the park. While our previous camp sites had electric fences surrounding them, this one didn’t have any fence. Moffat warned us not to have any food in our tents because there were hyenas. That night, we watched the sunset on the Serengeti.
After the sun went down, at Molly’s suggestion, we went to the edge of the campsite and shined our flashlight out into the darkness to look for glowing animal eyes. We saw a couple which were just Thompson gazelles upon closer inspection. But we heard the hyenas. Their howls were like sad awkward dog howls most of the time, but they also sometimes sounded like humans laughing which was a strange.
Anne Elise asked Moffat how many times hyenas had come into the camp in the many years the company had been camping at the site. At first he said never. Then he changed his mind and said there was one “incident.” A man had taken “crisps” into his tent at night and he woke up with a hyena pulling on his leg, but was otherwise unharmed. We all managed to make it through the night without any incidents.
Serengeti Park Game Drive – August 6th
Today was our Serengeti game drive. We basically drove out of the park a different way than we came in. We saw a lot of similar animals as the previous days including hippos, a crocodile, and a hyena.
The highlight of the Serengeti was definitely the family of lions we saw. We followed them all the way down the road. There were several adult females and a couple of lion cubs. They came across some Thompson gazelles and started stalking them. They chased them for a little bit, but with 15 cars and a big bus following along, it’s hard to be stealthy, and the gazelles got away.
After leaving the Serengeti, we drove on a very bumpy washer board road to our next site which was Ngorongoro Crater. The Masai people of Tanzania live outside of the crater. They used to live in the crater before it was made into a reserve. The crater used to be full of thick grasslands and the Masai people’s cows would get lost. So, the Masai would put cow bells on their cows so they wouldn’t get lost in the thick brush. Ngorongoro is a Swahili word named from the sound the cow bells made.
Our campsite was at the top of the crater. This was one of my favorite campsites because zebras came roaming through the campground at night. It was quite an experience to look out of your tent or walk to the bathroom next to a zebra.
Ngorongoro Crater Game Drive – August 7th
Today was our game drive in the Ngorongoro Crater. This is a volcanic crater which many animals have made their home. For 9 days now, we have climbed in Simba and endured the bumpy grated and pot hole speckled roads of Africa without any suspension and listened to its loud Diesel engine as we tried to “sneak up” on animals so as not to spook them. But today, we got to trade in Simba for some Land Cruiser jeeps. Simba wasn’t able to make it up and down the steep roads into and out of the crater, so we got an upgrade. We were all very excited to be in the smaller vehicles with the roofs that opened up so you could stand up and look out at the animals without dusty windows obscuring your view.
Our jeeps arrived, albeit a little late, and took us into the crater. It was a great day just because of the jeeps. We saw the typical animals that we had seen before – lions, hyenas, water buffalo, jackles, hippos – but today we saw them a little bit closer and without the loud roar of an engine.
After our drive, we headed back out of the crater and met up with Simba again. Then we started the long journey back to Nairobi.
We stopped and got some red bananas along the side of the road which coincidentally taste exactly like yellow bananas, but it was still a novelty.
We also saw the house of a Masai King who had 20 wives along the side of the road. We stopped and took some pictures of a baobob tree. Then we headed to our campsite for the night.
Drive back to Nairobi, Kenya – August 8th
Today we finished the safari and drove back to Nairobi. Some of the people were continuing on with the safari to Zanzibar so our bus was a lot more spacious on the way back.
We saw Kilimanjaro out the window as we drove by. It was not the majestic mountain I thought it would be. It’s actually quite flat on top. But it’s still a huge mountain none the less.
Then we crossed back across the border to Kenya and headed back to where we started. The safari was over and no matter how much I disliked riding in Simba every day on the safari, it was a little sad to get off the bus one last time.
We Ubered to a very nice Air B&B that Jay’s parents found for us. We cooked a spaghetti dinner and reminisced about the trip.
Overall, We had a great time on the safari. It was cool to go to the different campsites every night and see animals that we’ve only ever seen in zoos or on tv. However, it was lacking in several key areas. First of all, Simba was not the best vehicle to take on the roads in Kenya/Tanzania. After hours on washer board roads, you start to get rattled. Our tour guide also was not too knowledgeable when we asked questions. But we saw the Big 5 (lions, leopards, water buffalo, rhinos, and elephants) and so many more animals and had a great time with Jay’s family.
Today we took it fairly easy. We took a stroll through some parks in the morning. Then, we caught an Uber over to an elephant orphanage. The orphanage was only open to the public for 1 hour a day between 11:00 am and 12:00 pm. We arrived at around 10:00 am and waited for the gates to be opened.
Once inside, everyone gathered around a roped off dirt area. Then, 7 young elephants came running in. We got to watch them drink their bottles and play in the dirt.
Next they brought out an older group of 7 more elephants, still all less than 4 years of age. The handlers answered questions from the audience and educated us about how each elephant was orphaned and how they are cared for and reintroduced back into the wild.
The facility is truly focused on conservation. There are no fancy gimmicks to try to get more money. It’s just education about conservation and the chance to get to see the baby elephants play.
Next we headed to the Giraffe conservation area which was about an 8 km drive away. Here we were handed a small packet of pellets to feed the giraffes. Then we walked up into a raised balcony area, and the giraffes came to eat the pellets out of your hand. We fed two giraffes. One was a male named Edd who was 8 years old and the other was a female named Kelly who was 18.7 years old. Edd was much bigger than Kelly, but Kelly was known to have somewhat of a temper and would head-butt you if she got irritated.
We learned that these were Rothschild or Nubian Giraffes and there are only about 400 of them left in Kenya.
After seeing the giraffes, we Ubered back to our hotel and then went out to run some errands – exchange money and get groceries. Then we relaxed in the hotel until dinner. Tomorrow, Jay’s family arrives and we head out on our safari.
We were flying out of Uganda to Nairobi the next morning. Our plane left at 10:50 am. Jay got a text from a woman named Remmy who said she was coming to the hotel to give us our full money reimbursement based on orders from her boss, Jon Hunwick. We were shocked. We went to the hotel restaurant to get breakfast, and sure enough, Remmy showed up and gave us all of the money we had lost. She was very apologetic and kind about the whole matter. Once we got our money back, we were grateful and breathed a sigh of relief. We were seriously worried about how we were going to pay for the rest of our trip.
But there was no time to waste because we had to get to the airport. We thanked Remmy and ordered our Uber. Unfortunately, Kampala traffic was pretty bad. Plus, our Uber driver didn’t have any fuel, so we had to stop for him to get money and put gas in his car. After all of this, we were running very late. Just before we arrived at the airport, we had to wait in a long security checkpoint line. We actually had to get out of the car and go through a metal detector while our Uber driver followed behind us. When we arrived at the airport, we had 10 minutes before check-in for our flight was closed. But, the airport was very small – only 4 gates – so we got through immigration and security in a matter of minutes. Our flight also ended up being delayed so we had even more time. We flew to Nairobi on a tiny little prop plane which was interesting. They tried to sell us watches and duty free items while on the flight. We arrived in Kenya at around 1:00 pm and headed to the hotel.
Today we took the bus from Kasese back to Kampala. It was the same link bus that we rode down. Just like before, it was about 8 hours on a hot, crowded bus. When we finally arrived in Kampala, we were so ready to get off the bus. We grabbed our bags and navigated the incredibly crowded streets of Kampala to our hotel. We were pretty exhausted from everything we had just been through, so we grabbed a quick dinner at the hotel restaurant. Then we decided to celebrate with some bakery treats. We found a bakery nearby and bought some cakes to have back at the hotel. The next day we leave Uganda and head to Nairobi, Kenya for our safari.
We still had t heard anything from the Ugandan police about our theft case, but Brian from RTS had given us the WhatsApp number for the owner of the Rwenzori Trekking Company (RTS). His name was Jon Hunwick and he lived in Kampala. Brian said he had been talking with Jon, and we decided it would be a good idea to tell him what happened from our point of view. So during the bus ride, Jay was texting him. At first, he was very apologetic and offered to pay us half of what we lost. We thought this wasn’t 100% right because it was their company that screwed up and now we were essentially taking partial blame for being robbed. When we didn’t whole-heartedly accept Jon’s offer of 50% of our losses, Jon started playing hardball. He accused us of not having any common sense when we left our money-belts at the hostel, told us we were to blame, and said that we are stealing money from the poor Ugandans. When we reminded him that we were the victims in this situation, and it was his employee who broke protocol and did not log and lock our money in the safe, he stopped texting. So we decided we would leave it up to the courts.
We ended up staying in Kasese an extra day because we had to go back to the police station the next day and provide our official statements. The RTS van picked us up a little before 11:00 am and took us back to the police station. We met the Officer in Charge of the Station again who was now in uniform where she had been in plain clothes the day before. She took us to meet the OC CID who was the Officer in Charge of the Criminal Investigation Department. We gave our official statements while the OC CID hand wrote them. Jay gave his first and then I gave my statement as his witness. It took a long time, but finally, we had officially filed our statements. They were hand written, hole-punched, and tied together with a purple piece of yarn and that was the document that was taken to the higher court. We were told that it would take several days to hear back from the courts on whether Jean would be further investigated. At this point, she had been in jail a night, but she still hadn’t confessed. The officers called her a “hard woman” and said that she was not talking. So basically we had to wait and see what the higher court said.
We were so excited to have made it through the 8 day trek and back to the hostel. We were looking forward to taking a shower and putting on some dry clothes. Henry has arranged for Brian, our driver who brought us up to the hostel on the first day, to drive us back down to our hotel in Kasese.
At the hostel, we asked for the bag we had locked away for safe keeping at the beginning of the trek. This included our money belts and some extra clothes and camping stuff. Jay grabbed the white plastic trash bag that we had stuffed everything into from the “massage room” we had locked it in earlier at the advice of Jean, the accountant / receptionist. Before the trek, we told Jean that we had valuables including money and passports that we needed to lock up in a safe place. Jay had also talked to the company via email before we left the country to ensure we would have a safe place to leave our things, and they said they keep people’s valuables all the time while they’re in the mountains. Jean told us, yes of course, let’s lock up the bag in our massage room and Jay carried the bag in there and watched her lock it up.
Once Jay got our bag back from the massage room, he started going through it. Like he always does, the first thing he did was check the money in his money belt. He was shocked to find that it was all gone! As I was repacking all my stuff, I heard Jay say, “We’ve got a big problem here. All my money is gone.” I asked him if he was joking. He was not, so I quickly looked in my money belt. All my money except a couple Ugandan bills was gone as well.
We called over Henry and told him what happened. He went and got Jean. Jean had a strange reaction. All she said over and over very quietly was, “Who could have done this, who could have done this?” But then she never did anything to follow up. When Jean failed to act, we went and told Brian. Both Brian and Jay confronted Jean because she was the one responsible for our valuables. She denied taking it or knowing anyone who did. But Jean was the only one with a key to the massage room.
We then found out that there is a safe where money is supposed to be counted, logged, and locked away per protocol. We told Jean in the beginning that we had money, and she failed to follow protocol and log our money and lock it in the safe. This was very suspicious to us as well. Especially because she knew our money belts were in the plastic bag. When I rented boots from her, she saw me take my money belt out of the plastic bag and get the money to pay for the boot rental.
At this point, we decided we needed to call the police. We had almost $2000 stolen which was not ok. We were driven down to the police station and filed a complaint.
The officers immediately got back in the van with us (they don’t have their own police vehicles), and we headed back to the hostel to confront Jean. It was actually kind of funny because all of the officers got really excited to get to do an interrogation. They piled into the van with their rifles. The Officer in Charge of the Station (OC), a plain-clothed woman, had to tell all the of excited officers to leave their rifles. So, about 3 officers had to file out of the van again to put away their weapons.
Then we headed back to the hostel. The officers interrogated Jean and did a thorough search of the premises. At one point, Jay saw the officers talking to Henry and said, “oh good, they’ve got Henry vouching for us now.” Then the officers brought Henry up to us and started to question why Henry had US dollars. We had given him a tip from the money Jay had kept in his wallet. So, we quickly cleared Henry’s name and he was able to go.
After what seemed like forever (probably about an hour and a half) the officers had concluded their interrogation and search. They didn’t find the money, but they did end up arresting Jean. It was a little awkward because we had to ride down in the van with her and the officers. Once we dropped off the officers and Jean at the police station, we were asked to return the next day to provide our official statements. So the Rwenzori Trekking Services (RTS) van took us back to the hotel and told us they would pick us up the next morning to go back to the police station.
Everyone was in disbelief that this had happened. Nothing like this had ever happened before, and we could tell that Brian, RTS, and even the police officers were shaken up by the event because it hurts the company, it hurts tourism, and it hurts the country. We were also disappointed that it had happened to us, but we were impressed by how seriously the police and RTS took the issue.
Day 8 was the last day of the trek. It was primarily supposed to be descending with some “gentle rolling hills” in the middle. We left at around 8:30 am and it was supposed to be about a 6 hour hike out.
This hike was definitely easier than the day before, but it was still difficult. There was more than 2000 m of steep descent which reeked havoc on our knees.
We took a quick detour over to a couple of waterfalls, one right next to the camp, and the other a little further down called Cathy Falls which was named after Jon Hunwick’s (the owner and founder of the Rwenzori Trekking Company) wife.
Then there was about 600 m of climbing split into 2 very steep sections in the middle. We wore our gum boots the whole way and they rubbed the bottom of our feet and smashed our toes. I had blisters and swollen feet the next day and Jay had blackened and bloody toes.
But with all my experience from the day before, I was getting better at navigating the mud. And my boots weren’t getting stuck as much. I still did some dancing when I slipped on the trail, but it was much better than yesterday. I could tell which logs to step on, and which ones were more slippery. I was also able to descend the steep inclines without crawling on my butt. I retired my trusty walking stick that Henry had gotten for me and used an actual trekking poll that Jerome, one of the executive porters, so kindly gave to me to use.
We were so excited to see the metal bridge we had passed on the first day and were told that would be the way we would be returning.
After the metal bridge it was another 20 minutes to the rangers station on flat ground. Once we reached the rangers station, all the porters were waiting there with our bags. And we all walked out the 3.2 km back to the hostel where we started.
Overall, the trek was extremely challenging. The level of physical and technical skill it required to ascend and descent the mountain was very high and everyone in the group thought so. The Germans had done many mountaineering treks and by the end, Klous was limping along and Marina was done. Thomas has also done many difficult treks in his days and said that he had never done one this difficult. The mud, the snow, the ice, the rain, the steepness, the crampons, the ropes, the ascenders – every day presented a new challenge, but we made it through together.
I’d have to say the trek was as much of a mental challenge as a physical challenge as well. By day 3, you are exhausted and haven’t even reached the halfway point yet. Navigating the mud and terrain requires that every step be calculated and deliberate which can be exhausting. You are also constantly trying to reconcile the desire to get to the top with your energy level and knowing the next days will require just as much energy. I had to take each day one at a time. By the end of the day, I was sure I couldn’t do anymore, but then I’d wake up after a good rest and feel like I could go again. It was all about believing that you could keep going.
I also have to say that the difficulty of the trek is highly weather dependent. If it snows on the peak, the difficulty level skyrockets. If it rains and creates mud and the rivers swell, the difficulty level again skyrockets. We had beautiful weather the first 5 days and were very lucky. However, the 6th and 7th day, the snow and the rain took a toll. It seems like you could start the trek a different day and have a completely different experience.
I was proud to be able to complete what I did on the trek. I know Jay was sick a lot of the time, but I think he really enjoyed the challenge. It is an experience we’ll be talking about for a long time to come.
Day 7 had a reputation of being brutal. Not only was it 16 km of hiking, which is more than double what we had done previous day, but there was about 500 m of climbing and about 1500 m of steep slick descent. We started our day at around 9:00 am in our gum boots as usual. It had rained the night before. We heard the thunderous roar of the storm overnight which rattled the huts as it rolled in. It was still drizzling that morning and we knew we were in for a muddy day.
I still had my mud boots that were just a little bit too big, even with Sam’s extra soles. This resulted in a rough start to my morning. I kept getting stuck in the deep mud and Jay would have to help me pry my boot out as I used all my might to pull myself up. It took so much more effort to pull my boots out of the mud and it was exhausting. I also kept falling down and by about an hour into the hike, I was already wet and covered in mud.
Sam suggested that Jay walk behind me so that I could set a little bit slower pace. So I walked directly behind Henry. I watched his every step and put my feet exactly where he did which helped a lot with me getting stuck in the mud.
After a big climb we were high enough in elevation that we hit snow. There was about 2 inches on snow on the ground when we reached Oliver’s Pass at around 12:30.
After the pass was a very tricky section. It was a steep boulder field covered in snow. For the past week, Henry and Jay has been telling me to “trust the gum boots” on the rocks. However, they were always able to stay upright and I was the one that kept falling over, so I was hesitant to step on the steep slick rocks. I instead proceeded to scoot on my butt down the rocks which felt much safer, but left me with a very wet butt.
After the boulder field, we had finally descended enough to get out of the snow.
But after the snow fall two days ago and the enormous amount of rain last night and today, the rivers had swelled and were raging. Of course we had to cross these rivers several times to get down the mountain. On one river crossing, I slipped and went for a little swim in the river. Fun Fact: the Rwenzori Mountains are the source of the Nile River. Now at least I can say I’ve been swimming in the rivers that feed the Nile.
After I fell in the river, Henry and Jay were extra careful about me crossing the river. Henry showed me every rock to step on and held my hand across.
As we trudged through the mud, water, and boulders, I joked with Jay that I was like a horse on roller skates. I just couldn’t seem to stay upright. It was a long day for us, but we finally arrived to camp around 6:10 pm.
We faired much better than some others though. Henry told us a story about a client who was in her 60s, coming to the river crossing in the pouring rain at around 11:00 at night with 4 hours of trekking left. So even though we were tired, we had a pretty good day.
Thomas, the South African, faired much worse as well. He had fallen and hurt his back on the snow covered boulder field. He didn’t make it back to camp until 11:00 pm. Porters were going out to bring him warm tea and food just so he could make it in. But in the end, our whole group finished up day 7 which lived up to its brutal name.
The Rwenzori Mountains are known as the “mountains of the moon.” They are called this because during the day, they are completely covered in clouds and you can’t see them. But, at night – early in the morning hours – the clouds clear and reveal the peaks under the moonlight.
At least that’s what is supposed to happen. We had a little bit different experience. We had perfect weather the entire trek – blue skies, sunshine, and when the occasional fog rolled in, it rolled out fairly quickly to reveal blue skies. But remember those clouds with the lightening we saw the night before. Well, they rolled in and stayed all night long. When we woke up the morning of the summit, it was snowing.
I had decided to at least attempt to summit after Sam had repeatedly told me that hundreds of people who have never ice climbed or been above 14000 feet had done it. All I needed was the determination and he could get me to the top. So that convinced me enough to try.
But on summit day, as soon as we started climbing, I noticed how icy the rocks were. I told Jay that I wasn’t sure it was a good idea for me to do it once we were at about 50 m up from camp. But Henry, our guide, convinced me to keep going. We were climbing icy rocks at steep angles with cliff drop offs all around in the middle of the night. Plus, my headlamp batteries were dying so I had less than ideal lighting. I have climbed mountains, ascended, and repelled before, but the weather added another element to the mix.
Basically, the climb consisted of scrambling up steep icy rocks; two ascents with ropes separated by a traverse on a steep cliff in the middle; more scrambling up icy rocks to the first glacier; two repels on steep icy shoots, and then a climb to the second glacier. The second glacier required that the guides place ice screws to hold the ropes that would allow us to ascend. There were three pitches on the second glacier to ascend. Then there was lots more steep climbing on the glacier and a scramble up the rocks to the Margarita Peak. Piece of cake. Lol.
So we started off. After talking with Jay about my ability to continue the climb, he said that he agreed the conditions were bad, but it was probably more dangerous to try to down climb all of those steep sections right now. He thought if we kept going, by the time the sun came out, it would stop snowing and the rocks would dry up, so we continued.
We ascended the two roped areas separated by the traverse across a cliff. Then we kept climbing up without ropes. I was starting to get exhausted.
We finally reached the first glacier and I was glad because this part was going to be much easier. Here, we could walk with crampons and not worry about slipping and falling. We put on our crampons and we were all tied together with a rope for safety in case someone slipped. We also carried ice axes so that we could self arrest if we did happen to fall, but this area was relatively flat. The first glacier was probably the least scary of all the parts. After the glacier, it was back off with the crampons and back on with the scary icy climbing. At this point, Jay pointed out that there were ice crystals forming on the rocks and metal ladder we just came down denoting even more dangerous conditions. But again, we all agreed that downclimbing the steep icy rocks right now wasn’t safe either. So we continued to wait until sunrise to see if some of the ice melted and the rocks dried off. We didn’t want to stop and wait for fear of getting cold, so we continued on. We completed two more very steep repels and I was getting nervous that I wasn’t going to be able to get back off the mountain if we kept going.
We were about 30 minutes from the second glacier when the sun started to rise. Unfortunately, the snow did not stop with the sunrise. We reached the second glacier which required the guides to place ice screws and ropes to ascend. We once again put on our crampons and got ready to climb with the rope and the ascenders. There were 3 pitches.
After the second pitch, which Henry basically pulled me up because I was tired, one of the other people, Thomas, decided he was going to turn around. At this point, it was still snowing, the sun was up, but clouds prevented any views, and I was still 2 hours from the top. So I decided to turn around too.
The guides were really amazing throughout the whole process, and I know they could have gotten me to the top had I wanted to continue. They do this climb every week for years in all weather conditions and know every inch of the mountain. They tell you where to step if you get stuck. They pull you up the ropes if you get tired. They don’t even use the ropes to ascend and descent. They are able to basically run up and down the steep cliffs we were using ropes to get up and down without a second thought. But, I was done and wanted to go back down. I believe that if the weather conditions were better, I would have been able to summit, but I was happy with reaching how far I did on my first ice climbing adventure.
I was assigned a guide, named Amos, to take me back down the mountain. Amos was awesome. He held my hand in dangerous spots, and was always roped to me in case I slipped. He showed me the best ways to go down steep rocks and where to place my feet. It took 4 hours, but we finally made it back to camp. Amos told me he was about 40 min from the top when Sam called him to come back down and take me back. He showed up by the time I had repelled back down the glacier, so that shows you how fast he was.
Jay continued to the peak with Henry and summited at around 9:30 which was way after sunrise. The weather prevented us from going any faster. The Germans also summited. They saw a really cool ice cave which would have been really neat to see in person, but there was no view from the top due to the clouds.
Jay also saw the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He found it very amusing to say that he had been to DRC.
Jay got back to camp about and hour and a half after I did. He said it got even more difficult later on, and I made the right decision to turn around. Additionally, we had to hike back to Hunwick’s Camp that same day, so I was glad I had saved some energy for that hike.
We left Margarita Camp around 3:30 pm and finally arrived at Hunwick’s camp around 6:30 pm after 3 more hours of hiking. We were exhausted. Jay was actually quite delirious on the walk back to Hunwick’s Camp. He said he felt like he was in a dream like state from exhaustion and sleep deprivation. He was just watching my feet and stepping where I stepped. We had finished the hardest part of the trip, but it wasn’t over yet. We still had two more brutal days of descent back down off the mountain.