I was shocked and deeply shaken when my pal Mick handed me a London newspaper with a terrifying front page story about wanton bloodshed in Uganda. The timing and the news could not have been much worse for me. It was January 23, 1984, the day before I was scheduled to fly from London to Nairobi, Kenya, on my way to Uganda to hike the spectacular but notoriously difficult circuit trek of the legendary Rwenzori Mountains, better known as the Mountains of the Moon. Life and security in Uganda had been very shaky for quite a while and, if anything, it got even worse when the infamous tyrant Idi Amin was driven out of the country in 1979. Amin was replaced as president by the equally corrupt and bloodthirsty Milton Obote, but the National Resistance Army (NRA), led by Yoweri Museveni, challenged the very dodgy election results and a brutal civil war broke out. The International Committee of the Red Cross concluded that Obote’s soldiers murdered more than 300,000 civilians during the war. The NRA rebels were equally ruthless, mercilessly killing civilians and relying heavily on child soldiers.
Obviously, Uganda in 1984 was a very dangerous and unstable country and things were only getting worse. I had a lot to think about.
Prominent non-governmental organizations (NGOs) had refused to send their workers to the turbulent and corrupt country for years because they believed it was irresponsible to risk the lives of their employees. Ugandan government officials were meeting with NGO leaders in Paris that week, trying to persuade them that it was now safe enough to return.
The NRA had a deadly response, as the British newspaper story reported in grim detail. Rebel soldiers stopped taxis carrying white tourists coming from Entebbe Airport to the Ugandan capital, Kampala, pulled the western travellers out of the cabs and coldly executed them with a point blank bullet to the head. That ended any hope of the NGOs returning to Uganda anytime soon and cast a huge shadow over my planned trek. I desperately wanted to go on my long planned adventure but I needed to approach my decision rationally.
I first caught a glimpse of the mysterious Rwenzori Mountains on the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1982 (pictured above). I had been lounging on the Congo side of beautiful Lake Edward, also once known as Lake Idi Amin Dada, wading carefully into the water, while keenly watching many hippos splashing about further out, knowing they kill more people than any other animal in Africa. I came out of the water and asked the driver of the overlander truck I was temporarily travelling with through the wild eastern Congo about what appeared to be a major mountain range with snowcapped peaks emerging through the clouds beyond the extraordinarily beautiful fishing village of Ishango and the lake. He told me it was the Rwenzoris, the highest mountain range in Africa, featuring the third, fourth and fifth highest peaks on the continent, and noted that most people called them the Mountains of the Moon.
I am a geography nut, but I confess that I had never heard of the Rwenzoris before. Now I consider trekking the week-long circuit hike in those mountains as the most adventurous experience of my life. I was very impressed by those mysterious mountains, but although I had done my share of very rough travelling to dicey places, I had never tried serious trekking, so I added it to my to-do list but made no concrete plans to go there.
A year later I was hanging out with my buddy Mick, in his London flat, when the Rwenzori Mountains came up again. I met Mick a few weeks earlier in Kenya on a journey to Lake Turkana, which was teeming with giant, 13-foot long Nile crocodiles. I spent a handful of days with Mick in London, mostly pub crawling and attending English football matches. One night he said he wanted to show me a chapter in the Bradt trekking guide to Africa and read out a few amazing passages about the circuit hike of the Rwenzori Mountains. I was totally blown away. It sounded like a crazy and magnificent backpacker’s dream to me. I was enthralled by the remoteness of the mountains, the utter wildness of the trails, and by the tales of otherworldly gigantism in the vegetation there, where ordinarily common knee-high plants towered over trekkers to heights of up to ten metres. The clincher was the giant bogs trekkers had to cross in nearly waist-deep mud. It sounded like a lost magic kingdom out of a Hollywood movie like King Kong.
My reaction was immediate. “Holy shit, we’ve got to do this.”
The Rwenzori Mountains sounded like a very isolated and enchanted place with freakish vegetation, spectacular views, plus beautiful snow-capped mountain peaks only about 20 kms from the equator. And those hellacious and unavoidable bogs. Not to mention one of the highest levels of rainfall in the world. We read about how the porters carry pangas (machetes) to chop their way through the undergrowth, and about the chimpanzees, leopards, forest elephants, hyraxes, blue monkeys, chameleons, bushbuck, giant forest hogs, and black and white colobus monkeys that were found there and immediately started making plans for the journey.
It sounded great until the slaughter of western travellers going on in Uganda caused me to reconsider my plans to fly there in a few days. My standard of accepting a reasonable amount of risk while travelling did not include the execution of random white tourists. Mick was still keen on doing the trek, but I already knew he couldn’t manage it until the following year, so I was flying solo. I went out to a pub that night with Mick and some of his mates and there was lots of gallows humour about my imminent demise. They had me laughing out loud with jokes about this being my last supper, etc., but inside I was scared stiff. I was definitely getting on the plane to Nairobi in the morning, but far from sure I would continue on to Uganda a few days later.
When I arrived in Nairobi I thought the whole thing through very carefully. If I flew straight to Uganda’s Entebbe Airport in the morning and stayed inside the terminal building until I could board my afternoon flight on to the relatively quiet town of Kasese in the southwest of the country, about 25 kms from the start of the circuit hike of the Rwenzori Mountains, I would almost surely get there safely. I figured if I went directly by cab to the Hotel Margherita, made my trekking arrangements, did the week-long walk, and flew back the same way when it was over, and avoided all of the many danger zones, especially Kampala, I was unlikely to encounter real trouble. Of course the white tourists who were pulled from their taxis and coldly executed on the busiest highway in the country likely thought they would be safe too. The cold slaughter of those innocent tourists was probably just a successful one-off to scare off the NGOs, or so I hoped. It should have scared me off too, but I had planned the trip for a year, trained long and hard for it, day-dreamed about it, read everything I could find about it and was very, very reluctant to give up on it or postpone it. Too reluctant. In retrospect it’s probably the most dangerous and reckless thing I have ever done. I was just a little too confident that I could handle whatever came my way. I was still quite apprehensive, of course, because even solid plans have a way of going astray in places like Uganda, especially when the country is in the midst of a horrific civil war.
A few days later, January 29, 1984, I left Nairobi and flew to Entebbe Airport. Walking on the tarmac I could clearly see the many bullet holes on the outer walls of airport buildings from the famous Israeli hostage rescue in July, 1976. The Israeli soldiers landed near midnight, got into a firefight with the hostage takers and Ugandan troops, rescuing almost all the hostages and killing all the hostage takers and more than 30 Ugandan soldiers. A few of the Israeli hostages and soldiers were killed as well, including the older brother of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. With thoughts of that famous battle still fresh in my mind I grabbed my things and went to get my passport stamped, and another battle ensued.
The Ugandan officials immediately insisted my papers were deficient because an important stamp was missing. From past experience, especially in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), I was very familiar with this missing stamp trick and insisted my papers were in perfect order, which they were, and that there was no such stamp. The officials replied that I would be allowed to enter Uganda, but only if I paid a significant fine. The game was on. They insisted. I refused. They mentioned a somewhat smaller ‘fine.’ I refused again and continued to argue that my papers were in order. This may sound like a terrifying experience, but it really wasn’t.
I had played this game before in the DRC. We were bargaining and it was just a matter of time until we settled. They knew it. I knew it. And they knew I knew it. It was a test of wills and patience. The key was to remain firm, but calm, and get the ‘fine’ down to a reasonable level. Finally, I got out my wallet, checked my paper money and offered them a British five-pound note. They accepted it, stamped my passport and welcomed me to Uganda. I knew by then that the reason for the harassment was that many government officials were poorly paid when they were paid at all, so I didn’t hold it against them in any way. They were doing what they had to do to get by and I didn’t mind sacrificing a few quid to help them. The original demand of US $100 was out of the question, however. Of course, if it was $100 or nothing, I might have caved.
I was the only westerner on the flight to Entebbe and by the time I got into the main part of the airport it was like a ghost town. My flight to Kasese wasn’t scheduled to leave until four p.m. and it was around noon. Nothing in the airport was open and I could not locate a single person. Finally, I found what I believed to be the place to check in, but there was no one there. I began to wonder what would happen if no one showed up. Would I have to sleep in the airport? I definitely was not taking a taxi to Kampala. 3 p.m. came and there were still no signs of any passengers or flight officials and I walked through the airport without encountering a soul.
Finally, at about 3:15 passengers and airport officials began arriving in large numbers and I was able to board the plane and fly to Kasese’s very modest airport. I took a cab to the Hotel Margherita, which was about 30 years old, over-priced and had seen much, much better days during colonial times I am sure, but it still had clean beds, a bar and a restaurant. Most importantly, I felt safe there.
The only problem at the hotel was an obnoxious American who kept bragging about his country’s greatness and military might over a few glasses of beer. It was like listening to Donald Trump. I mockingly congratulated him on the US army’s courageous invasion of mighty Grenada three months earlier. He was immensely pissed him off, but I just laughed at him. Happily, the local people were very friendly, and a hotel worker said he would drive me the next day without charge to the village of Nyakalengija about 25 kms to the northwest, where treks in the Rwenzori Mountains were arranged through John Matte, the long-time head of the Mountain Club of Uganda. I had read so much about John Matte while preparing for the trek that I looked forward to meeting him. He was like the pope of the Rwenzoris.
The adventure was about to begin.
Rwenzori photo by McBain