Tourism

EU Ambassador on Uganda’s Stunning Diversity, His Conquest of Mt. Rwenzori

Uganda boasts of diversity of attractions ranging from wildlife, treatment http://cuencahighlife.com/wp-content/plugins/jetpack/json-endpoints/class.wpcom-json-api-site-user-endpoint.php geographic features, http://chipinhead.com/wp-content/plugins/jetpack/modules/publicize/enhanced-open-graph.php culture, history, food, birds, and faith based events among others.

The combination of these unique features is why many prefer Uganda as a tour destination. Most remarkable among these is the iconic Mount Rwenzori which stands beyond 4,000 meters above sea level in the Western district of Kasese.

On its apex is Uganda’s highest point (5,000 meters above sea level), Margherita peak which is covered in snow. Positioned a few miles away from the equator, you can only but marvel at the large amount of glacier that covers the mountain. Rwenzori is also known as the mountains of the moon.

Recently, the European Union (EU) Ambassador to Uganda H.E Kristian Schmidt took on a challenge to trek and summit the mountain. ChimpReports spoke to Ambassador Schmidt to understand his experience during this very unique and daring venture and to also pick his thoughts on Uganda’s tourism potential as well as climate change.

What inspired you to trek Mt. Rwenzori?

When I first arrived here in 2013, I went to launch a conservation project on the slopes of Mt. Rwenzori. I ended up going to the interns of the Rwenzori national park and I could feel itchy to get into the park.

So, during one of the media interviews, I was asked whether during my stay in Uganda, I would be spending time playing golf like any other diplomats. But I responded that I would try climbing Mountain Rwenzori. Now, 3 years later, I had to fulfil that personal interest.

Did you trek it alone?

No. It was a team trip with 5 others. It’s tougher going it alone especially given the fact that you will spend a week there, with no access to a phone. You would need someone to sit down and take to in the evenings, someone to encourage you throughout the way.

The whole journey to the top and back takes a full week

The whole journey to the top and back takes a full week

Share with us your experience journeying through the mountains

There’s quite a lot of diversity. You don’t see Mt. Stanley on which the peak is for the first 3 days. You go through mountains and valleys before getting to the summit. It was exhausting waking up at 3 o’clock in the morning.

Breathing was hard. Unlike the Alps (mountain range in UK) where the fauna is the same all through, in Rwenzori you get a new scenery each day. You start in a lush mountain valley with streams, forest cover and cross several rivers before setting at the first camp which is 2,000 meters. The next day you get into a completely different territory as you leave the village behind you.

We climbed through forests with old man’s beard which is a hanging mushroom that creates an atmosphere similar to what you see in fantasy films. On day three, you start to walk in gum boots with different vegetation. Then we got into an area with huge balls of moss clinging on trees giving a very strange feel to the forest.

At 4,000ft, you get amazing views of snows on three summits of mount Stanley, Baker and Speke. This is a major motivating factor because you now begin to see your destination. Little do you know that to get there, you still have to go through hills and valleys.

Then on day 5 you make it to the last camp on day 5 and sleep in 4,500 meters altitude above sea level in a small hut. You still get up at 3am, drink some porridge, put on your helmet, crampons, headlamp and start hiking in the dark.

Not an easy task for people who fear darkness and height. After a couple of hours, you reach the first glacier (Stanley) which is sort of flat. Then four of you attach yourselves on a rope with the tour guide in front and begin to walk through the glacier. Ice hack in one hand and the rope in the other. It is still dark, you are using your headlamp to look over the ice. You wouldn’t think you are in Africa.

An hour later, you leave the vegetation area and get into rocks, slope down and climb again then at dawn, you reach the last glacier (Margherita). Here you still need your crampons because on ice, some of it is soft.

The light is coming out, there’s fog, the sun is coming out along with winds and you can’t see beyond 200 meters. It’s really tough and that’s where you need stamina. Suddenly, blue skies appear and you can see the peak.

Then another hour on the glacier and we are still joined on a rope. Finally, for an hour and a half you are walking on rocks that are not covered in glacier. We summited at 8:15am. Then we had like 15 minutes on the peak taking photos before making our way down again.

Photo opportunity at the peak of Mt. Rwenzori

Photo opportunity at the peak of Mt. Rwenzori

What was going through your mind knowing you are standing on the highest point in Uganda?

First, I was struck by how much diverse Uganda is and knowing that majority of Ugandans have never been there let alone know about it. I also reflected on the serenity and the fact that you get to experience such adventure alone without many tourists crowding the place.

Then, thinking about the economic importance of the national park to the surrounding communities especially the porters who earn revenue from it. But most importantly, the environmental asset that these mountains have to the ecosystem.

The whole place was full of water. When it rains, the spunge absorbs the water and releases it to the rivers and lakes not just of Uganda butt the Nile basin. This is a crucial environmental service that hasn’t been appreciated.

How was it going down?

In our program we had to spend 5 nights getting to the top and only 2 days going down. On the way back, you jump a camp on going down which would sound easy if it was just a slope until the bottom. We still had to go through highs and lows. Even on day 6 and 7 which is in principle just going back home, it was still very tough. Every single of those seven days was extremely difficult.

How would you rate your tour guide?

We had a very professional guide, very calm and adapting to your speed. Since there’s not many animals in Rwenzori national park, all I needed in a guide was someone to lead the way. To advise me say on what sort of shoes were appropriate for the next day. It was about him getting me and the team to the top.

What in Uganda’s diverse nature would you recommend a visitor to come see?

Three things stand out in Uganda. The Nile, the mountain gorillas and an iconic mountain (Rwenzori). If I were a European tourist who has the time to travel around, I would get the diversity in Uganda that you wouldn’t get in Kenya or any other places.

Which areas can Uganda improve to better its tourism?

There are things that could deter tourism here. Things like insurgency in Kasese. The average European tourist is un informed. When there was an Ebola outbreak in West Africa, many Europeans cancelled their trips to East Africa yet they were more likely to get the epidemic in Europe than in Uganda due to the numerous direct flights from Europe to West Africa. Also because Uganda has the expertise to fight Ebola.

Uganda could also be careful about the oil especially drilling in the Virunga which is a habitat for gorillas, the dams that are being constructed along the Nile might as well have an impact on the rafting on the Nile.

A rafting excursion that took a full day, could now be reduced to half a day. Things like the anti-homosexuality law can be a barrier.

Tourists that come to Uganda are not discount tourists that are here for the sun, food, to drink for a week and do nothing. They seek adventure, they are informed and are ready for cultural difference exchange but also the kind that care about human rights, stability and values.

If they for some reason felt that this country does not deserve their choice, they might settle for another destination. And technology has made it such that someone seated in Europe will use a mere click away to choose where to travel.

The road from Entebbe International airport to Kampala is also a handicap.

Marketing of the destination is also not adequate as yet. When people come here, they often find themselves experiencing more than what they expected or knew about Uganda. When people go to Egypt, they expect to see the old ruins. Here, tourists are taken by surprise which highlights a perception problem.

How do you rate the quality of services in the sector?

The leisure facilities are fine. If you are a tourist and expect luxury hotels, it spoils the adventure. If I go to a park, I don’t want a hotel room. I want to sleep in a leisure tent. While in Rwenzori national park, I slept in basic huts constructed by the same porters who carried construction materials through the same valleys. It was great. But even in Kampala, the hotels are fine and there’s a whole lot of ranges to choose from.

Favorite food

The quality of beef meet is perfect, the fish is excellent, I am happily eating matooke and peanut sauce. Uganda’s pineapples are unrivaled world over. What the tourist is always looking out for is various preparation of recipes. Ugandan chefs should need some inspiration to cook, create and innovate.

Ambassador Schmidt at the peak of Rwenzori

Ambassador Schmidt at the peak of Rwenzori

You’ve visited several national parks. Which one is your favorite so far?

I wouldn’t answer that. My favorite is the diversity of the package. I love the wide open spaces of Kidepo valley, I love the hilly areas of Murchison falls and Queen Elizabeth parks. Even Semliki which is less frequented, you can sail and see the shoebill.

Sitting one of the ranches on the Nile and watching the masses of water.  I had a great experience horseback chasing a zebra in Lake Mburo national park. I had a friend from Denmark who came to try that. If you come to Uganda, it is sort of a crime to visit for only one week and try one thing.

Climate change and its impact on tourism

The guides told us that the snow on the Rwenzori is slowly melting off. One of the guides who has been there for the last 7 years said the glacier will be no more in the next 7 years. And this snow is the major attraction – snow at the equator. So its disappearance could cost Uganda

There’s a policy issue and the Paris Agreement on climate change is going to be a starting point. Unfortunately it’s rather late that even if we implemented the resolutions of this Agreement to the letter, the glacier on Rwenzori will still disappear. If we managed to reverse our patterns of emission, maybe the snow will come back after some years.

It is also true that industrial economies have a role to play. Europe was the leader before anybody else started the conversation on binding carbon emissions. We have reduced our Carbondioxide emissions by 40% since 1990. The problem is now more in the emerging economies like China which is the biggest emitter today.

Coming to Uganda, European Union is the strongest partner Uganda has in adapting to climate change. In agriculture, our support will introduce crops with a short maturity period. We have also funded a project to boost commercial forestry so that forests in Uganda are not perceived as just a luxury.

We need to give people a value so they can appreciate that conservation has benefits. Until last year, it was an 8 million Euro program but has now been doubled to 16 million Euro. We believe it will make a very significant contribution because since the program began, we have seen a third of the lost forest cover in Uganda per year replanted.

What is the contribution of the European Union to clean energy in Uganda?

Uganda’s biggest threat is its reliance on charcoal for energy generation. So you are capable of generating your own climate problems even without Europe. EU is also supporting renewable energy and we recently launched the biggest solar energy plant with 10 megawatts in Soroti through a partnership with the private sector. It was completed in a record 8 months with no delays and procurement scandals. There will be another project around Fort Portal with 10 megawatt capacity also.

What Uganda needs to do is now move from energy supply to access to energy because I understand connectivity to electricity remains at a low of 10%. Rural electrification needs to be given more effort and EU is again supporting this through our Get Fit project.

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