Do you love a physical challenge? In this week’s Guest Post, Jean Byamugisha, CEO of the ‎Uganda Hotel Owners Association swaps her self-confessed boujee lifestyle for walking boots and a tent!

Sleeping in a tent up a mountain – for several days in a row – is not for the faint-hearted, especially when it is your first time camping! Add a rainstorm, heavy walking boots, difficult terrain (and no hot showers for two days) and you start to get a picture of how demanding a hike can be. Jean shares a personal account of the demanding climb of Mount Elgon in eastern Uganda, a hiking adventure that led her on a journey of many personal firsts. Congratulations on this huge endeavour Jean – and thanks for sharing your story!

Going beyond my comfort zone

On Good Friday 2021, Adolfo and I set off on what I deemed to be the craziest holiday I’ve ever taken – conquering the mighty Mount Elgon. I say it was crazy because it was so out of my element. My idea of a holiday is – and has always been – a 5 star hotel, with a 7×7 wide bed and 500 thread count Egyptian cotton bed sheets. A swimming pool and spa don’t hurt either. For all intents and purposes, I am a girl that loves a ‘boujee’ holiday.

Adolfo organised our hiking trip after I lost a bet. He wanted to get me out of my comfort zone and also take a ‘bite’ of his world. As an experienced mountain climber, who has even scaled – what looks impossible to me – Mount Rwenzori and all the Virunga volcanoes, he was very much looking forward to climbing Mount Elgon. For me, on the other hand, it was a different story.

Climbing with experienced climbers has both its advantages and disadvantages: my biggest fear was not being in shape and holding back the team so my first order of business was getting in shape. For the most part, I do some simple exercises and eat clean but to climb Mount Elgon, I had to up the ante; I had to go to the gym. I took on a personal trainer and worked out six days a week, from 5.30 – 8.30 am in preparation for our trip.

We arrived in eastern Uganda late and spent the eve of our hike at the Uganda Wildlife Authority banda accommodation in Kapchorwa on the edge of Mount Elgon National Park. Adolfo – or “Alfie” as I like to call him – had estimated that we could climb Mount Elgon in three days, spending two nights in the bush. However, after discussing the route options with the UWA guides, we were advised to spend an extra night at the top as the distance would be too tough for an inexperienced climber like myself. This, we agreed to. After making all the payments with UWA, we entered Mount Elgon National Park via Kapkwata Gate setting off a bit late (10 am). Our team of seven climbers were me (Jean Byamugisha), “Alfie” Adolfo, two UWA rangers, two porters and a cook.

“When I look at the videos of my Mount Elgon hike now, I can see my state of mind change: when I started the hike, I was full of beans; when I finally came down the mountain … I looked and felt so ratchet!!!”

Jean Byamugisha is all smiles as she sets off on day one of her Mount Elgon hike

Day 1 on Mount Elgon – a shock to the system! Overnight at Pichwa Camp

For a novice, the walk up was fair. Compared to all other routes, our route was by far the most gentle of them all. However, the hike was a shock to my system despite all the work I had done in the gym.

By the time we reached Pichwa Camp, an eight-hour walk later, I had sweated beyond what I ever thought possible. However, I was still strong and felt no aches.

After a quick meal and relaxation, I felt like ‘myself’ once again. I managed to take a hot bathe and eat a heavy dinner. Alfie and I even mastered the strength to walk around the camp and visit some local communities in the evening.

This was the first time I was sleeping in a tent. It was quite comfortable thanks to Adolfo’s advice; he had made sure I came equipped with the right gear. Previously, I had no idea about the different types of sleeping bag, mattresses and waterproof tents that would be invaluable in keeping me warm during the night.

Pichwa Camp was the last place with telephone network; after checking in with home and making sure all our loved ones were ok, we set our phones to airplane mode and braced ourselves for what was to be an excruciating day two.

Day 2 on Mount Elgon – higher and colder at Hunters Cave

We woke up at 6:30 am on day two. The cook and UWA staff had breakfast ready and we set off a few minutes before 8 o’clock since day two was going to be a much longer hike.

Day two was much harder on me than day one. The hike was longer, the climb steeper and the weather hotter. Although I had managed to keep up with the team on day one, by day two I was starting to fall a few minutes behind. The higher we went, the thinner the air got, making the climb more difficult with each step.

On the flip side, the vegetation changed at different altitudes and the views from the top of Mount Elgon were simply breath-taking. Being a small team, we had the whole mountain to ourselves; this made it even more special and – dare I say – romantic. Adolfo took on the difficult task of documenting the entire trip. For a girl who loves selfies and pictures, this was amazing (not so much for Adolfo who had to keep at it for the whole trip!)

Mount Elgon National Park hike. Jean Byamugisha.
Mount Elgon National Park hike. Jean Byamugisha.

“While the gym tests your fitness levels, the hike up a mountain tests your endurance levels and many times this is beyond anything the gym can prepare you for.”

Jean Byamugisha

Day two really knocked my body off balance. We arrived at our second stop, Hunters Cave, 12 hours after leaving Pichwa Camp. I was exhausted but – thanks again to the gym sessions – I didn’t have any aches or muscle pulls of any kind.

Hunters Cave was a completely different experience from Pichwa Camp. We were completely in the bush: no bathroom facility, no kitchen and no rooms. Worse yet, it was a much higher altitude and a lot colder than the previous nights. It felt like negative degrees centigrade at this point. For a ‘boujee’ girl like myself this was a complete nightmare. I had to use the bush for all private activities like taking a shower – and worse – going to the toilet. Most shockingly, I enjoyed this experience, mainly because Adolfo made it fun. Actually, without him, I’d never have dreamed of taking on such a challenge in the first place. He carried his favourite speaker and always played music in the camp which cheered everyone and made us forget about the tough hours we had spent walking up the mountain.

Jean Byamugisha. Mount Elgon hike Uganda
Jean Byamugisha. Mount Elgon hike Uganda

We had a lovely dinner of local chicken and rice at Hunters Cave; this was a very welcome delicacy at this point. Taking on such a humongous challenge requires a lot of energy which means that one needs to eat a lot of food. This was a struggle for me who is used to only eating one solid meal a day. Adolfo had articulated the importance of eating a lot on this trip but it’s not something I took seriously; I soon paid for my stubbornness.

Adolfo pitched our tent while I sat with the rest of the guys near the fire as they made dinner. The weather was extremely cold at this altitude and it rained a lot during the course of the night. Once again, it was agreed that we would leave the camp by 8 am as day three was going to be a longer day. I literally passed out when my head hit the sleeping bag. My body was beginning to show signs of fatigue and dehydration.

Day 3 on Mount Elgon – altitude sickness at Mudde Camp

We woke up again early on day three. I still had no aches at this point and felt fit enough to continue the climb, only wishing I had a few more hours of sleep. Waking up in the mornings is hard for me and ordinarily, I am a late riser. This was worsened by sleeping in the bush and being dead tired after walking over 12 hours each day.

“I started off our third day on Mount Elgon feeling like I was running on empty. I felt weak, fatigued and sleep deprived. This was the point at which I started wondering… what in the world made me crazy enough to take on a challenge like this?”

My pace fell several minutes behind the team and I felt extremely weak. I suffered from altitude sickness and at one point I felt like I was about to faint. Adolfo had warned me about not eating enough and this was the day his warning came to pass. The team organised a few breaks where we stopped to eat some pineapples for energy. Adolfo had also packed some high sugar sweets to give one energy in such instances. These helped but day three still felt like a bad dream.

Beyond the physical effort of climbing Mount Elgon, it was an incredible experience to take in Elgon’s beautiful caldera, which I came to know as the second largest caldera in the world. It was also amazing to see the stunning vegetation at this altitude; it looked like something out of an alien movie.

At the lunch stop, I managed to take in enough food to give me the energy needed to complete this leg of the hike. Day three was by far the toughest part of the Elgon hike up to this point. It was made worse by torrential rain which we had no choice but walk through to make sure we reached the next camp before nightfall.

The last night before we started our descent was by far the toughest of the entire hiking trip. Once again, I was lucky not to have any body or leg aches but at this point my body was beaten to a pulp with fatigue. Having almost fainted the day before, I was weak and completely worn out. I dreamt of taking a long hot shower and sleeping in a warm comfy bed. This was also one of the coldest nights of the trip. Despite all this however, I was excited that this was the last night on the mountain.

For the most part, climbing Mt Elgon was fun and – other than the fatigue of walking 12 hours a day – my body was strong.

Day 4 on Mount Elgon – my biggest fear becomes a reality

The last day of the hike was filled with so much hope and excitement. I was excited to finally be returning to civilisation but, most importantly, I was excited that I would count hiking Mount Elgon as one of my greatest achievements. This experience was definitely one for my books. However, I didn’t take into account what an overwhelming feat it was going to be to climb down the mountain. I was informed that it usually takes 8 hours to get to the bottom (and I thought maybe I would do it in 6 hours). This was not to be.

We set off after a sumptuous breakfast of the Uganda delicacy, rolex. I had learned my lesson from the previous day and started day four with a pretty heavy breakfast. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining and Adolfo and I even signed our names on the camp door before we left. After taking the obligatory final picture with the rest of the team, off I went, literally hopping down the mountain.

The guides did warn me that climbing down Mount Elgon was in many cases more challenging than actually walking up but I didn’t believe them; it seemed a lot easier to start with, until my boots started hurting my toes. Mountain climbing boots are unlike any other kind of ladies shoes (especially high heels, my shoe of choice for most of my daily chores). Mountain boots are tougher and heavier, and can make your feet more sore when it rains. The weather on the mountain changes from hour to hour. Very soon, the warm bright sun gave way to a dark cloud that turned into heavy rain. This made the descent almost impossible and a lot slower than I had tuned my mind to tolerate. I fell hours behind the rest of the team, especially when my boots started squeezing my toes as I tried to prevent myself from falling in the mud.

My biggest fear became a reality: I was holding the team back. Adolfo would wait for me at different stops but it soon became clear that I needed to descend at my own pace because my legs could not carry me as fast as the rest of team. If I tried to keep up with them, I’d hurt myself even more. The worst was yet to come: due to the pressure of the constant downward incline, I hurt one of my knees. The pain was excruciating. My guide, Justin, sympathised with me and remained by my side the whole way down. Adolfo kept encouraging me; for him I made sure I powered through without complaining because I could see everyone doing their best to make it easy on me. It took almost 12 hours of a very slow, very painful slope to reach the team (who waited almost two hours for me to reach them at the rendez-vous spot).

Lessons learned from my first Ugandan hiking adventure

Jean Byamugisha. Mount Elgon mountain hike Uganda
Still smiling! Jean Byamugisha takes on Mount Elgon, eastern Uganda

Climbing Mount Elgon was by far one of the best and most exciting holidays of my life. It took me out of my comfort zone and made me realise I am a lot stronger than I ever gave myself credit for. Crazy as it felt, I’m sure I’d do it again… although not for at least the next 6 months!

“One of my biggest regrets is not making it to the peak of Wagagai. We were just four hours away from the summit but were advised that for safety reasons, we should start to descend since we had a 12-hour hike ahead of us. This was the right decision because it ended up being a very exhausting day.”

Tips for climbing Mount Elgon

Through my experience hiking Mount Elgon, I learned some lessons that I feel every new climber should consider before attempting such an activity:

1. Climb with someone you love and care about (better if they have experience hiking mountains). The only person I could ever have done this with is Alfie. Enough said on this one 😊

2. Get in shape before attempting to go hiking. The mountain tests every muscle in your body. Even if I had gone to the gym for almost a month to prepare, I was not ready for how hard it was at times. However, my muscles were very grateful for my weeks of training and it took just a couple of days after I got back to start wearing my beloved heels once again.

3. Invest in the right gear for the mountain. Hiking can be an expensive sport. The right gear is quite pricy but once you are on the mountain you realise that it was worth every penny. Most importantly, ask an experienced climber to guide on the right gear to buy before you make the investment. Alfie went shopping with me and his advice was invaluable.

4. Get the right snacks and food. Biggest lesson learned is that when you go hiking you cannot eat as you normally do. You need high energy foods to get the right calories to take you up – and down – the mountain. Every climber should invest wisely in the right snacks to ensure they successfully complete their climb. Pack enough water because you need more than you originally think while hiking.

5. Most of all, have fun! This is a once in a lifetime experience, not one that’s easy to forget. Choose to make the memories fun. I look back on the videos and pictures we took and they always bring a smile to my face.

The Muzungu adds: I hiked Mt Elgon once and I can feel Jean’s pain! Read my blog “Climbing Mount Elgon – with a girl named Kevin.”

If you enjoy reading inspirational stories by Uganda’s tourism heroines, read Lilly Ajarova’s account of “The euphoric Rwenzori Mountains.