Rwenzori National Park

Uganda – Rwenzori National Park

Date: 14 February 2018

Distance: 22.5 km

Every now and then* a walk comes into your life that is so brutal you need a couple of beers and a good lie down before you can talk about it. Today was one such day.

(*actually it happens a lot)

The Lonely Planet guidebook tells you that the Rwenzori mountains in western Uganda are amazing. But also – if you do the six day walk – the hardest trek in East Africa. ‘Ah ha’ thought I; ‘I can get around that one. I’ll just do a day walk. How hard can it be?’. The answer, it turns out, is pretty bloody hard.

The climb up (2,000 metres, from 1,012m to 3,012m) was 12km of really steep climbing. The walk down was a similar amount of descent, over a further 10.5km. Ever walked Ben Nevis? You climb 1,325m on that one. Just sayin’…

That said, and tired limbs aside, it was a stunningly beautiful walk, with views that seemed to go on forever – or at least to the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. Tiny purple butterflies filled the air. The forest gave way to bamboo (which also provided me with an invaluable temporary walking stick on the way back down), which in turn gave way to a Ugandan version of Spanish moss filled trees, before finally (after five hours of walking relentlessly upwards) hitting Karangura Peak – the 3,012 metre highpoint of the day’s walk.

It quickly got chilly up there, so after a short lunch it was time to head back down via a different route. I could always see the village I was walking towards… and it kept on looking as if it were in a land far, far away. Nothing like two and a half hours of continuous steep descent to give those toe nails a run for their money. I doubt I’ll be in possession of a full set this time next month. Still, three litres of water, two very hot feet and one sweaty, sticky climb later (plus a lovely hot shower and a couple of beers later) and I’m ready to proclaim today’s walk as fantastic – but not for the faint hearted. Especially as the park guide who led the walk came equipped with his rifle and 30 rounds of ammo…

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Uganda – Slopes of Mount Elgon

Uganda – Slopes of Mount Elgon

Date: 5-6 February 2018

Distance: 44 km

I spent the last couple of days walking from Budadari to Sipi Falls, on the slopes of Mount Elgon – an extinct volcano that sits on the border of Kenya and Uganda. As you do…

Getting there from Nairobi was a bit of an undertaking in itself – but three taxi rides, one 10 hour bus trip and one (actually very speedy) border crossing later and I was there… ‘there’ in this case being ‘Rose’s Last Chance’ – a guesthouse in tiny Budadiri, where the indomitable Rose arranged me a two day walk, with a guide (Lawrence), porter (Mike), tent, food etc in what seemed like the blink of an eye.

My guidebook described it as an ‘off the beaten track’ community walk, through villages and coffee plantations. Easy, thought I. Not quite: as it turns out there was a fair bit of ‘up’ to do on both days, and as it’s pretty hot here on the equator I quickly turned into a sweaty mess! The community bit is right though – unlike the sparsely populated countryside of Europe, the foothills of Mount Elgon veritably teem with people, many of them children (my lovely guide, Lawrence, told me that about 60 per cent of Uganda’s population are under 18). I couldn’t walk for more than two minutes without hearing small voices shouting out what I’m told was ‘Hello! White person!’ as I approached or passed by. At one point yesterday I had a band of about 15 children (many of them very young indeed) following me along the road for a mile or so. The adults were usually more reserved but everyone I saw was very friendly and welcoming, and, combined with the beautiful scenery, helped make it a walk to remember.

I spend the first night camping at pretty Sisiyi Falls, and after a hearty dinner (Rose believes in feeding you up – it’s impossible to eat everything she gives you) I fell asleep staring up at a perfectly clear, star filled sky that served to remind me of both the wonders of nature and the paltry version of the night sky that we have to contend with in light polluted cities like London.

This isn’t a walk for people who don’t usually hike, but if you do and you’re in the area (area in this case being anywhere between Kampala and Nairobi) it’s definitely worth taking the time to do it, and to experience this beautiful region. Rose (who is very well respected in her local community, and with good reason) will sort it all out for you in an effortless fashion.

Extra Info:

Cost: 400,000 Ugandan Shillings (about £75) for guide, porter, camping equipment and campsite, food and transport back from Sipi Falls.

Contact: Rose – mananarose@gmail.com

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Finland – Little Bear Trail

Finland – Oulanka National Park (Little Bear Trail)

Date: 27 January 2018

Distance: 8 miles

I’ve been struggling with how to describe Oulanka National Park, where I have been staying this week. The National Geographic website says it is ‘a rather remote upland region of North Ostrobothnia and Eastern Lapland, along the Russian border’. That’s geographically accurate (Russia is just 20km to the east, and the Artic Circle 40km to the north), and includes some excellently Finnish sounding names, but it doesn’t help with conveying how it looks in the depths of a Nordic winter. White? Certainly. Awfully snowy? Yup, that too. But there’s so much more. The light here is very soft: one of my fellow snowshoers today described it as making everything pastel. Which is true – except for the trees, which are tall and (where they aren’t coated in white) dark and menacing. It’s also quite magical.

Anyho, hopefully the photos will convey some of the wintertime wonderment of the Pieni Karhunkierros (Little Bear) 12km trail that I happily snowshoed today, with some new outdoors buddies, in what I am told was a very respectable time of four hours. Trust me, in this weather (a balmy -10C today) you don’t want to hang around to admire the scenery in too much detail. There’s something about frozen hair and tingling fingers – despite multiple layers of gloves) that suggest it’s not a great idea.

I’ve quite taken to this snow shoe malarkey this week, and will definitely do it again if the chance arises. Took me a while to work out how to walk up snow covered steps (on tip toes: it’s QUITE the calf workout), but I love how easy it is to walk down steep inclines in them – so much quicker and easier than it would be on vertiginous slopes in walking boots. It comes highly recommended by me… and it’s even better if you can follow it up with two hours hopping between a sauna and an outdoor hot tub!

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Finland – Ruka

Finland – Ruka

Date: 25 January 2018

Distance: 8 miles

Today was a big day out to the ski resort. I don’t downhill ski and today didn’t seem the time to learn but there was a walking trail, so I brought my snowshoes with me and off I went.

There was something rather disconcerting about striding off on my own onto a trail that hadn’t been walked since the last snowfall, but I kept heading on following a line of wooden poles with green markings on them (albeit ones camouflaged in snow, just to add to the excitement of not knowing where the heck I was or where I was going!).

You can’t hear a huge amount above the sound of snowshoes stomping through the deep white stuff, but as I paused close to what I hoped was the top of a hill, a group of friendly locals appeared on their way downhill, and told me I was 200 metres away from a hut where they had left a fire burning in the hearth (sensibly, the huts here come equipped with wood piles, axes, etc). Fantastic! After pausing to catch my breath in the hut I headed back downhill, following my own tracks this time, and walked back into Ruka for a celebratory pizza.

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Oulanka National Park

Finland – Oulanka National Park

Date: 22 January 2018

Distance: 3 miles

Now for something completely different on my gap year adventure… snowshoeing in Lapland!

It. Is. Stunning. I’ve not really experienced this kind of snow or landscape before. I’ve seen films where the snow looks like glitter and always thought it was down to poor set design. I was wrong – the snow here twinkles and winks at you like it’s gleaming with hidden seams of gold. The low sun (it rose at 9.30am and set at 3pm) casts everything in a light that made me believe I was looking through rose-tinted glasses. The layers of clothing I had piled on made me look like a Nordic Winter version of the Stay Puft Marshmellow Man from Ghostbusters – but, occasionally cold finger tips and big toes aside, they kept me warm. Which is good because it’s been a chilly -18C here today. My eyelashes froze, as did any hair that wasn’t secured safely under my bobble hat.

I’d like to say I’m a natural at snowshoeing. I’m not; probably because of my ‘off roading’ , I sunk into some very deep patches of snow today with a regularity that no one else in the group managed. BUT… I loved it. Snowshoeing is definitely now on my list of things I like doing, and I’m looking forward to doing more of it next week – hopefully walking a little bit further than the three miles I managed today. Ace fun.

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Capital Ring Walk – Day 5

Capital Ring Walk – Day 5
Date: 20 December 2017
Walked From: Finsbury Park
Walked To: Woolwich Foot Tunnel
Distance: 16.5 miles

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As today was the last chance I had to complete the Capital Ring before Christmas, I braved the dank, gloomy day to walk from Finsbury Park back around to the south side of the Woolwich Foot Tunnel (where the walk officially starts and ends) – a Thames crossing which has been used by London’s pedestrians for 105 years to pass between the north and south banks of our river, in an area where bridges are somewhat conspicuous in their absence.

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I got muddy feet by the New River in Finsbury Park, admired the new urban space that’s been created next to the reservoirs in Hackney and enjoyed Stoke Newington’s super-posh benches in Clissold Park, as well as its atmospheric Abney Park Cemetery (where the founders of the Salvation Army, among many others, are buried).

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I strolled through Stamford Hill, an area know for its large population of Orthodox Jews – past young boys wearing plastic bags over their heads to protect the black hats they were all wearing – and really enjoyed the long section of the walk along the River Lee Navigation, past Walthamstow and Hackney Marshes and the Olympic Park.

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East London’s ‘Greenway’ – a walking and cycle route build on top of a massive above ground sewage pipe – took me another few miles and then it was a final waterside trot through the area near City Airport, with its weird mixture of smart looking high rise flats and neglected old jetties that look back to the area’s dockside past.

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I’m now safely back on the ‘right’ (AKA ‘south’) side of the river and am heading home for a nice hot bath and a hot chocolate: the joys of winter walking! Happy Christmas x

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Capital Ring Walk – Day 4

Capital Ring Walk – Day 4
Date: 18 December 2017
Walked From: South Kenton
Walked To: Finsbury Park
Distance: 15 miles

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The weather today was glorious – in a clear blue skies and winter sunshine kind of a way. Just the ticket for walking the north London section of the Capital Ring. Plus I had friends around for lunch yesterday, at which I managed to consume a huge amount of food and booze, so it made sense to walk it off…

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I didn’t have high expectations of today’s route: I knew quite a lot of it was adjacent to to the North Circular (it has the dubious reputation of being the UK’s loudest road). But, perhaps because of the sunshine, it was actually really enjoyable. First up of note was Fryent Country Park (the name derives from a farm that used to be there, which was owned by a holy order of friars), then the rather lovely Welsh Harp reservoirs near Hendon, and the oddly twee Hampstead Garden Suburb, full of very well looked after handsome family-sized homes, many in that mock Tudor style that was so popular (you even see it in the US – although they just call it ‘Tudor’) in the early part of the last century.

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After East Finchley I was back into some prime London walking; lovely Highgate and Queen’s woods (the latter had a cafe with a loo – there are usually still loos in the areas where wealthier Londoners live / walk their dogs. Otherwise they have all been closed because of funding cuts… perhaps less well off people don’t have to pee?) and then the fabulous Parkland Walk – London’s longest linear nature reserve no less, which follows an old railway line all the way into Finsbury Park. Another great walk exploring London.

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