Rwenzori mountains – Africa’s tallest mountain range

Three million years ago, the land that is now Rwenzori Mountains thrust up as a block of crystalline rocks from the western rift valley to form Africa’s tallest mountain range (the Rwenzoris) which are also known as the Mountains of The Moon. Located on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the so-called Mountains of the Moon rise above a burst of white breath which shapes clouds amidst acres of blue sky as they intercept the trade winds high up in the sky. These magnificent mountains and their foothills sweep down like welcome mats to those who seek adventure is a monumental fixture of Uganda’s natural endowments.

Info about Rwenzori Mountains National Park

Size: 995 sq Km

Geographic location: Western Rift Valley at Uganda’s border with Democratic Republic of Congo.

Coordinate location : latitude 0

Gazetted in 1991

Altitude: up to 5109 m

Length: 80 miles

They are spread across three districts in Uganda; Kasese, Bundibugyo and Kabarole district.

To the west of the Rwenzori mountains in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are mineral deposits of unimaginable riches. The park also borders Parc Nationale Des Virunga in the Democratic Republic of Congo. To the south is the huge expanse of Lake Edward, flooded to the deepest blue coloring everything around you and becoming more and more intense the farther one gazes over the Congo.

There are six mountains on this Rwenzori massif some of which are snowcapped:

  • Mount Stanley (5109 meters ( 16794 ft. )). (This is also the highest of the mountains in the block.)
  • Mount Speke (4890 meters ( ft.)).
  • Mount Baker (4843 meters (ft.)).
  • Mount Emin (4797 meters (ft.)).
  • Mount Gessi (4715 meterrs (ft.)).
  • Mount Luigi da Savoia (4627 meters(ft.)).

The snow and ice formations on some of these Rwenzori peaks are remarkable.

History of the Rwenzori Mountains

For a long time, these snow covered mountains generated a lot of mystery because many believed they were the source of the Nile River. People debated this for over 2000 years because every single expedition that was set to investigate from Egypt never succeeded. They all returned defeated, not until 1888, some thirty years after the “discovery” of Victoria Nile by explorer John Hannington Speke, that explorer Henry Morton Stanley “discovered” the existence of the Snow Mountains in Uganda.

He had camped for months at its foot without so much as suspecting the existence of this vast glacier-covered mountains in his vicinity!

We can’t blame Stanley, however.

Until 1906, the true nature of the Rwenzori Mountains wasn’t fully known until the Duke of Abruzzi (the Italian mountaineer and explorer) led a great expedition to the region, climbing the highest peaks and constructing the first chain of huts on the mountains.

Though the Rwenzori Mountains (formerly Ruwenzori) aren’t the highest on the African continent, Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya are higher; they are Africa’s most technical mountain ranges when it comes to mountain climbing. They are also the most important snowcapped mountain group on the African continent.

What distinguishes the Rwenzori mountain ranges from Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya is that the latter are both single peak volcanoes while the Rwenzori Mountains are six distinct mountains connected in one continuous massif.

Margherita (5125m) and Alexandra (5105m) are the highest peaks of the Rwenzori Mountains.

Unlike all other great mountains of East and Central Africa, Rwenzori Mountains aren’t volcanoes but they were formed by upward thrust during the formation of the Western Rift Valley in which they sit. At the first records in 1906, all the six highest mountains of the Rwenzori carried permanent snow and glaciers. By 2001, only Mounts Stanley (5,109m), Speke (4,890m) and Baker (4,843m) bore permanent snow and glaciers and these are also fast retreating.

It is anticipated that in less than 20 years, all the snow will have melted away from all the highest mountains! The causes of this are not clear, but may well be due to decrease in snow fall, higher temperatures due to global warming; decreased cloud cover hence more sunshine and the deposition of charcoal dust and ash from bush-fires.

The upper levels of the mountains have many bogs and marshes which were originally lakes but with time silted up. These marshes make the mountains like a giant sponge from which the peaks stand. And are maintained in such a state by the perpetual moistness of the air. Hardly a day goes by without the all-covering mist blanketing the peaks with this moisture-laden air. Though these mists add to the complexity of climbing the ranges, they do add tremendously to the great beauty of the mountains. It is common for the peaks to be briefly hit by sunlight from above the clouds before quickly disappearing under the mist blanket.

At the very summit, the impenetrable fog is replaced by a sudden and complete clearing. Far below, in the valleys, you will see the land bathed in sunlight with the intense green below contrasted superbly with the crags surrounding the juniper known as helichrysum.

Vegetation

Vegetation Zones

  • Grassland zone 1000m –  2000m
  • Montane Forest zone 2000m – 3000m
  • Bamboo/ Mimulopsis zone 2500m – 3500m
  • Heather / Repanea zone 3000m –  4000m
  • Afro – Alpine moorland zone 4000m – 4500m

Another unique and delightful feature of the mountains is its vegetation. The park has 994 recorded plant species; some of which cannot be found elsewhere in Uganda.

This vegetation is remarkable in many ways. Indeed, those who climb the Rwenzori Mountains must transverse the bamboo zone. These bamboos can attain a height of over 25 feet forming a closely packed canopy. Just over the bamboo forests there are some remarkable floral conditions associated with the perpetual humidity.

There are numerous lobelias which when in flower are always visited by flocks of unique mountain sunbirds that probe the pale-blue tubes of lobelia blossom. These tree-like lobelias can attain a height of over fifteen feet. Once these lobelias have reached the stage of bearing flower spikes, then they have reached the end of their lives. For they soon wither and die after the entire flower spike has finished blooming. Slowly, probably over a period of many years, the moss chokes it up as it rots. Above 11000 feet, most of the ground and the trees are covered under thick moss growth.

Another delightful and interesting characteristic of the Rwenzori Mountains is the ever-present cloud cover that forms early every morning and covers the upper regions in obscurity and moisture. It usually disappears at sunset, the mountains being always clear of this cloud at night-time. It explains why these mountains remained unknown to European travellers for so long.

These clouds form at about 9000 feet before drifting upwards. So by 10:00am, the mountain top is concealed. Before they we finally discovered by Europeans in 1888, Sir. Henry Morton Stanley and his men had spent close to seventy-two days within visual distance of the mountains without suspecting their presence due to the cloud cover. Until one day, when this cloud cover parted, they saw the mighty snowcapped peaks. In fact, many explores before him had been travelling in the neighborhood of the Rwenzori Mountains without suspecting their existence.

At an altitude of 10,000 feet, you will encounter a fantastic tangle of rotting vegetation—giant groundsel, lobelia, and giant heath—-all thickly covered in moss, which is everywhere. So much so that the air seems tinged with an eerie green light as all the streams and streamlets are hushed.

One of the things to put into consideration before climbing these mountains is the perpetual Rwenzori rains which are famous for curtailing many climbing attempts. During these rains, the bogs and marshes get heavier making ones climb harder and requiring super human effort. No wonder the locals call the mountains Rwenzoris meaning “rain maker.”

The best way to climb up the massif is by way of the valley of Mobuku on the Central Circuit, along the crest of the Nyabitaba moraine.

Animals in the  Rwenzori Mountains

The park has over 21 small mammal species, 6 of which are Albertine Rift Valley endemic, 3 of which are rare, while 4 of these species are endemic to the park. Reptiles and amphibians have also been recorded in the park. Of the reptiles in the park, the three horned chameleon is the most surprising and it plays a great role in local superstitions. Though scary looking, these chameleons are not dangerous. They can be handled with the same freedom as you would with other hornless chameleon species.  They use the horns to shove each other off three branches.

three horned chameleon
The strange looking three horned chameleon of the Rwenzori mountains

 

Some of the species identified in Rwenzori National Park include:

  • Chimpanzees
  • Rwenzori duikers
  • Rock hyrax
  • African elephants
  • Tree squirrels
  • Rwenzori leopards
  • Wild chicken
  • Rhinoceros chameleon
Stages of Rwenzori Mountain Climbing

It takes between 7 and 9 days to climb and descend the highest peak of the Rwenzori Mountains from the Ugandan side. You have to go through different vegetation zones and bamboo forests to reach the snow covered peaks.

3000 m is usually the altitude beyond which you start noticing altitude sickness. The only cure is to descend immediately to lower altitudes.

You can do a shorter 3 day foot trail from the park entrance to one of the lakes on the massif.

Accommodation facilities in Rwenzori Mountains National Park
  • In the huts at the camps on the mountain
  • Hostels at the park headquarters
  • Equator Snow lodge
  • Ruboni Community Lodge

Interesting facts about the Rwenzori Mountains

  • The oldest person to reach its Margherita peak was Ms. Beryl Park, she was aged 78 years.
  • 500 B.C. was the first historical reference to the Rwenzori Mountains when Aeschylus, ancient Greek tragedian, wrote of Egypt being fed by the distant snows from the mountains.
  • R.H the Duke of the Abruzzi and his expedition were the first ones to climb up to glaciers of the mountains in 1906. In the same expedition they were able to explore the summits of the highest peaks for the first time.
  • The locals around the Rwenzoris call the mountains Ruwenzoris meaning “rain maker.”
  • The Rwenzoris are the highest source of the Nile River.
  • They are the third highest mountains on the African continent

Activities to do in Rwenzori Mountains National Park

  • Birding: There are 217 bird species registered in the Rwenzori Mountains National Park, a place declared as a RAMSAR site in 2008. The park is home to 19 Albertine rift endemics like the Rwenzori turaco, Shelly’s crimson wing, Rwenzori nightjar, red-throated alethe, and others.

How to get to the Rwenzori Mountains

There are two major trailheads up the mountains on the Ugandan side;

  • Kilembe trailhead
  • Central Circuit trailhead

The Kilembe trailhead can be accessed via Kasese.  This trail head starts from Kyanjiki near Kilembe mines.

The Central Circuit starts from Mihunga Main Gate and it is the best trail to the peaks of the Rwenzori Mountains.

 

You can also fly to Kasese airstrip from Entebbe Airport and then continue by vehicle for 30 to 60 minutes to either of the trail heads.

 

There are shorter full day and three day hikes that can also be organized up the Rwenzori mountains. To get these included in your safari itinerary, get in touch with our safari team.

 

The Rwenzori Mountains are a captivating unfolding of a fantasy that started millions of years ago. It is a storybook vision of pristine beautiful glacier lakes, snow covered peaks, mist, and clouds alongside flaming sunsets. In this geologically magical zone, the serenity turns the area into a tourist mecca. It is supremely wonderful and challenging while rising to your every expectation. So come and book with us so we can take on this dreamy climbing adventure up into the Rwenzori Mountains where the real seems surreal and the wild is tamed by a steady beauty.

 

 

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