In AD150, the Alexandrine geographer Ptolemy wrote of a snow capped mountain range; deep in the heart of Africa that he claimed that was the source of the Nile and which he called the Mountains of the Moon. Over the centuries this curious notion of tropical snow faded into mythology and when John Speke found the Nile’s exit from Lake Victoria, a place of fiction for the Mountains of the Moon ceased. But then, in 1989, Henry Stanley emerged from Central Africa to announce that such a mountain did not exist. He mapped it by its local name of Rwenjura- or rainmaker.
In due course mountaineers explored Ptomemy’s Mountains of the moon. Though just miles north of the Equator, they found in the high Rwenzori glaciers and snow peaks whose water melts represent the highest springs of the Nile. These trickle downwards into U-shaped glacial valleys where they are supplemented by up to 250mm of rain each year; they saturate the broad valley floors to form great soggy bogs. Within these rain and mist filled troughs, loom specimens of Africa’s bizarre, high altitude vegetation and stunted trees enveloped by colorful mosses and draped with beards of lichen.
This remarkable landscape is bisected by the Uganda –Congo border which passes through Mt. Stanley the highest peak. The Ugandan Rwenzori is protected by the Rwenzori Mountains national park and in Congo by the Virunga National park. The park can be explored along a 7 day trail thet meanders along the Mubuku and Bujuku valleys beneath the highest peaks. Though distances are short, the terrain, altitude and weather combine to create a tough trek, the difficulty of which should not be underestimated.
After its sighting by Stanley, the weather confounded several attempts to scale (or even observe) the mountain’s main peaks. In 1906, the Italian Duke of Abuzzi timed his expedition more carefully, making his attempt during June and July. He and his companions succeeded in scaling, mapping and photographing all of the main peaks and establishing the layout of the high Rwenzori.
Rwenzori Mountains National Park protects the highest parts of the 120km-long and 65km-wide Rwenzori mountain range. The national park hosts 70 mammals and 217 bird species including 19 Albertine Rift endemics, as well as some of the world’s rarest vegetation and its 996km2 in size.
The Rwenzoris are a world-class hiking and mountaineering destination. A nine- to twelve-day trek will get skilled climbers to the summit of Margherita – the highest peak – though shorter, non-technical treks are possible to scale the surrounding peaks.
• For those who prefer something a little less strenuous, neighboring Bakonzo villages offer nature walks, homestead visits home cultural performances and accommodation, including home-cooked local cuisine.
• The park was gazetted in 1991 and was recognized as a World Heritage site in 1994 and Ramsar site in 2008.
• Highest point: 5,109m above sea level on Mt Stanley's Margherita Peak. Mt. Stanley is bisected by the border with the DR Congo.
• The Rwenzori is not volcanic like East Africa’s other major mountains but is a block of rock upfaulted through the floor of the Western Rift Valley.
• The Rwenzoris were christened the "Mountains of the Moon" by the Alexandrine geographer Ptolemy in AD 150.
• The explorer Henry Stanley placed the Rwenzori on the map on 24th May 1888. He labeled it ‘Ruwenzori’, a local name which he recorded as meaning “Rain-Maker” or “Cloud-King.”
• The oldest recorded person to reach Margherita Peak was Ms Beryl Park aged 78 in 2010.
Flora and Fauna
The Rwenzori today is remarkable for its flora rather than fauna. Elephant ,Bufallo,giant forest hog , bush buck, chimpanzee and leopard are present but are rarely seen. However primates such as black and white colobus and the blue monkey may be seen, as well as the hyrax, the elephant’s diminutive cousin.
The Rwenzori is home to 241 bird species of which 19 are endemic to the mountain. Several birds are limited to just afew forests along the Albertine rift, notablynthe Rwenzori Turaco. In the alpine zone look for the Malachite sunbird. An ascent of the mountain passes through aseries of increasingly dramatic vegetation zones. Above the Bakonzo farmlands,montane forest (1500-2500m) gives way to baboon stands and messy tangles of Mimulopsis(2500-3000m). Thisis followed by the lovely Heather- Rapena zone (3000-4000m), which is characterized by giant tree-heathers (Erica ssp), garishly coloured mosses and drab beards of lichen. Spectacular forms of giant lobelia and groundsels are first found in the zone. These plants persist into the highest alphine zone (3800-4500m) where they were joined by wiry but pretty thickets of Helichrysum or everlasting flowers.
The Bigo Bogs in the upper Bujuku valley are colonized by tussocks of sedge (carex ssp). These provide climbers with useful if disconcertingly wobbly ‘stepping stones’ with which to negotiate these notoriously muddy sections.
The mountain’s central circit is provided with basic mountain huts. Camping and rooms are available at the circuit Nyakalengija trailhead at Ruboni campsite and RMS Guest house. The trailhead for the proposed kilembe Trail is served by Rwenzori Backpackers Hostel. Other options exist in Kasese, Fortportal and in the nearby Queen Elizabeth National Park.
Planning your trip
While those with the inclination can scale the main peaks , most visitors are content to follow the central circuit trail to enjoy their magnificent setting. Time your ascent for the driest months which are July-August and December –February. Pack for an alphine expedition, taking agood quality sleeping bag and rain gear ,and aspare of warm clothes ,especially socks. There will be little opportunity to dry clothes and equipment. Strong boots capable of being fitted with crampons are essential for the the peaks. Apair of cheap gumboots are better suited to the boggy conditions of the central circuit,
The central circuit hike is organized through the Rwenzori Mountaineering services (RMS)and starts from Nyakalengija . RMS will provide a guide ,cook and sufficient porters to carry heavy equipment and food , leaving the visitor to carry asmall pack with rain gear, spare clothes,camera,water bottle,and snacks. UWA will provide arranger escort. You will be responsible for providing your own food , cooking equipment and fuel,then first aidkit and sleeping bag and amat. Some equipment such as crampons, ice-axes,ropes and harnesses,can be rented from RMS. Food can be purchased in Kasese or Kampala but specialized ,lightweight dried meals should be brought with you to Uganda. Note tha park fees are paid separately to UWA.
Expeditions with technical mountaineering guides and quality equipment can also be arranged through several companies internationally or if in Uganda, the Adrift Adventure Company.
The Central Circuit Trail
Day one: Nyakalengija(1615m)-Nyabitaba Hut(2651m)
The central circuit starts at the RMS offices at Nyakalengija. You should arrive in the morning to allow ample time to rent equipment and meet your guides and porters. The trail begins by passing through farmland to the park boundary which it follows to the Mubuku river ,crossing its Mahoma tributary before starting along ,steep climb up onto amasssive bridge to reach Nyabitaba hut. This hike takes around 5 hours.
During this part of the trip you may hear chimpanzees and see black and white colobus, blue monkey and the brilliant coloured Rwenzori turaco.
Day two: Nyabitaba (2651m)-Mubuku River (2600m) JohnMatte Hut (3505m)
This involves a demanding 7+hour trek to John Matte hut. The central circuit ‘proper’ starts afew hundred meters beyond Nyabitaba where the trail divides. The right folk leads to the peaks up the Bujuku valley while the path on the left is used for the subsequent descent.
The trail leads to the kurt shafer bridge which crosses the Mubuku valley just below the river’s confluence with the Bujuku valley. Beyond the river , amuddy, slippery trail climbs steadily up through bamboo forest.
After a5hour trek is the start of the giant lobelia and groundsel zone , avegetation type limited to East Africa’s highest mountains. The final hours walk to John Matte hut passes through a challenging bog full of exta ordinary plants.
Day three: John Matte (3505m) to Bujuku (3962m)
The route fords the Bujuku River as you cross the lower Bigo bog . Asteep climb follows to reach the upper Bigo bog where aboard walk has been constructed to assist walkers. In clear weather, there asuperb views of Mt. Stanley at the head of this carvernous , glacier,moraine, criss-crossing the river,the trail reaches the lovely lake Bujuku.
The last stage of the 3-5hour hike to Bujukuhut past cooking pot cave is perhaps the muddiest stage of the expedition. The hut is well placed for parties climbing Mt. Speke.
Day four: Bujuku (3962m)-Scot Elliott Pass (4372m) Kitandara (4023m)
From Bujujku hut , the trail crosses more mud before climbing steeply through aforest of giant groundsels,climbing ashort metal ladder to ascend the groundsel gully. Above the gully,abranch in the trail climbs directly to Elena hut (4430m) for the ascent of Margherita peak on Mt.Stanley(5109m). This climb needs an ice axe, mountain boots, crampons and ropes.
The main trail continues up asteep scree slopes over scott Eliot pass, the highest point on the circuit. The pass provides fabulous views back down the Bujuku valley and of Mt. Stanley and Baker toweing above. Beyond the pass, the route runs downhill beneath the massive cliffs of Mt. Baker. After passing upper Kitandara, the 3-5hour hike ends at the hut beside lower lake kitandara, abeautiful site surrounded by towering peaks.
Day five: Kitandara (4023m)-Freshfield Pass (4282m)-Guy Yeoman(3505m)
Freshfield is along flat traverse through tracts of fabulously colourful moss (and more mud), beyond which the long descent to Nyakalengija begins. The hike to Guy Yeoman hut takes around 4hours. The hut enjoys alovely location close to the Mubuku River with terrific views of the looming Mt.Baker to the North.
Day six: Guy Yeoman(3505m)- Nyabitaba (2651m)
The descent to Nyabitaba takes around 5hours but with an early start so it is possible to make it all the way down to Nyakalengija. Below Guy Yeoman , the route descends the cliffs of kichuchu the muddy path crosses the Mubuku River twice before climbing upwards to Nyabitaba to complete the circuit.
Day seven: Nyabitaba (2651m)- Nyakalengija(1615m)
The descent to Nyabitaba to Nyakalengija takes 2-3 hours.
ACTIVITIES DONE IN THE PARK
Birding in Rwenzori Mountains
Birding opportunities are greatest in the montane forest; understandably, few species choose to make their home in the inhospitable world of the high Rwenzori. Bee-eaters, Robins, Sunbirds and Barbets are some of the 217 species found in Rwenzori Mountains National Park. Other species to watch out for include the Rwenzori Turaco and Long-eared Owl; while higher up on the slopes, Bearded Vultures, Swifts and Black Eagles may be seen circling for prey.
Cultural Encounters in Rwenzori Mountains
Ruboni Community Camp
Discover the peaceful farming village of Ruboni, home to around 2,000 Bakonzo, in the foothills of the Rwenzoris. Walk with the villagers as they demonstrate their daily activities, from tending to their animals and crops to preparing meals with the freshest ingredients. Meet the blacksmith, traditional healer, basket weavers and storytellers, and enjoy a vibrant dance performance accompanied by lively drumming.
Alternatively, your guide will lead you along the rocky Mubuku River. Ruboni means clear water in the local language of Lukonzo, and you will follow this crystal-clear stream, passing villagers carrying crops and wood. As the trail winds upwards, your guide will point out many colorful native birds such as the Rwenzori Turaco, tiny sunbirds and Cinnamon-chested Bee-eaters. There are also chameleons, squirrels and vervet monkeys.
Look out for Baker and Portal Peaks rising above the forests. On a clear day the snow capped Margherita Peak is also visible - a truly spectacular sight.
Hiking and Nature Walks in Rwenzori Mountains
The park provides opportunity for nature walks within the central circuit zone. These include trails up to Lake Mahooma and Buraro chimp forest; walks through the communities of Kichamba to reach the Karangura ridge; and hiking to Bundibugo area through Bwamba pass.
The communities of Ruboni and Turaco View also offer guided forest walks of various lengths just outside the park. Visitors can follow the River Mubuku, and glimpse views of Baker and Portal Peaks as they hike up to 2,300m above sea level. On a clear day it is even possible to view the snow capped Margherita Peak - a truly spectacular sight. Along the way, keep an eye out for chameleons, squirrels, vervet monkeys and many birds.
Bwamba Pass: Before a road was built in 1938 to link Fort Portal with the remote town of Bundibugyo, local people followed the most direct route between these settlements – a tough, 1,500m high trek over the steep north Rwenzori ridge, known as the Bwamba Pass. The Abanyarwenzori community group leads visitors over the mountain through isolated mountain villages to visit the bamboo forest and enjoy superb rift valley views.
Mountain/Volcano Climbing in Rwenzori Mountains
The Central Circuit Trail: This challenging, seven-day climb provides a circular tour of the high Rwenzori. From the trailhead at Mihunga, the route ascends the Bujuku Valley via Nyabitaba for acclimatization before reaching the peaks. Clients joining the Central Circuit after Bujuku will traverse the Scott Elliot and Freshfield passes to descend through the Mubuku Valley. Climbers can scale the snow peaks though many consider the exceptional scenery ample reward for their exertions.
Kilembe Trail: The recently reopened Kilembe Trail ascends the southern slopes of the Rwenzori from a trailhead at Kilembe near the town of Kasese. The route along the lovely Nyamwamba Valley passes glacial lakes and some stunning viewpoints before joining the Central Circuit at Lake Kitandara. The standard route scales Mount Baker though the scenery makes shorter treks rewarding enough.
Tours can be booked through Rwenzori Mountaineering Services (RMS) and Rwenzori Trekking Services (RTS)
Rwenzori Turaco View Camp Site
The tiny village of Mihunga faces the craggy, snow-capped peaks of Rwenzori Mountains. The Bakonzo tribe has lived here for over 300 years with no electricity or running water, and this community has adapted its way of life to the climate and steep green hillsides of the Rwenzori foothills.
Mihunga‘s community tourism group, Turaco View, takes visitors on a cultural tour of the village. This includes a demonstration by a traditional healer, whose herb-based concoctions are believed to cure many ailments. There is also a trip to the village school, a crafts demonstration and a lively dance performance.
Visitors can also choose to walk with a local guide through the surrounding forests. They may be lucky enough to spot brightly colored turacos in the forest canopy. The expert guides will be able to point out other species such as bee-eaters, sunbirds and playful black-and-white colobus monkeys.
Bulemba-Ihandiro Cultural Trail
Follow this fascinating six to seven hour trail through the holy valley and other sites of great cultural significance to the Bakonzo tribe. A community guide will introduce you to the traditional healer, explaining his powers, known as muhima; and to the local blacksmith, who will reveal the spiritual significance of the traditional Bakonzo stool. Basket weaving and firemaking skills are also demonstrated along the route.
The trail then takes you across the Kamusonge River whose waters are believed to be sweet and quick to quench the thirst. There is a break in a hut to enjoy the glorious mountain views and shelter from the equatorial sun, before embarking on the final hour-long walk to the museum, thatched in the traditional Konzo style. On display are implements used during the Rwenzururu struggle, traditional dress and the other items of historical and cultural importance to the people of the Rwenzori