Rwenzori Mountains National Park
‘The Mountains of the Moon’ ~ Ptolemy AD 150
Rwenzori Mountains National Park
The Rwenzoris – the fabled Mountains of the Moon – lie in western Uganda along the Uganda-Congo border. The equatorial snow peaks include the third highest point in Africa, while the lower slopes are blanketed in moorland, bamboo and rich, moist montane forest. Huge tree heathers and colourful mosses are draped across the mountainside with giant lobelia’s and ‘everlasting flowers’, creating an enchanting, fairy-tale scene.
Rwenzori Mountains National Park protects the highest parts of the 120 km-long and 65 km-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. The park was gazetted in 1991 and was recognised as a World Heritage site in 1994 and Ramsar site in 2008. The highest point is 5,109 meter 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 up-faulted 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 labelled it ‘Ruwenzori’, a local name which he recorded as meaning ‘Rain-Maker’ or ‘Cloud-King’.
In the years since Stanley’s 1888 visit, the Rwenzori has become established as one of Africa’s great mountaineering adventures, offering the chance to ascend snow peaks and walk on equatorial glaciers that represent the highest and most intriguing source of the Nile. Though the range is now established as the Rwenzori, the Mountains of the Moon tag remains apt for the higher contours are the domain of a weird and wonderful botany that imparts a distinctly alien feel. Unlike other regional mountains, moreover, the high Rwenzori really does feel like a place apart; after starting a trek, a week can pass without a glimpse of the real world that lies beyond.
The Rwenzori range, which lies on the Uganda-Congo border on the edge of the Albertine Rift Valley, measures approximately 110 km long and 50 km wide. The high Rwenzori bears six distinct mountains. Mt Stanley (5109 m); Speke (4890 meter); Baker (4843 meter); Emin (4797 meter); Gessi (4715 meter) and Luigi da Savoia (4627 meter), all of which bear their own crown of peaks. Though its summit is only the third highest point in Africa, after the volcanic Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya, the Rwenzori, which is an up-faulted block, is Africa’s highest mountain range. Trails ascend to the peaks from Kilembe, Mihunga and Katebwa.
Make no mistake; climbing the mountain is tough. Conditions are cold and wet, the terrain is steep and boggy and a week or more is needed to reach (and descend from) Mount Stanley. But with the help of local Bakonzo guides and porters, the mountain can be climbed and the rewards are vast. Indeed your Rwenzori experience will likely rank among your most challenging and satisfying achievements.
The park is home to 70 species of mammal, including six Albertine Rift endemics; four are endemic to the park and three are rare species. Other mammals include the elephant, chimpanzee, Rwenzori otter and leopard. Though wildlife is difficult to spot in the dense forest, do look out for primates such as colobus (Angola and black-and-white varieties are both present) and blue monkeys; small antelope such as bushbucks; and unusual reptiles such as the three-horned chameleon. Rwenzori Mountains National Park is known for its distinctive flora rather than its fauna. On the route to the peaks, hikers climb through a series of distinct altitudinal vegetation zones; montane forest, bamboo, tree heathers and afro-alpine. The latter, with its emblematic giant forms of Senecio (groundsel) and lobelia, is one of the world’s rarest botanical communities, being limited to East African mountains above 3800 meter.
Rwenzori is home to 217 recorded bird species, most of which live in the forest zone close to the park boundary. Among these are 17 species that are endemic to the park making Rwenzori an important birding area (IBA). Species of interest include the Ruwenzori turaco, Rwenzori batis, Rwenzori double collared sunbird, handsome francolin, strange weaver, Rwenzori nightjar, Archer’s robin-chat and red-throated alethe. Wildlife is scarce in the harsh environment higher up the mountain but watch for the scarlet-tufted malachite sunbird feeding on lobelia flowers and the endangered lammergeyer soaring overhead. The main ‘wildlife’ attraction in Rwenzori Mountains National Park is its vegetation for, standing over 5,000 meter high, this is prime habitat for the ‘botanical big game’ peculiar to East Africa’s highest mountains. The lowest of these zones, between the park boundary and the 2,500 meter contour, is montane forest. This gives way to the bamboo (2,500-3,000 meter) followed by groves of Rapanea and giant heathers garlanded with lianas, epiphytes and lichens, and encased in garishly coloured mosses (3,000 – 4,000 meter). Above 4,000 meter the mountainside opens out into moorland dotted with the emblematic – and in some cases endemic – species of giant lobelia and groundsel for which the Rwenzori is famous.
More Info On The Activities
Three routes ascend onto the high Rwenzori. Rwenzori Trekking Services (RTS) operates the Kilembe Trail which enables nine-day expeditions to summit Mount Stanley and a shorter, six day option to the more accessible, but equally scenic, Mt. Luigi da Savoia. The Nyakalengija based Rwenzori Mountaineering Services runs the Central Circuit which reaches and returns from Mount Stanley in seven days. The Bukurungu Trail ascends from Kitumba to Mount Gessi.
The highest peaks on the six mountains that form the high Rwenzori can all be climbed. The most popular is the 5109 meter Margherita, the highest point on Mount Stanley and the roof of the Rwenzori. Be aware that summiting on Stanley, Speke, and Baker is a physically demanding activity, frequently in bad weather, and for which specialist equipment and technical experience is required. An ascent of Mount Stanley requires a minimum of seven days on the mountain.
The real appeal of the Rwenzori lies, arguably, not in the joy of reaching the top, but in the opportunity to hike through superb mountain scenery enlivened by equatorial snow and outlandish vegetation. With this in mind, shorter hikes to lesser peaks are becoming increasingly popular. A popular destination on the Kilembe Trail is the 4627 meter Mt. Luigi da Savoia which offers Afro-alpine vegetation, patches of equatorial snow and, weather permitting, grandstand views towards Mount Stanley, the summit of which lies three days distant. Nyakalengija Trailhead offers a two-day hike to the scenic Lake Mahoma in the bamboo forest. The Kazingo Trail enables a day-long traverse of the north Rwenzori ridge between the Fort Portal plateau and Bundibugyo town in the Semliki Valley on the west side of the mountain.
Be sure to bring the following; sleeping bag, camping mat, warm clothing, gloves, rain gear, including good waterproof trousers, head-mounted torch, lots of plastic bags (to keep fresh clothes dry and to quarantine wet and muddy garments), energy snacks and any necessary medication. Hiking boots are required on the peaks, but on other days, gumboots are more useful. Specialist gear for climbing the peaks can be hired from your trail operator.
Forest Walks And Birding
The forest zone, which occupies the lower contours of the national park, can be visited as a day walk from the Kilembe and Nyakalengija trailheads. Happily for birders, this relatively accessible area is where the park’s birdlife is concentrated. Look out for the Rwenzori turaco and Rwenzori double collared sunbird and other localised rarities such as the three horned chameleon and Rwenzori colobus.