In AD150, the Alexandrian geographer Ptolemy wrote of as now capped mountain range, deep in the heart of Africa that, he claimed, 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 in fiction for the Mountains of the Moon seemed assured. But then, in 1889, Henry Stanley emerged from central Africa to announce that such a mountain did exist. He mapped it by its local name of Rwenjura – or ‘rainmaker’.
In due course mountaineers explored Ptolemy’s Mountains of the Moon. Though just miles north of the Equator, they found in the high Rwenzori glaciers and snow peaks whose meltwaters represent the highest springs of the Nile. These trickle downwards into U-shaped glacial valleys where, supplemented by up to 2500mm of rain/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.
The 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 that meanders along the Mobuku and Bujuku valleys beneath the highest peaks. Though distances are short, the terrain, altitude and weather combine to create a tough trek, the diffi culty of which should not be underestimated.
How to get there
The Rwenzori lies a few kilometres north of the equator, rising over 4000m above the floor of the Albertine Rift Valley. The park trailhead at Nyakalengija can be reached from Kampala from the north via Fort Portal (375km) or the south passing through Mbarara and Queen Elizabeth National Park (450km). Nyakalengija is 17km off the Kasese-Fort Portal road and 25km north of Kasese town. Charter fl ights to Kasese can be arranged from Kampala (Kajjansi) or Entebbe.
Flora and fauna
The Rwenzori today is remarkable for its fl ora rather than its fauna. Elephant, buffalo, giant forest hog, bushbuck, 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 a few forests along the Albertine rift, notably the Rwenzori Turaco. In the alpine zone look for the Malachite Sunbird.
An ascent of the mountain passes through a series of increasingly dramatic vegetation zones. Above the Bakonzo farmlands, montane forest (1500-2500m) gives way to bamboo stands and messy tangles of Mimulopsis (2500-3000m). This is followed by the lovely Heather-Rapenea zone (3000-4000m), which is characterized by giant tree-heathers (Erica spp.), garishly coloured mosses and drab beards of lichen. Spectacular forms of giant lobelia (Lobelia spp.) and groundsels (Senecio spp.) are first found in this zone. These plants persist into the highest, Alpine zone (3800-4500m) where they are joined by wiry but pretty thickets of Helichrysum or ‘everlasting flowers’.
The Bigo Bogs in the Upper Bujuku Valley are colonised by tussocks of sedge (Carex spp). These provide climbers with useful if disconcertingly wobbly ‘stepping stones’ with which to negotiate these notoriously muddy sections.
The mountain’s Central Circuit is provided with basic mountain huts (you should take your own sleeping bags and sleeping mats). Camping and rooms are available at the Circuit’s Nyakalengija trailhead at Ruboni Campsite and RMS Guesthouse. The trailhead for the proposed Kilembe Trail is served by Rwenzori Backpackers Hostel. Other options exist in Kasese, Fort Portal and in 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 alpine expedition, taking a good quality sleeping bag and raingear, and a supply of spare 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 peaks. A pair of gumboots is better suited to the boggy conditions of the Central Circuit.
The Central Circuit hike is organised through the Rwenzori Mountaineering Services (RMS) and starts from Nyakalengija. RMS will provide a guide, cook, and sufficient porters to carry your heavy equipment and food, leaving you to carry a small pack with raingear, spare clothes, camera, water bottle and snacks. UWA will provide a ranger escort. You will be responsible for providing your own food, cooking equipment and fuel, first aid kit, and sleeping bag and mat. Some equipment, such as crampons, ice-axes, ropes and harnesses, can be rented from RMS. Food can be purchased in Kasese or Kampala but specialised, lightweight dried meals should be brought with you to Uganda. Note that 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 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 beyond which it follows the Mubuku river, crossing its Mahoma tributary before starting a long, steep climb up onto a massive ridge to reach Nyabitaba hut. The hike takes around 5 hours. During this part of the trip you may hear chimpanzee and see black and white colobus, blue monkey and the brilliantly coloured Rwenzori turaco.
Day Two: Nyabitaba (2651m) – Mubuku River (2600m) John Matte Hut (3505m)
This involves a demanding 7+ hour trek up to John Matte hut. The Central Circuit ‘proper’ starts a few hundred metres beyond Nyabitaba where the trail divides. The right fork 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, a muddy, slippery trail climbs steadily up through bamboo forest. After a five hour trek is the start of the giant lobelia and groundsel zone, a vegetation type limited to East Africa’s highest mountains. He final hour’s walk to John Matte hut passes through a challenging bog full of extraordinary plants.
Day Three: John Matte (3505m) to Bujuku (3962m)
The route fords the Bujuku River as you cross the Lower Bigo bog, A steep climb follows to reach the Upper Bigo Bog where a boardwalk has been constructed to assist walkers. In clear weather, there are superb views of Mt. Stanley at the head of this cavernous, glacier-carved valley. Above the bog, after a long steady climb over glacial moraine, criss-crossing the river, the trail reaches the lovely Lake Bujuku. The last stage of the 3-5 hour hike to Bujuku Hut past Cooking Pot Cave is perhaps the muddiest stage of the expedition. The hut is well placed for parties climbing Mt. Speke.