The Ruwenzori Mountains have always held a mystery, inspiring travelers and dreamers and those who dared to come closer to ice cold nights, boggy terrain, fog and rain to last a lifetime but these snow caped ranges have always remained a mystery to man since 150 AD when the ancient Greeks referred to them as the ‘Mountains of the Moon’.
The existence of the mountain range, the only one along the equatorial belt in Africa featuring glaciers and icecaps was only confirmed in modern days by British explorer Henry Morton Stanley in May 1888, when he surprisingly spotted the peaks as the cloud cover lifted.
Despite the legends, the existence of these mountains was not confirmed outside of Central Africa until the arrival of Henry Morton Stanley. In 1876 he first glimpsed the range, then in 1888 he noticed what he first thought to be a cloud then later realized was the slopes of a mountain covered with snow.
For a number of years explorers attempted to reach the peaks but were always turned back from the highest summits by the thick vegetation, bad weather, disease, or lack of time. Often weeks can pass before, almost at the whim of the moment, the clouds disappear and reveal the majestic views of the tall peaks of Mt. Stanley (5.109), Mt. Speke (4.890), Mt. Baker (4.843), Mt. Emin (4.798) Mt. Gessi (4.715) and Mt. Luigi di Savoia (4.627).
In 1889, G. W. Stairs reached over 3000 meters on Mt. Emin but never got beyond the thick vegetation. Two years later, in 1891 Emin Pasha and Dr. Franz Stulman reached high into the range and realized that it was a true mountain range and not a single peak. Scott Elliot came to the range a few years later and ascended much or the Mubuku and Bujuku Valleys. The glaciers were reached in 1900 by J.E.S. Moore and later the Stanley Plateau by Dr. J.J. David from the Congo in 1904. The highest peaks were first climbed in 1906. Graur’s party made an ascent of Graur’s rock on Mt. Baker, then H.B. Wollaston climbed Wollaston Peak of Mt. Baker in February of that year. In June, the Duke of Abruzzi arrived and climbed the six central glaciated massifs of the range during a protracted expedition.
It wasn’t until many years later that others came to further the exploration: Noel Humphries of Mt. Everest fame made seven trips into the mountains around 1930 and Shipton and Tilman climbed a number of new routes in 1932. In the same year, a major Belgan expedition explored the range from the west and made the first ascent of Mt. Stanley from that side. The Congo side of the Rwenzori Mountains were included in Albert National Park in 1929. The name was changed to Virunga National Park (Parc National des Virunga) in 1969, and was included as a U.N. World Heritage Site in 1979. During the instability around 2001 there were significant incursions into this area by rebel forces. On the Ugandan side of the border, the area was protected as the Rwenzori National Park in 1993 and declared a United Nations World Heritage Site in 1994.
Covering nearly 1,000 square kilometers in size, the Rwenzori Mountains National Park includes the entire lowith of the mountain range, 110 kilometres, and the width to the international border, some 65 kilometres. Inside visitors can see at least some of 70 mammal species ever recorded and many of the nearly 220 bird species identified, including some of the endernics only found in the Albertine Graben that forms part of the western arm of the Great Rift Valley.
This level of protection is in part due to the extensive work and lobbying of Guy Yeoman who explored all over the Rwenzori in the late 20th Century. Currently, trips to the Rwenzori are accompanied by local guides and porters, in a tradition kept going by the well known individual John Matte. Although some might argue it would be easier to just go by themselves, you’ll definitely enjoy the company and the wisdom of these people. It provided a much broader experience, as well as infusing valuable cash to the porters and guides. The destiny of parks such as the Rwenzori hinges strongly on buy in from the local people and hiring these guides serves as an important means of protecting what is so special about this range.
Rwenzori is a special place to visit.
Currently, the best access to the Rwenzori is from Uganda. The Entebbe International Airport, on the shores of Lake Victoria, is excellent with frequent connections to Nairobi.
There are many hotels available in Entebbe and Kampala capital (4 hours drive to Kasese). From Kampala, there are two major routes to the mountain: a northern one through the beautiful town of Fort Portal, then south to Ibanda, and a southern route through Kasese that crosses the equator twice. Each of these takes the better part of a day to reach Ibanda at the foot of the mountains. The roads on the northern route vary from excellent to rough dirt tracks, while those on the southern route are generally good paved surfaces.
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There is public transportation from Kampala to the Rwenzori, although cheap, is rather difficult to take advantage of. We recommend you hire a local outfitter (Adyeri Safaris) to take care of the logistics, and drive you to the mountains in an air conditioned four wheel drive vehicle.
The mountains have also been approached from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the West. Old guides talk of flying into Kigali in Rwanda then taking a bus to Gisenyi, crossing into the Congo and continuing to Beni. From there, if you continue in the direction of Kasindi then to Beni you pass within 13 km of Mutwanga, the traditional starting off point for expeditions from this side. We would like to stress that there may still be considerable risk in attempting an approach from the Democratic Republic of the Congo considering random Ebola outbreaks in the region and political insurgents.
The weather in the Rwenzori is generally wet, with the peaks shrouded in mist most of the time. Although this makes for really wild rime formations on the higher summits and glaciers, it can make mountaineering and route finding challenging.
Worldwide, there is a band of rising air near the equator that leads to heavy rains, known as the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). It is also called the doldrums. In June, this migrate northward, giving India and the Himalaya its monsoon season. In December, it is in the Southern Hemisphere, giving heavy rains to northern Australia and such places. During the spring and the fall, this zone of heavy precipitation passes over the Equator.
Since the Rwenzori are equatorial, spring and fall are a bad time to visit! During January and February there is a drier “North Eastern Monsoon” and in June and July a drier “SE Monsoon”. These are the preferred months to visit the range. However, with that said, I went during July and encountered rain or thunder every single day that I was in the mountains. Generally, though, the rain and snow during these times are not heavy or long lasting and most of the days are fine for backpacking and wandering among the peaks.
If you are planning a peak ascent, it is best to do so early in the morning. Generally, the best weather is between the hours of 2:00 AM and about 8:00 AM, after which mists and clouds often veil the peaks. When I was there, there were frequent thunderstorms at night and even dawn, then in the afternoons, but not during the hours of about 7:00 AM to 10:00 AM.
If you want to ski on the Stanley Plateau, you might consider a trip right at the transition between the wet and dry seasons, as later in the dry season the glaciers may be bare ice in many places.