Snow capped Rwenzori peaks, are the pinnacle of a near 4,000m ascent, through a phenomenally diverse wilderness. Setting out from the terraced foothills tended by the Bakonzo people, who call the Rwenzori mountains home.
Hiking up through tropical hardwood forest, and towering bamboos before reaching surreal, boggy Afro-alpine moorlands, that were dotted with giant flowering lobelias and aliens in the mist.
“People may have heard about Uganda’s safari parks, but this is Africa’s botanical Big Game,” said Edison Kule, chief guide at RTS.
As we ascended, Kule leading the way, co-guide Enock Bwambale stopped frequently, to point out medicinal plants: soft pink impatiens flowers that are said to ease delivery during childbirth.
The thick bark of symphonia trees used to treat diarrhea. “People can live here for a long time without needing to visit the hospital,” he said.
Bwambale first climbed the mountains in 2003, as a porter for the Uganda Wildlife Authority. “It was so attractive,” he remembered. “I found all sorts of plants and trees that I had never seen before. Every time I come here I discover something new – it never gets boring.”
Why Rwenzori – snow capped
The name Rwenzori stems from rwenzururu, which means “place of snow” in the Bakonzo language, and the mountains’ remarkable biodiversity, owes much to this disappearing glacial landscape.
Over millennia, the periodic advance and retreat of glaciers squeezed, and then opened up the fertile land available to plants.
These cycles of intense competition and opportunity, created the conditions for rapid evolution. “When the snow melted, all those valleys and ridges started developing different types of plants and trees,” said Bwambale.
The Rwenzori Mountains National Park, is home to dozens of species of plants and animals, not found anywhere else in the world, such as the Rwenzori red duiker (a type of antelope) and the rare, dark Rwenzori leopard.
Many others – such as forest elephants, chimpanzees and L’Hoest’s monkeys. For centuries, the Bakonzo people have lived in and around the Rwenzori Mountains, farming in the foothills and gathering firewood and hunting animals from the surrounding forest.
Taking only what they needed, the Bakonzo co-existed with their environment. “Kitasamba is the god who sits atop the mountain, it means ‘the great one who does not climb’,” explained Kule.
“If you misbehave when you are on this mountain, you will be punished by the gods who are watching over you.” Community leaders still collect offerings, and leave them in them in the forest for the god Kalisha, Kitasamba’s son who takes care of the mountain’s wildlife.
But in the late 1970s and ‘80s, civil war forced civilians,, away from their homes to shelter in the forest. Then, in 1990s, the mountains were occupied by guerrilla fighters, from Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which borders the national park.
“The elephants were killed in big numbers, which changed the ecosystem. The elephants used to eat the vines, but now the vines are strangling the young trees and killing them,” said Kule, pointing to a tangled knot in the canopy weighing down its unwilling host.
In place of trees, dense 3m-high bush has now taken hold in some parts of the national park, a challenge to the team of pathfinders creating new trails, to replace those recently swept away.
“We’ve had to go through very thick vegetation. Sometimes we explore three or four times before we find a good route. Often, it’s on a slope like this,” said Hunwick, pointing along a vertiginous drop. “We’re digging down, it’s an enormous effort.”
In every disaster, an opportunity
Not only has this area created employment, but also an atmosphere of optimism: in spite of coronavirus, in spite of the landslides, there is hope that the trekking industry will is still amazing.
“We’re here rebuilding for our survival,” said Pelousi Masika, 32, stepping aside from the churned soil, hoe in hand. Maska’s work as a porter with RTS has largely dried up. “Making these new trails will bring people back to the Rwenzori Mountains,” she said.
Without income from tourists, and with the cost of food rising because of the pandemic, many local communities have little choice but to hunt bushmeat.
A practice that was banned when the Rwenzori Mountains, were designated a national park in 1991. In recent months, a five-day anti-poaching patrol has regularly carried back hundreds of snares and traps with them.
The formation of the national park aggrieved many local communities, which forbade their customary use of the mountains.
But in the face of growing populations in surrounding towns and villages, and the disrupted ecological balance during two decades of war, local hunting practices were deemed unsustainable.
Hunwick believes that tourism, and the employment it provides, can offer an alternative livelihood that also allows wildlife to flourish.
“It’s very important that the community lives in harmony with the national parks,” agreed Kule. “In the last 20 years, I’ve seen lots of wildlife coming back: duikers, blue monkeys, lots of bird species.
Bypassing the unfinished stretch of trail, followed by the river along a string of waterfalls that flow, over smooth granite boulders into iridescent pools.
Looking out over one especially beautiful cascade that plug more than 50m. Even now the force of the Nyamwamba River demands respect.
People may have heard about Uganda’s safari parks, but this is Africa’s botanical Big Game
“When the floods came it was torture,” said Kule. “But much as we’ve been affected by the floods, we’ve also been making new discoveries, like the series of waterfalls along this valley.”
“It’s an absolute hidden game,” agreed Hunwick. Concluding that, “In every disaster, there’s always an opportunity.”
Hiking the Snow Capped Rwenzori
If you love hiking, then you’ll undoubtedly want to consider the 5,119 meters-high, snow-capped ‘Mountains of the Moon.’ They offer just the unique trekking and hiking experiences you’ve likely been looking forward to.
The Rwenzori Central Circuit Zone offers plenty of opportunities for hikes and nature walks. Such include walks through the Kichamba communities to the Karangura Ridge, trails up to the Buraro Chimp Forest and Lake Mahoma, and hiking through Bwamba Pass to the Bundibugo area.
The Bwamba Pass is a 1,500-metre high trek atop the steep Northern Rwenzori Ridge. Here, the Abanya community will lead you over the mountains and isolated villages to reach the Bamboo Forest. From this point, you’ll be able to enjoy superb views of the Rift Valley.
The communities of Turaco and Ruboni offer opportunities for guided forest walks just outside the Rwenzori Mountains National Park. You can follow the iconic River Mubuku and enjoy Fort Baker & Portal Peaks’ scenic views as you hike up to around 2,300 meters above sea level.
It’s even possible to enjoy truly spectacular views of the highest, snow-capped Margherita Peak on clear days. Additionally, you’ll want to keep your eyes open for birds, vervet monkeys, squirrels, and chameleons.
Rwenzori Mountains’ Highest Peaks
By the early twentieth century, the Rwenzori Mountain Range, was still hugely unexplored and its peaks unclimbed. During then, Uganda was a large region filled with dense forests, malaria-infested swamps, and lakes.
Luigi Di Savoia, an ancient Duke of Abruzzi, began pondering about climbing the Rwenzori Mountains. Luigi had previously reached the highest peaks of Mount Saint Elias (Alaska).
He departed for Uganda with his scientific expedition in 1906, accompanied by J. Brocherel, C. Ollier, and J. Petigax.
He was able to reach the loftiest peak, climbing 5,109 meters high. Luigi di Savoia named this peak ‘Margherita’ after an Italian Queen who had financed his expedition.
Gear Up and Visit the Rwenzori Mountains (Uganda)
Inspire African Safaris, has quite a lot to offer, from unique nature walks, amazing cultural encounters, exploration of exotic plants, wildlife scenery, trekking, hiking opportunities, and fantastic birding chances.
Hiking these mountains provides a rewarding, and exhilarating experience but one that must be planned appropriately. As with any other tour experience in the wild, the key to a memorable hike in the Rwenzori Range is good preparation.
You should pack reliable rain gear, a sleeping bag(s), gloves, a warm hat, heavy socks, and gaiters during any season. Porters will help carry your food and heavy equipment, thus allowing you to take other essential luggage.
It’s pretty difficult to predict how high altitude will affect your body. For that reason, you must play safe and carry along a well-stocked first-aid kit, especially if it’ll be your first time to ascend thousands of feet.
Hiking the snow capped Rwenzori is more than cool, and everybody should try it out.