Introduction to the Rwenzori Mountains
A magical land of fantastical vegetation and snow-capped peaks
The Rwenzori Mountains are one of the most exciting and challenging mountain ranges to trek and climb in the world. 996 square kilometres of fantastical vegetation, lakes, rocky outcrops, cliffs, high glaciers and snow-capped peaks exist as a unique and mystical world into which you can escape.
The height of the peaks may not match taller mountains elsewhere in the world, the highest point, Mt Stanley’s Margherita Peak, is 5,109 metres. But their remote location, fluctuating weather conditions, startlingly diverse vegetation, and low visitor numbers combine to thrill adventurous trekkers looking for a very special experience.
A snapshot of the mountains
The Rwenzori Mountains were gazetted as a national park in 1991, recognised as a World Heritage Site in 1994 and a Ramsar site in 2008. These classifications testify to the Mountains’ international scientific importance. The word ‘Rwenzori’ roughly translates as ‘Rainmaker’, which clearly illustrates the importance of the mountains to central Africa.
The atmosphere is moist; the mountains receive over 3 metres of rainfall a year. This makes the lower slopes lush with vegetation and the higher reaches covered in snow and ice. Although the glaciers have retreated massively over the last hundred years due to climate change, climbers in the wet season months will still have to navigate ice walls and significant snowfall to reach the peaks. This bit of Africa definitely isn’t hot.
Trekking in the Rwenzori Mountains
The Rwenzoris must be explored on foot and you must be of above average fitness and used to endurance activities. Margherita Peak has recently been reclassified as a technical climb and although you don’t need to be an expert climber in winter conditions, some experience is recommended.
A good variety of different length treks, from one to twelve days, are available to suit different interests from ‘peak baggers’ to birders keen to trace the region’s endemic species. Routes can also be extended where necessary for private groups to provide more opportunity to acclimatise to the altitude or to simply enjoy the peace, seclusion and beauty of the mountains.
The Trekking Routes
Two trekking circuits provide access to the Rwenzoris peaks: the Central Circuit out of Nyakalengija and the Southern Circuit out of Kilembe. While the Southern Circuit was the route first followed (largely) by Professor Scott Elliott in 1895, it is the central circuit, pioneered by Luigi di Savoia in 1906, that for many years provided the only access to mountains.
At Brilliant we only organise treks for the Southern Circuit. This is because it provides the most intense experience of almost virgin landscapes and longer routes that benefit acclimitisation (and the overall experience).
Guides and sustainable tourism
All of our guides receive comprehensive general mountaineering and specific ice climbing training. They are trained in mountain first aid and so are able to spot and respond to the first signs of altitude sickness. Rescue procedures are practised and reviewed regularly. Equipment is well-maintained and frequently checked.
$5 from each climb cost goes towards local development projects, contributing over the years to the construction of community trails outside of the national park, spreading the potential benefit of tourism, and constructing school classrooms in multiple locations.
Places to Stay
The Kilembe Southern Circuit is accessed from the Kasese area. The best place to begin and end a trek is the Rwenzori Trekkers Hostel in Kyanjuki Village, 12km from Kasese. A well renovated former copper mine building, the hostel overlooks the deep Nyamwamba river valley and has amazing views of the Rwenzori Mountains. Situated at 1,450 metre, it also has a lovely climate even in the January and February.
Accommodation on the treks is in specially constructed wooden huts, perfect for keeping out the worst of the weather and for storing equipment required on different sections of the trail. The treks are fully catered, using as much fresh produce as possible, whilst also meeting the energy and hydration needs of high altitude trekking.
When to Visit
It is possible to trek in the Rwenzoris all year round. At all times of year you should be prepared for a combination of sun, rain, mud, fog, ice and snow. However, the period from late June to early September and again late December to the end of February does tend to have lower rainfall, which means visitor numbers do peak during this time.
It is also worth remembering that the wetter months mean more rain lower down the slopes, but more snow at higher altitude, enhancing the already slightly mystical experience of trekking in the Rwenzoris.
Geography & Geology
Born of tectonic plate movement about three million years ago when ancient gneissic, quartzite and other crystalline rocks where forced up from the base of the Albertine Rift, the Rwenzoris are a 120 kilometre long, 65 kilometre wide mountain range running along the border with the DRC north of Lake Edward.
Unlike free standing volcanoes like Mts Kilimanjaro and Kenya, the Rwenzoris are formed from uplifted rock squeezed by tectonic plate movement in the late Pliocene era. They are therefore the largest mountain range in Africa.
The Rwenzoris are comprised of six distinct mountains and despite being located just north of the equator, the three highest - Mounts Stanley (5,109m), Speke (4,890m) and Baker (4,843m) all have permanent snow and glaciers.
The mountains receive over 3m of rainfall a year. This sustains the snow and the mud-bound trails, but it also is responsible for over 20 lakes throughout the national park. In particular, in the Nyamwamba Valley, ascended by the Kilembe Trail, dams created by glacial moraine have created a string of eight truly beautiful lakes. Water also flows from the mountains in a network of rivers and streams, sustaining life across a vast area in the plains below.
Flora & Fauna
Aside from the high alpine views, it is the flora of the mountains that has a far greater impact on the visitor than the local fauna.
Water is everywhere: cloud-bound, heavy in the mist, filling mountain streams and making mirrors of lakes. Temperature below 4,000 metres rarely exceeds 15 degrees Celsius and stays above freezing. This means that life thrives and the plants are dramatic. The lobelia are massive; heather stretches across the valleys; while garishly-coloured moss creeps across gnarled trees draped with lichen.
A trek will take you through different altitudinal zones of vegetation, each with its own micro-climate, flora and fauna.
The Afro-montane forest covers the slopes between 1,800m and 2,500m and has the most variety. Large established trees push to establish a canopy, whose breaks are filled by dense thickets. From 2,500m to 3,000m dense forest gives way to bamboo stands, leaves covering the ground in a dense litter and the flowers emerging only once every 30 years.
Above this, until 4,000m, you enter the heather zone. Sphagnum moss and usnea beard lichens pervade and the ground is stabbed with coral pink orchids. Bog-wet valley bottoms are populated by large tussocks.
Above 4,000m the alpine zone hosts giant groundsel, Senecio adnivalis and the torch lobelia, Lobelia wollastonii. After 4,300m the vegetation begins to thin out until nothing grows except moss, lichen and a few ‘Everlasting’ plants. The plants found above 3,800m are members of some of the world’s rarest botanical communities.
The vegetation zones are home to 70 species of mammal and 177 bird species. Of the mammals, there are elephant, chimpanzee, Rwenzori otter and leopard. Although present, the dense forest means these are seldom seen. Primates such as colobus (Angola and black-and-white varieties are both thought to be present) and blue monkeys are easier to spot, as are small antelope such as bushbucks and unusual reptiles such as the three-horned chameleon.
Of the bird species present, several are Albertine Rift endemics which makes the Rwenzoris an Important Birding Area (IBA). The greatest diversity is found in the montane forest where you may see the Rwenzori Turaco, Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo, Long-eared Owl, Handsome Francolin, Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater, Archers’ Robin-chat, White-starred Robin, Rwenzori Batis, Montane Sooty Boubou, Lagden’s Bush Shrike, Slender-billed Starling, Blue-headed Sunbird, Golden-winged Sunbird, Strange Weaver and several varieties of Barbets, Greenbuls, Apalises, IIladopsis, Flycatchers and Crimsonwings.
And don’t forget the superstars: up high hunt the lammergeiers and black eagles.
The nearest built-up area to the Rwenzori Mountains is the city of Kasese.
Kasese is easily accessible by air from Entebbe with daily flights taking just over an hour. Alternatively, the road journey from Entebbe/Kampala, via Fort Portal takes about six hours. If coming up from Queen Elizabeth National Park, the journey takes about an hour. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in the south-west corner of Uganda (home to the mountain gorillas) is about a six hour drive.