The mysterious Mountains of the Moon are among the most fabled places in Africa, yet they remain surprisingly unspoilt. And conquering the summit of Uganda’s snow-encrusted highest peak is challenging to say the least. Words and photographs by Morgan Trimble
I clawed over a final bit of steep rock jutting out through crunchy snow. My guide Benard offered me a hand; crampons are treacherous on exposed rock and a fall here could be deadly. The final obstacle overcome, I clambered to my feet and struggled to catch my breath in the alarmingly thin air, one foot on the roof of Uganda and the other planted on the apex of the DRC. I was standing atop Africa’s third-highest peak, Mount Stanley, a 5109m behemoth hidden in the heart of the equatorial Rwenzori Mountains.
If you’ve ever dreamt of climbing Kilimanjaro but are put off by the thought of marching between camps as part of a snaking parade of tourists, you should embark on a journey to western Uganda’s Mountains of the Moon. Higher than the Alps and with unique flora and fauna, this remote region will appeal to travellers who appreciate solitude, wilderness and otherworldly scenery. While Mount Kilimanjaro receives over 50,000 visitors each year, just a few thousand venture into the 100,000-hectare Rwenzori Mountain National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On my nine-day trek along the Kilembe Route, the main circuit of permanent camps and trails, I encountered just seven other visitors. Vincent (my climbing companion) and I felt as if we had the entire range to ourselves, apart from our grandiose entourage, of course, which included ten porters and two guides, Sam and Benard.
Our climb commenced in Kilembe (1450m), an old mining town in the terraced foothills. Once we crossed the park boundary cultivation gave way to montane forest clinging to steep slopes. The Rwenzori vegetation changes with elevation, and on the second day we began to pass through thick stands of bamboo. Next we entered the heather zone: a mist-veiled, fairytale forest of boulder-strewn streams and giant Erica arborea dripping with mosses, epiphytes and lichen descriptively called ‘old man’s beard’.
We slept at Mutinda Camp (3700m) in permanent tents nestled under a colossal rock ledge. Though I was lying motionless on a mattress, I felt as if I’d just sprinted the 100 metres, struggling to catch my breath due to the altitude.
On the third day, as my body acclimatised, we climbed higher into the Afro-alpine zone, an astonishing botanical wonderland where plants are prone to gigantism in order to survive the extreme temperatures, rainfall and ultraviolet and infrared radiation. Spectacular giant lobelias and Dendrosenecio (giant groundsel) trees dominate the landscape. Dominant, too, are the mountains’ infamous bogs, which are fed by more than two metres of rain per year. Despite our Wellington boots the going was frustratingly slow: we battled through thick swampy mud that clung to us incessantly, leaping wherever possible between tussocks of endemic bog grass. We arrived at our next camp, Bugata (4062m), completely exhausted.
Similarly, on the fourth and fifth days, we wound our way through quagmires, over the icy Bamwanjara Pass (4450m), through more bogs and along forested lakeshores. Snow fell as we finally arrived at desolate Margherita Camp (4485m), from where we would take on the biggest challenge of all: Mount Stanley’s highest summit, Margherita Peak. Before a short, restless sleep, our guides distributed some of the equipment we would need to reach our goal: crampons, harnesses, karabiners, helmets and ice axes.
When 2am struck we were woken, bleary-eyed but bursting with excitement. With our hearts thumping in our mouths we started to climb by the feeble glow of our headlamps. Eventually, in the dark and snow, we came to a sloping slab of ice-caked rock that needed to be traversed. Benard confidently attached a cord between my harness and a frozen rope fixed to the horizontal rock face. I was already weary, but I was fixated on reaching the summit.
Without much thought for the precarious situation, I stepped awkwardly onto the frozen lip of rock. I had taken only two steps before my rigid mountaineering boots slid from underneath me, straight off the ledge. My knees smashed into the rock without slowing my fall. “Well, this is it!” I thought. But suddenly, with a violent jerk, my harness abruptly halted my descent. With my legs shaking violently, Benard dragged me back onto the ledge. The speed at which I had gone from standing safely to dangling perilously from a weathered rope snapped me back into focus.
Our steep route levelled out at the Stanley Plateau. Here we put on our crampons and the guides tied us together on one long rope, with Benard in the lead, then me, followed by Vincent and Sam. Meanwhile, Benard gave us a worryingly brief description of glacier crossing: “Follow the leader, keep the rope taught and if someone slips, everyone else sprawl onto your belly and thrust your ice axe into the snow with a two-hand grip.” I forced Benard to repeat those final instructions again and felt woefully unprepared.
Crossing Stanley Glacier in the dark was very eerie. All I could hear was the harsh, whipping wind and continually crunching footsteps. I couldn’t even see Benard; I just followed the rope, which trailed off through the thick mist in front of me. His crampon-clad boots were leaving huge, monster-clawed prints in the crisp powder. I might just as well have been tracking the abominable snowman, I thought.
When we reached the steep Margherita Glacier, walking became much tougher. My calves and ankles were screaming and my desperate lungs heaved to keep up with the group’s pace. Though we couldn’t see the sunrise through the mist and snow, the sky lightened. After what felt like days, but in truth was just five hours, we crested Margherita Peak, the summit of Mount Stanley and the roof of Uganda. Just then, an arctic-cold wind swept away the clouds and the glaciers below glistened like icing in the blazing equatorial sun. For the first time we saw our surroundings. Under an impossibly blue sky, jagged peaks and snow-covered valleys encircled us — in one direction stretching into Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains, in the other sprawling into DRC’s Virunga National Park. Our deep footprints, snaking across the glacier, were the only sign of humanity for miles.
Tears of joy, relief and awe melted the ice crystals that had accumulated on my eyelashes. Vincent and I congratulated one another and giggled like children. It was the happiest I’d ever felt. And best of all, we still had four days, on the descent, to relish the magic of the Mountains of the Moon.
Did you know?
When Greco-Roman scholars speculated on the source of the Nile two millennia ago, the geographer and mathematician Ptolemy claimed it was located in a snow-covered range called the ‘Mountains of the Moon’, which he located in the vicinity of today’s Rwenzoris. It wasn’t until the 1870s that explorer Henry Morton Stanley became the first European to venture here. His expedition proved Ptolemy’s early conjecture to be surprisingly accurate: the range is now recognised as the highest and most permanent source of the Nile. In 1906 Italian Prince Luigi Amedeo, Duke of Abruzzi, led the first scientific expedition here, completing the first ascent of Mount Stanley’s highest peak, which he named Margherita after his queen.
• Getting there The best way to reach the Rwenzori Mountains National Park is by car from Entebbe Airport to Kilembe (about a seven-hour drive) or by public bus to Kasese. The writer booked her hike through Rwenzori Trekking Services. Besides the Margherita Peak there are other shorter routes available, catering to different interests and fitness levels.
• Where to stay Visitors stay in permanent camps along the routes. n When to visit The Rwenzoris can be cold and rainy at any time but the drier months are January, February, July and August.
• Health Mount Stanley is considered a more difficult climb than its higher neighbours Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya. Comprehensive medical and evacuation insurance is vital, as is taking suitable high-quality equipment and clothing. You should also consult a travel clinic or your doctor about antimalarials, altitude sickness tablets and any necessary vaccinations.
Wildlife of Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains
Home to a huge number of endemic plant, bird and mammal species, this bio-diverse, unspoilt corner of Uganda is certainly worth exploring
The snow-dusted Rwenzoris (or Mountains of the Moon) lie on the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The equatorial peaks are part of a string of mountain ranges that form the Albertine Rift, including Mount Stanley, the third-highest point in Africa. The lower slopes and foothills are blanketed in bamboo, tree heath (Erica arborea) and rain-drenched montane forest.
A vast range of creatures reside here, many of which, especially at high altitude, are endemic to the Albertine Rift. There are also at least three globally threatened mammals, plus a number of undocumented invertebrates and plants.
The amphibians (with 32 strict endemics and a further seven near endemics) have the highest number of species restricted to the area, from reed, screeching and river frogs to clawed toads.
There are also 217 bird species, of which 17 are endemic to the Albertine Rift. If you’re lucky, you might catch sight of a Ruwenzori turaco, Ruwenzori batis or several varieties of barbet, greenbul, apalise, iIladopsis, flycatcher and crimson-wing.
The mountains are also home to rare and endangered mammals: there are 10 types of shrew and 12 of rodent. The semi-aquatic Ruwenzori otter shrew, which can occasionally be spotted paddling in streams, is strictly endemic to this place.
Larger endemic mammals include the Ruwenzori red-fronted duiker – a small, stocky antelope – and the extremely rare Rwenzori leopard, which is heavily poached for its unusual, near-black coats. On the primate front, the national park is home to a sub-species of the owl-faced monkey, rare white-bearded l’Hoest’s monkeys and, although not endemic, of course, some of the few remaining mountain gorillas, one of the most critically threatened mammals in the world.
By Rose Gamble