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A Traveller’s Guide To Hiking Mountain Rwnezori

The Rwenzori is a rage of mountains found in eastern Africa at the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The range’s upper regions are permanently snowcapped and glaciated all year round. The ranges are within Rwenzori Mountains National Park, Uganda, and Virunga National Park, D.R Congo.

The range covers a distance of about 120 kilometers long and 65 kilometers wide. It is made up of 6 mountains separated by deep gorges: Mount Stanley 5,109 meters, Mount Speke 4,890 meters, Mount Baker 4,843 meters, Mount Emin 4,798 meters, Mount Gessi 4,715 meters, and Mount Luigi di Savoia 4,627 meters. Mount Stanley has several subsidiary summits, with Margherita Peak being the highest point.

There are 5 vegetation zones in the Rwenzori: the evergreen tropical forest zone that goes up to 2800 meters, the bamboo zone that lies between 2,800 to 3,300 meters, the heather zone between 3,000 to 3,800 meters, the alpine zone between 3,500 to 4,500 meters, and, the nival zone that lies between 4,400 to 5,000 meters.

The range supports some endemic plant species and varieties of giant groundsel and giant lobelia and even has six meters tall heather covered in moss that lives on one of its peaks. Due to this great range, the park is now a World Heritage Site.

There is a lot of water in the Rwenzori Mountains though several members of the afro-alpine family resemble species that normally thrive in desert climates. The reason lies in their similar water economy. Water is not always readily available to the afro-alpine plants when they need it. In addition, nightly frosts affect the sap transport in the plants and the intake of water by its roots.

As the day begins, the air temperature and radiation level rise rapidly, putting strenuous demands on the exposed parts of the plants as they try to meet the transpiration demands of the leaves and maintain a proper water balance. To counter the effects of freezing, the afro-alpine plants have developed the insulation systems that give them such a striking appearance. These adaptations become more prominent as the elevation increases. At higher elevations, some plants reach an unusually large size, such as lobelia and groundsels. The vegetation in the Ruwenzori is unique to equatorial alpine Africa.

Rwenzori Mountain National Park

Rwenzori Mountains National Park is a Ugandan national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the Rwenzori Mountains. The park covers an area of about 1000 square kilometers. It has Africa’s third highest mountain peak and many waterfalls, lakes, and glaciers.

The park includes most of the central and eastern half of the Rwenzori Mountains, a mountain range rising above dry plains located just north of the equator. Those mountains are higher than the Alps and are ice-capped. Mount Stanley is located in the park. Margherita Peak, one of Mount Stanley’s twin summits, is Africa’s third highest peak with a height of 5,109 meters (16,762 ft). Africa’s fourth and fifth highest peaks (Mount Speke and Mount Baker) are also located in the park. The park has glaciers, snowfields, waterfalls, and lakes and is one of Africa’s most beautiful mountain areas.

The park has many species that are endemic to the Albertine Rift system, and there are several endangered species in the park. It has a high diversity of plants and trees. The park is noted for its botany, which has been described as some of the most beautiful in the world. There are five distinct vegetation zones in the park, which change according to changes in altitude. The park has 89 species of birds, 15 species of butterfly, and four primate species. The park’s wildlife varies with elevation, and its species include the forest elephant, chimpanzee, hyrax, black-and-white colobus, L’Hoest’s monkeys, duiker, and Rwenzori turaco.

The trekking routes

The park is owned by the Ugandan government through Uganda National Parks. Kasese town has hotels and lodges, while the park has camping, a good trail network, and huts for hikers. The park has trekking and climbing routes, several with unusual scenery.  The most popular trek is a seven-day circuit of the park.

Usually, the Rwenzori are trekked on the Uganda side. The trek to the top of these great mountains takes between 6to 8 days depending on the hiker’s speed and fitness and there are 2 major trails. The 2 trails meet on mount Stanley where the trek to Margherita starts and both trails offer beautiful scenic views of the Rwenzori massif.

The central circuit trail. This is managed by the locals (Rwenzori Mountaineering Services, RMS) who stay on the foothills of the Rwenzori. The trail starts from Nyakalengija and ends in the same place. There are wooden huts along the trail where trekkers’ camp, they only offer a bed and a small mattress. The Uganda wildlife authority also put up boardwalks in the boggy areas (lower and upper bigo bog) along the trail to make movement much easier for tourists.

The Kilembe trail. This is owned by a private individual trekking company (Rwenzori trekking services, RTS) and the trail starts and ends in Kilembe. It is considered to be a little more challenging than the central circuit trail because of its steepness

When to go and how to get there

The Rwenzori is known as “the rainmaker” rain can be expected any time while in the region. Mountain Rwenzori national park can be visited any time of the year, however, it is always good to know the months suitable for trekking because rain is less during some months. The suitable time to visit the Rwenzori national park is during the dry season, which is from June through August and between December through February. It is less challenging to trek during these months because the trails are not so slippery and you get to have magnificent views of the mountains, gorges, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, and the vegetation. The best part of trekking during the wet season is that you get to see ice-covered peaks on most of the mountains.

One can get to the park from Kampala or Entebbe by road or air. By air, one takes a charter flight from Entebbe or Kajansi airstrip to Kasese airstrip and drive for about 30 minutes to the base of the mountains where the trek starts depending on what route one is going to use. By road, one drives to Kasese from Kampala for about 6 to 7 hours via the Kampala-Mubende-Fortportal-Kasese route.

Packaging list

Knowing what to pack is so important for anyone planning a trekking trip. For a Rwenzori trekking or mountaineering tour, I have listed some of the most important things every trekker will need while exploring the mountains.

Trekking backpack, day pack, re-sealable waterproof packs, trekking boots, sandals, hiking jacket, hiking pants, long sleeve pants, socks, hiking hat, rain poncho, warm sleeping bag, sleeping pad, trekking poles, pocket knife, sunglasses, camera, power bank or extra batteries, sunscreen lotion, some of your favorite snacks. Medication: for pain, blisters, diarrhea, cold, or flu.

For those hiking up to Margherita, you should add the following: crampons, ice ax, helmet, ropes, headlamp, hand gloves, scarf, and head sock.