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Rwenzori Mountains - A view from our expert author
The highest and most remarkable of the Nile sources, this snow-capped range is a popular challenge for hikers and climbers.
Often associated with Ptolemy’s legendary Mountains of the Moon, the majestic Rwenzori Mountains – a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994 – are protected in a 996km² national park that runs along the Congolese border between Semliki Valley and Queen Elizabeth National Park. The range’s upper slopes constitute an aptly lunar landscape of bare black rocks and tussocked moorland studded with surreal giant lobelias and groundsels, while the lower contours are swathed in a tangled jungle inhabited by shy forest elephants and chimpanzees, as well as a wealth of forest monkeys and birds including several Albertine Rift endemics. Above all this, towering to a maximum altitude of 5,109m, a series of craggy black peaks is coated in permanent equatorial snow and ice. Now served by two different hiking circuits, both of which offer more experienced climbers access to the glacial peaks, Rwenzori Mountains National Park is the most popular hiking destination in Uganda, less iconic perhaps than Kilimanjaro in neighbouring Tanzania, but offering far more of a wilderness experience, as well as being significantly more affordable.
(Photo: Black and white colobus monkeys can be found in the mountains © M Rutherford, Shutterstock)
The Rwenzori is the highest mountain range in Africa. Its loftiest peaks, Margherita (5,109m) and Alexandra (5,083m) on Mount Stanley, are exceeded in altitude elsewhere in Africa only by Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya, both of which are extinct volcanoes standing in isolation above the surrounding plains. The Rwenzori Mountains are unique among East Africa’s major peaks in that they are not volcanic in origin, but they do rise directly from the Rift Valley floor and their formation, like that of Kilimanjaro and Kenya, was linked to the geological upheaval that created the Rift. In addition to Mount Stanley, there are four other glacial peaks in the Rwenzori: Mount Speke (4,890m), Mount Emin (4,791m), Mount Gessi (4,715m) and Mount Luigi da Savoia (4,627m).
The Rwenzori is known primarily for its challenging hiking and climbing possibilities, but the range also supports a diversity of animals, including 70 mammal and 177 bird species, several of the latter being Albertine Rift endemics. It is the only national park in Uganda where the Angola colobus has been recorded, though identification of this localised monkey will require careful examination as the similar and more widespread black-and-white colobus also occurs on the mountain.
Like other large East African mountains, the Rwenzori range can be divided into several altitude zones, each with its own distinct microclimate and flora and fauna. The forest zone, which starts at around 1,800m, has the most varied fauna. The only mammals you are likely to see in the forest are the aforementioned colobus and blue monkeys, though several other large mammals are present, including elephant, golden cat, servalline genet, chimpanzee, yellow-backed duiker and giant forest hog. At night, listen out for the distinctive and eerie call of the southern tree hyrax.