THE MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON – ONE OF UGANDA’S HIDDEN GEMS
(Posted 08th June 2017)
(The Mihunga Gate, launch point for hikes along the ‘Central Circuit’ but
also for extended climbs up to the mountain peaks)
First mentioned by ancient Greek cartographer Ptolemaeus in around 150 AD, though never conclusively answered how he got the information in the first place, the Mountains of the Moon, today also called the Ruwenzori Mountains, have held a mystery, inspired travelers and dreamers and treated those who dared to come closer to ice cold nights, boggy terrain, fog and rain to give them memories to last a lifetime.
Those fabled Mountains of the Moon rank alongside the ancient mysteries like the tales of the Queen of Shaba, where no one ever found out if she ruled in what today is called Ethiopia or if in fact the journey was considerably longer to the ancient ruins of a long gone civilization in what today is called Zimbabwe. Ancient Rome too knew about these mountains and expeditions were sent up the Nile and across the great Northern African deserts but while they brought back slaves and wild animals, the Roman empire fell eventually without making these discoveries and East Rome and West Rome and the subsequent pretenders to rule the world as it was known then, never bothered again till the European explorers took heart to sail around the world and walk across Africa.
The existence of the mountain range, the only one along the equatorial belt in Africa featuring glaciers and icecaps – Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya are stand alone mountains – was only confirmed in modern days by British explorer Henry Morton Stanley in May 1888, when he finally spotted the peaks as the cloud cover lifted. He is credited by choosing a name inspired by local lore, Ruwenzori or else known as cloud master or rain maker. Many tourists today still suffer the fate of other explorers who had come to the area before Stanley, who might have been told by the locals they met that there was indeed a huge mountain range with snow and ice on top but never saw them, as often weeks can pass before, almost at the whim of the moment, the clouds disappear and reveal the majestic views of the tall peaks Mt. Stanley (5.109) aka Margherita, Mt. Speke (4.890), Mt. Baker (4.843), Mt. Emin (4.798) Mt. Gessi (4.715) and Mt. Luigi di Savoia (4.627). The latter peak was named after the Duke of Abruzzi, an Italian Royal, who led an expedition in 1906 to this part of Africa to explore and climb the mountains for the first time in modern history.
Uganda declared the Rwenzori Mountains, at least her share as the massif is shared with the Congo DR – the border runs across the mountain peaks – a national park in 1991, administered then by Uganda National Parks and now of course falling under the Uganda Wildlife Authority.
Covering nearly 1.000 square kilometers in size, the park includes the entire length of the mountain range, some 120 kilometres and the width to the international border, some 65 kilometres. Inside visitors can see at least some of the 70 mammal species recorded there and many of the nearly 220 bird species identified, including some of the endemics only found in the Albertine Graben.
(Picture courtesy of Uganda Wildlife Authority)
While not everyone will make it to the highest peak of Mt. Stanley, aka Margherita Peak which stands 5.109 metres high, and conquering which not only requires stamina but also mountaineering experience, are today other options available for visitors.
Those staying at the best lodge on the mountain, the Equator Snow Lodge by Geolodges Uganda, have access to the main Mihunga Gate just a few hundred metres further up the road, a walk of a couple of minutes only. From there, apart from hikes outside the national park which the lodge caters for, guides included, can hikers take several routes into the park to explore the lower slopes of the mountains, right below the towering Fortal Peaks.
(Equator Snow’s list of activities for guests)
Once inside the park though – and yes fees do apply and cost are available via www.ugandawildlife.org – are the main hikes accessible instantly, again best undertaken with guides though prior arrangements should be made to actually have them available and and when visitors need them.
A day long round trip hike, circular to be precise, takes fit hikers to Lake Muhoma along the 28 kilometres long trail, something experienced hikers can accomplish in a 6 to 8 hours with daylight to spare.
The starting point is just a few metres from the gate and information centre and once following the sign boards does the forest swiftly swallow up hikers who for some time can enjoy the green canopy of mature tropical trees above them.
Birders will not be disappointed during their hike either but again, making early arrangements for a specialised bird guide will help to see, and hear more of the birds found on the mountains, a benefit which will outweigh the cost of the guide which in global terms can only be described as rather affordable.
Other trails too are available, shorter for those who prefer to just get a glimpse of the forest on the lower slopes of the mountain or wish to first acclimatise before embarking on more challenging options. Also leaving from the gate is one of those the Diamond Trail, which allows for both the shorter and longer version to be hiked.
(Information board at the park entrance giving an overview of the mountain range)
And when the hikes end, at the same gate again from where the adventurers set out, welcome back and thank you signs have been put up by Uganda National Parks, appreciating their visitors who have come a long way first to and then through much of Uganda to make it to one of the least visited parks in the country.
Those booked at the Equator Snow Lodge then quickly are back in their cottages where hot showers and hot tea await, or cold beers as one prefers.
Good three course meals are served for lunch and dinner and those going hiking can take a picnic box with them to sustain themselves during a day up on the mountain.
These facilities, four cottage each sleeping as many as four guests, have given the visitors to the mountain the level of hospitality they expect to find, well appointed bedrooms, a dining and lounge area with a fire place which is lit at night and a small bar where liquid ‘essentials‘ are available at decent prices, not taking advantage of the remote location.
Guest comments affirm that the experience is worth coming to this location and TripAdvisor ranks the Equator Snow Lodge as number one in the area, with only top rated comments reflected on the reviews posted by guests. What more can one say, possibly another thousand words but nothing will make up for the experience of a personal visit to the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains or a hike into the national park.
In summary, with good access to the mountain and excellent accommodation facilities, it should turn the Mountains of the Moon or Rwenzori Mountains as the locals call them, bring in a lot more tourists to this part of Uganda to see, besides mountain gorillas and big game in other parks, also those famous mountains already talked about in ancient times.