Things to see & do in the
Rwenzori Mountains, Uganda
Lying on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Rwenzori Mountains are a little explored range, 120km long and home to six massifs. Also known as the Mountains of the Moon, they are certainly otherworldly. The highest peaks are permanently covered in snow, sheltering glaciers and home to one of the sources of the Nile, while the flora is diverse and, often, larger than life. The lower slopes are blanketed in moorland, bamboo and moist montane forests. The misty, boggy, glacier-carved valleys of the high Rwenzori are a botanically bonkers wonderland, where huge tree heathers and luridly coloured mosses cover the mountainsides, trees are draped with curtains of lichen and weird, triffid-like giant lobelias tower 6m skywards.
Small group trekking expeditions will lead you to the top of Margherita Peak on Mount Stanley. At 5,109m, it’s the highest peak on the range and makes Mount Stanley the third highest mountain in Africa, after Kilimanjaro and Kenya. But even if you don’t hike in the Rwenzori range, you’ll see it – cloud permitting. The little town of Fort Portal, which is the jumping off point for chimpanzee trekking in Kibale Forest, nestles in the shadow of these mountains, while the road from Kibale to Queen Elizabeth National Park runs along the eastern length of the range. If the clouds part, you can see their glaciated peaks. The range looms large in the distance behind Queen Elizabeth National Park, a fittingly dramatic backdrop for the tree climbing lions, elephants and thousands of hippos living here.
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To fully explore the range and its layer upon layer of habitats – montane forest, bamboo, tree heathers and Afro-Alpine – you’ve got to pull on your hiking boots and trek. This is a brilliant but fairly challenging hiking destination, with marked trails maintained by Rwenzori Trekking Services. An 11-day guided trek will get you to the summit of Margherita – the highest peak – though shorter, non-technical treks are possible to scale the surrounding peaks or you can do day hikes to explore the forests and foothills. Kasese town is gateway to trekking in the mountains.
On the full summit trek you’ll be camping or sleeping in simple mountain huts along the route, accompanied by guides who not only know the route, but are knowledgeable about the wildlife, birdlife and strange flora you’ll see. On the lower levels, there are lots of beautiful birds, plus the chance of seeing a chimpanzee or blue monkey scampering off through the forest, Rwenzori red duiker browsing and rock hyrax sunning themselves outside their burrows.
You’ll need to be fit to tackle the trek up to Margherita Peak. The trail can be slippery, steep and uneven and to actually summit, you’ll also need a good head for heights. Towards the top, the route is classed as a difficult scramble, often snowy and icy, and the final climb up Margherita glacier is demanding. At the end of the glacier you will also have to climb around an exposed section of rock, which is bolted and roped, before reaching the ridge that runs to the top of Margherita Peak. This is not the place to discover you’ve got vertigo.
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The Rwenzori Mountains lie within the protection of Rwenzori Mountains National Park in Uganda (as well as Virunga National Park in eastern DRC). It’s home to an amazing 217 bird species, including 17 species endemic to the park. Most of the birds are found flitting through the montane forest zone at around 1,800m; few choose to make their home in the tough environment of the high Rwenzori. Look out for the Rwenzori turaco – a jewel coloured beauty with red wings – the beautiful cinnamon-chested bee-eater and various sunbirds, robins and barbets.
Gorilla trekingWhile you won’t find gorillas in the Rwenzori Mountains (though you might see the rare L’Hoest’s monkey), few people come to Uganda without trekking to see its mountain gorillas. Tracking them in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is one of the unique highlights of a Uganda vacation. Organised small group tours that include a full trek to the summit of Mount Stanley typically include a gorilla tracking experience, too. Spending an hour with these huge, majestic primates in their native mountain forest is an unforgettable experience, and you’ll also get a warm up for further trekking in the Rwenzori range, since tracking the gorillas can lead you up and down steep, slippery paths.
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