By Prof. Dr. Wolfgang H. Thome
Visiting the Mountains of the Moon without climbing them is a splendid option
The Ruwenzori Mountains of course are almost equally ignored by most foreign visitors but also locals who are otherwise keen on exploring the other remaining 9 national parks and a dozen or so game and bird reserves Uganda has and that, truth told, is even more of a shame given the impression the name Mountains of the Moons creates around the world in the minds of intrepid travelers.
Whether this is due to a lack of marketing these mountains or a lack of infrastructure or a lack of professional mountaineering services may be argued but the fact remains that Africa’s largest snow and ice covered mountain range could do with more visitors.
Already mentioned in ancient times does this fabled mountain range have a story to tell?
First mentioned by ancient Greek cartographer Ptolemaist 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 or 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 last a lifetime.
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 rainmaker. 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), 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 Ruwenzori Mountains, at least her part 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.
When the mountains were gazetted as a park, global interest levels rose immediately, and in spite off the challenging logistics, the cabins begging for better maintenance and difficult paths across the major bogs and swamps, a fast growing number of alpinists from around the world came to Uganda, to finally tick off one their last personal frontiers, that ultimate mystery mountain range, the fabled Mountains of the Moon, as having conquered them along the peaks of the Andes, the Alps and the Himalayas.
Uganda had found another winner, drawing adventure tourists, hikers and mountain climbers to the park, offering some of the most challenging alpine environment found on the planet, cold, wet, foggy and unforgiving for those ill equipped to stand those tests. A concession was given by Uganda National Parks at the time to Ruwenzori Mountain Services and a number of international partners came on board to assist in capacity building of guides and porters, improve the cabins and log walkways, rail guards and suspension bridges. All seemed well before armed conflict across the border in Congo led to a closure of the park when rebels to set up camps and attempt mischief on the Ugandan people used the impenetrable terrain. Hence, the park had to be closed for all tourism activities in July 1997 and it took the Ugandan security forces until well into 2001 before it was safe once again to let visitors come back.
From several thousand visitors a year, with high growth rates in the period between July 1996 and the closure in July 1997, figures had dropped to zero and recovery was slow and painful. In 2012 entries into the park reached an estimated 3.000, still way below what the gatekeepers welcomed in 1995/6. Facilities, due to lack of maintenance caused of course by lack of income, had fallen into disrepair again, guiding services had literally vanished and for years the park struggled to re-invent itself.
The arrival in Uganda some years ago of a USAID funded project focusing on the Albertine Rift, STAR – Sustainable Tourism in the Albertine Rift, offered a lifeline to the park as it was immediately identified as a major tourism resource, but also one in need of investments and facilities.
When the project came to an end and for many the crowning achievement of STAR, a new visitor center was opened at the park entrance, offering a range of services to visitors, and more important, the new ‘Muhoma Trail’ had been opened up finally allowing for those long demanded shorter hiking trips of one to three days. This is the greatest gift USAID has arguably given to the park as hikes now permit to reach Lake Muhoma and then return along the long established ‘Central Trail’ back to base without having to backtrack the same route. An added bonus is that the ‘regular trails’ are under concession while the new ‘Muhoma Trail’ is open to all visitors to the park, though the use of guides, available through the lodge or from the visitors centre, is strongly recommended of course.
It is there that GeoLodges Africa built the Equator Snow Lodge, not even 50 kilometres beyond the entrance to the Queen Elizabeth National Park. The turnoff to the lodge is found along the main road between the town of Kasese and Hima Cement, and a recently worked on motor able track leads to one of Uganda’s least known lodges, the Equator Snow Lodge.
Built right on the boundary of the national park at an elevation of 6.200 feet above sea level, are the four cottages set under tropical trees right next to River Mubuku which rushing waters are audible during the day and more so at night.
The four cottages, each sleeping comfortably up to four people, all have a sitting arrangement in front of a fireplace where, as guests wish, they can have a wood fire lit at night.
The large bathrooms offer cold and hot water; feature large fluffy towels and lights are powered by solar energy via an inverter battery inside each cottage.
The food is served to order for breakfast, while for lunch and dinner the menu offer a choice of a starter, two main courses and desserts, lovingly prepared by chef Alfred Kule and served by Joseph Bwambale both of whom make sure guests do not go hungry at Equator Snow. Hot tea or coffee, cold beers, wines and spirits are available from the bar.
Hence, all creature comforts are taken care of at the lodge leaving guests to enjoy their time at the foot of Uganda’s highest peaks and guests staying in cottage four can see some of the Portal Peaks from their very own verandah.
For those who do not want to take the one day hike into the park to see Lake Muhoma or else have come to conquer the Ruwenzori peaks, a range of other activities await so there will be no boredom.
Guests just wishing to sit on their terrace to read a book and enjoy the sounds of the forest and the river below are welcome to do that with tea being served on request in the cottages. Yet, other more adventurous visitors may want to partake in some of the activities shown on the blackboard, available every day subject to weather and best pre-booked to be certain the guides are at hand who know the paths and trails and can point out flora and fauna to their guests.
No guides are needed to stroll through the lodge compound, explore shrubs and trees and listen to and spot the birds or else wander down to the river and look at the hot springs which are just a short walk away.
My stay was giving me the peace and tranquility I often miss in Kampala and apart from some whispered conversations by staff it was bird song, the rushing waters of the river, for some time the sound of rain pounding the roof and otherwise the sounds of a rainforest I heard, but not one car or motorbike during my entire stay.
Come with some books, bring your earphones for your favourite music and be prepared for the total absence of any phone signal of any of Uganda’s phone companies as the towers have yet to reach that high up and that deep into the mountain valleys. A great getaway and certainly away from prying eyes, that much I can promise!
The Ruwenzori Mountains are accessible by road from Kampala via either Mityana, Mubende, Fort Portal and Hima Cement or else via Masaka, Mbarara, Bushenyi, Ishaka and then sadly on a very bad road towards the top of the Rift and down into Queen Elizabeth National Park through which the main craterscape, aka road runs. This potholed highway with hardly any tarmac left is a major tourism road to Uganda’s most visited national park, Queen Elizabeth. It is also the link to Mpondwe, the border post with Congo and the town of Kasese and will no doubt get some attention soon by the Uganda National Roads Authority – it better does before all tourists start screaming at them – and when eventually carpeted will a visit to the Equator Snow Lodge be smooth sailing all the way.