THE MYSTERY OF THE MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON
By Prof. Dr. Wolfgang H. Thome
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 Rwenzori 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 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), 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.
When the mountains were gazetted as a park, global interest levels rose immediately, and inspite of the challenging logistics and the often decayed cabins and paths across the major bogs and swamps, an ever increasing 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 UNP at the time to Rwenzori 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 before armed conflict across the border in Congo led to a closure of the park when the impenetrable terrain was used by rebels to set up camps and attempt mischief on the Ugandan people. 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 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 reaching an estimated 3.000, still below what the park received in 1995/6. Facilities, due to lack of maintenance caused of course by lack of income, had fallen into disrepair, guiding services had literally vanished and for years the park struggled to re-invent itself. The Centenary Celebrations in 2006, commemorating the first conquest by the Duke of Abruzzi in 1906, brought fresh focus and a number of Italian and European expeditions came to Uganda at the time to not only climb the peaks but also help in restoring cabins and other urgently required infrastructure.
They, as all others climbing or hiking the mountains, were richly rewarded by the spectacular sights of high altitude vegetation, the rainforests, the meadows dotted with the giant lobelia, the ferns and mosses and of course the wild- and birdlife they encountered as they advanced through the five distinct vegetation zones from grasslands, to montane forest to the bamboo zone before reaching the heather and Afro-Alpine moorlands.
The participants of the 2006 expeditions, and those in subsequent years, also however made a stark and rather disconcerting discovery – the glaciers had receded by a wide margin.
For the first time it dawned on Uganda, that climate change and global warming had come home to roost and the comparison between the two pictures, one taken in 1906 and the other 100 years later, both used courtesy of the Uganda Wildlife Authority, indeed had researchers and conservationists sit up and take notice.
Research projects were initiated, funding secured and weather data including regular temperature readings, wind speeds and direction are now being recorded from high altitude weather stations, transmitting data via mobile networks to the base stations.
This notwithstanding, visitor numbers only climbed slowly again, many visitors scared off by not just the challenges the mountains would throw at them but the time needed, between 6 and 14 days, and the lack of shorter one, two and three day hikes without having lug an entire alpine outfit along.
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.
Last year, as the project came to an end, and for many the crowning achievement of of STAR, a new visitor centre 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 back track 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.
Right next door then did GeoLodges Africa open their latest lodge, Equator Snows Lodge, presently comprising four rock and wood cabins fitting perfectly into the location through the ingenious use of locally available materials. Sister lodge to the award winning RainForest Lodge in Mabira, the Nile Safari Lodge on the banks of the mighty River Nile just at the edge of Murchisons Falls National Park and of course the nearer by Jacana Safari Lodge, nestled under the rainforest surrounding Lake Nyamusingire in Queen Elizabeth National Park, the Equator Snows Lodge will at last give tourists and local visitors the opportunity to stay, explore and finally appreciate what can only be described as Uganda’s last wilderness frontier. A fuller review of the lodge will follow in the next edition of The Eye, but for now let it suffice to say that Zahid Alam and Emily Wissanje and their team have once again lived up to reputation and expectations vis a vis the setting, the facilities offered, the appearance blending like at Mabira right into the environment and last but not least the food and the service, no doubt soon to be much acclaimed.
For more information on the Rwenzori National Park visit http://www.ugandawildlife.org/explore-our-parks/parks-by-name-a-z/rwenzori-mountains-national-park or do one better, set out from Kampala and drive either via Mbarara and Bushenyi to Kasese or else use the route via Mubende and Fort Portal to Kasese, all on good tarmac and full of spectacular scenery, be it the Rift Valley at the escarpment over Katunguru, where on clear days the mountains can be seen, or skirting along the forests of Kibale to Fort Portal and then through the foothills of the mountains to Kasese. From the Kasese side it is about 10 kilometres toward Fort Portal, where a well marked turn off directs visitors to both visitor centre and the new lodge over 12 kilometres of a dirt road. Safari Njema.