Strolling on the moon: climbing the Rwenzoris


 At simply 120km lengthy, the Rwenzori mountains are hardly the longest on this planet. However every of its six peaks – all of them greater than 4 500m tall – has its personal distinctive story. Matthew Holt went to study extra and climbed every of them 

I used to be getting fairly expert at negotiating bogs, springing between agency tussocks and partially submerged logs. After two days’ fixed rain, shafts of sunshine warmed my face and sunbirds darted between towering lobelia stalks. What a magical place. Then the tussock crumpled beneath me, my trekking pole sank to the hilt and my wellies full of mud.

Rwenzori mountains

‘I want that some individual dedicated to his work, some lover of Alpine climbing, would take the Rwenzori in hand and make an intensive work of it,’ challenged Henry Morton Stanley to the Royal Geographical Society in 1901. 

Simply north of the equator, on Uganda’s border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Rwenzori have been linked to the fabled Mountains of the Moon, which – in keeping with historical geographer Ptolemy – fed the Nile with their snows. 

Regardless of topping 5 000m, the primary European sighting wasn’t till Could 1888, by Stanley throughout his expedition to rescue Emin Pasha, the governor of a distant colonial outpost, from which fewer than 200 of Stanley’s 700 males returned. 

The journey’s ethical descent was neatly captured when Irish whiskey inheritor James Sligo Jameson purchased a 10-year-old African lady for six handkerchiefs, gave her to cannibals, and sketched her being eaten. However, on the plus facet, the expedition positioned the nebulous Lunar Mountains. Stanley renamed them Rwenzori, which he incorrectly thought was the native phrase for “rainmaker”.

My spouse and I had visited the Rwenzori 20 years earlier, however hardly made an intensive work of it, climbing simply two of the six main massifs. We drove 400km due west, by means of bustling villages, over potholes and up and down rolling hills bursting with tea, espresso and bananas. Per week too early for the “Bye Bye Lockdown Large Disco”, we spent a quiet evening in Kasese, earlier than progressing to the trailhead at Nyakalengija, accumulating wellington boots and our retinue. 

We had two native guides, the athletic Johnson and the veteran Denis; an progressive prepare dinner named Lazarus, plus eight hardy porters. They had been all from the Bakonzo tribe, who imagine the Rwenzori are residence to the good spirit Kitasamba, the snow being his frozen semen – effectively, that’s what I’ve learn. 

Having learn Stanley’s obituary in The Instances, which quoted his Rwenzori problem, the Duke assembled a crew of surviving companions, together with famend photographer Vittorio Sella and 4 Alpine guides. 

For the primary two days, we adopted the usual trekking circuit up the Mubuku Valley after which alongside the Bujuku River to John Matte Hut. The trail was effectively reduce; the huts comfy, if barely shabby. 

On the third morning, nevertheless, we left the primary path and branched up the Mugusu Valley. The route immediately turned an impediment course of tangled vegetation that collapsed underneath our weight, and glutinous mud that sucked off our wellies – and it took six and a half hours to cowl 5km as much as Roccati Cross. Named after the Duke’s zoologist, this squelchy col at 4 200m separates Mount Gessi from Mount Emin, overlooks Lac de la Lune, and marks the frontier. ‘The Congo,’ introduced Denis portentously, earlier than including much less reliably {that a} helicopter landed right here in 1932.

We stayed two nights on the move, Fiona and I in a small tent, Denis and crew huddled underneath a shallow overhang. Regardless of insalubrious lodgings, they had been irrepressibly cheerful, chatting animatedly and taking turns to forage wooden for a smoky fireplace and stir their communal pot of gloopy manioc.

The primary peak we tackled was the fifth highest massif, Mount Gessi (4 715m), named after an Italian adventurer who in 1876 circumnavigated Lake Albert by boat, keeping off hostile locals and hippos. As we packed for the day, I requested Denis if it’d rain. He sniffed the air and deliberated. 

‘It might probably,’ he replied, ‘and it can not.’ To be truthful, although we’d are available January throughout one among two dry seasons, “dry” is a relative idea right here. 

We set off at dawn, which occurred abruptly at 7am, with none fanfare or seen solar. After our delays, it was a aid to be climbing, although that temper quickly evaporated after we moved on to slabs carpeted in spongy, damp moss that peeled off underfoot. On Johnson’s recommendation we’d introduced ice axes, which initially appeared daft, however quickly we had been desperately scraping for traction.

The next day, we crossed the col to Mount Emin (4 798m), named after the item of Stanley’s torrid aid expedition, who had began life as a German Jew; transformed to Islam; ruled a querulous Egyptian province close to Lake Albert; didn’t need rescuing; on being escorted by Stanley to Bagamoyo, fell off a roof terrace, drunk; and shortly after that, was killed within the Congo by slave merchants who slit his throat. However then the Duke named the mountains after explorers, not saints.

Bashing by means of a maze of large groundsels and lobelias, we reached a steepening gully. A number of a long time earlier, this had been glaciated and safely stomped up in crampons – however now the ice had gone, forsaking loosely stacked boulders. It took a fraught three hours to stand up and nearly as lengthy to get down.

That evening, we camped midway down the Mugusu Valley, pitching our tent in knee-deep heather. In the meantime, our retinue squeezed into Cranium Cave – the place, in 1949, the spouse of a colonial administrator discovered a biscuit tin containing a human cranium and was promptly struck down in poor health, needing to be carried out strung on a pole. Denis provided to indicate me the place the cranium was hidden, however fortunately couldn’t discover it.

Re-joining the primary path, the next day we crossed the Bigo Lavatory, which had allegedly swallowed individuals complete, however was now emasculated by boardwalks. Additional on, nevertheless, as soon as the boardwalk petered out, we needed to tread a slim, typically non-existent, line between knee-deep mire and Bujuku Lake. 

Rwenzori mountains

Bujuku Hut served as our springboard for Mount Speke (4 890m), honouring John Hanning Speke who in 1858 turned the primary European to see Lake Ukerewe, which he rechristened Victoria and appropriately recognized because the supply of the Nile – although he was lifeless earlier than this was typically accepted, having shot himself. 

Like our two earlier peaks, Mount Speke took three hours to summit, however this time the mountain appeared correctly caught collectively, the holds stayed hooked up, and I truly loved the outing moderately than considering it could be my final. From the summit, we appeared throughout to the next day’s goal and Rwenzori’s highest massif, Mount Stanley. 

Steeled for a protracted summit day, and the primary on which I’ve used each wellies and crampons, we left the Bujuku Hut at 2.30am, underneath a starless, ink-black cover. Come daybreak, we’d reached the Margherita Glacier and the visibility was worse, with dense cloud enveloping us. Nonetheless, we dutifully donned sun shades, for the Duke’s crew had uncared for to put on theirs and gone snow-blind, having to wash their eyes with tea. ‘Helmets are additionally essential,’ famous Johnson disconcertingly, since none of us had one. 

We cramponed up grubby ice, until we had been blocked by an eroded serac and awkward cliff, which the Duke’s get together had surmounted by one among his guides standing on one other’s head in hobnailed boots. Thankfully, nevertheless, there was now a hard and fast rope to help us. From right here, a short scramble led to indicators proclaiming we’d reached Margherita Peak, Uganda’s excessive level at 5 109m, which the Duke named after his aunt, the previous Queen of Italy – although she’s extra broadly recognized for the pizza baked in her honour. 

We descended by way of the Elena Hut and Scott Elliot Cross, progressing from slippery ice to slippery rocks to slippery mud. Meantime, it snowed, then hailed, then rained, and by the point we reached Kitandara Hut, having been out 14 hours, we had been soaked. On the shore of a mirror lake and looking out picturesque from above, the hut was a dilapidated shed, with some half-broken furnishings and a stack of wood cabinets serving as bunks. Our discomfort was full when a big group of sodden Israelis stumbled in.

Our subsequent goal was Mount Luigi di Savoia – the bottom of the six massifs – however the whole lot was too moist. Moreover, regardless of bearing his title, this was the one main peak not climbed by the Duke – who known as it Mount Thomson, after a comparatively obscure Scottish explorer. The Duke subsequently assented to a proposal from the Royal Geographical Society to commemorate himself.

We did, nevertheless, buck up sufficiently to maneuver as much as Freshfield Cross, the place we arrange camp. By the subsequent morning we’d recovered our resolve to climb Mount Baker (4 843m), named after Samuel Baker, the English explorer who was the primary European to see Lake Albert in 1864, alongside together with his Hungarian-born spouse, Florence, whom he’d rescued from an Ottoman slave market. 

Rwenzori mountains

For many of our outing, it snowed or drizzled. And after we often thought the solar may break by means of, it didn’t. Nonetheless, the scrambling was fascinating moderately than terrifying, and the five-hour return journey was most likely probably the most pleasurable of our Rwenzori summits.

It took two days to stroll out from Freshfield Cross, down greasy wood ladders and thru malevolent slime. After we lastly reached the park gate at Nyakalengija, an indication reminded us that the Rwenzori are a magical problem, however I used to be very relieved to be out. 

The Duke returned residence from his five-month expedition to a hero’s welcome and a lovely American heiress 13 years his junior. However thereon his trajectory was downward. In 1909, he led an expedition to K2, which didn’t get very excessive; his romance fizzled out attributable to staunch opposition from the Italian royal household; and through WWI he was unfairly sacked as Italy’s naval commander. After the conflict, he moved to Somaliland the place he arrange a mannequin farm and lived with a younger Somali girl, until he died from most cancers, aged 60.

Again in Kasese, we celebrated our journey and my birthday with pizza and Nile Particular beers. I used to be now the identical age because the Duke when he died, however there the similarities finish.

Rwenzori mountains

Journey Planner

The usual circuit could be hiked in six days, overnighting in huts. Whereas not technical, it’s actually rugged and difficult, with two passes of greater than 4 000m, steep ladders, slippery rocks and bogs to check your sense of humour. Climbing any of the six main peaks will usually add an additional day per peak. All require some scrambling, with the very best, Margherita Peak on Mount Stanley (5 109m), additionally involving quick glacier crossings. They’re all accessible to any match, decided newbie, if considerably difficult when moist (which is commonly). 

Organising Your Trek

There are two established native operators, every with their very own separate routes and huts within the park. Rwenzori Mountaineering Companies (RMS) is a community-based organisation, has extra skilled technical guides and begins/finishes at Nyakalengija. Rwenzori Trekking Companies (RTS) operates from Kilembe, has newer, plusher huts and is a little more costly. RTS could be the higher possibility when you simply need to hike the usual circuit; RMS if you’d like a tailor-made itinerary and/or to climb extra peaks.

The usual six-day hike prices about $1 100 per individual, from Kasese. Anticipate to pay about $1 300 pp for a visit to climb Margherita Peak. Our two-week journey with RMS to climb all the foremost peaks, plus lodging in Entebbe and Kasese, and all transfers value $3 500 pp.

When To Go

The 2 dry seasons are supposedly from mid-December to March, and from mid-June to September. However you must at all times be ready for rain.

What To Take

Your operator will offer you a gear record. However, apart from a number of adjustments of ordinary climbing garments and many socks, you’ll want good waterproofs, dry luggage, trekking poles, and a heat jacket and sleeping bag (temperatures can drop to freezing). An umbrella may look foolish however could be helpful; and when you’ve got wellies, take them for the bogs (in any other case RMS can present). If climbing the peaks, you’ll additionally require a harness, ice axe, crampons (or micro-spikes), karabiners, helmet and twine (which could be employed on the gate). The catering is filling however could be a bit uninteresting, so it’s your decision some snacks and luxuries to liven it up – plus espresso and a percolator when you want a correct brew to start out the day. Don’t fear, you’ve received porters to hold all this for you. The most effective map of the area is Rwenzori Mountains Map and Information by Andrew Wielochowski (EWP). You may’t get it there, so buy it prematurely.

What Else To Do

If in case you have a spare day, Kasese is on the doorstep of the Queen Elizabeth Nationwide Park, which has the Large 5. By East African requirements, the charges and lodging are reasonably priced. 

Highlights embrace a ship journey on the Kazinga Channel and visiting the well-known tree-climbing lions.

Go to the web site to find extra particulars about balloon safaris, chimp monitoring, bird-watching, boat cruises and cultural excursions.

To guide a tour, go to

Costs usually are not listed on the web site they usually suggest not making an attempt to tour by your self.


Phrases: Matthew Holt

Images: Matthew Holt, Fiona Mcintosh and Gallo photos/Getty/Alamy 

A model of this text initially appeared within the August 2022 print version of Getaway

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