Central Africa's secret Mountains of the Moon:
Probably the best trek in Africa, simply beyond imagination to 5.109m Margherita Peak
The snowcapped Rwenzori Mountains is the largest and highest mountain range in Africa, running for 120 km along the Congolese border from Lake Edward and north to Semliki.
Its loftiest peaks, Margherita (5.109m), Alexandra (5.083m), Albert (5.101m), Savoia (4.977m), Moebius (4.925m), Speke (4.890m) Baker (4.843m), Emin (4.791m), Gessi (4.715m), Weissman (4.547m), and Stairs (4.544m), are exceeded in altitude elsewhere in Africa only by Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya, both of which are standing in isolation above the plains.
Also called the Mountains of the Moon, cited as such by geographer Ptolemy around AD150, the range is not volcanic but consists of crystalline rock that moved upward from the earth's crust.
We did an expedition of 10 days to reach Mount Stanley and summit Margherita. Luckily, we came with good fitness and stamina. The Rwenzoris is a much tougher trek than the ascents of Kilimanjaro or Mt. Kenya. The snowy peaks should only be tackled by experienced climbers - and we were glad that we brought our own climbing gear.
Location: on the border between Uganda and DR Congo, during March
This is one of the world's rainiest mountain massifs, and therefore vegetation has run amok, making it also one of the most difficult massifs in the world to explore. We came here specifically to witness the truly fantastic, unique and out-of-this-world scenery that is often bizarre in appearance. The massif offers one of the most dramatic diversities of ecosystems on the planet in a truly remote and isolated region. The range encompasses several altitude zones, each with its own distinct microclimate and flora. As the pictures below will demonstrate, a trip here is like doing six separate hikes in six different countries - though the savanna zone (e.g. Botswana), rainforest zone (e.g. Malaysia), bamboo forest zone (e.g. Japan), heather forest zone (e.g. Kenya), alpine zone (e.g. Scotland), and glacial zone (e.g. Switzerland).
Our trek started in the heat of the tropical jungle at the base of the African savanna, in Nyakalengija where the Bakonjo and Bambaa people, two groups of Bantu-speaking agriculturists, live. At 1.600m we entered the rainforest with giant ferns, wild banana trees, and lianas. Above 1.800m came dense bamboo forest, which can grow up to three feet a day and reach over a hundred feet in only two months. After 2.800m the heather zone took over to reveal an open vegetation of forests of dripping lichen-covered giant heather plants, giant lobelias and groundsel up to 10m high. These have been called “Africa’s botanical big game” – probably also the most unique zone. Luckily, the zone comprised a large part of the trek as we trekked a vast ground cover of bogs and moorland. Here, we also started to clearly see views towards the spectacular snow-capped peaks and glaciers, while traversing many V-shaped valleys and seeing magnificent waterfalls. Going higher, at 3.600m, we reached the alpine zone. The upper reaches of this zone consisted mostly of rocky terrain covered with black lichens and brown mosses, sitting among several clear blue lakes. Finally, above 4.400m, the Rwenzori Mountains was wrapped in permanent snow and storm-swept glaciers, culminating at the extremely steep Margherita Peak at 5.109m.
Selected pics from the expedition:
After 10h trip from Kampala we arrive in Kilembe village from where the expedition is planned, bags are re-packed, porters are hired, etc. We stayed in Nyakalenjiga village close to the NP, while the trek was planned.
A tour to the market to buy stuff - e.g. local tidal flats. The Bakonjo and Bambaa people living here are subsistence farmers, and seldom venture on to the higher slopes of the Rwenzori, which they belive is inhabited by powerful deities and spirits that place a curse on any people who glimpses them.
We found three good guides with extensive knowledge of not only the national park, but also - and in particular - experience with the upper parts (routes, glaciers, cravasses, etc.) of Mt Stanley. Few guides are really competent to lead climbers above the snow line so double-check their experience, cold-weather equipment, leather-boots able to take crampoons, etc
This shows 75% of the team. We were five Danish climbers, three local guides and more than 30 porters. 10 porters had to abandon the expedition along the way due to general sickness, diarrhea or altitude sickness.
Since the Rwenzori National Park is shared by Uganda and DR Congo there were a few soldiers with AK47's on the trailhead that was governing the "traffic" into the park - although in practice we are talking about very few visitors.
Rain, rain, rain, rain...! It rained at lot, for long periods of time, and the showers were really intense. However, the other side of that coin is out-of-this-world scenery, Jurassic Park-like vegetation and lots of weather jokes in the team.
Leg 1: Halfway between Nyakalenjiga and Nyabitaba Hut. Still in the rainforest zone. The altitude gain for the first leg is 1036m.
Along the way we saw several chameleons, a highly specialized clade of lizards. If you are lucky, you can also encounter blue monkeys, wild elephants, zebras, chimpanzees, and tree hyrax.
Jakob, Troels and Jacob are discussing the weather situation: Remove the rain gear for a few minutes and let the body breathe better? Or stick to having the gear on and mitigate a sudden downpour that is sure to hit within seconds? Leg 1 between Nyakalenjiga and Nyabitaba Hut.
Anders enjoying a toast with omelet and coffee. We typically started out very early each trekking day to allow for maximum hiking time on the route (and hence lots of breaks and good acclimatization)
A Bakonjo porter has packed his "bag" in the Nyabitaba Hut and is ready for the longest and most strenous day's walk towards the John Matte hut.
Scenery on leg 2 between Nyabitaba Hut and John Matte Hut. This is before the moorlands, where bugs are prolific and has to be crossed.
Scenery on leg 2 between Nyabitaba Hut and John Matte Hut
He was one of the older on the team, but not the oldest
Many (really many!) times we had to pass deep muddy bugs and swamps. It typically involved having mud to the knees or sometimes to the waist if you did not manage to find a suitable passage or simply slided off a rock.
Finally, in the afternoon after 10 hours of slow hiking we arrived to the John Matte Hut and the end of leg 2 after an 1036m altitude gain.
Amongst the porters were a few chefs that cooked for the whole team. We had very varied food during the expedition - besides lots of carbs (rice, pasta, chapati, ugali or matoke) we had beef, mutton, chicken and lots of egg.
Anders & Troels enjoyng the view towards the Bujeku River, one the the rivers than penetrate the National Park, while discussing whether to take a dip in the river
We all had a dip. Here, Jakob and Troels are preparing themselves yet another dip into the very cold Bujeku River.
Thomas & Jakob having dinner in the John Matte camp while enjoying the view. The isolation and remoteness was striking!
Leg 3 between John Matte Hut and Bujuku Hut. This is one of the infamous Bigo Bugs.
Scenery on leg 3 between John Matte Hut and Bujuku Hut