Trekking the Ruwenzori - Africa’s Tallest Mountains

Africa’s tallest mountain range, the Ruwenzoris, sit almost on the equator between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This massive snow capped range of mountains hosts some of the last remaining glaciers in tropical Africa and the large alpine area boasts numerous lakes and waterfalls. The mountains are home to a unique array of gargantuan plant life that draws comparisons to the dinosaur age.  Margherita Peak (5,109m / 16,761 ft), Mount Speke and Mount Baker which are respectively Africa’s third, fourth and fifth tallest mountains.  While Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya the tallest peaks in Africa draw numerous visitors the Ruwenzori are almost undiscovered despite the fact they are probably one of Africa’s most beautiful mountainous regions.

The history of the mountains goes back as far as ancient Greece when Aristotle noted the ‘Mountains of Silver’ as the source of the Nile and Ptolemy in the 4th century BC placed them correctly on the map and named them “Lunae Montes” or “The Mountains of the Moon.” The ancients did not have first hand verification of the mountains and instead relied on stories told by Egyptian traders who told fables of the source of the Nile as a huge snow covered mountain range in the heart of Africa. Despite these mentions by the ancient Greeks the mountains were not know to foreigners until Henry Stanley caught a first glimpse of them in 1876. Dense vegetation and bad weather hampered all attempts to climb the peaks until in 1906 the Duke of Abruzzi accompanied by over 300 porters and a scientific crew was able to summit all of the highest points. Y

Approaching the Ruwenzori

Approaching the Ruwenzori

The Ruwenzori’s tower nearly 4000m above the Albertine Rift Valley on the Uganda side and rise up more gradually from the jungles of the DRC. Unlike Kilimanajro and Mount Kenya the mountains are made up of a granitic mass that began uplifting during the past 5 million years. The mountains are considered an extreme expression of rift-mountain uplift and are characterized by north-south running normal faults that show evidence of over 6km of offset.

: Exotic Plant Life Ruwenzori's

: Exotic Plant Life Ruwenzori’s

The Ruwenzori’s have a high percentage of endemic species and are some see it as the epicenter of “Africa’s botanical big game”. The lower portions of the mountains are covered by dense tropical forests (up to 7500ft/2280m) where 2-3 meter high ferns and wild bananas proliferate amidst the muddy swamps and mud-laden rivers. Bamboo forests extent up to 9500 feet (2900m) and watered by the heavy rains of the Ruwenzori can grow up to 3 feet a day. The Mountain Heath Zone is found up to 12,000 feet (3,600 m) and resembles a typical cloud forest with dwarf trees covered with hanging mosses and lichens. The alpine zone includes everything above 12,000 feet (3,657m) and includes some of the most striking plants including; Giant lobelias, groundsels, and heathers.

Weather of the Ruwenzori
The Ruwenzori‘s are notoriously rainy tapping into the moist air mass residing over the jungles of the DRC and even during the two dry seasons are the summits are often covered in mists. In fact, Stanley named the mountains Ruwenzori after the native word meaning “rain maker or king of mist” and by some accounts rain falls over 350 days a year although more intermittently during the dry season. Annual rainfall in the foothills averages 2500+mm or nearly 100 inches of rain. The climatic patterns are similar to Kilimanjaro with a long dry season occurring between July and September and a short dry season occurring during December and January. It’s not recommended to trek during the wet season and Gum boots which can be rented from the park headquarters are a must.

Giant Groundsel Ruwenzori Mountains

Giant Groundsel Ruwenzori Mountains

Glaciers of the Ruwenzori
Glaciers in the Ruwenzori reached their maximum modern extents about 200 years ago during the Little Ice Age. Abruzzi made detailed records of the extents of the glaciers in 1906 and additional surveys in the 1950’s compliment this data. Taken together with modern surveys these glacial surveys are evidence of dramatic glacial retreat during the last 100 years. Three of the six tallest peaks have lost all their ice and Mount Baker only has the small remnant of a glacier left. If ice loss continues at the present rates all the glaciers will be gone by 2025. Lack of long term meteorological records makes it difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of glacial retreat but there is evidence of both raising temperatures and reduced cloud cover.

Peaks of the Ruwenzori

Mount Stanley 5,109m / 16,761 ft
Mount Margherita* 5,109m / 16,761 ft
Mount Speke 4,890m / 16043 ft
Mount Baker 4,843m / 15889 ft
Mount Emin 4,798m / 15741 ft
Mount Gessi 4,715m / 15469 ft
Mount Luigi di Savoia 4,627m / 15180 ft
*One of Mount Stanleys summits


Summiting Mount Speke

Summiting Mount Speke


Recent glacial recession in the Rwenzori Mountains of East Africa due to rising air temperature. Geophysical Research Letters. Volume 33, Issue 10, May 2006

Extreme uplift of the Rwenzori Mountains in the East African Rift, Uganda: Structural framework and possible role of glaciations. Tectonics, Volume 27, Issue 4, August 2008

Images From Flickr
Jørn Eriksson