Rwenzori Mountains National Park is situated in the Western region of Uganda along the Uganda – Congo boarder. Located in the Rwenzori mountains, the park was established in 1991 and declared a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site in 1994. The park is 996 square kilometers in size, and rises to an altitude of 5,109m above sea level. The highest point is found on Mount Stanley’s Margherita peak. The Rwenzori is not volcanic like most of East Africa’s major mountains but it is a block of rock up faulted through the floor of the Western Rift Valley. In AD 150, Alexandrian geographer Ptolemy christened the Rwenzoris ‘Mountains of the moon’. On 24th May 1888, explorer Henry Stanley placed the Rwenzori on the map and labelled it ‘Ruwenzori’ a name he recorded as meaning ‘rain maker’ or ‘cloud king’ in the native dialect.
Rwenzori Mountains National Park has a high diversity of trees and plant life. The park’s botany has been described as some of the most beautiful in the whole world. The park also has several mammal and animal species. It’s wildlife varies with elevation, the most distinguished species include; the forest elephant, chimpanzees, duikers, black and white colobus monkeys, hyrax, and L’hoests monkeys. The other principle mammals include; the Rwenzori golden mole, Rousette fruit bat, Rwenzori Otter Shew, Lesser Cane Rat, Ruwenzori Olive Squirrel, Shaggy Swamp Rat, Tree or Sun Squirrel, Giant Squirrel, Marsh mongoose, Long-haired Mole Rat, Swamp Rat, Arboreal Dormouse, Serval Cat, Clawless Otter, Golden Cat, Giant Forest Hog, and the Harnessed Bushbuck. The bush elephant, Blue monkey, Rwenzori leopard, African buffalo, and the Yellow-backed duiker, exist in the park but are rarely seen because they have been heavily poached.
The birds of the Rwenzoris
Rwenzori Mountains National Park has over 217 bird species including Albertine rift endemics like; the Rwenzori Turaco, Handsome Francolin, Rwenzori Nightjar, Regal sunbird, Archer’s Robin Chat, Kivu Ground thrush, Purple-breasted sunbird, Red-throated Alethe, Dwarf Honeyguide, Red-faced Woodland Warbler, Rwenzori Batis, Dusky and Shelley’s Crimsonwing, Montane Masked and Collared Apalises, Stripe-breast Tit, Grauer’s Cuckoo-shrike, Strange Weaver, and Blue-headed sunbird. The other birds to look out for include; Red-thighed Sparrowhawk, Scarlet-tufted Malachite Sunbird, Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo, Western Green Tinkerbird, Lammergeyer, Montane Sooty Boubou, Golden-winged Sunbird, African Long-eared Owl, Grey-winged Robin, Olive Woodpecker, Evergreen Forest Warbler, Lagden’s Bush-Shrike, Oriole-Finch, Bamboo Warbler, Grey-chested Illadopsis, White-collared Olive-back, and Red-faced Crimsonwing. Other species include; Barbets, Robins, Bee-eaters, Swifts, Bearded vultures, and black eagles.
Tourist attractions & activities
Equatorial snow peaks
The Rwenzori mountain range comprises of six different mountains. Although these mountains are situated just miles north of the equator, the highest mountains in the range; Mt. Stanley (5,109m), Mt. Speke (4890m) and Mt. Baker (4348m), all bear permanently snow-capped peaks and glaciers. These fascinating equatorial snow peaks can be reached by hikers through the central circuit trail and the Kilembe trail.
The park has 5 distinct vegetation zones which change according to changes in altitude. The lower slopes of the Rwenzoris are blanketed in bamboo, moorland, and rich moist montane forest. Huge tree heathers and radiant mosses are draped across the mountainside, with enormous lobelias, and everlasting flowers. The hikers who ascend the mountains encounter various attitudinal vegetation zones.
Rwenzori Mountains National Park has over 20 lakes with Lake Mahoma being the most easily accessible, it lies in the bird rich forest of the Central Circuit. The other lake is Bujuku, it lies at the apex of the deep glacier carved Bujuku valley in the shadows of Mt. Stanley and Mt. Baker. More lakes are found in the valley of Nyamwamba, they ascend through the trail in Kilembe. The glacial migraine deposited in the valley created a dam which in turn formed a string of eight enjoyable lakes. Several streams of river start from the mountains, forming lifelines for the various plant and animal life.
Guided hikes and nature walks
The park offers tourists several opportunities for nature walks within the central circuit zone. The designated walks include; trails up to Mahooma and Buraro chimp forest, hikes to Bundibugo area through Bwamba pass, and walks through the communities of Kichwamba, reaching the Karangura ridge. The communities of Ruboni and Turaco View offer both short and lengthy forest walks just outside the park.
Hikes via the river Mubuku offer tourists glimpses of the Baker and Portal peaks as they trek up to 2300m above sea level. On days when the sky is clear, it is possible to see the snow capped Margherita peak. The ‘Bwamba Pass’ is another famous trek, a tough 1500m hike over the steep northern Rwenzori ridge. The native Abanya Rwenzori community group guides tourists over the mountain, through serene mountain villages to encounter the bamboo forest and relish the superb Rift Valley views.
Volcano climbing in the Rwenzori mountains
Successful volcano climbing is done through the park’s demarcated trails; the Central Circuit trail – this is a tasking 7 day climb, offering a circular tour of the elevated Rwenzori. The trail begins at Mihunga, and then ascends the Bujuku Valley via Nyabitaba for acclimatization prior reaching the peaks. Hikers joining the central circuit after Bujuku normally traverse the Scott Elliot and Fresh-field passes, to descend via the Mubuku Valley.
Kilembe trail is the other famous trail, it was only recently reopened. It ascend the Southern slopes of the Rwenzori from a trailhead located at Kilembe near Kasese town. The trail along the beautiful Nyamwamba valley passes glacial lakes and several stunning viewpoints prior to joining the central circuit at Lake Kitandara. The formal route scales Mount Baker although the awe-striking scenery makes shorter treks greatly rewarding.
Cultural encounters and community visits – Ruboni Community Camp
The tourists visit the communities in the area for an encounter with the natives. The Ruboni Community Camp is one of the most commonly visited groups. It is a small serene farming village comprising of an estimate 2000 Bakonzo people. The village is found at the foothills of the Rwenzoris. A visit to the community is a chance to encounter the daily life of the locals; they demonstrate how they prepare their meals, tend their crops and animals, and weave crafts. Also, tourists get to encounter the blacksmith, traditional healer and storytellers.
Ruboni is translated ‘clear water’ from the native Lukonzo dialect. With the aid of a guide, tourists embark on trails along the rocky Mubuku river, following the crystal clear water encountering villagers along the way. This area is marked for its variety of resident bird species including; the cinnamon-chested bee-eaters, tiny sunbirds and the Rwenzori turaco. Vervet monkeys, chameleons and squirrels are also very common in this area.
Rwenzori Turaco View camp site
This group of native Bakonzo resides in a tiny village called Mihunga found at the green hillsides of the Rwenzori foothills, where they have lived for over 300 years, with no supply of electricity or running water. These people are used to the dump and cold mountain climate. The community’s tourism group; Turaco View takes tourists on a cultural tour of the village. Visitors get to encounter the traditional healer whose herbal remedies and concoctions are believed to cure a myriad ailments. The community tour also includes a visit to the village school, and crafts markets. Tourists also explore the surrounding forests where they can get to spot a variety of bird species.
Bulembe – Ihandiro cultural trail
This 6 – 7 hour cultural trail takes tourists through the holy valley and the various sites of cultural significance and value to the Bakonzo tribe. With the aid of a guide, visitors encounter various cultural symbols and traditional beliefs. The Mihima is the village’s famous traditional healer, the local black Smith makes the sacred Bakonzo stool which has great spiritual significance, the women demonstrate their basket weaving skills and the men shown their fire making skills. The trail also takes visitors to the Kamusonge river whose waters are believed to have the ability to supernaturally quench thirst. The trail also includes a visit to the local museum where items of historical and cultural importance are kept.
Best time to visit
Rwenzori Mountains National Park is cold and chilly for the most part of the year, day time temperatures are normally between 10 – 15 degrees celcius, with the nights being much colder. The months of January – February and July – August are the driest, but heavy rains can fall at any time. The best time to climb the mountains is from June – August and December – February.
Rwenzori Mountains National Park is found a few kilometers north of the equator on the Uganda – Congo boarder.
By road, the park’s trailhead at Ruboni can be arrived at from Kampala using the northern route, which passes via Fort Portal about 375km, or via the southern route which passes through Mbarara and Queen Elizabeth National Park, about the distance of 450km.
For those desiring to travel by air, charter flights to Kasese are arranged from Kampala; Kajjansi airstrip or Entebbe International airport. Nyakalengija is 17km off the Kasese – Fort Portal road, and 25km north of Kasese town.
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