Rwenzori Mountains National Park lies in the South-western corner of Uganda along the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo next to the great Virunga National Park. The park covers an area of 386 square miles and its boundaries pass through the districts of Kabarole, Bundibugyo and Kasese. Because of its natural beauty, rare plants, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, hot springs, glaciers and the mountains, the park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994.
The Rwenzori mountain ranges are the main features of the park. They are the highest/largest mountain ranges in Africa. Mount Stanley’s peak Margherita is the third highest peak in Africa at 16,762 feet. Mount Speke follows closely at number four while Mount Baker is number five in Africa. Apart from the three mentioned already, the other mountains among the Rwenzori ranges are Mount Gessi, Mount Luigi da Savoia and Mount Emin Pasha. How were the Rwenzori Mountains formed? Unlike most of the mountains in East Africa that were formed by volcanic eruptions, the Rwenzori Mountains are part of a huge rock that was squeezed/lifted from the floor of the East African Rift Valley.
These mountains were first mentioned by Claudius Ptolemy from Alexandria as early as 300. He referred to them as “the Mountains of the Moon” and alleged that it was the source of great river Nile. These allegations where confirmed as truth in 1888 by the great British explorer Henry Morton Stanley when he accidently sighted the mountain ranges while on an expedition around the shores of Lake George. It was Stanley who gave the mountain ranges the name Rwenzori (borrowed from the natives). The first notable hiker of the mountain was the Duke of Abruzzi, Prince Luigi Amedeo da Savoia of Italy. While forcing his way through the thick forests in 1906, he discovered the mountain in full with its beautiful lakes and the snow capped peak.
Wildlife and Plants
Apart from the mountains, the Rwenzori Mountains National park is recognized for its botany, birds and animals. The park has pristine landscape with a high density of trees and other vegetation. The combination of sunshine, cold and heavy rainfall supports plant life seen nowhere else on earth. At the base of the mountain, there is an African savannah that is home to several species of mammals including chimpanzees. The Rwenzori mountains National Park is one of the best places to go birding in Uganda. 217 species of birds and fifteen of butterflies have been recorded in the park. The most sought out reptile is the three-horned chameleon.
Management of the Park
The government of Uganda through the Uganda Wildlife Authority runs the park. The challenges facing the park come mainly from community encroachment in the park, poor funding and global warming that has reduced snow cover on the peaks. The main tribes living at the foothills of the mountains are the Bamba and Bakonjo. These tribes have lived in these areas for countless generations and have adapted to life at the foot of the mountains. They survive by cultivating the slopes using terracing and keeping a few domestic animals though population increase has put a strain on available land forcing some people to resort to illegal logging. The shortage of funding has been addressed by lobbying for more funds from the government, international and local non-governmental organizations.
Main Attractions, activities and things to do at the Rwenzori Mountains National Park
The Rwenzori Mountains National Park is one of Uganda’s least explored and undiscovered places. The park is special because of the spectacular scenery that is unique to the area. Just like with Mount Elgon National Park in Mbale, the key attraction is mountain climbing. The Rwenzori Mountain Services (RMS) works with the Uganda Wildlife Authority to organize most of the mountain hiking activities while also maintaining the trails and accommodation on top of the mountains. Visitors to the Rwenzori Mountains National Park can also take part in nature walks, site seeing, and cultural visits – more of which we shall discuss below:-
Climbing the Rwenzori Mountains: Some of the world’s best mountain hikers have climbed the Rwenzori Mountains. Mountain hiking in the park is organized to world class standards. Inexperienced hikers may find reaching the highest peak (Margherita) extremely strenuous. Shorter and less strenuous hikes can be arranged around the mountain without going all the way up to the snow capped peaks.
There are two hiking trails that are used by hikers to get to the summit. The first one is the Central Circuit Trail that starts form Mihunga taking 7 days. The Rwenzori Mountaineering Services is the only one that organizes hiking in this route. The second trail is the Kilembe trail that starts from Kilembe near Kasese town. This is a new route that was recently opened and is run by the Rwenzori trekking services. It takes 5 days to reach one of the peaks. In order to explore all the three highest peaks, one should set aside at least 9 days. Climbing to the highest summit Margherita offers opportunities to marvel at the snow-capped peaks and alpine vegetation. Descending the mountain rewards hikers with more sustained views of the vast farmlands, Queen Elizabeth national park and the Virunga ranges in DR Congo. Climbers will also encounter beautiful lakes and rivers high up on the mountains.
The most convenient way of arranging a hiking adventure to the park is to use the services of a tour operator. A tour operator can help organize transport and book accommodation while also working with the Rwenzori Mountaineering Services to arrange for porters, guides and cooks. The overall cost of hiking to the summit of the mountains includes the cost of 2 porters, guides, a cook, rescue mission, accommodation and heating. Commercial videos or filming attracts a charge of $200 per day plus an additional $1,000 that is refunded once a hiker shares a copy of the video with the Uganda Wildlife Authority. There is a standard park entrance fee of $30 per day. For more details about the hiking trails, stages and huts, check out our 9 Days Mount Rwenzori hiking tour package.
Forest and Foothill Hiking: Inexperienced mountain climbers have an option of hiking on the mountain slopes and forest or taking part in activities like hand fishing along some of the streams on the mountain hills. While in the forest, look out for the three horned Rwenzori chameleon. This rare reptile is only found in Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo. The male chameleon has 3 horns while the female has none.
Birdwatching: UNESCO labeled the Rwenzori area a key Birding Area. The park and its mountains support several species including the Rwenzori and Strange Weaver.
Cultural Experiences: The Rwenzori Mountains National Park offers opportunities for cultural experiences with one of the local tribes living at the foot of the mountains. Tourists can go and visit the village of Ruboni to learn about the daily lifestyle and history of the Bakonzo tribe. The Bakonzo people arrange cultural dance performances while sharing information about their history.
The other interesting cultural experience is to go for the Bulemba-Ihandiro Cultural Trail. This trail gives more exposure to the intriguing culture of the Bakonzo. There are opportunities to visit a traditional healer and local blacksmiths. Visitors learn how to make fire locally and weave baskets. The Bulemba-Ihandiro Cultural Trail also takes visitors to the Bakonzo traditional Museum. The local museum has a collection of traditional items of cultural and historical importance to the Bakonzo (Rwenzururu) including art pieces and locally made dresses.
The Bakonzo gather and make an annual (2nd September) pilgrimage to remember their great King Isaiah Kibanzanga Mukirania. The king played an important role in protecting the Bakonzo people from oppression by their neighbors the Batooro. If one is visiting the Rwenzori area around September and is looking for a special African experience, then this is it. The day is filled with celebration, sacred rites and sacrifices in memory of the great king.
Nature Walks: Nature walks can be arranged near the boundaries of the park by companies like the Rwenzori Mountain Services (RMS) and the Backpackers in Kilembe. Walks arranged by the RMS usually follow the central circuit zone used for mountain climbing. The area around the starting point for mountain hiking is forested and with beautiful scenery and leads up to the lake Mahooma and the chimpanzee forest of Buraro. The other places to visit during the nature. Your tour company can help you arrange the nature walks with any of these companies.
How to Reach Rwenzori Mountains National Park
There are two ways of reaching the park from Uganda’s capital Kampala. The first is by using public or private transport. Driving from Kampala to Kasese takes between five to six hours. Given the mountainous nature of the area, it is important to use a good 4 Wheel drive car. Most visitors to the Rwenzori Mountains National Park use the services of a tour operator for transportation from the capital Kampala. Some visitors may consider the journey by road to be too long and go for the second option which is by using a chartered flight from Entebbe international airport or Kajjansi airstrip to Kasese. The journey by plane takes only one hour and a half. Your tour company can arrange to pick you from the airstrip to your hotel or the park.
Tips and packing list when visiting the Rwenzori Mountains National Park.
Before visiting the Rwenzori Mountains national park for any activity, it is important to note that the temperatures around the park are extremely cold even during the dry seasons. Avoid hiking during the rainy months between March – June and September – October. The Rwenzori area receives rain throughout the year but the amount intensifies during the wet season. The area can get very cold and the trails are slippery and full of mud. Other factors to take into consideration are:-
- The mountain climbing equipment provided (rented) by the Rwenzori Mountaineering Services may not be of the highest possible quality. It is important to bring your own hiking gear, waterproof clothes, sleeping bags, crampons, harnesses, plastic bags and walking sticks. Also remember to come with a good camera and sun glasses to protect the eyes. If you wish to cook your own food while hiking the mountain, you need to arrange for a good stove.
- To successfully climb to the top of any of the peeks, a hiker needs to be in great shape and free of any lung or heart problems. Eat less fat and more fruit or carbohydrates during the hike. Dehydration has stopped many a climber from completing the mountain hike. Try to drink as much water as you can and do not try to push yourself too hard.
- Beware of illnesses related to staying too long in altitudes beyond 3500 meters. Look out for symptoms like breathing difficulty, fatigue, headache, nausea, hand/feet swellings and sleeplessness. If possible come with supplies of oxygen.
Accommodation in Rwenzori Mountains National Park
Hotel Margherita: This mid-range hotel is built at the foot of the mountains and near Queen Elizabeth National Park with wonderful views of the mountains and vast forests. The hotel offers high quality service and has single, double and family rooms. The area around the hotel and its compound is serene with beautiful gardens that give a relaxed feeling. There is a children’s playing area, a large conference room, a restaurant, a bar and a club called club rocky for those who love dancing.
Rwenzori International Hotel: This mid-range hotel is also built near the mountain foot, three kilometers away from the airstrip in Kasese. The hotel has thirty five self-contained rooms and a place to set up outside tents. The rooms all have telephone lines, mosquito nets, televisions, comfortable beds and laundry services. There is also a restaurant, a bar, a court for badminton, a tennis court, parking space, a large garden, a fitness and health centre. Residents can go for sauna, body massage and steam baths near the gym. The hotel arranges activities like hiking to the top of the Rwenzori mountains and visiting nearby game parks like Queen Elizabeth and Bwindi.
Katara Lodge: This lodge is located near Queen Elizabeth national park and offers stunning views of the park, the Rwenzori ranges and farmlands of neighboring communities. All buildings are made of wood with grass thatched roofs to promote the conservation of the environment. The lodge offers both single self-contained rooms and family rooms that can accommodate 5 people. To avoid relying on chemicals that some clients may be allergic to (like chlorine), the lodge uses salt water.
Equator Snow Lodge: This luxury lodge is found near the park entrance and at the foot of the mountain with river Mubuku flowing nearby. The lodge is suitable for travelers who desire services and facilities of a higher quality. The self-contained cottages are uniquely built with round rocks from the river with a balcony and fireplaces to keep residents warm during the cold evenings around the mountains. The rooms are decorated with local art depicting the history of the Rwenzori area and mountains. Residents can take breakfast and lunch at the restaurant or use the resident bar if they only need drinks.
Tropical Savannah Guest House: This lodge is found in Kasese town along the road from Kasese to Mbarara. It is perfect for the budget traveler and offers room facilities like WiFi, showers, bathrooms, a Flat TV, wardrobes and nets for mosquitoes. The restaurant serves local and international dishes that can be taken to individual rooms on demand.
Tours Holiday Inn: This lodge is Located at the trading centre of Ibanda on the road leading to Nyakalejija. The lodge is locally owned hotel with 15 rooms that area self-contained. There is an extension with five extra self-contained rooms. In total, about 40 people can be accommodated in both the main building and extension in a night. The hotel facilities include heated water in the rooms, a garden, a conference room, a bar and restaurant for breakfast and dinner. Both local and international dishes from Italy, Germany and the US are served.
Ruboni Community Camp: This budget hotel is built next to the park gate around Nyakalenjija with great views of the Rwenzori Mountains. It is among the oldest lodges in the area of Nyakalenjija and runs as a community project. Its location at the beginning area of the park allows residents experience the cool air from the mountains. The rooms are built with brick, grass-thatched roofs and are self-contained with showers, toilets, a mosquito net and balconies. The camp has a restaurant that also doubles as a meeting and information area. Both continental and local food like fried Tilapia and chapatti is served at the restaurant by staffs that are very welcoming. In order to allow visitors get involved with the community, the camp arranges activities like birdwatching, hill climbing, village walks, camping, forest walks and a visit to the Mahoma trail within the park. As a community project, it helps contribute towards the development of the communities living near the park. This is the more reason why the staying at the camp is highly recommended.
Mihunga Safari Lodge: This hotel was opened to the public in 2010 in Mihunga village near Nyakalenjija by the Rwenzori Mountaineering Services (RMS). The lodge has wooden accommodation facilities that are self-contained with a restaurant that serves Ugandan and international food.
Rwenzori Turaco View Campsite: This is a community run and locally owned budget hotel with a camping site and grass thatched rooms in Mihunga village. The facility has a bar and restaurant that prepares Ugandan food but also with the tastes of international visitors in mind.
Ihamba lakeside Safari Lodge. This Mid-range hotel is located near Queen Elizabeth National Park on the shores of Lake George. It is close to the Kahendero fishing village that overlooks the Rwenzori Mountain ranges. The lodge has 6 self-contained cottages and offers facilites like laundry, house-keeping, parking space, fire equipment and a swimming pool.
Rwenzori Backpackers: This is a budget facility used mainly by visitors who have come to hike the mountains using the Kilembe Trail. The lodge has comfortable bedding, hot showers, a bar and restaurant.
Sandton Hotel Kasese: This hotel is built along the Rwenzori Road in the middle of Kasese town. The hotel receives both local and international clients and has a large room for conferences and meeting. The environment around the hotel is quiet and serene with beautiful gardens.