Trekking Rwenzori Mountains National Park: THE MYSTICAL MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON, UGANDA

I feel like I am walking through an alien landscape.  Plants that look like enormous cabbages mounted on the tops of tall stalks tower overhead.  Giant lobelias – usually only 3-36 inches (10-90 cm) tall – make me feel small.  Mist clings to these plants, adding to the atmosphere.  A dramatic mountain peak rises far above us in the distance.  A small lake forms the bottom of the valley below.  I have never seen anything like this place before.


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Hiking the Mountains of the moon

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Guide to Trekking Rwenzori Mountains

Mountains of the Moon trek details

The Rwenzori Mountains (also called “The Mountains of the Moon”) straddle the equator between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC; formerly Zaire). 

I was travelling through Africa and when I first heard about the Mountains of the Moon, I was intrigued and wanted to learn more.

Facts about the Rwenzori Mountains

Almost 2,500 years ago, in the fourth century B.C., Ptolemy marked “Lunae Montes” (The Mountains of the Moon) on his map of Africa in their correct location.  However, Stanley is commonly identified as the first white person to confirm their existence.  He actually first saw them on 1876, but it wasn’t until 1888 that he confirmed their existence.  He first thought he was looking at a cloud, but then realized it was actually a snow-covered mountain.  These are the largest range of mountains in Africa and contain the third highest peak in Africa.  The highest peaks of the range were first climbed in 1906.   They were declared a United Nations World Heritage Site in 1994.

Where are the Rwenzori Mountains?

On the Ugandan side is Rwenzori Mountains National Park and on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC – formerly Zaire) side is Virunga National Park. Uganda is in central eastern Africa.

Ugandan trekking is the best option because Rwenzori National Park is the safest and easiest to access. 

This area of the world has seen a lot of civil war in recent years, so it is essential to check current safety conditions before going there.  Numbers are limited each year (which helps preserve the delicate environment) and all trips to the Rwenzori are accompanied by local guides and porters.  This not only makes it easier (because you don’t have to carry everything), but also employs local people, which helps give them a vested interest in preserving the area.

Rwenzori trekking is not easy because of the conditions, but hiking is a great way to see and experience this amazing planet, so it is well worth the effort. I did the hike in Uganda, and this is safer, since the DRC has a pretty unstable political situation.  ALWAYS CHECK FOR UGANDA ALSO and do not go if it is unsafe!

Uganda map with Rwenzori Mountains

The main massifs in the Rwenzori Mountains

There are many peaks in the Rwenzori range, but the six main massifs in the central park area are:

  • Mt. Gessi (15,470 feet/ 4,715 m) All of the glaciers have melted from this once ice-covered massif
  • Mt. Emin (15, 741 feet/ 4,798 m) There are no longer glaciers on this massif.
  • Mt. Speke (16,043 feet/ 4,890 m) There used to be huge glaciers on the north side of Mt. Speke, but they have all melted.   The Speke Glacier on the south side still exists, albeit much smaller.  There are also several smaller glaciers near Ensonga Peak.
  • Mt. Stanley (16,762 feet/ 5,109 m) There are still many glaciers, including the Stanley Plateau which, at over one kilometer long, is the largest glacier in the Rwenzori Mountains.
  • Mt. Luigi Di Savoia (15, 328 feet/ 4,627 m) This was the first to lose its glacial ice.
  • Mount Baker (15,889 feet/ 4,843 m) There are no glaciers on the way to the peak. 

Hiking routes in Rwenzori National Park

There are two main hiking routes in Rwenzori National Park:

  • The Central Circuit route. This is the oldest and most-established route and the one I took and describe.  There are several tour operators here (see below).  The route begins in Ibanda.  There are some variations on the route possible, but the route is typically 7-9 days. This is the route I took.
  • The Kilembe route. This was opened in 2009 and only one tour operator does trips here – Rwenzori Trekking Services.  This begins in Kilembe in the south-east, joining the central circuit at the Kitandar Lakes.  This route is 6-9 days.
Ruwenzori Map

Rwenzori trekking services

The easiest way to do the hike in the Rwenzori Mountains is to use a company to help you organize it.

Note that each trek can be a little different from the one I describe below, depending on how far you go each day, but the overall experience is similar.

Here are two good options for packages that both include pickup and drop off at Entebbe Airport in Kampala (click on the links to book)

Companies for the main Central Circuit include:

For the southern Kilembe route, there is one operator:

Rwenzori Mountains trekking

Hiking tips and equipment you will need

This a tough hike, but because you will have porters and a guide, it can be done by (reasonably fit) novice hikers. However, there are some basic things you should know. Be sure to read:

Best time to visit the Rwenzori Mountains

Hiking is possible all year, but the rainy seasons are March – May and November, so these are the low season.  The best time of year to hike the Rwenzori Mountains is July to September and January to February.

How to get to the Rwenzori Mountains

Uganda’s capital city, Kampala, is the main gateway to the Rwenzori Mountains.  The airport, Entebbe Airport has frequent connections with Nairobi in Kenya.

Check flights to Uganda here.

From Kampala, there are two major routes to the mountain, both taking about a day to reach Ibanda:

  • northern route via Fort Portal, then south to Ibanda. The roads range from excellent to rough dirt tracks.
  • southern route via Kasese. The roads are generally good, paves surfaces.  This is the route I took.  It crosses the equator twice.

Booking with a tour operator that arranges transfers to/ from the airport is definitely the easiest option!

Where to stay in the Rwenzori Mountains

Most accommodation is not flash, but is adequate.

Where to Stay in Kampala/ Entebbe Airport

Where to stay in Ibanda/ Kasese

Some options include:

In addition to camping, they have furnished rooms with hot showers, mosquito nets and electricity (hydroelectric power). There are good views of the Rwenzori Mountains from the restaurant and some rooms.

There are three rooms, a campsite, a bar and a restaurant that serves traditional Ugandan food. It is located in Mihunga village and is run by the community.

Where to Stay along the Rwenzori Mountains hiking route

There is a good system of huts along the main circuit of the Rwenzori. These include:

  • John Matte Hut (11,090 feet/ 3,380 meters)
  • Bujuku Hut (13,025 feet/ 3,977 meters)
  • Elena Hut (14,895 feet/ 4,540 meters)
  • Kitandara Lake Hut (13,212 feet/ 4,027 meters)
  • Guy Yeoman Hut (10,695 feet/ 3,260 meters)
  • Nyabitaba hut (8,694 feet/ 2,650 meters)
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Guide to Trekking Rwenzori Mountains

Description of the Uganda safaris to the Rwenzori Mountains

Day 1 of Rwenzori Mountains Hike

Hike time: 4-5 hours officially (It took me 3 including lunch)

Stayed: Nyabitaba hut [8,700 feet/ 2,650 m]

Rwenzori Mountains trekking porters packing

We drove from Kasese, where we had seen loads of marabou storks scavenging in the rubbish that was piled around town.  It was a 12.5-mile (20-kilometer) drive to the base camp at Ibanda. 

After watching a (pretty awful) 30-minute introductory video about the mountains, we met our guide and porters.  Each porter carries a maximum 22 kilograms, so the weight of everything needed to be distributed accurately.  Each porter got a blanket and a jacket, food and cigarettes plus a small wage per day.  Their food was weighed and distributed first, and then our food and our personal gear last.

Rwenzori Mountains trekking

Everything was loaded into burlap/ hessian sacks and each porter tied straps of banana bark around their sack to make a head strap with which to carry each sack.  We set off at 10:50am.

The walk started along the road to the Nyakalengija gate and was steady until our lunch break around 12:30pm.  After the break, the going got steep, as we started to follow the Mubuku River.  I went at my own pace, but my muscles were aching, as I was pretty unfit.  The walk was through beautiful rainforest and the scenery and views were superb.

I arrived at the Nyabitaba hut around 1:45pm and had the rest of the afternoon to relax (though it showered for a while in the late afternoon.)

Day 2 of Rwenzori Mountains Hike

Hike time: 7 hours officially (It took me 4.5 including lunch)

Stayed: John Matte Hut [11,100 feet / 3,380 m]

I set out at 8:30am after a horrible breakfast of sago pudding.  The conditions were probably the best these mountains have to offer; it was dry all day.  Even the bogs weren’t the horrendous quagmires I had expected, although they were nonetheless extremely muddy.  Since “Rwenzoris” means “Rain Maker” or “The Great Leaf in Which the Clouds are Boiled”, I was pretty lucky that it is as dry as it was.

This morning started with a rapid descent first thing to cross the Mubuku River.  Then it consisted mainly of clambering up and down gullies over rocks, through a bamboo forest, always going higher.   It was hard going and my muscles hurt a little as they got an unaccustomed workout.   I was glad to stop for lunch.

Rwenzori Mountains trekking

Gradually the scenery changed and the hour’s walk after lunch was amazing.  We were out of the rainforest and into an eerie forest of trees strung with hanging Irish moss and covered in huge clumps of thick clumps of moss with ferns and giant lobelia.  There was total silence except for the nearby river. It was amazing.  We passed through a bog, jumping from tussock to tussock and glad to see bits of boardwalks in a few places, even though they weren’t very frequent and those that were there, were not in great condition.   Then more of the mossy forest before reaching the hut.

Rwenzori Mountains trekking

I was quite drained after the physical activity, though it felt good to exercise.

Day 3 of Rwenzori Mountains Hike

Hike time: 5 hours officially (It took me a slow 4 hours)

Stayed: Bujuku Hut [13,100 feet/ 4,000m]

Amazing scenery

The walk today was just amazing.  The vegetation was incredible, with much of it unique to these mountains.  There are giant lobelia 10 feet high and huge trees alien with large cabbage-like plants on top.  Mist hangs from the trees.   It is another world.

Rwenzori Mountains trekking

Mud

And a muddy one – unfortunately, most of these incredible plants grow in boggy conditions.  We passed through three bogs, starting with the Lower Bigo Bog.  From there, we made a side trip up the Mugusu Valley to Moon Lake (Lac de la Lune), thought to be Ptolomy’s source for the Nile. It is beautiful, nestled in the bottom of the valley, surrounded by more spectacular vegetation.

Rwenzori Mountains trekking

Back on the main trail, there was some pretty muddy uphill climbing and clambering over tree roots as I go through Upper Bigo Bog and past Lake Bujuku.   As I jumped from one tussock of grass to another across the bogs, I didn’t always make it, and fell in the mud a couple of times up to the top of my boots and once up to my thighs.  That was a little scary and I was caked in mud by the end of the day, but mostly it was fun – and the scenery so overwhelmingly amazing that the mud seemed almost incidental.

Rwenzori Mountains trekking

The hut was a tiny corrugated iron room with a tiny wood-fueled heater in the middle.  It was very basic, but cozy.

Rwenzori Mountains trekking

Tomorrow we will be going to the peak, so we spent the evening sorting out crampons and ice axes from the supplies left at the hut for the ascents.

Some struggled

Not all of my companions had as good a day as I did.  One of my friends, Vicky, was sick and took 6 hours, staying with the guide and retching all day.  Two others, Mark and James, sped ahead of the guide and accidentally took a wrong path, arriving to the hut at 4:00pm just before the guide and head porter were about to head off to find them.

Day 4 of Rwenzori Mountains Hike

Hike time: 3.5 hours round trip

Stayed: Bujuku Hut [13,100 feet/ 4,000m]

Rwenzori Mountains trekking

We got up just before 6:00am and left the hut to ascend Mount Speke about 6:30am. We scrambled up a steep rock face (at about a 60-degree angle).  It is a little scary at times as we shuffled around the vertical cliffs along a ledge that is only a few inches wide for a foothold. Another sheer rock face has little more than a horizontal crack in the rock where we can put our feet as we cling to the rock and shuffle along to a wider path.  I don’t look down.

Unfortunately, it started to snow.  We kept on going, but eventually, only about an hour away from the peak, faced with steep, smooth rock covered with small drifts of snow and with a blizzard beginning to blow, and with the guide saying the next hour would be dangerous in these conditions, we turned back.

Rwenzori Mountains trekking

Going back down was sometimes slippery going – it would have been extremely dangerous if there had been more snow. We got back about 10:00am disappointed but certain we’d made the right decision.

Day 5 of Rwenzori Mountains Hike

Hike time: 5 hours officially (It took me 3.5 hours)

Stayed: Kitandara Lake Hut [13,200 feet/ 4,025 m]

The first part of the hike was tough, especially since it was raining and slightly snowing this morning, but then it became easier and was a pretty short day.  I arrived at Kitandra Hut about 12:15 and had the rest of the day to relax.  Some of my companions set out earlier than I did and went up to the peak of Alexandria.

Rwenzori Mountains trekking

Day 6 of Rwenzori Mountains Hike

Hike time: 10 hours – over 2 days – officially (It took me a very determined 8 hours + 1 hour rest)

Stayed: Nyabitaba Hut/ base camp  [8,700 feet/ 2,650 m]   Note: It’s most common to do this in two days, staying at the Guy Yeoman Hut in the Mubuku River Valley at 10,700 feet /3,260 meters.

This day was hell.  We decided to do 2 days’ walk in one day and this was a really bad decision.  The entire 8 hours were spent wading through mud.  The first few hours was in a thick cloud and I could barely see.  Then I banged my head on the pointy end of a log and had a thumping headache.  To make things worse, I hardly ate all day, so I felt faint and nauseous.  I spent the last hour expecting to see around the next corner. Instead, there was yet another bog. When I finally arrived, I was white, felt ill and was so exhausted I could barely lift my feet.   The scenery was amazing still, but I barely noticed, as I was consumed by my own misery.

Some of my friends pressed on and made it to the bottom and on to Kasese, but there was no way I could have done it.  I should have done what most people do and spent the night in the Guy Yeoman hut.

Day 7 of Rwenzori Mountains Hike

Hike time: 2.5 hours

Stayed: Kasese (where I had a shower!!!)

The final day was only 2.5 hours, thank God.

I had huge blisters on my feet and aching muscles.  I weighed myself at the bottom and I had lost 8 pounds/ 4 kg in one week.

The verdict: Rwenzori Mountains Trekking

Hiking the Rwenzori Mountains was one of the highlights of my trip to Africa, without a doubt.  The scenery and the vegetation is out of this world.  The name “Mountains of the Moon” is totally appropriate – I have never been anywhere that looks like them and was awe-struck.  However, the last two days were tough – I would NOT recommend trying to do two days’ worth of hiking in one day.  Do not underestimate the mud!

TC ‘experiential travel’ score: Trekking Rwenzori Mountains National Park

Authenticity of experience 19
Quality of interaction with culture/ environment 17
Engagement level 19
Enjoyment15
Difficulty to arrange10
TOTAL TC SCORE80

Practical Tips: Visiting Uganda

Other things to do in Uganda

You have flown all the way to Uganda, which is probably far from home.  You’ve done a trek that very few people in the world have done and seen one of the most incredible landscapes on the planet. 

However, Uganda is most famous for something else – the mountain gorillas (think “Gorillas in the Mist”.  I did a mountain gorilla trek in Uganda and it was mind blowingly amazing.  Read this Guide to Gorilla Safaris for more details.

There are also hikes to see chimpanzees in the wild in Uganda.  Plus big game in nearby game parks.  Uganda really does have it all!

Mountain gorilla mother and baby Uganda

Here is a 7-day trip to can add on to your Rwenzoris trek that goes to the chimpanzees, game parks and mountain gorillasSee the details and book here.

What is the currency in Uganda?

The currency in Uganda is the Ugandan shilling (UGX).  Check out the current exchange rate here.

Visa requirements for Uganda

There is a very good chance that you will need a visa for Uganda.  For visa requirements, check out your home country’s official government visa websites:

For citizens of other countries, use this helpful website (though it’s best to always check with the embassy as well). 

Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get the visa before you travel.

Also, I recommend you have at least 6 months left on your passport after your trip. This is a requirement for some countries, and this can change, so it is always best to play it safe.

Planning and packing for Uganda

When planning a trip, I always use a combination of blogs and guidebooks.  I like the Lonely Planet and they have for East Africa, that includes other countries. Buy the East Africa Lonely Planet here.

If you are just going to Uganda (and that is enough for a two- or three-week vacation), then there is a guidebook just for Uganda.  Buy the Bradt Uganda Guide Book here.

You will probably be able to get by with English, but if you want to try your hand at a local language, pick up the Lonely Planet Swahili phrase book here.

A trip to Africa is no small undertaking. Take the stress out of planning with my Trip Planner, which breaks the while planning and preparation stages down one thing at a time.

When you are ready for your trip, check out my Essential Packing List.

Safety in Uganda

I had no problems traveling in Uganda, but it does pay to be careful. Always check the current situation to make sure there is no political unrest. The US government has a website that issues travel advisories.

The US government also has health advisories – check what vaccinations you need. I recommend checking at least 6 months before you travel. Some vaccines require several shots over a period of time, so you want to make sure you have time.

I’m not trying to scare you, but you may also have people try to scam you. Read about the most common travel scams so you can recognize them when they start to happen and you can avoid falling prey to them.

Also check out my post on 13 things NOT to do when traveling (and learn from my mistakes).

Finally, even when you take all precautions, things CAN happen. So you should definitely get travel insurance.

Additional consideration: Travel Insurance

You need travel insurance whenever you travel and should definitely not head to Africa without it.   For more information on exactly what to look for, read my guide to buying travel insurance.

A great insurance option is World Nomads.  You can book it online. 

Why do I like WorldNomads.com?  Its backed by specialist insurers and global assistance partners, so you buy it online and claim online, and, unlike many insurances, it covers a range of adventure sports and activities (check their website here).  In addition, they are a company that cares about sustainable travel and they give you a chance to make a difference by making a micro donation to support a community development project when you sign up.

Get a quote here:

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Guide to Trekking Rwenzori Mountains

Happy trekking!

Do you have any stories of Uganda ? I’d love to hear them. Comment below. 

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Hiking the Mountains of the Moon Rwenzori Mountains

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About the author

James-Ian-at-Travel-Collecting

James Ian has traveled to 82 countries and all 7 continents.  He is passionate about experiential travel, i.e. meaningful travel that actively engages with the environment and culture.  He helps people have similar experiences that involve active participation in activities and festivals; engaging with the local food and handicrafts through lessons and food tours; and interacting positively with environment by hiking, riding, rowing, diving and low/no impact animal encounters. 

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