Key information: Rwenzori Mountains
- Explore the extraordinary vegetation and landscapes of the fabled “Mountains of the Moon”.
- Demanding walking, but an unforgettable experience.
- Accessed from Uganda.
- Walkopedia rating85
- Natural interest17
- Human interest3
- Negative points3
- Total rating85
- Note: Negs: altitude, very rainy.
- Length: 70km, up to 7 days
- Maximum Altitude: 5,090m
- Level of Difficulty: Very Difficult
The Rwenzori Mountains of western Uganda are the fabled “Mountains of the moon” and the true source of the Nile. A UN world heritage site, the mountains stretch some 130km along the border between the Congo and Uganda. While farming and settlement is intense outside the park, the lands within the park are wonderfully pristine.
It is claimed that nowhere else can you enjoy such an extraordinary variety of landscapes and strange, stratified vegetation, right on the equator: the Rwenzori have a marvellous stack of different vegetation zones. Above the thick jungle of the lower slopes, you enter zones of bamboo and giant ferns and cloud forests. The higher you go, the stranger the misty, boggy glacier-carved valleys become: you spend time among giant heather, giant lobelias, groundsels, and so-called everlasting flowers; a particular feature is high bogs with weird bog plants, thick mosses, giant heathers and draping lichens. Above this are tundra and ice fields, glaciers and rocky peaks. And add in fast flowing rivers and magnificent waterfalls throughout.
Unlike East Africa’s other great mountains, the Rwenzori are not volcanic in origin, but the result of a vast uplift - hard to imagine the forces!
The Rwenzori get a lot of rainfall, and their trails are rocky, muddy and often steep. The driest times and the best times to visit are December-January and late June to late August.
Visiting the park from Uganda is safe. Uganda’s government has been stable for years and, while many Ugandans struggle for the basics in life, they are friendly and welcoming to tourists.
Exploration on foot has a long history in the Rwenzori. Henry Morton Stanley (of “Dr. Livingston I presume” fame) was the first westerner to confirm the presence of glaciated mountains on the equator, in 1888. The Duke of Abruzzi led an Italian mountaineering expedition to the Rwenzori in 1906 and named and climbed many of the peaks. Today, about a thousand western tourists visit the Mountains of the Moon annually. Perhaps half that many complete the Central Circuit and perhaps a hundred people scale the high snow and rock to the summits.
One of the most interesting aspects of trekking here is the opportunity to get to know the Bakonjo people – your guides, cooks and porters. They work in the mountains to supplement their cash income.
Day walks and shorter overnighters can be made from the road heads, but it is the 6-7 day Central Circuit which is the thriller here. With the summit at 5,090m this is a serious undertaking, gaining 3,500m in 5 days.
The following description of the Central Circuit is derived from Charles Bookman’s brilliant account (see below). Thank you Charles.
During the colonial era, the Uganda Wildlife Authority in partnership with the Uganda Mountain Club constructed a system of trails and huts known as the “Central Circuit.” All of the major peaks – Mt. Luigi di Savoia, Mt. Baker, Mt. Speke and Mt. Stanley (at 16,700’ the highest peak in Uganda (and the Congo) and the third highest peak in Africa) – can be climbed from the Central Circuit. The trail system and the huts fell into disuse and disrepair during the 1970s and 1980s, when Mt. Stanley was known as Mt. Idi Amin. The trails and huts were rebuilt during the 1990s.
Day 1: The first stage on the Central Circuit is a 3,500’ climb up a ridge alongside and above the Mobuku River. You climb through thick, broken equatorial forest and then through stands of giant ferns. After four hours you reach Nyabitaba Hut, at 8,500’, a large cabin with several bunk rooms and associated dining areas.
Day 2: Descend to cross the Mobuku River at its confluence with the Bujuku River, then climb through bamboo forest and moss-covered trees, arriving at John Matte Hut on the Bujuku River in about 5 hours.
Day 3: The Bigo bogs start a few minutes beyond the John Matte Hut. Sometimes on boardwalks, sometimes mired in mud, rubber boots are the footwear of choice. Sometimes you are among giant heather, sometimes the bog sports giant lobelias, groundsels and everlasting flowers. The bogs lead you to Bujuku Lake and your first view of the high snowfields on Mt. Stanley. After four hours, you reach Bujuku Hut (13,000’), which is also the jumping off place for Mt. Speke (16,043’).
Day 4: takes you above the forest into steep, rocky terrain with unearthly vegetation to the true alpine high country. Camp at Elena Hut, at nearly 15,000’, on the side of Mt. Stanley (16,763’).
Day 5: Summit: The African glaciers really are receding. Elena Hut was constructed in 1951 at the toe of the Stanley ice field. Sixty years later, in 2012, you climb for around an hour, before through a cliff band with the help of a fixed rope to reach a long, striated, rocky plateau, before reaching the snow line. The views are stunning. Rock turns to ice at the beginning of the Stanley plateau. While the climbing is not very technical, there are some steep drop-offs and crevasses. Cross the Stanley glacier, then the Margharita glacier and traverse to the rocky summit approach on a snow-covered ice shelf. Look out from the summit over the Congo and admire the other high peaks of the Rwenzori. Rugged, jagged ice fields flow off the mountain. This is a big day. Leave the hut early, reach the summit late morning, return to Elena Hut in mid-afternoon, then (if energy levels allow) complete one of the most beautiful legs of the circuit, the descent from Scott-Eliot Pass to Kitandara Hut (13,200’). Drop steeply for a couple of hours through a spectacular valley flanked by enormous cliffs.
Day 6: From Kitandara, the route climbs steeply up to 14,000’ Freshfield Pass. The pass is lush with green vegetation, and offers stunning views of the surrounding peaks, as well as views into the Congo. You then make a series of steep, cliffy, colorful descents that take you in one day from the 14,000’ pass back to Nyabitaba Hut at 8,500’, thus completing the Central Circuit. The steep descent offers some of the finest scenery in the Rwenzori. Lush, muddy, rocky, and wildly colorful, it follows streams running down chutes next to cliff bands. Enjoy stunning waterfalls and cascades. The route then opens into a wide valley flanked by Mt. Baker on the left and a monstrous rock outcropping on the right. Lobelia covers the valley floor. You will need to hop from one tuft of marsh grass to another.
Day 7: Return to the roadhead.
This is described by Claes Grundsten, who knows what he is talking, about as “the most taxing trek you can imagine”.
Have a look at the dreaded TripAdvisor so you may get good, current views on this walk.
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OUR FRIENDS' EXPERIENCES
Account by Charles Bookman
Uganda’s Rwenzori Central Circuit: Hiking on the Equator.
The bog stretched to the horizon. Footprints of the dikdik, a miniature antelope wove around giant lobelia plants. Snow capped peaks beckoned. It was a fine spring-like day at 13,000’ in the Rwenzori Mountains of western Uganda, the fabled “Mountains of the moon” and the true source of the Nile. A UN world heritage site, the Rwenzori mountains, stretch some 80 miles along the border between the Congo and Uganda. While farming and settlement is intense outside the park, the lands within the park are respected by the people and are coherently managed.
Moreover, important for tourists, visiting the park is safe. Uganda’s government has been stable for years and while Ugandans struggle for the basics in life, they are friendly and welcoming to tourists.
The Rwenzori get a lot of rainfall, as much eight feet of rain a year! The driest times and the best times to visit are December-January and late June to late August.
Hiking has a long history in the Rwenzori. Henry Morton Stanley (of Dr. Livingston I presume fame) was the first westerner to confirm the presence of glaciated mountains on the equator, in 1888. The Duke of Abruzzi led an Italian mountaineering expedition to the Rwenzori in 1906 and named and climbed many of the peaks. The British have always enjoyed mountain walks and during the colonial era, the Uganda Wildlife Authority in partnership with the Uganda Mountain Club constructed a system of trails and huts known as the “Central Circuit.” All of the major peaks—Mt. Luigi di Savoia, Mt. Baker, Mt. Speke and Mt. Stanley (at 16,700’ the highest peak in.....READ MORE
Your comments on this walk, your experiences and suggestions, and your photos are very welcome. Where appropriate, you will be credited for your contribution.
Guide to the Rwenzori: Mountains of the Moon. By Henry Osmaston. 2006.
Trek! The best Trekking in the World by Claes Grundsten has a chapter on this walk.
Find these and other books on Amazon.
Maps can be obtained locally, or on www.stanfords.co.uk
Community – any advice on map quality/availability?
Best times to walk/weather
Best times to walk
Between June and early October, and also December and March. Avoid the rainy season (April and May) and be aware that the weather can be unpredictable late October to March.
The Rwenzori have a huge annual rainfall. Even in the dry(ish) season, come prepared for unpredictable mountain weather (lots of rain and mist) and cold nights. Carry waterproofs and take lots of layers.
How you get to Uganda will depend on your origin and plans.
You will need a visa to enter Uganda.
There is no realistic public transport to the base of the Rwenzoris. A 4WD (usually with a driver) is needed. Those on organised expeditions will be transported from/to arranged start/departure points.
Park fees must be paid/permits obtained. They are payable at the Ngongongare Gate and include park, guide and hut fees, and come to quite a lot. Expedition organisers should arrange these.
Possible problems, health, other warnings
Altitude: likely affect you; potentially fatal. Acclimatize appropriately, come prepared to cope, be ready to evacuate people in extreme cases.
Mountain weather: The Rwenzori are famously wet. Rain, severe cold and wind are possible at any time of year. Come prepared.
Heat and strong sun. Carry enough water and protect yourself.
Heights: can be dangerous; not for those who have difficulty with heights.
Ice/glaciers have their own risks-be prepared and careful.
Dangerous or unpleasant animals of all shapes and sizes, including snakes, stinging/biting insects and plants. Take all appropriate precautions.
This is a remote country: You will have to carry all your food and other supplies and help will be hard to get if things go wrong.
Health risks: This is a relatively under developed country and you will not get prompt medical help of a standard available elsewhere if you become ill. There are many potential problems, including malaria. Come prepared, including getting all appropriate inoculations/medications.
See also the websites in our useful links page for more detailed, and up-to-date, information.
Safety and problems: All walks have inherent risks and potential problems, and many of the walks featured on this website involve significant risks, dangers and problems. Problems of any sort can arise on any walk. This website does not purport to identify any (or all) actual or potential risks, dangers and problems that may relate to any particular walk. Any person who is considering undertaking this walk should do careful research and make their own assessment of the risks, dangers and possible problems involved. They should also go to “Important information” for further important information.
Make sure you have appropriate insurance.
Guided or independent?
It is not realistic to tackle walks here independently.
All visitors form or join organised/supported expeditions.
Make sure your guide is experienced and understands what you want out of the expedition – especially if you want to summit the peaks (altitude permitting). And that your support team are appropriate and experienced.
Expedition organisers include:
- Rwenzori Mountaineering Services (RMS), Ibanda, Kasese District, Uganda. MAIL: PO Box 33, Saad House, Kasese, Uganda. TEL.: 256-414-237497. EMAIL: Trek@rwenzorimountaineeringservices.com. INTERNET: www.rwenzorimountaineeringservices.com.
- Rwenzori Trekking Services (RTS), Kilembe, Kasese District, Uganda. TEL: 256-774-114499 EMAIL: Rwenzoritrekking@gmail.com
Our friends and partners Responsible Travel have a selection of walking and other holidays in Uganda. Because they have wide selection, you should get good ideas, perhaps for something you hadn’t thought of!
In huts, as described above. Book ahead. Camping is possible by the huts, but hut fees are payable anyway.
Other information and tips
Tip your guide and porters generously if they look after you well.
Useful websites and information
There are many websites with information on this walk. Here are some that we think are useful or have been recommended to us.
- https://adventure.com/rwenzori-mountains-africa-uganda/ - excellent account by Tayla Gentle
Safety and problems: All walks have inherent risks and potential problems, and many of the walks featured on this website involve significant risks, dangers and problems. Problems of any sort can arise on any walk. This website does not purport to identify any (or all) actual or potential risks, dangers and problems that may relate to any particular walk.
Any person who is considering undertaking this walk should do careful research and make their own assessment of the risks, dangers and possible problems involved. They should also go to “Important information” for further important information.
share your experiences
Add your experiences, suggestions and photos. We would be delighted to receive your writing and ideas (which will be attributed appropriately where published).
Anyone planning an expedition to this place should see further important information about this walk.
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