Rwenzori National Park is in Western Uganda.
Rwenzori National Park is a mountain range in south-west Uganda bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is 120 km (75 mi) long and 48 km (30 mi) wide, covering almost 100,000 ha. Margarita Peak is the summit of Mt Stanley at 5,109m above sea level, and the third highest peak in Africa. The Rwenzori Mountains are the highest mountain range in Africa (Mt Kilimanjaro and Mt Kenya are volcanoes), and home to six of the ten highest peaks on the continent. The region's glaciers, lakes and unusual fauna make it one of Africa's most beautiful alpine areas, according to UNESCO . Climate change is apparent here, by the end of 2006, its ice cap has retreated from 6.4 km² (2.5 sq mi) a century ago, to less than a 1.28 km² (0.5 sq mi).
For political reasons, the park has been off-limits for long periods but Uganda has been stable in the 2010s. Tourism is picking up, though it still attracts fewer than a 1,000 visitors a year, compared to 50,000 to Mt Kilimanjaro and 25,000 to Mt Kenya.
Landscape, flora and fauna
Up to 2100 m is generally inhabited and cultivated, with mixed harvests as bananas, potatoes, yumyums and coffee. (The coffee-enthusiasts can find local coffee beans at the Sunday/Wednesday morning market in Kilembe.) 2100-3000bm is forested with heavy underbush, trees rarely exceeding 30 m, and bamboo forests. If lucky you may see monkeys and chimpanzees, but larger animals are very rare. 3000-3800 m is still forested, but with increasingly distinguished flora, trees with hanging moss. The alpine zone starts from 3800 m, and snow cover from around 4,900 m. They are the only place in Africa that has yet round snow, despite their closeness to the equator.
The Rwenzori Mountains are definitely alpine, however equatorial they may be, this is rough. Expect rain in all seasons, and avoid the rainy season (March-June, September-October). It is muddy, wet and windy, and weather changes in minutes. All the guides and most clients wear rubber boots (aka gum boots or Wellington boots) for the majority of the hike, through the alpine section, and hiking boots for the rainforest and mountain summits. Although it is possible to rent equipment, this is not high quality stuff. Bring your own warm sleeping bag, rubber boots, and waterproof, high quality mountaineering clothes. You will need it. If you go for the less exhilarating community walks from Kilembe, some warm underwear, jacket, and ordinary shoes will do.
The Rwenzori Mountains must be walked with a guide and porters, provided by the duopoly of Rwenzori Trekking Services (RTS) and Rwenzori Mountain Services (RMS). They have completely different camps and routes. Both own their camps, but RTS also own its track. RMS is the original operator, locally owned, with their Central Circuit Trail in the middle of the park, mostly running along the bottom of valleys before heading up to the summits. They claim the shortest and easiest route to the summit of Mt Stanley, but it allows less time for acclimatisation, and the camps are definitely showing their age, being built decades ago by the Ugandan Tourism Board.
RTS was established by an Australian in the 1990s, and operate a circuit out of Kyanjuki to the south. They have eight camps and are generally better reviewed online based on crew training, food quality, organisation, and the condition of the camps. RMS operate a circuit from Nyakalengija. RMS also arranges one-day walks from Port Fortal across the ridge to Bundibugye, far less extreme walking, but you supposedly never really get the feeling of crossing the ridge, forested as it is.
Third alternative is the Rwenzori Community Walks  [dead link], arranged by Backpackers in Kilembe, 12 km west of Kasese. They arrange one and two-days walk at a fraction of the price, also they run a number of community development projects from the profits. Here you can also arrive in the morning and get everything organized, or make a phone call one day in advance. It is easy to arrange transport from Kasese til Kilembe, there are also a few buses. If you drive, the backpackers is in the far west end of Kilembe, across the scary bridge and half a mile more. Safe parking.
Fees and permits
The park permit fee is USD34 per person per day. Before booking check whether this is included in your package with RTS or RMS as it varies. This isn't a cheap place to hike, expect to pay at least USD$1,500 for a 7 day trip.
Everything has to be carried into the mountains, the track is too difficult for pack animals. A typical ratio is six porters per client, with each porter carrying 50-litre plastic drums weighing 22-25 kg. As the hike continues, and there is less to carry, porters start to return back along the track. Clients typically have a personal porter who carries up to 15 kg.
Some of the most unusual scenery and fauna to be found anywhere in the world, with Giant Heather trees, everlasting flowers, Giant Lobelias, Giant Groundsel, and many other weird and wonderful plants.
You won’t go hungry. An example of the RTS breakfast is porridge followed by a cooked breakfast of omelette or pancakes. A packed lunch is provided with a sandwich or potato salad, fruit, and fruit juice. Mid-afternoon tea, coffee and hot chocolates with biscuits is available. Dinner could be mushroom soup followed by large cooked meal, usually pasta or rice with vegetables or meat, though no dessert.
Water is taken from the camp streams and boiled to ensure it is safe to drink, though the crew often drink straight from the streams. The water is a somewhat unappealing colour at some camps thanks to tannins in the water, but is fine to drink. The only issue is that boiling water can take some time to cool, so there is a bit of planning required to ensure that your water bottles are cool when needed.
The RTS camps vary a little but follow a similar format, with several four or eight bunk huts, complete with mattresses, a dining area, a kitchen, and separate sleeping quarters for the guides (close to the clients) and porters (usually a little way away). There are decent squat toilets and less decent sit toilets (at some camps), and paper is provided. Your crew can provide hot water for washing, and some of the lower camps have streams or waterfalls just about warm enough to wash in. There are solar powered outside lights at most camps, handy when going outside to use the toilet in the night, less so for enjoying the stars. Some of the camps have solar lights inside the bunk rooms. From Bugata Camp onwards there are stoves though they seemed as likely to smoke you out as to provide significant heat. The camps work on a first come first serve basis in terms of room allocation but you are likely to have a hut to yourself.
The main challenges are the...
- Terrain, with extensive sections of bog with thick and often deep and liquid mud to navigate, many steep sections on slippery rocks and mud, and basic wooden ladders to climb up and down. Around a third of the track is thick mud, at least 20 km worth.
- Altitude, with RTS from the entry village of Kyanjuki near Kilembe at 1,620 m above sea level you head up ~2,100 m in two days, and can end up 5-6 days into the hike at Margherita Peak, the 5,109 m high summit of Mt Stanley. The RMS circuit heads up even faster toward the summit.
- Weather, the early sections are hot and humid, but after Mutinda Camp it starts to get alpine and significantly colder, while the weather can be variable throughout, with rain likely at some point most days, usually mid-afternoon.
- Entry level mountaineering is required to reach the summit of Margherita Peak, with crampons, an ice axe, and harness, and basic instruction provided by the crew before heading toward the summit to ascend, traverse, and descent fixed and temporary ropes, and cross two glaciers
- This is one track that is much harder than it looks on paper. One group of eleven people ended up split across four different camps as various members couldn’t make it any further.