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Democratic Republic Congo: Rwenzori Mountains

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Rwenzori Mountains | Democratic Republic Congo | Africa

[Visited: March 2015]

In preparing my visit of East DRC, I stumbled upon the Rwenzori Mountains, and the more I read about them, the more I wondered why these are not better known. They have the only glaciers on the entire African continent, were known as the Mountains of the Moon in antiquity (mentioned already by Ptolemy, based on traders who traveled past). The locals knew them of course, but it was Stanley to confirm their existence in 1888. For some decades, they were then thought to be the source of the Nile. They are often hidden from view by clouds, which made them harder to spot. After surviving some chaos on the airport of Goma and a pleasant flight to Beni in the north, advised because of the insecure situation on the ground making taking the bus a risky proposition, I am received by a driver who first takes me to Beni where we do some shopping before we are on our way to Mutsora, at the base of the Rwenzori Mountains. The road takes us through rolling landscapes, with people on overloaded bikes, women overloaded by cargo on their heads, and, the closer we get, the vague silhouettes of the Mountains of the Moon appear before our eyes. I get inspired, and at the same time, feel in awe: are we really going to climb almost to the top of that mighty range? After a night in a mouse-infested tent at the ICCN station, the day looks sunny, I meet my two porters and guide after a great walk from Mutsora to Mutwanga, and we are off after taking a pre-expedition photo.

Picture of Rwenzori Mountains (Democratic Republic Congo): Silhouettes of giant lobelias with mountains clad in clouds in the background

The hike to Kalonge Hut turns out to be easy. The porters spot a fat snake in the grass, with blue eyes bulging out of its head, but it leaves us alone. We walk in thick vegetation, cross streams, and have a relaxing afternoon at the hut. We see a macaque play high up in the trees, jumping from one branch to the other as if gravity did not matter to him. The next morning, we walk further up; shortly after leaving Kalonge, we fill out water bottles in the last stream we will see until we return. In the distance, we hear a group of chimpanzees, but unfortunately, cannot see them. We reach a cross on an open space in the bush, where once upon a time, ancestors were venerated. The guide makes a prayer for our upcoming adventure in the Rwenzori Mountains. Gradually, the vegetation around us starts to change. The high trees and bamboo are giving way to sturdy trees and bushes. There are holes under trees, which the guide claims are hiding places for leopards, and we often see their excrements. This is dubbed the hardest stretch, but when we arrive at Mahangu Hut after three hours, I wonder what the fuss is about. There are clouds, but I stay in the look-out, and just before sunset, the clouds open up, and warm sunlight strokes the sides of the Rwenzori Mountains. The highest part of the mountain is still hidden in the clouds, but the light is fantastic, and so are the views. When I come out of the hut in the evening, a bright shining starry ceiling is hanging above us, but the next morning, we wake up to fog and a light drizzle. We climb into the clouds, through an ever-changing environment. After walking under a tree trunk from which plants are hanging, we step into the Jardin, the Garden, where giant lobelias and the eternal flowers are just some of the stunning sights. Higher up, our view is always less blocked, and we get a first glimpse of the glaciers marking the highest part of the Rwenzori Mountain range. Kiondo Hut is reached within 3 hours, and we get views of Lac Noir below us. After a while, also Lac Vert shows itself, but the clouds refuse to show the view of the full range, and our planned expedition to Wasuwameso, the highest point one can reach hiking, needs to be postponed. I stay out until it is really dark, watching the clouds swirl around the mountains, flowing up and down, feathers in the wind - and walk a little up the mountain to get warm, because at 4,200m, and exposed to the wind, Kiondo gets mighty cold. That night, I sleep with all my clothes, in two sleeping bags and under a blanket. Worse still: the humidity means that whatever is wet, stays wet, and the fireplace is not big enough to dry all our clothes. Also serious: the hut has been partly destroyed, and many items taken away, so we have no cutlery, and some pans and oil lamps are missing, too. The guide claims this must have been done by the Ugandese, who want to prevent tourism from becoming successful on the Congolese side of the Rwenzoris.

Picture of Rwenzori Mountains (Democratic Republic Congo): The higher you come, the better the views: the Rwenzori Trail under Mahangu Hut

The next morning, we descend on the side of the mountain, stepping carefully over a deep abyss, and where a rope should be installed, we find that part of that is missing, too. The surface is slippery: roots, rocks, muddy earth. We climb up to Lac Vert, which lies still in the fog, and climb through a dense lobelia forest to Lac Gris, which turns out to be a couple of small lakes, and reach Moraine Hut in an hour and a half. Here, we are at the foot of the highest ridge of Mount Stanley, but while the glaciers can be seen every now and then, the peaks remain in the clouds. Rain starts to fall seriously, and we are on our way back, and reach Kiondo just before it really starts to rain badly. We are warm from our climb in the humid conditions, and when we sit in front of the fireplace, steam comes up from our clothes and bodies. The rest of the afternoon consists of waiting for better conditions, but they only seem to get worse. When we have dinner, there is heavy rainfall. But weather in the mountains remains unpredictable, and the next morning, there are big stretches of blue in the sky, so we hike up to Wasuwameso. According to the official sign, 4,462m high, but my altitude meter gives it 4,365, which seems more correct given that it is not that much higher than Kiondo, and only took us 20 minutes to reach. After breakfast, we are on our way down. I have proposed to descend in one day to Mutwanga, and although the guide and porters think it is crazy, we manage to do it: the hiking time is just over five and a half hours. The advantage is that we now experience the reverse wonder of vegetation change: within hours, we are from a barren, rocky landscape with the fantastic lobelias, to the thick and sticky warm surroundings of the forest below. When we meet the first villagers, I realize that we have not seen another living soul ever since we started hiking up five days before. The Rwenzori Mountains were ours, and that in itself makes them so wonderful - having what probably are the wildest mountains of Africa to yourself.

Picture of Rwenzori Mountains (Democratic Republic Congo): Some of the highest peaks of the Rwenzoris: Alexandra, Moebius, Helena, and Savoia
Picture of Rwenzori Mountains (Democratic Republic Congo): The Rwenzori mountains are often hidden by clouds
Picture of Rwenzori Mountains (Democratic Republic Congo): View from Mahangu Hut at sunset: the Rwenzori mountains towering above the clouds
Picture of Rwenzori Mountains (Democratic Republic Congo): Part of the fairy-tale like Jardin with giant lobelias
Picture of Rwenzori Mountains (Democratic Republic Congo): Lower part of the glaciers of the Mount Stanley range visible under the clouds
Picture of Rwenzori Mountains (Democratic Republic Congo): View of the lower Rwenzori mountains with Lac Noir in the foreground
Picture of Rwenzori Mountains (Democratic Republic Congo): Clouds over Margherita Peak with some of the glaciers visible
Picture of Rwenzori Mountains (Democratic Republic Congo): Eternal flowers in the sunshine with Lac Noir in the background
Picture of Rwenzori Mountains (Democratic Republic Congo): Trail winding through giant lobelias between Lac Vert and Lac Gris
Picture of Rwenzori Mountains (Democratic Republic Congo): Mountains in the mist towering above Lac Gris
Picture of Rwenzori Mountains (Democratic Republic Congo): Sun shining on a small lobelia
Picture of Rwenzori Mountains (Democratic Republic Congo): The shore of Lac Vert is bordered by lobelias and eternal flowers
Picture of Rwenzori Mountains (Democratic Republic Congo): The Rwenzori trail between Mahangu and Kiondo hut

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