Following our last trip, the Rwenzori Mountains were on my mind when I visited the Uganda Society library. The library is housed in a room next to the Uganda Museum. The books are shelved in wooden book cupboards, with sliding glass doors (mostly left open). It is an eclectic collection with books on Africa intermingled with outdated economic and engineering text books. The books have frontispieces detailing when they were purchased showing most date back to the 1940s if not earlier. Many are undoubtedly now rare editions, including many published in the 19th century, like Stanley’s, Speke’s and Baker’s accounts of their expeditions.
Two old books attracted my attention. The first, published in 1896 was an account of an expedition to ‘Mid-Africa’ lead by G F Scott Elliot. He spent some weeks in the region of the Rwenzori mountains recording the different levels of vegetation and remarking on the weather systems of the area.
The trek had begun in what is now Mozambique and finished on the Kenyan coast. They spent more than a week exploring the high valleys of the Rwenzori and Scott Elliot [SE] noted the abundance of cloud over the peaks and the daily afternoon wind which blew down the valleys with some force. He concluded that this was caused by the heating of the lower slopes during the day, the rising of the hot air and differential temperature of the high peaks. The fauna of the high valleys is a highly specialised micro eco-system with giant heather, lobelia and groundsel, adapted for the harsh climatic conditions.
He also commented on Stanley’s berating of Baker for not having seen the high peaks when exploring Lake Albert, while Stanley himself had not seen snow on his first time in the area – SE attributed this to the incessant cloud cover. The same problem we encountered!
SE also noted that Stanley had mapped the mountains as the ‘Rwenzori’ although SE claimed he could find no other record of this name. Emin Pasha had not seen the snow on the peaks, but he referred to them as Usongora. SE claims than the real name for the mountains was ‘Runsororo’ although the locals, using the Wahima language, simply called all ‘kiriba’ meaning ‘high peak’.
The Bradt guide to Uganda reports that the local Bakonjo people who lived on the footslopes were subsumed into the Toro kingdom during colonial times which lead to rebellions in 1919 and 1963, when the Rwenzuru (Land of Snow) Kingdom was formed. So it appears that Stanley was not mistaken in his naming of the range.
SE did not have the equipment to tackle the high peaks above the snow line, a feat left to the 1906 expedition led by Prince Luigi Amedeo of Savoy, Duke of Abruzzi, the account of which I also found in the library.
This expedition arrived overland via Kenya and then by steamer across Lake Victoria to Entebbe. From there they trekked overland to Fort Portal before ascending the Mubuku valley.
Unlike Mounts Kilimanjaro (5895M) and Kenya (5199m), the Rwenzoris are not volcanic but were formed by the uplift of land during the formation of the rift valley. The highest peaks are Margherita (5109m) and Alexandra (5083m) both on Mount Stanley.
The Duke trained as a mountaineer in the Alps and led a polar expedition, on which he lost two fingers to cold, before arriving in Africa. Following his Rwenzori expedition he attempted to climb K2, before joining the Italian navy and serving in WWI. In 1920 he founded an experimental agricultural settlement 90 kilometers north of Mogadishu, where he died in 1933.
The expedition scaled all the high peaks, including one now known as Mount Luigi da Savoia (4627m). They captured this stunning panorama, so they were obviously lucky with the weather! At this time all the peaks had glaciers, but these have gradually receded and may soon disappear altogether. It is only here in Uganda, Kenya and Ecuador where snow can be found so near the equator. The Rwenzoris seem to be the legendary ‘Mountains of the Moon’ marked on ancient maps as the source of the River Nile.
It is clear that ascending the peaks is serious mountaineering and requires the correct equipment, which, as I noted above Scott Elliot did not have. However, at the end of his book, he devotes a long chapter to recommending equipment for overland expeditions in Africa, including detailed costings. I was particularly impressed with his novel arrangement for mosquito netting. It is notable that he took such care as it was not until 1898 that Sir Ronald Ross, fully understood the lifecycle of the anopheles mosquito and its role as malarial vector, biting at night. It is an ingenious use of an umbrella! but suspect you need to be a motionless sleeper not to end up in a muddle in the morning.
These two old books revealed the details of two fascinating expeditions to a hitherto undocumented region, which is still shrouded in clouds, and some mystery by dint of its remoteness.
Books referred to:
G F Scott Elliot MA FLS FRGS ; A Nauralist in Mid-Africa [London, A D Innes, 1896]
Filippo de Filippi FRGS; Ruwenzori [London, Archibald Constable and Co Ltd, 1908]
Philip Briggs: Bradt Guide to Uganda [5th Edition 2007]