A curtain of cloud enshrouds Africa’s elusive Mountains of the Moon, making them invisible at a ground level for some 300 days a year. When the cloud eventually lifts an awe-inspiring skyline of snow-covered peaks is revealed, below which everyday plants grow to gigantic proportions.
In his final expedition to Africa in 1888, the Anglo-American journalist and explorer Henry Stanley was camped on the damp, misty south-western shore of Lake Albert when he beheld a rare sight. As the mist lifted to the south-east “a peculiarly shaped cloud of a most beautiful silver colour, which assumed the proportions and appearance of vast mountain covered with snow” began to emerge.
Stanley had heard about the Mountains of the Moon, which the Greek mathematician and geographer Ptoley (AD 90-168) had claimed were the source of the River Nile. Rumour linked them with a remote range known as the Rwenzori. S the mist cleared, Stanley realized that this was no mirage of a mountain “but the solid substance of a real one with its summit covered in snow….It now dawned upon me that this must be Rwenzori”.
In 1906, an Italian expedition led by the Duke of Abruzzi plotted the first maps of the mountains and also climbed many of the peaks. The Rwenzori form a 75 mile (120km) ridge from north-east to south-west along the Uganda-Democratic Republic of the Congo border. Although the range lies only 30 miles (48km) north of the equator, its peaks are permanently capped in snow, because of its altitude. Nine of its peaks are over 16,000ft (4877m) high, with the highest, Mount Margherita, reaching 16,763ft (5109m). Unlike other mountains in East Africa, such as Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya, the Rwenzori are not volcanic. The granite rocks were thrust upwards some 2 million years ago when titanic earth movements caused major subsidence and faulting, resulting in the creation of the neighbouring Rift Valley.
In a local African dialect the word Rwenzori means ‘rainmaker’ – an appropriate name since the mountains affect the weather over a vast area. Westerly air currents passing over the steamy rainforests of the Congo basin become laden with water vapor. They are forced upwards by the Rwenzori range and condense at high altitude to form rain and ice crystals. This creates the almost permanent cloud cover that swathes the peaks.
Rain washes sediment and debris into the valleys and foothills of the Rwenzori. In these marshy conditions, reeds and grasses grazed by elephant and buffalo grow to over 2m tall. From around 6560ft (2000m) the grasslands give way to lush forest, home to a variety of animals from serval cats to the three-horned chameleon. Many bird species frequent these altitudes – buzzards, kites, warblers and exquisite tiny sunbirds. The mountains of Rwenzori are capped by weird ice forms. In the intense heat of the equatorial sun, exposed ice ridges form huge, rounded overhanging cornices, often festooned with giant icicles that screen deep caves.
There is no birdsong to be heard above 11000ft (3350m) and animals are scarce, but the plant life is spectacular. Several species, such as groundsel and lichens, which are low-growing in temperate climates, grow to enormous sizes at this altitude. The science-fiction atmosphere created by these monstrous plants is in keeping with Rwenzori’s legendary name of ‘Mountains of the Moon’. Ptolemy was near to the truth in proclaiming that the source of the River Nile lay in these mysterious mountains. Melt water from glaciers near the summit and abundant rainfall drain into the SemiI River, one of the headwaters of the White Nile.