The Last Ice in Africa - The Ruwenzori or the Mountains of the Moon

By Mark Nicholson

“Oh dear, what can I give my grandson, a man who has everything, for his birthday? I know, what about a mountain? Don’t I own a spare volcano in Africa?”

The fact that it was not Queen Victoria’s to give was neither here nor there, but she might at least have given him Ben Nevis instead. Apparently, Her Majesty gave Kilimanjaro to Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1896 at the time Africa was being divided by the European powers. The story may be apocryphal, but no one has satisfactorily explained why and when the normally straight lines used to divide Africa between the colonial powers were suddenly changed on the border between German East Africa and the Kenya Protectorate. Had the line between Lake Victoria and the Indian Ocean been kept straight, the two highest African mountains would both have been in Kenya. The strange kink can be seen on all maps: the border suddenly does a dogleg south so that the summit of Kilimanjaro is firmly in Tanzania, which is what German East Africa has become.

Just over forty years earlier, the German missionary Johannes Rebmann described seeing what he thought might be snow on a large mountain, Kilimanjaro. The report was immediately ridiculed by the Royal Geographical Society in London. The following year another missionary, Johann Ludwig Krapf, found another mountain, also a volcano, with snow on it, which became known as Mt. Kenya. Ten years later the explorers Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke journeyed together west from Zanzibar to settle the age-old question of the source of the White Nile. When they parted ways less than amicably, both claimed they had found the source. Both also claimed they had solved the problem of Mons Lunae, the mountains that were believed to be the real source for 1,700 years. In fact, neither explorer had seen the Mountains of the Moon but they were both arrogantly asserting they had solved the riddle. They also suggested that the two volcanoes were in fact the Mons Lunae.

Kilima Njaro (the prefix Mt. is tautological as Kilima means a mountain) is a dormant volcano and the highest mountain in Africa at 5895m (19,341ft). Mt. Kenya is second highest at 5199m (17,058ft) and is an extinct volcano. Only Kilimanjaro, Mt. Kenya and the Ruwenzoris have glaciers today and they are fast disappearing. I have been in heavy snowfalls on Mt. Meru in Kenya, the Drakensberg in South Africa, the Atlas Mountains in north-west Africa, even in the Karoo near Sutherland, the site of the South African Large Telescope (SALT) array, where my youngest daughters first experienced snow. The Drakensberg had glaciers during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) between 26,500 and 19,000 years ago and the Atlas Mountains had them during the 19th Century but neither have seen glaciers in recent times. The current shrinking and thinning of Kilimanjaro's ice fields appears to be unique within its twelve millennia history. The difference in ice cover on Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya between 1973 and today is alarming and the rate of loss is increasing dramatically. Almost 85 percent of the ice cover on Kilimanjaro disappeared between 1912 and 2011, with coverage decreasing from 11.4 km2 to 1.5 km2. Of the ice cover still present in 2000, almost 40 percent had disappeared by 2011. The glaciers are also thinning and there are no active accumulation zones, In 2013 it was estimated that, at the current rate of global warming, all the ice on Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya will have disappeared between 2030 and 2060.

The first photo below is of Mt Kenya in 1975. Click on the arrow and you will see what it looks like now.

The Greek dramatist and tragedian Aeschylus suggested that the Nile was nourished by the snows of some unseen, unknown mountains which were known as Mons Lunae. The Greek historian Herodotus argued that it was impossible because the further south one went, the hotter it became. 2,400 years were to pass until the first European sighting of the Mountains of the Moon. The “discovery”, as Europeans liked to describe it (irrespective of the obvious fact that local tribes had known about them for centuries), is all part of a tale of greed, death, deceit and horror which will be recounted in the next instalment. Suffice it to say that the mountains were first seen by outsiders in 1878 and first climbed by an Italian team led by the Duke of Abruzzi in 1906. There are several peaks, the highest being renamed by Abruzzi, Mount Margherita ((5199m/ 1673ft). The mountains are not volcanic, but rather fold mountains on compression plate boundaries formed roughly three million years ago during the late Pliocene. They resemble the Alps more than the other East African mountains.

I have been up all these mountains over the years. The first time I went up Kilimanjaro in 1974 we had the mountain to ourselves, and I think we paid $40 each in park fees. My companion got frostbite and lost all sensation in her toes permanently. Her father, who had been an Army surgeon in the Korean War, was fairly unsympathetic. He told us his idea of frostbite was when he took a man’s hand and it came off at the wrist. Kilimanjaro is a long plod and higher up quite devoid of streams as the ground is porous lava. Today 30,000 climbers a year pay upwards of $1500 to try to go up but altitude sickness prevents many from making the summit.

Mt. Kenya is a much more beautiful mountain with more challenging climbs. For the Gikuyu tribe in Kenya it is a sacred mountain known as Kirinyaga. The autobiography of Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, is entitled Facing Mt. Kenya. For me, it has unpleasant memories. I lost a good friend on one trip from cerebral oedema and nearly lost his brother at the same time from pulmonary oedema. The tragedy was the result of ignorance: at the first sign of oedema, one must descend immediately and the oedema resolves. Drugs such as diuretics help, of course, but altitude sickness can rapidly turn into oedema.

The Ruwenzori are by far the most fascinating mountains of the three. For a start, it is quite a long journey to get there: from Kenya one has to drive west across Kenya, then across Uganda to the Congo border. There has also been unrest and guerilla activity in the mountains over the last thirty years owing to secessionist groups. During the Ugandan Bush War (1980-1986), the National Resistance Army (NRA) rebel force were based in the mountains. After the NRA took power in 1986, another civil war broke out. The National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU) fought against the NRA from their base in the Ruwenzoris. Meanwhile the "Partie de Liberation Congolaise" (PLC), fighting against the president of Zaire, Mobutu, also based themselves in the area. Congolese and Ugandan rebel militias have continued to occupy parts of the Ruwenzoris to the present day. Nevertheless, all the people I have met there have been friendly.

There have also been recent outbreaks of Ebola in Kasese, the town one sets off from on the Uganda side. The area is much wetter than the volcanoes to the east and the mountains are rarely seen from below, hidden by thick cloud for most of the year. Annual rainfall in the foothills is at least 2500 mm. and monthly rainfall can exceed 400mm. January is reputedly the best month. I climbed them properly with a small group of friends in January 2016. We decided to spoil ourselves and hired at least 20 porters, guides and cooks but that does not free oneself from the necessity of walking for days in thick mud. Sure enough, it rained every day but not all day; so the views, the flora and the wildlife were stunning. A good pair of gumboots is essential and higher up one changes them for climbing boots and crampons. One is roped up on the final ascent as the crevasses can be deep. On the summit of Mt. Margherita we had superb views of the Congo forests to the west. The mountains are a watershed between the Congo basin and the White Nile basin, the eastern rivers flowing into Lake Albert and Lake Edward, both sources of the White Nile.

While most of the glaciers have melted, there is still comparatively more ice on these mountains than on the volcanoes. There will still be ice on the Ruwenzori after the ice has gone on Mt. Kenya or Kilimanjaro owing to the wetter climate and the high cloud cover. But it will be the last place in Africa where you will see glaciers. So if you want a holiday with a difference, a walk on the wild side in the Mons Lunae is much to be recommended.