The Mountains of the Moon

Imagine a land shrouded in mist, where the air is heavy with unshed moisture. A vast range of mountains, their summits hidden behind shifting clouds, are cloaked with damp and deeply verdant jungle. There is so much precipitation and the soil is so rich that much of the vegetation has grown to gigantic proportions. Lobelia plants, which elsewhere don’t exceed a few feet in height, here resemble telegraph poles. Scottish heather, a plant that rarely reaches above shoulder height on the moors, is as tall as a tree. And earthworms, which rarely surpass a few inches in the rest of the world, can grow to be three feet long.

This may sound like the stuff of science-fiction, but it is in fact a real place here on Earth. The Mountains of the Moon are not in fact found on the Moon, but in Africa. I first read about them in a book called Elephant Adventure by Willard Price, whose name I’ve mentioned previously in one of my earlier posts. His adventure series was originally written for children aged between about 9 and 12, to try and inspire in them a love of natural history. In my case, his mission was definitely a success. The writing style is not exactly high literature, but the pace and the plot, not to mention the fascinating details on a vast range of flora and fauna, are a winning combination. The National Geographic article which he cites in the second chapter was published in March 1962 and the book itself was first published in 1964, so naturally some of his information may be a little out of date by now. I have tried to find out as much as possible about the things he mentions in the book using several websites via Google, so that most of my information should be more up-to-date, and therefore more reliable.

First of all, whereabouts are these mountains actually situated? The UNESCO World Heritage map, seen below, places them on the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, just above Rwanda and to the west of Lake Victoria.

The mountain range is generally considered to have the tallest mountains in Africa, except for the free-standing Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro. The area is on the Equator and thus has a tropical climate, although the mountains are snow-capped all year round. The Rwenzori mountains have been known about since the time of the Ancient Greeks. Ptolemy referred to a range of snow-capped mountains in East Africa as the “mountains of the moon”, written on maps as Lunae Montes. Water from these mountains, he claimed, fed the Nile river. It was not until 1888 that European explorers were able to confirm that the Rwenzori were in fact the same mountains that were described by Ptolemy. Henry M. Stanley, the famous explorer who found Dr Livingstone, named the mountains Ruwenzori (the spelling was changed to Rwenzori in the 1980s), which roughly translates as “Rainmaker”. The name is an apt one, there is rainfall 350 days of the year and the mountains are usually swathed in mist and cloud, only visible on rare occasions. This is part of the reason for their late discovery by Europeans. It is said that on a previous occasion, Stanley himself had sailed right through the area where the mountains were supposed to be and not caught one glimpse of them, because they were totally enveloped in the surrounding clouds.

This is how he describes his view of the mountain range during one of the unpredictable clear periods:

Peak after peak struggled from behind night-black clouds…until at last the snowy range, immense and beautiful…drew all eyes and riveted attention, while every face seemed awed”.

In 1906, the Italian Duke of Abruzzi was the first westerner to climb, map and photograph the mountains, nine of which are over 16,000 feet high. Since then, there have been several scientific expeditions to the Rwenzori, although in recent years war and civil unrest has restricted access to the area. In 2003, British geographer Richard Taylor led an expedition there to gauge the rate at which the mountains’ glaciers are receding. It turns out that they are disappearing at an alarming rate. Global warming is having a serious impact on these glaciers and the team estimated that since 1990, they had been retreating at the rate of 31 metres a year. A more recent expedition only added weight to the gloomy prediction that in two decades the Rwenzori glaciers will have completely disappeared. While this won’t have such a devastating impact for the locals as the melting of ice in the Himalayas will for the people of India and Nepal, it certainly isn’t going to help them very much. The glaciers are a pull for tourists (although only 2000 people on average visit the mountains each year) and climate change is also causing problems for the forests – some of the giant plants are beginning to die, and rainfall has also been less in recent years.

When the Duke of Abruzzi ascended the peaks a century earlier he estimated the total area of ice over six peaks to be 2.5 square miles. Today, three peaks are completely ice-free, leaving a total of less than half a square mile of glacial ice in the entire mountain range. Even on the 1962 National Geographic expedition, concerns were being raised about the state of the glaciers:

My companions told me that the Ruwenzori glaciers were shrinking. One day, unless general weather trends change, these mountains may lose their great ice tongues…A warming trend is worldwide these days.”

Along with the incredibly dense vegetation of the forest and a particularly high amount of precipitation, the air is also very thin (due to the altitude) and there are treacherous bogs to be navigated. Ian Sample, who wrote an article in the Guardian on Richard Taylor’s 2003 expedition, had this advice on how to successfully traverse one of these muddy morasses:

There’s a technique to crossing the boglands of the Rwenzori mountains, and it goes something like this: first, survey the bog and pick out one of the sturdier looking grassy tussocks. You really want one that is far enough into the bog to constitute progress, yet near enough to jump to. Next, take a step and fling yourself on to it. With luck you’ll hit it just right and your rucksack will neither propel you on into the bog nor topple you backwards, either of which can leave you stuck in mud up to your waist. Then jump from tussock to tussock until you reach the other side.”

A man named Filippo de Filippi, who accompanied the Duke of Abruzzi on his pioneering expedition, wrote this passage on the same subject, which I found rather amusing:

The path is all water and mud. You sink in to the knee. Little by little you learn to proceed by jumps and by perching upon stones or roots which rise above the mud. But even so, you frequently become entangled or get stuck, and seek solace in expletives which are more energetic and expressive than elegant.”

Of course, there are many species of fauna in Rwenzori, hidden among the vast “kaleidoscope of chlorophyll” that is the forest region. There are mountain gorillas, leopards, elephants, monkeys, hyraxes and one of my favourite animals: chameleons. There are people who live in this area too, around 300,000 of them. These are the Bakonjo and Bamba people. Interestingly, in Price’s book, he says that the two heroes meet a different group of people in the mountains. He calls them the Watussi, although they are more commonly known as the Tutsi and tend to live in Rwanda and Burundi, which are two countries lying to the south of the Rwenzori mountain range. He probably uses them as the mountains’ main residents in his story because, like so much of the vegetation in that area, they are known for being remarkably tall, many of them reaching seven feet or more in height. Their fascinating tribal dances were featured in one of the film versions of King Solomon’s Mines some years ago – I only managed to find one video clip of this on youtube, here is the link if you would like to watch it for yourself.

You may be wondering why it is that such ordinary (for us) plants like lobelia, heather and groundsel grow to such enormous heights in this area. Scientists are still not entirely sure either. Obviously the enormous amount of rain is a factor, plus the acidity of the soil, and the intense ultraviolet light that is a result of the air being so thin. But in other parts of the world where these same conditions occur, it causes dwarfism, rather than gigantism. For now, this biological phenomenon will remain unsolved, adding an extra layer of mystery to that already surrounding the land of Pterodactyls and prehistoric monsters”, as the explorer Scott Elliot describes it.

No forest can be grimmer and stranger than this”, Filippi wrote. But the swirling mists and overgrown vegetation only serve to mask what is in reality a fragile and vulnerable ecosystem, which could so easily vanish with as little warning as the topmost peaks when they disappear once more behind the clouds.

I will leave you with this quote which is the last paragraph of the National Geographic article. All the accounts I have read about visits to the Rwenzori describe just one of these moments occurring at some point in their expedition. It apparently lasts for only the very briefest of instants, making that one glimpse that much more precious to those who are lucky enough to experience it.

We lived for two weeks in the Mountains of the Moon, and by most men’s standards that is long enough. Still, when the day for leaving came, we were disappointed, because we had not yet seen the highest peaks. We struck camp and started down, and I happened to look back as we passed out of the Bujuku valley. There, at last, stood Mt Stanley and two of its pinnacles without their mantle of clouds. Gloriously white, regal as the queens of Italy and England for whom they were named, Margherita Peak and Alexandra Peak rose against a sky of blue. We had barely time to focus cameras before royalty’s moment in the sun was over, and the mist closed in again over the Ruwenzori.”

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Main References

“Elephant Adventure” by Willard Price (1964)

“Mountains of the Moon” by Paul A. Zahl Ph.D. for National Geographic (March 1962)

“Return to the Mountains of the Moon” by Ian Sample on (02.10.2003)

“In the Mountains of the Moon, A Trek to Africa’s Last Glaciers” by Tom Knudson on (04.02.2010)

Pictures from Google Images (Rwenzori)

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3 Responses to The Mountains of the Moon

  1. keatsbabe says:

    Crikey what a wonderfully detailed and fascinating post! The pictures are fabulous too. So glad I clicked through and took the time to read it.

  2. Deborah says:

    I am happy, too, that I stopped to read this gem. You tell the story wonderfully well. The inclusion of the link to the dance video on youtube is a thoughtful, personal touch. Or that is how it felt to me. (Otherwise I would have stopped reading and searched,) I learned many new and interesting sciency tidbits, which I love, and I will remember them, and your story. Well done. ; )

  3. rteplow says:

    As a kid, I loved Willard Price’s adventure series, starting with “Elephant Adventure”. I’ve always wondered about the giant vegetation but somehow never googled it until today. I’m delighted to hear that there is some truth to his book, but sad to hear that climate change threatens the area.

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