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The Ruwenzoris

The Ruwenzoris

The Ruwenzoris are the fabled Mountains of the Moon in East Africa, which have been mysterious and unknown for centuries, and are still intriguing.
ScienceStruck Staff
The Ruwenzoris are a chain of remote snow-covered mountains lying to the North of the Equator in Africa, which form a natural barrier between the Western Border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Long considered as the source of the Nile River, this fact wasn't verified until the nineteenth century, when European Imperialism in Africa took firm root, and the importance of the Nile for trading purposes magnified; controlling the river source meant controlling the river and thereby the trade, and so the Ruwenzoris attracted great interest.
The Ruwenzoris were known to the Ancients. The Greek Geographer Ptolemy, writing in the Second Century B.C., called them Lunae Montae or the Mountains of the Moon, and wrote of their connection to the Nile. Aechylus in 500 B.C., and Aristotle in 350 B.C., believed the same. The Syrian Geographer, Marinus of Tyre, in 120 A.D., wrote about the East African travels of the Greek merchant Diogenes, who apparently was the very first European to sight the mountains.
These accounts greatly inspired Europeans explorers of the Nineteenth Century. The first of these explorers were Missionaries and their missions were primarily for seeking new people to convert, rather than geographical discoveries. The first amongst these, to note the remarkable phenomenon of snow on the African Equator, were two German Missionaries, Johannes Rebman and Johann Ludwig Krapf, discovering respectively, the Kilimanjaro Mountain in 1848, and the Kitui Mountain in 1849. They were joined in 1849 by Jakob Erhardt, who drew the first map of this area.
The famous English explorer Richard Burton and his companion John Hanning Speke, obtained valuable information from Rebman and Erhardt's map, prior to their 1857 expedition for finding the Nile source. This expedition unfortunately ended in failure, with injuries, illnesses, and mutual quarrels, hampering the expedition. They also made mistaken assumptions - Speke proclaimed Lake Victoria as the Nile Source, while Burton claimed this honor for Lake Tanganyika. Later Lake Albert, another great lake west of Lake Victoria and also fed by waters from the Ruwenzoris, was discovered in 1864 by Samuel Baker and his fiancée Florence Von Sass. The explorer and missionary David Livingstone thought Luababa River was part of the Nile, but this together with the theories of Burton and Speke, were refuted once and for all by the American-Welsh journalist, Henry Morton Stanley, who came to Africa to look for Livingston in 1869, and later returned to become the first Modern European discoverer to see in 1887, the mist-shrouded elusive peaks of the Ruwenzori Mountains. It was really a matter of luck and being at the right place, at the right time. Normally the mountains were hidden by a heavy cloud cover, but on this particular day, the clouds shifted, and Stanley caught a glimpse of the snow-capped mountains. The military commander of his expedition, William Stairs, became the first European to scale the mountain range.
In 1906, an expedition led by the Italian Duke Abruzzi, was the first such European one to ascend to the summit, and they finally confirmed that the Ruwenzoris were indeed the source of the Nile. The name Ruwenzori, an African term meaning 'Rain Maker', is highly appropriate, as there is abundant snowfall and rain in this region. The two seasons, Wet and Dry, are distinguishable only by comparatively less rain in the latter period, and this makes the area rather inaccessible with marshes and bogs, where there is waist-deep mud in some places.

The mountains themselves stretch about eighty miles long and some thirty miles wide, differing from other East African mountain ranges in not being of volcanic origin, but having been formed instead by the upward thrust of the Earth's crust, many millenniums ago. The mountains reach a height of 16763 feet, and linked by steep ravines, form the six massifs of Mount Baker, Mount Emin, Mount Gessi, Mount Luigi di Savoia, Mount Speke, and Mount Stanley; these peaks are almost perpetually covered by dense clouds and mists. Glaciers are found above 13000 feet. The main summit is called Margherita. It rises to 5109 meters out of the Stanley Plateau, the largest glaciated area on the continent. To the west is the tropical rain forest, enriched by the climate, rich soil, while abounding in animal and plant life. Many rare plants are found here and even the ordinary ones grow to enormous sizes. It is a bit like entering a surrealistic world. Elephants, Chimps, Leopards, Colobus Monkeys, Bushbuck, Red Forest Duiker, Hyrax, and Blue Monkeys, are found here. There may also be many other species not yet known, as the region has not been fully explored.
The Bakonzo and the Baamba people live at the base of the Ruwenzoris, and are dependent on the natural resources for their survival. According to their traditional belief, the snow on the mountains, which they call Nzururu, is the father of Kitasamba, the God of the rivers and the streams. In the coming years, the lives of these people are highly likely to be altered, as global warming affects the glaciers. The glaciers are already fast receding and furthermore, are not being replenished, with scientists predicting their complete disappearance in about 40 years. This will of course directly impact the remarkable Ruwenzori ecosystem. By catching the snowfall that would instead have gone straight into the rivers and the streams, the glaciers have been protecting the lower regions from torrential Monsoon floods; without the glaciers, regular destruction from flooding can be expected and is already being experienced. Another thing the glaciers do is supply water to the streams, which would otherwise dry up and cause a dire water shortage in the lowlands.
At present there doesn't seem to be any solution in sight for this problem. Unless of course Global Warming can be staved off, which doesn't seem likely.
Nile River Valley under the wing of an airplane
Waterfall in ruwenzori mountains
Portrait of Captain Richard Burton
Ptolemy, published in 1882