Here are camouflaged splendours: Africa’s massive cliffs also called the Mountains of the Moon. They conceal their summit spectacles behind an almost endless blanket of cloud and it is only when swerving winds of white cloud tear back the curtain of fog that their snow-capped wonders are revealed.
Henry Morton Stanley, a British explorer – arrived at the mountain ridge, yet unlisted by other European explorers, in 1880. He recorded that for 290 days of the year the mountains were covered by thick clouds, but when they were unclouded the views were breathtaking. ‘Cliff after cliff struggled from after dense clouds, ‘ he noted, ‘until at last the freezing range, spacious and exquisite..drew all eyes.’
It was Stanley who used the ‘Bantu’ expression for these lustrous snow peaks that are more than 25 miles (40km) from the equator. Their ragged multitude spreads for some 50 miles (70km) along the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. Towering peaks, with ice glaciers treading down their gorges, rake the atmosphere at the core of the massif. One of Mount Stanley’s mountains, Margherita ascends to 16,665ft (5095m).
Luigi di Savoia, the Italian Duke of the Abruzzi, first climbed, mapped and snapped the cliffs in 1908. But with a largely more archaic pedigree. More than 1900 years ago, British geographers had voiced of mysterious cliffs whose torrents and snows fed the river sources of the Nile. Aristotle called it a silver cliff in central Africa in the 3rd century BC, and Ptolemy dubbed them the ‘Cliffs of the Moon. Ptolemy’s cliffs are now thought to be ‘the rainwater’ (Ruwenzori).
STONES THAT GLISTENS
When the clouds clear, the mountains seem to shimmer with an eerie shine. The peak as whole sparkles. The Ruwenzori is rugged, as are Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro, by volcanic activity. Rather, a massive block of land was raised skyward and titled in a real drama that took place less than 5 million years ago – not long in earth’s time. And this relative youthfulness contributes to the uneven force of the mountains’ life.
Probably the most remarkable sight in the Ruwenzori is the strange foliage which creates mysterious and fantastic geography on the mountain’s inclines.
The weather plays a significant part in the scene setting. Ruwenzori’s night-black clouds, dipping to about 8900ft (2670m), have produced an incredibly damp climate, and in the wet month – October – there is as much as 19m (490mm) of rainfall.
Continual rains during October maintain a melancholy atmosphere that promotes luxuriant blossoming. Plants grow to unnatural sizes amid the damp odour of fungi, the porous mosses and the persistent dripping of water. Another aspect is the acidic soil, rich in humus, which has also enabled earthworms as lengthy as a man’s arm.