The Rwenzori Mountains were known to Europeans long before Jesus was born. Between 386 -354 BC, a Greek cynic Philosopher and trader called Diogenes of Sinope came to East Africa ( most probably Uganda ) and saw the Rwenzori Mountains. Diogenes reported that he had traveled inland from Rhapta a (coastal town in Tanzania) in East Africa for 25 days and had found the source of the Nile. He reported it flowed from a group of massive mountains into a series of large lakes. He said the natives called this range the Mountains of the Moon because of their snowcapped whiteness. Diogenes lived from 404 to 323 BC and was a student of philosopher Antisthenes. Diogenes’s travels were recorded by Greek Geographer Marinus of Tyre (70 – 130 AD.) Marinus was the first person to properly put latitudes and longitudes in maps. Tyre was a province of the Roman Empire in current day Syria.
Marinus’ writings were later picked up by Alexandrian geographer, mathematician, astronomer and astrologer Claudius Ptolemy (100 to 170 AD) who compiled his geography of Africa based on the writings of Marinus. In 150 AD, Ptolemy put the Rwenzori Mountains on his world map and named them “Lunae Montes”, Latin for the “Mountains of the Moon.” He described them as high mountains covered by snow in the inner Equatorial Africa which were the source of the Nile. From then onwards, the history of the Rwenzori became part of attempts made by explorers and researchers to actually locate the source of the Nile following Ptolemy’s first map. Fast forward, in 1770, Scottish explorer, James Bruce, investigated the source of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia and falsely identified the “Mountains of the Moon” with Mount Amedamit.
James Grant and John Speke in 1862 sought the source of the White Nile in the Great Lakes region. John Speke reached the point where the water of Lake Victoria starts the course of the river Nile through some falls which he called Rippon, to honour the President of the Royal Geographical Society who funded the scientific mission. Rippon falls was submerged by the construction of the Owen Falls Dam in Jinja. Speke never proved conclusively that Lake Victoria was the source of the Nile, and the day before he was to debate the subject publicly against Burton, Speke died in a shooting accident that many, including Burton, suspected was suicide. The real source of the Nile still a topic for debate.
According to John Sempebwa, the Former Uganda Tourist Board ( UTB) Deputy CEO, the Baganda, called the Rwenzoris “Gambaragara”, which means “My Eyes Pain”, a reference to the shining snow. “Montes Lunae” the Europeans called it while the Arabs knew it as ” Jebel Al Kamar”, “White Mountains”, The Bakonjo living on the mountains called it “Rwenzori or Rwenjura”, which means “rain maker” or “rain mountains
The Europeans solved the mystery of the Mountains of the moon on 24th May 1888 when Sir Henry Morton Stanley finally sighted the snow on the mountains from Lake Albert. He had earlier seen the ranges in 1876 but did not see the snow because the mountains are usually covered in mist and clouds.
The first person to attempt to survey the mountains was Dr. Franz Stuhlmann in June 1891. He led a 5 day expedition but only reached 4036 meters. He sighted two snow-capped peaks and described the Rwenzori as a real mountain range, composed of four principal groups, and certainly not of volcanic origin. He identified four of the six mountain groups and named them after German professors, Krapelin, Moebius, Semper, and Weismann.
In 1900, Sir Harry Johnston suggested to use names of explorers who actually contributed to the progress of the discovery of the African secrets though the Bakonjo had names for the peaks where a supreme god named Kitasamba resided.
In 1906, Luigi Amedeo, the Duke of Abruzzi, led a scientific expedition in the Rwenzori and named the peaks according to Victorian historicals but also added some Italian names to honour the Italian royal family. Margherita, the highest peak (5109m) was named after Margherita of Savoy who was an Italian queen of the Kingdom of Italy during the reign of her husband Humbert I. Elena camp ( 4968M) at the snowline by then was named after Queen Elena of Italy who was a daughter to King Nicholas I, of Montenegro. The first pictures of the mountains were by Vittorio Sella who took them during the 1906 expedition and gave a visible representation of the legendry Mountains of the Moon to the World.
Below are some of the major peaks in the Rwenzori and the origin of their names: Mount Baker, 4,889 m From 1869 to 1873 Baker commanded an expedition on behalf of the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt to suppress slavery and open trade in the equatorial Lake region. He never saw the mountains.
Mount Gessi, 4.715 m Romolo Gessi [ 1831 – 1881] was an Italian military officer who in 1874 joined the administration of General Charles Gordon in the Equatoria province of Egyptian Sudan and made the first circumnavigation of Lake Albert though he did see the mountains.
Mount Emin Pasha 4.719 m Mohamed Emin Pasha [1840 – 1892] Originally Eduard Schnitzer, he was a Prussian doctor who had been tutor to the children of a Turkish pasha, had an affair with their mother and, after his employer’s death, became head of the family. General Charles Gordon, named him governor of Equatoria Province in Sudan in 1878. Emin Pasha made explorations of eastern Sudan and central Africa that contributed greatly to the geographical and scientific knowledge of the region.
Mount Speke, 4.889 m John Hanning Speke [1827 – 1864] in 1862 reached Ripon Falls in Jinja and concluded it was the source of the Nile. New Never saw the mountains
Mount Stanley, 5.109 metres. Sir Henry Morton Stanley [1841 – 1904] was an Anglo-American journalist and a leading figure in the exploration and colonisation of Africa. Born in Wales as John Rowlands, he took employment with an American merchant named Henry Morton Stanley, and adopted his name. Stanley made six major trips to Africa loosing hundreds of his men due to disease, starvation or violence. From 1874 to 1877 he circumnavigated both Lakes Tanganyika and Victoria and crossed the continent from east to west descending to the Atlantic Ocean along the Congo River. On 24th May 1888 He saw the Rwenzori Mountains. Mt Stanley is the biggest mountain with Margherita as its highest peak.
Scott Elliott Pass Prof. Scott Elliott was the first to attempt the mountain from the Uganda Protectorate, but did not reach up to the place which bears his name. Freshfield Pass Douglas Freshfield, was the President of the English Alpine Club. He tried to climb in 1905, but failed due to bad weather.
Today the mountain range measuring 120km long and 65 km wide is under the Rwenzori Mountains National Park under UWA management. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Unfortunately due to global warming the snow shrunk from 7.5 sq km to 1.5 sq km from 1905 to 2006. The park is home 70 mammals and 217 bird species including 19 Albertine Rift endemics.