Stretching from Lake Tanganyika in the South to Lake Albert in the North, the Albertine Rift is a lush, green corridor of volcanic wonders and rich culture.
We know Africa’s Great Rift for its concentration of wildlife and geological splendour such as Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya. But it’s a vast region made up of two distinct branches and we are seldom drawn to the western branch, the Albertine Rift. Perhaps it’s because it forms the boundary of the volatile DRC, but this country’s neighbors are peaceful today and the western branch is no less spectacular than the east.
I met the rift in Rwanda riding a motorcycle between conical hills pushed up by ancient tectonic activity. Winding further north into Uganda the vistas opened onto deep lakes and towering volcanoes – sometimes the backdrop to camps for refugees from the DRC. The mountain scenery was dramatic and, even though the tarmac was good, I rode obscure dirt tracks linking village to village, where you can enjoy the friendliness of the people and the taste of sweet pineapples and sugarcane.
When I joined the tar again it was between undulating tea plantations, small lakes and towns, until the road reached the edge of an escarpment as it drops into a vast plain between Lakes Edward and George and onwards to the Mountains of the Moon.
Otherwise known as the Rwenzori mountains, it was upon these peaks, in 1888, that English explorer, Henry Morton Stanley, first spotted snow on the equator. At 5109 meters, Mount Stanley is the third highest peak in Africa and climbing it is a worthwhile alternative to the crowded Kilimanjaro. I never attempted it, though, as I was lured by the Ndali-Kasenda crater field at the foot of these mountains. If the Moon were a forested planet, this area would be its earthly equivalent.
Just 17 kilometers South of the town of Fort Portal, this wonderland of more than 30 craters is easy to explore. The volcanic craters are relatively young, around 10 000 years old, and a reminder of the volatility that bubbles beneath the rift.
However dormant they are today, the life on their slopes is rich and diverse. Gazing into the craters from their crests, it’s not molten lava you’ll see, but deep lakes formed by a million rain showers that reflect the green forests on their rims. Red-tailed and colobus monkeys rattle the branches of tall trees and blue turacos burst from the foliage calling out as they flap toward the forests of Kibali National Park to the east. This park is a wonder of its own where you’ll find one of the highest concentrations and diversity of primates in Africa, including wild chimpanzee.
More surprises came on a short drive north along a dramatic pass that drops 800 meters into the valley of Lake Albert itself. Toro-Semliki Wildlife Reserve forms the gateway to the lake, a mecca for birders intent on seeing shoebill stork on its shores. Sharing the valley floor, Semliki National Park is a haven for chimpanzee and other primates and the volcanic activity that created this rift lets off steam at the boiling Sempaya hot springs.
At once idyllic and dramatic, it’s hard to imagine why the Albertine Rift is less travelled for it is, by no means, the lesser of Africa’s Great Rifts. But this unfamiliarity makes the region that much more enticing, giving one a sense of what Stanley must have felt so many years ago, as if one is exploring another planet.
(At time of writing US$1 = ZAR10,28)
SAA flies directly from OR Tambo to Entebbe for about ZAR5 900 return, then travel the 300-odd kilometres to Fort Portal by road (car hire through Europcar costs from around ZAR500 a day). If overlanding from Kenya drive via Tororo or Busia; from Rwanda, drive via Kisoro or Kibale. If you’re on a very tight budget, busses travel regularly between Entebbe and the nearby capital, Kampala, where you can catch a bus to Fort Portal for around ZAR45 a person. Buses leave the main terminal in the city centre. Once in Fort Portal, motorcycle taxis (boda-bodas) are a popular way of getting to and from the crater field. There are plenty of them around and you’ll never be stranded for they ride the 17 km route regularly. Flag one down along any road in town or around the craters.
Ndali Lodge is in a prime location and caters for the luxury traveller. It has stunning views towards the Rwenzori mountains from one side, and the largest crater, Nyimambunga, from the other. US$590 a night for two adults.
Kibale Primate Lodge is situated in Kibale Forest Reserve, an ideal place to view primate and bird life. A variety of accommodation awaits with camping at US$8 a person a night, Forest cottages starting at US$100 a night for two adults and luxury tents at US$270 a night for two adults.
Enfuzi Community Campsite and Bandas is on the rim of a crater. It has thatched bungalows at USh20 000 (ZAR77) a person a night. Camping is USh5000 (ZAR20) a person a night.
Planet Ruiga Beach Resort is unique in that is on the shore of a crater lake. Bungalow accommodation starts at USh20 000 (ZAR77) a person a night. Camping is USh 5000 (ZAR20) a person a night and the secluded bungalow on the opposite side of the lake at USh30 000 (ZAR115) a person a night.
When to go
This area has two distinct rainy seasons between April/May and November/December. Intermittent showers occur throughout the year in this tropical, mountainous region, but sunshine is never far away. Daytime temperatures hover between 24 and 28 degrees Celsius with the hottest month being February.
Need to Know
This is a malaria area, so consult a doctor for preventative medication. Yellow fever inoculation is required to enter the country. Nyimambuga and Kasenda craters are reputedly free of bilharzia, but consult your doctor if you intend swimming here. The currency is the Ugandan shilling (R1 = USh258), but it’s best to carry US dollars, euro or British pounds which can exchanged at banks or large hotels. Insurance can be arranged through Travelex.