Mount Elgon National Park is a massive solitary volcanic mountain on the border of eastern Uganda and western Kenya. Its vast form, eighty kilometers in diameter rises 3070m above the surrounding plains, providing welcome relief in more than one sense of the word. Its mountainous terrain introduces variety to an otherwise monotonous regional landscape and its cool heights offer respite for humans from the hot plains below as its higher altitudes provide a refuge for flora and fauna.
Mount Elgon National Park has been a regional landmark for a long time because its extinct volcano is one of Uganda’s oldest physical features, first erupting around 20 million years ago. It was once Africa’s highest mountain, towering above Kilimanjaro’s 5895m. Millennia of erosion have reduced its height to 4321m, relegating it to 4th highest peak in East Africa and 7th on the continent. However, its 4000 sq.kms. surface area is still the largest base of any volcanic mountain worldwide.
Mount Elgon is a hugely important water catchment with forests receiving up to 3000mm of rain each year which they store and release to support flora, fauna and more than a million Ugandans. Mount Elgon’s water is equally important to many Kenyans as it is bisected by the international boundary. The mountains natural vegetation and its role as a giant biological sponge is protected by Mount Elgon National Park on both sides of the border. The Ugandan park which was upgraded from a forest reserve in 1993 covers 1110 sq. kms. and it’s Kenyan counterpart measures just 170 sq. kms. and is adjoined by a forest reserve and a national reserve. These Parks and reserves in both countries combine to form a transboundary conservation area covering 2229 sq. kms which have been declared Man and Biosphere Reserves under UNESCO.
Mount Elgon receives fewer visitors than other higher and more famous mountains in East Africa. However, as routes on Mts Kilimanjaro and Kenya become increasingly crowded and degraded, hikers are appreciating Mount Elgon’s deserted moorlands. A climb on Mount Elgon is to explore a magnificent and uncluttered montane wilderness without the summit-oriented approach common to higher regional mountains. Indeed the ultimate goal on reaching the top of Mount Elgon is not the final ascent to the 4321m Wagagai peak, but the descent into the vast 40 square kilometer Caldera.
Mount Elgon National Park lies 235km east ok Kampala with a tarmac road running through Jinja to Mbale town at the western base of Mount Elgon, before climbing to Kapchorwa on the mountains north-western flank. Murram roads lead off the Mbale-Kapchorwa road to reach the various trailheads.
ACCOMMODATION IN MOUNT ELGON NATIONAL PARK
Mount Elgon National Park provides dormitory accommodation and self contained wooden cottages at the Forest exploration Centre in Kapkwai. Meals are available on request. The Park also has self catering guesthouses at Kapkwata and Suam. Outside the Park, simple accommodation is available at Kapchorwa and Budadiri town. A range of accommodation is found around the scenic Sipi falls and at the foot of the mountain in Mbale. The trails on the mountain have nine campsites placed at strategic intervals and are located near water sources with the provision of tent pads and latrines, but supplies and equipments must be carried.
FLORA AND FAUNA IN MOUNT ELGON NATIONAL PARK
The ascent of Mount Elgon National Park passes through a series of roughly concentric vegetation zones. The lower slopes of the mountain are intensively farmed up to the Park boundary. The first zone of natural vegetation is montane forest which runs from the Park boundary up to 2500m. This is followed by bamboo and low canopy forest ( 2400 – 3000m ), then high montane heath ( 3000 – 3500m ) which includes the giant heather ( Phillipea excelsia ) growing up to 6m tall. Above 3500m, cold temperatures and fierce winds force the heather to give way to open moorland. Finally, above 3800m, dramatic Afroalpine vegetation is found among tussock grasslands and Carex bogs. This rare and spectacular vegetation type is restricted to the upper reaches of east Africa’s highest mountains and includes the giant groundsel ( Senecio elgonensis ) and the endemic Lobelia elgonensis.
Mount Elgon National Park supports a variety of wildlife including elephant, buffalo, defassa’s waterbuck, oribi, bushbuck, leopard and spotted hyena. However, as is usual in forest environments, most of these species are rarely seen. The most commonly seen creatures are black and white colobus, blue monkey, duiker and tree squirrel.
Mount Elgon National Park is home to 296 birds including 40 restricted range species. Birds whose Ugandan range is limited to Mount Elgon include Jackson’s francolin, moustached green tinker bird and black collared Apalis, the Ugandan ranges of which are limited to Mount Elgon. The bronze naped pigeon, Hartlaub’s Turaco and Tacazze sunbird are limited to Mount Elgon and a few other mountains in eastern Uganda. Mount Elgon is also one of the few places in Uganda where the endangered Lammergeyer can be seen, soaring above the caldera and Suam gorge.
TOURIST ATTRACTIONS AND ACTIVITIES IN MOUNT ELGON NATIONAL PARK
A). MOUNTAIN CLIMBING
Mount Elgon National Park is a roadless wilderness. The Park can only be explored on foot, on routes that range from day walks to extended hikes over several days to reach the upper mountain. You can also make your hike a transboundary adventure, ascending the Ugandan slopes and descending on the Kenyan side or vice versa. This requires prior arrangement to meet with Kenya Wildlife Services ( KWS ) rangers at a crossover point at the hot springs in the caldera. A trained ranger guide is required on all treks. Local porters make your hike easier, each carrying up to 18kgs of supplies, in addition to collecting water, cooking and preparing the camp.
The best times to climb Mount Elgon national Park are during the dry seasons of JUN – AUG and DEC – MAR. No technical climbing equipment or skills are required to reach the main peaks. The Caldera and the peaks are the main destinations, while along the way, a choice of trails passes interesting and unique flora and fauna, waterfalls, lakes, caves, gorges and hot springs.
Rain gear with both cool and warm clothing are required as the area is subject to sudden weather changes. You should also take a Camera, binoculars, hat, torch, wildlife guide books and insect repellant for your safety and enjoyment.
TRAILHEADS AND ROUTES
Routes from three main trailheads lead to the caldera. The trek lengths given refer to return journeys as follows;
• Sasa Trail ( 4 days ): This route starts from Budadiri and is the closest to Mbale which is also the most easily accessible. It also provides the most direct route to the Peaks, albeit with a stiff climb of over 1600m on the first day. It crosses the Park’s largest area of bamboo forest and passes the lovely Jackson’s Pool on the way to Wagagai peak.
• Sipi Trail ( 7 days ): This route starts at the Forest exploration Centre at Kapkwai, a few kilometers upstream from the Sipi Falls which lie outside the Park. The trail visits the spectacular Tatum cave hidden with extensive forest. The Exploration Centre is also the starting point for day hikes which penetrate the dense montane forest to visit Chebonet falls, Kapkwai cave and a spectacular viewpoint overlooking the plains 1200m below.
• Piswa Trail ( 7 days ): This trail starts at Kapkwata, 30km beyond Kapchorwa and is a longer route which starts at a higher altitude and follows a more gradual route to the caldera. It is notable for the Podocarpus forest enroute, a prime habitat for wildlife viewing.
• Suam Trail : This long and little used trail starts at the village of Suam on the Kenyan border crossing. It follows the Suam River through the steep and spectacular Suam gorge to the hot springs on the eastern side of the caldera.
It is possible to vary your hike by ascending from one trailhead and descending to another for example :
Ascending Sasa Trail and descending via Sipi Trail ( 5 Days )
Ascending Sasa Trail and descending via Piswa Trail ( 6 days )
Ascending Sipi Trail and descending via Piswa Trail ( 7 days )
B). WANALE RIDGE
The Mount Elgon National Park extends out from the main massif of Mount Elgon along the 25km long Wanale ridge. A Massive huge of Lava culminates in the dramatic cliffs that overlook Mbale town. A trail explores the Parks regenerating forests on the Ridge. You can also look for petrified wood in the Khaura Cave and enjoy splendid views over the plains of eastern Uganda.
C). THE LOCAL PEOPLE
Mount Elgon National Park is home to three tribes; the Bagisu, the Sabiny and the Ndorobo. The Bagisu and Sabiny are subsistence farmers and conduct circumcision ceremonies every other year to initiate young men and the Sabiny’s case girls into adulthood. Traditionally, the Bagisu, also known as the Bamasaba, consider Mount Elgon to be the embodiment of their founding father Masaba and you may hear the mountain called by this name. Local People have long depended on forest produce and have made agreements with the Park authorities to continue harvesting resources such as bamboo poles and bamboo shoots, a delicious local delicacy.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
Hikers should familiarize themselves with the symptoms and treatment of hypothermia and the various forms of altitude sickness. Be aware that above 2500m, altitude sickness can affect anyone, irrespective of age, fitness or previous mountain experience. The risk is reduced by slow ascents to enable acclimatization, while the most effective is immediate withdrawal to a lower altitude. Hence affected hikers should not descend into the Caldera which you must climb upwards when leaving the area.