Mount Elgon national park is located in eastern Uganda and is a home to the great Mount Elgon which was once Africa’s highest mountain. Its height was reduced when the unusually violent eruption emptied the volcanoes magma. The mountain is an extinct shield volcano at the border of Uganda and Kenya, north of Kisumu and west of Kitale with its highest point ‘Wagagai’ entirely in Uganda. The mountain base is 80km in diameter.
The park covers an area of 1145 square kilometers and protects the higher slopes of the 4321m Mount Elgon, which are covered by various vegetation and a home to different wildlife. This trans-boundary conservation area has been declares a UNESCO man and biosphere reserve. Even so, Mount Elgon still rises 3000m above the hot dusty plains of Karamoja to provide a cool respite for humans and refuge for flora and fauna. The protected forest also represents an essential regional water catchment.
The vegetation of Mount Elgon changes as the altitude changes. There are dense forests on the lower slopes and due to the rainfall in the area the trees are often covered lichen, vine like lians and epiphytes while the forest floor seems to be carpeted with ferns and flowering plants such as wild orchids. The slopes also have distinctive waterfalls streaked cliffs, which are an ideal retreat. The Bamboo forest region is next at about 2,000 plus meter elevation, beyond that is the open woodland, further on up you have giant heather in meadows of grass and flowers, on and upward to the Afro-Montane zone with its giant lobelias an groundsel.
The vegetation on the mountain slopes is a home to some rarely spotted mammals like forest elephant and buffalo. Mount Elgon Nationl Park is home to over 300 species of birds, including the African goshawk, chubbs cisticola, white chinned prinia, African blue fly catcher and the endangered lammergeyer.
Mount Elgon is home to two tribes, the Bagisu and the Sabiny. The Bagisu who live on the southern and western slopes of Mount Elgon are known for their colorful, biannual imbalu ceremony in which boys are initiated into manhood through circumcision. The Bagisu also known as Bamasaba consider Mount Elgon to be the embodiment of their founding father Masaba and refer to the mountain by this name.
ACTIVITIES WITHIN AND AROUND THE PARK
Mountain climbing is one of the major and exciting activity done in the park. The hike to the top ‘wagagai’ (4321m) takes 4 days on the mountain and it is a medium difficulty climb for most climbers. You will have guides to help you with the routes and porters to ease your load. Mount Elgon today is the fourth tallest mountain in East Africa and the best time of the year to climb it is during the dry seasons (June-August and December –February). There are various trails that lead to the top of Mount Elgon;
The sasa trail: this hike starts with a climb from budadiri town (1250m) in the sironko valley. It is the shortest and direct route, it is possible to reach the summit and descend to budadiri in 3 or 4 days. It does however involve a stiff altitudinal gain of 1650m, including an ascent of the Mudangi cliff, on the first day.
The sipi trail: this route involves a longer but gentler ascent, starting 800 higher than the budadiri at the FEC (2050m).
Other route options include; the piswa and suam routes on the northern side of the mountain and a proposed new route at bushiyi, Jackson’s pool and Jackson’s peak. This routes are a bit longer.
Jackson’s peak stands at 4050m beside the sasa trail in the shadow of the 4165m high Jackson’s peak, a free standing volcanic plug rising above moorland on the western flank of the mountain.
Unlike in the Rwenzori, there are no mountain huts along the rails on Mount Elgon, treks shall always hike along with their tents. Meals can be organized at the base or you can come along with freeze dried meals from your country.
Tents are preferred and if you can purchase freeze-dried meals in your country you are much better off, since local dried food selection are not plentiful.
This is another activity done in the park and near sipi falls area. Bikes can be hired in Mbale or Kapchorwa towns. In the company of a local guide, riders will ride through the surrounding highlands and bushes and forests.
The sipi area has much to offer to mountain bikers, ranging from casual exploration of the many lovely trails in the vicinity to the challenging Elgon. On top of that the trails nearby Sipi Falls and you will be most satisfied with a variety of trails that you can enjoy, especially during the dry seasons of the year.
Rock climbing in this region has been a safe activity. It is a guided and supervised activity for safety of the participants. There are various basalt cliffs around the park which can be climbed. The rocks have been bolted and can be safely climbed. The activity is quite exhilarating and should always be done with a skilled guide. Rock climbing takes place outside the park at Sipi. There are 14 climbs requiring various levels of rock scaling techniques, and all equipment can be hired from the Sipi Falls Tourist Guides Association. The toughest is a 35m climb while the easiest is 15m. The top of these rocks will meet you with beautiful views of the main waterfalls and the beautiful karamoja plains.
The Sipi Falls area is particularly famous for locally grown Bugisu Arabica coffee. Bugisu Arabica only grows at an altitude of between 1,600 and 1,90metres. Coffee tours are organized through guides with knowledge of coffee farming, processing and roasting. Profits from this go towards community projects. You will know lots of information to do with the entire coffee value chain as you will be able to meet the coffee producers, processors not leaving out the exporters and roasters. The profits from such tours are usually put to use for community developments and advancements through local projects.
On your tour, you will learn about how coffee gets into your cup. You will learn a lot right from planting the coffee trees, see the coffee beans on the trees, drying the coffee beans, and coffee powder and eventually coffee in the cup. You will have a chance to taste this great locally made coffee.
Cultural community walk are not far from the park, they lead to communities like budadiri. Budadiri community group offers cultural dances, guided coffee tours and community nature walks. Tourists can learn about the cultures of the people living in this region of Uganda; discover the region’s cultural dances, food preparation, folklore and its famous delicacy malewa bamboo shoots.
You will also learn about life of the Sabiny as you meet local residents, and participate in traditional weaving. Learn about African cuisine through the preparation, cooking and tasting of local dishes. A visit to the women’s handcraft shop in the trading centre is also highly recommended.
The park is a home to various forest bird species. Birding can be done in the forest on the slopes on the mountain. Excellent birding opportunities also exist around Kapkwai Forest Exploration Centre, in particular in the secondary forest and thick shrub along the loop trails extended to cover Cheptui Falls.
Birders will love this area and will expect to spot birdssuch as; Hartlaub’s Turaco, Eastern Bronze-napped Pigeon, Lemon Dove, Dusky-Turtle Dove, African Hill Babbler, Alpine Chat, Black-throated Wattle-eye, Mountain Yellow Warbler, Thick-billed Honey guide, Grey Cuckoo-Shrike among many more.
There are various trails which trekkers follow and they leads to beautiful places;
The 7km mountain bamboo trail to Kapkwai Cave passes through tropical and bamboo forest, this trail takes between 3-4 hours. Along the trail are many primates, birds and rare trees such as Elgon teak and Elgon olive.
The 5km walk to the Chebonet Falls and 3km walk to the Kapkwai caves follow the ridge view trail. There is also an 11km hike to the Tutum Cave, with the option of camping overnight beside the cave.
In Wanale, a visit to Khauka Cave takes 3 to 4 hours. You can also choose to go to the viewpoint through Nabuyoga loop where you can see Jackson’s Summit and Wagagai peak.