MOUNTAIN ELGON NATIONAL PARK
PARK AT A GLANCE
The 1145 km² Mount Elgon National Park protects the higher slopes of the 4321m Mount Elgon, an extinct volcano on the Uganda-Kenya border.
Mount Elgon is one of East Africa’s oldest physical features, first erupting around 20 million years ago.
The trek to the summit passes through the distinctive altitudinal vegetation zones restricted to Eastern Africa’s highest mountains.
Mount Elgon’s cool slopes with it’s distinctive, waterfall-streaked cliffs are an ideal retreat, especially during the long drive through dusty Karamoja to/from Kidepo Valley National Park.
The 1,145 km² Mount Elgon National Park is located on the 4321m-high Mount Elgon in eastern Uganda. The border with Kenya bisects the mountain and national parks in both countries protect the flora and fauna on the higher contours. This trans-boundary conservation area has been declared a UNESCO Man & Biosphere Reserve.
A massive, extinct volcano, 80km in diameter, Mount Elgon once stood far higher than Kilimanjaro’s current 5900m. Its height was reduced when an unusually violent eruption emptied the volcano’s magma reservoir and the cone, no longer supported by underlying molten rock, collapsed inwards.
Even so, Mount Elgon still rises 3000m above the hot dusty plains of Karamoja to provide a cool respite for humans and a refuge for flora and fauna. The protected forest also represents an essential regional water catchment. Tourist activities on the mountain cater to various levels of ambition. Visitors can make extended hikes, requiring a minimum of 3 days, to the summits, take day/half day walks through the forest on the lower edge of the park, or simply relax in resorts overlooking delightful waterfalls just outside the park at Sipi.
Large mammals, including elephant and buffalo, live in the forests of Mount Elgon but are rarely seen. Mount Elgon National Park is home to over 300 species of birds, including the African goshawk, Chubb’s Cisticola, white-chinned prinia, African blue flycatcher and the endangered lammergeyer.
THE LOCAL PEOPLE
Mt. 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 colourful, biannual Imbalu ceremony in which boys are initiated into manhood through circumcision. The Bagisu, also known as the Bamasaba, consider Mount Elgon to be the embodiment of their founding father Masaba and refer to the mountain by this name.
Mount Elgon National Park lies above Mbale town, 235km east of Kampala. The route beyond Mbale is surfaced as far as Kapchorwa town on the northwest flank of the mountain. Dirt roads lead off this road to the various trailheads.
Mount Elgon can also be reached from Kidepo Valley National Park in north-east Uganda. The 420km drive is possible in one long day but an overnight stop in Moroto or Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve is recommended.
WHEN TO VISIT
Mount Elgon can be climbed all year round though the dry seasons between June-August and December-March are most enjoyable.
UWA provides budget accommodation facilities at the Forest Exploration Centre at Kapkwai. Comfortable budget and mid-range resorts are found at Sipi town, 13km from Kapkwai while Mbale town offers a wide choice of hotels.
ACTIVITIES AND ATTRACTIONS
KAPKWAI FOREST EXPLORATION CENTRE
The UWA-run Forest Exploration Centre (FEC) lies on the park edge, 13km beyond Sipi. It doubles as an education centre for local schools and researchers as well as a trailhead for the Sipi route to the peaks (see below).
Routes over varying length explore the forest around the FEC passing caves, waterfalls and viewpoints and providing the opportunity to observe birds and primates.
A number of routes ascend to the 4321m Wagagai peak, the summit of Mount Elgon.
The Sasa Trail ascends from the small town of Budadiri (1250m a.s.l.) in the Sironko Valley. The shortest and most direct option, it is possible to reach the summit and descend to Budadiri in 3 or (more comfortably) 4 days. It does, however, involve a stiff altitudinal gain of 1650m, including an ascent of the Mudangi Cliffs, on Day One.
The Sipi Trail involves a longer but gentler ascent, starting 800 higher than Budadiri at the FEC (2050m). Other options are 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
Jackson’s Pool stands at 4,050 m beside the Sasa Trail in the shadow of the 4,165 m high Jackson’s peak, a freestanding volcanic plug rising above moorland on the western flank of the mountain.
THE PEAKS AND THE CALDERA
Mount Elgon’s highest peaks are formed by high points around a jagged rim that forms the circumference of a giant caldera which, at 8km across, is one of the world’s largest. The tallest peak is Wagagai (4,521m) followed by Sudek (4,503 m), Koitobos (4,222 m) and Mubiyi (4,210 m). Vegetation
A highlight of any ascent of Mount Elgon is the traverse through the distinctive vegetation zones peculiar to East Africa’s highest mountains. The lowest of these zones, between the park boundary and the 2500m contour is covered with dense montane forest and regenerating forests, draped with lianas, epiphytes and lichens. This gives way to the bamboo forest (2,500-3,000m) followed by groves of giant heather (3000-3500m). Above 3500m, the mountainside opens into moorland dotted with outlandish forms of giant lobelias and groundsels.
NKOKENJERU RIDGE AND WANALE CLIFFS
As the map shows, a narrow corridor of parkland extends 25km west from the Mount Elgon massif towards Mbale town. This follows the Nkokenjeru Ridge, a 25 km-long tongue of lava that burst out of the side of the volcano after the cone had collapsed to block the main vent. A trail within this section of the park visits the Khaukha Cave. The ridge ends at the lofty Wanale Cliffs (outside the park) which tower 700m above Mbale. A road winding upwards from the town through a gap in the cliffs leads to some stunning viewpoints and sites with paragliding potential.
OUTSIDE THE PARK
The 7km section of the Sipi Valley immediately outside the national park is improbably scenic as the river plunges over three sets of basalt cliffs during its decent to the plains beneath. These have given rise to a cluster of tourist lodges and a variety of activities.
The Sipi area has much to offer mountain bikers, ranging from casual exploration of the many lovely trails in the vicinity to the challenging Elgon Enduro hosted by Sipi River Lodge.
Many of the basalt cliffs around Sipi have been bolted and can safely be climbed. Contact Sipi River Lodge or the Mountain Club of Uganda for details.
Fly fishing for rainbow trout is possible on the Sipi River between the park boundary and the highest of the three waterfalls at Sipi. Again, contact Sipi River Lodge for details.
Uganda’s finest coffee is produced from Arabica beans grown on Mount Elgon. Take a guided tour of a coffee garden at Sipi to see how the beans are grown and ground.
Other regional attractions include Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve and Nyero Rock paintings near Kumi.
TARIFFS & PAYMENT
Payments can be made using Uganda shillings, US dollars, British pounds, Euros and Visa. Twenty per cent of all park fees are shared with communities in park boundary parishes to share the benefits of ecotourism and generate local support for conservation.