Mount Elgon National Park

Mount Elgon National Park

Mountain Elgon is a massive solitary volcanic mountain on the border of eastern Uganda and Kenya. Its vast form, eighty kilometres in diameter, rises 3,070m 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. Its cool heights offer respite for humans from the hot plains below and its higher altitudes provide a refuge for flora and fauna.

Mount Elgon has been a regional landmark for a long time: this 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 5,895m. Millennia of erosion have reduced its height to 4,321m, relegating it to the 4th highest peak in East Africa (and 7th of the continent). However, its 4,000 square kilometre surface area is still the largest base of any volcanic mountain worldwide.

Mount Elgon is a hugely important water catchment. Its forests receive up to 3,000mm of rain each year, which they store and release to support flora, fauna and more than a million Ugandans. Elgon’s water is equally important to many Kenyans, for Mount Elgon is bisected by the international boundary. The Mountain’s natural vegetation, and its role as a giant biological sponge, are 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 1,11 square kilometres. Though its Kenyan counterpart measures just 170 square kilometres, it 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 2,229 square kilometres, which have been declared Man & 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 wildness without the summit-oriented approach common to higher regional mountains. Indeed, the goal of reaching the top of Mount Elgon is not the final ascent to the 4,321m Wagagai Peak, but the descent into the vast 40 square kilometres caldera.

Flora and Fauna

The ascent of Mount Elgon [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 a montane forest which runs from the park boundary up to 2,500m. This is followed by bamboo and low canopy forest (2,400-3,000m), then high montane heath (3,000-3,500m) which includes the heather (Phillipea excelsia) growing up to 6m tall. Above 3,500m, cold temperatures and fierce winds force the heather to give way to open moorland. Finally, above 3,800 m, 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 supports a variety of Wildlife including elephants, buffalo, Defassa’s waterbuck, oribi, bushbuck, leopard, and spotted hyena. However, as is usual in forest environment, most of these species are rarely seen. The most commonly seen creatures are black and white colobus, blue monkey, duiker and tree squirrel.
 
The mountain is home to over 300 bird species including 40 restricted range species. Birds whose Ugandan range is limited to Mount Elgon include Jackson’s francolin, moustached green tinkerbird, and black-collared Apalis, the Ugandan ranges of which are limited to Mount Elgon. The bronze-napped 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.

Climbing the Mountain

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).

A trained ranger guide is required on all treks. Local porters make your hike easier, each carrying up to 18kg of supplies, in addition to collecting water, cooking, and preparing the camp.

The best times to climb Mount Elgon are during the dry seasons of June-August and December-March. No technical climbing equipment or skills are required to reach the main peak. The Caldara and the Peak 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 and 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 guidebooks and insect repellent.
 

Around the park Trailheads and Routes

Routes from three main trailheads lead to the caldera. The trek lengths given below refer to return journeys.

Sasa Trail. (4 days) This route, which starts from Budadiri town, is the closest to Mbale and is the most easily accessible. It also provides the most direct route to the peaks, albeit with a stiff climb of over 1,600m 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 kilometres upstream from the Sipi Falls which lies just outside the park. The trail visits the spectacular Tatum cave hidden within an 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 1,200m below.

Piswa Trail (7 days). This trail, which starts at Kapkwata, 30km beyond Kapchorwa, is a longer route, but starts at a higher altitude and follows a more gradual route to the caldera. It is notable for the Podocarpus forest en route, 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).

 
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 2,500m, altitude sickness can affect anyone, irrespective of age, fitness, or previous mountain experience. The risk is reduced by slow ascents to enable acclimatisation, while the most effective treatment is immediate withdrawal to a lower altitude. Hence affected hikers should not descend into the caldera, which you must climb upwards to leave.

Local People

Mount Elgon is home to three tribes, the Bagisu, the Sabiny and the Ndorobo. The Bagisu and the Sabiny are subsistence farmers and conduct circumcision ceremonies every other year to initiate young men (and in the Sabiny’s case, girls) into adulthood. Traditionally, the Bagisu, also known as the Ba-Masaba, 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 depended on forest produce and have made agreements with the park to continue to harvest resources such as bamboo poles and bamboo shoots (a delicious local delicacy).

Safaris to Mount Elgon National Park
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