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Mountain Elgon National Park

Mountain Elgon National Park

‘The magnificent aftermath of violent volcanic activity’

Mount Elgon National Park

Mount Elgon National Park is located on the boarder of Kenya and Uganda east of Kampala district. The park covers a total area of 1,279 square km with a whole 1,110 square km gracing Ugandan soil. The remaining 169 square km is found in Kenya under the Kenya Wildlife Service. The Kenyan section of the park was gazetted in 1968 while the Ugandan section was gazetted in 1992.

The park picks its name from an extinct volcano, Mt. Elgon, which covers a greater part of the park. It is just a few kilometers from Mbale town. Mount Elgon National Park is a prominent water catchment area with both the Nzoia and Turkwel rivers flowing from it. The Nzoia River flows into Lake Victoria while the Turkwel River flows into Lake Turkana.  

Mt Elgon is considered to be one of the oldest physical features in Uganda. The volcano first erupted about 24 million years ago, however, it has long been considered extinct. Standing at 4,321m above sea level, Mt Elgon has the 4th highest peak in East Africa thus making it the 8th highest mountain in Africa. Its slopes are dominated by rich montane forest and high open moorland dotted with giant lobelia and groundsel plants.

The vast base of Mt Elgon, 80km in diameter, stands at more than 3,000m above sea level. This has made it the largest volcanic base in the world. The extinct volcano was once the highest mountain in Africa, surpassing even the 5,895m high Mount Kilimanjaro. However due to decades of erosion, its height has been broken down to a mere staggering 4,321m.

Mount Elgon National Park was made a cross boundary reserve under the management of both Uganda and Kenya national park authorities after being declared a UNESCO man and biosphere reserve. The park has over 300 bird species including the rare Lammergeyer. Other birds that you might find here include; Jackson’s francolin, eastern bronze naped pigeon, Hartlaub’s Turaco, Tacazze sunbird, Lemon Dove, Alpine chat and African Hill Babbler among other birds.

There are varieties of animals in Mount Elgon National Park. If you venture into the lush montane spread of the forest, you will most likely spot some of these animals. For example; Elephants, Buffalos, Defassa waterbuck, tree hyraxes, Oribi, bushbuck, duiker, forest hog, bush pig, Leopard, Civet, serval cats and spotted hyenas. Common primates include; vervet monkeys, blue monkeys, baboons, red tailed monkeys, De Brazza’s monkeys and the black and white Colobus monkeys.

Mountain Elgon National Park is endowed with natural physical features owing to ancient volcanic activity in this area. The base of mountain Elgon is covered in awe striking caves that attract animals due to their salt covered walls. There are many ridges around this area, for example the Wanale ridge, from where you can see bird life and the surrounding scenery.

Location and how to get there:

Mount Elgon National Park is located in eastern Uganda at the boarder of Uganda and Kenya. It is located just a few kilometers from Mbale town which is east of Kampala district. The park is settled within the water catchment area of the Nzoia River which flows into Lake Victoria and the Turkwel River which flows into Lake Turkana.

Mount Elgon National park is about 235 kilometers from Kampala. The park can be accessed via Jinja road which runs from Kampala through Jinja to Mbale town. The road connects to the western base of Mount Elgon from where you will climb over the north – western flank of the mountain to Kapchorwa. Further on, murram roads lead off the Mbale – Kapchorwa road to several trail heads.  

Attractions in Mount Elgon National Park:

  • Forest Exploration Centre:

The Forest exploration centre is located in Kapkwai 13km from Sipi town in Kapchorwa. The centre is where the hiker’s trailhead through Sipi to the Caldera leads off. It is also used as an educational Centre for schools. There are 3 major trails about 3-7 km long that run through the surrounding forest. These trails lead to the caves, the waterfalls and escarpments.

This Exploration Centre in Mount Elgon National Park is a major birdlife viewing point for species like the Lemon Dove, Hartlaub’s Turaco, Alpine Chat, Eastern Bronze napped Pigeon, African Hill Babbler, Thick billed Honey guide, Black throated Wattle eye, Mountain Yellow Warbler, Dusky Turtle Dove and Black collared Apalis among other birds.

  • Caves on Mount Elgon slopes:

Over the years, magnificent natural caves have dominated the slopes of Mount Elgon. These ancient caves were formed as a result of flowing lava and decades of erosion of soft volcanic deposits. The most visited and easily accessible of these caves are the Kapkwai cave near the Forest Exploration Centre and the Khauka cave on Wanale Ridge.  

The caves are mainly occupied by bats that leave dropping behind when they set off to find food. The local people use these droppings as manure for their gardens and farms. Initially, these caves had been majorly used for providing shelter to local livestock but times have seen the locals change their ways of living.

These beautiful caves are also used by hikers and their porters heading for the Mount Elgon summit to rest and regain their strength. The Siyo cave, originally known as the Hunter’s cave, near the hot springs and Mude cave along with the Tutum cave have been turned into a comfortable campsite and overnight lodgings site.                                                                                                                  

  • Jackson’s Pool and Jackson’s Peak:

The Jackson’s pool of Mount Elgon National Park is a natural shallow water pool standing at an altitude of 4,165m above sea level in the low plains of the Jackson’s peak. The Jackson’s peak is an independent volcanic protrusion emerging from the western flank of Mountain Elgon.  

Both the Jackson’s pool and Jackson’s peak were named after Frederick Jackson, the first European explorer to climb the mountain in 1889. The Jackson’s peak is considered sacred ground by the locals since they always go there to consult with ancestral spirits in search for guidance.

  • The peaks at the caldera:

The Mount Elgon caldera is one of the largest calderas in the world. This caldera is 40km long and 8km wide and is circled by a formation of a rugged rim of high points of the mountain’s peaks. The tallest peaks are Wagagai standing at 4,321m, Sudek at 4,303m, Koitobos at 4,222m and Mubiyi at 4,210m.

This huge caldera was formed because the overlying volcanic cone could no longer support the magma that was being drained from the chamber. As a result, the cone collapsed formed a depression like shape, hence the caldera. At the start of the Suam gorge in the eastern corner of the Caldera, there is a hot spring that you will find quite fascinating.  The famous Suam gorge was formed as a result of the water in the caldera gushing out into streams out of the weak volcanic ash and agglomerate walls.  

  • Nkokenjeru and Wanale ridge:

The Nkokenjeru ridge is dominated by an extension of forest from the main massif of Mount Elgon. The ridge stands at an elevation of 2,347m above sea level and entails a 25km trench where lava flowed out of the side of the Elgon volcano after the cone had collapsed to block the main vent. The Nkokenjeru ridge sums up into the Wanale cliffs which stand over Mbale town where the seasonal Nabuyonga and Namatyo waterfalls are located.

There is a trail from here leading to the Khauka cave filled with petrified wood. You can watch the Mbale town scenery from atop this ridge. The Nabuyonga trail is a fascinating 5km loop with plenty of birdlife to enjoy alongside beautiful fauna and flora.

From this trail, you can ably catch glimpses of Lakes Kyoga, Bisina and Salisbara, the wagagai peak, the mountains of Karamoja and even occasionally, the western outskirts of Kenya. The Nabuyonga stream has been affiliated with spiritual   ties by locals to the point that some claim if you threw a stone into the stream, you would be immediately struck by lightning.

  • Sipi falls:

These are a series of waterfalls located in Sipi town in Kapchorwa beyond Mount Elgon National park. They are formed as a result of rivers flowing out of Mount Elgon plummeting over huge basalt cliffs into streams below. The Sipi falls comprise of three spectacular waterfalls, the most popular hanging off a 100m cliff, the Simba waterfall jumping off a 69m cliff and Ngasire waterfall flowing over an 87m ridge.

The Simba waterfall almost covers the entrance to one of the caves located on Mount Elgon. You can clearly see the Waterfall and listen to its mighty thunderous from sound from the cave. When you visit Mount Elgon National Park, you can add some spice to your safari by visiting the Sipi falls in Kapchorwa.

Kapchorwa is off Mbale road about an hour’s drive from Mbale town. A trained guide can be found at Sipi who will help you access the Sipi falls. As the falls are located high up on the cliffs of the mountain, hiking to the view all the series of the falls could take about 4 hours. Therefore it is recommended to ensure that you are in a good health condition to hike.

  • Tewei Hill:

The Tewei hill is located just outside Mount Elgon National Park opposite the Sipi falls. It is of significant cultural importance to the Sabiny of Kapchorwa since the early 1960’s. It is believed that Chemonges Kingo, once a Sabiny king, would hold cultural meetings with his subjects on this hill.

Atop the Tewei hill, you can easily see all the series of the Sipi falls, the vast Karamajong plains and the Wagagai peak. The view from this hill extends further across the Sisiyi, Bulago and Chebonet waterfalls along with the Wanale ridge. The hill can be easily accessed on foot while hiking beyond Mount Elgon National Park.

  • Pian Upe wildlife reserve:

This wildlife reserve is located in the northern part of Uganda beyond Mount Elgon National Park in the Karamoja plains. The wildlife reserve covers an area of over 2,788 square kilometers making it the second largest reserve in Uganda. The reserve is famous for its animals like the roan antelope, lesser Kudu and Bright’s gazelle among others animals.

The reserve also has plenty of birdlife including Hartlaub’s Turaco, Lemon Dove, Dusky turtle dove, Alpine Chat, Eastern Bronze-napped Pigeon, Mountain Yellow Warbler, Black throated Wattle eye, Thick billed Honey guide, African hill babbler, Grey cuckoo Shrike and Ostriches among other birds.

  • Matheniko Bokora Wildlife Reserve:

Matheniko Bokora Wildlife Reserve is seated on a 2,056 square kilometers stretch of dusty and arid plains in Moroto district.  The reserve is located in Karamoja region, southwest of Kidepo Valley National Park in Uganda. Wildlife often migrates from Mt. Elgon National Park through this reserve to Kidepo Valley. The most popular game viewing point in the reserve is the Loporokocho swamp

The reserve is swarming with wildlife like hartebeests, Oryx, reedbucks, spotted hyenas, Topis, Lions, Oribis, Zebras, Buffalos and Elands among other animals. It is also a great place to watch plenty of birds including Ostriches, Alpine chat, Jackson’s hornbill, Grey cuckoo-shrike, Lemon Dove, eastern Bronze naped Pigeon, Hartlaub’s Turaco and African Hill Babbler among other birds.

  • Nyero rock paintings:

The famous Nyero rock paintings are located north of Mbale with about 65 Kilometers from the town. They are considered the most spectacular of all rock paintings in this region. There are three panels located within the extensive granite outcrop of Moru Ikara. They are found about 10km from Kumi town and 55km from Mbale on the Soroti road. The second panel is considered the most intriguing owing to its two canoes with human figures.

Activities at Mount Elgon National Park:

  • Birding:

Mt Elgon National Park is one of the best birding sites in Uganda. The forest Exploration Centre at Kapkwai is a must visit for a bird lover while on this safari.  The thick shrub along with riverine forest cover at Cheptui Falls provides refuge to a wide range of birds. A keen birder could notice most of these birds while on a game drive through the park or simply on a nature walk or hike through lush forest.  

Some of the birds that you are most likely to see include; the Baglafecht weaver, White chinned Prina, Cinnamon Bee eater, African Goshawk, Chinspot Batis, Luhder’s Bush shrikes, Chubb’s Cisticola, African blue flycatcher, Moustached Tinkerbird, Bronze napped Pigeon, Hartloub’s Turaco, Tacazze sunbird, Black collared Apalis and Black Kites among other birds.  

  • Mountain biking:

Mountain biking is one of the still growing activities in Mount Elgon National Park. The trail runs about 1 and ½ hours through Kapchorwa town from Sipi trading centre to Chema hill. The biking routes are mostly downhill single tracks and compacted local trails through breathtaking landscape and view of the entire series of the Sipi falls. Mountain bikes are available for hire at Sipi river lodge.

  • Mountain climbing / hiking on Mt Elgon:

Mt Elgon is considered one of the least strenuous climbs in East Africa. The Mt Elgon peaks are easier to access without special equipment or technical experience. There are various major mountain climbing trails on Mount Elgon including the Sasa trail, the Sipi trail and Piswa trail.  

The Sasa trail cuts through community land of the Bamasaba exploring traditional homesteads and livestock. The trail is considered to be the shortest but toughest route to the peaks. A round climbing trip on this route takes about 4 days starting from Budadiri town at a fair elevation of 1,250m above sea level then moving up to greater heights of 1,600m. From there, the trail leads further into a thick bamboo forest before reaching Jackson’s pool and the Wagagai peak.

The Sipi trail, on the other hand, takes about 4 to 6 days on a round trip covering over 56km on a round trip. It is considered the longest trail starting at the Kapkwai Forest Exploration Centre at an elevation of 2,050m above sea level.  The first two days of the hiking on this trail are fairly smooth however; the trail gets steeper on the third day from the Kajera camp. It continues along the north western side of the mountain through the Tutum Cave into the Caldera to the Wagagai peak.

The last trail is the Piswa trail covering about 49km in seven days on a round trip. This trail is considered the gentlest trail. It starts off at Kapkwata village on the northern side of Mt. Elgon through soft wood plantation to the Podocarpus forest. The trail continues passing by the hot springs through the Caldera to the Wagagai peak. The Piswa trail is famous for its panoramic views of the Ugandan Karamoja plains and the Nandi and Kapeguria hills in Kenya.

Alternatively, the routes can be combined for a more thrilling experience. This can be done while ascending or descending. For example; you can combine the Sipi trail with the Sasa and Piswa trail while ascending and then descend along the Sasa and Sipi trail.  Owing to the fact that Mt. Elgon lies along the border of Uganda and Kenya, you can catch a glimpse of the adjacent Kenya National Park while hiking.

  • Cultural encounter:

Meeting the natives living around Mt Elgon is an amazing part of visiting Mount Elgon National Park.  The Sipi widows’ group in the Sabiny community of Kapchorwa takes tourists on a guided walk through coffee plantations illustrating the different steps the coffee goes through from the point of planting to the point of consumption.

The fertile soils of Mount Elgon are proven to favor the growth of Arabica coffee. This makes it the most widely grown crop in this region. The Bamasaba farmers, who also live along the slopes of Mount Elgon in Mbale, are considered the sole producers of the best washed Arabica coffee in Uganda and Kenya.

While visiting the Sabiny community, you will have the opportunity to enjoy the daily lifestyle of the locals. You can participate local activities like weaving, cooking and tasting local dishes. There is also a souvenir shop with local artifacts that you can purchase and take home with you. There are also other local projects that you can support including the orphan project and raising awareness against female circumcision project.   

Budadiri community walks ecotourism experience:

The budadiri community is another local group that you will enjoy meeting while on your visit to Mt Elgon National Park. The community lives in budadiri with lots of entertaining activities to offer like cultural dances, car hires, guided coffee tours and community nature walks.  It is a great opportunity to learn about their culture, history and even enjoy their food especially the famous bamboo shoots.

Community walks lead you through Arabic coffee plantations where you will be exposed to the process of coffee making. It also encompasses a tour of Mt Elgon following the Namugabwe cave trail. This trail takes a full day through banana plantations in the bamasaba community, the Dirigana Loop and falls to the Gabushana cave past local markets and the walls of death. You will also pass by a cave full of bones with an impressive history.

  • Nature walks:

Mount Elgon National Park is well known for providing some of the most elusive nature walks in the country. You can opt for a full day nature walk at the boundary of the park starting from Budadiri to Mudange cliffs, also commonly known as the walls of death. The cliffs are found deep within the dense forest where you are most likely to come across baboons, black and white Colobus and blue monkeys.

Local community guides often organize nature walks from Sipi falls around the community for local scenetic view points. The walks can last from just a few hours to the entire day. A nature trail can also be undertaken early in the morning from the Noah’s ark hotel to Tewei Hill for 20 minutes in Kapchorwa. This trail in particular provides beautiful views of the vast Karamoja plains and the base of Mt Elgon at sunrise.

  • Rock climbing:

You can undertake rock climbing on Mt Elgon when you visit Mt. Elgon National Park. Rock climbing is done at Sipi just outside the park. Equipment can be hired at the Sipi falls tourist guides association before embarking on this thrilling adventure. There are 14 climbs requiring various levels of rock scaling techniques with the toughest climb being 35m and the easiest being 15m. You will enjoy scenetic views of the Sipi falls and vast Karamoja plains.  

Where to stay:

  • Mount Elgon Hotel & Spa:

This is a luxury accommodation located just 2km along Masaba road from the town centre. The hotel offers in house dining between 6 am to 11 pm from its well built restaurant. There is a spa, Mini golf, conference and banqueting hall, a swimming pool, a well stocked bar with ice cream and coffee.

  • Mbale Resort Hotel:

This is a well maintained accommodation facility with a swimming pool, gym and sauna on the grounds. There is a well stocked bar, restaurant and satellite TV. The executive rooms are spacious with 2nd floor balconies offering a view of the pool and palm trees. This facility is located just 2km from the town centre.

  • Sipi river lodge:

This spectacular up market facility is located in the Sipi centre in Kapchorwa. The lodge has a range of accommodations like the Kapsurur and Aniet cottages among others. These cottages have an ensuite bathroom with twin beds, a private veranda and lounge. The Chepkui family cottage has an ensuite bathroom, a lounge, double beds and a power shower.

  • Kayegi Hotel:

Kayegi Hotel is a mid range hotel located about 1km from the Post office building on Masaba road. It has 25 self contained rooms with a view of the Wanale ridge, a well stocked bar and restaurant and a conference hall. There is free wifi and enough parking spaces for free. The hotel also has a conference hall where you can host parties or seminars.

  • Wash and Wills Country Home Mbale:

This accommodation facility is located on Maluku estate with an impressive view of Mt Elgon. There are 30 self contained rooms with satellite TV, a mini bar and working wall fans. The rooms are executive, suites and deluxe twins. Wash and Wills Country Home has enough parking space, a swimming pool, health club, a bar , a restaurant and conference hall on the premises. You can engage in a lot of fun games while here including Tennis, Pool and darts.  

  • Masha Hotel:

The Masha hotel is a budget accommodation located off Kapchorwa road from Mbale town. There is a well stocked bar and restaurant, a conference hall and pool table on the premises. While at this hotel, you can enjoy a variety of activities arranged by the management at an extra fee including guided nature walks, visiting Sipi falls and the Forest Exploration Centre.

When to Visit:

Owing to the fact that Uganda has fairly good weather all year round, you can visist Mount Elgon National Park anytime. However, the dry season is usually a good time to visit if your intentions are mainly bent toward climbing or trekking on Mt Elgon. It is also a good time to visit caves, climb rocks and see wildlife. The animals are usually concentrated along water sources to combat thirst and this makes them easier to track. The dry season is usually in the months of June – August and December to March.

During the wet season of April – October, Mount Elgon National Park usually receives heavy rains and this makes most trails muddy and soggy. Climbing Mt Elgon can become quite hard since hail storms also appear. Animals usually move to higher ground in search for drier ground and this may make them harder to locate or track.

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