MBALE– If Uganda is indeed gifted by nature, then one of the greatest gifts that our ‘Pearl of Africa’ is blessed with are the extra-ordinary diversity of mountains, animals, birds and plants.
At 4000 square Kilometres, Mt Elgon has the largest volcanic base in the World; this extinct Volcano is one of Uganda’s oldest physical features, first erupting around 26 million years ago.
It was once Africa’s highest mountains, towering above Kilimanjaro’s 5895 but Millennia of erosion have reduced its height to 4321, relegating it to fourth highest peak in East Africa [and 7th in Africa]. However 4000 square Kilometres surface is still the largest base of any volcanic mountain worldwide.
It also remains the oldest and largest solitary, volcanic mountain in East Africa with a vast form, 80km in diameter, rising to 3070m above the surrounding plains, providing a welcome relief in more than one sense of the word.
The mountain’s cool heights offer respite from the hot plains below, with the higher altitudes providing a refuge for flora and fauna.
When it comes to adventure, Mt Elgon stands out, a climb on the Mt Elgon’s deserted moorlands unveils a magnificent and uncluttered wilderness without the summit-oriented approach common to many mountains; the ultimate goal on reaching the top of the mountain is not the final ascent to the 4321m Wagagai peak but the descent into the 40square KM Caldera, the longest in Africa.
This invaluable natural resource has been visited and revisited and the extra-ordinary features on it shape its outstanding beauty which remains a myth to those who have not visited it and a secret to those who have visited it.
The mountain is named after the Elgeyo tribe, who once lived in huge caves on the south side of the mountain. it was known as “Ol Doinyo Ilgoon” (Breast Mountain) by the Maasai and as “Masaba” on the Ugandan side.
The mountain is a bit of a secret. Its mesmerising beauty and the unhurried tempo of the surrounding communities make this region an ideal place to relax, breathe in plenty of fresh air and get refreshed.
Its Mountainous terrain introduces variety to otherwise monotonous regional landscape, its cool heights offer respite for humans from the hot plains below and higher altitudes provide refuge for flora and fauna.
Mt Elgon is a hugely important water catchment. Its forests receive up to 3000 mm of rain each year, which hey store and release to support flora and fauna and more than a million Ugandans.
Mount Elgon National Park is home to over 300 bird species, including the endangered Lammergeyer. Small antelopes, forest monkeys, elephants and buffaloes also live on the mountainside. The higher slopes are protected by national parks in Uganda and Kenya, creating an extensive trans-boundary conservation area which has been declared a UNESCO Man & Biosphere Reserve.
Mt Elgon is ancient volcano that has been standing solitary and silent for millennia, its springs feeding numerous rivers and waterfalls, its rich soil nourishing communities across two countries and where you can wander the uncrowded trails to its summit at over four thousand meters (or fourteen thousand feet).
The Mountain’s natural vegetation, and its role as a giant biological sponge, is protected by Mt Elgon national park on both sides of the border covering about 1,110 square Kilometres adjoined by a forest reserve and national reserve.
This is the major activity here for those interested in trekking and mountaineering – a growing tourist attraction in Uganda. Here mostly Europeans and Americans usually experience the beautiful scenery of this mountain.
Trekking and mountain climbing has contributed a lot to image building of Uganda as a tourist destination and to the incomes of the communities around it.
Residents besides offering memorabilia, they also offer such services as guiding and escorting services in the rough heights of the mountain.
Mt Elgon climbing through the national park is a Roadless wilderness. The mountain can only be explored on foot and 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 trans-boundary adventure, ascending the Ugandan slopes and descending on Kenyan side or vice versa.
A trained ranger guide is required on all treks just like local porters will make your hike easier, each carrying up to 18kg of supplies in addition to collecting water, cooking and preparing the camp.
According to Mt Elgon Area Conservation manager, Mr. Fred Kiiza the best times for climbing Mt Elgon are during the dry seasons of June – August and December – March and that no technical climbing equipment or skills are required to reach the main peaks.
“The caldera and peaks are the main the destinations, while along the way, a choice of trails passes interesting and unique flora and fauna, waterfalls, lakes, caves, gorges and hot springs,” said Mr. Kizza.
He reveals that a rain gear and both cool and warm clothing are required as the area is subject to sudden weather changes. You could also carry a camera, binoculars, hat, torch, wildlife guidebooks and insect repellant.
He revealed that Mt. Elgon is a solitary volcano, one of the oldest in East Africa and that it was built up from lava debris blown out from a greatly enlarged volcanic vent during the Pliocene epoch and rises to a height of about 4320m above sea level.
“And the geology of the area is dominated by basaltic parent materials and strongly weathered granites of the Basement Complex,” added Mr Kizza.
He explained that Mt Elgon is a volcanic mountain with fragile, stratified ecosystem (forest, bamboo, moorland).
“It has the largest 8km wide mountain caldera and Crater Lake in the world and it is the waters tower for the Eastern Part of Uganda and West of Kenya,” said Mr Kizza
A local tourist Mr John Namoma says although these days, opportunities for adventure and conquest are rare, masculine men naturally crave exploration.
“The call of the wild is undeniable. But, there is need to be realistic. You have missed a point if you visited Mt Elgon and never reached the mountain Caldera where a modern man can still test himself against nature,” said Mr Namoma.
Mr Paul Nangai, a director at Inter-Tropical Tours & Travel Company Ltd says the Crater Lake and Wagagai Peak at Mt Elgon make you humble.
“Here’s our honest experience on what to expect as well as some useful tips when climbing Mt Elgon’s highest peak. It is really challenging as everything is compressed into three short days. This climb of Mt Elgon’s highest peak brings you in touch with the deserted moorlands and unveils a magnificent and uncluttered wilderness, it is certainly a test of our endurance, both physically and mentally.” said Mr Nangai.
“Although we were feeling really accomplished, we were also extremely tired and our legs felt like they were going to break any moment! We didn’t take much photos of our descend as we were too focused on getting down as fast as we can to get over and done with this climb. We finally reached the bottom of the peak and sighed with relief,|” added Mr Nangai.
Mr Patrick Musooli, a local tour guide at Mt Elgon said the accent will push you to the absolute limit close to the clouds and at the border with Kenya.
“Mountaineering isn’t fun. It is the opposite. You will suffer as you face exhaustion, cold, heavy mist, altitude sickness, low oxygen, avalanche, falls, and countless other dangers. But your climb will harden you, physically and mentally. It’s a true test of your ability to absorb and endure punishment,” said Mr Musooli.
Mr Musooli urges that would be tourists at Mt Elgon to train and struggle to make it in order for the goal to be achieved.
“Accept that you’re not a special person, believe that those who have made it don’t have horns and you will make it,” added Mr Musooli.
The warden in charge of tourism at Mt Elgon national park Mr Peter Mpembwe said the climb of the Wagagai peak will bring you in touch with a plethora of waterfalls, Elgon Crater Lake and, hot springs.
“Besides Wagagai, the highest peak here, Elgon’s major features are: plethora of waterfalls, hot springs and do you know that this sometimes experiences temperatures below freezing point,” said Mr Mpembwe.
Mr Mpembwe adds that If you’re looking for a more challenging mountain to climb in Uganda, try Mt Elgon’s Wagagai peak, this will give you the challenge you desire in terms of its terrain, but fun.
Geography and Climate
Mr Kizza said the climate is moist to moderate dry with an annual rainfall of over 1,270mm. The dry season runs from June to August, and December to March, although it can rain at any time of the year on the mountain.
“The area receives a bimodal pattern of rainfall, generally, with the wettest period occurring from April to October. The mean annual rainfall ranges from 1500 mm on the eastern and northern slopes, to 2000 mm in the southern and the western slopes,” said Mr Kizza.
“And the mean maximum and minimum temperatures are 23° and 15 °C respectively, mid-slopes oriented towards the east and north, at elevations between 2000 and 3000m tend to be wetter than either the lower slopes or the summit,” adds Mr Kizza.
He said climbing is best done in the dry months of June to August, and December to February, but other months are also manageable.
Mt Elgon national park boasts of hand-made architecture by local craftsmen for accommodation and these consists of self-contained bandas at Piswa Patrol Camp (2850m), Hunters Cave (3870m), Mude Cave Camp (3500m), Sasa River Camp (2900m) and Budadiri Ranger Station (1250m).
Besides this, there are other hotels in Mbale, Sironko and Kapchorwa that offer accommodation to tourists. Ends
How to get there from Kampala
Start in Kampala, head for Jinja, via Mukono and through Mabira Forest, the largest in Central Uganda. Enter Jinja passed the Owen Falls Dam, Uganda’s main Hydro Electricity dam the proceed to Mbale Park Headquarters then head for UWA Mbale office in senior quarters of Mbale municipality and finalize trekking arrangements for the following day. Use opportunity to get informed about Mt.Elgon National Park, look at the map for all trails, and buy souvenirs or postcards. You could proceed to Sipi Falls Rest Camp. Relax in the full comfort huts, with rustically dining room, bar, the garden with a view of Sipi Falls and country side around.
Mt. Elgon consists of three major peaks in Uganda:
Wagagai (4,321m), being in Uganda.
Mubiyi (4,211m or 13,816 ft)
Masaba (4,161m or 13,650 ft)
Features of note are:
The caldera — Elgon’s is one of the largest intact calderas in the world
Crater Lake-The largest in the world 40 square Km
The warm springs by the Suam River
Endebess Bluff (2563m or 8408 ft)
Ngwarisha, Makingeny, Chepnyalil and Kitum caves. Kitum Cave is over 60 metres wide and penetrates 200 metres. It is frequented by wild elephants who lick the salt exposed by gouging the walls with their tusks.
Flora and Fauna