MBALE – “Where is it?” Mr Simon Kyotaite, a warden at Mt Elgon national park asked, squinting up through a veil of low cloud. We still hadn’t seen Wagagai, the highest peak on Mt Elgon.
We had set off from Bushiyi at about 10.00 o’clock that morning, through the jungle, dwarfed beneath sycamores and twisted juniper trees.
But that mountain, an extinct shield volcano on the border of Uganda and Kenya, remained elusive, a mirage above the clouds.
The trees diminished the higher we got and yet, by late afternoon when we reached our first camp after almost four hours of walking uphill, we still had not seen the Wagagai, our target.
Then, as the light faded from blue to a flaming white, the clouds burned up and, suddenly, there it was: the peak, glistening with thick clouds.
It sent rushes from toe to head, with awe and something close to fear. We laughed it off with jokes but we had reached a cave at Ibaale viewpoint; a natural underground chamber in the hillside where we rested for a night.
And as it became so cold, each of us struggled to have his hands and legs over the fire as we cooked something to eat; Posho and fish in groundnut source.
Even when our tents had become so cold, we slept and silence ruled the place apart from the wonderfully diverse sounds of nature changing and evolving as usual.
Bit by bit, bird by bird, species by species, gurgling brook by gushing river, the song of wild nature took over, in this wild place.
And later the sounds started diminishing, thinning out and in many cases, vanishing completely and falling deathly silent.. It was morning again.
That morning we woke up, lit fire again to make tea for ourselves before starting the journey again. We were determined to move further from Ibaale viewpoint; another seven hours of walking.
We were all afraid of failing off the cliffs [Lumya] as this particular route is very stiff but because when you set off to climb a mountain, you desperately want to reach the top, we kept encouraging each other.
Our tour guide Mr Alex Solimo while standing at Bikusi viewpoint said Mt Elgon is an amazing feature found in the East of Uganda and also shared with Kenya.
He explained that besides the glory of standing on the roof of the Bugisu sub-region, climbing Mt Elgon comes with a significant amount of beauty.
He revealed that using Bushiyi trail to Mt Elgon, it is easy for a traveler to be quickly swept away by the endless green steppes and the rolling landscapes that define the but the tough terrain through this trail makes the trek as enjoyable and scenic as the climb itself.
He revealed further that Mt Elgon is the 4th highest in East Africa standing at 4,321m high and that it is an extinct volcano with the main activity of hiking.
“We are hiking to the top here but I want to tell you that it is slightly tricky to climb to Wagagai peak, the highest peak and as hiker you are expected to be fit enough,” said Mr Solimo.
He explained that the mountain has a number of trails which hikers use to hike up the top but added that Bushiyi new trail is the shortest route to Mt Elgon but the toughest to go through adding that “The tourists will enjoy the new route to Wagagai peak,”
He said tourists who go to the Mt Elgon, have discovered that it is also home to the magnificent Sipi falls, gorges, hot springs, caves, also different animal species like the elephants, forest monkeys, small antelopes, buffaloes as well as around 300 bird species.
“Remember that a complete circuit of hiking/trekking takes around 4 to 5 days on other trails but on the new Bushiyi trail, it takes you two days,” said Mr Solimo.
Halfway through our second day through the thick forest at Shibakala view point, the clouds rolled in and quickly following behind us was the wet weather.
I didn’t want my camera to get soaked, so I snapped a few photos and packed it away. We kept moving forward and eventually made it above the thick forest line, but couldn’t see a thing around us at this point.
Towards the end of our mountain traversing, the clouds slightly lifted and we finally caught a glimpse of where we were, one could also see Wagagai, a stone throw away from us.
It was breathtaking. We truly were walking along the top of a mountain the whole time – nothing but steep hills to either side of the trail. Even though the clouds only cooperated for a minute, it’ll be a memory I’ll keep forever.
Although worn out after two days of walking, we were at Wagagai; it is windy and very cold. We all gathered around the peak, struggling to take pictures but with frozen hands.
“It has been a grueling but humbling two days, and I hope to have proven that anything is possible with some determination, self-belief and positivity,” Mr. Kyotaite remarked again upon reaching Wagagai peak.
He said looking back on this wet and cold trek, “I’d do it again in a heartbeat (hopefully with better weather)” he added.
We were now at the top, at Wagagai, the highest peak at Mt Elgon.
The chief warden Mt Elgon conservation area Mr Fred Kizza says that if you are searching for a satisfying climb that doesn’t require expert skills or equipment and is closer to home, then come to Mt Elgon.
He says that it is the seventh highest mountain in Africa at 4,321m and the summit is readily accessible for climbers with limited experience.
He said “Found in Eastern part of Uganda with Kenya border, Mt Elgon is an extinct volcano with the largest surface area in the world, 50km x 80km with the Wagagai peak at 4321m ASL. What greater adventure can there be than to summit East Africa’s peak?”
He added that at 4, 321m (14,177 ft); Mt Elgon is ranked 17th in Africa and that it is also one of the most climbed, and you can expect to see troops of other trekkers just about every day of the year.
He explained that given the human pressure on the delicate montane ecosystem, it is as important to be gentle on your surroundings as it is to look after yourself. Climbing to the summit is no mean feat: it’s a challenging hike and one of the greatest adventures.
Mr Kizza said the park contains varied peculiar attractions of montane forests, bamboo, giant Lobelia, brilliant species of flowers, birds, bushbuck, antelope, wild cat, rock hyrax, hyena, caves, craters, gorges, the magnificent Sipi falls and that it is a mountain of a thousand falls.
Mt Elgon is an unexploited treasure
Mr Fred Kizza, the warden Mt Elgon conservation area says that Mt Elgon has numerous tourism products that have remained unexploited due to poor road network and resources.
He revealed that the prominent tourism products in the region include Imbalu (circumcision) among the Bagisu, the Isonja dance, which is the preparatory dance for intending circumcision candidates, the Inemba dance, which is performed at the end of year of circumcision and bullfighting common in Bududa district.
He said further that Mt Elgon National Park s also a mountain of over 1000 waterfalls that include Chebonet falls in Kapchorwa, Sipi falls, Sisiyi falls, Kagera falls, Bilitanyi gorges falls, among others.
He said a tourist at Mt Elgon will have mountain/Volcano Climbing, nature walks/ hiking, cultural Encounters, mountain biking and rock climbing.
“This park is also home to different species of over 300 birds, including the endangered lammergeyer, this makes birding a common activity here and the mountain has the largest mountain caldera in the world,” said Mr Kizza
Unique tourism products
Mr Solimo says that the higher slopes of Mt Elgon 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.
He revealed that a climb on 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 Mt Elgon is not the final ascent to the 4321m Wagagai Peak, but the descent into the vast 40km² caldera.
Transboundary hike/cross border tourism: The higher slopes of Mount Elgon are shared with an adjacent national park in Kenya and a trans-boundary hike can be arranged. After ascending to the caldera with a UWA guide, climbers cross the border to descend with a Kenya Wildlife Service escort.
Planning to go to Mt Elgon
At Shibakala viewpoint Mr Solimo said Mt Elgon may be a relatively easy climb, but this is still a big, wild mountain adding that rain, hail and thick mists are common, even in dry season, and night-time temperatures frequently drop below freezing.
He said as a tourist you need to pack adequate clothing and at least one day’s extra food, just in case and added that altitude sickness is rarely a problem, but one needs to heed the warning signs.
The Mt Elgon trails
Many travellers find Mt. Elgon an exciting alternative to the more strenuous climbs in East Africa. It is easier to access throughout the year, less congested and has many of the same attractions, with a milder climate and lower elevation. Climbing the peaks requires no special equipment or technical experience.
The Sasa trail is the shortest but toughest route to the peaks, traversing the community land and allowing you to explore BaMasaba farming settlements and culture. The round trip takes four days and starts at Budadiri town at an elevation of 1,250m. The toughest climb of over 1,600m is completed on the first day, before crossing the park’s largest area of bamboo forest and passing Jackson’s Pool on the way to Wagagai Peak.
The Sipi trail (four to six days, 56km round trip) starts at 2,050m at the Kapkwai Forest Exploration Centre. It is the longest trail to the peaks, passing through the northwestern mountainside through Tutum Cave to enter the caldera and reach Wagagai Peak. The trail begins gently but becomes tougher on the third day from Kajeri Camp.
The Piswa trail (seven days, 49km round trip) is long and the most gentle trail. Starting at the village of Kapkwata on the north side of the mountain, it traverses the softwood plantation to the Podocarpus forest. It’s notable for its rich wildlife and spectacular views of the Karamoja plains in Uganda and the Nandi and Kapeguria hills in Kenya. The Piswa trail also passes the hot springs on the way to the caldera and the peaks.
Bushiyi trail-This is a new trail and the shortest that takes you about 11 hours to get to the top of the mountain at Wagagai. This means that in tow days one will have climbed to Wagagai and come back.
Alternative hiking options
The various routes can be combines, ascending the Sipi/Piswa/Sasa Trail and descending along the Sasa/Sipi Trail for example. This allows a traverse of the caldera and a visit to the hot springs.
How to reach Mt. Elgon National Park
Mount Elgon National Park lies 235km east of Uganda’s capital city. A tarmac road runs through Jinja to Mbale town at the western base of Mount Elgon, before climbing to Kapchorwa on the mountain’s north-western flank. Tarmac road lead off the Mbale-Kapchorwa road to reach the various trailheads. 3 Days Mt. Elgon Safar
Planning to Climb Mt Elgon
When climbing Mt Elgon year-round, the best time is from June to August or December to March. The busiest times are June and July, though this coincides with rainy season.
But because seasons these days are unpredictable due to Climate Change, expect rains any time. You can get information and organise your trek at the Mt Elgon National Park headquarters in Mbale or at the visitor centres at each of the trailheads, which are all open in theory 8 am to 5 pm weekdays and to 3 pm weekends, though these times can be flexible to say the least! Ends
Rose’s last chance Budadiri rents tents (USh15, 000), trekking boots (USh10, 000), sleeping bags (USh5000) and mats (USh5000) per night.
There is also Sipi River Lodge which offers well-organised and well-priced Mt Elgon tours besides there is Noah’s Ark hotel that will give you a visit to Sipi falls.
There are several supermarkets in Mbale for stocking up on supplies. Porters can make campfires for cooking but for environmental reasons the park asks that you bring a camp stove.
Trekking on Mt Elgon costs US$75 per person per day, which covers park entry fees and a ranger-guide. Permits are issued at UWA offices at each trailhead. Guides are mandatory whether heading to the summit or just doing a day trip. Camping fees are USh15, 000 extra per night and porters, who are highly recommended, charge USh17,500 per day for carrying 18kg. Cooks charge USh20, 000 per day. Also factor in tips, which are highly appreciated.
Mount Elgon National Park is a roadless wilderness. The park can only be explored on foot, on routes that range from day walk to extended hikes over several days to reach the upper mountain; Wagagai.
Mt Elgon Park is 1,121 square kilometres in size and covers Bukwo, Kween, Kapchorwa, Bududa, Manafwa, Namisindwa, Bulambuli, Mbale and Sironko districts. It was gazzetted in 1993.