Mount Elgon: Listen to the whispers of ‘ghosty’ rivers

The rocks stood ghost-like, the rivers and the clouds covered the entire atmosphere and sent coldness as we stood there shivering and silently observing the Mt Elgon Mountain.

From carved rocky peaks, waterfalls drifted like skeins of white lawn, and in the fields we could see the amber glint of rivers and the occasional mirror-like flash of a mountain lake.

The mountains lay in a great line like the spine of the land. It was as if long ago they were a great beast, only to lie down one day and never get up. Perhaps the beast fell into an enchanted sleep; perhaps its soul was still in there.

This is Mount Elgon and at 4,000 square Kilometres, it 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.

If Uganda is indeed gifted by nature, then one of the greatest gifts that our ‘Pearl of Africa’ is blessed with is this extinct shield volcano on the border with Kenya.

Mr John Namoma, a local guide says 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,” he adds.

He described Mt Elgon as a volcanic mountain with a fragile, stratified ecosystem (forest, bamboo, and moorland) and that it has the largest 8km wide mountain caldera and Crater Lake in the world whose waters tower for the Eastern Part of Uganda and West of Kenya.

Mr Alex Solimo, Uganda Wildlife Authority tour guide 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 a 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 Solimo.

He revealed that Mt Elgon is an 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).

Mr Fredrick Kizza, the Mt Elgon conservation area manager says Mt Elgon was once Africa’s highest mountain, towering above Kilimanjaro 5895 but Millennia of erosion have reduced its height to 4321, relegating it to 4th highest peak in East Africa [and 7th in Africa]. However 4000 square Kilometres surface is still the largest base of any volcanic mountain worldwide.

He added that however 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.

Many visitors to this mountain have discovered that the mountain’s cool heights offer respite from the hot plains below, with the higher altitudes providing a refuge for flora and fauna.

And 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 Masai 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.

Mt Elgon is a hugely important water catchment. Its forests receive up to 3000 mm of rain each year, which they store and release to support the flora and fauna and more than a million Ugandans.

Mr Kizza says that Mt 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.

He adds that 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.

“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,” Mr Kizza said.

Mountain Climbing

This is the major activity here for those interested in trekking and mountaineering – a growing tourist attraction in Uganda.

Mr Kizza says that Indians, Europeans and Americans usually experience the beautiful scenery of this mountain every year when they climb it.

He revealed that trekking and mountain climbing have contributed a lot to image building of Uganda as a tourist destination and to the incomes of the communities around Mt Elgon area.

He explained that 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 Road less wilderness and 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; Wagagai.

He added that one could 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 who will make your hike easier, each carrying up to 18kg of supplies in addition to collecting water, cooking and preparing the camp,” he explains.

According to Mr Kizza 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 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 explains that a rain gear and both cool and warm clothing are required as the area is subject to sudden weather changes and that you could also carry a camera, binoculars, hat, torch, wildlife guide books and insect repellant. 

Mr Paul Nangai, a director at Inter-Tropical Tours & Travel Company Ltd says the Crater Lake and Wagagai Peak at Mt Elgon makes you humble.

As you move up the mountain, bit by bit, bird by bird, species by species, gurgling brook by gushing river, the song of wild nature takes over, in this wild place.

“And later the sounds start diminishing, thinning out and in many cases, vanishing completely and falling deathly silent, it is beautiful, so beautiful,” Mr Nangai explains.

“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.

“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,” added Mr Nangai.

“Although you will feel really accomplished, you will also feel extremely tired and our legs felt like they were going to break any moment! We didn’t take many photos of our descend as we were too focused on getting down as fast as we could 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 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.

Ms Christine Lynn Nakayenze, senior warden in charge of Tourism at the Mount Elgon Conservation Area says 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 Ms Nakayenze.

Ms Nakayenze 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.

The Mt Elgon trails

Many travelers find Mt. Elgon is 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 gentlest 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 Kapenguria 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 two days one will have climbed to Wagagai and come back.

Alternative hiking options

The various routes can be combined, 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 leads off the Mbale-Kapchorwa road to reach the various trailheads. 3 Days Mt. Elgon Safari.

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 the 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!

 Accommodation

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 like Resort Hotel, Mbale, Mt Elgon Hotel, Mbale, Wash and wills hotel, Mbale, Falling sky resort and tours, Casa de Turista, Sipi/Mbale etc.

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 city then head for UWA Mbale office headquaters in senior quarters of Mbale City 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

Mount 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.

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