UGANDAUnbounded richness
Uganda, while being only the size of the United Kingdom, has within its borders rain forest, savannah, mountainscapes, jungle, crater lakes, volcanoes and much, much more.

Mountain Elgon National Park

Out on this world scenery

Mountain Elgon National Park is a massive solitary extinct volcanic mountain bisected by international boundary of Eastern Uganda and western Kenya. Mount Elgon has been a regional landmark for along time and is Uganda’s oldest physical feature first erupting several 24 million years ago.

The mountain was once Africa’s highest mountain, towering above Kilimanjaro’s 5895m. But millennia of erosion have reduced its height to 4321m now is the 4th highest peak in East Africa and 8th in Africa. The tallest peak set on the Uganda side of the border is Wagagai (4321m), which lies on the southwest caldera rim. Other major peaks are Kiongo (4303m) in the south, Mubiyi (4210m) in the north and Jackson’s Summit (4165m) in the east. However its 4000sqkm surface area is still the largest base of any volcanic mountain worldwide and is dotted with small crater lakes and hot springs created by Pleistocene glacial activity.

Mount Elgon is a hugely important water catchment, which they store and released to support flora, fauna and more than a million Ugandans and to many Kenyans.  The Ugandan part of the mountain above 2000 contour was upgraded from a forest reserve to a National Park covering 1110sqkm in October 1993 compared to the Kenyan 170sqkm portion has been a national reserve for several decades. These parks and reserves in both countries combine to form a transboundary conservation area covering 2229sqkm, which have been declared Man and Biosphere Reserves under UNESCO.

Besides hikers appreciating Mount Elgon deserted moorlands, a climb on Mountain Elgon is to explore a magnificent and uncluttered Montane wilderness without the summit-oriented approach common to higher regional mountains. Indeed the ultimate goal on reaching the top of Mount Elgon is not the final ascent to the 4321m Wagagai peak, but the descent into the vast 40sqkm caldera.

Getting there:

The National Park lies 235km east of Kampala. A tarmac road runs through Jinja to Mbale town at the Western base of Mount Elgon, before climbing to Kapchorwa on the mountain’s northwestern flank. Murram roads lead off the Mbale Kapchorwa road to reach the various trailheads.

What to See:

The spectacular Mount Elgon area provides some of the most incredible countryside in Uganda. The mountain is said to have one of the largest surface areas of any extinct volcano in the world and is peppered with cliffs, caves, gorges and waterfalls. The caldera covers some 40sqkm at the top of the mountain! And the Sipi Falls in the foothills of the mountain has to be the most beautiful and romantic waterfall in the country.

The Park’s vegetation zones are similar to those of other large east African mountains. Above 3000m lies the heather belt giving way at round 3500m to Afro-alpine vegetation studded with stands of giant lobelia and groundsel including endemic Senecio barbatipes and Senecio elgonensis. Below the 3000m, the mountain supports a contiguous belt of evergreen forest extending over roughly 750sqkm within Uganda. This forest belt can be divided into two broad strata called Afro-montane forest below 2500m and low canopy montane forest and bamboo between 2500m and 3000m. The slopes bellow the 2000m which lie out side the national park support significant forest cover but much of these forest have been cleared for cultivation.

Hikers on Elgon are unlikely to encounter many lager mammals aside from Blue monkey and Black and White colobus, a population of localized and striking De Brazza’s monkey as well as a small number of Elephants, Leopard, Bushpig, Buffalo, Sitatunga, Bushbuck, Spotted hyena, Oribi, Defassa’s waterbuck, tree squirrel and common duiker are resident on the mountain. The bird checklist of 305 species several are endemic to East Africa’s   montane moorlands and twelve of the species occur in no other Ugandan National Park. Of particular interest are Jackson’s francolin (recorded only once), Moorland francolin (elsewhere common only in Ethiopia’s Bale mountains), Moustached green tinkerbird, red-throated wryneck, Black–collared apalis, Hunter’s cisticola, Alpine chat, Marsh widowbird, Weyn’s weaver and the endangered Bearded vulture is regularly observed soaring at higher altitudes.

Mt Elgon is home to two tribes, the Bagisu and the Sabiny, with the marginalized Ndorobos forced to dwell deep within the forest of Benet. The Bagisu, also known as the BaMasaba, consider Mount Elgon to be the embodiment of their founding father Masaba and refer to the mountain by this name.

Activities:

  • The Forest Exploration Centre provides a variety of magnificent walking trails to explore the area

Around the park:

Forest Exploration Centre

The Forest Exploration Centre is located at Kapkwai, about 13km from Sipi town. The centre is used as an educational centre for schools as well as the trailhead for Climbers using the Sipi trail to the caldera. There are three (3) circuits of between 3-7km running through the surrounding regenerating forest. Visitors can visit caves, waterfalls, escarpments, primates and viewpoints to observe birds. Bird watchers expect to encountered Hartlaub’s Turaco, Eastern Bronze-napped Pigeon, Lemon Dove, Dusky-Turtle Dove, African Hill Babbler, Alpine Chat, Black-throated Wattle-eye, Mountain Yellow Warbler, Thick-billed Honey guide and Grey Cuckoo-Shrike.

Caves

The most accessible are Kapkwai Cave, near the Forest Exploration Centre and Khauka Cave on Wanale Ridge. History has it that the caves acted as shelters for locals and their livestock and later on they provided manure in the form of bat droppings. Climbers and their porters up to today, use these caves ideal for overnight expeditions as campsites ideal for overnight expeditions as at Hunters Cave, Siyo Cave (near the hot springs), Mude Cave and Tutum Cave.

Jackson’s Pool and Jackson’s Peak

These features were named after the explorer Frederick Jackson, who in 1889 was the first European to climb Mount Elgon. Jackson’s Pool is a natural pool with shallow waters standing at 4,050m on mount Elgon. Jackson’s Peak is a free standing volcanic plug rising from the western flank of the mountain. The pool lies in the shadow of the 4,165m high. The peak is used by the locals as a spot to communicate with their ancestors.

The Peaks

Mount Elgon’s tallest peak is Wagagi at 4,321m, followed by 4,303m Sudek, Koitobos at 4,222m and Mubiyi at 4,210m. The highest peaks are formed by high points around a jagged rim enclosing one of the world’s largest calderas, at 40km long and 8km wide.

The Caldera

The Caldera was formed as a result of magma being drained from the chamber. When it could no longer support the overlying volcanic cone, it collapsed into a depression-like shape. In the eastern corner of the caldera, hot springs are found at the start of the deep Suam Gorge. In the northwest, Simu Gorge was formed by the sheer weight of the water in the caldera cutting two stream beds out of the weak volcanic ash and agglomerate walls.

Vegetation

Mt. Elgon’s vegetation is similar to those of other large east African mountains banded into broad zones whose characteristics are dictated by altitude and rainfall. The summit of the mountain is vegetated by rare Afro-montane species that include giant forms of lobelia and groundsel. Afro-alpine also known as moorland zone is at 4,321-3,500m high. The Zone is characterized by endemic Senecio barbatipes and Senecio elgonensis, Erica tree, giant lobelias with hairy leaves and plumes of tiny blue flowers, archimilla elgonesis and pink and white everlasting flowers.

Bellow at 3,500-3000m is heath zone characterized by giant heather interspersed with grassy swards of blonde tussock grass dotted with pink and white everlasting flowers including ericriceum brownie and jonstonii, flame-colored gladioli, blue delphiniums and red hot pokers.

At 3,000-2,500m mixed bamboo zone. The bamboo merges into open woodland dominated by hagenia abyssinica and African rosewood interspersed with hypericum.

The lower mountain slopes are covered with dense forest and regenerating forests, hung with vine-like lianas, epiphytes and lichens. The floor is covered with a carpet of ferns, orchids and flowering plants. Common tree species encountered in the tropical montane forest (1,500-2,500m above sea level) are olive Oleahochstetteri, prunus africanas, Elgon teak, podocarpus, cedar, Cordia, Neoboutania, allophyllus tombea and Aningueriaadolfi-friedericii.

Nkokenjeru Ridge and Wanale

Nkokenjeru Ridge is a distinctive finger of forest extending outwards from the main massif of Mount Elgon laying at an elevation of 2,347m and covers a 25km-long tongue of lava that flowed out of the side of the volcano after the cone collapsed to block the main vent. Nkokenjeru Ridge culminates at the superb Wanale Cliffs which tower above Mbale Town.

With a visit here expect to view seasonal Nabuyonga and Namatyo Waterfalls, Khauka Cave where petrified wood can be found and the ridge also offers grounds for those interested in paragliding over the Mbale town. Trailing the 5km Nabuyonga expect to view birds, fauna and flora. Viewpoints overlook Mbale town, Lakes Kyoga, Bisina and Salisbara, the rugged mountains in Karamoja region and on a clear day, you may enjoy the scenic view of Wagagai peak and even areas of western Kenya.

Water Falls

The northern and western sides of Mount Elgon rise in a series of massive basalt cliffs, often several kilometres in length, over which the mountain’s rivers plunge as beautiful waterfalls. The best known, lowest and most spectacular as it cascades over a 100m cliff are the Sipi waterfalls on the Kapchorwa road, just outside the park. Simba waterfalls plunges in a 69m over the entrance to a cave. Visitors can stand in the cave and enjoy a view of the back of the falls. Ngasire waterfalls gushes over an 87m high ridge. There are other easily accessible waterfalls scattered across the mountain, offering spectacular views including Sisiyi, Bulago, Chebonet, Wanale and many more.

Places of interest outside the park

Tewei Hill

Tewei hill is located outside the park overlooking Sipi Falls. History tells that in the 1960s, Chemonges Kingo, King of the Sabiny used to meet his subjects at the hill. A climb to the top Tewei hill gives a clear view of the three falls (Sipi, Simba and Ngasire), the Karamajong plains and the Wagagai peak.

Wildlife Reserves

In the plains of Karamoja to the north of Mount Elgon lie Matheniko Bokora Wildlife Reserve and the expansive Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve, the second largest protected area in Uganda, with an area of 2,788km2. Wildlife found here includes rare species such as the roan antelope, lesser kudu, Bright’s gazelle and ostriches which, in Uganda, are found only here and in Kidepo Valley National Park. Wildlife is concentrated around the Loporokocho swamp; bird species encountered here include Hartlaub’s Turaco, Eastern Bronze-napped Pigeon, Lemon Dove, Dusky Turtle Dove, African Hill Babbler, Alpine Chat, Black-throated Wattle-eye, Mountain Yellow Warbler, Thick-billed Honey guide and Grey Cuckoo-Shrike.

Rock paintings found at various sites within the Matheniko Bokora Wildlife Reserve are believed to date back over 3000 years and were created by the Kushite and Nilotic peoples.

Nyero Rock Paintings

Located 65km north of Mbale, the Nyero Rock Paintings are the finest of several rock art sites in the region. Three panels are found within the extensive granite outcrop of Moru Ikara, 10km from Kumi Town and 55km from Mbale on the Soroti road. The most impressive is Panel Two which includes two canoes bearing human figures.

Scenic viewpoints outside the park

A detour to Bulago off the Mbale-Sipi road reveals a village standing high above a waterfall facing the Simu Valley towards Butandiga ridge. The route to Kapchorwa beyond Sipi Falls to the north provides a stunning view towards Mount Kadam and the vast plains of Karamoja. The top of the Sironko Valley in Budadiri, enclosed by the Mudangi Cliffs and the Nkonkonjeru Ridge, provides a picturesque view of the montane forest and caldera peaks. Visitors should also drive to the top of Wanale Cliff for panoramic views over the town of Mbale.

Accommodation:

The National Park provides dormitory accommodation and self-contained wooden cottages at the Forest Exploration Centre at Kapkwai meals are available on request, there are also self-catering guesthouses at Kapkwata and Suam. There are also ranges of accommodation facilities around the Scenic Sipi Falls and at the foot of the mountain in Mbale.

The trails on the mountain have campsites that are strategically placed in intervals and are located near water sources. There are tents pads and latrines are provided. But you have to carry supplies and camping equipments.

Outside the park simple accommodation is available at Kapchorwa and Budadiri.

Suggested Itineraries

Mountain Elgon and Sipi falls safari – 4 days

Weather

Kampala
June 27, 2017, 11:52 am
Partly sunny
Partly sunny
22°C
current pressure: 1020 mb
humidity: 70%
wind speed: 2 m/s SSE
sunrise: 6:49 am
sunset: 6:57 pm
 

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