Mount Elgon National Park in Uganda
Mount Elgon national park is one of the ten popular national parks in Uganda just at the margins of Kenya. It lies on the total surface area of 494 square miles. Uganda takes a larger part of the mountain of 430 square miles and the rest being held by Kenya. The forest section of the mountain in Uganda was turned into a national game park in 1992. The park is dominated by an iconic dormant volcano- Mount Elgon standing at a height of 4,321 metres above sea level. Mountain Elgon is the forth highest mountain in East Africa and eighth in Africa. Elgon has the biggest caldera with a length of 60 kilometres and width of 40 kilometres.
Due to changes in altitudes and soil texture experienced on the different sections of its slopes, Elgon has so many distinguished vegetation covers. The upper slopes are covered by the alpine-moorlands, bamboo forest at the mid slopes and the lowlands have montane forests. Elgon supports about 400 plant species and over 300 species of birds including 40 restricted range species, notably the alpine chat, Moustached green tinkerbird and Moorland Francolin. Animal species are also present at this mountain park for example; defassa waterbuck, rock and tree hyraxes, elephants, leopards, civet, serval cats and many more.
Noteworthy; half of Uganda’s butterfly species live and linger around Mount Elgon national park. The endangered Maathai’s Lonleg was spotted at the park in 2000.
Lots of people live on Mount Elgon’s lower slopes and cultivation is the main activity done due to the presence of fertile soils. The Bagisu and Sabiny are the major races of people that live around the park. Arabica coffee is the most prominent and vibrant crop grown on the lower slopes of the mountain. The coffee is mainly grown by the Gisu.
Most of the mountain area especially the higher section is under the stewardship of Uganda Wildlife Authority in support with the Kenyan Authorities. The park headquarters are situated in Mbale Town along Masaba road. Visitors can get information and acquire park activity permits at these offices. The aforementioned services in Mountain Elgon national park are also provided at Uganda Wildlife Authority offices in Kampala.
Accessibility of Mount Elgon National Park
The travel road distance between Kampala and Mountain Elgon National Park is approximately 230kms. Tourists have a variety of transport options, namely; hiring a private car, traveling a tour company and using public means (bus). It can only take about 5 hours from Kampala through Jinja and Iganga to reach Mbale. The road network is asphalt hence offering a convenient and comfortable travel experience to the visitors. Only obstacle is the traffic jam especially when you escaping Kampala Metropolitan Area. From Mbale town, a traveller can get to the national park head offices along Masaba road or if he/she has acquired the park related activities permit from UWA, he can drive straight to Budadiri.
There is another option of using air means. A scheduled chartered flight from Entebbe Airport to Soroti Airstrip is available. From Soroti Airstrip to Mountain Elgon national Park area of either Mbale or Kapchorwa side, it only takes one hour by road.
What to do and Enjoy at Mount Elgon national park?
Mount Elgon national park is more of an adventure park with mountain climbing and nature walks as its main activities. The extra activities carried out at the park are camping, game viewing, primate tracking, village tours and bird watching. A visit at Mountain Elgon national park can be combined with a tour at other tourist sites in Eastern Uganda like Sipi falls, Pian Upe and other wildlife reserves to make a more action packed and exciting safari experience.
Let’s try to explain the tourism activities and attractions around Mountain Elgon National Park below:
Climbing Mount Elgon: With the largest caldera in the world, expect marvellous wonders and attractions on a mountain climbing experience at Elgon. The mountain climbing experience at this dormant volcano is less challenging, acclimatization is great and the fees for the hike are less costly than those of Kilimanjaro and Rwenzori
The climb consumes 4-6 days of your time depending on the route trail taken. The major three hiking trails are Pisa trail, Salsa Trail and Sipi Trail. Salsa Trail alias Buddukiro Trailhead is the most popular and the shortest trail of all though steep. This trail begins from near Mbale Town and takes 4 days to reach the top summit. It is a very direct route but with bamboo forests that put out some little hurdle for the hikers.
Pisa Trail also known as Kapkwata trailhead is the second used trail. It commences from a forest in Kapkwata and goes through Podocarpus forest. It has few steep sections but the longest of all and 7 days are taken to reach the peak. The last trail is the Sipi Trail with exciting views of Sipi falls. The hiking route starts from Kapkwai Forest Exploration Centre and takes 4-6 days to reach the summit.
To get the most out of your climbing experience, hike up using the Sipi Trail and slope down with Salsa Trail. Such a route blesses you with remarkable sights of most of the mountain features. Ascending from the Ugandan side and descending at the Kenya side also gives a distinctive outlook and adventure. Cross border paperwork can be done with the help of the migration office in Mbale as it is required as you get to the Kenyan side.
Reporting to the Uganda Wildlife Authority offices in Mbale for verification and briefing is mandatory before heading for a hike. International tourists require to pay a fee of $75 per individual per day for climbing Mount Elgon, Park entrance and guide fees inclusive.
Hiring a cook and a porter to prepare food, carry the luggage and set up a shelter is advised. It would be a good gesture to tip the personnel helping you to hike the mountain.
Touring Mount Elgon caves: This is an experience for hikers who don’t wish to reach the top most peaks of Elgon. The tourists on this expedition encounter the different mystical caves on the slopes of Elgon. The most explored caves are Kitum, Chepnyali and Mackingeny. The aforementioned caves compel animals like antelopes and antelopes as their walls have a rich diet mineral (salt) needed by the animals.
Other notable caves are Budaddiri whose paintings date back a thousand years ago. Kapkwai and Khauka also attract a mammoth of tourists because of the countless bats and their interesting unique features. The two caves were formerly habitats of people and their animals.
Nyero Rock painting a little bit detached from Mountain Elgon area is another great cave to tour. Nyero rocks is a very popular historical site, its remains depict the early existence of the first humans on earth.
Birding: Mountain Elgon National Park is a haven with some great number of unique bird species. Out of the 300 species recorded in the area, 40 are restricted range species and 56 of the 87 Afrotropical highland biome species are residents, to mention but a few are Moorland Fracolin, alpine chat and Moustached Green tinkerbird. The other birds, endemic to Mountain Elgon are the Black-collared Apalis and the Jackon’s Fracolin. The endangered lammergeyer is also spotted flying above the caldera and Suam gorge. With some unique bird species to watch around, Mountain Elgon national park offers a memorable birding expedition.
Nature and forest treks: Great thanks to the favourable climate, fertile soils and volcanic eruption activities that took place in the ancient years. Elgon has lots of forests and other natural places to take a trek and appreciate as nature makes its wonders. On a walk around the montane forests, visitors are spoilt of choice with a wealth of birds and forest animals like antelopes, serval cats, civets, elephants and a number of primates. The moorlands at the upper section of the mountain showcases rare beautiful natural sceneries.
For great nature and forest trek experiences, book with Forest Exploration Centre close to Sipi Falls which arranges a 3-7 kilometres hike every day. The centre avails chances of sighting valleys, rims, animals and plant species profoundly. A trail leading to the large Tutum cave away from the Forest Exploration Centre enables tourists to encounter a variety of bird species and primates like vervet monkeys, red tailed monkeys, black and white colobus, blue monkeys and De Brazza’s species. A hike at Tewei hills provides sights of the summit of Mount Elgon, Sipi Falls and Karamonja prairies.
Game viewing: Mountain Elgon National Park is not short of mammals to encounter on a game viewing expedition. The park is a home to animals like elephants, buffaloes, rock and tree hyraxes, bushbucks, forest hog, defassa waterbucks and so forth. Small primates are similarly spotted in the forest area of the park. Hire a park guide that knows the park well to have a memorable and exciting game viewing experience.
Camping: Camping is the one way to spend a night at Elgon while mountain climbing. The campsites are set up at the different points of the mountain though there some areas restricted from camping like the areas of the caldera. Campers are advised to hire porters and cooks. Tents and sleeping bags are too available for hire at the park offices. Camping gears like torch, rain jacket, stove, lamps, warm clothes, cooking items, tents and sleeping bags should come in handy.
Visiting waterfalls: There are many underground water streams flowing through Mountain Elgon that create cascading waterfalls as they plummet down on the lowlands. Of all, Sipi falls are the most fascinating and visited. Sipi falls is an amazing picturesque place of nature that attracts lots of tourists both those who have come to visit Mount Elgon National park and the falls alone as a prime tourist site. Visitors usually take pictures and videos, swim at the basin of the falls and take a trek at the nearby ridge to have a clear view of the falls. The cascading Sipi falls is found in an area before the Forest Exploration Centre, outside the park territories. Other waterfalls around Mount Elgon National Park to enjoy are Wanale, Bulago, Sisyi and Chebonet.
Fishing Expeditions: There is a unique fish with rainbow colour known as trout that live in the waters of Sipi falls and other water springs of Elgon. Visitors crowd at these water bodies to hook the trout though it is a real challenge. Trout are not eaten but dropped back into the water. The struggle to catch these rainbow fish creates lots of excitement and competition amongst the anglers. To have a profound experience and triumph of catching the trout, visitors are advised to start the fishing expedition in the morning. The visitors/anglers are instructed to acquire the permit and their fishing gears and also carry drinking water and packed lunch. The fishing guides are available to take the anglers to the best possible fishing areas.
Abseiling: This is a very rare activity to find in Uganda but a cliff at Sipi Falls provides the opportunity to let your adrenaline rush. This is a devil daring activity that involves descending a rock face or cliff by using a doubled rope coiled round your body and fixed at a higher point. The activity is well facilitated with professionally trained instructors and standard abseiling tools to guarantee the safety of the partakers. Sipi falls is the only place in Uganda that offers abseiling.
Rock Climbing: The cliffs or big rocks around Sipi Falls offer the best rock climbing experience in Uganda. The rock at Sipi is 35 metres providing a great challenge for climbers. At the top of the rock, the climbers are rewarded with a panoramic view of the surrounding natural environment and the remote villages. Climbing is also carried out at Tororo rock which is 3 hours away from Mountain Elgon by car.
Bugisu Arabica Coffee Visit: The lower slopes of Mount Elgon are painted with coffee plantations due to their fertility. The coffee grown in this area is Arabica Coffee, one of the tastiest coffee, you can ever drink at any cafeteria around the world. The prospect to see how the coffee you craze for is made lies by visiting the coffee farms on the low slopes of Mount Elgon. You go through all the courses of making coffee from the planting and picking to the processing stage. On a guided coffee tour, you go to the coffee fields of one of the local farmers to witness the planting and picking and then taken to the processing factory near Budadiri.
Visiting the Abuyudaya Jews: There is a small group of people around Mount Elgon and Sipi that believe in the Jewish traditions. These are Jews by choice but not by birth. This small group of Abuyudaya has done significant projects for the local societies for example; building a big hospital with a modern dental unit and numerous schools in different areas. The schools follow both the Ugandan and Jewish education curriculum. The Abayudaya additionally support the local communities by buying Arabica coffee from the farmers at a good price. The Abuyudaya work together with other religious institutions like the Pentecostals.
Community, Cultural and Spiritual Visits: The people that lives around the Elgon still practice their tradition rituals and culture in particular the Bagisu. The Gisu have the male circumcision ritual locally known as Imbalu. When a man hits puberty, he must be circumcised live to enter the club of men. An uncircumcised man is not allowed to marry any Gisu woman. The Imbalu is a social event that is done by the whole community and specific months and years are assigned for it. On your lucky visit to Mbale the land of Gisu, you will be amazed by the Imbalu events, notably the dances, music played from the instruments and singing. The circumcision itself is very intriguing, these young men are seen braving through the pain of being cut live. Female circumcision was practised by the Sabiny, the neighbouring tribe of Bagisu but this was abolished by the government of Uganda due to its brutality.
The village walk around Budadiri near Mount Elgon is another cultural adventure. Tourists visit the remote villages and engage in social activities like cooking of the local foods like Malewa, drinking of locally made beer, listening to ancient tales about the Elgon lands from the elders and enjoying cultural music and dances.
Tour Pian Upe and Matheniko Wildlife Reserves: These two game reserves are one of the natural hidden gems to look for while in the Elgon region. They are situated in the Karamoja semi arid region in the shadow of Mount. Elgon. Pian Upe and Matheniko has lots of wild animals and bird species to marvel at and enjoy within their plains. The mammals to sight at the two game reserves include antelopes, Bright’s gazelle, ostriches, lesser kudu, mountain reedbuck, leopards, lions and cheetahs. Birds are likewise present in these open savannah wildernesses for example; Hartlaub’s Turaco, Dusky Turtle Dove, Alpine Chat, African Hill Babbler and so many more.