MOUNT ELGON NATIONAL PARK
Mountain Elgon National Park is named after Mount Elgon, an extinct shield volcano which was once Africa’s highest mountain, far exceeding Mt Kilimanjaro’s current 5895m height. The park is situated northeast of Lake Victoria and is bisected by the border of Uganda and Kenya. Mount Elgon National Park covers an area of 1279 square kilometers, with the Ugandan part of it being 1110 square kilometers while the Kenyan part covers 169 square kilometers. The Ugandan part was declare a national park in 1992 and the Kenyan part in 1968.
The park has a noteworthy variety of flora and fauna, and has a stunning scenery created by its caves, cliffs, gorges, waterfalls, caldera, mesas, hot springs, and mountain peaks. The mountain is an important water catchment for the famous Nzoia river which flows out to Lake Victoria, and is also a catchment for the Turkwei river which flows into Lake Turkana. The park’s climate ranges between moist to moderate dry. Yearly rainfall is over 1270mm and the dry spells run from June to August and from December to March, although it can rain anytime. The mountain is a home to the Bagishu and Sabiny tribes, as well as the marginalized Ndoboro who were forced to dwell deep within the forest of Benet.
Found on the lower slopes of Mount Elgon is a great buffalo and elephant population. A variety of antelope species are also found in the park, and primate species including; blue monkeys, red-tailed monkeys, and black-and-white colobus monkeys. Leopards and hyenas are said to have existed in the late 1990s.
Birds of Mount Elgon
Mount Elgon National Park is a habitat to 300 bird species, including 40 restricted range species. Also, 56 of the 87 Afro-tropical highland biome species live in this park. The most notable of these species include; the Moustached Green Tinkerbird, Moorland Francolin, and the Alpine Chat. Birds whose Ugandan range is limited to Mount Elgon include; the Black – collared Apalis and the Jackson’s Francolin.
The Tacazze Sunbird and Black-shouldered Kite are some of the birds found in the park and are limited to just a few mountains in East Africa. Also, Mount Elgon is one of the few places in Uganda where the endangered Lammergeyer can be encountered. The other birds that can be spotted in the park’s various birding spots include; African Goshawk, Chubb’s Cisticola, African Blue Fly-catcher, Hartloub`s Turaco, White-chinned Prinia, Mackinnon’s Fiscal, Olive and Bronze-naped pigeons, Chinspot Batis, Dohertys and Luhders Bush-shrikes, Baglafecht Weaver, Black-collared Apalis, Cinnamon Bee Eater, and the Moustached Tinker bird.
Mount Elgon National Park is celebrated for its wealth of vegetation ranging from montane forest to high open moorland, giant lobelia and groundsel plants. The park’s vegetation zones vary with altitude. The slopes of Mount Elgon are covered with olive Olea hochstetteri and Aningueria adolfi-friedericii montane forest. At much higher altitude, the vegetation changes to olive and Podocarpus gracilior forest, and then to Podocarpus and bamboo Arundinaria alpina zone. At a higher altitude still, the vegetation becomes Hagenia abyssinica and then moorland with heaths Erica arborea and Philippia trimera, tussock grasses such as Agrostis gracilifolia and Festuca pilgeri, herbs such as Helichrysum, Alchemilla, Lobelia, and the giant groundsels.
The park’s botanical diversity includes Elgon olive tree cedars pillarwood, Juniperus procera, elder Sambucus adnata, Cassipourea malosana, pure stands of Podocarpus gracilior, orchids, and giant podocarpus. Occurring in high altitude broad-leaf montane forest is: Romulea keniensis, Ranunculus keniensis, Ardisiandra wettsteinii, Echinops hoehnelii, and Carduus afromontanus.
Tourist attractions & activities
The park also has hot springs found in the former volcanoes crater. The springs bubble at temperatures of up to 48 °C. The locals believe the hot waters are sacred and they have healing powers to cure infirmities. Men and women are regularly seen bathing in the springs.
Mount Elgon has about 4 vast explorable caves overhanging with crystalline walls. The caves attract frequent night visitors including buffaloes and elephants which go to the caves to lick the natural salt found on the walls. Research has proved that these animals are major contributors to the formation of the caves. Chepnyali, Kitum and Mackingeny are some of the caves which are available for exploration.
Also found in the park is a mass of ancient cave paintings found near the trailhead at Budadiri. The paintings are a series of ancient coloring arched into the walls of the caves. Tourists are allowed to explore the stunning phenomenon in the company of a ranger guide.
As compared to other mountains in East Africa, Mount Elgon offers less strenuous hikes. Also, the mountain is easier to access throughout the year, it is less congested, it has many attractions, a mild climate and lower elevation. Ascending its peaks requires no special equipment and technical prowess. There are several trails;
The Sasa trails is the shortest yet the toughest route to the peaks. It traverses the community land and allows tourists to explore the BaMasaba farming settlements and culture. The easier round trip takes 4 days and begins at Budadiri town at an elevation of 1250m. The toughest climb is over 1600m and is completed on the first day, prior to crossing the park’s largest area of bamboo forest, and passing Jackson’s pool on the route to Wagagai peak.
The Sipi trail is a 56km round trip and lasts 4 – 6 days. It starts at 2050m at the Kapkwai Forest Exploration Center. This is the longest trail to the peaks and it passes through the northwestern mountain side through Tutum cave, entering the caldera and reaching Wagagai peak. The trail starts gently but gets tougher on the third day from Kajeri camp.
The Piswa trail is a 49km round trip and lasts 7 days. It is remarkably the most gentle hike to the peaks. The trail starts at the village of Kapkwata on the north side of the mountain, it then traverses the soft wood plantation to the Podocarpus forest. The forest is notable for its wildlife and stunning views of the Karamoja plains and Kenya’s Nandi and Kapeguria hills.
Also, the various routes can be combined; one can for instance ascend via Sipi – Piswa – Sasa trail and descend via Sasa – Sipi trail. This allows a visit to the hot springs and a traverse of the caldera. A trans-boundary hike is also available to tourists desiring to cross into Kenya. Up in ascending the caldera with a UWA guide, hikers cross the border and descend with a Kenya Wildlife Service escort.
Rock climbing is done from outside the park at Sipi. The area has 14 climbs which require various levels of rock scaling techniques. All the necessary equipment for rock climbing can be hired from the Sipi Tourism Guides Association. The toughest climb is 35m and the easiest is 15m. Both climbs offer a stunning view of the main falls and the distant Karamoja plains.
Guided hikes and nature walks
The park offers several hikes and nature walks to engage the avid naturalists; the 7km mountain bamboo trail leads to Kapkwai cave, passing through tropical and bamboo forests. While on this trail, tourists are able to spot many birds, primates, and rare tree species like the Elgon Olive and Elgon Teak. The other trails include a 5km walk to the Chebonet falls and a 3km walk to the Kapkwai caves following the ridge view trail. The park also offers a 11km hike to the Tutum cave, with the possibility of camping beside the cave for a night.
Short day hikes are available in Budadiri covering the Sasa River Camp, Mudagu cliffs and Drigana lower falls. These places are remarkable for nature walks, birding and camping destinations. Tourists can also visit the Khauka cave in Wanale. This trail takes 3 – 4 hours. The famous Jackson’s summit and Wagagi peak can be seen through the Nabuyoga loop viewpoint.
An entire day nature hike leads from Budadiri to the infamous walls of death – the Mudange cliffs, found at the boundary of the park. Because of their location in the tropical forest, hikers spot blue monkeys, baboons, and black-and-white colobus monkeys. Guides from the local communities at the Sipi falls organize walks of a few hours or for an entire day around the local viewpoints. In Kapchorwa, a sunrise trek is organized from Noah’s ark hotel and leads to the nearby Tewei hill to watch the vast Karamoja plains at the base of the mountain.
Sport fishing is done outside the park above the highest of the three waterfalls at Sipi. The rainbow trout is the most common target for the anglers. The fish is preferred for its beautiful coloration and fighting ability. The park has designated areas where fishing is carried and prior booking is recommended for visitors. Sport fishers are advised to carry their own equipment and secure a permit from Sipi River lodge.
Best time to visit
Mount Elgon National Park can be visited during any time of the year but the best time to climb the mountain is during the dry season, between the months of June – August and December – March. The wet season is between the months of April – March. Because of the heavy rains during this time, the trails are slippery, tedious and exerting.
The park lies 235km east of Kampala – Uganda’s capital. A tarmac road goes through Jinja to Mbale town at the Western base of Mount Elgon, prior to climbing to Kapchwora on the mountain’s north-western flank. Dirt roads lead off the Mbale – Kapchwora route to reach the park’s various trailheads.
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