Mount Elgon

Mount Elgon is one of Uganda's most interesting parks for climbing and hiking. A climb on Mount 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 40km2 caldera. Mount Elgon is a massive solitary volcanic mountain on the border of eastern Uganda and western Kenya. Its vast form, eighty kilometers in diameter, rises 3070m above the surrounding plains, providing welcome relief in more than one sense of the word. Its mountainous terrain introduces variety to an otherwise monotonous regional landscape. Its cool heights offer respite for humans from the hot plains below and its higher altitudes provide a refuge for flora and fauna. Mount Elgon has been a regional landmark for a long time: this extinct volcano is one of Uganda's oldest physical features, first erupting around 20 million years ago. It was once Africa's highest mountain, towering above Kilimanjaros 5895m. Millennia of erosion have reduced its height to 4321 m. However, its 4000km2 surface area is still the largest base of any volcanic mountain worldwide.

Elgon is not a difficult mountain to climb. Aspirant hikers need to be reasonable fit, but no specialised equipment or skill is required to reach the peaks, and the mountain is not so high that there is serious risk of altitude-related illnesses that regularly afflict hikers on the upper slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya. Elgon can be climbed any time of the year, though the dry seasons (June to August and December to March) are best, particularly November / December when the highland flowers are in bloom. Several hiking routes are available. Traditionally, the most popular route has been a four-day round trip from Budadiri to Wagagai following the Sasa Route. Other possibilities include a five-day round hike from Budadiri, taking in Wagagai and the hot springs, and a six-day hike between Badadiri and Kapkwata via Wagagai and the hot springs.

The ascent of Mount Elgon passes through a series of roughly concentric vegetation zones. The lower slopes of the mountain are intensively farmed up to the park boundary. The first zone of natural vegetation is montane forest which runs from the park boundary up to 2500m. This is followed by bamboo and low canopy forest (2400 - 3000m), then high montane heath (3000 - 3500m) which includes the giant heather (Phillipea excelsia) growing up to 6m tall. Above 3500m, cold temperatures and fierce winds force the heather to give way to open moorland. Finally, above 3800m, dramatic Afro alpine vegetation is found among tussock grasslands and Carex bogs. This rare and spectacular vegetation type is restricted to the upper reaches of East Africa's highest mountains and includes the giant groundsel (Senecio elgonensis) and the endemic Lobelia elgonensis.

Recommended accommodations in Mount Elgon National Park:

Lacam Lodge, Sipi River Lodge and Sipi Falls Lodge

Mount Elgon supports a variety of wildlife including elephant, buffalo, Defassa's waterbuck, oribi, bushbuck, leopard and spotted hyena. However, as is usual in forest environments, most of these species are rarely seen. The most commonly seen creatures are black and white colobus, blue monkey, duiker and tree squirrel. The mountain is home to 296 birds including 40 restricted range species. Birds whose Ugandan range is limited to Mount Elgon include Jackson's francolin, moustached green tinkerbird, and black collared apalis, the Ugandan ranges of which are limited to Mount Elgon. The bronze-napped pigeon, Hartlaub's turaco and tacazze sunbird are limited to Mount Elgon and a few other mountains in eastern Uganda. Mount Elgon is also one of the few places in Uganda where the endangered Lammergeyer can be seen, soaring above the caldera and Suam gorge.

The Bagisu and Sabinyi are the two tribes around the mountain, they conduct circumcision ceremonies every year to initiate young men and women into adulthood; colourful dances and costumes during circumcision, and handicrafts of the people are well worth seeing. The village markets bustle with life, and local craftsmen work as they have done for generations. In this area visitors can discover the infinite variety our lifestyles and heritage that make Uganda so special. The two communities have made agreements with the park for sustainable harvest of forest products.

The best accommodation is around the Sipi Falls, where you can enjoy a magnificent view or do a hiking tour on Mount Elgon. Even abseiling is a possibility here, a real adventure! The abseiling takes about 4 hours and the unique and thrilling experience has beautiful views of the Sipi falls while going down the edge of a 100 metre cliff. A possible walk is to the bottom of the falls and to the neighbouring Manyara Caves. There is an opportunity to view a variety of forest monkeys, small antelopes, elephants, buffalos and over 300 bird species found no where else in Uganda.

Distances and location: Mount Elgon is straddling against the Kenyan / Ugandan border, east of Mbale. It is a four hour drive from Kampala to Mbale via Jinja and Tirinyi with a distance of 256 km.

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