Mount Elgon National Park may be just 229 kilometers from Kampala – the shortest distance from the capital city, of all the 10 national parks – but it still struggles to attract tourists despite the enormous attractions it offers.
In their effort to popularize all the protected areas under their control, Uganda Wildlife Authority [UWA], took a group of journalists to the park to see what it has to offer.
Unlike other parks such as Kidepo in the northeastern part of the country, which requires almost a whole day of driving to get to it, one needs just about four hours on the road to get to Mount Elgon national park, that is shared between the Sabiny and Bamasaba (Bagisu) tribes of Eastern Uganda.
A lot has been written about Mbale and its mountain ranges that give the town a breathtaking scenery, but you have not seen anything yet if you have not visited Kapchorwa district, where the Kapkwai-Sipi trail into Mount Elgon starts from.
This is also home to our internationally acclaimed athletes who have a similar rhyme to their names: Kipsiro, Chepsang, Cheptagat, Cheptegei, Chelangat, Kiprotich, Chekwei, name it.
The feeling you get when ascending or descending the hills of Kapchorwa is similar to the one some get when a plane is taking off or landing. Some places are so steep I felt like I was losing my hearing and wanted to throw up. Just like on a plane when altitude and cabin pressure issues combine to create unease, I only recovered my hearing after swallowing saliva.
The altitude on the trek is very high, which reduces the rate at which one takes in oxygen as one ascends and the opposite is true as one descends.
I was made to understand that it is living at this uniquely high altitude that helps our people in the Sebei sub-region beat the rest of the world in athletics when it comes to endurance.
Although it is a national park and to ordinary folks this means wild animals, at Mount Elgon national park you could win a trophy for spotting one animal.
But that is not to say animals do not exist at all in the park; they just are not the main attraction. Like Mount Rwenzori national park, Elgon is renowned for mountain climbing and nature walks.
But its uniqueness is that, where Rwenzori is mostly rocky, Elgon is lush and forested all the way, thanks to its volcanic soils. These nature walks in the Elgon mountains are not for the fainthearted, though.
The Park, being mainly forested (it even has a forest exploration centre for research) and being in a region that receives rainfall almost all year through, nature walks are actually exactly that: nature walks.
We set out for a five-kilometer trek, but less than half a kilometer in, the skies opened up. At first we thought we would stand the shower – some of us were ready to continue the climb – but we failed to convince the rest of the group to continue. We aborted the trek just after 1.2Km and took refuge in the Kapkwai cave. That is how we ended up not seeing the famous Chebonet falls, a sight for sore eyes and feet, as those who have seen the crystal clear water in the greenery, testify.
Mount Elgon is fondly known as the water tower of eastern Uganda. Tens of rivers flow from the mountain top at terrific speed, down the rocks forming falls at different locations.
Even the famed Sipi falls flow from Mount Elgon. At the Kapkwai centre, the sound of the Chebonet falls can make one think it is raining. For the flora lovers, Mount Elgon is home to about 270 tree species that keep changing as one ascends, giving a serenity only rivalled by Kibale national park in Western Uganda.
About 290 bird species have also been recorded here. If you are strong and can endure six days of mountain climbing, then Wagagai summit is curiously waiting for you.
According to Fredrick Kiiza the manager of the Mount Elgon conservation area that includes Mount Elgon national park, Matheniko-Bokora game reserve and Pian-Upe game reserve, the majority of the foreign tourists to the park are Israelis, who go to the Wagagai summit to pray. Locally, it is the born-again Christians who usually ascend to pray at the Wagagai summit.
Interestingly, even the Bakonzo and Batoro that live closer to Mount Rwenzori in the West – Uganda’s highest mountain – find Elgon more spiritually fulfilling and often make the trip across the country.
Kiiza says Ugandans should start falling in love with their country that more than 100 years ago, British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill christened the Pearl of Africa. To go mountain climbing, a Ugandan parts with just Shs 75,000 a day while foreign tourists are charged US $75.
Kiiza says 60 per cent of tourists to Mount Elgon national park are actually locals although majority of them go for the pocket friendly nature walks that cost just Shs 20,000.
“I know Ugandans have the money to afford visiting these places, but they just want to spend it on funny things. Local tourism doesn’t fetch as much income as foreign tourism; it is still very important because many of the foreigners come because they have heard glowing stories from local tourists,” Kiiza said.
Mount Elgon national park sits on 1,145 square kilometers. Wagagai, the mountain peak, is at a 4,321 altitude above sea level.
More about Elgon
Mt Elgon is an extinct volcano that first erupted more than 24 million years ago. With the largest surface area of any extinct volcano in the world (50 km by 80 km), Mt Elgon is the fourth highest mountain in Eastern Africa, with the second-highest peak in Uganda (Wagagai– 4,321 metres).
Mt Elgon contains a crater covering over 40 kms at the top of the mountain, surrounded by a series of rugged peaks.
The secondary forest and thick shrub along the Chebonet River supports African Goshawk, Chubb’s Cisticola, White-chinned Prinia, African Blue Fly-catchers, Chin-spot Batis, McKinnon’s Fiscal, Doherty’s and Luhder’s Bush-Shrikes and Baglafecht Weaver.
While ascending Mt Elgon’s enchanting slopes, you will pass through dense forest and mixed bamboo belts teeming with birdlife. You will then enter the fascinating heath and moorland zones containing several interesting endemic plant species such as Giant lobelia and groundsels.
Wildlife enthusiasts will be pleased to spot primates such as the Black and White Colobus Monkey, Blue Monkey, and hundreds of fascinating bird species, including Golden Winged and Tacazze sunbirds, Ross’s and Hartlaubs Turacos, Black and White Casqued and Crowned Hornbills, the endangered Lammergeier and the Jackson’s Francolin, which is found nowhere else in Uganda.
If you are particularly observant you can also see buffalo, duiker, hyena or even the elusive leopard.