Mount Elgon National Park, World’s Largest Caldera
Mount Elgon National Park is one of Uganda’s ten national parks located on the 4321m-high Mount Elgon in eastern Uganda and covers an area of 1,121km². The border with Kenya bisects the mountain and national parks in both countries protect the flora and fauna on the higher contours. This trans-boundary conservation area has been declared a UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve.
A massive, extinct volcano, 80km in diameter, its vast form rises 3000m above the hot dusty plains of Karamoja to provide a cool respite for humans and a refuge for flora and fauna. Wildlife includes large mammals, including elephant and buffalo (though rarely seen) and 300 species of bird. The curious Afromontane plants peculiar to East Africa’s highest mountains are found on the mountain’s higher slopes. Mount Elgon’s highest peaks lie along a jagged rim that encloses a giant caldera, 8km across. The ‘mountain of illusion’ tag derives from historic confusion regarding the true summit of Mount Elgon. The local Bagisu people named their candidate – as seen from their side of the mountain – as Masaba after their founding deity. European climbers then found Masaba to be a 4165m high volcanic plug on the mountain’s flank, lower even than the 4209m Mubiyi peak named after Masaba’s supposedly diminutive wife. Subsequent expeditions made cases for various high spots along the caldera rim before the 4321m Wagagai, overlooked in the south west corner of the caldera rim, was finally identified as the true summit.
Mount Elgon National Park lies above Mbale town, 235km east of Kampala. The route beyond Mbale is surfaced as far as Kapchorwa town on the northwest flank of the mountain. Dirt roads lead off this road to the various trailheads.
Mount Elgon can also be reached from Kidepo Valley National Park in north-east Uganda. The 420km drive is possible in one long day but an overnight stop in Moroto or PianUpe Wildlife Reserve is recommended.
ACTIVITIES AND ATTRACTIONS
Tourist activities on the mountain cater for various levels of ambition. Visitors can make extended hikes to the summits, take day/half day walks through forest on the lower edge of the park, or simply relax in resorts overlooking delightful waterfalls just outside the park at Sipi.
An ascent of Mount Elgon represents an exciting alternative to longer and more strenuous climbs on East Africa’s higher moutains. Elgon offers comparable attractions, including Afromontane botany, with a milder climate and lower elevation. No special equipment or technical experience is required. A number of routes ascend, the summit of Mount Elgon. The Sasa Trail ascends to the 4321m Wagagai peak from the small town of Budadiri (1250m a.s.l.) in the Sironko Valley. The shortest and most direct option, it is possible to reach the summit and descend to Budadiri in 3 or (more comfortably) 4 days. The Sipi Trail follows a longer but gentler route, starting 800 higher than Budadiri at UWA’S Forest Exploration Centre at Kapkwai (2050m). A highlight of any ascent of Mount Elgon is the traverse through the distinctive vegetation zones found only on East Africa’s highest mountains. The lowest of these zones, between the park boundary and the 2500m contour is montaneorest. This gives way to bamboo (2,500-3,000m) followed by groves of giant heather (3000-3500m). Above 3500m, the mountainside opens into moorland dotted with outlandish forms of giant lobelias and groundsels.
Trails of varying length explore the forest around the Forest Exploration Centre passing caves, waterfalls and viewpoints and providing the opportunity to observe birds – including African goshawk, Chubb’s cisticola, while-chinned prinia and African blue flycatcher – and primates.
OUT SIDE THE PARK
The 7km section of the Sipi Valley immediately outside the national park is improbably scenic as the river plunges over three sets of basalt cliffs during its decent to the plains beneath. These have given rise to a cluster of tourist lodges and a variety of activities.
Mountain bike excursions range from casual exploration of many lovely trails in the vicinity, to the challenging Elgon Enduro hosted by Sipi River Lodge.
Many of the basalt cliffs around Sipi have been bolted and can safely be climbed. Contact Sipi River Lodge or the Mountain Club of Uganda for details.
Fisherman can cast a line for rainbow trout on the Sipi River between the park boundary and the highest of the three waterfalls at Sipi. Again, contact Sipi River Lodge for details.
Uganda’s finest coffee is produced from Arabica beans grown on Mount Elgon. Take a guided tour of a coffee garden to see how the beans are grown and ground.
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