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Steve and Emma's Travel Tales

Climbing the Wild Mt. Elgon in Uganda

UGANDA | Monday, 19 July 2010 | Views [866]

It actually takes much longer than you’d think to get from Kuala Lumpur to Kampala; a 7hr flight to Dubai with a 5hr stop-over followed by another 7hr flight to Entebbe with a touchdown in Addis Ababa.  To be honest this broke up the 2nd leg of the journey nicely and we were soon on our descent into Entebbe.  Arrival was as smooth and as a hassle free as two years ago and we were soon on the home straight.  Luckily we’d landed at a good time and got straight to the Kololo district of Kampala in a very respectable 45mins.

The next 24hrs was a social whirlwind of birthday parties, leaving dos, rugby presentations and watching the World Cup final with Jason and Jeanie.  Indeed the only sober(ing) moment was listening to the bombs go off not a kilometre away from where we were watching the football.  Luckily none of our friends or their colleagues were affected, but it was yet another grim reminder as to how cruel and mean-spirited people can be as around 95 people died.


After dropping by the British High Commission to put in my passport renewal application (10 year passports are full after only 5 years these days!) we jumped into a matatu headed for town.  Once in the centre we got down when we were told too (!) and embarked on finding the main matatu (minivan) stand.  The place was as chaotic and jammed packed as we remembered but things had slightly improved as they now have destination and fare boards on display.  We quickly tracked down the Mbale van but unfortunately the small boot area was already chokka.  They really do need to invest in roof racks or even ropes and tarpaulin in East Africa.  We squeezed into the back row with our 2 full packs and jostled ourselves into as comfortable a position as possible.

The journey might not have been physically very comfortable but we passed lovely scenery and interesting villages along the way.  There was always something fascinating to look at to keep our minds off the bad / scary driving skills!  He didn’t hang around – none of this stopping for food or toilet breaks malarkey.  Although at around midday we halted for long enough for the matatu to be pounced upon by dozens of banana, chicken, dodgy looking meat and chapatti sellers.  We decided to wait until reaching Mbale but of course got there much later than expected and were rather hungry.

Luckily we quickly stumbled upon a very clean and reasonably priced hotel (Wimpey USh 40 000/=), dumped our bags and set off to do our chores.  It was already past 4pm and we knew the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) office would close at 5pm and was on the outskirts of town.  Mbale is not very big but I’ll swear that was the longest kilometre I’ve ever walked.  Thankfully we got to the office in time and proceeded to find out what our options were and more importantly how much it was all going to cost to trek up Mount Elgon.  Much pondering and punching of calculator keys later and we hit upon the best route and price up the mountain.  The most important thing was they could provide a tent and mats for us.  Now it was time to head into town and pick up some provisions, including a basic pan and tin mugs, before the shops shut.  We’ve been spoilt over the years with all inclusive treks so it was a novelty having to buy all our own stuff.  By this point we were ravenous so went to Nurali’s cafe – so salty that for the first time ever; we left Indian food.  We were in bed by 7.30pm as we needed to be up bright and early for the start of our trek.

The chuckle of the day was someone stopping me in the street and claiming; “Hey!  You’re too short.  How old are you?” 

Mount Elgon Day 1

We were up at 5.30am to track down a couple of boda-bodas (motorbikes) to take us out to the Islamic University.  If we didn’t know that Ugandan’s are such lovely, honest people we’d have assumed that was some sort of a wind-up.  We needed to catch a matatu to Budadiri and sure enough one turned up but it was already packed.  Now I’m sure you’ll agree that 4 people sharing 3 seats would be classed as over full but not in Uganda!  It’s simple; if everyone squashes up just that little bit more, you can get 5 people on those 3 seats.  For once there was space in the back for one of the bags and Steve was invited to sit in the front where there was just about enough space for him and the other bag.  I was shown the couple of inches of seat upon which to I had to perch and off we set.

Fortunately, we knew the journey was only going to last an hour and many more people got off than got on along the way.  Apparently the scenery and the sunrise were lovely – Steve had a window seat remember!  The driver dropped us right outside UWA’s office without us having to ask.  It was strange that he knew two foreigners would want to go there!  They were expecting us in the office (phew!) and had already allocated us and guide and porter.  Most people spend the night in Budadiri so set off early from there, but we were a little behind schedule.  It was decided that, assuming we didn’t mind paying a little extra, we would take boda-bodas to the start of the track.  Sounded like a great idea until we realised just how bad the road was out there.  I’m not happy on the back of bikes at the best of times and my driver dashed off like a man possessed!  I tried to distract myself by watching the world go by but foolishly caught a glimpse of the road.  Er, dry river bed would be a closer description.

We made it in one piece and finally set off trekking from Bumasola (1770m) at about 9.30am.  The trail steadily climbed up through farmland and small holdings where the bulk of the crops were; coffee, beans, cabbages, corn, bananas and a smattering of other vegetables.  After a couple of hours we reached the base of Mudangi Cliffs and the edge of the park boundary at 2190m.  The cliffs looked very imposing and we knew there were ladders to negotiate.  Fortunately they weren’t very extensive or very steep and once on the top of the cliffs we entered a forested area.  We made our way up through the forest for a couple of hours to Sasa River Camp at 2900m.  As we were nearing the camp it started to rain but we managed to make it into a hut before the serious down-pour set in.  It was 1.30pm so it made sense to sit out the rain and have something to eat.  The porter soon had a fire going and water boiling for a very welcome brew.

We knew we had to leave this camp by 2.30pm to be able to make it to Mude Camp before nightfall.  As luck would have it the rain eased in time but off course the path was very muddy and slippy.  On leaving the forest we walked through grass and moorland where the going became easier.  Just before we reached Mude Camp we had to show our permits at the Environmental Task Force Hut which is set up a steep slope by the edge of the path.  Fortunately the ranger hadn’t seen many people that day and he was more than happy to come down for a walk out and a chat.  We got to Mude Camp (3500m) drier than expected and found out that there was room in the hut.  In fact there were only a handful of other trekkers as unfortunately Mount Elgon doesn’t attract many tourists.  It’s a real shame as it’s a very doable walk and the scenery is lovely.  We were in bed by 8.15pm.

Mount Elgon Day 2

Another 5.30am rise as it was summit day.  By the time we’d had a hot drink it was already light enough to dispense with the headlamps – a day light summit walk is most unusual for us.  Our guide (Wilfred) informed us it was a 9km walk each way and we should summit and get back down to camp before the afternoon rain set in.  The path steadily wound its way through grassland studded with huge and very unusual plants and flowers.  After an hour we reached Jackson Pond and were amazed to read we were already at 4090m.  Somehow or other we’d managed to quickly climb 500m without a steep, tricky bit.

The path then continued up to the ancient crater rim and during this section it was a little tougher on the legs.  Not to mention on the lungs since we were now walking at altitude.  The views from the crater rim were fabulous but we still couldn’t see our final destination.  We knew we’d basically we walking along the crater rim and following its contours but it was slightly frustrating not to know what we were aiming for.  The whole area is Mount Elgon with Wagagai being the highest point on the rim.  We couldn’t see the top until we were almost upon it due to the peak in front.  On climbing up this steep section we could finally make out the summit marker.  We made it to Wagagai at 4321m in 3hrs from Mude Camp at 3500m and for 2 people who’d just spent a weekend boozing in Kampala that sounds pretty good to me.

The views from the top were fantastic all around and we could see down the valley that very quickly brings you to the Kenyan border.  We didn’t hang around for too long as we could see the cloud starting to roll up the mountain side.  We headed off at a reasonable pace and made it back to camp before the rain and the hailstones set in.  Good to be out of it but sitting around meant we were mighty chilly.  Nothing else for it but another early night tucked up in our sleeping bags.

Mount Elgon Day 3           

Another 5.30am rise as we had the longest walking day ahead of us – we’d been told it would be 20kms before lunch and then a further 17kms to get to camp.  We retraced our steps from the morning before but luckily not for too long.  The first part of the walk took us up to 3900m to a ridge that led us past Suam Gorge and the route into Kenya.  Following that we went up and down a number of ridges to cross out of our valley and into the next.  The highest point was 4090m and from there we had wonderful views of Mount Elgon National Park.  Again the plant life was very interesting but the most amazing thing for us was seeing cactus dusted with early morning frost.  The weather was superb with clear blue skies all the way and the early morning light shining on the strange rock formations made the whole experience even better.  Once again we didn’t see much wildlife but we were lucky enough to spot a duiker nibbling an early breakfast and lammergeyer soaring overhead.

From the top of the highest ridge we dropped down to Muyembe at 3700m where they are proposing to put in another camp site.  It would break up a very long walking day and make the trek more accessible to more people.  We’d been walking at a very steady pace and continued to do so as we made our way down to Kajeri Camp 3383m where we stopped for our picnic.  We only had a short break as we still had quite a lot of walking to do.  However, we were dismayed when Wilfred announced we still had 20kms to go and had only walked 17kms.  I knew this couldn’t be true as I’m quite good at judging walking speeds and in the end he agreed that he’d got the numbers mixed up.  We climbed out of the lovely valley that Kajeri Camp is nestled in feeling a little disheartened.  I assured Steve that the figures were all wrong and that since we knew the walk was 37kms in total I calculated we only had 12kms to go.  Sure enough it turned out that the actual walking distances were 25kms followed by 12kms.

The walk continued to be most enjoyable as we were still basking in sunshine and the views remained lovely all the way.  We reached Tutum Camp 8 hours after leaving Mude Camp – good going and most amazing of all we were still dry.  It’s rare, at any time of the year, to get a totally dry day in this part of Uganda.  Tutum Camp is actually in a cave and we pitched our tent behind the waterfall that cascades over the edge of the rocks above.  It was a fantastic setting and a first for us.  Not only have we never camped in a cave before but we never camped with a waterfall for a front door.  At least now we knew why we’d gone to the bother and expense of hiring the tent!  There was also a group of 4 trekkers there so it was all very jolly round the campfire.  Mind you, me and Steve beat a hasty retreat once it came around to taking turns telling a story, or worse, singing.  To compound matters these trekkers were on a rekky for bringing out a group of scouts the following year; and the first bars of Ging Gang Gooley had us running to the tent faster than Usain Bolt!

Mount Elgon Day 4

At first the gentle cascade of the water falling lulled us to sleep but by early morning it was acting as a reminder that our bladders were full.  Stumbling around a cave in the pitch black, avoiding low flying bats, trying to find a decent loo-rock is fun!  Guess what?  We were up early again.  This was the last leg and basically downhill all the way.  In fact it resembled downhill skiing for much of the way.  The Sipi Trail was promptly renamed the slippy trail as it was very, very muddy and pretty steep in places.  We got down to the gate / Exploration Centre without getting too caked in mud.  Once there we filled in the questionnaire, checked out of the park and dealt with the tips.  The tips were gratefully received (of course) and promptly popped straight into a pocket.  There was none of this working out if we’d given the ‘correct’ amount – simply “Thank you” and on we continued.

This is actually the end of the road for porters but they are willing to carry the bags down to Sipi for an extra fee.  Our porter (Richard) was happy to carry our bag down to Sipi for only USh 5000/= and as far as we were concerned it was money well spent.  The path is still steep in places and it’s actually a fair trek to reach the village of Sipi and accommodation for the night.  We took a short cut through the local farming communities with Wilfred and Richard greeting their friends along the way.  We were warmly welcomed all along the route and often congratulated on getting to the top of Wagagai Peak.  At one point an old dear accosted us and she seemed totally baffled / fascinated by my existence.  I know being a westerner and short often surprises people, not least that bloke in Mbale, but she couldn’t seem to comprehend green eyes.  All very entertaining for Steve of course!

At the end of a trek you subconsciously let your guard down and think it’s going to be plane sailing.  The steep, narrow path through the veggie plantations was tricky in places to say the least.  At one point we had to balance over a log to cross a stream.  Then Wilfred declared we needed to cross the deep, gushing Sipi River and continue on the opposite bank – I don’t think so!  Luckily Richard also wasn’t impressed with this idea and, since he’s from the area, showed us a path where we didn’t have to get wet!  After an hour or so we could hear the roar of water, realised that we must be close to the falls and therefore, almost at a guesthouse.  The end of the trek or so we thought!  The path came out at Sipi River Lodge but this was a bit above our budget so we ask Wilfred to show us to Crows Nest.  Little did we know that Sipi, a small place in terms of population, has all the houses and places to stay widely spread out.

From Sipi River Lodge to Crows Nest was another 30mins walk and we were just glad they had a room and a beer!  There seemed to be some confusion as to the best room for us to stay in but they eventually settled on one near the restaurant.  The bathroom was twice the size of the bedroom but didn’t have a shower – we had to trek across the garden for that pleasure.  Still at USh 31 000/= (less than a tenner) including breakfast you can’t expect much and we were in no mood to be fussy.  By this point it had started to rain so it only seemed fair to offer the lads a beer – well we were having one and it seemed rude to ask them to watch us supping!


As I have said Sipi is very spread out and there is a good range of accommodation on offer.  The trekkers we’d shared Tutum Camp with had booked their trek as a package from Sipi River Lodge and it seemed like a good deal.  They certainly had better food than us and in fact had the cheek to chuckle at our pasta and packet soup surprise!  This lodge is situated right next to the middle tier of the falls and indeed they own that level.  Yes, it’s a lovely setting but from Crows Nest you have the advantage of being able to see all 3 levels of the falls.  They are mighty impressive with the drops getting progressively longer with the last tier having a sheer drop of 70m.

There are various activities on offer in the area with the most popular being a walk taking in the 3 tiers of the falls.  Obviously trips in Mount Elgon National Park and treks to the peak are widely advertised but most visitors don’t want to do anything quite so strenuous.  Along with the falls and the peak most places offer trips around the local area to see the villages and visit farms.  Initially we’d planned to stay 2 nights in Sipi and potter around the area, but we’d basically done the village / farm / falls trips for free at the end of the trek.

That evening the weather improved considerably and we could see the whole of the top of Mount Elgon clearly and had great views of the national park.  Crows Nest might not have the most salubrious rooms but the views from their restaurant, for a well earned sunset beer, take some beating.

The next morning we decided to make our way back to Kampala so we could spend more time with our friends.  The guesthouse organised a shared taxi for us and another couple to Mbale for USh35 000/= and from there it cost us USh10 000/= a head on the bus to Kampala.

In the 4 days we spent in the park and on the mountain we only saw 6 other trekkers.  It’s very easy to arrange permits, guides, porters etc from either the Mbale or Sipi end.  We would definitely recommend spending time in Mount Elgon National Park and going to up Wagagai Peak as the scenery is stunning.  At 4321m it might not have the draw of Mount Kenya or Kilimanjaro but you’ll basically have the park to yourself.

Travel Information

To get to Mt. Elgon you can take a bus or matatu (mini-van) to Mbale from Kampala and it takes about 4 hours. Sipi is another hour further on from Mbale.

To arrange treks up Mt. Elgon, visit the UWA office in Mbale and they will arrange the permits, guides and porters and for you, they even got a tent for us.  


It cost us about $500 for 2 people all-in for a 4 day trek up the Sasa trail and down the Sipi trail. The guy in the office was very informative and there are various trails, our guide reckoned the Piswa trail is the most scenic and you can even trek through to Kenya. Going down the Sipi trail is easier than doing it the other way round and you can chill out at Sipi Falls after the trek. There are plenty of small supermarkets to buy basic provisions for the trek.


We stayed at Wimpey Hotel in Mbale and it was fine for a one night stop.

We stayed at Crow’s Nest in Sipi which was very basic but had great views and the food was really good but the beer not so cold! They can arrange short treks, Mt Elgon trips and transport.

For more luxury in Sipi try:

 http://www.sipiriverlodge.com/index.html who also arrange Mt Elgon treks














































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