Mount Elgon – Community trek

By Lucy Beck, June 2012
While Kampala is truly a great, vibrant and exciting city every now and then I find nature calling and the serious desire to be out in the fresh air surrounded by greenery. One such urge compelled me to join the MCU and sign up to their Mount Elgon trip at the start of June.

The 3 day hike starts from Budadiri from Rose’s Last Chance guesthouse, a basic guesthouse with both dorm room accommodation and individual double bedrooms, run by the really lovely and helpful Rose. There is a prescribed 3 day hike that Rose offers but they are also very open to changes, amendments and additions and you can sit with your allotted Mountain guide to discuss. Due to limited time we condensed the 3 days into 2.
The walk culminates at Sipi falls -descending down the side of the waterfall into the swanky Sipi River Lodge and offering some spectacular views of Sipi Falls as long as you make sure to keep an eye on where you’re placing your feet!

The rest of the 3 days involve ascending and descending the numerous hills and ridges surrounding the base of Elgon, through local villages and with some spectacular views of the park and surrounding greenery. Word of warning, however, I mentioned that we condensed the 3-day trip into 2 days which basically meant we did the first 2 days in 1 and led to a grueling 10 hour hike on our first day with limited rest stops. As a result Liam my boyfriend cultivated some pretty awesome blisters on the little toes of both feet which meant he hiked the 2nd day in flip-flops and with the help of a cane! So if you really do only have 2 days be warned its not for the faint hearted / unfit and it may be better to just organize some shorter day hikes with Rose. In order to properly enjoy the surroundings and views I would strongly recommend splitting it over the 3 days as suggested!

Sleeping during the hike involved pitching up in the grounds of a local school at the top of one of the many hills on the way with some unbeatable morning views across the whole valley. Clearly Muzungus are a bit of a novelty here as no sooner had we fallen exhausted to the ground than we were surrounded by a semi-circle of fascinated onlookers who proceeded to watch our every move (or in our case, groan) until sunset! Luckily the hardest part on the hike comes on the first day with a steep ascent up to 3000 metres and then along a ridge. From here on in there is a steady pattern of climbs and descents along switch back trails and down through banana and coffee plots. Along the way our guide Wyclef also gave us the options of visiting a smaller waterfall and climbing a small peak nearby Sipi – all these are optional and depend on your strength and energy. On our final day all the hard work became worth it when we rounded on Sipi falls and as we sipped our post-hike sodas gazing up at the waterfall.

The cost of the 2-day hike was 150,000 UGX per person which included all food, tent and sleeping mat hire (we had our own sleeping bags but they are also available to rent from Rose), accommodation in the Guest house, our guide Wyclef and 2 porters to help carry provisions. This is a veritable steal compared to the full Elgon ascent, as you don’t have to pay the daily park entry fees. Unfortunately there is no hot water in the showers at Rose’s but she will boil you up some if you ask, for a refreshing bucket shower, and apart from that the shower rooms are pretty decent. She offers tasty local food including some great breakfast donut variations and a fridge stocked full of sodas and beer. All in all I would definitely recommend it as a shorter, cheaper and (potentially!) less strenuous alternative to the full Elgon ascent.

Getting there: Mbale is the nearest big city to Elgon national park. It’s around a 5 hour drive east of Kampala and thankfully the roads, especially the last leg between Iganga and Mbale are great. Budadiri, where the hike starts from, is about another 1 hours drive into the national park down some pretty bumpy dirt roads and here the Pajero 4×4 came very much in handy! There are 2 ways to get from Mbale to Budadiri – the better route takes you along a relatively good road up to Sironko. While Budadiri can be quite hard to find, if you phone Rose she is more than happy to send someone to meet you in Mbale and show you the way.

What to bring: Although we were pretty lucky with the weather and didn’t have any rain its still advisable to bring proper waterproofs and waterproof bag covers for your backpacks just in case. Food provided is restricted to basic meals so you may want to bring snacks to keep you going along the way. You can buy water from Rose’s before you leave but be warned that there are limited places to refill / restock along the way so it may be worth bringing some water purifying tablets if you can find any. Finally – make sure to bring some cash, especially smaller change. The people living within the park live at the very minimum subsistence level and the community element of the hike means that you will interact with the local communities on your way and as a result may be asked for money to help in the building of local schools / with those families that have suffered misfortune. Giving is obviously not mandatory and you don’t have to give a lot but keep aware that you will most likely be prompted. The same is true of the guides and porters on the hike, tipping is expected, they are also all local to the area and many of them struggle to find consistent guiding work due to the high number of guides so they rely heavily on tip money.

When to go: peak season is mid-June/ July till around September due to the weather (i.e. not too hot, and not rainy). Outside this period we were told few people venture to Budadiri and while the roster of local guides would probably be thrilled to get visitors out of season it may prove trickier for any lone travellers looking to hook up with a group, and the walking, much of which is up and down hills could prove tricky in rainy season.