By Charlie Langan, June 2012
Mount Elgon National Park is truly stunning. The first stretch on the trailhead on day 1 snakes up through the hillside communities above Budadiri, where the hardships and fragility of living and working in this tough, steep landscape are evident- days before a landslide had killed two people and since there have been much more severe problems. Ascending further the trail enters the National Park and straight away climbs the Wall of Death! Although conjuring horrifying images, this is simply a steep section where UWA has constructed a series of ladders, ramps and boardwalks through the cliffs, and our guides repeatedly assured us that no one had actually died. Unfortunately the rain was heavy and cloud was down. We had started quite late so the spectacular views that must be seen across the valley forwards Mbale were occluded. The trail continues up into majestic high mountain and bamboo rainforest and out on to the high plains where the group collapsed tired into the Maude Camp. The camp is fairly high and cold in the evening but bedding down into warm sleeping bags we were all thoroughly exhausted but content.
The day two summit of the Wagagai peak at 4321m is only a couple of hours trekking on from Maude and can be made without heavy packs as it returns back to the camp. An early morning start gave the group clear views of the alien landscape with strange giant shrubs and huge rock outcrops. The Wagagai peak is the unobvious high point of the Caldera, the edge of the crater rim and requires walking a few km around the rim with spectacular views out towards Kenya and across the expansive, echoey plains of the Caldera. The walk back to Maude camp is fairly short allowing the opportunity to soak up the peaceful atmosphere and explore lake pools dotted around the hill.
The third day again climbs back to a lower part of the Caldera and drops down another of Elgon’s shoulders running out to Sipi. This was one of the most beautiful days walking up the edge of canyons on old smugglers trails to Kenya surrounded by fantastic rock formations and giant garden flowers. It is also one of the toughest, longest days and although mostly is downhill, there is still a bit of climbing back up across valleys which gives respite to the knees. Eventually after walking down through Elgon’s eco-regions; high plains to shrub land and back to forest and some beautiful bamboo forests, we finally reached the campsite and bat cave. The 4th and final day continues down the rolling trail, entering the forest above the Sipi exploration centre with wide panoramic views across the plains, northwest to Lake Bisina.
The walk was tough, but suitable for anyone with a reasonable level of fitness and has some of the most beautiful scenery in Uganda. The UWA staff and guides were very helpful and professional, clearly very knowledgeable and dedicated, keeping the group in good spirits and well fed –all be it with some of the yellowest bread ever seen. They are hugely enthusiastic and desperate to show more people this wonderful landscape. But this is partly due to a starker reason.
The pressures on the Mount Elgon National Park are massive and quickly evident, and the park authority is struggling to conserve Elgon’s wildlife. Although observing many birds and a few monkey species in the forests, the group did not see much game and wildlife of note. During the 4-day trek the group came across illegal poachers deep within the park and many of the lower slopes above the forest showed evidence of large burn scars due to poaching and illegal activity. Many bamboo stands were almost clear felled and degraded due to over harvesting (harvesting of dead bamboo is allowed under special community natural resource sharing agreements) and forests show evidence of damage from burning, as a result of illegal techniques and careless honey collection (again legal under special community natural resource sharing agreements) and encroachment for cattle grazing.
The park area is huge and resources are few as most visitors to Uganda head westwards chasing gorillas. Further animals in the park migrate towards the Kenyan side where protection is stringently enforced. Political tinkering from politicians opting for easy votes rather than good policy are advocating for increased use of park resources, which is not responsible given the lax attitude and environmental consciousness of illegal users, nor beneficial to future generations. Our advice: go to Mount Elgon, go to view spectacular mountain scenery and go to support the good efforts of the park staff.