Above: Mount Elgon. Copyright Maya Mangat
Published: 2 February 2019
The grand massif dominates the western skyline around Kitale. Superlatives describe it as the oldest extinct volcano in East Africa dated at 24 million years ago – much older than the 19,340-foot tall, three-million-year old Kilimanjaro that is Africa’s tallest.
With an eighty kilometre diameter, Elgon also boasts the largest volcanic base in the world. It would have once towered over Kilimanjaro but over millennia much of it has been eroded to leave behind dramatic bare faced cliffs and peaks with the highest, Wagagai at 14,177 feet in Uganda. Elgon now is East Africa’s fourth and Africa’s eighth highest mountain with a dramatic 40-square-kilometre caldera.
Wild flowers on Endebess cliff on Mount Elgon. Copyright Maya Mangat
We’re excited to be on the solitary mountain that straddles Kenya and Uganda because it’s so gorgeous.
In the most beautiful of campsites, the tents are pitched under a towering forest of Olea africana or the mutamayiu, a hardwood with beautiful grain. A river gurgles past and we take a stroll to Cheserur waterfall cascading over rocks with the clear water of River Suam that flows into the Turkwel River and eventually into Lake Turkana, the world’s largest permanent desert lake. The rest of the 16 rivers including the Nzoia that originates from Elgon flow into Africa’s largest fresh water body, Lake Victoria.
The mountain beckons.
The air is fresh and crisp, quiet with only bird song. After a leisurely breakfast the drive up the mountain is stunning. The Olea africana gives way to the fattest and tallest podos and equally impressive red cedar forest. It’s paradise for the colobus monkeys. I’ve never seen so many of these old-world black and white monkeys that live on a diet of leaves from indigenous trees. Sadly in the rest of the country, like around Nairobi’s forests they are losing ground as old trees are chopped down for roads, houses and farming.
The trees give way to the bamboo zone and to a sign reading Koitobos peak that’s the flat-topped basalt column. It’s through the moorland that’s a few kilometres drive up the track and then an additional six to walk. It’s too late in the day to hike up to 13, 852 feet which gives a great excuse to return another time to see the rare plants like the giant Dendrosenecio elgonensis which is one of the giant groundsel of East Africa towering at 23 feet with a trunk of 30 centimeters in diameter. The other is the giant Lobelia telekii also found in the alpine zones of Mount Kenya, and the Aberdare Mountains.
Instead we spend the afternoon on a slow drive past the waterbuck and red duikers to Endebess bluff bordered by a forest and carpeted with wild flowers. It’s so pretty that we enjoy the afternoon on its heights that overlooks the slopes with farms. A slight shower signals that we should move on.
The road leads on to Elephant platform. It’s another bluff overlooking the red erythrinas in bloom and playful colobus monkeys but no elephants. David Khaemba, the caretaker at the KWS Kapkuro bandas in the park tells us why.
“The elephants migrate to Chesamo around Chepkitale National Reserve which is about 50 kilometers south-west of the park. During the rain seasons which is between April and September they grace the park and come to Kapkuro bands, Rongai campsite, Elephant platform, Saito dam and to caves like Kitum. They don’t migrate to Uganda, although we share the mountain.”
We drive on to Kitum cave where elephants have over centuries mined for salt leaving traces of their tusk-scrawl on the rocks. It’s impressive. The cave mouth leads into a pitch-dark lava tunnel that’s 700 feet long. However with my head torch ready for the cave exploration, we reach only to find that in recent years, huge rocks falling down have blocked most of the entrance leaving a part open for both the elephant and people to enter. Kitum tells me Khaemba, means a meeting place in the local lingo where once people held court.
By now it’s really too late for and we skip the hike to Making’eny Cave, close to Kitum cave which has a waterfall falling over it.
Our abode for the night is at Kapkuro bandas facing the copper-coloured Endebess cliff. A silver-backed jackal shyly appears from the forest, looks at us and skulks away and night falls with a showering of stars.
Enjoying breakfast on the lawn with the bare cliffs lit red-rust by the rising sun, a family of waterbuck shyly come out of the trees and on to the lawn. It’s a privilege to have breakfast with the beautiful antelope.
Mount Elgon is a beautiful mountain to enjoy 470 km northwest of Nairobi. Book through Kenya Wildlife Service for Kapkuro banda complete with an en suite bedroom, kitchen and a verandah. You need at least two nights or more to enjoy hiking, driving and birding.
Combine Elgon with Saiwa Swamp National Park where you can camp (or climb into Sitatunga tree house for the night) or at Barnleys Guest House. Continue to Lake Turkana up north. Or drive down to Kakamega Rainforest at Rondo Retreat and onto the Nandi escarpment and then Kisumu on Lake Victoria. If you’re driving back to Nairobi, drive via Sotik into the Maasai Mara.