At 4,000km² Mt. Elgon has the largest volcanic base in the world. Located on the Uganda-Kenya border it is also the oldest and largest solitary, volcanic mountain in East Africa. Its vast form, 80km in diameter, rises more than 3,000m above the surrounding plains. The mountain’s cool heights offer respite from the hot plains below, with the higher altitudes providing a refuge for flora and fauna.
Mount Elgon National Park is home to over 300 species of birds, including the endangered Lammergeyer. Small antelopes, forest monkeys, elephants and buffalos also live on the mountainside. The higher slopes are protected by national parks in Uganda and Kenya, creating an extensive trans-boundary conservation area which has been declared a UNESCO Man & Biosphere Reserve.
A climb on Mt. Elgon’s deserted moorlands unveils a magnificent and uncluttered wilderness without the summit-oriented approach common to many mountains: the ultimate goal on reaching the top of Mt. Elgon is not the final ascent to the 4321m Wagagai Peak, but the descent into the vast 40km² caldera.
Geography and Climate
The climate is moist to moderate dry with an annual rainfall of over 1,270mm. The dry season runs from June to August, and December to March, although it can rain at any time of the year on the mountain.
Mt. Elgon, a solitary volcano, is one of the oldest in East Africa. It was built up from lava debris blown out from a greatly enlarged volcanic vent during the Pliocene epoch and rises to a height of about 4320m above sea level. The geology of the area is dominated by basaltic parent materials and strongly weathered granites of the Basement Complex.
The area receives a bimodal pattern of rainfall, generally, with the wettest period occurring from April to October. The mean annual rainfall ranges from 1500 mm on the eastern and northern slopes, to 2000 mm in the southern and the western slopes. The mean maximum and minimum temperatures are 23° and 15 °C respectively. Mid-slopes oriented towards the east and north, at elevations between 2000 and 3000m tend to be wetter than either the lower slopes or the summit.
The vegetation of Mt. Elgon reflects the altitudinal controlled zonal belts commonly associated with large mountain massifs. Four broad vegetation communities are recognised, namely: mixed montane forest up to an elevation of 2500m studded with the giant lobelia and groundsel plants, bamboo and low canopy montane forest from 2400 to 3000m, and moorland above 3500m. The botanical diversity of the park includes giant podocarpus, pillarwood Cassipourea malosana, juniper and Elgon olive trees cedar Juniperus procera, elder Sambucus adnata, pure stands of Podocarpus gracilior to mention but a few.
Elephants and buffalo can be found on the lower slopes of the mountain. The park is also home to a variety of small antelope and duiker, as well forest monkeys, including the blue monkey, black and white colobus. The red-tailed monkey have been reported after being thought to be locally extinct. In the late 1990s, it is believed that both leopard and hyena existed there.
Mount Elgon is home to at least 300 bird species including; the Jackson’s francolin, Hartlaub’s turaco, the eastern bronze-naped pigeon, the Tacazze sunbird and the endangered lammergeier, due to their restricted range.
Maathai’s longleg, an endangered dragonfly was discovered in the park in 2005 and named after Nobel Prize winner Wangari Mathaai.
It’s quite apt to note that half of Uganda’s butterfly species have been reported in Mt. Elgon.
Together with the fauna and flora, the park has a variety of scenery; this includes cliffs, caves, gorges, waterfalls, hot springs, mesas, calderas, and the mountain peaks. The most popular areas are the four explorable, vast caves where frequent night visitors such as buffaloes and elephants come to lick the natural salt found on the cave walls. Kitum cave, with overhanging crystalline walls, enters 200m into the side of Mt. Elgon. At the Endebess Bluff there a panoramic view of the areas’ escarpments, mesas, gorges, and rivers.
Tourists on a Uganda safari circuit can visit the park any time throughout the year, although conditions in the park are more difficult during the rainy season and it is usually advisable to use 4×4 vehicles to access the park. Available tourist accommodation include; Lacaam Lodge, Sipi River Lodge, the UWA Bandas, and a number of accommodation facilities in Mbale town.
The major tourist activities in the park include; game viewing, caves exploration especially Kitum, Chepnyali, and Mackingeny, primates and bird watching, butterfly watching, Hiking to the peaks, self guided walking trails, and camping photography. There are also visits to the hot springs in the former volcano’s crater which bubble at temperatures of up to 48 °C.