Climbing Mountain Elgon

A little travel story in between:

In mid July I came to Sipi Falls in hope for another couple of quite days to think and write in a beautiful place. Surely I found a beautiful place, but the thought of climbing Mount Elgon, or Mountain Elgon, as many locals call it respectfully, wouldn’t stop circulating in my mind.

The 100m water fall in Sipi

When I heard that it was possible to climb the peak from the village of Budariri and walk back to Sipi in three days, I decided to go.

The next day I took a matatu to the district capital Mbale. My new friend Julius, who had guided me to the waterfalls in Sipi, lent me his hiking boots for the mountain (real boots, not the ones on the photo).

But when I arrived at the Mount Elgon National Park office in Mbale, I was told that it was impossible to do it in three days is and that the park fees just had risen from 50$ to 90$ per day(!). Disappointed I spent the night in Mbale and treated myself to the most luxurious dinner since long in a nice Indian restaurant. The next morning I woke up early. In the spirit of early morning enthusiasm I told myself that I had wasted money on less valuable things before, went to buy food and made the last preparations. Although the fees were far beyond my non-existing budget, I wanted to climb the peak from Budariri and walk the same way back, which I they had said is possible in three days.

When traveling alone for a long time people start doing strange things like taking self-assuring self-portaits in the hotel bathroom. At least I do.

By the time I reached Budariri it was midday – too late to start the climb to the base camp, the park officer told me. On my insistence, he called the ranger guide, who said that I should start right now and as an exception sleep at the rangers’ patrol hut four kilometres before the base camp – provided I was ready to get started before sunrise the next day and climb from the hut at 3300m to the 4300m of Wagagai Peak. And so Wycliff, the porter, and I started of. To climb Mount Elgon one is obliged to go with an armed ranger-guide, whose pay is included in the park fees (a non-significant percentage of them, as I learned). It is also expected to take for 5$ a day a porter who carries one’s tent, food and water, and I knew from Julius about the great competition for these jobs among the young men in the area.

"Is it not hard to carry all the stuff on your head on these trails?" Wycliff: "Sometimes I carry the bag on my shoulders"

As soon we started walking, I realised what a good decision this has been. We soon left the villages behind and dove into the forest. Wycliff told me about his plans to start a coffee field with some friends, and I told him about our plans to set up a network of young anti-corruption activists. We soon decided to keep in touch and support each others projects. When we reached the ring of bamboo forest, we bumped into Alex, the ranger-guide. His smile made even his Kalashinkov look friendly. In good mood we moved on. It was long dark before we reached the hut and all rangers were asleep.

The next morning we started off before sunrise. Not long and we reached the base camp, where we left Wycliff and most of our luggage. When the path got steeper, Alex slowed down to a felt one step per minute. I told him that I could handle a faster pace. He smiled and said, you’ll see… An hour later already I knew what he meant. After an otherworldly journey through a strange landscape appearing and vanishing in the mist we reached Wagagai Peak. Only on the last meters the clouds opened up enough to give a view on the huge crater of Mt. Elgon. I failed to capture its wideness on the photos.

After ten minutes rest on the peak, the first thunder rumbled through the crater. We quickly started our way down. Every child knows that neither a peak nor a treeless ridge are really the places to be in a thunderstorm. A minute later it started hailing nails into our faces and the thunder seemed below and above, right and left of us. After 30 minutes I started getting easier since the plants that looked like huge dried flowers started being higher then us.

Then somebody took a photograph from above. In the very moment an enormous thunder took us both of our feet. Never before it has happened to me to see flash and hear thunder at the same time. I asked myself if the trembling I felt in my body was from the shock or from electric tension. We arrived the base camp completely soaked, and cherished the fire Wycliff had prepared in the small hut.

Another reason why one shouldn't carry a weapon: It breaks your rain cape

Before we went to bed, Alex said that we could try to walk to the Sipi exit of the park in one day tomorrow. But he had not done this before, and we would have to make two day tours in one, which would make it a 52 kilometres walk, crossing a 3900m ridge. We decided to give it a try and start early again.

As painful as it was and although at least half of the day it was raining, this hiking day left a deep impression on me. We walked through a variety of landscapes, from the scarce vegetation of the crater through green valleys with waterfalls and vast savannahs dotted with red flowers into the light bamboo forest ring, before we reached the thick rainforest in the lower parts. Even blindly walking in the rain-clouds was of fascinating intensity. Whenever the clouds cleared a little, they gave way to amazing views and fast moving veils of mist.

Still, the way was long and we had almost no time for rest. There were many hours of just walking foot for foot, in particular the ascents left me little space for thoughts between the breath. But I discovered another advantage of positive thinking: The blister on my right Achilles tendon stopped hurting when walking down, and my knee stopped hurting when walking up! :)

The last 20 kilometres were mainly walking down through rainforest. How wonderful is rainforest that in too high altitude for mosquitoes! Nevertheless it fully deserved its name, being dropping wet.

I always thought that slipping on a muddy path makes you and your clothes dirty, but is not a serious problem. But here, a good part of the trail serves huge ants as their major trading routes. And these ants bite as soon as they see a piece of flesh. Only after the third or fourth bite I realized that I had picked up a whole bunch of them at my last slide. By then they had entered into my backpack, my jacket, under my shirt, and into my trousers. I doubt that as a practicing Buddhist I’d have the patience to respect the precept of killing no living creature with biting ants in my trousers. What would you do? Strip naked and turn your trousers inside-out? In that time a whole army of ants would have climbed up your legs. As for me, I rubbed my legs as merciless as I could. But even if you are willing to kill the attackers, it is not so easy to get rid of them on a narrow muddy path. In particular, removing the ants at the same time from your backpack, your jacket and your shirt, while constantly lifting your feet to avoid new intruders, requires some sophisticated break-dance moves. Or you stay as cool as Alex, who came to my help and whose rubber boots the ants respectfully ignored.

An hour after the ant-fight we came to a huge cave with a waterfall as its curtain. The prickling shower compensated me for all strains of the day and we went into the last couple of hours with new energy.

In the midst of thoughtful walking through the fresh aired forest, we suddenly heard a bang. Alex increased his pace and fifty meters on we found a pile of wooden boards that looked like cut with a professional machine. “There are people doing illegal activities. They saw me before I saw them.” With a smile lifted three of the boards up on his head. As punishment he took them to the park office, which by then was only a good hour away. On the last two kilometres, night was already falling, heaven celebrated our arrival with rainfalls that gave the notion of slippery a new dimension. No problem for Alex, who balanced the weighty boards on his head whilst navigating through the mud in his profile-less rubber boots.

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5 Responses to Climbing Mountain Elgon

  1. jule says:

    Thank you, Felix! Looking forward to more stories and pictures. Hope you are very well.

  2. Nyasha Frank Mpahlo says:

    I love your photos man. The experience was really worth it. I would mind climbing Mount Elgon. Keep safe.

  3. Nyasha Frank Mpahlo says:

    I love your photos man. The experience was really worth it. I wouldn’t mind climbing Mount Elgon. Keep safe.

  4. Peter Mugori says:

    I love your photos, especially the one at the beginning of your article, which I believe was taken from Moses Camp Site. Please come again.

  5. Titus says:

    Chatty narrative about that Mount Elgon climb. Such a pacey reading…

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