Untamed Wilderness, Majestic Splendour
Mount Elgon National Park - High in the mist-wreathed hills of Western Kenya, Mount Elgon is a towering volcanic giant, crowned by a vast crater, etched by glacial tarns, honeycombed by labyrinthine caves, fissured by valleys, cascaded by streams, cloaked in forest and straddling the border between Kenya and Uganda. Known both as the Mountain of the Breast and the Mountain of Illusion, the basalt bluffs of enigmatic Elgon have been held sacred for centuries and, ancient beyond comprehension, remain a potent link with the dawn of time.
Area: 169 sq. km
Altitude: 2,100 - 4,301 m above sea level
Location: Astride the Kenya/Uganda border in Western Province.
Distance from Nairobi: 470 km north of Nairobi
Gazetted: Mt. El;gon was gazetted as a National Park in 1968
Climate: Wettest March to October. Driest November to February.
Rainfall: 1500-2000 mm pa Hail and freezing temperatures may be encountered at any time of the year on the upper slopes.
Flora: Ranges from wet montane and bamboo forests to Afro-alpine moorlands.
Fauna: Includes; elephant, leopard, giant forest hog, bushbuck, eland, buffalo, duiker, black and white colobus, blue monkey and golden cat.
Birds: There are more than 240 species of birds within the Park
Roads: Largely well-maintained dirt roads, suitable for 2WD for most of the year. 4WD is advisable in the wet season.
Mount Elgon - what's in a name?
To the Maasai, who graze their herds on its slopes, the mountain is known as Ol Doinyo IIgoon, the Mountain of the Breast. Joseph Thomson, the first European to visit Mt. Elgon in 1883, called it ‘Masaba' (after the legendary Father of the Bukusu people of Uganda). It is believed to have derived the name Elgon (meaning ‘People of the Mountain') from the remnant group of hunter-gathers, the El Kony, who once inhabited its caves and still live high on its flanks. In later years, the Mount Elgon National Park was dubbed ‘The Loneliest Park in Kenya' and also became known as the "Mountain of Illusion" because of the number of hiking parties that got lost and disoriented on its slopes; also due to the confusion over which of its peaks was the highest.
The Geological Fact File
The highest peaks in Uganda are: Wagagai (4321m), Mubiyi (4211m), and Jackson's Summit (4161m) and in Kenya: Lower Elgon (4,301m), Koitobos (4,187m), Sudek (4,176m) and Endebess Bluff (2,563m).
Mt Elgon is: A dormant volcano astride the Kenya/Uganda border. (The last major eruption is thought to have occurred at some time in the early Pleistocene Epoch (12 million years ago), since which time only minor eruptions have occurred, the most recent being about 2 million years ago).
At 4301 m (on the Kenyan side) it is the second highest mountain in Kenya, after Mount Kenya.
Thought known to have been once Africa's highest mountain, it is now her fourth highest.
Characterized by the largest base (80km) of any freestanding volcano in the world.
Estimated to be at least 24 million years old, making it the oldest dormant volcano in East Africa
Possessed of one of the largest intact calderas (8km in diameter) in the world.
The troglodyte elephant
The Park's biggest attraction is its so called ‘Troglodyte Tuskers', world renowned for their habit of digging for salt in the caves that honeycomb the lower slopes of the mountain. Ranging freely between moorland, bamboo and the lower forests, the 400-odd elephant regularly enter the caves, usually at night. Here they ‘mine' for the sodium sulphate, which is rich in the rocks but not readily available in the mountain foliage - due to the leaching effect of the high rainfall.
When and where to see elephant
In the bamboo forest from November to April
In the Kitum and Mackingeny Cave - from December to March
From the Elephant Platform - where herds congregate to feed on the acacias.
Although the lion are long gone, numerous elephant and buffalo still roam the forested slopes of the Mountain. Duiker and giant forest hog also frequent the dense undergrowth while large troops of shaggy black-and-white colobus and blue monkey inhabit the tree canopy. Olive baboon loiter near the forest edges and there is also a small colony of de Brazza's monkey. Spotted hyena shelter in the remote caves while leopards stake out their entrances.
The Elkony Caves
One of Mount Elgon's most exciting attractions is the selection of ancient caves, known collectively as the Elkony Caves, which honeycomb its lower slopes. Technically described as lava tube caves , these massive caverns, some of which extend 200 meters horizontally into the mountain, were formed many millions of years ago.
There are four main caves on the Kenyan side of the mountain, all of which are accessible and open to visitors.
Tip: Don't forget to take a torch with you if you want to explore the caves.
The Kitum Cave
The most famous of the caves, Kitum Cave, achieved global fame when a television documentary showed the nightly pilgrimage of hundreds of elephant into its eerily bat-filled caves. Kitum (translated as ‘Place of Ceremonies' in Maasai) extends horizontally into the heart of the mountain for 200 m of dark and winding tunnels wherein thousands of Rousette fruit bats roost.
Note: night visits to the caves are only allowed under the escort of a Park ranger. To find the cave from Chorlim Gate, head north for 2km to the sign-posted junction for the caves and turn right 2.5km towards Endebess Bluff, taking the narrow and overgrown track on the left just before the waterfall. Note: Park regulations dictate that a ranger must escort you on any walks to the caves, for which a small fee is payable.
The most spectacular of the caves, Makingeny is marked by a magnificent cascade of clear water, which sweeps across the yawning mouth of its entrance. There are also two other caves - Ngwarisha (below Endebess Bluff), and Chepnyalil Cave (featuring a primitive altar and a fresco of cattle inspired cave paintings) which is in the forest, off the main trail leading past Elephant Platform towards the peak.
Scaling the ‘Mountain of Illusion'
Mount Elgon offers fine forested and open walking country, panoramic moorland scenery and long views. All the major summits are accessible to hikers; the climbing routes are largely free of vegetation, not particularly steep and require no technical climbing skills. As to climate, while there is no permanent snow, seasonal snow sometimes lies in the crater and it can become extremely cold at night.
Note: Mount Elgon can be climbed at any time of year but the months of heaviest rain (the end of April and May, August and September) should be avoided.
Important: Before attempting any hiking it is essential to seek guidance from the KWS rangers at the Chorlim Gate Park HQ (you will also be required to hire the services of a KWS ranger for ANY walking in the Park - a minimal fee will be payable).
Around and about the Mount Elgon Region
Western Kenya is a largely undiscovered region of the country that offers endless rewards, good roads, rolling hills and lush vegetation. Highlights include: Kisumu, the Cherangani Hills, Kitale, Lake Victoria, Saiwa Swamp National Park, Kakemega National Forest Reserve and Ruma National Park.