The potential of hiking in Uganda is endless, yet this form of tourism is underexposed and underdeveloped. As part of Adventure Tourism Uganda, a Dutch trekking specialist called Bergwandelen.com, is exploring the hiking potential of various mountains in Uganda. Which trails have the most potential? What needs to be done to further professionalize the services offered by local companies? In March 2020, hiking guide Jan Bakker ventured out to the northern slopes of Mount Elgon. Using Kapchorwa as a base, the aim of the week was to assess a group of aspiring hiking guides and to scout new hiking routes along the boundary of Mount Elgon National Park. – By Jan Bakker
The most visited mountain in East Africa is Kilimanjaro, attracting more than 50,000 visitors annually. While it may be difficult to reach those numbers, Uganda’s mountains certainly have a lot to offer to hikers. Mount Elgon is a striking example: beautiful as it is, the Ugandan side of the world’s largest caldera volcano is nowhere near fulfilling its tourism potential as it is attracting just a few hundred visitors per year. With 4,321 meters in height, the mountain is relatively accessible for climbers who are not interested to climb more extreme altitudes. With its variety in vegetation zones, its hot springs, and its elephants who are attracted by the minerals in the gorges, the mountain has so much to offer to tourists. Developing the tourism industry in Mount Elgon in a sustainable way can create jobs and business opportunities for locals and may help to safeguard the precious environment. Training the local tour guides is therefore a step in the right direction.
In collaboration with the Sipi Falls Tour Guides Association and Home of Friends Guesthouse, seven (aspiring) local guides were selected. In order to assess their current knowledge level, the week kicked off with a theoretical test. The results of the test will be used as a base to develop a tailor-made training program for hiking guides. The participants were also asked about their motivations and experiences. After the classroom sessions it was time to set up base camp on the grounds of our host Home of Friends. For most, it was the first time sleeping in a tent, an essential experience when leading multi-day trekking expeditions.
The next two days were all about exploring trails. The first hike on the program was an exciting route from Kapchorwa to the well-known Sipi Falls along the boundary of Mount Elgon National Park. Jackson, a running coach and beekeeper served as the guide of the day. Through his beekeeping practices on the fringes of the park he knows the local trails like no other. He is one of many locals who are engaged in the beekeeping business, which has a lot of economic potential. Its products can be sold in Kampala and Jinja, or even abroad.
After a short but strenuous climb, the group reached the border of the national park and entered a westbound trail. Some sections of the route lacked a clear path and need some refining. After roughly 6 hours of walking the group reached the highest of the three Sipi Falls, a thundering 85 meter high waterfall. A tricky, steep trail (not to be taken with clients) led to the bottom of the waterfall. The path further down to the road was in good shape, but no visitor in sight. After a quick visit to Sipi Fall No. 2 they continued to the main road and drove back to Kapchorwa. The ride offers incredible views of the primary forest, waterfalls, caves and sheer cliffs and would definitely be an addition to the existing hiking trails.
The following day we headed east towards the district of Kween. Prior to our hike the local village chiefs were informed that the group would pass, explaining that the group was exploring the tourism potential of the area. Guide of the day was David Mande from Benet, a village in Kween District. The first highlight were the Kaptokwoi and Chepchebai Waterfall, just outside Kapchorwa. The waterfall was only a short hike from the main dirt road, however getting close to the major waterfall (Kaptokwoi) was a little risky. Big slippery rocks blocked the way. A small trail a little higher up would make the waterfall more accessible. Gradually the group climbed towards the Kween District, through colourful agricultural fields, past more waterfalls and eventually reaching the highest point of the trek at around 2,450 metres above sea level. The waterfall near Benet, the end of our trek, would rival the big Sipi waterfall if it wasn’t for its remote location. Benet itself is known for its production of woven baskets, and could be an interesting product for souvenir shops throughout the country.
On Thursday morning, a short hike to yet another waterfall was on the agenda. Tawut, plunges down almost 100 metres from the escarpment and eventually drains into the vast Karamoja savannah. It’s a worthy goal for a short, easy hike, though it lacks clear paths in the gorge itself. Despite the big team and the relatively remote location, the group managed to get back to base camp on the back of a number of bodas (moto-taxi). After enjoying a free afternoon of relaxing and reflecting on the past days of trail exploring they got together for a film night, screening the spectacular climbing film Meru.
To conclude the week, a reflection one the week took place. It has been a fruitful week and confirmed that the districts on the northern side of Mount Elgon are a worthy hiking destination in need of development and start-ups that focus solely on mountain walking.
One again it proved that Mount Elgon has great potential as an adventurous tourism destination, as the region is just spectacular in so many ways. Yet we believe there are a few things that need to be developed before Mount Elgon will become the tourist attraction it ought to be: a solid network of huts along the trails would increase its accessibility significantly, as the current situation requires sleeping in tents. In addition, there is a high need for specialized trekking organizations whose primarily focus is to offer excellent trekking tours in the Mount Elgon region. Finally, there is a need for highly skilled, local tour guides. Time will tell whether this weeks’ guides will fill that gap. They certainly possessed the right motivation and potential!