Monthly Archive for March, 2008

Guest blog: Richard on Mt Elgon

Bout Ye Buganda?

(That’s “How are you, people of Uganda?” for those not conversant in the Ulster-Luganda tongue.)

Winston Churchill once lovingly described Uganda as “the pearl of Africa”. As so often, the old boy had a good point. For a pearl is hidden deep at the bottom of the sea, beyond easy reach of man. The discovery of a pearl therefore requires the courage of a pearl diver, submerging themselves to terrifying depths and suppressing their survival instincts. And that’s a little bit like how it felt riding a “boda-boda” on my first night in Uganda.

A “boda-boda” is a form of motorbike taxi highly suited to Uganda’s ever –so-slightly pot-holed and congested streets. Weaving their way at high speed through matatus (mini-buses), “special hires” (taxi cabs) and craters in the road, passengers cling tightly to whatever handles are available.

Aided by several bottles of premium strength Nile Special (aka “loony juice”) in Kabalagala, like the pearl diver, I convinced my survival instincts that my life was not really as at risk as my mind might be telling me.

The second time I was given cause for concern about my life expectancy in Uganda was a short twelve hours later. From drinking Nile Special, to drinking the Nile proper, my relentless hosts had me and my old man taking on the wild rapids of Bujagali. After a brief breakfast in Jinja with other “bodacious” adventure seekers at the Nile River Explorers HQ we set off with Iain, our Ozzie white-water rafting instructor. Imagine my humiliation then at falling out of the raft on the first (Grade 2) rapid! My immediate thought: “this is going to be a long day”. But after two flips of our boat, swimming between rapids and jumping from rocks into a waterfall perhaps the most fun of white-water rafting is to be had outside of the raft anyway. Definitely don’t go to Uganda without trying it.

Then on to the highlight of the trip – the tackling of Mount Elgon…


Mount Elgon is an extinct shield volcano on the border of Uganda and Kenya, its highest peak Wagagai is 4,321m – or 14,000ft. Grania, Dan, Dad and I decided we were up for the challenge!

Tuesday morning we assembled our team for the summit. Just the four of us. Oh, and 5 porters too. Well someone had to carry the wineboxes. Oh, and three armed guards as well. Sadly a Belgian tourist had been tragically shot by bandits fleeing Kenya a few weeks previously. The Ugandan Government weren’t taking any chances. As Dan pointed out before we set off, with 4 porters called Patrick and three guys with AK47s, we could have been mountain climbing in West Belfast!


Off the 12 of us went: 4 lily-livered mzungus  with Salomon boots, North Face jackets and Karrimor backpacks; 8 Ugandans in welly boots and cloth sacks on their heads. Needless to say the Ugandans set the pace and put us all to shame! 


The first night was spent in Tutum cave. Our friendly local guide Isaiah explained the etymology. Tutum cave is the “singing cave”, so called from Bugisu custom. The Bagisu are the local tribe of the Sipi and Budadiri area (the starting and finishing points of our hike). On the birth of twins the Bagisu would historically come to Tutum cave to celebrate and sing.
Isaiah was able to tell us much about Bagisu customs and culture. Bagisu tradition believes their founder, “the old man”, lived, and came down from the mountain. The summit peak, Wagagai, is the name of his wife. The old man’s peak, next to it, got named “Jackson’s peak” by some exploring mzungu in the late 19th century. Isaiah also told us much about Bagisu male circumcision ceremonies, but that’s not repeatable for a family blog such as this!


Tutum cave was also home to a resident colony of fruit bats, which personally I found quite fascinating. Dan, Grania, Dad and I spent quite a bit of time shining torches at the little fellas as they clung to the roof of the cave – a hundred beady little red eyes looked back, all squawking like a demented crowd of muppets on helium.

Wednesday had us back on the trail for a comparatively short trek to the next camp, giving us a nice bit of downtime in the afternoon to nap and read books. Which was just as well because Thursday was to be exhausting!


In the blazing sun we headed out of the forest layer and into the wild west style afro-alpine layer, sparsely populated with bizarre giant plants and wild grass.


As well as Kenyan bandits, the park keepers were also having problems with poaching activity, evidenced by large areas of burnt vegetation where poachers were seeking to flush out the animal life. Which was sad to see. Isaiah explained the mixed success of programmes by the Ugandan Government to “sensitise” the local populations to the need to conserve the mountain habitat. I hope they achieve further success in this regard in the years ahead. The Park Rangers are clearly working very hard to create the conditions for wildlife from the Kenyan side, such as elephants, lions and buffalo, to make a return to the Ugandan side for the first time since Amin’s instability of the 1970s. It really would be a shame for their work to be set back by the bush burners.


What happened on the 4th day, the climb to the summit, has I think been well documented already on this blog. Suffice to say it was “the icing on the peak” of an incredible 5 days trekking.