Thursday, 26 June 2014

Mbale, tucked neatly into the foothills of Mount Elgon

As we turned around the ever present clock towers (yes they have one too) at traffic circles, it strikes me that the town is still in its 70’s heyday. Although somewhat dilapidated the 60s and 70’s is still in full swing in this towns architecture.

With flash backs of Maputo still in my mind Frida, a friend and on this occasion our guide, directs us down one of the many potholed filled streets that didn’t keep track of the times. It’s very evident that business has come to town as bank logos flashes by my window. Things are moving here and I can’t help but wonder if they will lose all these great art deco inspired and colonial style buildings as the future envelops this blast from the past.
Business on the street by Corne Schalkwyk
Mbale, town is located in the south-eastern part of Uganda. With its feet tucked neatly into the slopes of the now extinct volcano mount Elgon at around 4,321 metres above sea level.

It’s a fertile spot, especially priced for its coffee, Frida informs me. She is taking me to see a spot her mom wants to develop as well.  More surprisingly, Mbale is home to the Islamic University and the Moses Synagogue around which most of the Abayudaya or "People of Judah" live. The population includes members of the Gisu ethnic group, mainly the Bamasaaba and Bagisu.

We went for a small pub hopping session to see the hotels and some of the new guest houses that seem to be popping up all over the town. Tourism is coming to Mbale too, they are getting ready and taking a “if you build it, they will come approach”. They might be right, as the budget market is starting to stream into the town, be it mostly American’s come to save or convert the locals.

 I also met one of the new entries into the market that set up a backpacker style guest house called Casa Del Turista, he neither seemed Italian or catholic and I later heard that he was Muslim but studied in Italy.  He seems to have hit the nail solidly on its head, as young foreign visitors peal out of every corner. I couldn’t help but smile when I walked passed an American dooms day prepper giving the rest of her group some much needed tips…..only in Uganda I thought to myself.  

Early the next morning after refueling on the delectable Arabica coffee after being woken by the ever present crows in Mbale,  we set off to Mount Elgon.

 The mountain 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 at around 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 weird and wonderful flora and fauna.
With over 300 species of birds including the endangered Lammergeyer I was sure to be the pain in Frida’s existence. Frida is still learning to cope with birders, and having two of us in the car, were sure to test her patience. 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. Here most people aim to descend into the vast 40km² caldera.

Mt Elgon was once Africa's highest mountain, far exceeding Kilimanjaro’s current 5,895m. Millennia of erosion have reduced its height to 4,321m, relegating it to the 4th highest peak in East Africa and 8th on the continent.

Our aim on the day however was not the climb the mountain peaks but to visit to the falls, called Sipi falls It’s  a series of three waterfalls that lie on the edge of Mount Elgon National Park near the Kenyan border.

 The Sipi Falls area is particularly famous for locally grown Bugisu Arabica coffee. Bugisu Arabica only grows at an altitude of between 1,600 and 1,900 metres. Coffee tours are organized through guides with knowledge of coffee farming, processing and roasting. Profits from this go towards community projects in the area.

Although we were climbing up a steep hill and I could hear the group huffing and puffing, it was a worthwhile exploit to see this stunner, arguably the most beautiful waterfalls in all of Uganda. It doesn’t have the force of Murchison falls but it’s a total biome overload of new plants and even little colourful gems to find.  And find them we did! Dotted around the area are beautifully coloured chameleons, big and small that dangle in the misty spray of the forest undergrowth.  
Chameleon by Corne Schalkwyk

As we descended past caves and crevasses the heavens opened up and poured down on us, cutting short our planned cave visits. We still left the mountain (now very wet) in good spirits assured to return to this magical spot. 

For tours to Uganda contact Premier Safaris at or have a look at their website at  
Goat smoking his own brand of pipe in Mbale