Western Kenya never seems to be high up on the tourist agenda, whether it is local or international tourists. It’s more of a place that is visited by people who are aware of the natural beauty that the mountain forest beholds. The fact that it is on the Kenya – Uganda border, about 6 hours drive from Nairobi (if Eldoret is not jammed up), doesn’t make it the easiest place to get to, however the roads from Nairobi to the turn-off for the Mt. Elgon National Park are all in very good condition, but beware of the Eldoret traffic. Kitale is the closest, major town to Mt. Elgon, 45 minutes drive, and has developed to have all of the basic requirements you need for a trip up Mt. Elgon. Should you forget anything in Nairobi there is a Nakumat as well as various other local supermarkets and shops.
The drive from the main road up the mountain to gate of the National Park is breathtaking, with vast farmlands that are gradually devoured by the Mt. Elgon forest, which is protected by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), on the Kenyan side of the mountain. The beauty of Mt. Elgon is that, unlike most of Kenya’s national parks, you are allowed to hike in the park and really experience the forest and nature in all it’s glory, though it’s advisable to take a ranger escort should you wish to do so.
Along with hiking to the various peaks on the Kenyan side of the mountain, there are a host of other activities and hikes to keep you busy whilst visiting the park, such as fishing the various rivers on the mountain, hiking to and around the various caves (Kitum cave, Makingenyi cave…), horse riding with KWS, sundowners at the Elephant platform… to name a few. Hiking through the thick forest makes for a unique experience with the sounds of the birdlife and silence giving tranquility that is so often sought but rarely found.
Mt. Elgon is the 17th highest mountain in Africa, but boasts the biggest base-area, which indicates that this now extinct volcano once towered over the plains of Western Kenya. The climate up Mt. Elgon is a highland altitude climate with temperatures at night becoming very cold, however during the dry season, the days are hot and clear, making for expansive views East across Kenya (a friend once told me on a clear day, you can sometimes see the outline of Mt. Elgon from Maralal – Northern Kenya). The rainy season is very wet, cold and muddy up Mt. Elgon and the roads are nearly impassible unless you have a 4-wheel-drive vehicle and some experience driving in such conditions.
As with any mountain forest, game viewing is tough, but very rewarding when you do encounter any wildlife. On a previous visit, I had some friends visiting from abroad and of course they really wanted to see some game. With the help of a ranger, we embarked on a short off-road hike and 5-minutes later, we were stood on the edge of a Tower of Giraffe, something I have never experienced in the Kenyan Bush and a truly unforgettable experience for my friends. Being able to hike always allows for such unique experiences; where even an encounter with ‘small’ game (gazelle…) is so intimate you get to appreciate those animals in all their glory.
KWS have constructed a guesthouse and some bandas in the National Park, which are all of very good standard; clean, well maintained, electricity, hot water, basic services offered and caretakers who take their work seriously. The accommodation is all very well priced, with the guesthouse being slightly more than the bandas, but it’s always my preference. The guesthouse is spacious, can sleep 6 people, waking up to the house surrounded by Zebra and Waterbuck and for me the best thing is the big living space, which is ideal to hang out, chat and unwind after a day in the forest or on the road.
There is the Mt. Elgon Lodge, 1 km from the national park gate, however this is an old lodge that has been run-down. I would not advise staying there (until it is refurbished), but it’s always a good place to stop for a soft drink on your way in or out.
I’ve been visiting Mt. Elgon since I was a child as I have family from that part of the world, and have always wondered why it’s never busier with local tourists. I would always suggest visiting the mountain to anyone I meet and always urge the adventurers and 4×4 enthusiasts to get out there and visit one of Kenya’s forgotten gems!