And you’ll discover the mountain shared by Kenya and Uganda, rare wildlife and wild plants plus a bit of history in the struggle for freedom
Above: Mount Elgon. Copyright Maya Mangat
Published: The East African magazine – Nation media 6 April 2019
Western Kenya’s most famous landmark is Victoria the great African lake shared by three countries – Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Huge like an inland sea, the world’s second largest freshwater lake was unknown to the outside world except for the Arab slave traders who kept the route a secret and told little of the lake. Then came the tide of change and European explorers smitten with the Nile’s origins coursed the land and in 1858 John Hanning Speke standing on the lake’s shores near modern day Jinja and took a guess to state it as the Nile’s source.
But apart from this African great lake that the locals of the time called Nyanza, there’s interesting stuff up north. Like the great big mountain that straddles Uganda and Kenya. If you get to the caldera, you can have a foot in each country. Ancient and weathered – this extinct shield volcano is dated 24 million years (whereas Lake Victoria is only half a million years old) but stunningly chiselled by the winds of so many centuries.
It’s a great mountain to explore if you’re into hiking, nature and all that. Or if you just want to see something new. The two famous landmarks on the mountains are the elephant-chiselled tunnel called Kitum. These amazing tuskers come to scratch out the salt in the walls of the tunnel. However a few years ago huge boulders tumbled down and blocked part of the entrance. When l first wandered into the pitch dark cave 20 years ago, it had a huge mouth. But there’s still some space left for you to walk in – better with a guide and a strong torch. A waterfall guards the entrance and you can wander down the nature trail.
Like l said don’t rush your trip to this mountain because if you’re really energetic you have to get to the caldera and Koitobos a flat-topped basalt column which is the highest peak on the Kenyan side at 13,852 feet. Any reasonably fit person can do this hike from last driveable spot – it’s six kilometres up along mountain plants like groundsels and lobelias including those with the ‘only found on Mount Elgon’ tag. Botanists will love this.
Saiwa Swamp National Park
Once off the mountain, drive up north to Kenya’s smallest national park that’s just a swamp but not just any swamp. Measuring 2.9 square kilometres, it’s home to the very endangered swamp-loving antelope called the sitatunga. Some 70 years ago, it was found in the swamps lining Lake Victoria and the rivers that flowed in (Kagera from Rwanda and Nzoia) and out of it (i.e. the Nile). With its water-resistant coat and played out hooves, it lived a pretty comfortable life until swamps got cleared (and hunted for the pot) that it found itself without a home – save for Saiwa in Kenya and a few other glades. Spend a night in the park and you’ll be nicely rewarded with a sight of the swamp antelope. During the day, it hides in the thickets so you may not see any. And you can treat yourself with a night in the tree house above the swamp – increasing your chances of spotting the sitatunga.
Done with the swamp, drive on north some 40 minutes on a good tarmac road to this once little-known tiny dot on the map which was perfect for the colonial government to send its wayward charges for trials far from the masses. It shot to fame for the trial of the Kapenguria Six – that is Jomo Kenyatta, Bildad Kaggia, Kungu Karumba, Fred Kubai, Paul Ngei and Ramogi Achieng Oneko who were held here and put on trial in 1952/3. The cells of the freedom fighters are part of the museum including documents of the trial. The galleries show the Pokot people’s culture – and forest snakes like the Gabon and rhinocerous vipers.
You have the option to drive back and get to Kakamega forest which is the only bit of an ancient rainforest left in Kenya and treat yourself to a few nights at Rondo Retreat and then continue to Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria.
Or drive further into the northern frontiers along the Cherangani Hills that winds its way along the Morunyi River and spend a couple of days at the Maarich Pass Field Study Centre. There’s tons to do from here like hiking up the hills and watching the Pokot pan for gold.
And if you’re really up to it, get to the world’s largest permanent lake in a desert – Lake Turkana. The thing is that it’s 250 kilometers long and the north east is totally different from the North West while the southern end is again different.
Words of Wisdom
For accommodation log on to the Kenya Wildlife Service. It has comfortable guest houses and campsites in the parks. Carry your food and camping gear. Campers will also enjoy Barnleys Guest House north of Saiwa. Drive a good four-wheel drive car, have your ID card on you otherwise you can’t enter the parks…and enjoy your road trip.
Don’t limit yourself to this – it’s only a nudge to get you exploring.