During Martyn Pollock’s three-day climb up Mt Elgon to see Kitum Cave and summit Koitobos Peak, he only meets one other tourist-and-guide combo. It may get far less visitors than its more popular counterparts in Kenya and Uganda, but this mountain’s charm is certainly not lost on the writer.
PHOTOGRAPHS: MARTYN POLLOCK
Gusii lands disappear behind me and with the Nandi Hills of Kisumu in sight, my Nissan Note powers up through the Rift Valley towards Kitale. She doesn’t complain until the last 20km of murram road where bottoming out becomes a constant affair on every pot hole, bump and rock. But, rental cars can go anywhere. They have special powers of driver indifference that you do not get with a regular vehicle.
Mount Elgon, like most other large mountains in East Africa, is an extinct volcano, formed over 20 million years ago as the earth spewed molten rock over an area 80km in diameter. Straddling both Uganda and Kenya you have the option of several approaches to reach the many summits. I’ve chosen Kitale on the Kenyan side to start my journey.
My guide David is late. Despite having phoned me the night before insisting I arrive by 7:30am, he rocks up at 8:40am with no explanation. After the standard formalities we are on our way walking through thick ancient forest with an abundance of zebras, bushbucks, waterbucks, dik-diks, baboons and colobus monkeys. At this stage it is more of a safari than a mountain climb and I begin to see the charm that sets this mountain apart from other climbs in the region.
The mountain massif is particularly famous for its abundance of large caves, and Kitum Cave is the biggest on the Kenyan side stretching over 160m into the mountainside. I always forget how much I dislike caving, until someone takes me caving. Especially when it is prefixed with “follow me” and I think we are going a further 10ft into the cave to see something interesting, when in actual fact, what follows is a 20 minute subterranean cave tour in complete darkness with nothing but David’s phone to light the way. He points the light towards the cave ceiling and thousands of bats descend, rushing past our faces but never touching. Claustrophobia aside, the caves are an amazing spectacle: the entrance is like a huge opera house and there is clear evidence that tourists like me are only one of many visitors. As well as most of the antelope species on the mountain and some of the cats, an unlikely group of visitors are the elephants who come here to scrape and lick the salt off the cave walls in the hours of complete darkness, using nothing but smell and intuition to guide them into the depths.
A note of caution: post trip I learned that Mt Elgon and specifically the bats that live in the mountain’s many caves are associated with a strain of the Ebola virus. There have been no confirmed deaths due to cave visits since the 1980s, but as a precaution the WHO suggests avoiding the bat colonies, and if you do need to get close, to wear gloves and a face mask. Sadly you won’t get such advice or guidance from your guide or even from the park authorities, so best to be prepared.
Situated far from the main tourist attractions of both Kenya and Uganda, Mount Elgon gets far fewer visitors than Mount Kenya, the Aberdares or even the Rwenzori. During my climb, it seemed practically deserted. I only met one other tourist and guide combo in the three-day trip. There are the same lobelias as well as thick forest and bamboo sections that you find in other African highlands, but what struck me most were the fields of lavender that cover the mountainside giving an omnipresent sweet floral aroma.
David convinces me to skip out a day of the trip by going straight from the gate to camp two. It makes for a more intense climb, but also means we will not be too idle at each stop. This is good as the campsites are basic: a cleared area and a rock circle for a fire and that’s about it. Don’t expect huts with bunk beds and three course meals being served to you after a hard day’s walk. Pretty quickly we are in a rhythm and any guide/client relationship is out of the window. I build the tent while he builds the fire, he gets more wood while I cook and so on. With huge downpours of rain coming daily, working together is the only way we can ensure we get everything done before the inevitable soaking. I really should stop climbing during the long rains, but I rarely get to choose when I am free.
Lunch time on day two we reach the summit of Koitobos peak. From the campsite it is a really quite pleasant 6km walk with several other peaks in view throughout. The last 200m is a scramble through a rupture in the solid Basalt column. From the summit the full extent of the massive caldera is visible, one of the largest in Africa with several distinct peaks on both sides of the border. Koitobos is the third highest overall and second highest in Kenya, but for me this is largely immaterial. There is no triumphant moment of conquest, of man vs mountain. It is a cliché to say, but the joy is in the journey. Losing yourself in the isolation of the natural world where nothing matters except staying dry and staying hydrated. All of life’s normal worries and responsibilities melt away into insignificance. This is the true beauty of climbing.