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Mount Elgon National Park (169 sq km - 65 sq miles)
Location: Western Kenya, 470 km (292 miles) from Nairobi; 90 km (56 miles) from Kitale
Altitude: 2,438-4206 meters (8,000-13,800 feet)
Opened: April 1968

Even more a botanist's and naturalist's park than it is for all its other forms of exploration -- and there are plenty -- Mount Elgon, East Africa's third highest mountain, is almost as remarkable for its rare alpine flora and plant life as for its fauna. The latter include another rarity, the mountain's mining elephants.

Lying at the north-west extremity of the Kenya highlands -- the green, fertile country over 1,500 meters (5,000 feet) above sea level -- from where the land then drops away to the arid semi-deserts of the north, the park is one of the loveliest, least visited and unspoiled in Kenya, though human encroachment on the lower slopes causes conservationists some anxiety. It has made necessary the erection of an electric fence (an 'Elephence') 'to keep the farmers out and the elephants in' so that they don't endanger their own and human lives by destroying life-sustaining crops.

The early home -- and still for a few on its upper reaches beyond the park -- of the El-Kony, a remnant of the Nilotic Nandi people, Elgon was always known to the Masai as Ol Doinyo Igoon 'the Mountain of the Breast'. It is still that sort of shape.

With its several zones ranging from wet mountain and bamboo forests to afro-alpine moorlands and tundra, Elgon is a specialist's park when it comes to rare flora. Huge teaks, podo and cedars dominate the forests, some over 24 meters (80 feet) tall.

Nature trails, hiking, picnics, cave exploration and geological safaris are encouraged. There are no in-park hotels or lodges but there are three camp sites and one picnic site. No special equipment is required for hiking and the park management provides guides.

Just one degree north of the equator, the forested slopes, ice-cold streams, moorlands and crater of this huge and ancient extinct volcano formed fifteen million years ago during the colossal upheaval which created the Great Rift Valley, make the park one of fascinating contrast with the parks and reserves of the savannah and plains. Frost lies on the crater floor and upper slopes at nights and snow is not unknown.

A main catchment area for Western Kenya, four rivers have their source on the mountain. The Suam, Kerio and Turkwell feed Lake Turkana, and the Nzoia feeds Lake Victoria, itself the source of the Nile.

Introduced to botanical painting in the late l930s by her second husband, the botanist Peter Bally, it was Elgon which captured Joy Adamson's imagination and prompted her to collect and paint more and more of the unusual specimens she found there, so that with her paintings she could show people, who were not so lucky as she was to be there, 'an indescribably weird world'.

It was there, too, after her third marriage (to George Adamson) that she braved being trodden down by an elephant cow and calf, to grasp from under their feet a specimen which the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, England, was later to acknowledge as 'a plant of exceptional interest'.

Set aside as a reserve in l949, it was not until l968 that Kenya's side of the mountain, with its mysterious caves and rich animal and bird life, was designated a national park. It contains an estimated 400 elephant, buffalo, eland, leopard, civet, genet and golden cat, spotted hyena, de Brazza, Colobus and blue monkeys, olive baboon, giant forest hog, bushbuck, waterbuck and several types of antelope. Over 240 bird species have been recorded.

The best seasons for visiting are October to January and mid-year June-July. The two rainy seasons, April-May and August-September are best avoided.

The Kenya/Uganda boundary divides the mountain between the two countries, cutting across the rim and through the centre of the crater, or caldera, to give it the correct description for, in this instance, as with Menengai at Nakuru to its south-west, the walls fell inwards with the big bang. The caldera is between 6 and 8 km across (4 and 5 miles) and the mountain itself between 80 and 100 km (50 and 60 miles) at base.

The mountain's western side and its two highest peaks: Wagagai at 4,321 meters (14,176 feet) and 4,310-metre (14,141-foot) Sudek lie in Uganda across the Kenya border.

On the Kenya side, flat-topped, basalt Koitobos (Table Rock) with its lava-tube caves -- some over 60 meters (65 yards) in diameter -- is the highest peak at 4,231 meters (13,882 feet) putting it among some of the highest points in the country after Mount Kenya and the Chyulu Hills. Approached across beautiful moorlands, a visit to the hot springs can make an interesting diversion on the way.

For an active holiday, Elgon offers fine climbing opportunities amid spectacular scenery of cliffs, valleys and tarns as well as the hot springs; there is also good fishing in the Suam River.

For the not-so-energetic, the Kitum, Makingeni, Chepnyalil and Ngwarisha caves with their rich salt deposits are a great attraction and are accessible by nature trail, though some courage is required to explore into their depths. Kitum, the largest, extends 200 meters (219 yards) into the heart of the mountain and is famous for its 'cave elephants'. It is their gathering place where, usually at nights, they venture deep into the interior in search of the salt and other minerals that they find there, having over the centuries gouged out long shafts reaching hundreds of feet into the mountain's depths.

It is believed to have been the Kitum cave (its Masai name means 'Place of Ceremonies') which impressed the Victorian author H Rider Haggard's novel She., first published in England in 1887. It came between his King Solomon's Mines (1885) and Allan Quatermain, also in l887. In any case, all three books leaned heavily on the Great Rift Valley for background, though the author himself had never, at the time he wrote them, been there.

The town at the mountain's foot is Kitale, 380 kilometers (236 miles) from Nairobi. Points of entry into the park are the Chorim Gate, on a rough dirt road through farmlands off the Endebess Road, and from Kimilili, 50 km (31 miles) west of Kitale.

 

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