We have been off on our travels again. This time, via meetings with colleagues in Lira and Soroti, to Sipi Falls at the foot of Mount Elgon, South East of Uganda. Near the city of Mbale that looked, architecturally anyway, worth visiting properly.
We stayed in one of a collection of wooden cabins crawling up a hill opposite the largest of Sipi’s three waterfalls. If another much travelled volunteer describes the accommodation as basic, I think you get the idea. The view made up for it.
“Is anyone else staying here at the moment?
“Ah yes, many, there are many of them”
“The American students”
Not quite what you want to hear as you check into a mountain top retreat. That you will be sharing it with 27 students, oh and they are good Christians too. Visions of Kumbaya at dawn after a night of noisy antics in the dorm. In fact they did their dawn singing further up the mountain and, unlike their British counterparts I suspect, there was no drunken rowdiness at all; early beds all round.
This is walking country, all walks are guided, some of the payment going to the community. It is also the big coffee growing area of Uganda: beans drying by the side of the road; beans drying on paths; beans in front of houses; beans everywhere. People sitting in the drying beans or walking across them to pick out bad beans, or maybe ready beans. It was the sitting and walking about on them in flip flops or muddy bare feet that caught my attention, all organic of course.
Our guide took us along tiny steep muddy paths up through banana plantations, interspersed with coffee plants that grow surprisingly high, also climbing runner type beans on tall sticks, higher up the mountain rows and rows of onions and maize. Large scale organised agriculture compared to the haphazard subsistence farming of the north.
There was some evidence of terracing but not much, which gave us one of the talking points of the weekend. In for example Italy, India, South America, China wherever there has been long term farming in mountainous areas, the land is organised into terraces; not here. It would have made travel up and down the slippy hillsides easier. Is organised agriculture a relatively recent arrival? Or are Sipi farmers unaware of the practice? Surely not, it is a logical outcome of moving earth about and stops soil erosion. Maybe people enjoy sliding down mud chutes? It would give us something to talk about as the rain poured down that night and we went to bed very early in our cold little cabin with the creaking bed far too big for the sheets.
Our guide Simon, a competent young man and not too pushy although we bought the world’s most expensive local coffee from him later, took us to the top waterfall first.
The spray filling the eucalyptus trees with photogenic mist, wild bananas and bright wild flowers along the path.
Down to the second fall, hidden from our view across the valley where the river suddenly disappears
at the corner of this natural infinity pool. Frighteningly close to the cliff edge women wash clothes, their babies crawling around them.
Further upriver we had seen a narrow log bridge crossed by a toddler still learning to walk; alarming.
Coming down to the last and biggest fall (one hundred metres apparently) the rain really started.
We sheltered at the Sipi Falls Lodge, a very upmarket place indeed, perfectly slashed lawns, beautifully dressed Japanese tourists waiting for lunch, lunch prices started at 40,000 shillings (more than we were paying for a nights accommodation).
We dragged ourselves away. Us in waterproofs and fancy boots, Simon in T shirt and canvas shoes.
A good walk and there are longer ones we hope to take in the future. The American students had walked one and returned limping and muddy from top to toe, keep them tired was my technique for school trips too.
It is possible to stay in campsites in the national park higher up the mountain. We had brought our tent but the rain was too heavy, maybe next time. A beautiful place, clearly used to tourism as the efficient way local youth ‘helping’ us with a problem with our car relieved us of money proved, but a place to return to nonetheless.