At Cliff’s Edge: Adventures in Uganda’s Sipi Falls

At Cliff’s Edge: Adventures in Uganda’s Sipi Falls

“I’d read in our guidebooks that Sipi Falls was beautiful, but nothing could have prepared me for the heart-stopping moment when I woke up after our late-night arrival to find that I’d been sleeping on a cliff, only a few hundred yards from the most expansive and beautiful green valley I’d ever seen.”

Nicole Marquez—along with eight of her friends, seven complete strangers, and a few stray chickens—boarded an eastbound taxi van in the pouring jungle rain. After a 50-hour workweek in Mukono, Uganda, where Marquez and her group had been living for two months, they were off for a few days of relaxation and adventure.

“Winding up the steep roads of the mountain to Sipi in the middle of the night, trying to communicate with a driver who didn’t speak English, I just had to trust we’d make it,” laughs Marquez. “But I’d do it again. No wild ride could stop me from visiting Sipi.”

From the savannahs of the northern villages to the raging rapids of the Nile River near its source at Lake Victoria, Uganda is a colorful, adrenaline-filled journey. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in this dazzlingly green and endlessly surprising East African country, you’ll discover adventure at every turn. While relatively small in size, Uganda offers more than just safaris; some of the most stunning waterfalls in Africa are nestled within the emerald jungle forests of Mount Elgon National Park and Sipi Falls on the eastern border of Uganda. At 14,000 feet, Mount Elgon has a cooler climate than the rest of tropical, equatorial Uganda. For travelers looking for hiking, rappelling, and beautiful scenery, Sipi Falls might be the best adventure Uganda has to offer.

Getting to Sipi

About four hours from the bustling capital city of Kampala and only three hours from Jinja, the majestic falls at Sipi make the perfect destination for a weeklong getaway that is equal parts rejuvenating and thrilling. The best way to get there is to hop into a taxi in Kampala or Jinja. Fourteen-seat taxi vans (which frequently carry more than 20 people and their animals) are a rite of passage for travelers in Uganda—and they are the best and most affordable way to travel from city to city. If you leave during daylight and choose a driver who speaks a little English, you should have no problem traversing the country and making friends during the bumpy ride. Try to get a window seat so you can take in as much of the tropical scenery as you can.

Once you arrive, you can enjoy the full Sipi experience on any budget. Pitch a tent or stay in a simple thatched banda (hut) for less than $10 a night, or go all out with an all-inclusive stay in a comfortable cottage, starting at $200 per night. Keep in mind that running water is a luxury at most locations, and you’ll probably find hot water only at the high-end lodges.

Since they didn’t want to spend very much money on food and lodging, Marquez and her friends chose to stay at the inexpensive but beautiful Crow’s Nest campsite, which has good reviews. “Our only splurge was to make dinner reservations one night at the Sipi River Lodge,” she explains. “We ate a three-course meal that made us feel right at home.”

Most campsites have inexpensive meal options, but you can also ask around for the best chapati (flatbread) and beans—a typical Ugandan dish that can be purchased for less than a dollar from street vendors.

Sipi offers a variety of accommodations, but many visitors choose to camp near the edge of the valley.

Sipi offers a variety of accommodations, but many visitors choose to camp near the edge of the valley.

Exploring the Falls

To get a feel for the natural beauty that the Mount Elgon area has to offer, hire a local to lead you on a guided hike for as little as $2 per person. “Our guide, Juma, quickly became our new best friend,” recalls Marquez. Juma grew up in Sipi, and his family runs the Crow’s Nest campsite. He and other Sipi locals know every path of this untamed mountain paradise, and they will gladly tell you all you need to know.

The trek is not overly difficult; it can be done in one day or split between two. And it includes visits to the three main waterfalls, which range from 225 to 330 feet tall. Wear a swimsuit and comfortable waterproof sandals so you can explore behind the falls, wade across rivers, and stroll through tiny streams. At the end of your trek, you will descend into a valley through an overgrown, moss-covered path, until you reach a break in the greenery that reveals an ethereal view of the main waterfall from below. No matter where you stand, you won’t be able to escape the misty rainbow spray of the crashing falls.

As you hike through secluded mountain farmlands and across well-used wooden footbridges, look for the colorful birds and curious monkeys that inhabit the area. The trails are well maintained but also largely unaffected by tourism or technology. You may run into a couple groups of travelers, but most of the time it will just be you, your guide, and the lush, dewy jungle.

Visitors can rappel down the largest fall, the tallest waterfall in Uganda, landing gently on the jungle floor amidst rainbow sprays of water.

Visitors can rappel down the largest fall, the tallest waterfall in Uganda, landing gently on the jungle floor amidst rainbow sprays of water.

Finding Adventure

For fearless thrill-seekers, perhaps the most breathtaking experience at Sipi Falls is rappelling (the locals call it abseiling) down the face of the largest waterfall. For about $50, you can strap on a harness and step backward off a cliff into the rainbow mists of the 330-foot waterfall, landing in an otherworldly moss-covered grotto. A Ugandan company trained by professional climbers will help you get geared up and ready to rappel the falls.

For avid hikers, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (ugandawildlife.org) offers three- to five-day mountaineering treks up Africa’s eighth highest mountain, Mount Elgon. The hike to Wagagai Peak, which emerges from Mount Elgon at 14,177 feet, is no small endeavor—but you will find mud caves, hot springs, and waterfalls to relax in along the way.

For travelers less fond of heights, the mountain-biking trails in the Mount Elgon area are unparalleled. Most serious mountain bikers bring their own bikes in order to enjoy the trails, but there are also places to rent equipment. In December, when the rainy season has subsided, the Sipi River Lodge holds a 12-mile bike race that traverses the winding trails of Mount Elgon.

Other activities in the area include bird-watching, tours of the coffee fields, fly-fishing, and archery—but no one would blame you if you spent an entire day in a hammock overlooking the resplendent rushing waters of the falls.

No matter what you do during your stay at Sipi Falls, you will fall in love with a corner of the world that is both stunning and stimulating. As Marquez puts it, “You’ll never see the world the same way after you get down and dirty in the great outdoors of Uganda.”

ucota.or.ug/mount-elgon-national-park

sipiriverlodge.com

—Jessica Reschke

3 Comments

  1. This article really piqued my interest about Uganda and how majestic it is. I would love to visit this Eastern African country to experience the Sipi Falls for myself.

    Reply
  2. Do places like this really exist? It seems like a fairy tale, or maybe just “The Land Before Time.”

    Reply
  3. The thing that kills me is that exploring the beauty of Uganda can be done relatively inexpensively… the problem is getting there. If I could afford the plane ticket, I’d be in Uganda tomorrow.

    Reply

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