Sipi Falls are arguably the most beautiful waterfalls in Uganda. The Sipi Falls consist of 3 waterfalls (Simba, Ngasire) that are separated by steep hillsides in the District of Kapchorwa East of Uganda. The falls are found outside the boundary of Mount Elgon National Park. Rivers originating from the Mount Elgon flow over narrow cliffs before falling with force at the foot of the mountain. Apart from the Sipi Falls, there are over 1000 other less known waterfalls on the slopes of Mountain Elgon in areas of Bulago, Chebonet, Sisiyi and Wanale. Unfortunately some of these waterfalls are found higher up the mountain and unreachable.
The name Sipi comes from the “Sep” plant which thrives round the banks of the river Sipi. The Sep plant has a green and red color and has a striking resemblance to wild banana. The plant can be used for treating fever and measles. A story is told of how some British travelers found a local lady picking the wild Sep plant near the River Sipi and asked her for the name of the beautiful falls uphill. She assumed they were inquiring about the wild plants and answered, “Sep”. The British travelers heard Sipi and thought it was the name of the waterfalls. From then onwards, the waterfalls became known as Sipi.
How to get to the Sipi Falls
It takes 4-5 hours of driving from Kampala to reach Sipi Falls. The major highway used is the Kampala – Jinja highway which offers opportunities to see fascinating places like the Mabira forest and the river Nile among others. After Jinja, the journey continues to Iganga town before turning off to join the Tinyiri highway leading to Mbale. Alternatively, one can continue straight up to Tororo town and then to Mbale. The Tororo route is longer but more scenic offering a chance to see baboons at Busitema forest. Public transport from Kampala to Mbale costs about 30,000 Uganda shillings.
A traveler already in Mbale can use private or public transport which comes in form of taxis, buses or even motorcycles (bodabodas). Te distance from Mbale town to Sipi is about 50kms and costs 5,000 Uganda shillings. To avoid the inconvenience of traveling to an unknown place without proper guidance, it is recommended that one hires the services of a good tour operator. Tour operators make things easier for international travelers because all they need to do is show up at the airport and find everything pre-arranged.
Hiking Sipi Falls
Visiting the Sipi Falls is one of the top things to do while in Uganda. Touring the Sipi Falls is great for family, partners or those seeking to have an adventurous and good time away from the stress of urban life. Once in the lodges around Sipi, some of the falls can be seen from afar. However a hike to the actual falls is different from viewing or taking photos from afar. International travelers will need to hire a local guide to lead them to the falls at a fee of about $5 dollars. A guide is required because the trails are not clearly marked and can be confused with routes used by the village residents. The local guides live in the area and using their help will ensure you don’t get lost. Their help is particularly important during the rainy season when the trails become more difficult to pass because of mud. The guides can help you with your heavy luggage and passing through the more difficult sections of the hike. They know how to navigate through local property and can help you explain the history of the falls and facts about the different kinds of plants along the way. There are so many guides around the lodges and the starting points all claiming to know the area. Be careful not to be overcharged. To avoid the imposters and fakes, ask for a receipt or get a reliable guide from your lodge. Travelers who book their trip through a tour operator should expect to find everything arranged before their arrival including a guide.
Visiting all the three waterfalls takes between 3 to 4 hours depending on overall fitness. The hike to the top of the falls is about 7 km long and involves steep ascents, climbing ladders and passing through local farms. The Mount Elgon area receives a lot of rain and the trails can be slippery because of the mud. It is advisable to acquire good sturdy hiking boots that have a firm grip on the ground. A walking stick should be provided by your chosen guide.
There are several starting points and all depends on which particularly waterfall you intend on hiking. If you are intending on seeing all the three, then it is better to start with the top most to save your energies for the main waterfall downside. Choosing to start from the top-most falls involves following the route from Budadiri then joining the Sasa trail to reach the summit before descending down the Sipi trail to the waterfalls. However most people start with the first and main waterfall and it is what we shall describe for now.
The first (main) Sipi falls drops at about 95m (the highest) and is where most people end their hike. Most of the accommodation facilities are found within the fast fall. Although this main drop is the most beautiful and attracts most people, hiking to also see the other two higher falls is more adventurous. The upper two provides great better views of Karamoja’s plains, Mount Elgon and beyond
The second or middle falls is known as the Simba Falls and is about 74m tall. Reaching this second cave involve hiking past the first waterfall and then continuing to a steep trail to an ancient cave. There are bats in the caves and humans are believed to have lived in these caves for hundreds of years. Hikers can stand near the entrance of the cave and watch the water from behind safely. They will enjoy the wonderful breeze and soothing atmosphere of the falls.
The third falls involves hiking further up more steep areas before reaching the top-most falls known as Ngasire. The distance between the second and third falls is more challenging to hike although the reward is greater. Nsagire is the tallest Waterfall at about 85 meters and you will begin seeing them at a far distance. The height, force of the flow and the mist covering the place is amazing. The mist is so strong that it reaches most of the forests surrounding the place making them unusually dark green in color. The sun and mist combine to form mild rainbows which look very spectacular. Hikers will also have opportunities to take great photos of Mount Elgon, Lake Kyoga and the Karamoja plains. After taking enough photos, the descent back to the starting point of lodge pretty simple and less demanding. If there is still time to spare, hikers can stop by a lodge midway for lunch or relaxation.
Other activities within the Sipi Falls area
The area around the Sipi Falls is serene place that cannot be enjoyed n one day. Apart from the main activity of hiking to see the three Sipi falls, visitors can choose to take part in other activities within the area such as:-
Visiting Sisiyi falls: Those who aer not satisfied with the Sipi Falls can stop by the Sisiyi Falls on their way to Kidepo National Park. These falls are found in Bulambuli district along the highway from Mbale to Moroto. The Sisiyi falls offer a relaxing environment and are suitable for picnics and camping.
Bugisu Arabica Coffee Tour: The Bagisu are the dominant tribe living in the area and are known for growing the Bugisu Arabica coffee. This type of coffee only thrives on altitudes between 1,550 and 1910. The slopes of Mount Elgon receive good amounts of rainfall and have fertile volcanic soils on which the Arabica Coffee thrives. Arabica coffee is therefore the major economic activity and income generator for the locals in the area. This coffee tour is arranged to learn from one of the local farmers how the Bugisu Arabica coffee is grown and processed.While with the farmers, you will be taken to see and pick some of the coffee berries, remove the shells, grind, roast and finally come up with fine coffee ready to be taken. This local way of processing coffee by the Bagisu has been perfected over many years and passed on from generation to generation. While touring the farms you will also learn about the entire supply chain consisting of exporters, farmers, processors and roasters. The final thing is to take the final product – a cup of locally made but tasty hot coffee. The guided coffee tour costs $6 with part of it going to community development.
Climbing Mount Elgon: Sipi Falls is one of the main starting points for those interested on climbing mountain Elgon.Mount Elgon is an extinct volcano with the fourth highest peak (Wagagai) in Africa. It is the second largest volcanic mountain in the world with the largest surface area (caldera). The mountain is shared by Uganda and Kenya although the largest part is in Uganda. The factors mentioned above make hiking the mountain a great accomplishment for hikers around the world. Climbing Mount Elgon takes between 5 – 6 days depending on the overall fitness and experience of a hiker.
Abseiling and Rock Climbing: Abseiling refers to the skill of climbing down steep rocks or slopes with a firm device fastened to your harness. The Sipi Falls are arguably the best place for abseiling. Chebonet Falls is the perfect area for abseiling and rock climbing. Well trained guides from Rob’s Rolling Rock arranges for abseiling on a certain section of the main Sipi Falls. You need to have the right equipment for rock climbing and Abseiling before embarking on this adventure.
Bird Watching: Uganda is one the best birding destinations in the world. The Mount Elgon area has over 274 species which is more than that recorded in 2 of Uganda’s largest national park – Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls. Birding tours can be arranged within the Sipi area or as a starting point for a more complete birding experience in the Mount Elgon National Park.
Fly Fishing: Fly fishing refers to a method of catching fish by attracting them with an artificial fly. Fly fishing can be done above the waterfalls.
Nature and Village walks: This can be done at the nearby Forest Exploration Center in Mount Elgon National Park. To enter the park, you will need to pay the park fee.
Cultural Walk and Visits: Two local tribes live in the area around Sipi – the Bagisu, and Sabiny. After spotting the waterfalls, visitors can opt to go for a cultural visit to experience the local culture of one of these tribes. The Sebei and Bugisu culture of circumcision attracts visitors during certain times of the year. The Bagusi (boys) and Sabiny (girls) youths are usually initiated into adulthood through cultural initiation processes that concludes with circumcision. Forced female circumcision among the Sabiny was common only 2 decades ago but due to intense campaigns against the practice by female activists, the practice is virtually eliminated.
Male circumcision on the other hand is more voluntary these days and still going strong. Completing the circumcision ritual is what makes one a man according to the Bagisu. A Mugisu man must stand the knife in front of a large crowd without showing any sign of fear or using a pain killer. Those who avoid it or go for clinical circumcision are not considered man enough according to the locals. The men who complete the initiation process successfully receive a lot of rewards and become darlings to the village belles. It is a very interesting cultural experience and involves following a group of dancers and drummers as they escort the male to the homes of different relatives before being circumcised at a central point with other males. The circumcision ceremony is known locally as Imbalu and the dances and fanfare leading to the final act is called Kadodi. During the Imbalu season (August and September), the entire town of Mbale is full of activity and celebration and young boys are welcomed to manhood.
Apart from the circumcision ceremonies, an arrangement can be made to visit the locals and learn about their culture and way of life.
Visiting Wildlife Reserves: The Pian-upe and Matheniko Bokora Game reserves are found in the plains of Karamoja. These game reserves have some interesting species like ostriches, the roan antelope, Kudus, gazelles and other species of antelopes. If you love wild animals, then this reserve should give you a taste of some of Uganda’s famous wild animals.
Mountain Biking and jogging: The best way to discover the local neighborhood and marvel at the scenery around is by biking or jogging. The area is not flat and hence a good mountain bike with functioning gears will help you pass through the steep areas with ease. Many of Uganda’s famous runners come from the districts near the Sipi Falls. There is a running route used by some of these legends that can be used by ordinary joggers.
Visiting the Nyero Rock Paintings: The paintings are found in Kumi, District which is about 2 hours drive from the Sipi area. These historical paintings attract tourists throughout the year and give a glimpse of how our ancestors lived thousands of years ago. The local people around the area consider the place sacred and believe that the local gods still live there.
Watching Bulls Fight in Bududa: Bull fighting in Bududa is organized in a village called Namasho. The activity first came to prominence during the colonial days but had not been taken seriously until recently. Hundreds of people gather for the event in which the toughest bulls are paired to fight for a prize. There is a referee, animal owners and the crowd who cheer the best bulls. Before the start of the event, prayers are made to the local gods and respect is accorded to the ancestors. Spectators come with local beer to take as they watch the bulls fight. The winning bulls are given names of some of the strongest world leaders while the owner can carry away a prize of up to 1,000,000 Uganda shillings.
Climbing Tororo Rock: This magnificent rock is found in Tororo town on the way back to Kampala from Mbale. The rock stands at 1,483 m high and is the main landmark in Tororo town. Climbing to the top of the rock is one of the popular activities in the town. It takes about 2 hours to climb to and from the rock. There are several rocks and paintings on your way down the rock.
Kapkwai Forest Exploration Center: This center is frequented by schools who take their students to learn about forest conservation. The Center is located 13 km away from the small town of Sipi and visitors can also visit nearby caves, escarpments and lesser known waterfalls. There are several bird species and primates living in the forest that can easily be spotted.
When to visit the Sipi Falls
When is the best time to visit the Sipi Falls? Uganda has a tropical climate with 2 rainy and wet seasons. Temperatures are relatively steady and warm throughout the year. The Sipi Falls can therefore be visited throughout the year. Visiting the waterfalls during the drier seasons of the year is popular with travelers and tourists who wish to experience the cool weather in the area. The dry season is best for a visit because the trail up to the highest waterfall is not slippery.
Lodges and Hotels – Where to stay around the Sipi Falls
There are no shortages of hotels and lodges around the Sipi falls area that offer comfortable living while enjoying the cool and peaceful environment. The accommodation facilities range from the Up Market, moderate to budget options.
The Crow’s Nest: This budget lodge is built on the slopes of Mount Elgon. It was one of the first lodges to be built in the area. The bandas (grass thatched rooms) can accommodate 100 visitors and offer great views of the waterfalls. The lodge offers facilities that are good enough without excess luxuries. Rooms are self-contained and can be shared (dormitories and double rooms). While here, visitors can take part in activities like village walks, climbing Mount Elgon, touring the coffee plantations and rock climbing.
Sipi Falls Resort: Sipi Falls Resort is built within the Mount Elgon National Park with a good view of the main waterfall. The rooms are charming and built with local material (bamboo) and grass covered roofs but with a modern finish. Staying in the self-contained rooms gives you a feeling of living like the village locals used to for thousands of year. Two luxury cottages have been built to cater for clients who need more luxurious facilities. The Sipi Falls and Karamoja landscape can be spotted from the hotels gardens. Food and breakfast includes bananas, beef, chicken, eggs, French toast and tilapia among others. The hotel arranges tours to the Sipi Falls and to visit one of the local coffee farmers.
Sipi River Lodge: This lodge consists of luxurious rooms that offer higher quality services and decorations but at a price. The lodge has good views of the waterfalls with facilities like a reading area, dining room, verandah and a bar. Each banda has been given a special name.
Lacam lodge: Lacam lodge is a mid-range lodge consisting of bandas (grass thatched and made of local timber). Most of the rooms are self-contained with bathrooms and toilets. Those who are interested in camping will find this lodge ideal as arrangements can be made to set up tents for the night at specific points.
Noah’s ark hotel: This hotel has budget, mid-range and luxury rooms. The hotel is built on the slopes of Mount Elgon. This hotel is very popular and booking in advance is impotent especially if one is interested in the budget rooms. Camping tents can be arranged on request.