A must-do on the independent backpacker route in Uganda is Sipi Falls on the northern slopes of Mount Elgon.
Well worth the 8 hour trip to get here and easily broken up with a stopover in Jinja to see the source of the Nile. Read my blog post here for how to travel by public transport from Kampala to Sipi Falls, 278km north-east of the capital. Kapchorwa is the next big town, 14km on from Sipi.
Sipi is a few buildings strung along the main road, with the main attraction being three waterfalls separated by steep hillsides. Waterfall III is in the centre of town and several guesthouses overlook it.
It’s an easy independent hike to the viewpoints or the Sipi guides association on the main road can provide guides for around US$15 to hike off the main paths, such as to the bottom of the main waterfall. This is recommended as they’re narrow trails leading through small allotments and banana groves. I didn’t do this hike as I’d already planned my day with a farm to cup coffee experience in the morning and an independent hike around the dirt roads of Sipi in the afternoon.
Read on for a great way to spend a day in Sipi Falls.
Thomas Coffee Tour, Sipi
Forget the overpriced coffee plantation tours arranged through the guesthouses and head out on foot to Thomas’s place, a 20 minute walk from the main road.
My guesthouse, the very ramshackle but not unappealing Crows Nest, offered a local guide Ivan who quoted US$35 for a coffee tour although quickly reduced to US$15 when I said I wasn’t interested.
However I’d already found Thomas on Google Maps and sent him an SMS. He invited me up to his place the next day for a hands-on coffee experience! (US$15 or US$10 each if there are more than two of you).
I liked the idea that the money went direct to Thomas who uses it to help the community, without a middleman taking any cut. I was also really excited to prepare my own coffee beans and drink coffee I’d shelled and roasted myself.
Keep your eyes open as you walk around Sipi and you’ll see coffee trees thriving under the shade of banana trees, which also provide moisture for the plants. Everyone seems to have a coffee plant or three in their allotment. Once the beans turn red on the tree, they are ready to pick, be pulped (their outer layer removed) and dried for up to a week in the sun. The rows of white beans spread in front of people’s houses are coffee beans!
This was where my work began. Thomas gave me a selection of dried beans and showed me how to pound them with a wooden mallet to remove the husks or shells. This took a surprising long time and was very hard work.
The next stage was roasting, taking around 15 minutes over an open fire, constantly stirring to avoid burning. Now the beans, looking a lot more like the coffee beans I recognise, were ready to grind or pound in this case, in preparation for enjoying a lovely and very fresh cup of coffee.
A great independent hike around Sipi Carrying on from Thomas’s place along the dirt track, a 2 – 3 hour hike offers great views of the terraced hillsides and the Karamoja plains far below.
Kabeywa village is the highest point where the track loops around and starts descending again to Sipi. The ascent was a lovely peaceful walk past coffee and banana groves, small vegetable plots and the occasional homestead. After Kabeywa the road was busier, being the main boda-boda route from Sipi although still a pleasant walk.
I passed a group of kids playing with a home made kart, just a few bits of wood nailed together with plastic discs for wheels, and later saw younger children having fun sliding down a grassy slope on grain sacks. Seeing young kids playing with a stick and an old tyre is fairly common too. I guess there’s not much spare cash for toys!
A 20km hike in Kapchorwa
Further up the pass from Sipi is the medium sized town of Kapchorwa at an elevation of 1.800m. There are fantastic views from a lookout just before town.
I caught a boda up here early in the morning to the Home for Friends guesthouse, who work with local guides to offer hikes in the area. They offer a variety of hikes and I chose the longest, a 20km climb up to Menzia, called the Benet hike.
I was pleased to discover my guide was a young girl called Lena, a “trainee guide”, as the lead guide was away guiding a wildlife photographer. Lena, home from university for the holidays, grew up in the area and went to the local school. She was really knowledgeable about local farming practices and birdlife and also told me about her family.
Every now and again we were asked by villagers to “greet them” and so we went in to the family compound and chatted a little. Lena taught me the correct way to say hello in the local Sebei language, this being different for women and men. To greet a woman it’s “Takwenyo”, with the response being “Eygo”. For a man it’s “Subai”.
There was much questioning as to why we were walking all the way to Mengia, causing a lot of laughter and comments. In one village the local maize or corn alcohol was being brewed in oil drums over a fire. The smell was very pungent!
Along the way we passed numerous trucks being loaded with cabbages, direct from field to truck, as well as fields of Irish potatoes being harvested. Lena told me that one sack is worth USh300,000. Men, women and children were hard at work digging, sorting and packing the potatoes. A group of children ranging in age from 5 to 15, waited until we passed then fell in behind us, each carrying varying sized sacks of potatoes on their heads.
The other interesting sight on the walk was seeing a few hawkers, walking from village to village selling their wares. Laden down with fluffy blankets, sarongs, bed sheets and cushions, wrapped around them and a stack of blankets on their heads, they belt out tunes on their radios as they walk the dirt roads trying to make sales.
The hike ended at a small village called Mengia, over 20km from our start point and 784 metres higher. A hair-raising boda ride took me down the lethal looking vertical inclines of a dirt track, thankfully hitting the sealed road just before I was about to get off and walk. Literally terrifying!
Back at Home for Friends my little tent had been put up (USh45,000 to hire the tent, breakfast included), complete with real mattress and cosy bedding. Managed by the super helpful Eliza, originally a chef, the guesthouse is known for its food and I was pleased to be able to try Posho, soaked maize flour cooked to a sort of play-dough consistency, for the first time.
Sipi and Kapchorwa public bus travel tips
Kampala to Sipi by bus – most travel blogs advise tackling the journey in 3 stages, with a matatu from Kampala to Jinja, then from Jinja to Mbale, then finally from Mbale to Sipi
However I saw plenty of big buses on the road, with Kampala to Mbale on the front, so presumably this is an option too.
Sipi to Kapchorwa – a boda can take you up for around USh7,000. It’s a good sealed road, no potholes, with great views.
Kapchorwa to Kampala by bus. This was really easy.
Home to Friends recommended the TimeKeeper matatu company, who go direct from Kapchorwa to Kampala, taking around 7 hours, with a fare of USh35,000. They “stage” or terminate at a gas station, a couple of kilometres before the Luggogo shopping mall, on the outskirts of Kampala.
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