The first time you enter Mbale town and stand upon its soils, you will see it, standing tall with grandiose in magnificent wonder, the towering Wanale Ridge. From every corner of Mbale town, it is visible and beckoning. For any adventurous spirit, you can’t help but yearn to hike the Wanale ridge to the top. Mbale is a city in Eastern region of Uganda. It is the main municipal, administrative, and commercial center of the surrounding sub-regions. It lies approximately 245 kilometres (152 mi) by road, northeast of Kampala, Uganda’s capital.
I was born and raised in Mbale, and as a child, my biggest wish was to climb atop of the towering mountain that had loomed over my life. Finally, when I was of age in my mid twenties, I got the very first chance to hike the mountain. Since then, I got addicted to hiking the famous Wanale Ridge, and with each opportunity I get, I found the experience special and different from the previous one.
Wanale ridge was climbed by many climbers who have over the years visited Mbale. Standing at a height of 6,864 ft, the Wanale ridge can be viewed from all areas in Mbale and neighbouring districts. The ridge covers a huge portion of Bugisu’s land surface. This towering ridge adjacent to Mbale town has shimmering stony hills that look like a white sheet. Mbale Town lies beneath the ridge. On taking a closer look at the ridge, one will get a glimpse of four magnificent waterfalls pouring down from the mountaintop. Wanale is believed to have been named after one of the sons of Masaba, the patriarch of the Bagisu; it is thought to be the origin of Nabarwa, the Kalenjin woman who prevailed upon Masaba to get circumcised before they got married.
Our hike to the famous Ridge was prompted by a phone call from a very long time friend, Kenneth Watsala. Kenneth had read a lot about Wanale and closely followed our adventures over the years but had never gotten the opportunity to join us on any of our escapades, this time round though; he was determined to make this adventure happen. Despite it being the time for the Easter festivities, we foresaw no better way to celebrate our Easter than on an adrenaline pumping, sweat drenching hike. After quickly assembling a team of 8 people, we decided to embark on this quest. At exactly 2:00 PM with no time to lose, we set off.
With the sun very high up and hot with a clear blue sky, the town looked nearly deserted due to the Easter holidays, as most people were celebrating at home with their families. We were armed and ready to brave the sun for a worthwhile hike with our cannon camera. Without much hesitation, we decided to board ‘’boda bodas’’ loosely translated as motorcycle riders commonly used for public transport in Uganda as this is the fastest and easiest way to get to the hiking point. From Republic Street, one of the busiest streets in Mbale town, one can easily get a boda boda next to the Post Office, and embark on a 15 minute ride to Muganga, the starting point.
The road to the hike starting point is rough and steep as you ascend. This is a hindrance to small cars without four wheel drive as they cannot access the route past particular high bends on the road, due to its very steep terrain. Since we were riding in the scorching heat, we made several stop overs to buy more water bottles, both cold and warm. The boda bodas cost 3,000 UGX to the base of our hike through Mooni to Muganga, a celebrated trading centre where hikers can buy snacks, chapattis, pop corns, sweets and whatever else a hiker could desire. Muganga is a busy community with the locals eagerly willing to take on the role of tour guides for new hikers and tourists.
We were now at the famous water tank point, which was the start point. Here, we eagerly started ascending towards the long anticipated hike. The energy was high with some people excitedly walking faster than others as the ground was still levelled. We crossed big rocky stones and the first stream of water that flows right from the falls at the Wanale Ridge. When you cross this stream, there are no chances of turning back or backing up from the hike, only one option remains now, accomplishing the task ahead, conquering the 2,300 metre ridge.
After hiking for over 40 minutes, the hike steadily started taking a toll on us, at this point, half the water bottles we had carried were steadily running out and we were still craving more water. People were already visibly drenched in sweat. The hike gets harder, with every steep rock becoming harder to climb, yet the only way forward was through. Brenda, one of the hikers, was visibly in pain now and couldn’t help crying out in exhaustion and pledging that we take at least a 30 minutes rest. The hike up the ridge is no easy thing as you have to climb through very steep rough rock formations. We had more than three hours to go on our hike before we could conquer the 2,300 metre Wanale Ridge.
Our spirits were now in tandem with nature and the environment. The hike took us through breathtaking natural forest & walks over water streams. The trail painstakingly wound its way through numerous homesteads with coffee and banana plantations and barely-clothed and barefoot children among mud and wattle houses that stand proudly in the plantations. The happy children were immersed in a game of ‘kasonko’ that involves jumping one box after another until the finish point. When they saw us, they could not hide their excitement and yelled out excited greetings and ‘byes’. Here community members can barely speak English let alone answer to “how are you?” Some of the children will offer to carry bags, water bottles, foodstuffs and guide tourists in a bid to get paid at least 2, 000 UGX to take home to their parents to buy soap or salt. There are no tourist stop posts. Some of the smart children with business acumen will sometimes sell bananas or pancakes to passersby as a source of income. There are no other tourism related activities along this trail.
At last, we come across a mud and wattle house labelled, “hotel”. Here we decide to sit down in the grass and take a rest as most of us were dripping wet with sweat. It is now 4:30 PM and our hope is to catch the sunset while on top of the Wanale Ridge. We rest for about an hour at the “hotel” then decide to continue braving the rest of the hike, enduring another hour of gruesome stiff cruel climbing with flowing mini streams and falls in sight.
Engawu Aaron, an I.T specialist in the group could not help pouring water and washing himself at every stream we came across, at this point he did not care about drinking unclean water as he was remarkably thirsty. At this vantage point, we could now see the ridge and the biggest waterfall in a visible distance from where we were. It was hard to imagine exactly how we hoped to get to the top of the ridge but we would figure this out soon.
Behold the first cascading waterfall! Just on the route that leads up to the ridge, there is a mini waterfall with water cascading from a long expanse of rocks that stretches high up into the mountains, we have to jump in order to cross this mini fall.
It’s now 5:00 PM and despite our tired state, we are comforted by the prospect of seeing the sunset while up at the ridge. From this point, the hike continues for about 30 more minutes until we finally reach the top. The view here is breath-taking; with the whole world at our feet, we are all in awe at how beautiful the world is and still struggling with the realization that we actually made it to the top.
We continue with the hike and take a tour of the Khaukha caves. Hiking through a trail at the western end of the ridge will lead one to Khaukha cave, which is the most prominent cave. Khaukha cave has calligraphic inscriptions on the wall; mementos scribbled in the cave by previous visitors. The cave has unsaturated salt locally known as “magadi” in lumaasaba and “kisuula” in luganda or rock salt commonly eaten people.
The Wanale Ridge is the most beautiful sight to behold, standing proudly at the edge of a cliff with a rocky formation surface so large that it can carry an entire group of 100 people. With four waterfalls flowing from each side, this ridge stretches across and covers a large portion of Bugisu land. Some of the hikers could not help but jump into the natural “jacuzzi-like river” as a reward for conquering the Wanale Mountain, while other people ran over to the ridge in awe, it was a moment to behold, beautiful and magnificent.
Namatsyo waterfall, which is visible from the cliff, drops two miles down from the mountaintop over 2,092 metres down the cliff rock wall onto the valley. Once we got to the top, the photo session on the cliff lasted close to three hours. The beautiful gleaming sunset was high up in the sky. We couldn’t help standing in awe and taking it all in, the best part of the sun setting was the amazing silhouettes of pictures that we took, so beautiful with the impressionable sunset. For a long moment, time stood still and we wanted it to remain just this way, so we could watch the sunset for much longer and take it all in. The adventure was indeed worthwhile and our biggest reward was watching the sun setting at the top of the world on the Wanale Ridge!