Hidden gems in Sebei sub region worth exploring

One of the tourists abseils at the graceful Sipi Falls. Photo /ERIC NTALUMBWA.

What you need to know:

After a two-hour trek to Sabu village, Yatui Parish, the tourists were welcomed by people dancing on bare feet. They wore multi-coloured shukas. The women wrapped their heads and carried baskets, in one hand and bamboo stems in another.

Our recent visit to Kween District, a land that has been stripped of its rich vegetation by greedy loggers, farmers, and poachers without a sense of environmental shame, brought us close to the hidden gems of Sebei. 

The night before the three-day adventure, Job Soyekwo, the lead guide at Mulima Mountain Adventures had given us hints about the Ndorobo community nestled on the slopes of Mount Elgon in eastern Uganda.

The Ndorobo are small hunters, gatherers and pastoralists, who trace their origin in the forest zone of Mount Masaba.

Their life and settlement challenges are closely related to those of the Batwa, who were evicted from Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in the South West and resettled by government outside the protected area.

We embarked on a 20-kilometre journey from Sipi Valley Resort, which directly overlooks the spectacular Sipi falls to a spot where we began our hiking adventure in Kween District.

Twelve years ago, Kween, a native word that means middle, was carved out of Kapchorwa District. Together with Bukwo, the three districts form the Sebei sub-region of the Kupsabiny (Sabiny) speaking people.

Their closest relatives are the Sabaot across the border in Kenya. Kween District is positioned on the northern slopes of Mount Elgon, at an average altitude of 2000 metres above sea level. It borders Nakapiripirit District to the north, Bukwo to the east, Amudat District to the northeast, Kenya to the south, Kapchorwa District to the west and Bulambuli District to the northwest.

Yatui and Mutuuso are some of the astonishing caves in Sebei.  Photo /ERIC NTALUMBWA.

Lakwek boosts the hike

Fourteen adventure seekers understood the assignment; their backpacks had their lunch boxes and water.

Two travellers stayed at the resort because they were not interested in hiking.  Soyekwo made a stopover and urged us to buy Lakwek, a local drink, ahead of the long day. 

Lakwek- a local brew is made by mixing honey, yeast and local herbs gathered on the slopes of Mount Elgon.

“It is medicinal and it is what keeps our men and women active in the fields all day long. It is recommended for those who have just been circumcised because it boosts their immunity,” he explains. 

Some of the people I had travelled with were excited and ordered more bottles of the drink in anticipation that it would end their health woes.

Hike begins

“Only take what is necessary for an enjoyable hike to avoid carrying too much weight,” Soyekwo said. He wore a hat that made him appear like a sheriff.

In his seven years of conducting abseiling-  the activity of going down a very steep slope while holding on to a rope that is fastened to the top of the slope, rock-climbing, hikes, cultural tours, mountain climbing and guiding nature walks in Kapchorwa, he says hiking is a great way to build endurance. 

Across the hills of Kween, the sights were characterised by bare grounds, a few domestic animals with a sparse human population.

Music blared from the boombox and children ran to join the hikers’ queue as they danced to Afrobeat and Hip-hop music. Parents stared at the strangers chanting and dancing with joy in their land.

The hospitality of the Ndorobo

After a two-hour trek to Sabu village, Yatui Parish, we are welcomed by men and women dancing bare feet.

They wore multi-coloured shukas. The women wrapped their heads and carried baskets in one hand and bamboo stems in the other.

They hopped around their huts in a circle as an elderly woman drummed.

 It was easy to learn the choreography of the Ndorobo dances. The houses were built of mud and wattle with walls decorated in African art prints, and the roofs were grass thatched. A number of villagers had gathered to witness the arrival of the millennial hikers.

The community displayed their crafts, ancient fire-making skills and shared fond memories of the forests. The visit was special for the community and the first since the year had begun.

Cave tourism

After the Ndorobo interaction, the trekking journey continued for an hour leading the hikers to astonishing caves; Yatui and Mutuuso-each with a beautiful story to tell.

Yatui embraces ritual practices of circumcision, the birth of twins and it binds the people with their ancestors. The cave has human bones in specially designed baskets. These baskets are made by relatives of the deceased.

In close proximity to the Chepyakaniet river is Mutuuso cave with a sad story. It is believed that cattle rustlers attacked the Sabiny from the lowland areas.

The natives went into hiding in the Mutuuso cave. Unfortunately, the raiders mercilessly set the entrance of the cave on fire and they died as a result of smoke inhalation.

More ecomic value for Sabiny

The skeletons on the dark grounds evoke memories of utmost savagery. The Mutuuso cave is believed to extend to neighbouring Kenya.

Caves are endowed with morphological features valuable for tourism development and with special interest to adventure tourists.

Dan Kiplagat, a tour guide is optimistic that if harnessed and developed, the two caves which form the heritage of the Sabiny will increase economic, social, and environmental benefits to the host communities.

Tourists visit caves for recreation, education and sometimes adventure reasons.


Return to Sipi Valley Resort

The ability to hike is powered by both mental and physical strength. Twenty four- year-old Pamela Amia appeared weary as we wound up the trail.

Our day’s guide, Soyekwo requested the driver to stop at a nearby supermarket for the hikers to get an energy boost.

He also recommended a hot bath for Amia and the rest of the hikers when they arrived at the facility.

Sipi Valley Resort is a contemporary accommodation drawn on the horizon of Kapchorwa in 2019 with 16 spacious cottages and a campsite.

It is within arm’s reach of the enchanting Sipi Falls, where visitors to the ‘Sebei nation’ are able to explore this marvel through zip lining.

The resort offers a stylish and vibrant feel suited to all ages, families, groups, and couples wanting to appreciate the beauty of Kapchorwa. Grace Mugabi, the manager of the facility says there is a strategy to increase the tourism offerings in Sebei besides the popular abseiling.

“We shall introduce a Zipline for adrenaline junkies across the Sipi Valley and a swimming pool for our guests,” he notes.

Abseiling

Over the years, the eastern region has positioned itself as a haven for adventure. Besides zip lining in Mabira; bungee jumping, tubing, rafting and kayaking on the Nile in Jinja, Sipi Falls offers unforgettable recreation activities.

After a long trek the previous day, half of the team woke up for the thrill of going down a very steep slope by holding on to a rope that is fastened to the top of the slope down the waterfall- a sport known as rappelling. 

It was a five minutes’ walk to the edge for what would seem like a final hearing. Mercy Nakasi, a model, chose to be the last. She had a fast, pounding heartbeat. She sat alone to reflect on her life.

She always wore her make-up, but this time round, it was the last thing she needed. Once Edwin Kanyesigye rappelled vertically from dizzying heights, we could hear him scream filled with a sense of accomplishment.

It was time for Nakasi to fasten the harness. She stepped backward, put her foot on the bar, and peered over her shoulder to get a clear view of her destination.

Number of visitors

The thought of being lowered 110 metres gripped her mind. She murmured a few words punctuated with the name of Jesus, and out of the blue, yelled, “I am not going”. It was a missed opportunity.

Mulima Mountain Adventures Company conducts abseiling at Sipi falls with high regard for client safety. The rates are Shs130,000 and Shs177,382 for non-East Africans. 

According to Soyekwo, the head guide, the month of July is the busiest and usually registers a high number of visitors due to high volumes of water at the falls.

“On average, we receive 40 tourists weekly, majority of whom are domestic. Usually visitors spend two nights in Kapchorwa before they connect to Moroto or return to Jinja and Mbale,” he explains.

Origin of the Ndorobo

Tales are retold in the hills and valleys of Kween District about the Ndorobo people.  In the 1920s, the British colonialists grabbed their land in Mountain Elgon and declared it Crown Forest.

Later, in 1936, the land was gazetted as a forest reserve, hence colonialists forbade the Ndorobo from living in the forest and rearing their goats there.

After four decades, they were declared encroachers in the forest reserve and their source of livelihood was affected.

In 1983, as a result of the increasing protests from this nomad tribe, government withdrew 6,000 hectares from the forest reserve for resettlement.

Because the resettlement area was not surveyed or demarcated before allocation commenced, in 1993, the park authorities took a formal step to survey the land in question and discovered an over-allocation of 1,500 hectares.

People were told they were living on that land illegally and the land moved back inside the newly declared Mount Elgon National Park.

Way forward

As government plans to tarmac the 75-kilometre road from  Kapchorwa Town – via Kween District - to the border crossing with Kenya in Suam, Bukwo,  private stakeholders have urged the government to continue marketing and promoting tourism in the Sebei region.


Simon Musawo, a Sipi Falls guide, says the recent Take on the Pearl was an eye-opener for abseiling at Sipi, and more tourism campaigns should consider the Sebei sub-region. He further raises concerns about the lack of quality checks to keep the tourist services up to the required standards.

Machel Semakula Samora, the quality assurance manager of Uganda Tourism Board, says with the reopening of the economy, UTB is scheduled to conduct a quality assurance stakeholder training to create a mindset change to appreciate the tourism potential in Sebei, come up with more tourism products and forge a way of improving the sub-region as a tourism destination.

Ndorobo community nestled on the slopes of Mount Elgon in eastern Uganda. The Ndorobo are small hunters, gatherers and pastoralists, who trace their origin in the forest zone of Mount Masaba.

Their life and settlement challenges are closely related to those of the Batwa, who were evicted from Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in the South West and resettled by government outside the protected area.


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