Mt Elgon is a beautiful national park and is home to a huge array of wildlife as well as indigenous flora and fauna. The dramatic changes of altitude combined with the unpredictable rainfall have created distinct vegetation zones that are clearly visible as you climb up the mountain.
The Kitum cave is found in Mount Elgon National Park. The park lies on the border of Kenya and Uganda and can be accessed from either country. Mt Elgon is the eighth highest mountain in Africa and an extinct volcano. It was made through the cooling of lava that erupted from the volcano many years ago and this is in fact how Kitum cave was also formed.
Kitum Cave is actually a petrified rain forest. When Mt Elgon erupted millions of years ago, the surrounding area was buried in ash and lava and you can see the remnants of this in the cave today. All kinds of things jut out from the walls of the cave, bones from animals and mineralized logs to name a few. It really is quite spectacular to see.
There are quite a few caves on Mt Elgon and the Kitum cave is by far the most famous. It extends about 700 feet into the mountain and its walls are rich in salt and covered with strange markings that were mysterious to those who first entered it.
The Salt Lick
When the Kitum Cave was first discovered, all the markings along its walls were thought to have been the work of ancient tribes picking away in the search for valuable stones such as gold or diamonds. In fact, the worn away sections of the cave are due to the mining of something a little more surprising for minerals far less valuable.
Every night for hundreds and maybe thousands of years, the animals of the park have routinely taken a nightly stroll to the cave to quench their thirst for salt. Salt is very hard to find in the wild and the animals are naturally attracted to it. In fact, a lot of safari lodges will put out salt lick’s to attract animals into camp at night.
Buffaloes, antelope, leopards, hyenas, and most of all elephants have used Kitum cave as a salt lick for generations. Every night, they all blindly crash through the cave, the elephants and buffaloes often bumping their heads in the process, in their search for the saltiest wall they can find, leaving markings on the wall as they go. The mining was not done by ancient tribes but by the animals in the park, and the elephants are responsible for the majority of it.
Using their tusks and immense strength, the elephants crack off large pieces of the walls and crumble them up to get to the salt. This routine of theirs has caused the cave to grow quite considerably over the years and has brandished the walls covered in tusk marks. The walk through the cave is not the safest though and it is easy to get lost in there. There are deep crevasses that have taken the lives of young elephants who didn’t quite know their way around, sadly leaving behind an elephant graveyard.
The Kitum Cave is more recently famous for the Marburg virus, a deadly virus similar to Ebola. In 1980 a Frenchman who was living in Kenya wandered into the cave, I guess curiosity got the better of him. Having explored the cave, the left and continued about his business. A week later the symptoms began. Headaches, fever, and vomiting were the start, then jaundice and a nose bleed that wouldn’t end. He managed to get to Nairobi and to hospital but it was too late. In the waiting room of the hospital, he vomited up a huge amount of blood, passed out and then blood began to creep out of every orifice.
After the death of the Frenchman, a US and Kenya team entered the cave to try to find the virus. Covered in bio-suits they took samples of everything they could but left empty-handed, the virus had gone. Twenty years later it was found again in Kitaka cave in Uganda after an outbreak in the local miners. Scientists detected the virus in Egyptian fruit bats, the same species that frequents Kitum. This was the first time that data proved bats were a major reservoir for the virus.
Should You Go?
Mt Elgon itself is certainly worth a visit. It is absolutely beautiful. Whether you enter Kitum cave is up to you, you now have the knowledge to make your own choice. I have stood outside of the cave and I did not go in, but that’s me, ever cautious.