Perhaps Elgon’s most captivating attraction is the honeycomb of caves on the lower slopes. Some of these were long inhabited by one of the loosely related Kalenjin groups, the Elkony (whose name, in corrupted form, was given to the mountain), and used both as living quarters and as livestock pens at night. There is evidence that the caves had a ritual function as well – Chepnyalil Cave contains a structure that might have served as an altar or shrine, and its walls are painted with a red-and-white frieze of cattle. The caves are also linked with Luhya circumcision ceremonies, in which boys spent their month-long initiation period covered from head to toe in the white diatomite powder found in the area, before returning home as men. The Elkony were officially evicted from the caves by the colonial government, who insisted that they live in the open “where they could be counted for tax”, but several caves were still occupied by extended families within living memory.
The largest and most spectacular cave is Makingeny Cave, close to the road and marked by a cascade falling over the entrance. It makes a good hike teamed up with its neighbour, Kitum Cave, a twenty-minute hike to the south. Early explorers believed that some of the caves were artificial, one report referring to “thousands of chisel and axe marks on the walls”. In fact, generations of elephants were responsible: the well-signposted Kitum Cave was the mineral fix of local elephants, and on rare occasions they still walk into the cave at night to gouge the salt-flavoured rock from the walls with their tusks. If you’re exceptionally lucky, a night vigil at Kitum Cave may be repaid by a visit from the elephants; but if not, the thousands of bats and the sounds of the forest are good compensation.