1. Introduction to Kidepo Valley National Park
Located in the distant north east of Uganda, close by the borders of South Sudan and Kenya, Kidepo is an enthralling place of semi-arid savanna, seasonal rivers and low mountains. It is beautiful - and accessible - at any time of year.
Kidepo is Uganda’s most isolated national park. Cut off for years by conflict of varying forms, it has only recently become accessible by both road and air. Currently, there are only two lodges and a government rest camp available. These two factors, along with relatively high cost of reaching the park, have combined to keep visitor numbers low. But those who do make it are in for a treat, with enjoyment only amplified by the fact you are far from the beaten path.
2. Game Drives
The quintessential African safari experience
Apoka game drives are the best way to explore the far reaches of the park relatively quickly, getting close to the large mammals and predators safely.
The majority of drives follow two, 20 kilometre, routes in the wildlife-rich Narus Valley. Here a small amount of water remains even in the dry season, attracting large buffalo herds, thirsty elephants and other antelope. Where the herbivores gather, so do the predators.
When water is widespread, this remains an excellent spot for wildlife, especially for birdlife. Game drives depart in the early morning and late afternoon, especially in the hot, dry season, to find the animals at their most active and when the light is best for photography.
The drier Kidepo Valley has less wildlife, but it has a wild beauty and is well worth discovering. Use the Kanagorok hot springs, 30 kilometres north of Apoka as your focus, but don’t get blinkered. Drive slowly, crossing the Kidepo River - a wide sand bed in the dry season - and meander across plains framed by the mountains. This is the best place for ostrich and secretary bird, while kudu enjoy the protection of the thicker bush.
3. Wildlife Walks
Step out into the wild savannah, leaving the grumbling engine behind
Step out on a trail, trusting in the skill and experience of your guide; knowing that without this friend it would all be a little too wild. The sense of vulnerability makes every walk a vivid experience.
Most of the walking trails take 2 to 3 hours and wind their way through the Narus Valley. Birders will often patrol the fringes of the Narus and Namamukweny Valleys looking for the the Abyssinian Roller, Purple Heron, Abyssinian Ground Hornbill and Clapperton’s Francolin, which is found only in Kidepo.
For those looking for a greater challenge, a 15 kilometre route follows the ridge line into the hills. While there are many possible trails, it is worth being aware that some may not have been walked for a long time and will be temporarily closed.
4. Karamojong Cultural Encounters
The Karamojong are an ethnic group of Nilotic language speaking, cattle loving nomadic agro-pastoralists who migrated into what is now north-eastern Uganda from Ethiopia over 500 years ago. Like their counterparts in northern Kenya and south-western Ethiopia, the Karamojong have largely resisted the onset of modernity (although that is beginning to change) and still live traditional lives little changed from the time of their first arrival.
Their love of cattle is matched by their love of other peoples’ cattle and so conflict has long been a part of Karamojong culture. This took on a more sinister edge as assault rifles became widely available following the end of the Amin regime, making the area off-limits to outsiders. However, since the withdrawal of Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army from northern Uganda in 2005 and the de-militarisation of Karamoja by the Ugandan government in 2011, the area is now both safe to visit and welcoming to outsiders.
Although it is the Park that attracts visitors, it is also the Park that deprived the Dodoth Karamojong from their traditional grazing and foraging grounds. It is therefore not only interesting to visit the communities that border the Park to learn about their culture, but also feels like the right thing to do to make sure those communities receive benefit from your visit.
5. Ik Treks
The Ik people suffered most from the creation of the park. Thought to have been the first arrivals of the Ethiopian migration, the Ik were initially pastoralists who then lost their cattle to Karamojong, Turkana and Pokot raiders. Resorting to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle on the lower slopes of the Morungole Mountains, they were ejected from the Park in 1962. The only option available to them was to attempt subsistence farming high up in the mountains outside of the park borders.
Coinciding with a time of wide-spread famine known as ‘the time of one cup’, the movement pushed the Ik to the very edge of existence, pushing traditional social practices to breaking point and turning the Ik into a dark shadow of their former selves. It was during this time in the 1960s that the anthropologist Colin Turnbull lived for three years with the Ik, recording the collapse of their community and how the group members resorted to self interest in the most horrific of ways. He told the story in the book ‘The Mountain People,’ which caused outrage at the time of publication.
However, although suspecting the things he saw to be a partial result of the expulsion of the Ik from the park, Turnbull did not fully grasp the impact of the move and therefore the fact that increasing prosperity - not just survival - would enable to restoration of kinder, more expected, human customs.
The Ik still live a marginal life in the Morungole Mountains, but they have recovered from what was obviously a nadir in their history. They welcome guided treks made by visitors eager to explore the landscape they inhabit and to understand a little more about their unique way of life. This is not voyeuristic tourism. It is a difficult trek, both physically and due to the questions it raises about human rights, sustainable conservation and human development. But with fees from the trek going to Ik community initiatives and interest from the outside world going some way to protecting the people from neighbourly threat, it is a compelling experience. It is also a beautiful trek.
Two different routes are available, depending on local weather conditions and your level of fitness.
6. Accommodation Options in Kidepo
Kidepo Savannah Lodge
Kidepo has just two small tourist lodges. Kidepo Savannah Lodge is a simple, but comfortable lodge located 500 metres from the Kalokudo Gate to Kidepo. There are nine ‘Tents’ that use one ablution block and eight self-contained ‘Safari Tents’ all leading off from a central dining area and bar. The position gives Savannah Lodge great views down over the Narus Valley and the mountains beyond.
Apoka Lodge is a luxury lodge perfectly located on a low rise in the middle of the plains. Wildlife abounds, whether it be zebra or buffalo just outside your room when the grass is high, or lion lazing by the pool in the hot, dry months.
10 spacious bandas made from wood, canvas and thatch provide the accommodation. The dining room and bar is a magnificent, thatch-roofed, raised platform, perfect for wildlife viewing. There is also a high observation tower, which also doubles as an unforgettable private breakfast spot.
7. Wildlife in Kidepo
Kidepo has the greatest biodiversity in Uganda after Queen Elizabeth National Park.
There are 77 mammal species. 20 of these are predators, including lion, leopard and spotted hyena. In Uganda, black-backed jackal, bat-eared fox, aardwolf, cheetah and caracal are only found in Kidepo. The elephant population is over 650 (up from 200 in the mid ‘90s), buffalo are estimated to exceed 10,000 and there are over 50 Rothschild’s giraffe, an internationally important population. Zebra graze on the plains and both greater and lesser kudu browse in the protection of thick bush. You may even see a white-eared kob, more commonly seen in South Sudan and Ethiopia.
The bird list currently numbers 470 species. 60 of these are recorded in no other national park in Uganda. Of those, Clapperton’s francolin and the rose-ringed parakeet are found only in Kidepo in all East Africa. There are 56 species of raptor, with vultures doing especially well. Kidepo is also the only place in Uganda where you will see ostrich.
Kidepo’s wildlife does not rival the density of animals found in the Masai Mara or the Serengeti, but that is not the point. Kidepo’s flora and fauna echoes the park as a whole: it is varied, beautiful, fascinating, distinct from the rest of Uganda and of international importance. It is quite simply wonderful.
8. When to Visit
Kidepo is accessible all year round. However, its general climate does differ from the rest of Uganda. While June used to be a dry month, it is now accepted that a long rainy season will run from April to the end of November. This is not an eight month deluge, but you can expect some rain most days.
The dry season runs from December to March. The temperatures soar during this time, often reaching 40 degrees Celsius. The local soils cannot hold water and so the park becomes arid. Animals congregate in great numbers where the water remains, making for wonderful wildlife viewing. This is also the best chance to see cheetah hunting on the short grass plains.
9. Getting There
By road: While it is possible to drive in one day from Kampala, it takes 10 hours (on a good run) via Gulu and Kitgum and 12 or 13 hours using the scenic, but tough, eastern route. More commonly, visitors drive from Murchison Falls, 7 hours or less on the sealed road, or having broken the journey with a night near Sipi Falls.
By air: Kidepo is serviced by a couple of light aircraft companies flying into the airstrip close to Apoka. These flights only operate on certain days and require a guaranteed number of passengers to fly making the flight expensive for couples travelling on their own, but is not so bad for families or larger groups. Don’t let it put you off though: there is something very special about flying out of Entebbe, circling over the drama of Murchison Falls before continuing onto the expanse of Kidepo.