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, 20k, 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, 30km 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.
Game drives are fantastic: there is no other way to cover ground and get close to dangerous wildlife. But you can’t escape the dust and the grumble of the engine.
The only way to do that is to walk. Step out on a trail, trusting in the skill and experience of your guide; knowing that without a friend it will all be a little too wild. The sense of vulnerability that comes with that knowledge makes every walk a vivid experience. You just never know what will happen.
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 15km 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.
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.
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.
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