Kidepo Valley National Park
By Tony Powell
If you want a sanitised experience of the vibrant splendour of Uganda, vacation in a five-star Kampala hotel. If you want the comforting scent of sodden, ochre-coloured earth permeating your nostrils, the ominous bellow of an alpha male lion rumbling through your intestines, and the territorial burring of a Flappet Lark echoing through your ears, I recommend you take a tented holiday at Kidepo Valley National Park.
Located in the far north-east of Uganda, near the borders with Sudan (with Mount Lotukei visible to the north) and Kenya, our party stayed at Kidepo Wilderness Fly Camp, which from Easter will be situated on the edge of KVNP and launched as Amura (meaning ‘rocks’ in Karamojong) Tented Camp. KVNP is not everyone’s first choice destination. Given their geographical location, the reduced time needed to access them, and the misplaced negative perceptions of northern Uganda as a land of turmoil, parks like Queen Elizabeth have become the norm for the majority of tourists. But KVNP represents something different, something only a minority of travellers can inform friends and family that they have experienced.
Of course, there is no denying there is significant road travel entailed. Travelling with two other families to celebrate the onset of 2010, we took a 606km route that took us north-west on the Masindi-Murchison-Gulu road, before travelling on after an overnight break at Fugly’s in Kitgum. This establishment primarily offers B&B facilities; however, it also provides lunch and dinner upon request, has a small swimming pool for excitable children, offers a warm welcome to the north, and is owned by the same couple that own the camp site (Patrick and Lyn, two natives of southern Africa), so you can purchase a package deal. In the morning we left for KVNP.
Not only do you need a sturdy 4WD car to ensure you arrive at the camp site within a reasonable timeframe, but imbibing the sights and sounds that excite your senses travelling to KVNP is as important as the final destination. Consequently, we stopped at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary (www.rhinofund.org) to take a foot safari to see some of their six Southern White adult rhino and their calves.
Leaving Gulu, we gradually moved from Acholi to Karamojong territory, with the dramatic landscape transitioning from open tree savannah, to Acacia Geradi forest, incredibly scenic landscapes, interspersed with impressive sausage trees (Kigelia africana), and interrupted by increasing numbers of Karamojong manyattas (i.e. huts), before we reached the mountain pass that heralds KVNP. The approximately 1,400 km2 KVNP was gazetted in 1962, with the word Kidep, used to give the name to the park, meaning ‘to pick up’ in the Karamojong language. From a wild life-watching perspective, the best time to visit KVNP is during the dry season, from December to late March. Not only does this mean that the roads are more passable, but it is much easier to locate game around waterholes that would otherwise be obscured by overgrown vegetation.
However, our arrival coincided with the El Niño phenomenon, which produced a prolonged rainy season. This meant that we witnessed an almost daily dramatic and artistically picturesque curtain of rain traverse a valley of mesmerizing ashen-blue laden with apparent malicious intent. This turned out to be not only a welcome visual event, but something that helped dissipate the dry heat that otherwise permeated our stay.
And all this was viewed from eight spacious canvas Serengeti safari tents, sleeping a maximum of 16 clients at a time – we comfortably accommodated three in our family tent – that comprise the camp site, situated on a small outcrop that affords a panoramic view of the sweeping Narus Valley.
For those justifiably concerned with our impact upon the African environment, the mobile camp site could be disassembled quickly, with minimal impact upon the local ecology. It is in this spirit that the visitor receives what the owners described as the ‘true bush experience’, balancing comfort with respect for the local environment. But this isn’t the kind of ‘bush’ camping experience that traumatised many teenagers’ years (e.g. the family huddled around a one cylinder gas ring, shards of earth digging into their spinal columns as they tried to sleep). This is ‘up-market bush’, with the comfort of the hotel transplanted as far as is possible to the rural setting, a bush shower providing heated water to refresh the weary, on-site cooked food providing welcome, time-structured nutritious relief, and local Karamojong staff providing for your needs. The new Amura Tented Camp will, admittedly, be a more permanent construction, replete with en-suite bathrooms; but I’m assured that the spirit that permeated its predecessor – i.e. respect for the environment and the Karamojong – will remain.
In an area that has been disproportionately deprived of tourism, in what is a geographical niche market, the owners aim to provide a comparatively affordable, child-friendly experience on the premise that ‘a happy child is a happy family’. To this end, our children loved playing in the old camp’s circular pool, making camp fires from dry wood, and travelling in Patrick’s ‘Fug’ mobile, a charismatic, ageing, open-top 4WD.
Our first night was restfully spent consuming sundowners around an intimate camp fire, the sound of relaxed adult conversation off-set by the laughter of children roasting marshmallows on bamboo sticks over smouldering embers, while smoke lilted skywards into an ebony night. The therapeutic silence of KVNP gently massaged away any collective urban tensions among our group.
Next morning we went on our first of a number of safaris. Using our own vehicles, escorted and informed by armed members of the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), and with an avid ornithologist amongst us, our group encountered sprawling buffalo herds, zebra, many of the 430 species of bird (including the Clapperton’s Francolin [Francolinus clappertoni], that is only found in this region of Uganda, and ostrich, the only place they are found in Uganda;), giraffe (Kidepo is the only Ugandan park where you see them alongside zebra), and, among others, jackals, hyena, elephant and lions – the last of which were chasing a large warthog on New Year’s Day!
One of our most dramatic wildlife moments came when our family volley ball game in the seasonally-affected dry Kidepo River bed (around which we had set up a bush lunch) was interrupted by a lone bull elephant which had failed to detect our presence in the prevailing wind direction. A quick clap of the hands from our UWA guards quickly resolved the problem.
The following day we visited the abandoned Katurum Lodge, built by former president Idi Amin in the 1970s as a safari residence. The stone structure, set precipitously high on a kopje that affords a panoramic view of the valley, was never completed (or was, depending on who you talk to!) prior to Amin’s downfall. Now a burnt-out shell of failed ambitions, the resultant embers of previous destruction during the civil war of the 1980s still evident, the atmospheric ruins feel as though the ghosts of history walk their remains. But a word of caution: the ruins are not covered by health and safety regulation; consequently, ensure that you monitor your children as they peer over the edges of incomplete buildings!
Without a parental laptop, Play Station, Cartoon Network channel and associated multi-media distractions in sight, after a brief period of withdrawal symptoms, both adults and children enjoyed the pre-Bill Gates, ‘back to nature’ experience – before travelling back to Kampala!
In short, if Uganda is Winston Churchill’s Pearl of Africa, the isolated beauty of KVNP provides its lustre, and the idyllic camp site makes the pearl truly African in nature.
In addition to road travel, flight travel is possible by chartered plane with Eagle Air (www.flyeagleuganda.com) to Kidepo Airstrip. If you take the scheduled diversion flight from Entebbe on a Friday (return on the Monday), the cost is $235 per person return or $1,025 shared by a group; a chartered flight can be taken daily, with a quotation available upon request.
Entrance to the park depends upon a number of factors. If you have a valid residency visa with at least 24 months before its expiry date, as foreign residents you can purchase a special family pass to all Uganda’s protected areas for an annual fee of $200, and only $100 if you are an East African. If not, it is $15 per day for foreign non-resident and resident children aged 5-15yrs, and $30 per day for foreign non-resident and resident adults, and 2,500UX per day for East African children and 5,000UX per day for adult East Africans.
Tony Powell can be contacted via email on firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information, contact:
Patrick Devy and Lyn Jordaan
Mobile: +256 (0)754 500 555