by Dr Jenny Farmer (all Images by Thomas White)
Kidepo Valley National Park. It’s one of the hardest parks to access in Uganda as it is tucked up in the far northeast corner of the country. We travelled there in July, deciding to make the full journey in one day. About 40km short of the park gate the first of our three vehicles broke down and by the time that car made it to the campsite in the park it was dark, and only one of the other two vehicles was at camp. The other was stuck in the mud having taking a wrong turn.
Of our three days in the park we had set one of them aside for mountaineering, having heard that UWA had opened up a trail on Mt Morungole for visitors to see the Ik tribe, located on the eastern edge of the park.
Anyone visiting the north east of Uganda will be awestruck by the array of granite inselbergs and mountains – there are peaks begging to be explored all over the place. The Mountain Club of Uganda (MCU) has documented some of the first and only ascents of some of these peaks, and considering four members of the Club committee were amongst us there was plenty of excitement and pointing out of car windows as we wound our way past them all. Inside the National Park there are spectacular ridges all around, and from our campsite we had particularly good views of the Morungole range at sunrise.
Having dealt with our mechanical issues on day one in the park, that evening we decided that it would be best to attempt to climb some or all of Morungole the following day. We contacted the UWA staff in the park to request permission and rangers for the trip, which they facilitated easily for us. As a group we decided that if it was raining at all when we woke at 6am the following morning we should return to our tents and shift the climb to day 3. No one was keen for a rainy mountain! Luckily when dawn broke the skies were clear, and we hoped into the minibus (now rescued from the mud) and set off, with Zachary our UWA ranger in tow. Pre-made granola, coffee and juice in the car for breakfast served us well.
From our campsite in the park we travelled out through the park gate and around the base of the Morungole range, passing plenty of other peaks to be climbed. It took us an hour from our campsite in the park to the start of the walk- the middle of a Karamajong village near to the mountains.
Leaving the car in the village, we set off on foot with rangers and UDPF guards, unsure of what the hike would entail and how long it would actually take (we had been told 4 hours to 2 days!). The first part of the walk was easy going up a gently sloping valley bottom, past the cultivated fields and herds of sheep and goats. At the top of the valley we headed upwards using a path that worked its way not too steeply up the rise in front of us. Reaching the top of the ridge it levelled off with a good view of another plain to be crossed, which then lead to the real base of the mountain. It had taken us an hour to reach this point.
We dropped down the back of the ridge, at the bottom of which was a swampy patch that got all our feet wet as we tried and failed to hop between clumps of raised vegetation. We then passed through the plain on another path, but now through more natural vegetation – grasses with scattered scrubby trees. This crossing to the base of the main ascent took about another hour. Unfortunately whilst we saw plenty of bird life there was no wildlife to be seen, apparently due to the presence of villagers on the mountain.
We left the Boma to set off outside the village for our packed lunch, leaving the villagers in full swing as our visit and tip seemed more an excuse for a party than anything else. The fact that most of the villagers present seemed to have been somewhat inebriated to begin with surely helped this. Although, alcoholism is a prevailing problem in the community, further evidenced by the ‘Kick vodka’ sachets scattered along the paths.
Lunch was had at the bottom of the final ascent to Mt. Morungole, looking across to Mt Zulia- another peak in this far-flung corner of the country. We enquired with our guide if we could reach the peak of Morungole, but were told that it is best done in the dry season due to dense vegetation in the rainy seasons. Considering we were a mixed group and not prepared for a night out on the mountain we decided to head back down the way we had come, having got a good taste of the mountain. Morungole’s peak would have to wait for another visit.
In total the hike took about 3.5 hours to reach the Ik village, and about 3 to come back down. We were a well-paced group, so others could expect to take up to 5 hours to reach the village. Whilst the visit to the Ik village is interesting it does invite questions on conservation management and the preservation of cultural identity in Uganda- a case not dissimilar to the Batwa tribe in the southwest. The views and fact that very few people visit this area make the hike worthwhile, and it is a walk that most would manage.
From here the route became steeper. Once we had climbed for about 45 minutes, we reached a plateau, which then dropped slightly before the final rise to the main peak. It was at this plateau that Zachary our guide requested that we wait, while the Ik community were informed in advance of our imminent arrival.
As we waited, a wizened gentleman came around the corner with a sack of potatoes and zebra stripped cowboy hat. This, without a doubt, was an Ikien. The weather-beaten skin and nutrient deprived body was unmistakeable. Having read Colin Turnbull’s “The Mountain People” I had some notion of what the Ik had been through as a people, and this man definitely looked the part.
The Ik used to be hunter- gatherers in the Kidepo Valley. They sourced their food from the Valley, and lived there and in the surrounding mountains. When the Park was gazetted they were no longer allowed to continue with this way of life, and were left to fend for themselves on the hill slopes – attempting agriculture and cultivation with no real knowledge on what to do. When Turnbull wrote his book some fifty something years ago, he had lived for two years with the Ik as part on an anthropological study. He found them starving, and their entire social structure changed. Instead of working together to hunt and collect food, they would chance upon food in isolation, and eat it immediately without sharing. Children were left to fend for themselves from an early age, and the elderly or sick considered a waste for any food.
As we approached the Ik village we found areas of cultivation, amongst which were scattered dwellings marked out with boma-style pole fences around them. We were lead to one boma in particular, where there were a number of small mud-walled huts and grain stores- all with simple thatch.
After a while a gathering of adults from the village appeared, plus a substantial mob of children too. We had been told by UWA that they had an interesting traditional dance that they did and would show us. Personally I’m not the biggest fan of this sort of tourist show, but convinced myself it was mountain research so would be OK. Soon enough the villagers stared to sing and clap, as they began to work themselves into a bit of a frenzy. It turned out that the dance involved a man jumping with a woman under each arm, intermittently being kicked in the shins and toppled to the floor by the women in turn. Much cheering from the villagers and visitors alike every time a man took a tumble! One of the boys from our group got involved, bringing even more hysteria to the proceedings as the ladies took him down!