Kidepo: Where lions climb sausage trees

lionsWhen CNN last year nominated Kidepo Valley National Park as among their top ten choices of national parks across Africa, many people literally scratched their heads and asked where exactly this park was located as few had heard of it and fewer visited.

Those, however, who did, and stayed either at the edge of the park at the more recently established N’ga Moru Wilderness Camp or in the center of the park at the Apoka Safari Lodge, will have their own tales to tell.

Kidepo, a prime piece of African wilderness, literally untouched by the outside world and nestled in the border triangle of Uganda, Kenya and South Sudan, offers spectacular views, much game and the solitude visitors can enjoy, meeting but a few other tourists while they are there. Most visitors reach the park by air from either Entebbe or Kajjansi, unless they are hardy enough to undertake the tiring drive via Tororo, Mbale, Moroto, Kotido and Kaabong, or drive via Soroti and Lira or take the alternate route via Gulu and Kitgum.

This year Kidepo will celebrate its Golden Jubilee anniversary, since its formation 50 years ago in 1964. The park stretches over 1,442 square kilometers, but being more than 700 kilometers distant from Kampala, is perhaps the main reason why it receives so few visitors in spite of the attractions it holds. Two rivers, among them the Narus which in the dry season is the center of activity for the game, elevation differences from just over 900 meters to nearly 2,750 meters, a rich birdlife of 475 recorded species which includes 14 endemic species and some 86 mammal species, including the rare cheetah which is not found anywhere else in Uganda.

My first impressions, when arriving in the late afternoon were literally breathtaking. My notes, scribbled down to capture the mood of the moment, read:

“As the daylight faded rapidly, massive thunderstorms began to unload their wet cargo over the Napori Hills and lightning flashed across the Narus River valley at short intervals, followed by roaring thunder which made the comfort of the lodge’s main lounge even more inviting. In contrast, on the other side of the park the sun set behind the Imatong Mountains, located in distant South Sudan, where the absence of any cloud cover allowed an unfettered view towards the setting sun, displaying the last pink and red rays of the day.”

Those arriving by air will touch down at the CAA owned and operated airfield in the center of the park and already en route will visitors enjoy the spectacle of coming close up to Zebra, Hartebeest, Oribi, Buffalo, Waterbuck, Side-striped Jackal and Warthog while Elephant, Giraffe and Lion are almost all the time seen in the valley below the lodge or at times even stroll through the lodge grounds, asserting their “ownership” over the park.

The Apoka Safari Lodge is nestled around a huge rock outcrop or “kopje,” which sits elevated above the Narus River valley and offers 360 degree views of the entire park. Kidepo is fairly encircled by high hills and distant mountains, making for the spectacular scenery which awaits visitors. Comprising 10 large suite-sized cottages, built from wood and incorporating some canvas element stylishly included in the design, the lodge can accommodate up to 20 guests at a time.

All creature comforts are, of course, taken care of, and while each cottage has its own private little outside hot tub, from where one can see into the park without being seen, a proper swimming pool, built around another huge rock invites to some more splashing or cooling off after a game drive.

Activities at Apoka include the traditional game drives, but also walks in certain areas of the park with armed rangers and a fully qualified guide, who is part of the team at Apoka. Walks, quite safe but a little strenuous if not fit, allow close up looks at the plants and trees in the park, bird watching and a more nature bound experience than when just sitting in the custom built safari 4x4s with their high seats in the back of the vehicle, from where the elevated view allows good spotting of game hiding in the grass.

The game drives into the park were extremely rewarding for me, as our driver guide got us close to a large herd of elephant, numbering over 200, and the matriarchs and dominant bulls of the herd ran several mock charges against us. Other smaller groups were also observed from close range.

We came close to the park’s giraffes, which have substantially increased in numbers since the successful relocation of several Rothschild giraffes from Kenya nearly 15 years ago. A very large herd of buffalo was also encountered and the estimate exceeded 1,200, probably even more as additional groups emerged from the thickets after we had left.

But the highlight of the visit was undoubtedly an encounter over successive days of lionesses found high up in a “sausage tree,” putting to rest the claims of Ishasha and Lake Manyara, that those were the only parks where lions were found to climb into trees. These particular lions had their small cubs hidden in the high grass under the tree and when climbing down after being observed for about an hour or so, the cubs swiftly joined their mothers.

In addition, other game was regularly observed as were birds in large numbers, including the Abyssinian Roller, the Abyssinian Ground Hornbill and other species only found in this northern park.

The food regime is fitted around the activities of the day, and a light snack with tea, coffee and juices is available at first light, before setting out for a long extended morning game drive. Mid-morning tea and biscuits are served while out in the bush, while upon returning to the lodge a brunch awaits the visitor.

The heat of the day can be spent around the pool relaxing, or climbing the cool and breezy “poachers outlook” built on top of the water tank and lounging in the wide sofas stuffed with comfy oversized cushions, or simply retiring to the cottage for a well-deserved nap.

Before setting out around 4 p.m. for the afternoon drive, a “high tea” is served, but that description hardly does justice to the changing snacks and tasty bites on offer every day.

A sundowner can be taken in the park before returning to the lodge at night fall, or else the visitor returns to Apoka at last light to get ready for a 3-course dinner, which tastefully prepared and artfully displayed on the plates is served by the very eager Karimajong staff. The manager habitually joins the guests for supper to engage in conversations, which form an important part of the visitor experience. Drinks such as sodas, juices, beers, house wine and even local spirits like Waragi are included in the price of accommodation and only high end ‘5star’ brands cost extra.

A word about the staff by the way. Almost the entire crews at Apoka and at N’ga Moru are employed from neighboring villages and were taught to work as room stewards, waiters, porters, gardeners, barmen and cooks. This way, while without formal training, they are taught the dos and don’ts on the job.

This effort is very commendable because it offers employment to local nearby communities and has them get some direct benefit from the establishment of a tourist lodge in this remote part of Uganda, where otherwise few if any jobs could be found by the young Karimajong.

The other fully-fledged accommodation facility, opened almost exactly 4 years ago and just outside the park proper, is the N’ga Moru Wilderness Camp ( https://www.facebook.com/ngamoru ), located just a few kilometers before the Katarum Gate. The camp is small and intimate, features only two ‘cabanas’ which can sleep as many as four each and three twin tents under thatch, all with a priceless view into the park. In fact, Greg Cummings of N’ga Moru shared a few of his recent impressions from the camp with me when discussing the unique attraction Kidepo holds for intrepid travelers and the erstwhile “owners” of the area, the Karimajong tribe:

“On February 14th, Valentine’s Day, the Sebek clan of the Karimajong tribe began a three-day sitting on a large cluster of rocks near camp. It was the first time in many years that Kikis Loitanit Hill, the clan’s traditional land, had played host to a rock festival. Accordingly the organizers sought to reassure everyone in advance. They claimed the purpose of the sitting was to rebuild ‘the lost glories of our shrines in Napore,’ and Nga’Moru Wilderness Camp was given fair warning that up to three hundred people were expected to attend.

“To show our support, we donated a male goat. We also provided water from our bore hole, and transport for the old folks. But on the eve of the event, a delegation of officers from the police and military visited Nga’Moru to express their concerns. Citing the fact that they had not been informed, terms and conditions had not been agreed, and the event was being held so close to a tourist destination and national park, they were putting a stop to the sitting. The delegation then inspected the site, still unpeopled by the Sebek, after which they left to inform the clan of their decision.

“While grateful that our security is taken so seriously by the Ugandan authorities, the management and owners of Nga’Moru did not feel there was any cause for concern. We welcomed the clan sitting. In any case, despite being warned, the organizers decided to go ahead anyway, and on Friday night people began arriving from all over Karamoja and South Sudan.

“And, as the full moon rose above Mt. Murangole on Saturday night, only the faintest hints of ritual and revelry could be heard emanating from the rocks, carried on gusts of wind and dust devils, then drowned out by the groans of hunting lions on the opposite side of camp. Lost glories rebuilt…

“In the end, the clan sitting passed off without event, and its leaders stopped by camp this morning to express their sincere gratitude for our support. Any fears about forced land reclamations proved wholly unfounded.

Looking forward to welcoming the Sebek clan back again next year.”

In conclusion, a visit to Kidepo, which I consider as the most scenic and rugged parks in the country and a top contender in East Africa, is worth it any time, satisfaction guaranteed. A definite MUST for the discerning traveler and those seeking the solitude of the “real” African wilderness experience. Fifty years down the line since the park was first launched, today as back then is Kidepo an example of the African wilderness, where the cattle herding tribes from Uganda, Kenya and the Sudan (now South Sudan) coexisted with wildlife, staged their raids on each other and lived in their age long fashion. After independence, crossing the new borders were for long no hindrance for the tribes and up to today are periodic raids for cattle staged, cross border no less, posing issues the tribes never had in the old days. Today it is also no longer permitted to drive their cattle into the park, even during times of drought when finding water becomes a matter of life and death for their cattle and goats, a question wildlife managers have yet to satisfactorily answer when weighing conservation and the protection of game and the integrity of the parks under their control with the needs of the people living in the vicinity of the park, among them elders who still remember that the entire area once was theirs to roam and use. Fodder for thought no doubt.

BY PROF. DR. WOLFGANG H. THOME, ETN AFRICA

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