Tiredness, though, probably wasn’t the only factor determining their decision to settle here in the 17th century. Flanked by a battalion of commanding peaks at a crossroads between South Sudan, Kenya and north-eastern Uganda, Kidepo Valley is both arrestingly beautiful and overwhelming in scope. Driving through plains dotted with precious shea trees, past dry riverbeds shaded by scruffy palms and into a slalom of soaring slopes, it’s hard to place on a map. One of Uganda’s many hidden faces, Kidepo inwardly gazes into its own little world.
A country of wildly varying climates and altitudes, most of Uganda remains a mystery. Historically, gorillas have taken the limelight, with most travellers heading to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in the southwest to track one of the 22 habituated troops as an extension of an East African safari.
But things are changing. Pot-holed roads have been paved with tarmac, and in 2019, national carrier Ugandan Airlines resumed operations after a 19-year hiatus with plans to launch a direct flight to the UK – the first in six years – later in 2021. Intrigued by whispers of isolated tribes and reports of lost species coming back from the brink, I would spend 14 days exploring a section of the continent where red earth burns and rainforests glisten just as intensely as ‘the pearl of Africa’ that Winston Churchill encountered 100 years ago.
THE PICK OF THE WILDLIFE
Few places are as raw and untouched as Kidepo. Off-limits for many years due to violent cattle rustling and civil unrest in South Sudan, one of Uganda’s finest national parks has slowly become more accessible.
“Kidepo means to pick,” explained my Karamojong guide, Robert Ochaya, from Great Lakes Safaris, as we collected armfuls of borassus palm fruit the size of bowling balls. In rainy season, everything was blooming. Sticky tamarind seeds plastered the ground and poisonous desert roses flaunted their fuchsia pouts like femme fatales.
Crossing the Kidepo River before it would flood later that afternoon, we’d driven to the South Sudan border to ceremoniously straddle an invisible line in the ground. A military base is stationed at the site for security, although these days the rusting tanks are only used to collect firewood.
“The elephants go over the border at night, but they come back by the morning,” explained veteran head ranger Philip Akorongimoe, indicating that South Sudan is still unstable.
But the elephants are not the only animals to seek refuge in Kidepo. On an early morning game drive, I watched cheetahs chase waterbuck and oribi across the plains, while black clouds of buffalo swelled on the horizon. “It’s possible to see herds in their thousands,” boasted Philip, an animated character who humorously lavished facts with outrageous imagination. “I call this the city for retired generals, the barracks. They come here to chew the big G.”
There are no resident vets in the 1,442 sq km park, and no researchers have been here since the ’90s, but from an infinity pool built into the boulders at Apoka Safari Lodge, I observed a healthy amount of wildlife on the plains. A collection of 10 smart, canvas-walled eco-cottages and an open-air lounge, it’s the only property inside the park. A hike to see the isolated Ik people, who live in the clouds at the top of Mount Morungole, is one of the highlights in more ways than one. Living alongside the Karamojong, this minority group, numbering around 10,000, also originally arrived from Ethiopia.
We took a two-hour scenic drive to the trailhead, eager to explore the landscape. Outside the park, land is communal and although there are rumours of plans to establish conservancies, for now the virgin area is clustered with mud-hut villages and small vegetable gardens.
Preened like peacocks, Karamojong men like to show off. Pastoralists paraded along the roadside with wooden staffs slung over their shoulders where the barrels of AK47s would have once gleamed. Fashioned from broken car reflectors, red shards dangled from each ear. On their heads balanced tiny knitted pork-pie hats decorated with ostrich feathers.
“You can’t leave your car parked here,” joked Robert. “They’ll smash the lights for jewellery and slash your tyres for shoes.”
Forced out of the park to reduce poaching, communities were pushed into the mountains. At the base of Mount Morungole, thick crowns of thorny branches guard homesteads, with corrals carefully protected inside. Memories of cattle rustling, a way of life to pay dowries, are still too fresh to take risks.
Children spilled from dwarf doorways as we approached their settlements, excitedly screaming “mzungu” as my ghostly-white body floated up the steep hillside. The women were bent double in their patchwork of gardens, picking beans and maize.
The Ik prefer to isolate themselves at the top, where pumpkins grow less bitter, trees are easily available for firewood, and there are no cows. A thick mist was already swallowing the peaks by the time we arrived.
“We don’t want cows,” insisted villager Kusum, shakinghis head vehemently. “They bring trouble.
Crouching, I crawled into a hut where dried corn was strung up like bunting and thin animal skins coated the floor.
“We never sleep on a mattress,” explained Kusum. “We fear we might dream.”
Frail and shrivelled like a sun-dried bean pod, Mateo, the oldest man in the village, nostalgically recalled life in the park. “Animals were everywhere, but we had no difficulties,” he reminisced while perching on an ekicholong, a wooden seat shaped like a clothes iron. “It was better before.”
It did seem the communities had been given a poor deal. Any poaching incidents were mainly connected to South Sudanese trespassers, Philip had previously told me. At the beginning of his 21-year-career, he’d been called out five times a day to deal with incidents. Now, though, it was quiet.
One of the biggest victims of poaching in the park was the rhino. The last one was killed here in 1983, deeming the species locally extinct. Attempting to repair the damage done, a breeding programme to resurrect a population of white rhinos was launched in 2004 at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary in Nakitoma, a six-hour drive south.
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