Published on Saturday October 27, 2007
Special to The Toronto Star
KIDEPO VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, UGANDA–There are two ways to reach Kidepo Valley National Park: a pleasant, 90-minute flight from Kampala, or an arduous drive along bone-rattling gravel roads that, at times, can be flooded by waist-high waters.
Our drive was one of those “times.”
Tucked along the border with Sudan and Kenya, this part of the world is better known for its culture of cattle-raiding and entrenched poverty than its sprawling savannahs and wildlife.
Unlike the rest of northern Uganda, destabilized by two decades of rebel attacks, the people of Karamoja have lived in almost total isolation and resisted outside development. Visitors see a culture that has changed little over the years.
A new sense of peace and a recently built lodge, providing previously unheard-of comfort, is allowing the park to become ambitious in it bid to grow its modest trickle of tourists.
As we approached Apoka Safari Lodge, Barbara Buchanan, who manages it with partner Joe du Plessis, emerged from the collection of grass-thatched buildings perched on an outcrop that overlooks the Narus Valley.
“We’ve been worried about you all week!” she says, referring to the rising floodwaters.
Looking back in the direction from which we’d come, it seemed surreal to be sipping fresh iced tea from sugar-rimmed glasses, zebra grazing nearby, when just a short time ago we had been bumping along roads sprinkled with crosses marking fatal road ambushes carried out by Karamojong warriors.
But that’s part of the niche the lodge is trying to carve out for itself in a competitive tourism market – people can feel that they have visited a picturesque landscape that has a story to tell.
“It used to be like the Wild West around here,” du Plessis says.
That history becomes part of the park’s allure, along with its isolation.
It almost has to, because other parks are easier to reach, or hold more name recognition for tourists coming from afar.
But it is impossible to discuss Karamoja’s allure without facing the reality of everyday life here.
The region is quietly enduring a humanitarian crisis that, until recently, went unnoticed by nearly every international aid organization.
One million people, all but left behind by post-Idi Amin Uganda, suffer from malnutrition levels of Darfurian proportions and die in numbers that elsewhere attract massive relief efforts.
Karamoja’s child survival rate is among the worst in the world, life expectancy is 37 years and families mostly live in the dark, save for one town that has a generator, plus a few hospitals, government buildings and Kidepo’s lodge that can afford solar power or generators.
Before the lodge opened in January 2006, one has to go back to the late 1970s to find the last effort to attract tourists here.
It lies in ruins across the valley, within full view of the lodge’s poolside deck chairs. The “Amin Hotel,” as it is now called, was built at the end of Idi Amin’s dictatorship to boost tourism in the park, but war broke out before the hotel could host its first guests and it has sat empty ever since.
A drive in Kidepo offers a chance to observe animals of all sorts.
We spotted lions several times, including our second night when two lions walked past a few metres behind the dinner table.
“Follow me!” du Plessis said as nine guests stalked behind him to follow the lions on their stroll through the lodge grounds.
“The fact that so few people have traditionally come here makes it that much more of an adventure for those who do come,” du Plessis said. “This park has some of the wildest views I’ve seen anywhere.”
The sights are spectacular and the skilled guides, du Plessis and a Karamojong guide named Augustus, know the park’s every nook and cranny. It was easy to forget that the park only has between 18 to 20 giraffes when you see 13 of them on one drive. The park’s open vistas, since it consists of two sweeping valleys, allow great views of the animals as they meander their way across the land– lions, zebras, elephants, giraffes, buffalo and dozens of bird species among others.
Buffalo, gazelles, zebra and waterbuck graze so close to the canvas-walled cabins that whether the buffalo chew with their mouths open or closed could well determine whether you get an uninterrupted night’s sleep– though the sound of lions bellowing their territorial calls at night, a few metres away from the cabin, also has a knack for inducing insomnia.
The cabins are built for comfort. All 10 face the open savannah and have private front porches and outdoor bathtubs carved from rock. Inside, a king-size bed (or two queen-size beds in four cabins) and overstuffed chairs fill the main room, with an adjacent bathroom whose shower, again built from rock, overlooks the savannah through a screen window. Guests can choose between a game drive, a walk through the valley to see the animals, a trip to a nearby village or a restful stay at the lodge.
A Friday-Monday stay provides ample time for all options.
Buchanan and du Plessis, who hail from South Africa, took over management of the lodge in January.
“When we came here, I was wondering what we had gotten ourselves into because I had heard so much about the violence in Karamoja,” Buchanan said. “But then we got here and wondered what the fuss was all about.”
In the villages, Karamojong culture is on full display.
The region’s incredible fashion features Kenyan tartan blankets, often worn with fedora hats with feathers for the men, beadwork and intricate facial scarring for women.
It is a culture du Plessis and Buchanan are keen on introducing to guests in the hopes that the villages will also benefit.
For numbers of animals, Kidepo cannot compete with safari hotshots like the Zambezi and the Serengeti and likely never will, despite being similarly priced.
But there is nothing wrong with that. Kidepo is a niche destination for those who have already done the big-name safari trips.
Better yet, it appeals to those who value an experience where the story of the surrounding area, and the adventure it takes to get there are just as enriching as coming home with 100 pictures of an elephant having a mid-day snack.
Christopher Mason is a freelance writer based in Kampala, Uganda.