Monday, January 20

From the Kidepo Valley

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‘Kidepo is indeed blessed with tremendous beauty, and even in inclement weather, when the storm clouds hang low over the jagged Lomej hills and the diffused light seemingly bounces off the kopjes, the splendour is still undeniable.’

As a child growing up in Canada, I had an image in my mind of what ‘Africa’ would look like. And then, in the late 1990s we moved with our young children to Uganda. As a family we explored the beautiful, verdant western areas of Fort Portal and the jungle of the Semliki Valley which made me feel like an intrepid explorer. We ventured into the dramatic south-west region of Queen Elizabeth and the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. We boated on Lake Victoria, I clapped eyes on the Nile for the very first time. We settled into life in Kampala and visited friends in Kenya. But I felt unsettled. I had still not seen the Africa of my childhood dreams. Did it even exist?
A year later, my husband decided we needed to get up to Kidepo. Virtually unreachable by road at that time and not serviced by any scheduled flights, we chartered a small plane, packed up enough food for the next few days, kissed the babies goodbye and headed up to the most north-easterly reaches of Uganda.
Accustomed to the population density of central and western Uganda, the vast expanse of nothing was a revelation: the ribbon of the Nile, the amoebic shape of Lake Kyoga, and then nothing. Just nothing. The tell-tale circles of kraals, far below on the dusty ground, was the only evidence of humanity below. We flew over a range of jagged mountains, so close you could see the fissures and practically touch the weathered rock, and then suddenly emerged above the vast expanse of the Kidepo Valley National Park.
We landed, off-loaded, and as the plane took off, leaving us on the airstrip, I remember feeling a vague sense of unease, of trepidation. Despite spending summers going on long canoe trips into the Canadian bush, this was probably the most remote I had even been, the furthest away from ‘civilisation’ I had ever felt. But all of this disquiet disappeared as soon as I looked around. This was it. This was the Africa I had seen in my dreams, only better.
Kidepo is listed among Africa’s best parks by experts, guidebooks and safari aficionados. Accolades pile up, adjectives run to the superlative, and adverbs are liberally dolloped on top.
Kidepo is indeed blessed with tremendous beauty, and even in inclement weather, when the storm clouds hang low over the jagged Lomej hills and the diffused light seemingly bounces off the kopjes, the splendour is still undeniable. The park also has fantastic game. Does it have the volume and numbers of more popular areas like the Masai Mara or Ngorongoro? Probably not. But nor does it have the number of people and the throng of safari cars and mini-buses chasing after the wildlife. The park boasts 86 mammal species, nearly a quarter of which are not found in Uganda’s other parks (ie: cheetah, aardwolf, bright’s gazelle, caracal, for starters…) and nearly 500 bird species – including over 50 birds of prey. Personally, I think it’s worth the trip if only just to see the abyssinian roller or the near-endemic rose-ringed parakeets who frequent the same tree year after year.
After our first visit to Kidepo we were hooked. We were committed. We rebuilt the abandoned Apoka Safari Lodge and started welcoming guests 15 years ago. Other lodges are now cropping up on the outside of the park and increasing numbers of visitors are coming to see for themselves what all the fuss is about. But still there is a sense of remoteness and isolation that is not easy to find in this increasingly hectic world. Not long ago I was sitting with a coffee on top of one of the many rocky outcrops that dot the landscape.
We’d climbed up just before sunrise and faced the dawn, wrapped in Karamajong shukas to stay warm. My companion was a seasoned traveller, a tour operator who had travelled the length and breadth of sub-saharan Africa. Holding our steaming coffee, we gazed down at the zebra below, the giraffe in the distance and the thick dark herds of buffalo in the wet grasses of the river valley. She burst out laughing: ‘Why would anyone go anywhere else? Why go to the Mara when you have all this (she flung an arm out), and you have it all to yourself?” I couldn’t agree more. Later that night three young lions killed a young warthog right outside her room. And so it goes.
Apoka Lodge was a rehabilitation project. Built on the site of the old lodge which had lain abandoned for a number of years. Where the original lodge had motel-style small, airless cottages, these were repurposed into staff accommodation and offices and rooms were built anew: not quite tents yet not quite bandas, the big, thatched canvas-walled chalets on stilts are built around the kopjes, offering space and a rustic, refined elegance. With huge open-screened windows, the vistas are spectacular. Wildlife roams freely around the camp (lions have been known to climb up onto the thatched roof, or lie in the shade under the rooms and elephant have come up to scratch their backs on the thatch) and guests have a true ‘touch the wild’ experience.
The main lodge, open aired and breezy, looks out over the well-populated water hole (zebra, waterbuck, warthog and buffalo are the main regulars at the bar) and the golden-green savannah beyond. Meals are taken at the massive rough hewn tables, coffee (or a single malt whisky) is served while lounging in the over-stuffed armchairs. Decor is simple, natural and classic, allowing the scenery to take centre stage. The supporting role in this play, however, goes to the swimming pool. Built into one of the rocky outcrops, literally carved out of the rock face, this pool brings out the child in everyone. Deep and cool, and blue as a tropical lagoon, the Apoka Lodge pool is magical. In the heat of the dry season, it is a necessity and the perfect place to while away the afternoon before heading out into the bundu for sundowners.
The lodge has its own open-topped game-viewing vehicles and the guides, based on-site, know the park like the back of their hand. In such a remote location like Karamoja, local knowledge is valuable and the Apoka guides are from the local communities. (As is virtually all the staff at Apoka). The park is vast and there is much to learn from these men.
At nearly 1,500 square kilometres, the park is dominated by a rugged savannah landscape, punctuated by numerous outcrops and kopjes, which rise like islands out of the grasslands. Mount Morongole dramatically dominates the Eastern landscape, recognisable in any photo. The park is blessed with a permanent water source – the Narus River – which means that the Narus Valley is a hub for all the gathering animals, year round. Zebra, giraffe, elephant, waterbuck, reed buck, warthog, thousands of buffalo (possibly the largest herds of buffalo ever recorded). Cross the Kidepo river into the Kidepo Valley towards South Sudan and the landscape changes. It’s scrubbier, wilder, barren and deserted, home to a growing number of Ostrich. The hills are like cones popping out of the earth’s crust. Seasonal sand rivers oscillate across the savannah and then disappear into deep rocky gorges. Lions pose like models on top of the kopjes, surveying the grasslands below, shopping for dinner. It’s not uncommon to see them lounging in the fig trees to get away from the midday heat.

‘Wildlife roams freely around the camp, lions have been known to climb up onto the thatched roof, or lie in the shade under the rooms and elephants have come up to scratch their backs on the thatch and guests have a true ‘touch the wild’ experience. ‘

The park has been a well-kept secret for a very long time but it has not been without its problems. Conservation efforts have been considerable to get the park back on its feet after the years of turmoil which affected many of Uganda’s protected areas. Among many other partners, Frankfurt Zoo, Uganda Conservation Society, Africa Wildlife Foundation, the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, the Wildlife Conservation Society, IUCN, UWEC , and of course the Uganda Wildlife Authority which oversees all Uganda parks, have all participated in numerous conservation projects and initiatives to restore the park to its former glory.
The giraffe population in Kidepo, for instance, had reached critical numbers. The Rothschilds giraffe, a subspecies of the Northern giraffe which exists only in Kenya and Uganda has in the past decade been added to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Poaching and habitat loss contribute significantly to their decline. In the late 1990s, only 3 giraffes remained in Kidepo and the outlook was dire. Two concerted translocations have been carried out, first in 1997 when 3 giraffe were flown from Lake Nakuru in Kenya, and more recently when 10 more females were moved from Murchison Falls. The population is growing steadily – it is estimated that there are now in excess of 50 giraffes in Kidepo – sightings of lovely pale baby giraffes frolicking in the grasses are not uncommon and we are almost at the stage when we can breathe a sigh of relief. Monitoring continues but the improvement is marked.
Other projects are also ongoing: ostrich breeding, translocation of eland and kob, constant monitoring, community conservation initiatives. All of this leads to a better and brighter future for one of Africa’s greatest parks.
Those of us who have built lodges up in Kidepo know that we are playing a long game. The park is still very remote. Logistics are a challenge, supplies are all carted up from Kampala. But improved links to the area have made a big difference, our doors are open. And the view’s not bad either…

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