Almost 5 hours into the drive from Gulu and 60 km from the Kidepo Valley National Park entrance, my white shirt is already stained orange with dust from the speed bump filled dirt road. We pass families carrying bundles of straw and filled pots on their heads towards their thatched roof bandas. I did not think that this far north, towards South Sudan and the Sahara, that I would be in the midst of such craggy mountains jutting out of shrubs and grasses. Exposed sections of sheer rock look unexplored and unscaled.
The cool early morning temperature has already given way to a very warm mid-morning. A young local boy herds a few dozen goats up a steep embankment on the side of the road. Tufts of white cotton plants appear in patches among the small trees and shrubs and tall savannah grasses. Smoke from either brush fires or village camp fires look like low lying fog in the distance. The road becomes more undulating and filled with so many blind turns that Charlie, our driver, honks the horn to let any on comers know we’re there.
A wedding is unfolding in the small town of Karenga, a glimpse of normal life on a Saturday morning. We drive right past this final town before the Narus Valley opens up to us with visibility for hundreds of kilometers. A single armed guard opens up the gate to the park for us, he is out of receipts so we will have to pay our park fees once inside. Almost immediately after entering the park buffalo dot the landscape, looking like large gray and black boulders. A lone young bull elephant strides through a smaller herd consisting of hundreds of buffalo. Another solo bull walks alone towards the water. A few water buck and Jackson Hartebeest loiter around, finding shade in the trees. We pass by the only vehicle we’ve seen in hours going the opposite direction. While winding through the roads with amazing dexterity from van and driver, a large elephant family appears, a couple giraffe visible in the distance. Turning into the Apoka campgrounds, a lone older bull elephant can be seen under a tree and a group of zebras come towards us to find shade for the younger ones after drinking at the watering hole. Said watering hole is in the Apoka campgrounds just meters away from the restaurant and bonfire area. We take tea at the restaurant and watch the warthogs grovel around, the Portis monkeys scavenging for scraps, and the water buck and zebra emerge from their shaded refuge for water.
It is the middle of January, dry season in Uganda, where I have been working for a small non-profit in Kampala since October. My landlord runs a safari company and had a couple of German friends in town, Mario and Andrea, who really wanted to see Kidepo, Andrea having visited two other national parks with Charlie. To make it more economical I am asked to join their trip and they make accommodations for my work schedule since I have to help wrap up a festival with our kids on Friday morning. Charlie plans it out to where we will do half the drive and stay in Gulu on Friday night and make the rest of the drive to Kidepo starting early Saturday morning. That leaves us time for three game drives, one on Saturday and two on Sunday, before doing the entire journey back to Kampala on Monday.
Kidepo is a 10 to 12 hour drive from Kampala, not an easy weekend jaunt like Murchison Falls (a 3-5 hour drive) or near a lot of areas of interest like Queen Elizabeth Park (which is near Fort Portal and the crater lakes near the Congolese border.) Because of this distance and remoteness, not to mention it’s proximity to conflict-ridden South Sudan, this park does not get over saturated with visitors. Due to a lack of visitors and the efforts of the Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA) the park has flourishing wildlife and an un-adulterated environment.
Leaving camp around 3pm for our first game drive, we pick up a UWA park ranger named Philip and drive from the Narus Valley and drive to the more desert – like Kidepo Valley, the namesake of the park, on the South Sudanese border. Noticeably warmer after emerging out of the Neuse valley, we cross dry river after dry river, closing our windows and moon roof each time to keep the ever-aggressive tsetse flies out. Chimney like termite mounds abound the surrounding terrain. Finally, we spot our first wildlife in Kidepo valley, the common ostrich. There is nothing common about these giant birds with two talon-ed toes that resemble Jurassic dinosaurs.
A sign indicates 5 kilometers to the South Sudanese border, a colorful domed mountain in front of us is part of that conflict filled country. Philip has Charlie stop near the hot springs and tells us about the volcanic activity in the area, both the scientific rationale as well as the native stories. That colorful domed mountain has a crater lake on top. Philip believes it would be a wonderful hiking destination for tourists it South Sudan would ever be able to capitalize on it. I ask the ranger if there is a sign indicating the border, he says no, but that there is a slightly discernible line in the terrain. I ask if we could see it. Charlie drives us out there, the ranger waving to the Ugandan military stationed there as we pass by, indicating that we will return. We stop when Philip sees the line, exit the van, and then I step over an arbitrary delineation between two countries, and into South Sudan.
Driving back to camp the sun starts to descend behind the mountains to the west. Postcard quality rays of light emit perfectly from the falling orb, alighting the sky with vivid oranges and reds. I call the photo that I later post on Instagram “cliché,” but it is truly stunning.
Night time is just as splendid. Venus is bright in the sky, the moon hiding low while the stars make their appearance with commitment. The bonfire is a welcoming place for partaking in post-dinner beers among new friends. The moon emerges with fiery fanfare just as I head to my banda for as deep and restful a sleep as I’ve had in weeks.
The watering hole is occupied by a small elephant family as the camp awakens and staff and guests alike prepare for the morning game drives.
Dawn arrives subtly, to where we can suddenly see the entire horizon with brilliant clarity. After a deep sleep and on an almost chilly morning, I am alert and ready for our drive. The hunt is on to spot big cats, the panthera leos (lions) that eluded me while on safari in Murchison Falls National Park in December.
Luck finds us quickly as Charlie spots a very shy Eland antelope, the largest antelope in Africa, within photography distance. Another find, two Secretary Birds hunting for snakes in the tall grasses, their crown-like head feathers bouncing as they awkwardly run around.
Two hours into our drive a large giraffe herd is eating breakfast off the acacia trees. Deciding that they have the right idea, Mario and Charlie prepare coffee from the mugs, tins of coffee and sugar, and thermos of hot water that the camp kitchen sent with us. That, along with our bread and groundnut butter (peanut butter), make for a satisfying bush breakfast. We set out again with renewed energy.
Across the valley, Phillip sees him first, a male lion resting in the shade of a tree, most likely after a mating encounter. We roll the van down the valley a bit to get a closer look. Passing the two sets of binoculars between the five of us, we watch his ears and tail twitch. I am close enough to watch through the zoom of my camera lens but not to get a good photo with my camera phone- not that any photo will do this scene justice. A lone male buffalo wanders in the vicinity then all the sudden gallops. He is chasing away a lioness who has presumably been bothering him. We wonder out loud whether this is the lioness our young lion was mating with. She nears him, he rises to his front paws, stretching out his back before laying back down. She lies nearby in the shade of the same tree, even more camouflaged than the male by the shade and the golden grass- If we didn’t know she was there we would miss her but for the subtle twitch of black on her ears. We gaze and speculate about this pair for another 10 minutes or so but I feel I could stay all day.
Charlie stops the van to let a long trail of buffalo cross the road in front of us. Just on the other side of the buffalo train we eye the largest herd of elephants Charlie has ever seen, at least 50 probably closer to 70 elephants of all ages. We maneuver close enough to try to count them and we’re able to see one little one holding the tail of its mama in front of him or her. Philip leads us to a hilltop campsite with a view of a good portion of the valley. A line of buffalo nearly a kilometer long can be seen from the campsite lookout point.
Having seen an incredible breadth of animals in the morning drive, we decide to rest during the heat of the afternoon and head out again at 4pm to stalk the places where the big cats like to hang around. A simple but delicious lunch with a view gives me the beginnings of a joke- a zebra, a buffalo and a water buck meet at the watering hole…
Not just an expert on the animals in the park, during our afternoon drive Philip teaches us a few words in the local language of Karamajong, the dialect of the region we are in and where he is originally from. He also tells about the Ik tribe and other peoples who live in the mountains surrounding the valley. Engaging us with thoughtful and scientific questions alike, he teaches us about the biodiversity and entertains us with stories from other rangers and locals about the land and animals.
We see dozens of vultures orient themselves on trees overlooking a vast dry river bed. Philips leaves the vehicle to try to spot a fresh kill through his binoculars. No luck, we drive on. Skirting the edges of the park near big rocks (vantage points for the cats,) we arrive at a rock we can hike up to the top of. Having been forewarned of this potential hike, we grabbed a few Nile Special beers from camp to drink at the top while watching the sunset. A short but slightly treacherous hike (a couple of spots where you had to use your hands to climb over the larger boulders) leads us to a magnificent panoramic of the valley and the mountains.
In all my travels thus far through Africa I have never seen a land look more like it belongs in The Lion King, and we are standing on Pride Rock.
Back at camp, over a nice vegetarian dinner and more Nile Specials, we marvel at the incredible day and all we have seen. The magic of the weekend is not complete yet. I point out a campfire in the distance and just as we are all looking in that direction we see a falling star! Unlike a simple streak in a meteor shower, this falling rock from outer space glowed with fire upon entering the earth’s atmosphere. It was a truly special moment.
I stay out star gazing a bit longer by the campfire, on the way back to my banda I count the pairs of jackal eyes that get caught in the glare of my headlamp. The generator turns off and suddenly the only noise you can hear is the cacophony of yips, howls, cries, and trumpeting of various animals interrupting the silence of the unpolluted environment.
We leave the park early, well before sunrise, to make the long trip back to Kampala. Near the edge of the park Charlie has to brake abruptly as a family of elephants are caught in his headlights as they cross the road. They turn around to face us once on the other side. I know they are protecting the younger ones and watching to make sure we move along, but I would also like to think that they are thanking us for visiting and wishing us a safe journey, their rippling ears waving goodbye.