Voted by CNN travel in 2016 as one of the best African safari destinations for wildlife viewing and scenery, Kidepo Valley National park is a hidden gem in Uganda. The park is located in the semiarid Karamoja subregion north east Uganda along the border with South Sudan and Kenya. The protected area covers 1,442 sq.km, a flat landscape fringed by rugged dry volcanic mountains including Mount Morungole 2,750 meters, where the IK (smallest tribe in Uganda) live. In between the hills there’s the Narus and Kidepo Valleys at 914 meters with two rivers flowing through which sustain the lives of people and wildlife. Karamoja is characterized by persistent-drought conditions and temperatures have been rising over the last 35 years according to a World Food Program (WFP) study. The rainfall pattern ranges between 300 – 1000 mm per annum and occurs twice a year between April and November. It’s a green season and producing our food locally depends on this relatively small amount of rainfall, which makes the region prone to food insecurity due to varying drought patterns.
Local people living in the region are mainly semi-nomadic pastoralists including the Karamojong. They speak Ngakarimojong language, which is almost similar to that of the famous Maasai warriors of Kenya and Tanzania. Understanding the impact of climate change and what the people need to preserve their unique cultural heritage as well as conserve the flora and fauna. It’s well known that the region went through conflict that surrounds the cattle rustling wars between Karamojong and other tribes including Taposa, which also live in Kidepo Game Reserve in South Sudan and the Kelenjin speaking found both in Uganda and Kenya. However, the conflicts ceased and today Karamoja enjoys general safety with tourism development gaining momentum, making the region accessible while on Uganda safaris. The Karamojong have maintained their traditional ways of living, which are called Manyattas, which refers to a kraal among the Kelenjin speaking. Traveling to Kidepo offers an opportunity to see some of the spectacular rural tourism villages in Africa.
Kidepo valley national park is home to 77 mammal species of which ostriches and cheetahs along with small cat species including caracals, Aardwolf, bat-eared fox, black-backed jackals and striped hyena aren’t found anywhere else in Uganda. Lions and leopards are found in the park with a comprehensive study being done to ascertain the number of predators. The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) in partnership with a team of National Geographic (NAT GEO) recently observed that lions in Kidepo are learning the habit of climbing trees, though the best opportunity to see Tree climbing lions in Uganda is on the game tracks in the Ishasha wilderness, western Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park. The plan is to keep an eye on the changes in the general predator populations, therefore identify possible measures to sustain and protect the flora and fauna including other ungulate species such as Impala, Nubian giraffe plains zebras, Uganda kobs, African elephants and buffaloes, Jackson’s hartebeests, oribi and waterbucks.
The Semi-arid habitat distribution in Kidepo National Park and surrounding mountains includes rolling plains, crisscrossed by Narus and Kidepo Rivers, which create permanent water pools and wetlands at 914 meters. Around these water holes, there are interspersed forests, and semi arid plains dotted with acacia, the African Borassasus palm trees (Borassasus aethiopum). The traditional knowledge of the indigenous trees in the Southern Sudan – Northern Uganda Transboundary Landscape, which includes Kidepo Game reserve across the border
Apoka Rest Camp Narus valley view point
The raised platform at the Apoka UWA campsite offers a view of the Narus valley with a backdrop of Morunyang and Lonyili rugged hills. Narus valley contains permanent water sources and harbors Kidepo’s large mammal population.
The sand river valley contains hot springs at Kanataruk and a nature trail offers an opportunity to cross the river. The view stretches across the border to the Lebal Lotuke mountains in the Kidepo Game Reserve South Sudan. While Narus valley is known for its big game concentration, the view in Kidepo valley is the most spectacular part of the park. Ensure to go take a safari game drive through this area, you might even encounter the mammals that tend to live solitary including the leopards, ostriches, striped hyenas and jackals, giraffes and leopards, which like to live in solitary.
According to UWA, the population of 20 cheetahs exist in the park, but mostly the cats reside in the Narus valley. They are the last remaining in the wild Uganda and finding cheetahs whilst in the Narus valley game tracks is always by luck, with a ranger or guide. But, there’s an ongoing Large Carnivore program research, where over 60 locations have been set to track cheetah movements, raising hope in time to come for those visiting Kidepo National Park.
Ostriches in Kidepo valley are common sightings at Apoka UWA rest camp. You might encounter the ostriches in the wild with their 40-inch long neck of the 2.5 meter tall bird swinging above the savanna plains. The chance is high to see them and has also been made possible at the Uganda Wildlife Education Center (UWEC), though the ostriches are used to playing with humans.
Kidepo is renowned for one of the largest single herd of African buffaloes, according to UWA there are over 1,5000 of which a herd of about 1,000 buffaloes and during the dry season, the beasts might be seen as they congregate and graze across the Narus valley and around the sand river, making it a must-see gem for keen wildlife photographers. Their main predators are the Kidepo Lions, and probably there are encounters of predator and prey hunting happening which the rangers know very well.
Birds of prey
Kidepo is home to over 476 species of birds of which 56 species have been recorded including the Somali-Masai Biome endemics such as Karamoja apalis, Verreaux’s eagle, white-headed, Egyptian and palm-nut vultures, pygmy falcon.
Mount Morungole (2750m)
Hiking Mount Morungole provides a unique cultural experience with the Ik tribe, Uganda’s smallest tribe who survive on its lower slopes. The trail to its peak is moderate and can be hiked by those without prior hiking experience. Visitors need to hire a ranger or guide to explore the trail which lasts for 3-6 hours depending on the walking pace.
Kanataruk hot springs
The nature trail offers an opportunity to walk on foot across the 50 wide sand bed of Kidepo river valley to Kanataruk hot springs. They contain mineral salts including travertine, which contain limestone deposits. According to the Ministry of Mineral and Energy Development (MEMD), the hot springs have potential for mining in Karamoja.
which attract mammals such as elephants and buffaloes which can be seen grazing around. Kanataruk hot springs create hot water at 60 °C with a volume flow rate of 1 l/s. The spring stretches for about 3 meters in length and locals believe that the warm waters at Kanataruk have healing properties.
Producing food locally in the rural villages is one of the apparent solutions and the Karamoja Breakfast is an experience offered in several camps and lodges including the Apoka Rest Camp UWA bandas.
Kidepo National Park offers over six accommodation facilities ranging from self-contained campsites to luxury safari lodges.
Apoka Rest Camp
The UWA hostel provides self-contained bandas and has amenities like en-suite bathrooms with hot water, comfortable single and twin beds. Food is provided at the restaurant. Guests who stay there have the advantage of hiring UWA rangers to accompany them for game drives. In addition, there’s a view platform for those binoculars; the birds can be seen in flight above the Narus valley. There are also non-self contained bandas that can accommodate 4 guests for those intending to have a camping adventure to Kidepo, there are camping sites at Nagusokopire.
Apoka Safari Lodge
With 8 luxury cottages, Apoka Safari offers high-end lodging in 8 cottages and a large swimming pool curved out of a rock outcrop. Some of the rooms offer big bathtubs ideal for those traveling with children. Rooms are well designed with local arts and crafts and the lounge area, restaurant and bar, which overlooks the valley giving you an extra dose of comfort in the wilderness.
Kidepo Savanna Lodge
The mid-range property is situated near some of the rocky outcrops and sounds of roaring lions could be one of the benefits of staying at Kidepo Savanna Lodge. Lodgings are provided in self-contained and non-self-contained safari tents, at the valley at the edge of the valley. Food and drinks are available in the restaurant and bar with a 3 course menu, soft drinks and beers.
NgaMoru Wilderness Camp
NgaMoru cottages are built with stone and provide mid-ranging lodging amenities including en-suite bathrooms and veranda to sit and relax. Meals are provided in the restaurant and bar with a fireplace to gather in the evening and share stories.
Kara Tunga Safari Camp
Best for those intending to stay in Moroto town en-route to Kidepo, the solar-powered tented camp offers 6 safari tents with private bathrooms, which are set under and surrounded by indigenous trees. Each is powered by solar lighting and electricity ensures a flushing toilet and hot water to give you extra comfort. The staff also provides charging equipment, and a washing basin for do it yourself laundry.
Apoka, the park visitor center can be reached by both road and air. Trying out different ways offers a chance to enjoy the view of Karamoja landscape. Those driving to Kidepo should use 4×4 vehicles and there are two routes to consider depending on the itinerary. The Kampala-Gulu and Kitgum highway via Murchison falls is 571 sq.km (10-hour drive). Alternatively, you can get there via the eastern circuit safari route with options to visit Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve and Kapchorwa. The Mbale-Moroto route is 661 sq.km and the longest route is the Kampala-Jinja-Mbale-Moroto-Kitgum road is 700 sq.km (13 hour-drive) north-east of Kampala capital city. Kidepo can also be accessed through the Apoka airstrip, which is 4 km away from the main game tracks and UWA center. Flying in safaris to Kidepo is a great way to fly above the northern Uganda landscape.
For customised safari packages and travel guide to Kidepo Valley National Park, contact Africa Adventure Safaris