Kidepo Valley National Park is the destination in Uganda that everyone recommends you visit, but nobody has actually been to. Located in the North Eastern corner of the country, pushed up against the borders of South Sudan and Northern Kenya, tribal warfare, rebels, and notoriously bad roads have kept it isolated from just about everybody. However, this seclusion has fueled its legend as one of the last surviving tracts of unadulterated wilderness left in Uganda.
The myths are true, Kidepo is a wild place of spectacular beauty. The Narus Valley is a vast plain, nourished by the Narus River, full of herds of buffalo, elephant and oribi, speckled with borassus palms, desert dates and sausage trees, and framed by the Morungyong, Lomej, and Lopetapara Hills. Small granite outcroppings serve as restful perches for lions, while patas monkeys and jackals forage through the long grass.
The Haunting Beauty of Kidepo Valley
However, the park also exudes a haunting aura, and it becomes obvious it is still recovering from a tumultuous past — a history that few people were there to witness. Many grazers you might expect to find like grants gazelle, and oryx are absent, and potentially extinct, while the few zebra and hartebeest we find seem especially skittish. The buffalo and elephants act exceptionally aggressive, like wounded warriors constantly making their last stand.
We watch a herd of at least a hundred buffalo stand at full alert for over an hour on the plains, and then later in the day, driving past a herd of twelve elephants on the side of the road, the big bull in the front breaks into a run and charges us. It was scary enough that we had to skid out at full speed over the muddy park road, and unique in that the whole herd joined behind him, chasing us for about a kilometer through the park. Our host, Patrick, has warned us, “the elephants in the park are cantankerous”, but none of us had seen anything like this before.
The animals seem shell shocked as if they survived a great war, and while the landscape is calm now, you feel like you stand in the eye of a storm with the ghosts of the past still swirling around. Patrick also told us that since the game that lions usually hunt has diminished, they are regularly forced to attack the buffalo, which is extremely dangerous, and may be why so many of them look sickly and starved. While wildlife is plentiful, the ecosystem is imbalanced, and still healing.
The Tumultuous Past of Kidepo Valley National Park
The Observer reports that two days after Uganda received independence, the first president of the newly findependent nation sanctioned Kidepo Valley a national park. It is therefore as old as the nation itself, and in being so, has suffered through the same difficult past. Kidepo Valley National Park extends over the South Sudanese border where rebels took refuge during the civil war (1955-1972), sometimes crossing into Uganda to hunt game with machine guns and rocket propelled grenades.
As the civil war concluded, Idi Amin took power (1971), allowing his troops to poach with helicopters and high powered rifles, further decimating wildlife for food, and seeking rhino horns and elephant tusks for profit. During this period, brave rangers defended this park, but they were outgunned, under-supplied, and two consecutive wardens report having to flee their posts to avoid assassination from Idi Amin. It was a rough time, and the wilderness suffered, but mostly only the wildlife was there to tell the tale.
The war to overthrow Idi Amin (1979), and the second civil war in Sudan (1983-2005) kept pressure on the park, and reports of military poaching continue at least until the 1990s in Uganda’s National Parks. The last rhino was seen in Kidepo Valley in 1983. The sadness and destruction of this period is unfathomable, and the work of many Ugandans and international movements is still trying to close these wounds.
Hardships Healing Wilderness in Kidepo Valley
The current government policies now seem directed towards conservation given the realization that tourism earns a lot of revenue for them. This should bring hope, but the implementation of effective policies to achieve meaningful conservation and right the wrongs of the past is paramount. The current president, Museveni, reportedly issued a shoot to kill order for poachers in the national parks, which shows he is serious, but conservation in the midst of poverty usually involves a much longer term integrated approach, which still seems to be lacking.
It is clear that some laudable progress is being made in Kidepo Valley National Park. Giraffes, nearly extinct, were reintroduced from Kenya, and now number around 30. Eland have also been reintroduced, and The Great Elephant Census shows that elephant numbers have been increasing again (from about 450 in the 1980’s to an estimated 656 today). Further, The Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary is successfully breeding rhinos (the only rhinos in Uganda still), and there seem to be some plans to reintroduce them to Kidepo Valley.
Continued recovery will be a long road though, and a very tough one to manage. One journalist worried that the ecosystem has changed, and now the tall fibrous grass might mean that big grazers like oryx and gazelle cannot live here, which could be a continuing issue for the lions. While the roads through the Karamojong tribal lands have been safe for several years now, the government is still struggling to upgrade their quality, which has been quite a long term project.
Tourism Can Help but More Facilities are Needed
Further, one of the most iconic images of Kipedo is still the ruins of the Katurum lodge. Destroyed by war in the late 1970’s, discussions for its renovation have been ongoing since at least 2010. It is still in shambles, as is the UWA Apoka Rest Camp, which The Ugandan Daily Monitor wrote, “as you open the door to the bandas, mice and rats in the ceiling will be sent into panic”. The boutique Apoka Safari Lodge offers extreme luxury to the elite that can afford it, and otherwise you can fend for yourself in the beautiful UWA Public Campsites, or stay right outside the Katarum Park Gate in the welcoming Nga’Moru Wilderness Camp.
Kidepo Valley National Park is a Crown Jewel
However, combined, all these lodging options together still do not come close to serving the potential of what the park has to offer. The New York Times wrote that before Idi Amin’s rule, “conservationists around the world considered the Ugandan Parks to be the jewels of East Africa”. Kidepo Valley National Park certainly is the crowned jewel, akin to Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve, or South Africa’s Kruger National Park.
For now, Kidepo Valley National Park is still the seldom visited wilderness, which intrepid explorers hope to find on an African safari. It is safe to visit, but still hard to get to, requiring a bit more adventure than the average traveler is willing to accept. It’s past still whispers in the winds of the rain storms, but its future seems limitless. Hopefully Uganda will be able to rekindle the optimism it had for it at independence, to once again make it a priority and source of pride for the nation. I know for sure the elephants would enjoy that.
Author’s Note: We drove to Kidepo through Karamoja, and found the roads rough, but passable, and saw a lot of work on-going to upgrade them. We stayed at Nga’Moru Wilderness Camp where Patrick and Lyn showed us exceptional hospitality, and shared stories from the history of the region. We also camped at Kakine Public Campsite in the park, which has almost no facilities, but spectacular views.