On the complete opposite side of the country, the Abertine Rift in the southwest provides some of the most uniquely beautiful landscapes and wildlife in the world. From the tree climbing lions in the Ishasha sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park, to the crater lakes of Kasenda, the Chimpanzees in Kibale National Forest, and the great Gorillas of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. This region is not to be missed, and offers wild experiences that are very hard to find elsewhere in East Africa.
In a society that has been governed by a council of elders, guided by rainfall, and defined by warriors, the people of Karamoja must now find their own way to integrate more deeply with the people beyond their borders so that future generations can thrive. This transition has already begun, and completing it successfully will be one of the biggest challenges the Karamojong have faced. There is nowhere in the world where you can just trade in your gun for a lifetime of education or professional experience.
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 crashing water creates an aura of spray, which shoots directly back up into the air. It nourishes an oasis of flowers and foliage, and fuels vivid rainbows. Giant vase shaped Angel’s Trumpet flowers, colored Apricot and peach, hang upside down below the falls, harboring strange horned chameleons with bright yellow heads, as if doused in sunlight.
Then we hear the baritone beating of tree trunks all around us, and a group of male chimpanzees comes swinging aggressively through the trees, screeching loudly. Branches and leaves pour to the ground around us. The females climb higher on trunks and scream back, all the trees around us start swaying with chimpanzees, and I feel very much like a dazed red colobus monkey on the ground. It is an impressive show of force.
The snow-capped peaks of the Rwenzori Mountains tower to the west, and the dense woodlands of Kibale Forest National Park stand to the north, stocking the Bigodi Wetlands full of water and wildlife. It is one of the best places in the world to see primates, with nine species jumping through the treetops during the day, and four nocturnal ones that emerge under the moon. Further, the birdlife in the swamps is exceptional, as the wooden walkways traversing them allow you to go deeper into the ecosystem than usual to find what is hiding in the reeds.
Lake Bunyonyi is surrounded by terraced hills where local farmers grow groundnuts, plantains, sweet potatoes, and cabbages in patchworks of adjoining fields, so it appears like someone laid a volcanic red and verdant green quilt over each hill.
Bwindi’s vast swaps, sheer peaks, and dense canopy make it foreboding enough, however, once inside its boundaries, the giant mountain gorillas ensure you realize that they are the true guardians of Bwindi, and the ones who may decide if you ever make it back out. Overall, the experience is exhilarating, and as much as the gorillas feign aggression, they also show their gentle and playful sides.
Ishasha lies in the Southern sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park. It is a fabled place in Uganda where prides of tree climbing lions live in the canopies like troops of monkeys. This behavior is rare enough that there is still debate over what drives a 180 kilo (400 pound) cat to clumsily scratch its way up a tree, but sightings seem to be becoming more common.
The jungle heat hits us as we descend past the giant bamboo, and views open up of the rolling hills. The porters and guides start finding chameleons all over the trees with horns like triceratops. The land feels ancient wilderness. When we make to the ranger’s station at the park entrance, we stop to sign out, and looking at the registration book, we realize that no one has entered the park in the last six days.
It rains for several hours again in the night, and it makes me feel trapped, knowing the kilometers of tussock meadows between us and the bottom of the mountain are slowing turning into waist deep sludge. Our gateway out is closing. My feet are tender, swollen, raw-open wounds, and I can tell they are already infected.
I drift into consciousness multiple times in the night, waking in a panic that it is time to go and it is still pouring rain, and then the last time the nightmare is true. At 5:30 am, as if on autopilot, we start pulling over, strapping on, cinching, buttoning, and tying on layers and layers of gear, until I am wearing everything I have brought up the mountain.
Bernard points West towards the Congolese border where a Congolese plane flying an aid mission crashed into the mountain mists. Then in a matter of seconds, the mists rise from the forest floor, absconding the surrounding peaks like a bridal veil, as if scolding us to wait until we summit to inspect the peaks.
The shriek of the hyrax pierces the blanket of darkness, and sends a chill shivering up your spine. Its call sounds like the frantic wail of someone that has been mortally wounded, and is slowly dying alone in the woods. As the hyrax call to each other, it seems like haunted spirits are flying around the jungle wailing in the night. They are the mountain banshees of the Rwenzori.
However, the elevation gains were daunting. We would be climbing 3,456 meters [11,338 ft.] in the first four days to a height of 4,620 meters [15,157 ft.], which is higher than anything in the continental United States. Then we would loop back down the mountain in two days.
There are about fifty crater lakes around Kasenda in Western Uganda guarded by steep volcanic slopes, but you would not know it, because hardly anyone does. They are due west of Kibale National Park, and just East of the Rwenzori Mountains, and right off people’s maps. Even Ugandans who have heard of them have trouble pronouncing their tribal names, so the whole region generally slips off the radar of travelers.