It was recently ranked Africa’s third best national park, yet it remains largely unknown to tourists.
As Kidepo Valley national park marks 50 years, Simon Musasizi looks at what its future holds.
Hours after Uganda had got its independence, the new government had a lot on its plate. But the fact that the government, headed by Sir Edward Muteesa II (president) and Dr Apollo Milton Obote (prime minister), prioritized the upgrading of Kidepo Valley game reserve to a national park on their second day in office (October 10, 1962), proves that the post independence leaders had smelt a pot of gold in Karamoja.
There were so many other game reserves that could have been considered, but Kidepo’s beauty got the government’s attention first. It is reported that at the time, the park had the largest concentration of wildlife, walking freely in the plains stretching from Matheniko-Bokora game reserve through Kidepo, to Southern Sudan and western Kenya. The government looked at this as the future for Uganda’s tourism.
This perhaps explains why the subsequent president, Idi Amin, also fell in love with the park and embarked on building a multimillion lodge on Katurum rock, which was to be followed up with the tarmacking of the road. However, thanks to the country’s precarious past and tribal wars in Karamoja, the park was vandalised and wildlife at one point, virtually eliminated due to increased poaching, with rhinos, for example, getting extinct.
The insurgency in the northern Uganda, perpetuated by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and cattle rustling in Karamoja, managed to tint the beauty of the park, which was cut off from the rest of the country due to poor roads. However, with the successful disarmament exercise in Karamoja and the return of peace in the north, Kidepo is now looked at as the next big frontier for Uganda.
Recently, the park was ranked by CNN Travel, as the third best national park in Africa after Kenya’s Maasai Mara national reserve and Botswana’s Central Kalahari game reserve that came first and second respectively in the list of the top ten best parks in Africa. Kidepo, which beat South Africa’s Kruger and Tanzania’s Serengeti, was voted for its ‘spectacular landscapes and great buffalo herds.’
“With sprawling savannah and soaring mountains, Kidepo national park might be the most picturesque park in Africa… it is Uganda’s most beautiful, remote and least-explored park,” the CNN Travel website reads. “Those who take the trouble to get here are rewarded with phenomenal wildlife sightings and a level of exclusivity that can rarely be had at any cost in neighbouring countries.”
It is 50 years since Kidepo was upgraded to a national park, and the celebrations, meant to be held last year, were moved to this year with the climax scheduled for Thursday, August 22 at the Kampala Serena hotel, followed by a special trip to the park. The celebrations are meant to officially reintroduce the park onto the market.
Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA)’s Marketing Manager Ingrid Nyonza Nakabye, says the function will attract tour operators and foreign missions to demystify what they think of the park as being unsafe. With the return of peace in the north, park officials believe this is the time to aggressively market the park.
According to the park’s Conservation Area Manager Johnson Masereka, Kidepo has the potential to grow domestic tourism because during the difficult times, it has been majorly Ugandans visiting the park as embassies advised their nationals not to risk visiting the park.
Last year, for example, 40 per cent of the park visitors were Ugandans, which according to Masereka, is a high number compared to other parks which receive only 20 per cent of Ugandans.
“All we need to do is to make Kidepo known because the majority of visitors who come here go back satisfied,” he says.
Already, the indicators are positive, with tourist numbers steadily growing. According to Masereka, 2,100 tourists visited the park in 2010 generating Shs 294m. In 2011 and 2012, the number grew to 2,300 and 2,700 visitors respectively, generating Shs 384m and Shs 466m respectively.
Masereka notes that with rigorous marketing, the park can attract 60,000 tourists annually – bringing in about Shs 1bn in three years’ time. However, the park still faces a big challenge of poor roads and lack of accommodation, which currently stands at only 80 beds, although it boasts of a first-class, newly refurbished Apoka Safari Lodge.
Masereka says the park has been zoned out for development and in two years, they expect the accommodation capacity to rise to 200 beds. USAID Tourism for Biodiversity (T4B) has earmarked money to help improve the park’s trails, develop new products, and also fund the production of marketing material to rebrand the park.
Seated on 1,442 square kilometres and neighbouring South Sudan and Kenya, Kidepo, the third largest park after Murchison Falls and Queen Elizabeth national parks, was started in 1954 as a controlled hunting area. In 1958, it was gazetted as a game reserve before becoming a national park in 1962. The park gets its name from the Narus and Kidepo valleys.
During the time of colonisation, colonial masters asked the local people about this beautiful land with diverse wildlife. The locals mentioned ‘Kidep’, which among the Karimojong means to pick, in reference to the activity of picking Borasus palm fruits in the valley during the time of food crisis, which the people used as food.
The word ‘Kidep’ was hard for the Britons so, they added the ‘o’, hence ‘Kidepo’.
Kidepo valley is a seasonal river that disappears in the dry season leaving just pools for the wildlife in a 50 metre wide bed of sand between banks, covered with beautiful borassus palm trees stretching approximately 100 meters wide, naturally planted by elephant droppings through the years. The Narus valley, which means ‘muddy area’ among the locals, was the water provision point.
It was always scrambled for by the native tribes: the Napore and the Mening of Sudan during dry season, and today, it serves as the heart of tourism due to the presence of water throughout the year, which attracts a lot of wildlife. Head guide, 40-year-old Phillip Akorongimoe, who has worked with the park for the last 13 years, is one of the most knowledgeable people about the park.
He says in 1963, the community was evicted, and in 1966 when the number of visitors increased, accommodation was put up at Apoka, which in the local language means a place where people used to gather to celebrate the animals they had killed. And that place currently holds the swimming pool of Apoka Safari Lodge.
Peter Logwe, who was the councillor of Napolwe sub county, is credited for having worked hard in extending the park boundaries from 1,181 square kilometers to 1,442 square kilometers.
Why visit Kidepo?
Traversed by large sand rivers, the park is renowned for its distinctive wild game co-existing with dry mountain forests, open savanna and hilltops capped by rock kopjes. It is a wilderness park; dry, hot and isolated, yet spectacular, magnificent and virgin, waiting to be discovered.
Kidepo is home to 77 animal species. Predators are well represented with 20 species. Of these, the black-backed jackal, bat-eared fox, Aardwolf, cheetah and caracal are found in no other park. Five primate species have been recorded in Kidepo, including localised patas monkey.
According to Masereka, Kidepo is the only park where you are assured of an 80 per cent success in seeing the lions. Kidepo is also the home of buffalos – with the biggest herd numbering over 1,000. It is also one of the two parks in Uganda with zebras, the other being Lake Mburo, and also one of two parks with giraffes, the other being Murchison Falls.
The park, whose perennial rains make it an oasis in the semi desert, prides of an extensive bird list of over 475 species, of which 20 species cannot be found elsewhere in Uganda. This number is only second to Queen Elizabeth national park, which has 625 species.
The birds include ostriches, Kori bustard, secretary bird, red throated bee eaters and the Abyssinian ground hornbill.
Kidepo is also notable for its 58 species of birds of prey including the Verreaux eagle, Egyptian vulture and the pygmy falcon. The park is also one of the two parks with hot springs – with the other being Semliki. The Kanangorok meaning, ‘the place of black stones,’ is the only hot spring in Karamoja.
It is 40km away from Apoka camp near the South Sudan border. The drive to the hot springs allows you to see ostriches, zebras, the whistling acacia which is a true indication of semi arid environment. But also the Zuria hills, where South Sudan’s John Garanga died in a chopper crash, are a stone throw away.
How to get there
There are four routes by road: the 705km drive from Kampala via Lira, Kotido, Kaabong and then Kidepo, or the 740km drive via Mbale, Soroti, Moroto, Kotido, Kaabong and Kidepo. The other is a 780km drive via Mbale, Sironko, Nakapiripirit, Moroto, Kotido, Kaabong and Kidepo or the nearest, 571km drive via Gulu, Kitgum and Kidepo.
You can also choose to charter an aircraft from Kajjansi or use Aerolink’s weekly flights from Entebbe to Lomej airstrip in the park, which costs $402 for a return ticket.
UWA runs a hostel in Kidepo with 21 bandas (huts) where one with two beds costs Shs 72,000. There is also Apoka safari lodge where a double room goes for $290. There are also campsites in the park.