Some people are just not happy being in themiddle of things. They prefer the edge. They are frontier people. InAfrica, that means searching out the wide grass plains, broken only bydistant, soft, blue mountains. Gazing at distant horizons punctuated bythe smudge of scattered buffalo, not the ant-crawl of so many safarivehicles. In Uganda, that means Kidepo Valley National Park.
Located in the distant north east of Uganda, close by the borders of South Sudan and Kenya, Kidepo is an enthralling place of semi-arid savanna, seasonal rivers and low mountains. It is beautiful – and accessible – at any time of year. Although travel in the wet and dry season provides such a contrasting experience that a visit is not truly complete until you have been twice.
Kidepo is Uganda’s most isolated national park. Cut off for years by conflict of varying forms, it has only recently become accessible by both road and air. Currently, there are only two lodges and a government rest camp available. These two factors, along with relatively high cost of reaching the park, have combined to keep visitor numbers low. But those who do make it are in for a treat, with enjoyment only amplified by the fact you are far from the beaten path.
At 1,442 km2, Kidepo is Uganda’s third-largest national park, but the savanna spreads far beyond the gazetted area. Its core wildlife areas are the Kidepo and Narus River Valleys, splitting the park into almost equal halves bordered by mountain ranges. Mt Morungole at 2,750 metres is the highest point of a now-extinct volcanic range forming the southeast border of the Park.
The Kidepo River flows strongly in the wet season, but disappears in the dry season. The Narus retains its water in boggy ground and isolated oases. Between them, the rivers sustain high levels of biodiversity, making Kidepo second only to Queen Elizabeth National Park. Of the 77 mammal species present, lion, leopard, spotted hyena, buffalo and elephant are regularly seen; whilst clack-backed jackal, bat-eared fox, aardwolf, cheetah and caracal are found nowhere else in Uganda.
The number of bird species recorded, at 470, is also second only to Queen Elizabth. While not rare in the wider East African context, the ostrich, secretary-bird, carmine bee-eater, white-bellied-go-away bird, to name a few species, are ‘Kidepo specials’.
Kidepo can be explored on game drives, the majority of which follow two road loops of about 20km in the Narus Valley, where the wildlife is at its most dense, especially in the dry months of January and February. Tracks also allow you to explore the more remote and less visited Kidepo Valley where the wildlife is less dense, but the landscape of the Kidepo River, borassus palm forests and the thicker bush of the lower slopes are worth exploring.
The best way to enjoy the wilderness of Kidepo is to explore the Park on foot. Step away from the lodge and the vehicle, those things that speak of safety and of modern life, and venture into the grasslands. Follow the tracks that your guide quietly highlights; look out for the lone male buffalo; sit quietly in the shade of the woodland edge and look for the birds. A great range of guided trails are available, starting with short wildlife walks, going all the way through to full day treks.
The people of the Kidepo Valley, play an important role in the story of the Park. First populating the area over 500 years ago, migrating south from what is now Ethiopia, the Ik hunter gatherers and the Dodoth Karamojong pastoralists were removed from the Park when it was created in 1962. They now occupy the land bordering the park and welcome visitors interested in their unique customs, which are very different to those of Ugandans south of Lake Kyoga.
One of the most fascinating cultural encounters possible is to hike up into the heights of the Morungole Mountains to visit the Ik people. Living above 2,000 metres, the hike to the villages is tough and not to be under-estimated. The reward is to experience the welcome of resilient people, living a unique life on the margins of what is possible. Once reviled as a group who had rejected what it is to be human; that evaluation is now understood to be incorrect. Find out the reasons for yourself.
Things to do
Kidepo is remarkably beautiful and has a rare serenity that should not be ignored. So, if one morning you find you want only to sit and stare off into the distance, imbibing what it feels like just to be in Kidepo, then do it. But you probably also want to explore the epic landscape. Happily, there are lots of ways to do this. In fact, while most people stay for three nights, a much longer trip works extremely well, depending on your interests and African travel experience.
Places to Stay
Kidepo has just two small tourist lodges. Kidepo Savannah Lodge is a simple, but comfortable lodge located 500 metres from the Kalokudo Gate to Kidepo. There are nine ‘Tents’ that use one ablution block and eight self-contained ‘Safari Tents’ all leading off from a central dining area and bar. The position gives Savannah Lodge great views down over the Narus Valley and the mountains beyond.
Apoka Lodge is the only accommodation (excluding the campsite and basic UWA resthouse) in the Park. It is a luxury lodge perfectly located on a low rise in the middle of the plains. Wildlife abounds, whether it be zebra or buffalo just outside your room when the grass is high, or lion lazing by the pool in the hot, dry months. 10 spacious bandas made from wood, canvas and thatch provide the accommodation. The dining room and bar is a magnificent, thatch-roofed, raised platform, perfect for wildlife viewing. There is also a high observation tower, which also doubles as an unforgettable private breakfast spot.
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