Tuesday, October 6, 2020

The untold story of Karamoja

My journey of discovering and uncovering this gem of the Eastern circuit, begins a long way from the long distances and unmatched beauty Sipi falls, The wet roads of Pian Upe wildlife Reserves and the stunning sceneries of the true African Wilderness Kidepo national park.
I start my journey very early in the morning around 06:30am driving from Entebbe to Kampala city to meet my colleagues at the Uganda house, which is one of the famous waiting places around town where most excursions start if not at the national theatre because of the parking space.
Entebbe Expressway

Driving on the Entebbe express way on cold chilly morning watching the cattle egrets making the V- shape in flight and songs from the hadada ibis and the sun raising from the east makes you wish if you can drive till the road gets to the end unfortunately you either have to branch off from Kajansi or continue to Munyonyo and the northern bypass to access the city from different parts.

We started our journey somewhat late because one our vehicles had some issues and I would I recommend if you departing from Kampala to leave as early 07:00hrs to try and avoid the traffic jam of Kampala because it’s you could be stack in jam for more than two hours before you make your way outside Mukono town. One of the important things to note that while you are taking on this route, you able to have stop at Mabira forest reserve for quick birding if you are spending a night in Jinja or if you have enough time. As for my team, and I, we had a stop at Najembe part of Mabira where we bought some roasted chicken, Cassava, beef and ordered rolexes and cold drink to push us to the next town, which was to be Mbale town. For those who like venturing and exploring local foods and dishes can always try out this place. However, the vendors have a habit of storming passenger vehicles selling bottled water, cold sodas, and other food staffs which may seem strange if your new to this kind of life and if you’re a first time visitor but they are harmless and just trying make sales for the day and provide what to eat for the family back home.

Vender at Najembe Mabira

Anyway, cutting story short, our first night, which we were meant to overnight in Sipi Falls, had to be spent in Mbale town because of curfew and avoiding to drive after 19:00hrs that when it starts getting dark here in Uganda.
Waking up to beautiful sunrise from the hills and ranges of mt Elgon is one of those few great memories you will go back home with when spend your night here in Mbale town that’s less crowded and is estimated to host about 72,000 people. After our morning coffee and delicious katogo (Boiled Matooke/Banana with beef or sometimes with beans) we drove towards north east of Mbale town to Sipi falls.

Having bird lovers on this trip was a plus for the team meaning that we would be able to stop here and there to identify and watch some birds in flight or along the rocks in the sharp corners of kapchorwa. There is this common phrase that goes like, if something good happens, travel to celebrate, if something bad happens, travel to forget and nothing happens, travel to make something happen. Sipi falls is the perfect destination for you to be able create more memories with your loved ones be it family, friends, work mates among others.
Sipi Falls and Great spots for photography

In the same manner, I have come to realization that traveling opens your mind, broadens your mind, and fills your life with stories to tell as per my experience while on this trip. Upon arrival at CASA Lodge, we meet our guide William and head out for the photographic moment just a few steps from the lodge dining area, which is one of the perfect spots to take great shoot of the falls.

As confirmed by William and Job who are local based site guides that are borne and raised in this part of the country, Sipi falls is found in Kapchorwa on the slopes of Mt Elgon which holds the world’s largest caldera on the planet and these falls generate their waters from Sipi River that flows from the ranges of mount Elgon. The Sipi Falls area is particularly famous for locally grown Bugisu Arabica coffee that only grows at an altitude of between 1,600 and 1,900 meters. As enjoyed by many tourists to this destination, a Coffee tour organized through guides or the lodge with knowledge of coffee farming, processing and roasting is one of those activities you should not miss if you love your coffee fresh, hot and concentrated.

After a photographic moment at lodge, the team decide to have different teams hike different falls because we couldn’t cover all the three falls in the limited time we have since we were to drive to Pain Upe game reserve that same day.
I decided to join the team hiking falls that were near Sipi river lodge and one of three main falls with a man-made cave.

View of the falls inside the cave

The view of 65 meters long falls inside the caves is really stunning though according to our guide William, the cave had shallow depth about 2 meters deep behind the three cascades of falls divided by the hanging rocks at the edge of the river flow which was in habited by the Sebei tribe, who were the early inhabitants of this region. The Sebei belong to the Nilo, Hamites group of people who migrated from Ethiopian Highlands and In their journey trends, they never had permanent settlements and natural caves were an ideal place to live in since they were great warriors, hunters, great fishermen, great warriors and fruit gatherers.
Caves were their favorite hiding places and their ancestral homes, so when they arrived, here they had to look for natural caves nearer to the water source and this cave was perfect home for them. Since they were many and the cave was small so they had to dig more deeper inside to provide enough space for the vulnerable family members mainly those who were affected by tribal wars during their exodus from Ethiopia, pregnant women, infants and elderly People who couldn't go for war. As of today, this cave is part of the most romantic waterfalls of Sipi with natural showers and the sounds of nature lies here

After our lecture under the cave as we were observing the falls, we decided to descend down and get back to the car and drive off for our next destination. As were trying and struggling not to fall because of the slippery wet soil after it had rained the whole afternoon, we meet this beautiful chameleon and I had to pull out my camera and photograph him for few seconds and one or two three posses and we continued descending to find our vehicle at the Sipi river lodge.

We departed Sipi falls around 14:00hrs to Pain Upe wildlife Reserve. Sitting at the back of land cruiser as you traverse the beautiful plains of Karamoja should be among a hundred ways to be happy in life 😊.However, on a rainy day, the story is very different and this was the case when we visited this region. Actually when the trip was completed, i reconsidered the title of this blog from The Un Forgiving Lands of Karamoja to the Untold Story of the Karamoja region because of the rains at the moment. Personally, i recommend against anyone travelling to this part of country during the rainy season because the roads gets muddy, flooded, slippery and un accessible even if you have 4x4 land cruiser with new tires. At some point, in some of the bridges are washed away by the seasonal rivers and you will most likely not enjoy your safari or even find big truck stuck in your way and you can’t cross till the next day.

After driving for about one hour, it started raining and the roads started get wet which we had not anticipated but we had to continue since we were determined for Pian Upe. Several times we had to get out and push, pull or first test how deep the seasonal rivers were above the bridges until we made to the park gate. Because of the weather and the bad roads, we arrived late and we went to pitching our tents on the camping site and hoped the next day would be better and perhaps a different story.

As a passionate but armature photographer, I made sure that I set my alarm at 06:00hrs to ensure that I do not miss the morning stunning sunrises of the game reserve that my friend Jonathan Benaih had always told me about. As some of my colleagues were busy snoring and dreaming or perhaps still tired from the previous journey, my alarm came through and I had to wake up and see if I could actually capture something on camera.

There is this feeling when you a hiking a mountain and you finally it to the top and you feel like screaming out loud Yesssssss I have made..Yesss.. I had the same exact feeling early this morning watching the life changing sunrises of Mt Kadama, watching a flock of blue napped mouse birds feed on the nearby acacia and hearing calls of Black headed gonelake made me feel as if the world is whole again and brought back the old memories of the real safari days, in the world where corona would a nightmare.
Sunrise in Pian Upe game reserve

The air tastes different and bird songs are out of the ordinary. Pain Upe had always been my next dream destination to visit.

A warm welcome and the smiling faces of the local people around the manyatas is a day done. Having missed the foxes weaver, i feel like this is the best day of my life. We have to leave and these beautiful loving people follow us as they  are singing good bye and see u again songs. Am leaving but  my heart has been left behind by the love and top hospitality around here. The elders and children and all people are so good and welcoming.

As we were walking back to the campsite with my colleague Allen Tessie confesses that most people on the trip did not want to go for the cultural tour but at the end of the tour everyone was wearing a smiling face and so happy even though we had missed the Fox's Weaver but we have to move and proceed to our next destination.

The gazelle group

We depart Moroto 12:54 through the remote to proceed to Kidepo valley national park. There about about 200k which on a normal day you will drive about 2-3 hours. However, the drive from Moroto through Matheniko game reserve is totally a must do for bird lovers and people love just driving through the sparsely populated rural areas of Karamoja. For those who are versed with the endless plains of Masai Maraa and Serengeti, wait did i say Maraa Serengeti? yes i did!! This game reserve Is gifted with stunning endless plains and a lot of bird life.
The reserve is said to be one of those that a threatened because of the human conflict with the conservation efforts of Uganda Wildlife.

The game reserve is also famous for the Tepeth nomads who are part of Karamajong communities that's still live in their norms and culture of the nomadic pastoralists that depend on cattle for food and Wealth and according to them the modern day life style is just a waste of life. In case you would love to visit these nomads or you love culture, I will leave an email at the end of this blog and u can inquire for more details.

We had several stops to identify some special bird species and if you have not been to this part of the country every bird specie you will see might be a lifer or bird that has been missing from your checklists or perhaps the one that crossed from Kenya to Uganda. The birds we sighted here include Barbets etc. which can only be found in this region.
Because we were camping and cooking our own meals we had to stop in Kotido and buy some supplies for our next four days because this is the nearest town you will. We also had to refuel because its also the only place where you can buy gas or fuel at competitive price or else you can buy fuel at Apoka lodge or if you have enough you can be able to refuel in Kitugumu or Gulu on your way back to Kampala or Murchison falls depending on which one is you next destination.

After shopping and washroom break, we decided to continue and head to Kidepo. From Kotido to Kidepo there about 70km of unmatched road and can be wet and dusty in rainy and dry season respectively. At this time of the year it’s supposed to dry but because of global warming and climate, it was raining and this was not good on our side because the soil here is very slippery as well though most of the parts will dry faster after the rain in case it shines and you good to go. The only thing you need here are new tyres and 4x4 Vehicle and I would recommend a Landcruiser when its a wet season or rainy season otherwise you might be stuck with limited or no help so timing and weather is one of the things to consider while traveling to Kidepo. 

Another thing you have to consider is the time you leave Kitugumu town to Kidepo and i would suggest before 15:00 to give you enough to drive to the park at your own pess with less pressure of making it to the park in time.

Kidepo Valley National Park

As it has been the case, before i cover my tent, i ensure that my alarm is well set to ensure that i don't miss on the beautiful sunrises. I woke to wet morning with all the grass wet and started walking towards the Uganda wildlife bandhas to see if i could capture something on my camera.

After a few shoots of the sunrise, i head back to my tent ️ to get ready for our morning game drive after breakfast. We set off at around 7:30 to go and look for the big game. So we take on Kakaine track since all the tracks were un accessible and somehow some way we would be stuck in mad for hours if not the whole morning.

Kidepo is known to be the most isolated furthest northern national park in Uganda with more than 10hrs drive to get to the park covering about 570km from the Capital Kampala using Masindi-Gulu-Kitugum. However, the long drive is one of the most rewarding encounters that has exceptional un matched beauty and outstanding scenic grassland plains.

The park has worn several awards and many online newspapers what have published about the beauty of Kidepo national park including BBC, CNN, and Lonely Planet among others because of her untapped nature. The park is gifted with stunning dramatic Disney like sceneries. The park also boasts abundant birdlife with over 470 bird species that can found here. So if you are bird nerd, Lister or just love birds, this is the place to be especially if you have semi-arid birds on your checklist. The other aspect that someone should not miss is the cultural communities just outside the park, which are part of the Karamojong people.
Getting back to the game drive, we took the airstrip circuit to see if we could find something on the rocks especially for the cats. Davis, Jovia, Hamidah, Veronica and i were the 5 part of my team in the vehicle since we were only allowed five Pax in the vehicle because of the Standard Operating procedure introduced by the Ministry of health. A game drive in Kidepo is a must and Kidepo wildlife numbers can never disappoint. Because most of park was un accessible, we did one track which was product in just one day. We were able to see many animals including Elands, Zebras, Elephants, Buffaloes are hard to miss and among other antelopes.

Unfortunately, because of our timing, we missed out on cats but our list was rich with birds species, antelopes and beautiful memories. During the evening campfire, the team decided it was better to exit the park the next morning and drive back to Kampala. However, the team decided to have a break of day so that we did not drive over 10 hours to Kampala so we made plans to visit any destination along the way.
Aruru falls 

We decided to visit Aruru falls, which is just before Gulu town. However, the other option would driving to Murchison Falls and break the long distance.

Where to sleep in Sipi Falls, Sipi Falls Lodge, Sipi River Lodge, and Rafiki Lodge

Where to sleep in Pian Upe, there are no fully developed accommodation properties in the reserve however UWA has Self Contained Banda’s for accommodation and Camping is not out of the question if you would love to enjoy the wild

Where to sleep in Moroto. Hotel African (Moroto) and Karatunga Safari Camp

Where to Sleep in Kidepo. There are many accommodation facilities in this park ranging from upscale midrange and budge. These include Apoka Safari Lodge, Kidepo Savana Lodge, and Adere Safari Lodge among others. However, the park also has great camping grounds in Kakaine Circuit and Nogosokipire.

Where to sleep between Kampala and Kidepo. Gulu town has good accommodation and Masindi would be a good option in case one does not want to drive from Kidepo to Kampala.

For more details, kindly send us an email d.jungle@safaritoeastafrica.com 

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