Paul tells...


Kidepo Valley National Park


We've passed many National Parks on our trip, but so far we've left them behind without visiting them. Serengeti and Kilimanjaro National Park are among the best known, but almost all special nature has been transformed into National Park we soon notice. In itself it’s good, because that also protects these special areas, but as a cyclist it's also a pity, because National Parks are generally only accessible by car.


Everywhere we came close to a National Park, young men are active to recruit tourists for their tours to the parks. Most of the Western tourists come for that, so it's logical that they also appeal to us. Many safari cars are waiting for us, but that mass is a reason for us not to pay a few hundred dollars per person to visit a park.


At Kidepo Valley National Park it is different. The park is situated in the far north of Uganda, borders South Sudan and is close to the tri-border point with Kenya. It is part of the Karamoja region that covers the north-eastern corner of Uganda. Until ten years ago this region was a no-go area. The various tribes went out armed to steal cattle from another tribe. At night it was downright unsafe and you were not sure of your life, but even during the day it was better not to be here. Regularly cars were looted and their occupants murdered. In the meantime the peace and quiet has returned and we have learned from various sources that we can cycle through it safely.


In the rest of Uganda Karmoja still has a bad reputation. This is confirmed by a saying they have in Uganda: 'We can't wait until Karmoja has finally developed'. There is no need for further explanation, I guess.


These two reasons (the remote corner; you have to drive at least 450 km. on a dirt road to get there and the fact that the rest of Uganda sees it as an underdeveloped region) makes this park almost nowhere recommended, let alone that we meet men who actively sell it or that safari cars are waiting for us. The various other National Parks in Uganda are closer to the international airport near Kampala and also at a shorter distance from each other, so that's where the tour operators focus on. 


However, we read that Kidepo Valley National Park has been declared the 3rd most beautiful National Park of Africa, after the Maasai Mara in Kenya and the Kalahari Reserve in Botswana and the 5th most beautiful National Park in the world by CNN Travel. We know what we have to do. 

The first 200 km. of dust road we cycle. We cycle through a savannah landscape; red dust roads, many high grasses and the occasional acacia tree. This part of Karamoja is still somewhat inhabited, so after a tough day of cycling we can find some simple hotel beds and replenish our supplies along the way.

However, at the last 250 km. the distances between towns are so big and any necessary help comes by so sporadically that we don't think it's a brilliant idea to cycle this part too. The dust roads are sometimes so sandy that we have to push our bikes and a heavy rain shower makes them impassible. 

In short, we decide to rent a car from Moroto. Contrary to other National Parks we really have to look for a suitable fourwheeldrive here, but in the end we find one. On one condition; it's only for rent including the driver...


As soon as we are in the car two days later, I realize that I am very happy that I don't have to drive myself, which I would have liked to do at first. The driver bounces at much greater speed over the dusty roads than I would have dared, afraid the car would break. It's certainly not that he drives unsafe, I feel very comfortable with him in the car, but he clearly knows better than me what such a fourwheeldrive can handle. Over the last 250 km. of dust road we do 7 hours anyway.


In the park we go for the total experience. We decide to camp in the middle of the park. However, to be allowed to do so, we also have to hire a ranger who will accompany us and protect us for the two nights we camp there. In military camouflage park and with a big rifle that's always at his side, we drive to our camping spot, on top of a small hill, from where we have a 360 degrees view over the park.


In addition to 470 species of birds, the park is also home to 75 species of mammals, including lions, leopards, hyenas, buffaloes and elephants. I had the - probably Western - illusion that our camping spot would be protected by a fence against the animals, but as soon as we drive up the hill I already see that that is not the case. ‘We make a campfire, and then we are safe. No one here has ever been attacked by a predator before, so you don't have to be afraid.'. We are the only ones on the campsite and I ask the driver, who regularly drives tourists this way, how many times he has camped. ‘Never before, so far tourists always wanted to sleep safely in a hotel room'. The ranger, who has been doing this job for years, says he has camped before. Although I have both very sympathetic gentlemen - we soon find out that their knowledge of animals and nature in general is impressive and I totally trust them when they say it's safe to camp here - my western brain wants that piece of visible safety as well.


It is on our camping spot outside the campfire and an impressive starry sky, pitch-dark. At 25 meters walking distance from our tent is a simple toilet building. To get there we use our headlamp. Around us in the long grass different eyes light up that look our way. My lamp is not strong enough to see what kind of animals they are. ‘Probably they are jackhals’’, says our ranger, when I return alive later. I think it's meant as reassurance, but it doesn't quite work that way for us. Our imagination certainly doesn't fail at moments like that.


In my eyes it's a small campfire; not one that would frighten me as a lion, rather make me curious. I would like to throw in some more wood, but again I realize that I belong to the wasteful part of mankind. Here on the savannah there is only limited wood available, so wood is only used as far as it is necessary and here it means a small campfire.

The ranger seems to read my mind. 'This campfire is big enough. All the animals are afraid of fire and get out of the way, only a rhino will come and try to extinguish it, but those animals unfortunately became extinct in this park some time ago'.


Luckily the ranger has an impressive rifle with him; it seems to originate from the 50's and is made of metal and wood. I tell myself that rifles from that time still had real quality. When Kathleen asks the ranger what he is carrying the rifle for, we get a different answer than expected. ‘To protect the animals. Sometimes there are poachers in this park’. Maybe a bit naive or maybe I hope to hear something else, but I ask him what he should do then. ‘Shoot that poacher at once. If he sees me, he'll shoot me’. ‘And what if a lion comes to us?’ Kathleen askes. ‘If I kill an animal, I have to go straight to jail and I don't feel like it. But in extreme need, it's still better than being killed myself’. It remains unclear to us what he will do if a lion comes to Kathleen or me. We don't ask him.


It's good to be around the fire. The men, both from the Karamoja district, are very nice company. They are visibly proud of their region and if possible even more proud of the fact that nowadays there are westerners who come all the way to their region. They never expected that in the past and they really do everything they can to please us. We are curious about their culture and they love to tell us about it. Because we are in savanna area, agriculture is only sporadically present. Cattle is what counts here. ‘If I had to choose between a box of money or a herd of cattle, the choice would be made quickly,' says the ranger. ‘Without a doubt the herd of cattle!'. The driver, who has a hip beard and is dressed western, agrees. ‘Me too and I think every karamajong’. Cattle play a very important role, we soon learn. As little boys they give each other a 'bull-name', derived from the bull they love the most when they are still children. Zachariah, as our ranger is called, and Brian, our driver, exchange eachother their bull-names. They are impossible for us to repeat, there are so many sounds in them that we don't know. I expected them to laugh about it by now, but both men are very serious about their bull-names. ‘Most people don't know the men by their Christian name, but only by their bull-name,' Brian explains. The bull and the man named after that bull are inseparable from each other from the moment the name is given. You may sell or slaughter any piece of cattle, except the bull you are named after; it always stays with you. When the bull dies of old age, you may slaughter it and a fire will be made to roast it. They indicate the approximate size of the fire that will then be made. It's a nice campfire, but still not impressive and I realize once again how wasteful we are with materials, for example bonfires at Easter and New Year's Eve.


When we make such a big fire to roast a bull, the people of the surrounding villages see that and they know that a bull has been slaughtered here. They come to our village and we give them pieces of meat. That's what you're supposed to do, otherwise you'll be seen as very selfish'. It is clear to us that they want to prevent that at all times.

The bull in question is also at the centre of local justice. If you have done something that is not acceptable, you have to appear before 'the elders': the old men and women in the village who have signed up to be 'elders'. If your crime is very big, they may decide that you have to kill the bull you are named after. We understand from the facial expressions of the two men that this is one of the worst things you can do.


The men tell more about their culture. Both grew up in mud houses with grass roofs and both have had progressive (grand)parents who sent them to school, so they can now live in 'the city'.  However, they do not in any way look down on the villages we regularly see along the road. Women wear bracelets and 'leg straps' made of very small colourful beads and have body decorations, tattoos in the form of scars and different kinds of piercings, often through their lips, as a symbol of beauty. In addition, they wear very colourful clothing. On the way to the National Park, Brian tells about young boys we see next to the road. ‘They're catching rats; that's a real treat’. They have a stick with a piece of string and regularly we see one or more rats hold by their tails.


And do you see those people there? They've just harvested the stems of last year's sunflowers. They are now very sturdy and are used as a construction for their houses. They form the skeleton, then they finish the walls with loam. And down there, people are harvesting the grasses. This is also the right season for that. ‘Over the past few months, the grass has grown well and now it's starting to turn yellow as you can see’. We do indeed see large bundles of grass, nicely bound together on the side of the road. These bundles are shaped in such a way that they can immediately be rolled out over the rafters of a house. The roof can withstand the weather for many years to come'.


In the villages we see little boys playing soccer with a clot held together by elastic bands. Further on we see the little ones running with a stick behind a worn out moped tyre. We feel like we're cycling in an open air museum and I can understand the saying that they are having about Karamoja. If I would see this on television, I have the idea that it is the last tribes or that it was created for tourists, but hardly any tourist comes here. This is really the way people live here; something that we barely realize. In the Netherlands these kind of huts have been forbidden since the housing law of 1901 and in this area people just don't know any better.


At about half past nine it's time to go to our tent. The next day we have to get up at six o'clock for our first gamedrive through the park. We crawl into our tents. My last illusion about safety also fades. We're not in our sleeping bags yet or we already hear a deep roar from our ranger's tent. Our belief that he will keep the fire going tonight or at least keep an eye on the noises in the surrounding, to take the right measures if necessary, we think it's equal to zero.


The next morning around half past four we hear the roar of a lion. It doesn't seem very far away. We stay in the tent, not knowing what else to do. We don't hear a lot of action from other tent. Later it turns out that Zachariah has heard it too and when we crawl out of our tent at six o'clock, he's already in full armour searching the area with his binoculars. At a certain moment he calls us softly and gives his binoculars to Kathleen. He points west, 2/3 on our hill. There's a lion in the grass; I don't need binoculars to see the lion; he's at most 150 meters away from us, probably less. But I also like to look through his binoculars. Impressive; the lion is slowly coming our way. 'Look' the ranger says 'he's driving up those two buffalo'. A little further on our hill we indeed see two buffalo running faster than usual. ‘Because of their way of walking I saw that there had to be a lion nearby and I also knew in which direction to look. Let's jump in the car and start our game drive'. Our ranger almost seems to like it even more than we do.


I look at the lion and then at our fire. There are some pieces of wood still glowing; I don't think there has been any fire for several hours now. Before we went to sleep the night before, the ranger told us that he is more afraid of elephants than lions. ‘We're not on the lion's menu'. As is often the case here, we have to surrender to African knowledge and we have to keep our western wish for certainty until we are back in the west.


Only now we can really see the surroundings. Yesterday we had to pitch our tent in the dark and we only saw the entrance of the park in daylight. We now see an impressive valley situated between two impressive mountain ridges. Can you see that mountain in the distance? That's South Sudan and behind that other mountain range lies Kenya'. 

The valley in between is the National Park. Two rivers flow through it and supply the valley with water, which is why so many animals live here. Some animals leave the park in the rainy season because there is enough water elsewhere to return in the dry season. The elephants return around this period; the dry season has just begun. 


The valley itself consists of a sloping landscape with lots of savanna grasslands and the occasional acacia tree. To my surprise there are palm trees as well. ‘In the course of time these have been taken by elephants from Egypt in this direction. From the location of those palms one can deduce how the elephants have been pulled over the past centuries', explains Zachariah. 

While driving we see many animals: zebras, giraffes, an impressive buffalo herd; according to Zachariah it is the largest herd of this kind of buffalo in the world. Besides that we see all kinds of gazelles, an elk, jackhals, monkeys and many different birds. On our final gamedrive we also see a group of about 15 elephants with many calves. Zachariah keeps talking about the 'big cats' he is looking for. Apparently that is what the average tourist wants to see and he has decided to show us more. However, we are not like the list-hunters. If we have to leave it with the one lion we saw at the campsite, we think that is excellent. I especially enjoy the landscape. I take dozens of pictures of it, but as always with pictures of impressive landscapes, they don't express what we experience there by a long shot.


With a big lump in our throat and wet eyes we say goodbye to the park after two nights. This is one of the most beautiful areas I've ever seen...