We established that the best months for game viewing in the KVNP are the dry months from Feb to April, but be aware that the park can be relatively crowded around Easter. The rains in the north of Uganda are from about May to early September, different to the rest of the country. During the dry months the animals are attracted to the central game viewing areas of the park, around the Narus River Valley. Although this river is smaller than the Kidepo River further north towards the Sudan, it retains much more water in pools and from springs. This is the only water for a very wide area in the dry and is an animal magnet. The Kidepo River was already dry when we visited, towards the end of the rain season. Nonetheless the game viewing in the Narus area was surprisingly good during our visit, with large herds of buffalo, some elephant herds, good numbers of Jacksons hartebeest, some giraffe and eland (re-introduced), zebra, oribi, common reedbuck and waterbuck. The buffalo are the primary prey of the lion prides of which there are 2, about 20 strong each, in the Narus Valley. There are just over 100 lions altogether in the KVNP, most of which are in large inaccessible areas. A number of the birds are only found in this part of Uganda, the presence of many northern and dryland species making it unique.
This park, because of its isolation and because of the previous security problems in the region, is relatively seldom visited. This will change with improved roads and security. There were only 2 other people camping but people, mainly expats and Ugandans, were staying in the bandas, perhaps 6 people in all. Apoka Lodge is near the HQ and we saw some of them on game drives. A few years ago some tourists were killed in one of the Ugandan NPs by DRC rebels and since then many tourist sites are guarded by armed police or soldiers. We had thus required guards at Ishasha in QENP and would require one at Nagusokopire Campsite as well. Fortunately there was no charge for them and our guard, a ranger with AK47 was delivered each evening. This man’s name was Zackery, I kid you not and he was part Karamajong and his mother was Sudanese. He was well educated and an interesting conversationalist. He was a keen birder and was absolutely thunderstruck when I demonstrated my SASOL bird book combo with a scanner for bird calls. These are of course for Southern African birds (many of them occurring in Uganda) and when the scanner is switched on and pointed at the photo of a particular bird, the scanner will issue forth the appropriate bird call. This absolutely amazed Zackary especially when unbidden a barn owl swooped over him on hearing its call. I will never forget the huge grin on his face, wrapping around both ears, and his comment, “you are killing me”. This scanner-bird caller is a relatively new device back home and has fascinated all my bird guides, from Emanuel at the Udzungwa Forest, Joshua at Budongo and now Zackary. I wish I had known as I would have packed a few. Such a gift for these great guys would have flattened them.
Zackery had the manners and foresight to pitch his tent well away from ours and only joined us around the fire when specifically persuaded to do so. He moved away during meal times and refused all offers of food or drink. In conversation with him we managed to establish that we could have his services for the day as a guide for US$20, payable to the Apoka office. Obviously this would also involve a gratuity for him. Whilst we were happy to do game drives on our own, access to the northern part of the park is only possible with an armed ranger. This apparently is a precaution as one drives right up to the South Sudan border. We were keen to see the whole park and obtain a view of the mountains just across the Sudanese border, dimly visible from camp. Also there were some hot springs to visit, right on the border. These springs were the least of our priorities as I particularly wanted to see some of the northern dryland bird species and also the Kidepo River bed. Wayne had room in his car and we arranged to pick Zackary up from his quarters at Apoka at 14H00 the following afternoon as this was quite a long drive.
Nagusokopire Campsite is beautifully situated west of Apoka, about 5km by road from the HQ. It is set on a viewpoint hill facing to the east and we witnessed the most beautiful sunrises. There is a public viewpoint next to the site but nobody disturbed us. There are 2 open-sided hut shelters from the sun, much-needed as there is not much shade and there are 2 large circular concrete slabs and plenty of firewood. The campsite and ablutions were relatively clean, cold showers (fine in the heat) and flush toilets. These operate from tanks that have to be filled from the park tankers and the water is handy for use around the camp. We were most comfortable here and enjoyed the extensive views to the east where we could see herds of buffalo and some elephant. We heard lion and hyena in the distance on both nights. Apparently the local lion pride regularly seeks refuge in the hut shelters from the hot sun during the day. Whilst discussing campsites, we also visited the other public campsite at Kakine and I have to concede that this was probably a shade better. It is also set on a hillside viewpoint but has a wonderful 360 degree vista. Also it overlooks the best part of the Narus Valley and large herds of animals, mainly buffalo, were always in view. It is also slightly closer to the best game drive circuits in the Narus Valley, namely the Kakine Circuit and the Katurum Circuit. Its only possible problem is a shortage of level ground for tents.
I have strayed from our activities on the 25th. We went on game drives in the early morning and enjoyed generally good game viewing and birding without too much spectacular. I did see my first Abyssinian ground hornbills which have blue “wattles” around their faces and bills as opposed to the red of those found in the south. I also saw black coucals, a megatick in Southern Africa, but common here. I would imagine the game viewing in peak season would be fantastic. The park was still very green and the car-high grass impeded viewing somewhat in places. Nonetheless this is a great destination and its rugged feel and isolation is unique in Uganda.
This was further confirmed by our trip to the rugged and isolated north of the park. We picked up Zackary as arranged and set off on this 88km round trip. Unfortunately for me he travelled with Wayne who had the spare space in his vehicle. When I noticed him birding continually with Wayne on the drive, I arranged that Anne travel with Wayne and Zackary join me for birding on the way back. We all thoroughly enjoyed this outing, not because of the game viewing per se, but because we wanted to see the whole of the park and because we found the journey right up to, and meters beyond, the Sudanese border rather exhilarating. We also wanted to feel that we had explored all accessible areas of the park. Because of the lack of water, animals are scarce here. However a big thrill for me was seeing my first lesser kudu. We saw a cow and her calf as they shyly paused on the road before melting into the bush. Greater kudu are common in our part of the world but seeing new antelope is always special for me. Just be aware that there are plenty of tse tse flies in the more wooded areas.
The photo of the signboard indicating the Sudan border is meant to convey how daring we felt, even with an armed guard. At present there is no conflict between South Sudan and Uganda but poachers are a problem. There is a small Ugandan army base at the border but the crossing itself is unmanned and unsignposted and people cross all the time, but few tourists do I would suppose. The hot springs were well, just hot springs, nothing spectacular. It was good to see the dry river bed of the Kidepo and the forests of borassus palms were impressive. Although evening was approaching, the birding with Zackary on the way back was most interesting. Many of the birds were totally new to me. At the risk of boring those less interested, here is a list of the new birds seen, 13 in total.
Clapperton’s francolin (a local endemic), white-bellied bustard, four-banded sandgrouse, vinaceous dove, brown parrot, rose-ringed parakeet, Abyssinian roller, Jackson’s hornbill, northern crombec, silverbird, northern white-crowned shrike, speckle-fronted weaver, and white-billed buffalo-weaver.
KIDEPO VALLEY NATIONAL PARK (KVNP).
This park is so isolated and little-known that I felt it worthwhile to add some background information.
The Uganda – Kenya border region in the east of Uganda has in the past seldom been part of the tourist route. This is mainly due to the previously poor roads and also security problems in the area mainly involving the previously heavily armed Karamajong people and their endless armed disputes with other tribes about cattle rustling and grazing rights. Previously the LRA rebels held sway here too. In recent years the Karamajong have been disarmed, the rebels are no longer active and the roads have been improved significantly. Many are the pundits that feel that KVNP is the best to visit in Uganda. The other attraction is the contact with the local and unique Karamajong people who have clung to their traditional lifestyle.
KVNPs appeal lies in its isolation, rugged mountain and savannah landscape and excellent birding with many species only present in the dry countries to the north of Uganda. During the dry months from about Feb to April the game viewing is exceptional. The park is 1,400km2 in size and is surrounded by mountains and contains the Narus River valley in the southwest in the main game viewing area and the arid Kidepo River valley in the northeast in a part of the park only accessible with an armed ranger due to its close proximity to unstable South Sudan. There are lovely savannah plains and hills with some areas to the north being more heavily wooded. The Narus valley is the only part in a wide area that has any water in the dry months and the game densities are high, especially buffalo, Jacksons hartebeest and lions. The reintroduced giraffe and eland are easily seen. The park HQ is at Apoka in the center of the Narus valley where there is also a private lodge. Both the public campsites, Kakine and Nagusokopire are on hills with views over the Narus valley. Tanked water, flush toilets, cold showers and firewood are provided. Campers need an armed ranger transported and provided by the park authorities at no cost. These guards are self-sufficient. Coming from the southeast the park is best entered via the Mataba Gate, from the southwest, the Katurum Gate.
Too close to South Sudan for comfort?
1 and 2. Sunrise from camp.
3. White-headed vulture.
4. Abyssinian roller.
5. Patas monkey.
6. Black coucal
7. Kidepo River bed in the north.
8. Mt Lokuke in South Sudan.