Crossing Karamoja With Kigongo
Kidepo Valley was lit up by the fiery light of dusk like a son et lumiere. As our Cessna made its final approach, a herd of shaggy hartebeest scattered in desperate flight beneath us, terrified enough to part from their shadows. A strong headwind made the plane wobble and touch down on the murram runway like a rally car returning to earth. It looked to me like we had landed on an uninhabited exoplanet at the far side of the Universe.
Once a violent and cataclysmic volcano, venting the planet’s burning bowels through a cluster of fiery orifices, Kidepo had succumbed to time. Over hundreds of millions of years, the super volcano had collapsed, depositing its sediment evenly in the crater below, while its rim decayed into striking forms, many resembling wild animals such as rhinocerous and antelope. Except for a flat, horizontal gap to the East, about 40° wide that opened the way to South Sudan, the valley was surrounded by summits, some as high as 2,750 metres.
When we drove away from the airfield, the skittish hartebeest I’d seen from the air had all returned to impassive grazing. They have far greater threats to worry about in this valley than bald apes in flying cages.
Kidepo Valley National Park is my 25th East African park, and possibly the most spectacular I have ever visited. The 1,442 sq km park was opened in 1962, the same year as Ugandan independence , and is one of Uganda’s most outstanding locations, with a higher mammal count than any other in the country, yet as we continued through to the park to our camp we found it strangely devoid of visitors. Ours was the only other vehicle, which led us to believe this was also Uganda’s best kept secret.
Our lodgings, N’ga Moru Wilderness Camp, is one of only a handful of properties in and around the park, and arguably the best. By the fire, after dinner, owners Patrick and Lyn regaled us with stories of chasing lions away from the tents to allow clients access to their beds. Thankfully, no simbas were visiting that night. The place was tranquil and magical, with all the peaks of the caldera silhouetted against a starry firmament and the glow of a full moon.
At around 10 o’clock (absolutely the latest anyone should ever stay up in the bush), nearing its zenith the moon began to dim, like a biscuit being dipped in coffee. It was going to be the darkest night in 100 years. We had arrived just in time to witness a total lunar eclipse, and in Kidepo Valley we had front-row seats. Watching the starry night emerge around the darkened moon was eerie and breathtaking. The warmhearted people we had for company made all the difference.
Despite retiring late, when the moon was still in earth’s shadow, we were up with the birds and out on a dawn game drive before it had even set. As our Land Cruiser rolled across the verdurous, undulating graben, between herds of bushbuck and hartebeest, my first thought was to never tell anyone about this place. Here was a vast, peculiar terrain that time had completely forgotten. After only a short distance, we encountered a pride of male lions, basking in the morning sun, which Martine our guide told us was Tim’s Pride.
Boasting a dark shaggy mane one of them rose, and cast a gangly lion shadow west across the open savannah. He then sauntered over to join some sleeping friends, where he collapsed nonchalantly into the grass. Predators rule this valley.
Other carnivores include the bat-eared fox, striped hyena, aardwolf, caracal, cheetah and hunting dog but you don’t see them chilling by the road. Prey is scarce, in particular zebra, Impala and eland, the latter which UWA tried to bring back in a disastrous reintroduction programme. Hence, competition among the carnivores is high.
Martine is Dodos, a tribe of the Karamojong who dominate Karamoja, the bone-dry province in the north-eastern corner of the country, equivalent to one tenth of the size of Uganda, where the park is situated. They migrated here as part of a group who left present-day Ethiopia 400 years ago and split into two branches, the Kalenjin and Maasai who migrated to Kenya and Tanzania, and the Ateker, who migrated westwards to South Sudan and Uganda. Karamojong means “the ones we left behind” and in many way that remains their status in modern Uganda. Stereotypes persist, especially about their lack of attire, though they’ve largely covered up in recent years.
Due to frequent cattle raids, the Karamojong are in constant conflict with their neighbors in Uganda, Sudan and Kenya, in particular the Turkana. They believe they have a divine right to all the cattle in the world. Young men use the raids as a right of manhood, or to increase their status, though the typical reason is to pay for a hefty bride price.
Karamojo: Uganda’s Land of Warrior Nomads is stunning portrayal, both pictorially and narratively, of this area and its people. Written by Karimojong journalist, Sylvester Onyang, and American writer, Jeremy O’Kasick, with photographs by NatGeo’s David Pluth, it offers a unique insight into Karimojong culture, history and everyday life, as exemplified by this description of an elder:
“With more than 90 years behind him, Apalorot is seen by the Karimojong as sitting between the realms of life and death. He tells of the old stories: the days when the white men, the British, had little presence and no power in Karamoja; the caravans as long as the sky of Swahili and Ethiopian elephant hunters, slave traders and merchants that passed through their lands; the battles between Karimojong and Turkana when they had few rifles. It was in that time when Apalorot understood that he would one day inherit his grandfather’s gift to appease God’s spirits. He would then become a link between his people and the sky, the sky being Akuj, Akuj being God.”
I wondered if Apalorot knew Karamojo Bell, one of the very first British visitors (though he would have insisted on being called Scots). In 1897, at the age of 17, and toting a single-shot .303, Walter Dalrymple Maitland Bell arrived in the East African interior on the nose of a Uganda Railway locomotive. He had been hired by the railway to take out lions. Not seeing much currency in simba hides he turned his attention to elephant and headed north in search of the legendary tuskers of Karamoja.
He returned again and again and earned the nickname “Karamojo” for his extraordinary elephant-hunting exploits in the province. For the next 25 years he hunted in Uganda, the Sudan, Ethiopia, Central Africa and West Africa and shot a total of 1,011 elephants.
It was all about angles with Bell. The “Bell Shot” ensured quick death for his elephants, shooting them through the brain with the small bore calibre rifle, usually from behind their ear which he targeted while hotfooting behind the fleeing tembo. Demand for his elephant hunting books is so high they’re all still in copyright today.
There aren’t so many tembos left these days. But the decimation of the elephant population from its hundreds of thousands can not be attributed entirely to Karamojo Bell, who hunted farther into the Central African interior after the British colonial administration imposed a ban on ivory hunting in Uganda in 1909. That must have signaled the end of the era Apalorot spoke of, “when the white men, the British, had little presence and no power in Karamoja.”
Feeling adventuresome, Kigongo and I decided to return south down a road seldom travelled, the fabled eastern route, which runs parallel with the Kenyan border and has a reputation for bandits. Our first leg passed through Kabong, Kotido, and Lockchar, towns each separated by a hundred kilometers of empty road. We hoped to reach Mount Moroto by midday.
Driving through the barren scrubland over newly-graded murram surfaces, the journey was relatively smooth. And thankfully there were no bandits. In fact, for prolonged stretches we encountered no one else, not another living soul, as we crossed this extraordinary landscape of striking rocky outcrops, jagged inselbergs and crumbling kopje’s. A Nasa probe would not have looked out of place.
We reached Moroto slightly behind schedule, and enjoyed a refreshing beer and sandwiches at the Mt Moroto Hotel. With just a slight increase in elevation, the air cooled considerably, offering us a chance to chill before continuing on.
Travellers have avoided this back road for many years, but Mount Moroto boasts a must-see forest reserve, protecting a range of habitats from arid thorn savanna to dry montane forest. It’s also a birder’s paradise, included as one of the few sites to spot Uganda’s only truly endemic bird, Fox’s Weaver.
We continued south through Nakaprirpit, past the majestic Debassian range, dominated by the monumental Mt Kadam. When we entered the Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve, the route rapidly deteriorated. Having witnessed a lunar eclipse the night before we were now being subjected to its landscape.
The road remained atrocious for about 85 kilometers, all the way from the town of Namuru to Sorinko in the foothills of Mt Elgon – an area devastated by mud slides in 2010. We were relieved when we saw Sipi Falls in the distance, cascading from the highlands, as we knew that meant we had at last left of bandit country, and were approaching a paved road. We finally reached the mountain town of Mbale just after sunset, having travelled 420 kilometers in 11 hours.
Mbale is not typical of most Ugandan towns, in two ways: it neither grew out of a colonial station nor a pre-colonial settlement, and it was spared destruction during the Bush Wars in the 1980s.
In fact, Mbale was founded in 1902 by Semei Kakungulu, one of Uganda’s more colourful characters. He is also known for founding Uganda’s only Jewish sect. In 1919, after abandoning politics in favour of spiritual pursuits, he wished to have himself circumcised, but was told the practice not only broke with Baganda heritage but also Christianity. “If this is so,” he replied, “then from this day on I am a Jew.” He then sought sanctuary farther up Mt Elgon’s slopes where he founded his own self-styled sect, known as the Abayudaya (Luganda for Jew).
Though put together with a mishmash of Jewish and Christian customs, the Abayadaya developed a unique style of spiritual music, setting the text of Jewish prayers to African melodies and rhythms. Their proper conversion to Judaism came in 1926, with the arrival of a European Jew known simply as Yusufu, who spent six months with them and instructed Kakunguli to delete all the Christian prayers from his book, cease baptizing children, observe the Saturday Sabbath, and only eat kosher meat slaughtered according to Jewish custom.
Today only around 500 Abayudaya remain, having endured years of persecution, especially during the Amin era when some 3,000 abandoned their faith. They are not officially accepted as Jews, nor will they be until they undergo an recognised conversion, approved by a court of rabbis. But they continue to live according to Talmudic law.
“Imagine an ancient mountain, a volcano that has been standing solitary and silent for millennia, its base one of the largest in the world, its springs feeding numerous rivers and waterfalls, its rich soil nourishing communities across two countries and where you can wander the uncrowded trails to its summit at over four thousand meters.”
Majestic and revitalizing, Mt Elgon must have looked like the promised land to anyone who set eyes upon it, especially after crossing the waterless wilderness. Towering nearly 2,500 meters above sea level, it is the oldest and largest solitary volcano in East Africa, covering an area of 3,500 square kilometers.
Ascending its gradual slopes, through dense montane forest, mixed bamboo and in the open Afro-alpine heath and moorland, the visitor encounters a mystical flora: giant lobelia and groundsels. There are plenty of primates along the way too, including Black and White colobus monkey, Debrazza’s monkey (occasionally) and Blue monkey, as well as leopard (occasionally), Bush pig, duiker, buffalo, and hundreds of bird species; Jackson’s Francolin is found nowhere else in Uganda.
Sipi Falls, on Elgon’s north-western slope has recently become a retreat for expatriates and middle-class Ugandans who regularly come for its invigorating waters. It’s only a 4-hour journey from Kampala, and that’s where Kigongo and I were bound; it was time to stop mooning around the foothills Mount Elgon.
We headed south on a recently-paved road. I wish I could describe the final leg of our journey but I didn’t manage to stay awake for it. Basically, from memory, there’s lots of greenery and bananas, a bit of lakeshore, the Nile at Jinja, Mbira Forest and then the steamy, clamorous, lock jam, traffic jam – damn - that is Kampala. Gee, it’s great to be back home.
[To follow our journey through Karamojo on Google Earth, download this file.]