Even though we were really excited to go up to Kidepo national park, there was a part of me that was feeling a little apprehensive about the entire thing because we were literally going to the remotest corner of the country and also because roads were notoriously horrible up in these parts, especially if there is rain. This apprehension wasn't exactly relieved and once again I was left wondering whether this trip was doomed because a) we woke up at 6:30 am to pissing rain and no power so we had to pack by headlamp and b) Bridger woke up feeling sick. He was feeling hot with chills, a headache and nausea. Now he's always hot so I'm not so much concerned about that but the man is NEVER cold so chills were somewhat alarming, especially because, much to my displeasure, he had decided it was too hot to sleep under his mosquito net in one of the highest malaria zones in Uganda. So of course, I'm certain he has malaria, and subsequently uncertain whether we should continue to head to the most remote corners of Uganda far away from any proper medical services if need be. But in true Bridger form, he hauled his ass out of bed and made the executive call that we're still going. Who am I to argue.
We got picked up by our private driver David in a beautiful 4x4 SUV and took off through the north of Uganda on what we had been told earlier would be a 7 hours journey on shitty roads, even for a 4x4.
Unluckily for us, even though it was in the middle of dry season, it had pretty well pissed rain every night and sometimes day that we were in Gulu. Maybe Gulu has a different rainy season than the rest of the country or something. Luckily for us, though unpaved, by some much needed miracle, the roads were packed down, solid and relatively smooth for most of the journey. And then we heard a familiar story... that next year there would be a presidential election so the government was investing hugely in visible public service projects in a bid to win votes. And nowhere in Uganda was it more needed than in the north given both the lack of public funding and development in the region as well as, and perhaps most importantly, the lack of overt public support for the government by people of these regions.
Gulu was pretty well the last of "civilization" before we headed north, into the wilds to Kidepo. Once we left it/the small town of Kitgum it was almost as rural as you could get in this country. We continued driving on that bright orange/red road that Uganda will forever be famous in our minds for, through vast areas of empty land save a handful of circular mud/thatch roof huts, a handful of villagers walking or riding bicycles to who knows where and grass and trees.
We drove, straight and flat along this "main road" until our driver, having previously lived in Gulu/worked in Kitgum, drove off this road for a "shortcut" through an even more rural road which had even more of absolutely nothing along the way. We continued even further north from the Acholi dominated region around Gulu into the Karamojong region which had a radically different feel. All of a sudden the landscape was slightly more mountainous instead of flat and the people were far darker-skinned and much more Sudanese looking. If I thought the Acholi region was remote, this was a new level. But yet, what continues to absolutely amaze me is how even in the most remote corners of Uganda where it literally seems like you are in the absolute centre of absolute nothingness, all of a sudden you see people! People are everywhere. People freaking live everywhere. And they walk everywhere, even in the middle of the deepest bush, it's mind-blowing.
Anyways, historically this region has also been plagued by violent conflict due to tribal disputes and armed cattle raiding. Much like the Acholi region, this area has also been a "no-go" zone for years so Kidepo really is at the intersection of the two most historically dangerous zones in Uganda.
On a side note talking about people, it has been so interesting and surprising to find that Uganda is actually one of the most not conservative countries we've been yet. I think it's particularly striking after having spent the last few months in the middle east. I remember before I came thinking I had to be stocking up on t-shirts and pants to be all conservative and "blend in" here but all of a sudden we're here and everyone is wearing tight pants, tank tops and other low cut shirts and dresses and bra-less boobs everywhere! Boobs are no thing here, though the one thing you still rarely see is shorts and thighs. Nope, you don't wear shorts in Uganda, you just don't do it (ok maybe in Kampala). Shorts are scandalous. Anyways, obviously there are many people who dress modestly here as well but by general principle, locals in Asia primarily wore long pants and t-shirts and you know how the middle east can be, but Uganda just seems a bit more liberated in day to day dress than every other country. And on top of that, this less conservative nature even seems to extend to male-female interaction where refreshingly, there just doesn't seem to be these strict parameters for interaction between the sexes. They walk and talk and flirt together and generally exist amicably in each others space where again both Asia and the middle east seemed to be governed by an unspoken (or sometimes spoken) code of conduct that valued modesty and even perceived modesty above all else. Haha not to say that Ugandans are running around like sex-crazed maniacs or anything and also I'm sure there are many unwritten/not overtly visible social rules for code of conduct between the sexes as well as some pretty pervasive politics around the roles of men and women, but I'm just saying that in day to day life, it doesn't seem to be the imperial order here.
As I've said, as we were driving through the north, it was crazy to physically be in the area that I've read so much history about for so long because it seems literally everyone here has a story to tell. And people seem to speak candidly about their experience of this story that captivated me during my mid 20's. David was no different and began telling us all about (...ok maybe I asked a few questions!) how he lived in Gulu from the time he was 15 until he went to university and remembers how during the war time, people would never sleep in villages but sleep under trees closer to/around Gulu. Those who already lived in Gulu experienced the relative safety of a large town though as he recalls, everything shut down and everyone was in their homes by about 9 pm. He said that by midnight you could often hear gunfire and other sounds as the rebels attacked outlying villages. He also said that though the government claims responsibility for driving the LRA from northern Uganda, in fact that was not the case. In David's interpretation, the rebels would go to Sudan and DRC periodically to "regroup" and once they went out, the government placed tight control on the borders so that they could not come back in, though the group continues to be active within these other countries. The government of Sudan (in the past, though it remains questionable as to what the present involvement is supported the rebels in their fight against the Ugandan government essentially in retribution for the government of Uganda's previous support of the Sudanese in their efforts to overthrow the government. The LRA has proven difficult to find both in the dense forest of northern Ugandan but also within the low lying shrubbery of Sudan. When asked whether the peace in northern Uganda will be longstanding, David's response was that nobody knows if the LRA is actively trying to make a return to Uganda. For the love of the people in this region who have suffered enough, we surely hope not.
Even though the park opened in something like 1970, Kidepo's precarious location at the northern tip of a little visited country sandwiched between two historic war zones has kept it relatively unexplored. For many years as violence and conflict raged on from all directions, the only way to visit Kidepo was by expensive charter flights so it remained and continues to remain Uganda's least visited national park. Even now that the LRA are no longer operating in northern Uganda and the government has disarmed the Karamojong warriors, it is relatively safe to visit Kidepo but the fact that it remains a 12 some odd hour, two day trip from Kampala makes the accessibility level for the average safari-goer quite low. But for us, we had already planned to visit Gulu anyways so felt like we must keep heading north because we were halfway there already.
We drove onwards and in a shocking twist of events, we arrived at the park gate after a 5 hour drive...a whopping two hour time blessing and possibly the second time on the trip where the arrival time was actually earlier than the expected time.
Northing short of a miracle in these parts. Seriously, if you want to make someone happy, find some way to give them bonus time, it's the best gift ever, for real.
This was all of our first safari experience so we were pretty well over the moon when within minutes of driving inside the park gate we saw a warthog and a buffalo (African buffaloes are quite different than the good old Alberta buffalo) just hanging out solo in the wide open.
Like, we were pretty well giddy school children seeing Pumbaa for the first time. This would only kick up a notch when we would arrive at our super cheap (seriously each banda for two people was like $10 and each meal was like $3 or something) accommodation for the next two evenings. My gosh, this place was indescribable really. We were staying at one of a handful of accommodation inside the park gates. Ours was a little rest camp run by the Uganda Wildlife Authority and consisted of a bunch of round little concrete bandas just plunked in the middle of the park.
Just down the street from us there was one upscale safari lodge and other than that, just pure, wild nature. No clearer was this illustrated when we sat down at the table at the "kitchen" and literally small wild dogs and warthogs just casually cruised through camp feet away from us.
We were quite exceptionally, in the middle of absolute nothing and by far the most remote I think any of us had ever been. There were no sounds but quiet and the odd bird and people in the camp chatting quietly. I thought I would be nervous being so isolated but once again, at the risk of sounding totally cheesy, it turned out to be high on the list as one of the most peaceful, quiet, perfect places we'd ever been and the fear quickly faded away. Man, did we ever wish we had a few more days to spare just to hang out there and do absolutely nothing but take in the quiet and nature around us. Gah! I want to go back.
That evening we had planned to go on a game drive except that the clouds rolled in hard and pitch black and pissed rain.
We almost didn't go but changed our mind last minute. Luckily for us the rain didn't go on long but the dark stormy clouds did linger which made for the most incredible light for our game drive both for our eyes and for photos.
I'm not even joking, that game drive was actually gorgeous, magical and was perhaps one of the top moments of my life (once we got over the insult of having to hire a park ranger for, ugh, another 20USD even though we had our own driver, though the ranger quickly proved his worth!).
I feel like I just keep going to new places in Uganda and saying "this is the most beautiful place in Uganda", "no, this is the most beautiful place in Uganda", "NO, this is the most beautiful place in Uganda", "NO, THIS is actually the most beautiful place in Uganda"...Uganda literally just keeps topping itself in gorgeousness in a way that I've never experienced in any other country thus far.
It truly is so hard to express the beauty that was Kidepo. Honestly, nature at its finest. Kidepo park itself is open plains at the base of a valley, at the foot of towering mountains that surround it.
The landscape itself was a mix of literally golden grass and various classic direct out of movies African trees, shrubs and rocks, an endless mix of different hues of green. And in the absolutely perfect light of the post storm afternoon/evening, it was truly spectacular. Not gonna lie, I couldn't help visualizing that scene from the Lion King where they stood on the rock looking down at the kingdom and Mufasa said "Look Simba, everything that the light touches is your kingdom..." or something like that.
As we cruised through the park the guide kept pointing things out from monkeys, birds (including a real life road runner and others that were so stupid that they only wanted to land in the game tracks so would fly as our car came barelling towards them but then land again 20 feet in front of us to do it all over again because they refused to land in the wet grass) and endless families of warthogs who were so skittish they would run as soon as they saw us but every time they did this their tail would ping straight up in the air. We saw endless horned deer type things (which of course, bless him the guide told us all the names but being not total animal lovers, we didn't bother committing to memory except for the Jackson's hartbeast or something like that with its bizarre and hilarious long face, a weird cross between a deer, a dog and a horse).
The park was also absolutely full of giant herds of African buffalo, one of the Big 5 safari animals. In pursuit of more glamorous animals like lions, cheetahs and zebras, I definitely did not expect to fall in love with the buffaloes but I did! Though known to be aggressive, their overall demeanor reminded me more of just a big oafy dog. Every time you would drive up they would immediately stop and stare at you and then either lope away or parade around a bit first, especially when they have one eye as we would experience in our encounter with the super jittery, slightly aggressive one eyed buffalo who stared us down and then pranced around like he couldn't decide whether to charge our car or go on his merry little way, highly agitated regardless.
After our gorilla tracking adventures, I'll never feel easy about an animal casually looking at us again because deeply burned in my mind is the cause-effect relationship that looking = charging so I was definitely eager to get the hell out of there because I really didn't feel like getting charged by a massive horned, angry buffalo. Our guide, a totally hilarious and just, like a sweet little boy, was awesome and continued scanning the valley floor with his binoculars to see if we could find what we were really after...lions, giraffes, elephants and zebras.
At one point he pointed and exclaimed that there was an entire herd of giraffes on the valley floor. Having never seen a real life giraffe outside of the zoo (actually I can't even guarantee that Bridger has even seen that much growing up in a tiny town of Newfoundland) we were SO excited and literally spent the next hour driving around to exactly where he saw them to no avail much to all of our disappointment and frustration. This seemed utterly bizarre to me because they're giraffes for goodness sakes, don't they just stand there and lazily eat trees, how could they possibly be so hard to find if the guide saw exactly where they were?!? Well, after working super hard for it, we finally did run into that group of giraffes and quickly understood why we couldn't find them for so long. As we drove up there were standing in the tall grass and the guide's description of "they are like a camera" summed up perfectly their response--as we drove up, the entire herd stopped what they were doing, looked up (but giraffes are much less scary when they look at you than gorillas or buffaloes) and in an incredible moment, took a few steps towards us, and then a few more steps, literally "zooming in" in their curiosity. This alone was incredible but once again, they blew themselves away when, after checking us out for a few minutes, the entire herd started loping away together. We didn't even know this happened!! Like, I honestly through giraffes just stood there eating trees and maybe slowly walked places. No wonder we couldn't find this herd, they would literally stop for a few minutes and then bolt with these epic, long, powerful gaits to the next stopping place and this went on and on. At one point the entire herd loped across the road behind our vehicle giving us a complete and perfect view of their incredibleness.
Wooooooow! Seriously, I don't even think I like animals so, so much but that was truly an epic safari moment. In a bizarre moment I also realized how very similar giraffes are to long neck dinosaurs so I also spent a few quiet moments of contemplation envisioning them turning into long neck dinosaurs haha. The giraffes weren't to be outdone by the zebras who we finally found, granted really far away, grazing in a golden field as the sun set behind some perfectly placed by God himself, rocks.
The zebras were actually one of the reasons that I wanted to come to Kidepo as it is one of only two parks in Uganda where zebras live. Being a lifelong horse lover and also a self-confessed lover of sunsets, I was pretty flipping excited. I think we all loved our first safari far more than our mediocre love for animals would have predicted and definitely wrapped up that game drive kind of giddy like children. That evening we hung out with a handful of tourists and Ugandans around the camp fire pit before calling it a night as we were up again at the ungodly hour of 6:15 for an early morning game drive. Next up: find elephants, cheetahs (the only park that has them in Uganda), lions and hyenas. And more zebras closer up.
With high hopes and an exceptional tracking guide, we tried hard to see elephants, cheetahs, lions and hyenas. We'd be driving and the guide would all of a sudden shout to our driver to stop. I've never seen a grown man (or any human for that matter) get so excited about footprints and poo. Despite best efforts, in the end, we saw none of it. Ok I guess we saw more zebras close up which was pretty awesome. Perhaps our lack of sightings was for the better as even our guide, armed with a shotgun for such occasions, not so reassuringly conveyed his fear of aggressive elephants to us. I believe his exact words were, "elephants can be aggressive and if you are walking, they will stomp you and I fear that very much" haha. Unfortunately (or fortunately?!) the morning drive was rather uneventful but what it lacked in animal sightings, it made up for in scenery. Though we realized the true magnitude of our elephant misfortune when even the UWA ranger at the exit gate the next morning commented how he absolutely couldn't believe that we didn't see elephants because, basically, everyone sees elephants, there's so many and they're everywhere... and I believe HIS exact words were "you are very, very unlucky".
We got back to the rest camp and just had the rest of the afternoon to kill in this quiet paradise.
Can't remember what mom and Bridger did but I pretty well hung out the rest of the afternoon drinking tea and writing as warthogs trotted all around us. It seemed we had a resident family of a mama and two babies who called the rest camp home. It was amazing how you could be walking around camp and come within metres of them while they remained so calm and nonchalantly chomped on the grass and I believe I commented as such to mom. This turned out to be a bit of an illusion I realized as I snuck up really close to get an awesome picture only to have mama turn and start to charge at me! Maybe they're not so big but you have a mama pig with big ass tusks beelining towards you, you just run away. In better moments, I know running is the worst thing to do as it basically elicits a predatory response but hell, I don't want to stick around to see where mama pig sticks those tusks! As soon as I started running though it was like one of those moments where your world somehow moves in slow motion and I remember having these thoughts like, "oh my gosh, shit, why did I do that", "what if she doesn't stop" and "whyyyyy do I underestimate the terror of small creatures". The whole event was pretty well a split second and a very short distance but enough to remind me how one should never make assumptions about nature! Though the realization was short lived when, literally, a herd of zebras made their way grazing through the camp like 10 metres away from us. So I tried to get close to those guys too. And failed but less epically so because they just walked away.
In the afternoon David and his friend Innocent (yes that is seriously a real name in Uganda), came and asked if we wanted to go check out the fancy safari lodge just down the street because Innocent knew the managers. So me and mom walked with them and chatted and Innocent, the most wonderfully quirky human possibly on the planet, started asking us the all too familiar script about working in Canada and then the dreaded "can I ask a question? such that I thought "ahhhh THIS is why they invited us, to suss out job and visa possibilities". But as quickly as that line of questioning started, it ended. Around that time somehow Innocent got sidetracked with something else so we lost him but continued to wander around the lodge ourselves with David. It was definitely beautiful, equally remote as ours with little cabins that literally looked out onto the savannah with various animals feet away from your front doorstep. But at 600 some odd bucks/night I couldn't help thinking that I'm not sure what justified the extra 580 above the cost of our almost equally as charming bandas. Perhaps that is what everyone else was thinking as well because the lodge was actually completely empty (probably why we could take a tour in the first place) and a little eerie being these magnificent structures in the middle of the African wilderness, a little African ghost town. We self-toured and then just as we were leaving Innocent came back and insisted that he show us around which he did, to all the places we had already been. Only this time, he started directing us where to stand and what to do for photo ops around the property. At one point this man, not even joking, had us sit on the bright white couches (weird in it's own right) in the restaurant and hold pillows.
Truly bizarre. The whole time in the back of my head I, the ultra cynic, kept wondering what this whole buttering up episode was about...getting him job in Canada, marketing, money? But truly, just as fast and randomly as it started, it ended and Innocent disappeared into the recesses of our camp never to be seen again! So strange but so lovely. That evening we hung out outside our bandas having a few drinks and keeping dry as an impromptu light rain storm blew through only to clear out and give us a beautiful sunset behind our camp. Bless this beautiful flipping park.
The fact that we were visiting Uganda at a time that Kidepo was finally open to "drive-in" exploration was, in itself, an absolute treasure. Our guide said that they really have only started getting visitors since approximately 2009, though he said numbers are climbing gradually every year as word gets out. Even so, in the two game drives that we did we only encountered one other car and there were very few people staying at the rest camp/safari camp next door so it truly felt like we had the park and the camp entirely to ourselves. When you travel, in increasingly rare moments, you sometimes encounter this perfect merging of a perfect place which also offers this perfect, grassroots, authentic experience to go with it...this is what we found in Kidepo... an absolutely transcendent, off the grid place that literally did something to us from an experiential standpoint that to date, is rivaled by very few other places/experiences we've had so far on this trip.