It had been a somewhat frantic, whirlwind trip around Uganda – visiting eight national parks in just two weeks on a joint assignment for Uganda Airlines and Uganda Tourism Board. The brief was to get a feel for the areas and to take as many photographs as possible, in order that I could write and illustrate an accurate brochure highlighting the country’s wildlife attractions. All a bit hasty and superficial to be honest, but there was no decent promotional material available at the time and Uganda Airlines had just opened up their route to Johannesburg. Few tourists were visiting the country 17 years ago, although gorilla trekking had been initiated at Bwindi, Uganda was still regarded as a destination only for the more adventurous.
Having visited Lake Mburo, Bwindi, Queen Elizabeth, Kibale, Rwenzori, Semuliki and Murchison Falls national parks (as well as an excursion into the Rwandan side of the Virungas) in a dizzying ten days, there remained one particularly remote park on our itinerary.
Kidepo National Park is situated in the far north-eastern corner of Uganda – on the border of what is now South Sudan – in the Karamoja region. This is a ruggedly beautiful area of open tamarind and palm savannah, wooded watercourses and massive granite outcrops; Mount Morungole rises to 2,700 metres in the western part of the park. Until quite recently – and certainly back then – this was regarded as a hostile, frontier district with bandits, disgruntled Ik pastoralists, goat rustlers and insurgents associated with the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army all active. Driving from Kampala was out of the question as it would have necessitated some form of army or police escort, so a small plane was chartered for a two hour flight and a two night stay. The captain (a former personal pilot of a certain Idi Amin!) put the Piper Navajo gently down at the park’s Apoka airstrip and headquarters, Tracey and I were introduced to the warden, and shown our banda – a simple thatched rondavel – as an electric storm crashed around the valley.
Given the alleged lawlessness of the surrounding area, I was surprised to see such a abundance of ‘game’ over the next two days with Buffalo (one herd of over 500), Defassa Waterbuck, Eland, Kongoni, Oribi, Rothschild’s Giraffe, Plains Zebra and Elephant suggesting that poaching (at least around Apoka) had been curtailed if not halted. Back in the 1970s when the aforementioned President Amin and his cronies were reputed to slaughter animals here with automatic weapons, populations of giraffe, elephant and others had crashed spectacularly. We even saw a magnificent male Lion sunning itself on a black boulder outcrop, and a Cheetah in pursuit of a hare.
Prior to this trip, we had not travelled to either Kenya or Tanzania, so there was a whole host of East African birds completely new to us. This excitement was coupled with a good dose of frustration however, because our schedule was so tight that we just never had the time to make the most of the birding opportunities all around us. Nevertheless, Clapperton’s Spurfowl, Ruppell’s Vulture, Grey Kestrel, Yellow-billed Shrike, Black Coucal, Chestnut Weaver, Sooty Chat, Blue-naped Mousebird, Piapiac (a small long-tailed corvid) and Abyssinian Ground-Hornbill were among the bird highlights for us here.
One bird species that we got to know well at Kidepo was a beautiful little flycatcher known as the Silverbird. It does have silvery-grey upperparts but the rusty-orange belly is more of a feature. A pair were resident at Apoka, perching on washing lines, low bushes and the roof rack of the parked Land Rover from where they would sally out to capture flies and other winged insects. Not being at all shy, one of the flycatchers regularly perched on the open screen-door of our banda, dropping to the ground, or swooping in front of us, to snatch its prey.
Kidepo National Park, Uganda, August 1996