It is a 12 hour drive from Mount Elgon, on bumpy roads, to reach the far north of Uganda, on the border with South Sudan. That area, the poorest in Uganda, had been off-limits to visitors for many years. From the spillover of the civil war in the Sudan to constant armed cattle raids by warlike Karamajong tribesmen, to the occasional incursion by Joseph Kony’s murderous Lord’s Resistance Army, this was not your typical safari destination.
Now with South Sudan having successfully seceded from the north, the LRA on the run and the government’s disarmament program in full force, the north is once again safe to visit, though few people seem aware of this.
Kidepo National Park is a magical place. A green valley surrounded by jagged mountains, seemingly devoid of human presence and home to East Africa’s largest herd of buffalo.
We spend a few days alone in a wonderfully remote and basic wilderness camp, Nga Moru. A hidden piece of paradise on the edge of the park, owned by passionate Rhodesian-South African conservationists, Patrick and Lyn. Animals, unused to people, behave strangely here…On a bush walk, we get within 30m of a group of giraffe. And two curious youngsters come tantalizingly close to check us out – perhaps 15m away.
As we are driving in a remote part of the park, a huge python (3m or more in length), normally a tree dweller, slithers languidly across the track in front of our car. We find a big group of buffalo, at least 1000-strong, moving through the savannah like menacing dark waves at twilight in the ocean. After cutting through the group with our car, we get chased by several of the beasts. They stand on the roadside, let us pass and then make a show of charging us.
During our time in Mount Elgon, we go on hikes around the thick forested mountains, discovering the true meaning of “rain forest”. The diluvian rain doesn’t ever seem to relent, alternating between mere tropical downpours and hailstorms.
During our slow, lumbering progress up and down muddy, slippery slopes in the gushing rain, we get mildly disheartened by the school children darting past us, barefoot in their school uniforms.
As the heavens open up and we rush to put on our Goretex jackets, we feel like clumsy astronauts stepping for the first time onto another planet populated by lithe, sprightly spirits.
We’re back in the highlands, at Mount Elgon, a chain of extinct volcanoes in the east of Uganda, on the Kenyan border. Like elsewhere in Africa, we find the more fertile highland regions with a more temperate climate heavily populated. Every inch of the mountains, with the exception of the national park, is carved into a jigsaw of small plots whose owners manage to grow cassava, maize, bananas, coffee and keep a few animals.
Kampala, like Rome, is built over seven hills. A pleasant city where the few high rise buildings mix with stately old bungalows and shanties, it feels a bit like a backwater compared with the larger capitals of its neighbors. It reminds us a bit of another garden city, Singapore, or of the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur. Green, not very dense, reasonably clean and organized. Even the perfectly predictable afternoon showers are reminiscent of South East Asia.
The old underground torture chambers of the Idi Amin era, where over 8,000 people were tortured and killed, are on the grounds of the Kabaka’s palace, in a pastoral setting which belies the horrors it witnessed.
Our arrival in Uganda is rather low key. For all its infamous reputation from the Idi Amin days and the 1976 Israeli raid, Entebbe is a genteel, rather sleepy town on the shores of Lake Victoria. Its long driveways and lush gardens hide large colonial era bungalows. Only the wreckage of the aeroplane partially destroyed during the 1976 raid, still lying near the airport, reminds us of Uganda’s troubled past.
The two hour drive to Kampala, the capital, reveals a somewhat less hectic, greener, more organized city than we have been used to in other large African cities.