06 Jan Rainy Season in Karamoja: A Road Trip Through Eastern and Northern Uganda
Venture Uganda director Lesley Harris has recently taken a road trip through eastern and northern Uganda. Here’s her diary.
Day 1: Kampala to Kapchorwa: A road trip through eastern and northern Uganda
Finally, I’ve escaped the office. I am on a road trip through eastern and northern Uganda with colleagues. They say don’t mix business and pleasure but I fully intend to: I’m so excited to be re-visiting the culturally-rich Karamoja region. This is a whirlwind tour to update ourselves and check out new activities and accommodation. November is the rainy season and our contacts have reminded us that some of the murram roads are tough in places.
Having spent last weekend in Jinja, relaxing on the banks of the beautiful River Nile, we decided to skip this part of the tour and drive straight out east to Kapchorwa – a 5-hour drive from Kampala. A road trip is surely one of the best ways to see the ordinary daily lives of Ugandans and we saw so much including sugar cane harvesters, rice farmers and cattle-keepers in the fields.
The road to Mbale was fine – good tarmac all the way – but the rain set in as we approached Kapchorwa. The views as you climb up into the Mt Elgon range are stunning: green hillsides with numerous waterfalls, extensive views across the plains below, coffee farms growing the region’s famous Arabica coffee and people engaged in all sorts of activities along the road: kids playing, people selling matooke (green bananas) or walking pigs/goats/cows. There are also the bizarre sights that make Uganda so entertaining like the man driving what resembled an adapted piece of coffee factory machinery, the family of 5 on a motorcycle and the quite bonkers signposts.
We arrived in Kapchorwa and headed to Home of Friends – a hotel we had not visited before.
This is a lovely, small hotel on a hillside with stunning views over the misty hill tops. We checked into our simple but cosy rooms with every convenience, chatted with the locals outside the hotel and then sat down to supper together. The food was superb and the friendly, hospitable staff could not have looked after us better. This area is used as a training area for elite athletes, given the high altitude, and indeed Uganda’s own world record breaking long distance runner, Joshua Cheptegei comes from Kapchorwa.
Day two – Kapchorwa to Moroto
If we had have had more time we would have done the waterfalls hike, the coffee farm tour or gone for a sundowner, watching the sun set over the Karamoja plains in the distance below but we have done these activities before and enjoyed them. So, the following morning after a hearty breakfast, we headed down the mountain planning to visit Pian Upe – a wildlife reserve. We wanted to see the ostrich, roan antelope and the recently translocated giraffe.
However, the rain had been too much overnight and the road was pretty bad. We set off but before we had gone far, we reached a tricky spot where a lorry had got stuck in the mud and vehicles were queueing to pass once it was moved. After chatting to a few truck drivers and locals and taking some snaps of the mountains and sunflower fields, we decided to turn around and head straight to Moroto on tarmac.
To me, tarmac is never as much fun but I did enjoy traveling through some of the beautiful wetlands surrounding Soroti – home to some wonderful birdlife and interesting fishing traps for lung fish and mud fish.
Some three hours later, we arrived in Moroto town and checked-in at the Kara-Tunga Safari Camp – a guest house with safari tents in the garden. The story behind Kara-Tunga is Theo’s story.
Plans were set for the next day including mountain biking, a traditional beading workshop and, for two of us, a boda-boda (motorbike) tour to visit a gold-mining settlement – I didn’t know it was going to be an international tour!
Our boda riders, Michael and Emma, were awesome. Very safe and very informative and the bikes were in tip-top condition and very comfortable – not something I would often say about a boda. The rain held off as we rode miles though stunning countryside which just kept getting more and more beautiful and dramatic as the steep green slopes disappeared into the clouds above. It was great to see the locals along the way – the men in shorts and wrapped in colourful blankets with a small hat on their heads topped with a feather. The women had bright, swaying skirts and colourful bead necklaces and most were barefoot or wore sandals made from recycled car tyres. There was a mix of Ugandans and Kenyans, some with beautiful traditional facial scarring patterns.
We crossed numerous rocky and muddy patches in the road before coming to a dead stop where a river was flowing fast over the road. An assortment of locals had gathered. We decided to risk it, took off our shoes and socks, rolled up our trousers and formed a group holding each other tight to remain strong against the current. We made it across. Back on the road, we reached the Kenyan border, had a chat with the officials there and continued down steep shingle roads to the gold mining settlement.
We checked-in with the local authorities and were granted access to look around. We found people washing soil through basins and over towels to retrieve gold particles and even mining underground. Some mined as families, others alone and there were kids participating too. The rock formations along the river bed were so interesting and the rocks obviously contained all sorts of minerals and metals which gave them so many different colours.
As the rain clouds gathered, fearing any rise in the flow of the river, we decided to return. The scenery was just as stunning going back but the rain that we had escaped until now finally caught up with us and we got a soaking. The boda ride was challenging but so enjoyable: I had complete confidence in Michael and he did not let me down.
Next time, I might consider flying to Moroto and spending time hiking, perhaps even a guided multi-day hike. The scenery is awesome and being on foot, among the people, would be amazing for photography.
I never thought I would ever say this in Karamoja – a famously hot, dry region – but I needed a hot shower to clean up, dry off and warm up. After some shopping in town for Karamojong blankets and a trip downtown to see a Premier League match on TV, we headed to bed, eagerly anticipating the journey ahead tomorrow.
Day 3 Moroto to Kotido
The journey to Kotido took 3 hours. On arrival, we met a local colleague who took us into Nakapelimoru, “East Africa’s largest village”. This was an amazing experience as we climbed up to rocky viewpoints, played with kids, toured the manyattas (local homesteads) heard all about family life and culture, joined people threshing and grinding local foods and took photos of people with their intricate scarring and stunning adornments.
We then continued for another hour to Kaabong, checked in at our hotel and persuaded a couple of local kids to take us for a walk to the river. We collected more kids as we walked and ended up with quite a gang following us.
Day 4 Kaabong to Kidepo
This journey normally takes around 2 hours but the rains had made the road difficult in places so it took us longer. This is a remote location and it was so interesting to see the local huts and people walking as we travelled.
On reaching Kidepo, we checked-in to the new Adere Safari Lodge. This will be opening soon and promises to be a lovely place with stunning views from the lodge over the Narus Valley to the mountains in the distance. We headed out for an evening game drive, seeing various species including some spectacular birds.
Day 5 Kidepo
This morning we got up very early and headed into the park for an extensive game drive. The scenery in the park is so varied from savannah grasslands to mountain ranges and acacia dotted plains to river beds. We saw the famous herds of buffalo, Jackson’s hartebeest, reed buck, giraffe, oribi, warthogs, lions and, again, some wonderful birdlife including Clapperton’s Francolin, Yellow-necked Spurfowl, Rose-ringed Parakeet and Fox Kestrel.
You could spend several days in Kidepo, seeing something different every day and also relaxing in one of the great lodges enjoying the stunning views.
Day 6 Kidepo to Gulu
The drive away from Kidepo took us through more beautiful countryside as we headed out of Karamoja region and into Acholi Land – another fascinating region with interesting history, culture and people. It is a 3-hour drive to Kitgum and a further two to Gulu.
Gulu is often used as an overnight stop on the drive between Kidepo and Murchison Falls national park but it does have its own attractions. The ruins at Fort Patiko reveal the area’s Arab slave-trading past and the Aruu Falls are a well-known local beauty spot. A guided walk around the town provides an insight into the LRA war in northern Uganda and the post-war recovery and development.
Day 7 Gulu to Kampala
The journey to Kampala is on tarmac all the way with lots of interesting sights along the way from the roadside hawkers of roasted banana, cassava, and meat to the bridge over the River Nile at Karuma Falls with baboons by the road as you approach. There are rest stops to break the journey including the lovely Kabalega diner taking its name from the famous King of Bunyoro. The diner has a nice little craft shop and I would recommend the shea butter produced in northern Uganda.
Ideally, we would have had a couple of weeks for this tour but even a short tour in rainy season did not disappoint. In fact, I am not sure I would manage the heat of the dry season. The wildlife, culture and scenery were all amazing and I really felt I had escaped into another world. I learnt a huge amount about other people and their way of life which has inevitably made me reflect on my own life, choices and values. Travel is a wonderful thing, if you do it well.