Kidepo Valley is Uganda's most remote national park, but its scenic beauty, prolific game, and unique bird list attract a steady trickle of visitors throughout the year. Located in the northern Karamoja region, one of the country's most rugged and least developed, the park is contiguous with Kidepo Game Reserve in South Sudan. It encompasses two broad river valleys, the semi-arid Narus and the essentially arid Kidepo, and is home to a handful of dry country specials not found in any other national park in Uganda. Top targets include Karamoja Apalis and Black-Breasted Barbet, and there is also the possibility of encountering vagrants or adding new species to Uganda's country list.
I had long planned to visit Kidepo Valley National Park and saved the destination for my last birding trip in Uganda. Aiming to reach 600 species seen in Uganda, I was confident that a few days in Kidepo would yield the 22 new birds I still needed and likely more. Many of these dry country specials can also be found along the eastern border with Kenya, north of Mt. Elgon National Park. In particular, Where to Watch Birds in Uganda describes several sites near the town of Moroto that sound worth exploring. I had so far neglected this region, focusing instead on birding the forests of the west and southwest. In retrospect, I probably could have visited Murchison Falls National Park less frequently and improved my geographic coverage of the country.
The drive from Kampala to Kidepo via Gulu and Kitgum is intimidatingly long. High-end tourists can opt to fly directly to the park, staying at the posh Apoka Safari Lodge. Road warriors, like us, often elect to break up the journey by visiting Murchison Falls National Park along the way, or spending a night in Gulu or Kitgum. I had been to Kitgum once before for work and found the journey to be long but straight-forward and uncrowded. There is comparatively less trade along the north-south axis in Uganda than the east-west, which is one reason I visited Murchison and Budongo so frequently. Between Gulu and Kitgum, the 100 km road is now being paved. Beyond Kitgum, the road is no longer tarmac, but it is wide, well-graded, and almost completely free of other vehicles.
It took us approximately nine hours to make the trip each way. We experienced a few incidents while traveling in both directions. Just as we were leaving the outskirts of Kampala early on Thursday morning, I realized that I had left my camera battery at home. Without a backup battery, I was compelled to turn around and reenter the city, which was quickly coming to life. The streets were choked with vehicle traffic and pedestrians an hour later when we reached the point where we had turned around earlier. I had spent an entire day planning and organizing this trip, and it's a point of pride that I rarely forget any gear. Even though I am a birder first and a photographer a distant second, there was no question whether I would turn back.
We made a final stop to refuel in Kitgum town, which offers the last petrol station before Kidepo, filling two jerrycans with additional fuel. Although there is a petrol pump at Apoka, where the UWA park station is located, it is not consistently available to visitors. The 115 km road from Kitgum to Kidepo is well signed, indicating the direction to Kidepo at each fork. Approaching the park, the landscape becomes increasingly dramatic, as the road winds through jagged mountains and rock formations, past fields of cotton, millet, and sunflower. It is definitely worth stopping to bird along the road before entering the park, especially in the morning. The 30 km before the park entrance offer excellent views of woodland and rock outcrops, which are good for cliff-dwelling birds, such as Fox Kestrel. It is worth checking for Black-Breasted Barbet in fruiting trees, which they are few and far between within the park itself.
Even a quick drive through the region will reveal that living conditions in Karamoja are rough, and there are few public services available. The Karamojong are an agro-pastoral people and culturally distinct, perhaps more so than any other ethnic group in Uganda. Their unique customs have sparked a fledgling community tourism industry, where tourists can visit traditional villages, similar to what has evolved around the Maasai in Tanzania and Kenya. Historically, a burgeoning population and dwindling resources have resulted in internecine conflict in Karamoja, as well as violent clashes with Ugandan security forces. Cattle raiding in the southern districts of the region were once common, with the Karamojong being the aggressors. After a disarmament effort, travel restrictions for foreigners were lifted in recent years, but it's still advisable to inquire about current conditions before you go.
After a long drive, Aimee and I headed straight into the park. We first stopped at a rock outcropping, where the ruins of the Grand Katurum Lodge are located. The woodland around the base is a good spot to look for White-Crested Turaco as well as cliff specials. Down the road a bit, we encountered two female lions resting in the shade of a sausage tree. Heading up the Narus Valley, we stopped an observation point where camping is also permitted. The views are magnificent from this hill, and there excellent facilities for visitors, including a telescope and informative placards about the wildlife of the park recently installed by the African Wildlife Foundation under the project Uganda Tourism for Biodiversity. In general, Aimee and I found the infrastructure and management of Kidepo to be better than any other national park in Uganda.
We decided to camp at this observation point the first night. We made a short game drive before sunset, passing near the wallows where hundreds of buffalo and elephants were grazing. New birds for my country list came quick and easy, including Clapperton's Francolin, Rose-Ringed Parakeet, Yellow-Billed Shrike, Northern White-Crowned Shrike, and Superb Starling. There is a watering hole nearby, where I hoped to wait for Four-Banded Sandgrouse, but it had recently gone dry. We returned to camp at dusk flushing a single unidentified nightjar along the track. I took a quick break from making camp to track down a calling Freckled Nightjar among the rocks. The night was filled with animal sounds, including lions grunting in the distance, but Aimee and I have grown accustomed to these noises and slept peacefully.
The following day was a critical one. We had decided to drive to Kidepo Valley to search for dry country birds, including the globally threatened Karamoja Apalis. There was potential to see dozens of new birds, which would push me well past my goal of seeing 600 species in Uganda. We picked up an armed UWA ranger at Apoka and set out on a well-graded road. The ranger is a requirement for visiting this part of the park and costs 20 USD. There is no coverage for mobile phones, and the rangers carry a radio for communication with the station in case of emergency. Reserve the services of Bernard (mobile number 0782889344), who knows the birds of the park well. From the park station it is 48 km to the Kanangarok hot springs, the final destination within the park for visitors. The road crosses several dry stream beds, including the Kidepo River, and passes through savanna, woodland, and acacia and thorn bush.
Where to Watch Birds in Uganda provides detailed instructions about what birds to look for and where to find them in Kidepo Valley. We spent a fruitless few hours looking for Karamoja Apalis in the thorn bush along the last 5 km of road before the hot springs. A French couple was also birding along the road; they might have seen one individual but admitted they weren't sure. New birds that proved relatively easy to find included White-Headed and White-Billed Buffalo-Weavers, African Grey Flycatcher, Grey-Capped Social Weaver, d'Arnaud's Barbet, Red-Winged Lark, Slate-Colored Boubou, Rufous-Crowned Roller, Jackson's and Red-Billed Hornbills, Rufous Chatterer, and White-Bellied Tit. Less expected finds were White-Bellied Bustard, Pygmy Batis, Abyssinian Scimitarbill, Ostrich, and Secretary Bird. I spotted three new Estrildidae together near the hot springs: Black-Cheeked Waxbill, Crimson-Rumped Waxbill, and Purple Grenadier.
In addition to dipping on Karamoja Apalis, I left a lot of birds on the table. Some of these are supposed to be common, such as Yellow-Throated Spurfowl, Straw-Tailed Whydah, Chestnut Weaver, Eastern Yellow-Billed Hornbill, and Pygmy Falcon; others, including Red-and-Yellow Barbet and Heuglin's Wheatear, are less so. Ideally, I would have spent two days birding along this road, but we had only planned for two full days in the park. I also had a head cold, and the extremely hot and dry weather in the Kidepo Valley was taxing. The French couple had opted to return a second day and planned to spend two hours hiking through the thorn bush in search of the apalis. I understand that Karamoja Apalis is not only localized but rare, and visiting birders should not have high expectations of seeing it.
After a long day driving through the Kidepo Valley, we stopped at Apoka for some cold beer. African Hoopoe was tame around the bandas, and we observed Patas Monkey, Side-Striped Jackal, waterbuck, and warthog at the small watering hole. In the late afternoon, we drove to the Crocodile pools, where various waterbirds were congregated, including Yellow-Billed Stork, White-Faced Whistling-Duck, Knob-Billed Duck, and African Jacana. Abdim's Stork was also present in large numbers. Four-Banded Sandgrouse did not make an appearance after dusk, nor did we see any nightjars on our return to the campsite. We camped that night in the same spot, joined this time by a group of Indian men accompanied by a UWA ranger. Aimee tells me that the animal sounds the second night were even wilder, but I was gassed with my head cold and slept without interruption.
I had already achieved my birding objective for the trip but was still in search of a flagship bird. We started the day off back at the Grand Katurum Lodge to look for White-Crested Turaco, dipping on it again. We looked for Fox Kestrel among the rocky hills, finding Common Kestrels and Lappet-Faced Vultures as well as several plump Rock Hyrax. Then, we explored the western section of the park in the hills behind our campsite. We spent an hour waiting at a fruiting tree, where African Grey and Jackson's Hornbills were deftly plucking the choicest fruit. At a dry stream bed where there was a narrow strip of riverine forest, I played the call of White-Crested Turaco. Almost immediately, two turacos popped from the undergrowth and scampered up into the canopy, gliding away before I could capture a decent photograph. Elated to see this spectacular bird, we continued confidently through bush and woodland.
Bouncing along the road, I spotted a black and white bird dash out of a bush as we were driving past. I figured it was a Sooty Chat but decided to reverse back to confirm what it was. After a minute of scanning, I dug out a stonking Black-Breasted Barbet hidden low in a bush about 30 m back from the road. What a find! For nearly ten minutes, we watched this magnificent barbet as it phlegmatically moved about, feeding occasionally on a few small berries. I tried desperately to photograph it, but even with my lens, the Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 AF-S, it is challenging to focus on a bird in a bush at a distance. Ultimately, I needed to get out of the car and properly stalk the bird, which I neglected to do until it had moved on down the hill. At least we now had two flagship birds for the trip: White-Crested Turaco and Black-Breasted Barbet. Both of these beauties would probably also make my top-ten list for birds seen in Uganda.
By now it was early afternoon, and we decided to celebrate with another cold beer. After a brief stop at Apoka, we set up again at the Crocodile pools and relaxed in the shade. A Landcruiser rolled by after a while, and I helped the driver change a flat tire. We met the French couple again and exchanged birding notes. They had spent the previous day hiking up one of the mountains on the eastern edge of the park, notching an impressive list of specialties, including Stone Partridge. I couldn't imagine trudging up an arid mountain in the heat with a head cold, but I applauded their effort in recording what are likely two new species for the park, Shining Sunbird and Boran Cisticola. Where to Watch Birds in Uganda doesn't mention the possibility of seeing either bird, but I'll defer to their extensive birding experience in northeastern Kenya.
Aimee and I headed further south in the evening, climbing a rock outcropping. A raucous group of White-Bellied Go-Away-Birds welcomed us at the top before sailing away. The panorama was breathtaking, as the color of the landscape softened in the dying light. On the way back to camp we passed a solitary elephant injured on its left front leg. It was terrified of the car but unable to walk. We reported it later at Apoka, where the UWA rangers informed us that they had already summoned a veterinarian from Kampala. We found our campsite overrun by Italian tourists celebrating the new year, and we decided to spend the night at the other campsite instead. The twilight drive yielded several Swamp Nightjars, a lifer for me. There were revelers at the other campsite too, but they proved relatively dignified as midnight approached. Lions called to each other forcefully throughout the night, passing close by the camp.
We made a final quick circuit around the Narus Valley the following morning. I didn't have any significant targets beyond common birds that I had previously overlooked, such as Singing Bushlark, Bruce's Green Pigeon, Broad-Tailed Warbler, and Harlequin Quail. I didn't record any of these species, but we did find another pair of lions resting in the shade, this time a young male and female. Any safari bookended by lions is a memorable one, and we headed out of the park immediately afterwards determined to reach Kampala before dark. I stopped only once for birds, just beyond the entrance gate in recently burned woodland. Red-Fronted Barbet would prove my final new bird species seen in Uganda, leaving me at 614. For a small but diverse country like Uganda or Ecuador, seeing two thirds of the bird species is an attainable goal for resident birders.