Mention safaris, and the parks that most frequently come to mind are Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and Maasai Mara in Kenya. And for good reason — the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem, which covers both reserves, hosts the Great Migration of wildebeests and is home to one of the greatest concentrations of lions on the continent. But with such popularity comes high prices and a greater concentration of vehicles, which cause traffic jams and crowding around animals, lessening that breathtaking feeling of being in the wild. Those looking for a more private and adventurous — yet equally stunning safari experience should consider Kidepo Valley National Park, located in Uganda’s rugged northeast, nestled along the border with South Sudan.
The park flies under the radar for two reasons: Kidepo Valley was a no-go area during Uganda’s bloody civil conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army. And it’s far, about a 10-hour drive from Kampala, the capital, with the last 100+ kilometers of the road unpaved (an African massage, locals will tell you with a laugh), and next to impossible to reach via public transport. Aerolink Uganda also flies a small propellor plane between Kidepo and the country’s main airport in Entebbe three times a week for the cost of $490 each way, with a minimum of six passengers.
But that doesn’t mean visiting Kidepo has to be expensive. I visited the park earlier this month, starting my journey from Gulu, a seven-hour hot, dusty and not-for-the-faint-of-heart $11 public bus ride from Kampala.
From Gulu I hired a car (1993 Toyota Land Cruiser) and driver (Martin) through the social enterprise tour company Kara-Tunga, which cost $145 per day, exclusive of fuel.
The drive took us five hours, and was equally hot and dusty (Martin said the AC used too much fuel), but the scenery made it all worthwhile.
There are several options for accommodation outside of the park, and two options if you want to sleep inside Kidepo, which is clearly the better option, and means there are certainly going to be wild animals within eye range of your room. Normally staying inside a national park in Africa would cost hundreds — if not thousands of dollars per night, which it does at one of the two options, Apoka Safari Lodge.
But part of what makes Kidepo so accessible is that it also offers budget accommodation inside the park at Apoka Rest Camp, which is next to the park ranger office and also has a restaurant. The ensuite bandas are basic, but clean and comfortable, and at $25 per night have to be one of the best safari bargains to exist. If you haven’t guessed, this is where I stayed.
Entrance to the park for foreigners is roughly $40 per person per day (this compares to about $80 at more popular parks like Maasai Mara). You can drive around the park during daylight hours by yourself, but for night drives are required to hire a park ranger. Hiring a ranger for a game drive, which is about 2.5 hours each, costs $20 and is well worth it for their ability to spot and explain wildlife. You can also do a walking safari for $15 (and yes, the rangers are equipped with rifles, however old they might be.
I arrived in the evening just before sunset and saw several animals including giraffes, elephants, warthogs and a variety of antelope-type animals on the way to my accommodation.
I started the next day with a walking safari, of which I was the only participant (remember, Kidepo is hard to get to).
My guide, Daniel, has worked at the park for more than 20 years and was a wealth of knowledge about everything from animal poop (lion poop is full of fur that they don’t digest) to cultural information about the tribes living around the park’s borders.
During the hottest hours of the day, it’s rare to see many animals, so I headed to Apoka Safari Lodge, where I paid $25 to use the pool (this is only an option if it’s not fully booked). I have to say it was some of the best money I ever spent.
I had the pool — which is carved out of a giant rock and overlooks the savannah — to myself and enjoyed several gin & tonics while I watched animals including baby elephants (!) visit Apoka’s man made watering hole.
I finished the day with a early-evening game drive, accompanied by Daniel, where we saw beautiful skies several herds of elephants — but still no big cats. This was followed by dinner, which is always the same two options: chicken and rice or goat’s meat and rice.
The following morning I woke up early to do a morning game drive at 6:30 a.m., again hiring Daniel to come along. I’m not a morning person but it was worth it to watch the sun rise over the savannah, and have the chance to see new animals, which we did. At one point during our drive, Daniel said he noticed several animals dispersing from the area. While to the untrained eye it would have looked like normal behavior, Daniel was convinced there was a predator around.
And sure enough, we came across two cheetahs lounging under a tree. There is something indescribably thrilling about seeing big cats in their natural habitat. While I didn’t come across any lions during this visit — the crown jewel of any safari (I was at Kidepo in 2015 and saw several then), I would consider my experience a 10/10. I’ve visited several national parks throughout Africa including Maasai Mara, and Kidepo remains my favorite.
We (Martin and I) left that afternoon, careful to exit before the time we had entered, as you pay per 24 hours. On the way to our next destination — an eco camp even more off the beaten path, we dropped off the park’s head ranger, Philip, who was heading back to his village to meet his 1-day-old daughter, who he introduced us to
Who needs lions?
—Danielle Hyams, editorial manager.
Questions about visiting Kidepo Valley National Park or elsewhere in Uganda? Email us!