x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Roaming in Uganda's Kidepo Valley

One of the country's most remote national parks offers breathtaking views of savannah, but the journey is fraught with danger.

The Kidepo Valley National Park, pinched in the north-east corner of Uganda between Sudan and Kenya, is not only remote - for visitors it can feel like arriving somewhere almost beyond human reach.

The breathtaking landscape of the 1,442-square-kilometre park varies from semi-desert scrub to mountains and forest.

To the north rise the Lotukei mountains of Sudan. To the east, the land drops to the Great Rift Valley. Mount Morungole, which towers 2,750m, dominates the park.

Visitors are strongly advised to travel to the park by air to avoid the bandits who inhabit the surrounding Karamoja area. As our small plane touched down on a strip of dark red earth, I realised that the Apoka Lodge in the park's Narus Valley was an outpost on the frontier.

The lodge's sundeck offered a magnificent view of the grassy plains, with trees spaced out like stubble. I could see a giraffe giving her calf a class in standing and eating simultaneously, no easy task it seemed as the youngster wobbled along.

We had been warned on arrival not to stray out of our chalet without a guard at night because animals frequently wander through the 10-building complex. However, the zebras that grazed by one cottage and the oribis that bounced innocently past my veranda didn't feel like too much of a threat.

But the park is also home to some of the world's most glamorous predators, including lions, leopards, bat-eared foxes, cheetahs and the aardwolves - the latter three being unique in Uganda to Kidepo.

I decided that the best way to explore the wilderness and hunt for the hunters was on foot. The next day I was the only guest at the lodge to go on a guided walking safari. In the morning I planned to meet Joe, the manager, and Bernard, a ranger. When my guides arrived in dark green fatigues carrying rifles over their shoulders, I began to feel nervous.

Joe, a fresh-faced South African with a wide-brimmed hat, assured me that the guns were a precautionary measure against errant animals rather than the poachers and passing armies who had decimated the wildlife during Uganda's turbulent not-so-distant past.

It was a gloomy day and we trampled sodden knee-high grass, came across metre-high termite mounds, and occasionally stopped for Joe to scan the horizon. I walked cautiously. On every step I imagined a lazing leopard or a cheetah on the prowl.

Only recently, I was told a lion's thunderous roar had nearly shaken the lodge's walls as it warned a rival, in no uncertain terms, to leave its territory.

I hoped we didn't make a similar trespass and contented myself with the thought that the king of the jungle would surely view a bedraggled Englishman in a borrowed ponchoas as no threat.

The landscape itself was majestic. I stood in the lush savannah that stretched to a horizon of volcanic mountain ranges. It was a panorama of blurred, jagged silhouettes as the sun's rays fought for supremacy against the murky clouds.

It was as if I had travelled not just kilometres but millions of years back in time. My mind wandered and I imagined spotting a roaming diplodocus, but the next moment I was brought back to reality by a downpour.

We found shelter under a canopy of trees and paused for lunch. In the distance a group of baboons sat grumpily on a rocky outcrop as if they too were lamenting the inclement weather, albeit without our cups of tea.

After the rain passed we continued our search under the brightened sky. In the end, it was fruitless. Far off, some buffalo headed for the hills and I knew the game we were playing had finished. The animals had hightailed it towards the cover of the forests near mountains lying in the misty distance.

As we made our way back to the lodge I cursed, and yet marvelled, at how a landscape could seem so magically empty. Only yesterday had a game drive taken us through a herd of myopic buffalo and ended with a spirited charge by protective mother elephants.

The sight of elephants rumbling towards us for several seconds and our driver's manoeuvre to evade the danger provided a heady mix of excitement and relief.

As we returned to the lodge, the sunset had faded and night had set in. Our path was lit by flickering fireflies - an ethereal light at what felt like the edge of the earth.

pchayney@thenational.ae

The flight

Emirates Airlines (www.emirates.com) return flights from Dubai to Entebbe, Uganda, from US$860 (Dh3,160) including taxes. Eagle Air (www.flyeagleuganda.com) flies from Entebbe to Kidepo. The cost of a return flight (leaving on Fridays and returning on Mondays only) is $235 (Dh863) per person including taxes, with an additional $2,050 (Dh7,529) diversion fee split between the number of people on board (maximum of 17).

The package

The Apoka Safari Lodge (www.wildplacesafrica.com) offers double rooms with all meals, transfers and activities from $405 (Dh1487) per person per night including taxes. Park fees must be paid separately.Subhead: