Pian Upe is a home of two pastoralist tribes; the Pian being a sub-group of the Karamojong, while the Upe are a Kalenjin-speaking people also known as the Pokot. The Pian and Upe have a history of armed conflicts related to cattle rustling having at times teamed up together to take on neighbouring tribes in Kenya, or Uganda, and other times have directed their violence towards each other.
This insecurity is the main reason why the reserve has seen little tourist development to date, but this seems to have changed following the disarmament of the two tribes in 2011, making Pian Upe of interest both as a potential gateway to Karamoja or Kidepo and as an intriguing goal for a day safari out of the Elgon region.
The night before I went to bed, I had mixed feelings upon reading the excerpt from the 8th edition of Bradt Uganda by Philip Briggs and Andrew Roberts.But considering my safari experiences, I was determined to travel to Nakapiririt and witness the re-introduction of giraffes to Pian Upe after 25 years.
Braving the rain
With 15 minutes to the stroke of 5am,on Monday, 28 October 2019, Gesa Simplicious, the Uganda Wildlife Authority spokesperson called to inform me that a silver grey Land Cruiser was stationed at Kalerwe on Gayaza road.
We were to drive through Kayunga to Jinja if we were to beat the morning traffic. Fortunately, I was awake in bed, listening to the drizzles and thinking about the day ahead as part of my morning routine. No sooner had I woken up, than it started to rain. After my morning preparations,I kissed my family goodbye before I crept out of the door in my shorts, t-shirt, sandals and hoodie. I strolled for five minutes, before I could jump on a random boda boda.
Through the rain shower, and early morning breeze, the ‘Okada’ man sped to Total Kalerwe. He charged me Shs 7000 from Kibuye to Total Kalerwe. On arrival, he got me thinking that to solve speed, one needs distance divided by time. He had covered an unknown distance in twenty five minutes. Little did I know that a one UWA driver who prefers to be known as Jjaja Kayiira was a better speed merchant.
Kayiira spoke less, but communicated every time he engaged the car gears. He wore a paramilitary camouflage, and his body-build could pass for a commando. His good driving skills and the good condition of the car meant we were just a stone’s throw away from Nakapiririt.
By 7:30am, we were at Igaar Cafe in Jinja. Gesa ensured the five of us including the driver had breakfast. He got me Cetrizine tablets to relieve my allergy symptoms before we hit the road to Mbale. It was not long before we arrived in Mbale,the foothills of Mount Elgon.
Everybody checked into an accommodation facility of choice. The transporter convinced me to join him at California Guest house. It was modest, quite and clean.
For Shs25,000 we were guaranteed a good night sleep. At mid-day, we drove to Cosmos Coffeeshop and restaurant on Republic Street for lunch. The service quality is good, and the place is cleaner than I expected. On average, a plate of food costs Shs10,000
At 2:00pm, we waited for the giraffe translocation convoy that was destined for Pian Upe wildlife at the Mbale-Soroti junction. An hour later, the animals made their way past the junction to Nakapiririt. A few kilometres, we welcomed amidst ululations. The moment was similar to Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. It is 26 years since the last giraffe in Pian Upe reserve was wiped out.
It had earlier rained. The road was really muddy.
The convoy had to arrive at its destination early so that the giraffes could be released into the wild. It was very difficult for the animal truck to move in the mud. Then suddenly the wheels of the truck sank into the mud. It took us hours before we arrived at 8pm.
The amiable James Busiku, a tourism warden at Pian Upe, was excited about new wildlife additions, saying it is going to attract more tourists. “ Since it is already late and you need to witness the release of the giraffes early in the morning, kindly spend the night in our units,” he suggested.
For a moment, I prayed silently that his idea is not welcomed. How could he propose that idea? “ Oh no! Our clothes and personal belongings are in Mbale. We shall return in the morning,” responded Gesa Simplicious. Before you can say Knife, we had fastened our seatbelts ahead of the bumpy ride. The driver briefed us about the alternate route through Katakwi, Soroti to Mbale.
Rough and tough
Before Katakwi,our car ran out of fuel, and we sought for roadside assistance from a cargo truck driver who gave us a 10 litter jerrycan of fuel. “ I do not need your money. However, when you get fuel, kindly buy it and bring it to me,” he requested Jjaja Kayiira, our driver had no option, but to accept the terms and conditions. We resumed our drive before we ran out fuel near Soroti, the heart of the Itesot.
Considering that other passengers were struggling with the negative impact of sleep such as snores, I volunteered to accompany the driver to the nearest gas station- 500 metres away. On the sides of the road were bushes, we could here echoes of music blaring from the town.
The sight of our driver in a paramilitary camouflage uniform was enough to intimidate any form of attack in the night. “Who could possibly want to die because he attacked an army man?”At this awkward time of 4:00am, I was yearning for hot streetside rolex, but all in vain. At the fuel station, we were given the care and our jerrycan filled with fuel to the brim.
Without a doubt, I opted to stay behind as the driver jumped on a boda boda back to the car. Thirty minutes later, the team arrived. The driver bought fuel and tasked the pump attendant to give it to the truck driver who was left behind.
“Mukama wange, Amafuuta ojagafunila wano ku sundiro,” Jjaja Kayiira spoke to the resourceful truck driver on phone. At 6:45am, we arrived in Mbale Town exhausted, tired and fatigued, but we were happy that the experience was unforgettable.