The once crowded and busy Bugembe Town located on the outskirts of Jinja city, wore a deserted look on May 14, as we took a ride to Moroto District.
Aboard a corona car, the three of us set off for an expedition to examine the extent of child abuse and forced labour in the gold and cobalt mining camps in Moroto district.
Since March 15, a few vehicles could be seen on Jinja-Iganga highway, with police and army officers steadily stationed at specific checkpoints to prevent unnecessary movement of people, especially during curfew hours.
Once we got to Mbale Town, we decided to make a stopover to have breakfast after three-hour ride.
Moments later, we were in Kumi District, where we boarded a ferry at Lake Bisinia in order to navigate a route less-trodden to cut the journey short.
Seven hours into the journey, as we stepped out into the reedy air, there were more signs of wilderness. The place was filled with footprints of warthogs that pulled into ragged and thorny forests of shrubs. The kind of birds looking for homes to sleep in the nestless shrubs were equally amazing
The dry thorn bush at the roadside supports bird species like yellow-necked Spurfowl, Mouse-colored Penduline tit, Northern white-crowned shrike, and the Grey-capped Social Weaver among others.
The completion of the new tarmac road linking Moroto to Soroti shortened our trip to only 10 hours and by 5pm, we had arrived in Moroto Town.
At Seven Ranges Hotel, where we booked for accommodation, fish fillet, mushroom soup and matooke was served for dinner.
As we traversed the district, we uncovered a number of the best vacation spots in Moroto District that are worth adding to your travel bucket list. If you love nature, you will marvel at Mt Moroto, the gold valley and the rock paintings among other breathtaking wonders and sites in this region.
It takes nearly a full day to reach the Imagit peak -the highest point of the mountain. The mountain’s forbidding cliffs hid runaway slaves where their traditions have also lived.
It is also home to Moroto forest reserve, where a range of habitats from arid thorny savanna to dry montane forests are.
Although a long hike is necessary to make it to the peak, its arid thorn savanna and rocky slopes are also accessible from the neighbouring Moroto Town.
Common sights of the rare but spectacular golden cat and colobus monkeys are a must watch on this mountain.
“Local residents and domestic tourists come to see animals and people grazing while carrying bows and arrows painted on rocks in red colour,” says Lokon Majory, a resident at the neighbouring Rupa trading centre.
The hills are homes to wild animals such as pythons, cheetahs that are often spotted by the miners in the valley, making it the perfect place for one who loves adventure.
The discovery of ancient paintings in 2010 at Kobebe hills, Nakapeliet rock, Loteleit rock, Mogoth rock, and Nakadanya rock has revived tourism in the region.
The rock paintings are a prestigious package of medieval heritage in possession of the Karamojong people located among the seven ranges of Mt Moroto.
These ancient paintings characterise animals and people grazing while carrying bows and arrows. Rock art includes the cushitic tribes, which are believed to have settled in the Karamoja area approximately 3,000 years ago.
St Lawrence Falls
Seen from Moroto Town, I could not afford to miss the spectacular sight of the infamous St Lawrence Falls, hitting the basement rocks at over 90 meters. It takes approximately one hour to climb to the falls buried into jungles midway to the peak of Mt Moroto.
A few metres to the falls, several tributaries stretching from the peak of the mountain join at the southern end of the mountain to form the waterfalls were visible. These networks of water support farming activities of people who live near the rocks. Beans, maize and okra were the major crops visible during our expedition.
With tropical high forest and wooded savannah, there is a mix of huge and rare tree species, some as tall as 30 metres.
Rare tree species such as the indigenous mahogany, maesopsis (musizi), phycus, albezia that exist in the tropical forests are common in its escarpment.
It is one of the few woodlands in the country that harbours flying squirrels, one of most endangered species globally.
Lokon says flying squirrels are considered to be very intelligent birds. Often unseen by visitors, they tend to keep to the upper layers of the forest by using their agile limbs and long tails that act as a fifth limb.
They usually live in organised groups and even have leaders among them. If one comes in the early morning before 9 o’clock, they are likely to see small creatures dancing and flying from one branch to another, while they sunbathe.
An exploratory trek in its rarest form through this rain forest offers an amazing experience topped by critters that call the jungle home.
The endowment of the falls’ surroundings allows one to experience the epic jungle travel adventures such as tree climbing, hiking, to this dense jungle is an opportunity to see or meet a plethora of marvellous creatures.
The gold valley
Tucked in Moroto’s most remote corner bordering Turkana, about 48km from Moroto town, Nakabati gold valley is isolated.
But once we dared the wild frontiers of the area as visitors last month, it was hard to ignore the fact that the valley is among some of the most magnificent attractions within Karamoja region.
Known for artisanal gold mining, the gold valley comprises rugged savannah largely dominated by human settlement, especially gold miners. It is divided by several season streams and rivers that drain waters from the hills.
At the bottom of the valley, children, youth and elders are seen sieving out gold from the muddy waters carried in buckets in the hot dust of an angry sun.
The scrappy valley, sitting among the ranges of Moroto, offers an economic activity not only for the people in Rupa Sub County but other districts neighbouring Moroto.
It is home to approximately 3509 artisanal miners according to records accessed at Rupa Sub-county headquarters.
While at the heart of the valley, hills border it in all directions only to be dissected by the 112-year-old Moroto-Turkana road that overlooks the expansive rocky plains.
Although it is now in ruins, this magnificent creation reminds any tourist of the role Uganda played in the First World War
Supervised by their White superiors, the would-be fighters (recruits) expertly designed the complex to accommodate uneven terrain from the basement of the valley up to the foot of the mountains to form a road.
Once the rocks were blasted, the British governors mobilised their subordinates to build the road that stretches about 15km to the Kenyan border in Turkana County.
The piles of rocks stand as high as two meters to cut through the steepest sections of Nakabati gold valley in Rupa Sub County.
Forces mobilised from Uganda in the Madi, Acholi, Lango and Karamoja regions to go and fight in Ethiopia during World War I, footed through this route between 1911 and 1924.
They then crossed into Kenya’s North-western county of Turkana to join the Great North road to Ethiopia.
According to Uganda Wildlife Authority, tourism potentials across the Karamoja region remains largely unexploited despite the abundant attractions the region is endowed with.
Walter Odokorwot, the Kidepo Wildlife Conservation Area Manager, says except areas under conservation, many tourist attractions remain unexploited in Moroto and the entire Karamoja rejoin.
Moroto District is home to many wild animals and we are beginning to create community conservation areas in the region to promote local tourism,” he says.
Odokorwot noted that Karenga Community Wildlife Conservation Area, which was established five years ago now attracts a reasonable number of tourists. He cited insecurity and lack of information as some of the challenges to tourism in Karamoja.
Peter Ken Lochap, the Moroto Resident District Commissioner says despite the tourism potential in Moroto, not much is known about by the public. He says researchers and tourists tend to focus on already established facilities such as Kidepo.
Corona virus pandemic has not spared tourist sites in this region considering travel restrictions and a slump in demand among travellers.
Following the lockdown, planned travels to Karamoja havegone down by almost 85 per cent, making access to such sights almost impossible, according to a recent statement from the Uganda Tourism Board stated.
Despite resilience by the tourism industry towards crises, the pandemic will likely have prolonged negative effects on local tourism given that people will be more cautious about travelling out of their homes districts.
Now that border districts have been opened and the neighbouring Kidepo National Park already open to domestic tourism, a trip to Moroto is worth investing in.
According to Lochap, security in the district at the moment has been managed after tribes of Bokora, Pokot, Matheniko, Turkana and others were harmonized, following the disarmament programme.
According to Uganda Wildlife Authority, tourism potentials across the Karamoja region remains largely unexploited despite the abundant tourist attractions the region is endowed with.
Walter Odokorwot, the Kidepo Wildlife Conservation Area Manager, says plans are underway to create community conservation areas in the region to promote local tourism.
The rock paintings are a prestigious heritage in Karamoja. These ancient paintings characterise animals and people grazing while carrying bows and arrows. Rock art includes the cushitic tribes, which are believed to have settled in Karamoja area 3,000 about years ago.
If I had to tour Karamoja region, I would definately go to:
Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve
Spanning a land area of 2043 sqkm, it is undisputedly the largest wildlife reserve in the country and the second largest protected area in Uganda, after the Murchison Falls National Park. Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve is popularly known for harbouring rare animals such as cheetahs and antelopes.
It is one of a chain of volcanoes along the border with Kenya that begins with Mount Elgon in the south and includes Mount Kadam and Mount Morungole. The region around Mount Moroto is a forest reserve protecting a range of habitats from arid thorn savanna to dry montane forests.
Kidepo National Park
The park lies in the rugged, semi arid valleys between Uganda’s borders with Sudan and Kenya, some 700km from Kampala. Gazetted as a national park in 1962, it comprises of 77 mammal species as well as around 475 bird species.