What you need to know:
Experts say there is need to promote more tourism products to provide a diversity of experience in culture, landscape and biodiversity. They say if the tourism opportunities are tapped, they will spur economic development in Karamoja through job creation and revenue collection.
The European Union head of missions has identified Karamoja as one of Uganda’s most promising tourism destinations. While meeting government and private sector players, including Uganda Tourism Board (UTB), Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), Uganda Hotel Owners Association (UHOA) and other sector entities to deliberate on ways to promote Karamoja, the EU head of delegation, Mr Attilio Pacifici, said Karamoja needs all the support it can get to conserve wildlife and promote communities that are open to visits by tourists.
Karamoja is home to the Kidepo Valley National Park, which has 80 animal species, including lions, the spotted hyena, bat-eared foxes, cheetahs as well as 480 bird species such as the ostrich, dark chanting goshawk, red and yellow barbet, kori bustard, Jackson’s hornbill and Karamoja Apalis.
“As a region, the variety of its wildlife, forestry, landscape, paleontological and cultural tourism assets offer an untapped and potentially lucrative competitive advantage for local economic development,” Mr Pacifici adds.
In 2018, Cable News Network (CNN) voted Kidepo as the third most prestigious national park in Africa, after Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. Kidepo was recognised because of its remarkable beautiful offerings.
It added that the park is a good tag on incredible animal sightings, voracious Kidepo lions prey on roving herds of more than 4,000 buffalo (the total population in the park is said to be about 13,000) and herds of elephants moving majestically along the valleys.
CNN also observed that the park’s isolation is off-putting for many, but the 12-hour road trip from Kampala, or a fairly expensive private charter flight is a small price to pay to discover one of Africa’s genuine hidden gems.
An international online travel site, Lonely Planet, states that Kidepo is the far less travelled route that heads through the wilds of Karamoja in the eastern reaches of Uganda, which takes you through some of the most stunning scenery in the country.
Karamoja sub-region has a population of about 1.3 million people living in a largely arid expanse, where you will find several tourist attractions, which include a variety of wildlife, spectacular sprawling mountains and hills and a rich culture. “Karamoja is a place you can travel for hours without seeing any building. You will be treated to bushlands, beautiful landscapes and of course our culture. You do not need to go to a museum because most of the people in Karamoja are still living traditionally,” explains Theo Vos, founder of Kara-Tunga, a social enterprise that promotes tourism and culture in Karamoja.
“You will pass by timeless plains peppered with tall, jagged peaks and fields ablaze with sunflowers. You will also encounter the Karimojong people – the highlight of the journey for most – pastoral herders recognisable by their traditional dress (like the Maasai). Males often sport dapper Dr Seuss-style top hats with a feather stuck in it and brandish a cattle stick and a mini wooden stool (used as a seat and headrest),” Lonely Planet writes, in part.
Kidepo, 705 kilometres from Kampala, is accessible by road and air. Aero Link, a local domestic airline, flies from Entebbe to the park for Shs1.7m ($490) one-way, for a minimum of seven passengers. For a return journey, you will pay twice the amount.
The airline markets Kidepo for its breath-taking scenery and large concentrations of wildlife‚ which coexist among the diverse geographic features such as dry mountain forests‚ open savannahs and hilltops capped by rock kopjes. Kidepo, a true wilderness in the rugged‚ semi-arid offers game drives along Narus Valley which flows in a north-westen direction through the southern portion of the national park.
Nature walks around Apoka Lodge at any time of day will help you learn about the Karamajong cultures. Mountain hiking, views of the Morungole Mountain and bird watching are some of the activities to engage in while there. According to Stephen Masaba, UWA’s business development manager, Kidepo attracts an estimated 12,000 visitors annually.
Half of those, are East African residents, and the other half are foreign tourists. “The number has grown. Kidepo used to receive 5, 000 tourists a year, seven years ago,” he adds. Entrance to the national park is Shs20, 000 for East African residents and $40 for foreigners.
Karamoja is also a mountaineer and adventurer’s destination where you will come face-to-face with Mount Morungole – home to the Ik-People. These moved to the mountains during the creation of Kidepo Valley National Park, Mount Moroto- a volcano along Uganda’s border with Kenya.
Mountain Kadam– where you will enjoy an eagle’s view, meet highland people, view rich biodiversity and Mount Napak– one of the toughest mountains to climb because it is steep are some of the tourist attractions to look out for. There is also a rift valley escarpment in the eastern part of the town
“Many people can identify Kidepo but very few are aware of the rich culture. We need to diversify the tourism product to have more value for the region,” says Joseph Esule, UTB’s research, monitoring and evaluation manager.
Esule says there is need to focus on the challenges of marketing tourism in the region. “Karamoja has limited and underdeveloped tourism products; Kidepo Valley National Park is the key destination in Karamoja.
There are many potential tourism products that can be developed to provide a diversity of experience from the culture, history, landscape, and biodiversity assets,” he explains.He adds that lack of awareness about Karamoja, specifically as a tourism destination, also limits the number of tourists.
He also highlights the need to increase skilled labour in tourism services and improve the road network. Esule says the region lacks electricity, Information Communication Technology (ICT) and water that would improve the visitor experience and provide competitive services.
“A lot needs to be done to extend these services, especially to protected areas, let alone the Karamoja sub-region. A stopover is planned between the Moroto-Kotido-Kidepo corridors but currently, there is none.”
Ecological degradation in the region is another challenge he cites, which explains the apparent soil erosion, deforestation, vegetation burning, gulley development and flash floods in most districts of Karamoja.
“Wildlife is shrinking. Erosion causes loss of life due to rockslides and mudslides in the sub-counties of Kawalakol, Lolelia and Lobalangit. For decades, forests have been sources of fuel and building materials and cutting them has provided permanent farming and grazing lands,” says Esule. If not checked, Esule fears the continuous loss of vegetation cover will threaten and affect wildlife in the region.
Poaching and illegal wildlife trade are still poignant thorns in Karamoja. One of the EU member states, Italy is re-enforcing the efforts of UWA by providing technical training.
Italy signed a 10 million-pound support fund to empower UWA officials to train communities in anti-poaching technics as well as support to mitigate the current Covid-19 pandemic effects.
But there are continuous efforts by local players to attract business. Karamoja Tourism Organisation markets the destination in the domestic and international markets.
One of the reasons you need to visit Karamoja is that the town is set on a large plateau. Much of it is more than 1,000 metres above sea level, with four main mountains overlooking the region’s savannah, highlands and river valleys.
For outdoor adventurist and nature-savvy person, wildlife is another reason you should make your way to Karamoja. Being home to Kidepo and Pian Upe national reserve, you will find numerous rare species such as the roan antelope, topis, gazelles, heartbeest and eland. There is an ongoing campaign by some tourist stakeholders to turn Pian Upe and Mateniko Game Reserve, into national parks because of their wildlife and fauna offerings.
Experts say if the number of tourists to Karamoja region increase, revenue will be generated, jobs will be created in the tourism and hospitality sector and the region will ultimately develop.
Karamoja Tourism Organisation emphasises cultural heritage which details how the Karimojong people lived together in Ethiopia as one ethnic group and migrated around 1600 AD to settle in present-day Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda.
It further adds, “Today seven related pastoral tribes: Dodoth, Jie, Lebtur, Bokora, Matheniko, Pian, Pokoth live on the planes and the mountains are home to former inhabitants (Ik, Tepeth).” The precipitation that does fall usually comes sporadically between June and October with the desert winds and the hot dry season taking over the land from November to March is reason to experience the climate in the area.
Karamoja’s accessibility for international travellers is another reason to visit the region. While Entebbe Airport serves the largest number of international arrivals and departures, three other airports also receive flights from other countries.
“Domestic airports make every part of the country accessible, from Entebbe Airport in the far north to Kidepo Valley National Park. Airport facilities vary according to the size of the local population.
For many countries, it is easy to get a visa to visit, and citizens from bordering countries may not even need a visa, thanks to the East Africa visa waiver policy,” it adds.
Government is also investing heavily in improving the road network in the Karamoja Sub-region. In 2013, a 100-kilometre road was completed connecting Moroto to Nakapiripirit and other roads are regularly maintained and graded with murram.
“We recommend contacting the local community about the road conditions in advance before embarking on a journey.” The organisation’s seventh reason is an assurance on safety and security, explaining that since 2011, cattle raids in the north eastern region officially ended.
UPDF successfully disarmed the region whereafter, peace has been restored. “The people of Karamoja are celebrating peace and security and there have not been any related incidents recorded.”
With guaranteed security, Karamoja will attract more investors and development partners which would, in turn, generate substantial revenue and increase job opportunities.