Friday, September 7, 2012

Beyond Kidepo and towards South Sudan

Odd though it may seem, most of our stay in Kidepo Valley National Park was spent in the valley of the Narus River, not the Kidepo. Both rivers are seasonal, but the Narus is the better watered of the two so that is where the animals tend to congregate. As you will have noted from previous posts, we had seen lions, a leopard, elephants, buffalo, warthog, various kinds of antelope, zebra and giraffes (though the latter were too far away to photograph). We had also seen a number of birds, but I'm not as good at identifying these.

However, on our last day at Apoka Lodge we decided to leave the Narus area altogether and drive to the border with South Sudan. We had three modest aims: one, to visit the Kanatorok Hot Springs; two, to step into South Sudan; and three, to see some ostriches. The first aim was achieved (modestly); the river was too high for the second; and the third? Well, to put you out of your misery quickly, not an ostrich was to be seen. (Feel free to stop reading now!) They had been there the day before but had since skedaddled. Dratted birds!

Well, one out of three targets met may not sound like an impressive achievement, but the landscape made up for it. Sometimes to journey is better than to arrive!

We left Apoka Lodge on our left and followed the narrow track through the savannah and across some riverbeds - completely dry despite the rainy season and the storm the day before.

The mountains of Sudan loomed ahead.

As it bounced along the track, the Apoka-mobile terrified innumerable families of ground birds, as usual.

On either side stretched the savannah, the views and colours changing subtly as we left the Narus Valley.

A sudden flash of blue. We stopped the vehicle. A roller: European or Abyssinian? Someone would know, but not me.

The trees became thicker.

A beating of wings and a Southern Ground Hornbill landed on a nearby tree. Or was it an Abyssinian Hornbill? Were they in fact the same? How would I know? Did it really matter?

Actually, I did do my research. I think these were Southern Ground hornbills. We are too far south for the Abyssinian or northern variety and our birds had a red rather than a dark blue wattle. I found out all sorts of fascinating facts about SG hornbills. Trust me, they are fascinating, but I quite understand if you want to skip the next bit. A South African site called Sabi Sabi Wild Facts ( came up with the following.

These hornbills have one of the slowest reproductive rates in the bird kingdom, producing only one chick approximately every 9 years. They are co-operative breeders, with just one dominant breeding pair in a social group, and the rest of the birds being helpers. The ground hornbills are the only birds in the hornbill family which do not seal the entrances of their nests when eggs are laid. The nests, which are returned to every year, are created in crevices such as large holes in tree trunks, and are generally situated a few metres off the ground. Although 2 eggs are laid in early summer, the chicks hatch between 3-14 days apart. Only one chick generally survives, with the other starving to death. For the first month of incubating her eggs, the female is fed by both her mate and the helpers. After about 4 weeks she begins to leave the nest. Juveniles are dependent on their parents for up to one year and will stay with them for several years before leaving the social group, if at all.
This social arrangement sounds uncannily like a kibbutz.

Suddenly we saw why there were so many trees. With no warning at all, we had dropped down onto the empty bed of the Kidepo River. Even though this was the wet season, there was not a single drop of water to be seen.

We looked back the way we had come.

And ahead to the track we were to follow.

Different trees. Different landscapes. The river was impressive though - dry for 95% of the year, apparently. Think what it must be like full of water. Even Sam the ranger was impressed.

We travelled on, through beautiful borassus palms. The word 'kidepo' means to gather or pick, referring to the fruit of these trees which since time immemorial have attracted both animals and humans to the area.

We entered grassland again, together with a hitch-hiker, a stick insect which had attached itself to one of the blankets with which we had each been issued, to protect ourselves from tsetse fly.

And yes, tsetse fly there were... we dived under the blankets and Dan the driver drove hell for leather.

The grassland might look empty but it was full of life. The white-bellied go-away bird, for instance.

And what looked like another sort of hornbill, but I really have no idea, though I think the splendid one with the red beak is a Van der Decken's hornbill.

We had become blase about the Southern Ground hornbills, I am afraid. They were all over the place.

But there were other less flashy birds as well, like this little anonymous one.

There were more palms ahead now, a sign of water. We must be near the border.

And so we were. Here were the guard posts. In Uganda, accommodation for police and soldiers is pretty basic.

We followed a track into the swamp..

The hot springs were somewhere around. We had visions of something like Semliki, with tall spouts of steaming water towering over our heads or the sudden rush of an Icelandic geiser. Our guide called us over.

Ah, the hot springs.... They used to be bigger a few years ago, he explained, apologetically.  Unimpressive though they might be to us, this unfortunate frog had jumped in thinking it looked quite refreshing on a hot (I almost said 'summer') day. Sadly, it had had a nasty shock.

After a few seconds' silence while we grieved, we decided it was time for coffee, which we drank to the sound of black-headed weaver birds' tuneful chattering. The rather duller females were busying themselves with bits of grass for their nests. The handsome males seemed to share the attitude to housework of the average Ugandan man.

Time to leave. It seemed we'd picked up a hitch-hiker again.

So off we went towards the Kenyan border in search of ostriches, which by now you know we didn't find. However, we did see some magnificent scenery. If that doesn't turn you on, then I'm sorry.

The mountains were amazing, like scenes recorded in the sketch books of nineteenth century travellers. This time they were on the Ugandan side of the border. Kenya was hiding somewhere behind them.

The ostriches being absent without leave, we turned back towards Kidepo. As soon as we saw the borassus palms we knew we were near the river again.

By this time it was getting cooler. A family of olive baboons was patrolling the embankments.

We didn't linger, though. We were ready for our sundowners so we headed straight for Apoka Lodge, looking forward to our gin on the terrace and our delicious evening meal.

And, unlike our fruitless search for ostriches, we were not disappointed.

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