Yes, Northern Uganda IS Safe AND Amazing

9 11 2010

I just read another article about the “ongoing conflict” in northern Uganda, called Uganda: The Rest of the Story.  The author, who I have written to with no response, states in her article that “Clearly — and tragically — the conflict rages on.”

For those of you who have been following this blog, you’ll be happy to hear that this article is not at all associated with Invisible Children.  This author, sadly, even did some research and linked to an article about the LRA that she doesn’t seem to have read.  I have a feeling she never got beyond the title:  Uganda’s LRA killed 2,500 people, abducted 697 children over past 18 months.  I can see why she might have been confused by the title, but the article, from The Christian Science Monitor, makes it clear in the first paragraph that the atrocities described happened in Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, and in the third paragraph even mentions that the LRA was “pushed out of Uganda in 2005.”

I realize that there will always be journalists who are up against a deadline and have to put out a story that they haven’t fully researched.  So, to approach this issue in a more positive way, I’ve decided to dedicate this post to showing how incredible northern Uganda is, and why everyone should try to get there to explore a bit.

The following are some pictures taken on a road trip with Wildlife Conservation Society and Wildlife Clubs of Uganda that I was fortunate enough to be invited to join.  Our basic route was Kampala – GuluAdjumani – Arra – Mt. Otzi – Adjumani – Kitgum – Kidepo – Pader – Gulu – Kampala.  We did this drive in the dry season and were impressed by the quality of the roads for the whole trip, making it from Arra (near Adjumani) to Kidepo Valley National Park in one day’s drive.  I have heard that it is not quite so easy in the wet season, and that it is still not safe to travel the eastern route through Karamojaland.  For now, stick with the western route through Kitgum.

Kidepo Valley

Kidepo Valley

Nile River near Arra Fishing Lodge

Nile River near Arra Fishing Lodge

Moonrise on the Nile

Moonrise on the Nile

Mt. Otzii

Mt. Otzi near Sudan border

East Madi Wildlife Reserve

East Madi Wildlife Reserve

Zoka Forest Footbridge

Zoka Forest Footbridge

Sunset at Arra Fishing Lodge

Sunset at Arra Fishing Lodge

Dufile landing

Dufile Landing on Nile

Village in Dufile Fort

Village in Dufile Fort site

Approaching Kidepo

Approaching Kidepo Valley NP
Kidepo Elephant

The queue for the loo

A Village with a View

Landscape in Pader

Landscape near Pader

Beyond the spectacular landscape, it is wonderful to feel the sense of vibrancy in northern Uganda, as communities and economies rebuild.  Expect the tourism infrastructure to expand in the near future, which will make it even easier to explore this part of Uganda.  But, don’t wait too long.  There is a sense of adventure that comes with traveling through an area before all the infrastructure gets built.

For now, all the main towns have basic accommodation available, and a good hub for exploring the western part of the region is the Arra Fishing Lodge, which is about 30 minutes from Adjumani and just a few kilometers from the Laropi Ferry Crossing, giving you access to Mt. Otzi and the whole West Nile area.

One of the most exciting aspects of the tourism potential in northern Uganda is the 200km stretch of the Nile that is navigable from Murchison Falls National Park to the Sudan border, passing through a number of wildlife reserves and past two of Emin Pasha’s old fort sites.  It will just take one savvy investor to renovate an old steam ship and start running multi-day trips on the Nile.

Northern Uganda is no longer a place of war – it is a place of potential.  Sure, it still has its challenges, but one of the things it needs most is to be more integrated with the rest of Uganda.  What that will take is more people traveling there and seeing it as a living, vibrant part of the country rather than a mythical land of warfare and abductions.

Mark D. Jordahl


Griffin Falls, Mabira Forest

24 01 2010

The new Griffin Falls Campsite in Mabira Forest is a community-based ecotourism center 10kms outside of Lugazi, off the Jinja Road.  I have been curious about it for months, and finally visited it today.  Overall, I would say it has a lot of potential, but still has some work to do.

Getting There: First of all, don’t even try to find it yourself.  There is one sign on Jinja road as you enter Lugazi that tells you where to turn off to the left, then that road leads you into a maze of unsigned tracks through the sugar cane plantations.  After asking a couple of boda boda drivers which direction to go out of the trading center, they suggested that I hire one of them to guide me out there.   However, thinking that of course there would be signage since the place must want visitors, I bravely headed out on my own.  Minutes later, after seeing what was ahead, I sheepishly returned to the boda stand and hired one of them to show me the way.  Save yourself some time and do this from the beginning.  Until they put signs at all of the junctions, you will never find it on your own.  Another option is to just take a matatu from Kampala to Lugazi, and then hire a boda to take you out to the site for 3,000 – 4,000 shillings.

What to do: As with the other sections of Mabira Forest, this is a great place for general forest walks and birding.  There are 312 species of trees and shrubs, 315 species of birds, 30 species of mammals (including red-tailed monkeys and grey-cheeked mangabeys) and over 200 species of butterflies.  Walks range from about an hour to many hours if you connect up with the rest of the Mabira trail system.  I took the walk to Griffin Falls, which was about 2 hours round trip.  Unfortunately, my guide didn’t know any of the birds or trees.  If you are interested in learning much about the forest, I would contact the guide named Hussein directly, at 0751-949368.  I met him after my hike and he seemed to have a wealth of information about birds, the forest, and the ecotourism project.

The Falls: The hike to the falls is beautiful, takes about an hour each way, and is just hilly enough to feel like you have gotten a bit of exercise by the end (particularly if you are carrying a 35-pound kid on your back, as I was). There are a number of trees across the trail, so there is some bushwacking to do.  Long pants will serve you well.  The final approach to the waterfalls is striking as you leave the forest and cross a section of bare granite rocks.  The falls themselves come through a narrow, rocky canyon, cascade over 4 falls, and bottom out into a pool surrounded by towering trees.  The first thing that really hits you, though, is a very strong, unpleasant odor.  It turns out that the Lugazi sugar works dumps its wastewater into the river a few kilometers above these falls, affecting both the color and the odor of the river.

Accommodation: If you want to spend the night, you can pitch your own tent in a cleared section of the forest, hire a tent from the project, or stay in the one banda they have built.  The banda is very basic, with a double bed and a toilet.  The campsite is quite nice, and I expect it is a great place to see birds early in the morning.  Meals can be arranged through the headquarters.  You can get the current camping or banda rates by calling Hussein (0751-949368).

Other fees: The entrance fee for the forest is the same as the main Mabira site:  2,000 shillings for Ugandans, 5,000 for foreign residents, and 7,000 for non-residents.  The hike was 5,000 per person.

I am a big believer in community tourism projects, as they provide great motivation for people to protect the natural areas around their villages.  This site is new (it opened last August), and can use all the visitors it can get in order to have the financial resources to develop to its full potential.  When I visit a site like this, I try to adjust my perspective regarding “value for money.”  I saw my visit to Griffin Falls as a donation to an important community project rather than a “perfect” tourism experience.  With time and more visitors, the guides will become better trained, the site will be easier to find, and the trails will be better maintained.  So visit it soon, make arrangements in advance with Hussein, and be a little forgiving until they have more experience under their belts.


Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala