PIAN UPE RESERVE is the second largest protected area in Uganda (Murchison Falls National Park being the biggest) and is located in Karamoja in north eastern Uganda. The Reserve is due to become a National Park in 2020, with money allocated to improve the tracks for game drives and other facilities as well as re-populating the park with giraffes. It is also an important area for research and conservation. The beautiful landscapes of grassy plains dotted with Acacia thorn trees and flanked by wonderful mountains are completely unspoilt, with virtually no tourists.
The journey from Mbale, with views of Mt Elgon on your right, changes significantly as you drive northwards. The road is murram once you pass the turning to Sipi and Kapchorwa, which can be quite challenging in places if there has been a lot of rain.
You need to visit Karamoja to fully appreciate just what a unique, varied and wonderful country Uganda is. Unfortunately, too many visitors miss out on this opportunity because most tour operators ignore what eastern and northern Uganda has to offer!
The local people living in north eastern Uganda are the Karimojong who are a cattle tribe who have maintained with pride much of their independence, traditional way of life and culture. This is very noticeable as you drive through Karamoja – their homes and the clothes and ornaments they wear are very different from anywhere else in Uganda. They are related to the Turkana of Kenya and their neighbours, the Iteso, in Uganda. Frequent cattle raids in the past between clans and other tribes caused instability, but this is no longer a problem.
We saw birds along the road as we approached Pian Upe and were greeted by two tame Crowned Cranes, three young Ostriches and a beautiful little Oribi wandering around the headquarters and accommodation! And there were many birds in the trees around the bandas where we stayed.
On the game drive, we were alone on one of the great African plains. It is normally a semi-arid grassland area but due to unprecedented rainfall for several months (the effect of global warming), the grass was very tall making it difficult to see many animals. However, we were thrilled to see three Roan Antelopes amongst the acacia trees – a rare and endangered species in East Africa, and the only place you can see them in Uganda. They are the second largest antelope, after Eland which we didn’t see. But we did see Topi and Jackson’s Hartebeest.
Returning along the track, we stopped to walk up to the unusual cave near the top of a small hill which has been a very important site for the Karimojong for generations and where there are a few rock paintings, mainly of animals. There were baboon footprints on the sandy floor and we heard baboons near another small cave. Just below the cave were two small patches of smooth rock that have been used for sharpening knives as well as a little well in the rocks which never dries up – very important in an area which is usually so dry.
We then visited Nakapiripirit, a small town just outside Pian Upe Reserve. The road was crowded as we drove along the last few miles, with people walking long distances to and from the market. The one main street was so busy and vibrant. Most were wearing some traditional clothes, including ornaments and hats with ostrich feathers.
Heavy rain started again, shrouding the hills and mountains in mist and clouds. The journey back to Mbale was challenging in places because of some flooding and lorries getting stuck in deep mud although there were many willing hands to push and lift smaller vehicles through the mud! We were very surprised to see a young wild ostrich running towards us, faster than I can run, in the middle of the road – it gave us quite a disdainful look as it ran past us! It all added to an amazing day.
If you haven’t thought about visiting Karamoja and north eastern Uganda, we hope these photos will encourage you to include it in your tour – and spend even longer, including a visit to Kidepo Valley National Park.