“I think I see a lion sleeping, but I cannot tell from the shadows,” Patrick, our ranger from the Ugandan Wildlife Authority, said.
“Maybe it is shadows and … maybe … it is a lion.”
The way Ugandans say “lion” is dreamy. “Lie-Yawn.”
A lie-yawn could be anywhere,” Patrick shook his head like a khaki-clad sage and hoisted the binoculars back to his face.
We were all squinting at an outcrop of boulders, leaning our bodies forward out of the open truck. The soft savannah grasses stretched endless in every direction except north, where South Sudan’s mountains were stark border reminders. We were lookin’ hard for lie-yawns.
Kidepo Valley National Park is Uganda’s northernmost wildlife range. It was once was the playground of former president/military dictator Idi Amin and now, Kidepo is one of the most remote places to adventure for wildlife in the world. You’re rewarded with thousands of acres and no more than 60 tourists at-most in the high season. We were the lone jeep in the entire park this particular evening.
It was the time of year when the rain rolls heavy in the clouds, still refusing to fall. The grass cracks brittle under the tires, and we’d passed herds of young elephants with their trunks hoisted like honing devices, sniffing for moisture. There are more than 350 species of birds in Uganda, and they make their nests not just in the iconic acacia trees but also in massive palms that give the landscape a distinct, Arabian vibe.
The doors of our truck were very low-slung. This was my first-ever safari, but I was fast learning the lingo and terms like private concession. In touristed places like Kenya and South Africa, you can book private concession, which allows a driver to veer off the path to give you a closer look when you spot wildlife. It’s not legal in Uganda, so the trucks are more open. Or, so I’d been told.
We’d stopped for giraffes, elephants, zebra and baboons to cross the road earlier in the afternoon. The cape buffalo herds were so thick in places that from a great distance, I mistook their masses for scorched earth. This was the first I’d heard of private concession, but I was not missing it at all.
The seven of us were focused at this very moment – nearly to the point of telepathy – on this single boulder. The light was fading fast. The darkness had arrived in earnest … when all of a sudden Vaughn pointed and whisper-yelled “LION!”
This lie-yawn wasn’t on the boulder. He was about six feet from the jeep’s “we-don’t-need-no-private-concession,” totally-open door. He had been calmly watching us watch a boulder … like idiots. To be fair, he matched the dry grass beautifully. Not even Patrick had noticed him.
We sat now, a collection of humans and a single lion, not so far from South Sudan, in a place intensely remote … and quiet … and dark. I realized in this moment why people who can afford to go on safari more than once usually do.
It’s not like when you’ve seen a lion, you’ve seen ’em all and you don’t really need to see another.
There is an insane rush of adrenaline in sharing silence with something this rare, beautiful and powerful that it actually makes you want to cry. It also makes you want to run.
You are flooded with adrenaline. Your blood pressure rises. Your body prepares for its first defense as an animal – which is flight. Instinctually, there’s a voice. Loud. Clear. It’s explaining that the only reason you are still alive is because this other creature hasn’t yet moved. There’s still time to get away, but it could be on you in an instant, if it wanted. It’s terrifying. It’s transfixing.
“That’s Spartacus,” Patrick whispered as we watched him, drinking in the size of his paws, like dinner plates on the dry ground. His tail flicked, and we all took a collective, sharp inhale.
“We haven’t seen him in a year. The lions in Kidepo started to get Tuberculosis and the healthy males left. They went north … into to South Sudan to avoid the disease. But South Sudan has war and poachers. We were worried. The fact that Spartacus is back means the lie-yawns here are now healthy. He looks good.”
I could have stayed still for hours, just watching a lion blink and shake flies off his beautiful, broad face.
But that moment burst into flames when he got up and turned directly towards our jeep.
Expletives flew. I’ve never seen a man throw a truck into drive so fast in my life.
“Were you worried?” I asked Patrick, when we’d pulled a more appropriate distance from the massive cat, who’d simply strolled down the path into the darkness, like he couldn’t be bothered with moron creatures who’d been staring at rocks with binoculars.
“No. I wasn’t worried about Spartacus. I was worried about his wife,” Patrick said. “Spartacus is calm, but Vickie is not. If he is here, Vickie is close by … somewhere out in the grass. As we were watching him, she was watching us.”
“Wait, you guys named a lion Spartacus and then you named his wife lion Vickie?”
This rationally led to putting the lions into their respective roles.
Spartacus … the wise, steady warrior. Vickie … his hot mess, low-rent wife, who would no doubt jump in a jeep and start shit with tourists.
Trailer trash lie-yawns are the worst, y’all.
We arrived no-harm, no-foul back at Apoka Lodge – the only resort in all of Kidepo, which is, incidentally, also one of the prettiest places I’ve ever seen. You stay in thatched-roof bungalows with uninterrupted views of the savannah. Animals come right up to your private back porch, which is further decorated with a Jacuzzi.
The owners at Apoka were excited to hear Spartacus had come home.
By the time our Gin & Tonics hit the tables of the enormous balcony overlooking the savannah, the roaring had begun.
“He’s home and he’s letting the other lions know,” one of the staff said proudly.
“Is he close? That sounded close,” I said. This lodge balcony platform was raised two stories off the ground, but there was a broad, easy, open staircase up the side. It would be no problem for a lion to simply walk up and join us for an aperitif. I’d heard earlier that an injured lion had once come to drink out Apoka’s the swimming pool in broad daylight.
You definitely do not need private concession in Kidepo.
“No,” he smiled. “That’s actually just the echo of his roar. He’s miles away. When a lie-yawn roars close,” he said, “the drinks will rattle on the table. If Spartacus is near, you’ll know.”
“And what about Vickie?,” I asked.
“Oh … you would never see Vickie coming.”
HOW TO GET TO KIDEPO:
Aerolink and FlyUganda both fly directly there from Entebbe, which is the main airport of the country, as well as from a few other major cities. You can drive to Kidepo, but from Entebbe, it is going to take you more than 10 hours on roads that laugh at pavement. There are charter and domestic flights available, several days per week.
WHERE TO STAY:
You have two options. You can camp (did you just read this blog? Maybe read it again before being all spend-thrift and hippie) and they give you a tent, a fire and a ranger with a gun – who won’t shoot animals if they come for you, but will shoot into the sky hoping to scare them. I think this is an insane choice in Kidepo, if you aren’t getting the sarcasm memo.
Your other choice is Apoka Lodge – $585 pp/per night (high season); $380 pp/per night, based upon double occupancy low season. Rates include full board accommodation, 3 multiple-course meals daily, drinks and cocktails, 2 game activities per day including walking safaris, local airstrip transfers, taxes and local community fee. Don’t take my word for it, but this place is amazing. Plus, you won’t become a lie-yawn snack.
In addition to daily game drives, you can also enjoy a hot springs here. I wasn’t around long enough to go, but I definitely recommend booking a sunrise walking safari. It’s just what it sounds like. They wake you up at 5 a.m., drive you into the park and you get out (along with a man with a big gun) and you start walking. The feeling of being out on the open ground is surreal and the light is amazing for photos. You also see lots of skeletons.
The Karamojong a community of herders who live about two hours by jeep from Apoka Lodge. Anthropologists believe they migrated here from Ethiopia in 1600 A.D.
During your stay at Apoka, you can opt visit them and learn about their way of life, from jewelry making to beer brewing to their construction of huts, made entirely of mud. We even took part in a jumping ceremony that formerly would have determined a marriage between two people. You pay for the visit through Apoka and all of the money goes back into the Karamojong community equally. I’m usually a little bit hesitant about village tours, but this one was done right, felt respectful and was very interesting.
Uganda is simply amazing. While you likely go there for the wildlife, the universal truth holds steady. It’s the people that make a place memorable to visit. Ugandans are full of warmth, happiness and hospitality, and it’s a shame that the country suffers under a past reputation it definitely does not deserve. I’m committed to trying to fix that in my own little way, by writing about Uganda for as many travel publications as will let me.
Meanwhile, if you’d like to go, feel free to reach out. I’m happy to connect you with the wonderful places and people who showed me an unforgettable 11 days.
Jenny Adams is a freelance travel writer, author and photographer. She currently contributes to a number of publications, including National Geographic Traveler, Hemispheres, American Way and Imbibe. She's the former Bar Columnist for the Miami Herald, the current Copy Editor at Robb Vices and is also wrestling a half-written novel, set in New Orleans. Jenny's got an knack for getting lost, an addiction to full-fat cream cheese, and a deep and abiding love for every Water Buffalo she's ever seen. Her bookshelf is mainly Tom Robbins, her favorite word is 'visceral,' and you can find out more about her at www.jennyadamsfreelance.com.
Buddha Drinks Fanta | Jenny Adams Freelance Copyright 2014