‘Relatively few travellers pass through Mbale,’ says my Bradt Guide to Uganda. “There is no overwhelming reason to stop over in town longer than is required.”
But that was written in 2013, and with the opening up of Karamoja to the north and the excitement about mineral deposits there, the passers-through have increased — and, no doubt will continue to do so.
For travellers from Kampala to Moroto, the main town of Karamoja, Mbale, a sprawling town on the south-eastern slope of Mount Elgon, is the most obvious stopping place, if only for lunch if they are doing the long trip in a day.
We spent two nights there, in the huge but almost empty Mbale Resort, because we needed to visit civic education projects in the Palliser District on the plain to the west of the town.
After that, we too were heading north to Moroto — but not before visiting projects around Kapchorwa, a small town 54km from Mbale and hanging on the northern slope of Mount Elgon.
Skirting the mountain, the road to Kapchorwa is quite spectacular, with views over to Lake Kyoga to the west and the isolated Mount Kadam to the north. We regretted that our schedule was too tight to take in Sipi Falls just a few kilometres to the south of Kapchorwa. Sipi River flows for seven kilometres from the upper slopes of Mount Elgon and then cascades in the foothills in a series of four falls — one of them with a drop of 99 metres.
Mountain setting is magnificent
Kapchorwa’s mountain setting is magnificent, but it is a rather scruffy town, stretched out along the road for about two kilometres. We stayed in the oddly named Noah’s Ark Hotel, with its signboard that warned, “For VIPs only”.
Well, any VIP staying there would have to be quite tolerant: the hot water was hand delivered in a debe to your room; the power seemed to be more off than on; there was no Wi-Fi; and the menu was, to put it politely, limited.
After, fortunately, only one night in Noah’s Ark, we drove on to Moroto. I was anticipating a very long and bumpy trip.
The only previous time I went to Moroto by road, we had meandered and occasionally got lost among a maze of sandy and stony tracks.
And, this time, the first 15 or so kilometres of road was just that — but more stony than sandy. We made the mistake of accepting the advice to take a short-cut, which turned out to be a very long-cut.
Rather than doubling back to the main road fork, we took a track straight down the mountain to the Nakapiripirit/Moroto road.
If you have read my two previous articles on this Uganda safari, you will know that we were in Roger’s taxi — an ordinary low-slung Toyota saloon. Again and again we had to get out of the car to walk as Roger negotiated the rocks and minimised the scrapes on the sump guard.
But we made it down, without any serious damage to the car’s bottom, and we proceeded along a much easier murram road to the town of Nakapiripirit, which is set dramatically on the northern slope of Mount Kadam. And then there was a pleasant surprise. The Chinese are building a road from Nakapiripirit to Moroto — a wide and smooth road that took us across the 85km of the desert plain in a much shorter time than I had anticipated.
Moroto also nestles beneath a mountain — Mount Moroto. We stayed at its foot in the Mount Moroto Hotel. My guidebook describes Moroto as a “remote outpost of civilisation”. Well, the Chinese road is making it much less remote, and the Mount Moroto Hotel is not what you would expect of a remote outpost. The rooms are spacious; they have the amenities of hot showers and reliable Internet — and they face a wide lawn with flowering trees. And if you walk in the garden you can look up to the volcanic massif of Mount Moroto.
Karamoja is a region in a state of rapid but uncertain transition. I attended a road-show in a village near Moroto. It was mounted by a young drama group, whose leader had been a warrior. That was until he saw two of his friends killed in a cattle raid — and, anyway, the Karamajong warriors have now been disarmed.
The drama group was using a big truck that travels the region. Its sides were displaying illustrated messages about things political: about Uganda’s Citizens’ Charter and about the need to vote — and vote wisely. There were songs and a lot of talk about land grabbing — with accusations that some elders are selling off land to “foreigners” from Kampala. A few women also climbed to the truck’s stage and raised issues about girls’ education, arranged marriages, and domestic violence.
Yes, Karamoja is in for an interesting time in the few years ahead.
John Fox is Managing Director of iDC.