Trail blazing on the old volcanoes of Karamoja

By Jan Bakker

Uganda has its fair share of tall mountains on the African continent. Four of Africa’s ten highest mountains are located in Uganda. But it’s not always about the size of a mountain and to be fair, some of us haven’t got the time nor the commitment to take on these peaks of over 4,000 meters. Karamoja, a region roughly the size of the Netherlands, boasts a number of prominent peaks that soar high above the flat savannah plains of North Eastern Uganda. With an altitude of 3,083m above sea level, the highest mountain of the region is Mt Moroto. It sits close to the Kenya border and is a beautiful, complex mountain massif with fascinating culture on the lower slopes and ancient indigenous forests on the ridges and sub-peaks.

Karamoja has a strong cultural identity of nomad warriors closely linked to many nomadic tribes in neighbouring Kenya and South Sudan. Tourism in general is in its infancy as the region has only been accessible for tourists for a few years now. Recently Karamoja has surfaced on the radar of bigger, international oriented tour companies and the expectation is that the number of visitors will increase in the years to come.

Brian crossing a stream in the Nadukon Valley

Jan Bakker, who represents in the Dutch-funded project Adventure Tourism Uganda, travelled to Moroto in November 2020 to assess ten local hiking guides from the various mountains in the region (Mt Kadam, Mt Moroto and Mt Morungole). Additionally, he and the guiding team undertook a three-day trek up Mt Moroto to establish a new trekking route across the mountain while conducting a baseline assessment on guiding skills and knowledge. Kara-Tunga Arts &Tours, a local tour operator specialised in Karamoja, has been instrumental in recruiting the hiking guides from various locations in the region and hosting the team and organising the logistics for the trek.   

Setting up camp 1 on Mount Moroto

The first day kicked off with a presentation on hiking tourism in general and specifically for Uganda. It resulted in an engaging and lively discussion on the topic. The afternoon was all about preparing for the three-day trekking expedition, including working with a risk assessment, planning and buying food supplies, equipment-check and packing and plotting the route on a topographical map.

On day 2 the group embarked on the trekking expedition, crossing the Mount Moroto massif from Moroto town in the west to the village of Tapac in the south east. Karamoja Backpackers is conveniently located near the foot of the mountain, so no additional transport was required. They decided to carry all their food and equipment themselves, leaving us with heavier packs than usual. Along the way they passed a number of settlements of the Tepeth people. Whereas normally the local communities greet visitors warmly, the COVID-19 crisis made direct contact difficult.

The group’s camp spot with excellent views

Dinner time in camp 1, Mount Moroto

The gradual ascent up the Nadukon Valley was followed by a fairly steep climb towards the main ridge line, their goal for the day. The hike took them 5 hours. The views from the camp were incredible with the highest peak Sokudek (3,083m) clearly visible. The location is great to host a bigger group with plenty of spots for the tents. It is known to be windy at times and a second camp spot needed to be scouted in case winds are too strong. Fetching water takes some effort, though it’s feasible.

The hiking guides on the way to Sokudek Peak

The following day the group continued up the ridge line. Just one kilometer from camp 1 they found an alternative camp spot, more sheltered from the wind. There is a small gap in the ridge that needs to be bypassed via a rough, steep trail. A short traverse just before the ridge ends brought us to the summit ridge. It is heavily forested with old-grown trees and is certainly one of the highlights of the trek. The trail was in a good shape and quickly they reached a point where we left our main packs and headed for the Sokudek summit. After 1.5 hours we reached the summit and enjoyed spectacular 360 degrees views of the sub-peaks and valleys of Mt Moroto. On the highest point of the summit miners have created a shaft in times when mercury was still extracted from the mountain. Quite a surreal thought, knowing the remoteness of the location and complexity of the terrain.

Hiking though the old-grown forest, high up Mount Moroto

After a quick descent back to where our packs were thy descended further along a ridgeline. The steep path was in a bad condition and it was already late in the afternoon. The team decided to camp in a spot that was not great, but given the circumstances a good decision. In the evening all the participants helped out with preparing dinner. For some, cooking was something they had not done before, but it’s an essential skill for any hiking guide.

Tapac guide Edward on the summit of Sokudek Peak (3083m), the highest point on Mount Moroto

The final day they made the final descent to Tapac on a good trail. There is accommodation in Tapac at the Catholic Mission, which could be used for groups. Back in Moroto, after organising the camping equipment, the group took the afternoon off to rest and reflect on a successful recce expedition. The team worked well together and the atmosphere was great. They found a route that’s largely suitable for commercial trips with clients. And most participants acquired new guiding skills and knowledge about Mt Moroto.

Views over the Karamoja hills and savannah plains

Mount Kadam, seen from Namule

Facilitator Jan extended the Karamoja assessment by exploring a new route on Mt Kadam along with two participants of the program, Felix Lopei and Kennedy Konei, who are locals of this mountain. They were joined by Juma Chebet, involved in the Kapchorwa chapter of this program and head of the Sipi Falls Tour Guide Association and Mark Callaghan, project manager at Run Kapchorwa. The starting point was Namule, a small market village on the westside of Kadam.

A Kadam local pointing out the route to the summit plateau

Sections of rock climbing made this route very hard

A 4km boda drive took the group to the trailhead of their route. Almost immediately they started climbing a buttress with small settlements and agricultural fields. Besides Felix and Kennedy they were accompanied by “Uncle John”, who knew this side of the mountain. Felix and Kennedy only know the northern part, close to their home village Nakapiriprit. After a four hour climb the group reached the edge of the old-grown forest. However, Uncle John wasn’t sure about this route and they were forced to retreat to the top of a ridgeline where we pitched our tent. That evening they were visited by local men who lived in the forest. They agreed to show us a different route to Kadam’s summit plateau.

View of the northern part of the Mount Kadam Massif

The next morning they departed early to have enough for error along the route. They picked up the local men and traversed below the steep walls of Mt Kadam. The terrain became more and more difficult. There were steep sections where we had to climb rock with a big drop behind us. Thick vegetation made the going rather hard, even with a machete. The guides regularly climbed tall trees to harvest “mirra”, a leave that has stimulating effect while chewing it (like “qat” in the Horn of Africa and Yemen). This did take some time and the group leaders had to urge them to keep guiding them. After an epic trek and climb they reached the summit plateau by 4PM, much later than anticipated. Although the actual summit was relatively close we had to leave it this time in order to make it back down. This route was easier, yet it was still a long way and steep in some places. The darkness set in when they were descending the old-grown forest on the north side. Luckily they brought all our equipment, including head torches. Just before curfew at 9PM they walked into Nakapiriprit, exhausted after quite an arduous adventure. This route is definitely not for tourists. But, there is lots of potential around the mountain and a circumnavigation of Kadam should be researched. After all, it is one of the most beautiful mountains in Uganda.

A big thank you to for being the official partner in the Adventure Tourism Uganda project. We’d like to thank Kara-Tunga Tours for the smooth and well-organised operations on the ground in Moroto. They created a brilliant video of the week in Moroto, see here. For those who are interested in trekking and other (outdoor) adventures in Karamoja, have a look at the unique trips that Kara-Tunga offers in the region.

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