2013 Uganda: Karamoja Traverse

Places East-Uganda. Mt. Elgon & Karamoja
Time & length February/March 2013, 5 ½ weeks
Partners Gerald Klamer
Accompanied by my friend Gerald Klamer I climbed Mt. Elgon in Eastern Uganda and afterwards crossed the entire region of Karamoja on foot. Karamoja is the country’s driest, most traditional and most dangerous place: foreign offices of all Western countries advice against going there, which makes it a place without any tourists, but the time we spent in the beautiful land of the “Nomad Warriors” was just absolutely amazing. As far as we know there hasn’t been any big hiking expedition in this region for the last hundred years; there were places where people hadn’t seen any white men before. We both had a blast down there; unfortunately Gerald had to fly home 2 weeks earlier because of sickness, so I finished the trip alone.
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The structure of this travel report is different from my other ones as it is in two parts. First I want to answer some “frequently asked questions” about my time in Karamoja, while further down you can find the actual itinerary.

Choice of destination and preparation

My summer 2012 was pretty wet and cold. On my flight back from Alaska I was already thinking of travelling to a warm place in the winter time – Africa! I was not only looking forward to sitting by a campfire wearing just a t-shirt, I was also excited about some good light for taking pictures, because in summer it felt like I wasn’t really able to use my camera properly.

So I wanted to go to Africa, preferably East Africa. Financially it doesn’t make a big difference whether you fly to Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda or Tanzania – I was open for every idea and started to collect some information about Ethiopia first. I did not want to go to some kind of touristic area: only remote places with beautiful nature got my attention; places that were somehow still aboriginal – I wanted to see a native Africa, which is not that easy anymore today.

The idea to go to Karamoja was not mine. I was talking on the phone with my friend Gerald Klamer, who is one of Germany’s most experienced wilderness hikers, in order to get some tips since he had been to Africa several times. He suggested Karamoja, a place that he wanted to visit himself one day. So I started my research on that region – Gerald himself wouldn’t be able to come because of work, he told me that day.

Karamoja, located in Eastern Uganda, is the country’s poorest, driest, most traditional and most dangerous part. For years there has been fighting between different tribes, mostly because of cattle rustling: these “Nomad Warriors” took each other’s cattle which often ended up in violent clashes. At that time almost every male adult walked around with an AK-47; they told us that people carried guns like walking sticks. Recently the government managed to disarm most of the warriors and the area has become safer. But there is still a travel warning for Karamoja: while other parts of Uganda are considered safe and in some cases even “touristic”, no tourists are supposed to enter the country’s very east.

On the other hand, the authorities managed to develop a few nature reserves in that area, where hunting is strictly limited. That indicated the presence of some wildlife – very good news!

Many people in Karamoja seemed to still live in their traditional nomad way, travelling around with their cattle. It was important for me to visit a “native Africa” and meet a culture that was completely new to me. This place seemed to be exactly what I was looking for and due to the travel warning I knew that there wouldn’t be any other tourists in the backcountry… perfect.

Now if it comes to wilderness travels I’m not a newbie anymore, but I have never experienced the challenges of the black continent before. Just one day after Gerald had brought up this Karamoja thing, we had another conversation: this time he confessed that he was pretty excited about his own idea and would try to get some time off work in order to join me on this adventure. And indeed he managed to do so, which was a big relief for me. Shortly afterwards we started the actual preparation: we discussed the route, bought some necessary gear, got in touch with some people that live or lived in that area… and booked our flights.

Potential and actual risks

People warned us about being raided, getting robbed and getting in the crossfire accidentally. We were told it’s possible that some men would just take their guns and shoot around a bit – a human life isn’t worth much in that region. We talked to some white NGO workers who also got ambushed and shot at before; others said that the area was quite safe and we should feel free to travel wherever we wanted to. In an email our embassy once recommended leaving the area immediately, oh well… Two times the UWA (Uganda Wildlife Authority) wanted us to take a military escort with us, which we gratefully declined – going to war was not our intention.

In fact we didn’t have any safety problems in Karamoja. We are not saying that the region is “safe” per se, but at least nothing happened to us, we didn’t even feel threatened or something, although we also hiked through some parts which are supposed to be especially risky. For example, the eastern Mazeniko Reserve, where at the time the armed Turkana from Kenya were staying with their cattle. Gerald and I might be a little more open to risks than most other people, maybe, but at least from this point of view I can say: we didn’t have any problems.

Water was a bigger concern. We were hiking in the dry season, the time when Karamoja has practically no surface water. For foreign travelers like us it’s very difficult to find out about water sources (boreholes, dams, waterholes) in the bush; of course there is no “water source list” or anything. This in combination with the extremely high temperatures (usually 35°C between 10 am and 3 pm) can be a serious threat: we once almost died of dehydration; after that we kept travelling with two locals who knew about water in the area. Still, in some parts of Karamoja we didn’t get to a source every day.

Generally speaking, I have to admit that we didn’t really know if it was possible for our Karamoja traverse to work out. We didn’t really know about water or about safety – and we always knew that we might be sent back by local military or police stations. We wanted to try but we were prepared to fail.

Traffic and civilization

There is a bus going from Mbale to Moroto every two days, the other day it goes back. Between smaller towns you’ll find cars that drive around, loaded with tons of people. If there are no cars, people go by “boda-boda” (small motorcycles) or on foot. As white people you may get picked up by a NGO car as well if you need a ride. In fact, I guess most cars in Karamoja belong to them – NGOs are also pretty much the only ones with internet and solar panels for electricity; besides that only hotels, some businesses and a few other facilities can afford to run generators for a couple hours in the evening; there is no actual electricity in the region.

As white men travelling through Karamoja on foot, we were always at the center of everybody’s attention, no matter where we went. Arriving in a small village meant that we were instantly surrounded by dozens of children, staring at us. Then the adults came, which again meant to shake a hundred hands. All that can be nice and very interesting – or a little bit annoying, sometimes.

Many children in that area never go to school. Traditionally, the Karamojong are still pastoral people, moving around with their cattle. The education level is low, still you can always find somebody who is able to understand some basic English – we never had actual communication problems.

Daily routine

Gerald and I had never met before, during the planning phase we were just talking on the phone. But although he is 20 years older than me, we got along very well! Fortunately, our travel routines were kind of similar: we always got up at 5.30 am and were ready to leave before sunrise to take advantage of the cooler morning hours. We ate what we got from local stores: cookies, nuts, spaghetti, sometimes “poscho” (a kind of corn porridge), beans and on some occasions even meat. We also ordered beer in villages – the Karamojong manage to cool their beer down to 25°C without a refrigerator, that’s quite a feat!

The nights we spent in our tents, mostly away from villages or kraals. During the day we enjoyed meeting people, but when looking for a campsite we always preferred remote spots – you never know what kinds of gangs are wandering around in the dark.


I started to grow interest in photography two years ago, that’s when I bought my first DSLR. Now taking pictures has become an important part of my travels, I really enjoy it. Especially in Africa, where I always had good lighting and where landscape and people looked so different from what I was used to.

Seeing people reacting to my camera was a funny thing: first some of them were always scared and ran away. But once they understood that they could actually see the taken picture on the little screen on the backside of the camera, they all wanted me to take pictures of them. Sometimes I got almost a little tired of taking portraits – I returned to Europe with hundreds of faces on my memory cards! But in general I was happy to haul 9 kg of photography equipment through Karamoja’s backcountry; yes, it was a pleasure.

Part I: Mt. Elgon

After we landed in Entebbe in the early morning of February 2, we drove right to Kampala and took a bus to Mbale, where we arrived in the afternoon. The same day we made it to the small village of Budadiri, just west of Mt. Elgon. Weeks before we had often discussed if we should climb the 4321 meters high mountain or not: on the one hand, it lies just south of Karamoja and would be a great start into our adventure, also it’s one of East Africa’s least often climbed peaks, not as “touristic” as many others. On the other hand, it’s still very expensive. Finally we decided to go for it and spend the money (90 USD + some additional fees per person per day).

Anyhow, Budadiri is the most common starting point for the climb. After we had made all the arrangements we went to bed in the early evening. The next morning we started hiking up the mountain – accompanied by the main guide Alex and another guide named Sam. I don’t know why they wanted us to take two guides, but it seemed to be very common. They also tried to talk us into taking a couple of porters which we gratefully declined – if we were not allowed to hike individually, we at least wanted to carry our own stuff.

In the beginning I felt a little strange and almost regretted the decision to climb Mt. Elgon – I’d never had a guide with me before. But once we had left the villages behind and entered the National Park, my bad feeling was gone and I just enjoyed the beautiful landscape. It was my first time in the rainforest!

In the afternoon of February 4 we stepped out of the woods and saw blue sky again. Everything was just beautiful! The next day Alex, Gerald and I made it to the summit “Wagagai” and talked our guide into exploring the caldera of the volcano, away from the actual footpaths.

We spent the evening of our fourth hiking day back down in the rain forest, close to a big cave. And then on February 7 we reached Kapchorwa on the north side of Mt. Elgon, after we had said our goodbyes to our guides in a village we had passed before.

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