Pian Upe Wildlife reserve is located in the northeastern semi-arid part of Uganda, spanning a land area of 2043 sqkm. It is undisputedly the largest wildlife reserve in the country and the second largest protected area in Uganda, after the Murchison Falls National Park, also one of the most picturesque points in the country.
Pian Upe’s Headquarters at MoruaJore is located approximately 8 ½ hours by road from Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, and about 2 ½ hours from the exquisite Sipi Falls, in Kapchorwa district, on the edges of Mount. Elgon; the Game Reserve is about 90km from Mbale Town along a bumpy road. From Pian Upe you can also drive for about 5 hours towards Kidepo Valley National Park, forming the perfect break for a safari to “Africa’s true Wilderness” – Kidepo.
The reserve can be accessed from the south through Chepsikunya Trading Centre, as one drives from Kampala through Mbale Town, or through Namalu Trading Centre to the north, for visitors traveling from Moroto. The closest operational airstrip is at Amudat.
Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve joins a series of two other protected areas like Mount. Elgon National Park and the Matheninko & Bokora Wildlife Reserve in northeastern Uganda to form the Mount. Elgon Conservation Area, which is managed by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) in line with its mandate to conserve for future generations.
A total of nine northern Uganda districts are known to either be partly or nearly entirely covered by this stretch of a game reserve. These include Amudat, Nakapiripirit, Bukedea, Kween, Moroto, Katakwi, Napak, Kumi and Bulambuli districts.
Pian Upe’s History
Until a few years ago, the area where the reserve sits was a famous battleground for two traditional pastoral groups, the Karamajongs of northeastern Uganda and the Pokot who originated from Kenya.
The main road which leads through the reserve right up into Matheniko & Bokora Wildlife Reserve and into Kidepo Valley National Park formed the boundary which both tribes crisscrossed to raid one another, in a period of ruthless cattle rustling. Peace has however since returned to this region, and tourism continues to flourish.
In 1958, the southern section of Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve was gazetted as the Debasien Animal Sanctuary. However, the boundaries of this reserve were threatened when the then Government of Uganda established a project just south of the Girik River for agricultural production. This escalated threats on the reserve resources which hard-pressed the state to expand the area northward and rename it Pian Upe Game Reserve in 1964.
In 2003, there was a proposal to degazette the reserve for fruit farming but this was blocked.
The Government of Uganda, fortunately, has recently expressed interest in upgrading Pian Upe Game Reserve to National Park status, and efforts to restock wildlife numbers are in the process, as well as plans to open up more areas for tourism development.
What does Pian Upe Mean?
Pian refers to a subgroup or clan among the Karamajong people of northeastern Uganda. They are predominantly pastoralists, who live a very traditional style of life and whose being is centered around their cattle. This group is mostly found in Nakapiripirit district close to the Reserve Headquarters.
Upe, on the other hand, refers to a Kalenjin speaking pastoralist community that is reported to have originated from among the Pokot tribe of Kenya, and now settles close to the reserve in Amudat district.
Other accounts reveal that “Pian” is a Karamajong word which loosely translates to mean “good spirited people, or people with calm hearts”; while “Upe” is a word used by the Pokot tribe to mean “enemy”. Combine the two words and you’ll get the phrase “Friendly Enemy”. Quite obscure, huh!?
Some translations also suggest that the two tribes (Karamajongs and Pokots) use the words Pian and Upe respectively to connote “The land of endless plains”.
Climate in Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve and when to visit
You need at least two days in Pian Upe to get a decent taste of what the wildlife reserve is made of. This Game Reserve features a semiarid climate with only one major rain season all year round.
The reserve’s southern boundary is marked by the Girik River; whose brown waters are a blessing for the park’s wildlife in such a semi-arid region.
Though the rains are unpredictable in this part of the country, the heaviest rains in Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve are received around the months of March, April, May, and June. Around this time, the game drive tracks including the main roads; are almost impassable and around this time the grasses are very tall making it extremely hard to spot wildlife.
The best time to visit Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve is between November and February, the drier months of the year. During this time, the reserve management also carries out controlled bush burning to keep the grasses short, the vegetation is often dry and the animals are easier to see around the major water sources where they often congregate for a drink.
I’d, however, advise that you keep a close contact with the reserve management for real-time updates on the status of the roads, especially the access roads. I also highly recommend booking your travel through a local tour operator and using a 4WD Vehicle; Land Cruiser most preferably.
Highlights of Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve; Attractions and Activities for visitors
Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve is popular for its signature dazzling sunsets and sunrises, which you won’t help but breathe in when you visit. Every morning, the sun comes out from its resting spot behind the mountains and descends over the horizon in some of the most rewarding sunsets you will ever see.
This area of northeastern Uganda is without doubt one of the remotest, but also one of the most charming expanses of distinct wildlands in the country, dominated by plateaus carpeted by green and golden undisturbed and wooded savannah plains ringed by mountains and cut in-between by rock-strewn ridges and Kopjes.
The reserve’s plains are dominated by thatching grass, but they also feature bristle species, lemon grasses, and beard grasses. The sweeping plains are decorated with red acacia, desert date, bush willows and shrubs like the wooly caper bush and the butterfly pea.
Although not much heard of, when compared to the other popular wildlife areas in the country, Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve is most notable for harboring quite a number of rare animals found nowhere else in Uganda, including a healthy population of Cheetahs and Uganda’s only remaining population of Roan Antelopes.
The low visitor numbers guarantee that all wildlife sightings are private, intimate and personal; dissimilar from the crowds that characterize Africa’s popular wildlife destinations.
The reserve is also home to large herds of ungulates including the Common Eland, a small population of Zebra, Hartebeests, Günther’s Dik Dik, the popular Oribis, and the impalas which were recently relocated here from Lake Mburo National Park. Cape Buffalo, the Uganda Kob, Waterbuck, Blue and Common Duiker, Klipspringers and the Bohor and Mountain Reedbuck also enjoy the homely Pian Upe Game Reserve.
The African Hare, Crested Porcupine, Rock Hyrax, Aardvarks, Ververt and Patas Monkeys, Four-toed HedgeHogs, as well as the Olive Baboons can be found here.
Cheetah sightings measure up to 80% chances, making it the best place in the country to see earth’s fastest mammal. But popular among the other predators in the reserve include the jackals, wildcats, Spotted Hyenas, Serval Cats, Civets, the elusive Leopards and a healthy pride of Lions is reported to periodically travel between the nearby Amudat Wildlife Conservation Area and Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve.
The reserve is also home to varied species of reptiles including venomous puff adders, savannah monitors, common agama, chameleons, geckos, skinks, rock pythons and crocodiles can be found in River Girik.
Lions, elephants, black rhinos and giraffes once roamed these open plains, but they were hunted into extinction during the era of insurgencies. Uganda Wildlife Authority, however, has plans of reintroducing some of these species into this outsized wilderness.
Birding in Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve
Pian Upe’s ecosystems attract unique bird species which make her an endeared birding hotspot on the Uganda safari itinerary. Birds to look out for include the Karamoja apalis, which is endemic to northeastern Uganda. Ostriches (both wild and domesticated) are not hard to find here.
Green bitta, Abyssinian ground hornbills, superb sterlings, secretary birds, even the shoebill can be sighted on the park’s stretch of land. The reserve’s boundary is broken by the extension of Lake Opeta, one in two places in Uganda and the entire world where the Fox’s Weaver bird can be sighted.
Visit the locals
This part of the country forms part of the stretch of land that is branded the Karamajong tribal area, also known as the Karamoja region, because of its predominance of this pastoral community of traditional herders, the Karamajongs.
A cultural visit to a local Karamojong settlement will grant you a rare cultural music, dance and drama performance; I bet you’ll love the famous Edonga dance that never ends. They’ll start the performance and you’ll have to choose a time when to leave because when the party starts in Karamoja, it goes on and on and on.
Participate in a mountain hike or a guided nature walk
When you drive into Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve, you’re greeted by an endless flow of savannah plains, dotted with acacias and sausage trees as well as rocky ridges.
When you look beyond the horizon, your eyes can’t help but glance at the striking glory of high-standing mountains which stretch high above to the skyline and are crowned in clouds which only change color with the day’s temper.
Pian Upe Game Reserve lies in the embrace of three mountains; Mount. Elgon to the south, Mount. Kadam to the northeast and Mount. Napak to the northwest. All these mountains allow for some of the most iconic mountain climbing opportunities on the continent, and as the contemporary avowal goes, “the best views come after the toughest hike”.
You will want to take the hike to the Napedet cave. This hike tests your fitness levels a little bit but also works your health levels up and grants awesome views of the reserve’s breadths. This cave is a popular ancient recreational point for the first inhabitants of this area who would gather hear to engage in painting. When you visit you will see odd paintings of Roan Antelope, Hartebeests, Baboons, as well as Giraffes which once roamed the reserve’s open plains.
Napedet is a Karimojong word which loosely translates in English to mean “hole” and indeed at this point, you will be able to take in those panoramic views of the reserve through a hole, and atop an arch; it’s absolutely stunning!
Where to stay during a safari to Pian Upe?
Affordable Budget Accommodation In Uganda Wildlife Authority Bandas
The most popular accommodation is at the Headquarters in form of 4 Bandas named after some of the animals which can be found here. Three of these are self-contained with big beds and facilities like a bathroom with a shower and sink flowing with cold and lukewarm water. You can, however, ask for hot water to be boiled for you, should that be something you fancy.
The one banda which isn’t self-contained has an outside washroom and toilet. All the bandas are however lit by electricity for light in the night and charging spots for your gadgets can be found in each of the three self-contained bandas as well as at the office. Please do not wander off aimlessly in the night, a resident leopard is known to spend the night at the headquarters.
Meals are served here and an onsite mini-bar is available for drinks at usual town prices.
Camping in Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve
For those who are more adventurous and would like to listen more closely to the sounds of the African wild, camping is a fine option. While there are tents which can be hired, it is better to travel with your own and pitch it at the headquarters.
Singles go for 40,000 Uganda shillings (UGX), doubles for UGX 55,000 and Wilderness Camping is at UGX 15,000 per night. Because the pricing for accommodation changes from time to time and ingredients for the meals must be purchased in advance, it is advisable to contact UWA to place an order prior to your travel.
NOTE: That park entrance fees (paid daily) for adults are $35 for Foreign Non Residents (FNR), $25 for Foreign Residents (FR) and 15,000 Uganda Shillings (UGX) for East African Citizens; and $5 for FNR and FR children, while children from the East African Community pay UGX 2,500.
Midrange Safari accommodation at Karamoja Overland Camp
You can also sleep in the midrange safari tented camp that is just below the Uganda Wildlife Authority’s facilities. This series of safari tents are called Karamoja Overland Camp. The tents are self-contained featuring ensuite facilities like showers, electricity, etc. Accommodation ranges from $150 per tent per night.
By the time this article was written, the camp had no known website or designated contact details. I, however, promise to update this information as soon as a reliable contact point is established. In the interim, visitors are advised to contact Uganda Wildlife Authority to provide a link to the proprietors of this tented camp.
I am however also reliably informed that several local safari lodge chains have purchased land adjacent to the reserve boundary with interest to set up accommodation facilities.
Recommended Things to Pack for a Pian Upe Safari
- Comfortable lightweight clothes of neutral colors are recommended. Please leave the suits behind, and don’t forget your underwear, preferably cotton underwear.
- Comfortable closed shoes are highly recommended since there will most definitely be hikes involved when you visit Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve.
- A light fleece or sweater is also advisable since the evenings and early mornings often get chilly.
- Insect repellent to protect you from the wild flies and safari bugs.
- You will want to pack some sunscreen lotion, sunglasses, and a sunhat, as this semiarid part of the country can get pretty hot.
- Remember to pack your personal toiletries (lotion, toothpaste, toothbrush, bath soap, deodorant, and lip balm.
- Camera equipment or a gadget that can take some decent photos. You will want to remember this stunning landscape, and photos will help you tell your stories.
- A portable external battery charger/power bank is highly recommended as the electricity can be on and off sometimes, especially in the night.