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Discovering Uganda

Added 08 Nov 2013
Discovering Uganda

Rena Perri travelled to Uganda, where she soaked up the atmosphere, colour and hospitality of this amazing African country. She shares her account of what she experienced in this three part blog.

Part one: Arrival, Kampala and chimps

Part two: Crossing the equator and game viewing

Part three: The main event - gorillas

Watch Rena's video

Part one: Arrival, Kampala and chimps

'Uganda is awesome. That’s not a word that comes out of my mouth very often, but in this case it’s what I thought pretty much the moment I stepped out of the terminal building at Entebbe Airport and, so far, it hasn’t failed to disappoint. So, there you go. Awesome!

One of the first things that struck me is how green it is. Greenery everywhere. Of course, it is the middle of the rainy season here but Ben, my guide, tells me it’s like this pretty much all the time. Then there’s the red; red earth making red roads, red mud, red dust everywhere and providing a startling and surprisingly attractive colour combination. It’s also true what they say about Ugandans being extremely friendly. I have received a warm welcome everywhere I go and it feels incredibly genuine.

Kampala – not quite what I expected. Certainly, the traffic is bad, but in most cases not much different to how bad it’s been recently on my daily commute to work! It’s a city made up of a mix of brick, wooden, cement and mud buildings. One or two big blocks, but mostly small plots of land owned by individuals or families, where they can build exactly what they want and use it how they like. So houses are intermingled with shops and businesses, with a surprisingly large number of schools scattered throughout.

At the moment we are located just about on the equator, a bit to the north, but I am keeping an eye on which way the water is going down the plug hole so I know when we have crossed!

The first exciting animal sighting (for me, anyway) came in the form of baboons on the side of the road. Very entertaining characters, although the locals sometimes consider them a bit of a pest. Unlike some of their other monkey cousins, they are prolific breeders and cheeky little things. I like them, though. I think they have character!

But the first big highlight for me was going to see chimps in Kibale Forest. It was fantastic. We saw loads of them and two different family groups. Sadly they all stayed high up in the trees and didn’t come down while we were there but with the aid of binoculars and the odd zoom lens we managed to enjoy an hour of observing their antics – mainly sitting around giving themselves an odd scratch and a bit of feeding. We also saw some blue monkeys – very rare and they’re only seen a handful of times a year, so it was a really good sighting.

Then, in the afternoon, I did a walk around Bigodi Swamp. I wasn’t too sure what to expect, but it’s alive with birdlife. I’m not very knowledgeable on birds, but I really enjoyed seeing them, including the great-crested crane, which is the national bird and symbol of Uganda. We also saw lots of monkeys and much closer up than the chimps in the morning. Two sets of red colobus monkeys, which were very entertaining to watch, some grey-cheeked mangabey and, best of all, a really close sighting of a red-tailed monkey. I also hadn’t realised that the Bigodi swamp walk and another village walk is locally organised and funds are put to good use for the community, for example by providing a safe water supply and building a school. Previously the nearest school was 45 km away in Fort Portal.

Next stop is Queen Elizabeth National park and hopefully some exciting game viewing.'

Part two: Crossing the equator and game spotting

'So it turns out that I didn’t need to use the plug hole method to tell when I had crossed the equator. There is a great big huge marker on the road when you go over! It was nice to know the moment we crossed to the southern hemisphere, but I’m a little disappointed I couldn’t use my own skills to determine it. Oh well!
uganda rena equator monkey

Having spotted a few animals on the way into Queen Elizabeth National Park (lots of antelope and a lone elephant about two miles in the distance), I was very much looking forward to my early morning game drive the next day, but was a bit worried because it was raining heavily when we set off and I had no idea whether any of the animals would be out in the open. We started off seeing some buffalo and antelope, including African kob and waterbuck, but then we came across a couple of vehicles pulled over and it turned out they had spotted a pride of lions in the distance. We pulled up and opened the pop top on the land cruiser and I started watching the pride with the binoculars. In typical cat fashion they were pretty much flat out asleep with the occasional lifting of the head or twitch of the tail.  Still, I didn’t care; I had actually seen lions, which was enough for me!

uganda rena lionBut then my eagle-eyed, binocular-free guide (he’s long sighted he tells me…so am I but I wouldn’t have spotted it in a million years) spotted a huge male lion in the distance walking past the pride and heading towards the road further ahead. We drove on and eventually had an amazing sighting of this absolutely gigantic lion stroll across the road right in front of us and then start marking his territory on the other side! I had never seen a wild lion this close up before and it was truly outstanding.

My fear of lack of animals abated, we went on to see warthogs, storks, cranes, ibis, mongooses and hippos, not to mention a plethora of other birds. As we started to turn back, taking one last track in an attempt to spot a leopard (sadly no leopard sightings to report as yet), we came across a group of African kob antelopes where some young males were battling for dominance. It was an amazing sight watching them go at it, horns clanking, and then one of them finally admitting defeat and being chased away by the other.uganda rena hippo

As we left the park I was busily scanning the trees just in case I spotted (no pun intended) a foot or a tail (how cool if I was actually the one to spot the leopard?!) when Ben suddenly braked and started reversing. “Elephant” he muttered when I looked at him questioningly. I turned, expecting to see another dot in the distance and lo and behold there was this enormous male elephant not three feet from the road…I guess my spotting skills still need some work. Talk about the elephant in the room…

In the afternoon, I went on the very relaxing and enjoyable Kazinga Channel boat cruise. Kazinga Channel connects the two large lakes, Edward and George, and is an ideal location for spotting animals and especially birds. We had some excellent hippo and buffalo sightings and saw a huge number of birds including pied kingfishers, African fish eagles, herons, pelicans, hamercops, egrets, plovers, spoonbills and, my particular favourites, yellow-billed storks. There were loads more that I can’t remember the names of – a true birdwatcher’s paradise.

In the morning we set off to Ishasha in the southern part of the park, famous for its tree climbing lions. Ben tells me that it is better to spot them in the middle of the day when it’s hot, because that is when they like to go up in the trees to stay cool. However, en route we had another close encounter with an elephant; this time it was crossing the road. We stopped in front of it, but we were too close and it started trumpeting as a warning to stay out of its way. We backed up but it still didn’t cross until we backed up some more. Once the elephant had deemed our distance to be appropriate he crossed right in front of us. It was magnificent. Incidentally, we had just passed some locals cycling with several huge bunches of green bananas on their bikes. Ben tells me elephants love these and basically if you meet one while carrying them you pretty much have to throw them down and make a run for it as the elephants will devour the lot in minutes and will not be happy if you try and refuse. Luckily the locals missed him this time and got to keep their crop. Apparently the trumpeting is the first warning to get back and before an elephant charges he will lift one of his front legs. So you have a few chances to back off before the elephant gets that cross. I’m told you should try for a zigzag run if you get charged by an elephant. They are incredibly nippy for their size, but they can’t turn very quickly. I always like to know the best methods of escape from these situations.  But, if it actually happens…good luck with that.

uganda rena buffaloSo as we drove on, Ben stopped and spoke to all the guides passing in the other direction. He heard from them that tree climbing lions had been spotted at the far side of the park, close to the Congo border. Rain starting to come down and apparently they come out of the trees when it’s wet because it makes the branches too slippery. The savannah has very long grasses and it’s almost impossible to spot them once they’re down, so we were bombing as fast as we could (which is actually not fast at all on these roads) to make it in time. En route we passed a herd of elephants on both sides of the road, normally a chance for a half hour stop and observe, but in this case it was all about the lions and a quick stop to snap off a few pics and we were on our way, following two other vehicles also on a mission. Finally we found the spot. A pride of six lions in a fig tree a fair way from the road.

Apparently this is a pride of two females and their adolescent young, three males and a female. In typical cat fashion they were sprawled on branches with legs dangling down either side, tails swaying in the wind and fast asleep. However, one of the young males was stuck in the 'v' of the tree where it branched off from the trunk with his bottom up high and his front legs stretched out in a very awkward, uncomfortable looking position. While his pride were all snoozing he was looking around, getting up, turning around, nudging his sibling to get a bit of sympathy, but finding none… After several attempts to get comfortable he just gave up and headed on down. It was raining anyway; the rest of the family would be sure to come shortly…then perhaps he could nab a better spot next time…'

Part three: the main event - gorillas!

On to Bwindi and the main event…although everything so far has been amazing and just getting better and better each day.
uganda rena elephant gorilla

I had a few butterflies in the morning before the gorilla trek. For years I’ve been telling people that the trekking can be very variable as you don’t know where the gorillas will be and you won’t always be on tracks; there’s scrambling and scree and lots of machete-ing to get through the impenetrable forest. So here I was, about to do the trek myself and wondering…can I make it?

My guide recommended I get a porter.  I scoffed a bit at first because I’ve done loads of trekking and always carry my own bag!!  But then I remembered the stories people have told me about porters helping them with the trekking itself and how un-sure footed I am on steep slopes…also, the porters are local villagers who don’t earn anything from gorilla tourism unless someone hires them and I felt it was actually a very positive thing, so in the end I decided to go for a porter.

uganda rena mountain trekWhat a good decision that was!  My porter, Gerard, normally works on the land, but once a month he does this porter gig and he told me he really looks forward to it and loves getting close to the gorillas (although the porters stay back, they don’t come right up to them with the group). As we headed up the mountain I made good progress with just a helping hand here or there from Gerard and was lulled into a false sense of security.  But then we heard from the trackers that the gorillas were moving across the mountain. We headed back down a bit and then took a steep sideways track across the mountain; just the beginning of a four hour marathon across, up and down. Yes, this was genuinely tough! Four hours doesn’t sound much, but it makes a difference when you’re on steep slopes with no track, it’s hot and humid and you throw the odd tropical rain storm into the mix. As we took a steep, scree-laden path down the mountain and everybody (that is everyone who wasn’t Ugandan) had lost their footing and slipped at least once, I realised the true benefit of having a porter.  Although I was more than happy on occasion to sit and slide down the mountain, Gerard insisted on holding me up, stopping me slipping and generally looking after me really well.  He was definitely worth his weight in gold!

So during this mammoth expedition it got to the point where the ranger decided we were unlikely to catch up with the group we were supposed to visit that day, so the decision was made to head back to base and to go and see one of the other groups. So we trooped back - hungry, exhausted and covered in mud, to then take a pleasant 20 minute forest stroll to go see a different group.  But I can tell you the horrors of the morning were totally forgotten when spending a treasured hour with the gorillas.  It was just about the most amazing thing ever...

uganda renaWe visited a group of 15 gorillas and, although you can’t approach nearer than seven metres, they were all around us, in the trees and on the ground. We saw the big silverback lying on his front having a snooze, glancing over at us with an occasional grunt; then in a relaxed fashion rolling over and having a scratch. The second biggest male suddenly jumped up and started heading our way through the forest – you’ve never seen a group of people jump out of the way as quickly! But in fact he was just heading for his chosen tree! However, the most magical thing of all was the young ones having a play.  Two medium sized youngsters practicing their wresting skills with a littler one jumping on them and joining in! It was moving to see how careful the older boys were with him. Then, when they had had enough and separated, the little one would suddenly leap on one of his older brothers and start the whole thing again, eventually ending the play with the baby beating his chest. I actually have a video of this it was just about the cutest thing I have ever seen!

I’d been told that the rangers always have trouble dragging people away at the end of their hour. And our group was no exception. We knew it was right not to disturb the gorillas any longer but what a wrench to actually leave.

Nothing will top the gorillas, but I still had Lakes Bunyonyi and Mburo to look forward to. Bunyonyi was simply stunning and a magnificent place to have a half a day relaxing after such a busy itinerary. All the accommodations here and at Bwindi seemed to have a lot of stairs and I was finding it hard not to visibly wince (as I gritted my teeth) going up and down them for several days after the trek. So a relaxing swim in the pool and chill out in this fantastic location was perfect timing.

uganda rena lake zebra
Lake Mburo is the first park I had been to that had zebras. It was lovely to see them roaming around along with a variety of antelope, vervet monkeys and warthogs. A boat trip on the lake was really lovely; the scenery is stunning. There are lots of birds here and we saw African fish eagles in abundance, along with the African fin foot, which I understand is only found in this area, and many others. We also had some great hippo, antelope and crocodile sightings.

I only had one night here and it was an early start to do a nature walk, which is a great way to see animals away from the roads. Sadly I can’t report any leopard sightings this time, although Lake Mburo is apparently the best chance of seeing them in Uganda. I really wished I had an extra night here as I would have liked to do a night game drive where they specifically look for leopards, although of course sightings are not guaranteed. I would also have liked to do a horse riding safari, which you can do from one of the lodges here. You can get much closer to animals on horseback and I would have been thrilled to do that. I would definitely recommend that extra night. Coming to the end of my trip I was sad to leave. I had so many amazing experiences and there was more in Uganda I would still like to do. Apparently the north of the country is outstanding…still that just gives me a reason to go back…I’ve already been checking out those trip prices…

If you want to talk to Rena about her trip, you can contact her on 0844 875 1890.