Uganda doesn’t get talked about that much when it comes to safari and most people don’t even know it’s got much more than gorillas. In a country the size of UK, there’s so much more……. including:
- a whopping 1000 species of birds
- tree climbing lions
- close encounters with chimpanzees
- great herds of buffalo
- monster Nile crocodiles
- huge lakes with masses of hippos
- boat trips in a watery Garden of Eden
- bananas everywhere
- friendly, smiling people
Yes, Uganda is all this and more -you get to see the more during the hours you spend travelling through this fertile rural country to see all these wonders. And isn’t it just typical that you have to go to the very north of the country and conversely the deepest south to see all the incredible sights. That’s why you need two weeks to do it all without feeling rushed. I did it in 10 days and felt exhausted by the long drives but enthralled by the animal encounters and warmed by the people encounters.
Uganda’s people, like its contours, are gentle and the smiles that were once missing from the faces of this nation now appear without reserve. It may sound strange, but the land itself seems happy and positively bursting with crops like cassava, sweet potatoes, tea and above all bananas. Bananas are everywhere and increase in density as you travel from north to south on the most common touring route.
This was a tour operator/media trip with some interesting people, except one ! There’s always one isn’t there? We had a loony tour operator from Florida who was a self-proclaimed ex black ops sniper killer in Vietnam who thought he was still in the jungle and we were his troops! He started off seeming like an eccentric old man with some mind-bending war experiences, but as the days went on he got madder and madder until we all felt seriously threatened and were afraid he might just use that long knife he carried to massacre us! If you think I am exaggerating, read what a fellow traveller had to say about him. http://www.nerdynomad.com/2010/12/26/trapped-on-an-organised-tour-with-a-psycho/
It certainly added an unusual dimension to the tour but we all survived and even the nutter couldn’t dampen the enjoyment of our Ugandan experience.
This is a usual itinerary through Uganda (usually free of psychos):
Kampala or Entebbe – where to stay: the airport is at Entebbe and there are a couple of basic but reasonable hotels right on the shores of Lake Victoria, where you can swim and sunbathe and eat and drink at cafés/bars on the sand. Or stay in frenetic Kampala at The Lodge, a 2/3-star guest house owned by recommended tour operator, Robert Begumisa of Abacus African Vacations. What a lovely man! Let him organise your whole tour because he’s got great safari vehicles, knows everybody you need to know to get things sorted, and employs fantastic guides who are as good as anywhere I have been, with incredible knowledge of animal behaviour, bird identification, geography, geology and just about anything else you care to ask.
Murchison Falls: the whole of the Nile river is forced through a gap in the rock just 7-metres wide here in the north of Uganda. This terrifying torrent explodes into the ‘Boiling Pot’ before corkscrewing through a second fissure to fall 36 metres in an angry white-water cascade. It takes about a kilometre for the Nile to regain composure below the falls and this is where you jump on a motor launch for one of Uganda’s best boat rides. Dry season is best to see masses of hippos and crocs and herds of elephant and buffalo. Birders get all twitchy with potential sightings of rare shoebill stalks standing over 1-metre tall with a head like a wooden mallet. Failing that there are 369 other recorded bird species to look for.
Where to stay at Murchison Falls:
no question about it, stay at the stunningly positioned Nile Safari Lodge, on the banks overlooking the river downstream of the falls. Chalets are unsophisticated (compared to South Africa’s chic décor and finer touches) yet very comfortable with all the amenities you need like mosquito net and bucket shower topped up with hot water on demand. Food is excellent, like fish from the Nile (doesn’t come fresher) and I had a really tasty vegetarian meal. There’s always someone ready to complain about slow service or old unfashionable decor, but you have to remind yourself that this is deepest Africa far from any city and you need to readjust your expectations a little and appreciate that good food, comfy bed, mosquito proofing and smiling staff is everything you need.
Kibale Forest: primates are the real drawcard of Uganda and Kibale Forest is home to 13 primate species with chimpanzees being the kings of these particular treetops. When baboons get too close all hell lets loose and chimps screech blue murder as they chase the baboons away. This hallabaloo comes out of nowhere as you peacefully watch chimps on the ground, in the trees or on a branch right above your head (you really don’t want to get dumped on by a chimp)! A sudden recognition during an eye to eye moment reminds you that these chimps are our 99% gene-related cousins. Time’s up after an hour and you make your way back on an easy walk through the rainforest. Wear long pants tucked into socks because if those pesky red safari ants get up your trouser legs you will be hopping in pain – they bite like a scorpion stings.
Where to say at Kabale Forest: Kabale Forest Lodge is on the edge of the forest and early morning risers will hear chimp noises echoing through the trees. The place is an enigma; it’s open plan lounge/dining area as light and breezy with lots of seating and a good place to mill around. The chalets are large with a balcony touched by the rain forest creeping towards it, but the house design is poor yet the bedroom is large with fancy carved beds and lots of polyester bedding with frills. It’s quite fun to try and find your way back down the slope to your room at night with no lighting, which does serve to highlight an amazing night sky.
Queen Elizabeth National Park: is not far away from Kibale and encompasses two of many beautiful crater lakes; Lakes George & Edward. The Kasinga Channel connects them and provides one of Africa’s best boat trips. Apart from hundreds of birds in number and species, you also see buffalo sitting in shallow water immediately beside hippo. Between them a few crocodiles sunbathe, while herons and storks pick their way in between. It’s a watery Eden.
Where to stay in QENP: There’s the jacked up, large and superbly placed high on the banks, Mweya Safari Lodge – chosen by most tour operators because it is the oldest and most organised lodge.
However, we stayed at the charming Ihamba Safari Lodge on the banks of the lake, which had recently opened (2010) and should now have sorted out its teething problems (like the generator too close to the rooms and hot water to fill the pipes in the lovely large bathrooms (complete with slippers, gowns and complimentary toiletries). This resembled some South African safari lodges in its design with large rooms, open plan spaces, and large open lounge/dining. It was clear that the owner had good experience in hospitality and was open and willing to hear what improvements we suggested.
En-route to the next stop a game drive went through national park land to find the tree-climbing lions of Ishasha. There they were right on queue – high in the tree. This is most unusual as lions are not generally inclined to climbing trees, nor are they particularly adapted for it. But it seems those darned red safari ants will send anybody up a tree and this was purported to be the reason the lions were up there.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest – Gorillas: the finale to most Uganda itineraries is Gorilla Tracking in Bwindi and an intimate encounter with one of the rarest primates in the world – only around 720 left in the wild. These are the gorillas of Diane Fossey ‘Gorillas In The Mist’ fame, although she was based over the mountains in Rwanda with different groups. Here in Uganda, there are eight groups, four of which are very habituated and allow you to get very close; they even brush past and touch you and in the case of one Australian lady, pulled her trouser leg softly as if
requesting her to follow. The aim is that the gorillas do not become tame, as this could compromise their safety, so she had to resist the temptation to connect and back away. It’s a hard heart that doesn’t come away with a feeling that you have just had a soul encounter of a special kind.
Be prepared for some real mountain rainforest trekking in a hot, sweaty, slippery environment to get to the gorillas, which may be anywhere in the forest. You may not be as lucky as I was with the Rushegura family group, who were a mere 30-mins hike away. The other party only returned from their gorilla trek 5 hours later. Quick tip: pack gloves to avoid splinters as you grab onto branches, wear a hat against dangling vines and watch out for little biting ants dropping from the foliage (put on insect repellent).
Where to stay in Bwindi:
First choice is Gorilla Forest Camp. Superbly managed, great position and the gorillas like it too as they sometimes drop in for a visit (see photo). This is the top accommodation in Bwindi, with large tented rooms, spacious bathrooms and excellent bar and dining area. The grinning round-faced Manager, known to all as King (his surname), makes you feel completely welcome and is become obvious that he knows everybody and everything and you are in the best hands in Bwindi.
I also stayed in Volcanoes Bwindi Camp with very attractive chalets in individual forest clearings with a path down to the river and a fresh mountain pool for a swim. The slopes of the rainforest create eerie mists that float around the valley and it’s a lovely spot to sit on your own balcony or by the restaurant and bar to admire the tangled Bwindi impentrible forest. The thing about both these lodges in Bwindi is that they are disproportionately expensive – around US$800-1000 per night. This is because gorilla trekking is one of those low volume high price tourism adventures with only a certain number of permits issued each day. The more remote and exclusive (in terms of the number of people allowed to be there), the more desirable and the more it costs. Then there’s the actual gorilla watching permit as well, so this portion of your Uganda trip will probably be as much as the rest put together! But hey, it’s once in a lifetime and maybe your children won’t even have the rare privilege of seeing these magnificent creatures.
Back to Kampala: a 10 hour drive gets you back to the city and even the hardy Land Cruisers that Robert of Abacus Vacations prefers as his 4×4 touring vehicles, have to go straight into the workshop after each trip. Uganda’s uneven dirt roads take their toll, so be prepared for some real Africa, which you will love because and in spite of it. Uganda is a very special place – highly recommended but don’t try and rush it.
Have you seen a mountain gorilla? If so, tell me about your gorilla encounter by entering a comment.