By Bert Duplessis, Fish Eagle Safaris
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The signature moment of my April-May 2012 educational trip to Uganda and Rwanda was an unexpected surprise which will be a good memory for years to come, even if I don’t return to this lovely part of Africa again soon.
It happened along a muddy mountain road barely one quarter mile or so from Nkuringo Lodge where our group of 10 had spent a night prior to what would be – for all of us – our first ever gorilla trek. Many of us had not slept too well that night. I know I was up at 0415 that morning, feeling rather apprehensive about the gorilla thing. What if they were not there on the day? What if I slipped and broke something before getting to the spot where we were going? What if it rained all morning? What if —
As we were walking along this isolated little road with barely a soul passing by, I shook off the fatigue for a moment and realized where I was. Africa! Time to look around and take in what there was to see. Turning my head to the left, my eyes fell upon a stupendous view which must surely rival the pyramids of Egypt. In the distance, three massive volcanoes jutted into the pale misty sky, a faint vapor trail above one of them signifying that it was all but dormant. The volcanoes, several other hills, the clouds, the mist and the vegetation merged into a scene that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. A couple of Grey Crowned Cranes flew by down in the valley from right to left, their telltale crowns and long legs rendering them unmistakable. I walked on, all the images swirling around in my sleep-deprived brain.
Lagging behind the other four persons who would be trekking the same gorilla group that morning, I was completely lost in my thoughts when three cold little hands suddenly gripped mine, two on the left and one on the right. Totally spontaneously three little Uganda boys – one set of twins and a slightly older friend – had decided that I needed some company and maybe a sympathetic face to look up at me. No question, I did. Their timing was perfect and although I couldn’t understand a word they were saying, their gentle touch and their sparkling eyes said it all: “Don’t worry mzungu, you’re going to be just fine. Relax, give that heavy bag to a porter and don’t worry so much about the photographs. Just enjoy the experience!”
Barely 30 minutes later, our small group were face to face with the most impressive big apes still to be found wandering this earth: the gentle giants who inhabit Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and a few other patches of similar habitat in neighboring Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Mountain Gorilla. There are less than 800 of these great apes left in the wild, so it is an awesome experience – in the old-fashioned sense of the word – to behold them right there in front of you, stuffing their faces with big handfuls of leaves, clearly relishing every ounce of the approximately 40 pounds pounds of food they consume every day.
In the space of less than an hour, we had experienced the very best of Uganda – and the same would be true of Rwanda which we visited later – namely supreme scenic beauty, beautiful real people, and the wild ‘people’ of the forest, in this instance gorillas, in other places chimpanzees and an amazing array of monkeys.
Our familiarization trip to Uganda and Rwanda with The Far Horizons was an unqualified success. I certainly learned a lot and I am very enthusiastic about both Uganda and lovely little Rwanda. As I said: friendly people, amazing wildlife, beautiful scenery and interesting places to spend a night or two or three.
Here are the links to some of my photographs:
Our trip started in Entebbe, Uganda, which was not too painful to get to from the USA on KLM via Amsterdam. Non-stop Houston-AMS , 3 hr lay-over and then direct to Entebbe with a 1-hr stop in Kigali en route. Very quick and friendly border formalities entering Uganda (US$50 for the visa paid on arrival, need proof of Yellow Fever) and that was that. I exchanged US$200 for a whole boatload of Uganda Shillings (current exchange rate US$1 = 2,500 Uganda Sh) , met up with David who was also booked for the pre-trip extension to Murchison Falls, and off we went to The Boma, our guest house for the night. It was barely 10 minutes or so down the road. Nothing fancy but with a great location, clean and comfortable – good food and a great garden which would really appeal to birders.
ZIWA RHINO RESERVE AND MURCHISON FALLS NP
The pre-tour portion of the trip started with an overnight at Lodge in the Ziwa Rhino Reserve. The main activity here is finding and observing white rhino on foot. The rhino are under 24-hr observation for anti-poaching reasons, so it is not difficult to find them. We drove for perhaps 15 minutes or so from the Park Headquarters with our guide and armed ranger, got out of the vehicle and found the small group of rhino just minutes later. Initially they were quite cooperative and continued grazing while we snapped a few photographs. The guide could probably have imparted a bit more information than he did, but as soon as the rhino started moving, he had his hands full leading us in a brisk walk in the direction they were heading. As it turned out the rhinos started moving more and more rapidly and we did not see them again. Ordinarily white rhino are quite placid and behave a lot like cattle, just imperceptibly moving away in the presence of humans.
Amuka Lodge at Ziwa is fine for a quick stop-over en route to Murchison Falls National Park. It definitely needs some work: the rooms are quite large yet they have a Spartan feel to them which can easily be changed with a few furnishings, a wall-hanging or two and additional lighting. The bathroom is huge but can only be reached by leaving the room. The lodge’s best feature is definitely the communal lounge and bar area: aged mahogany timber is used in a creative and very memorable way with natural stone and canvas giving the lodge a very solid, authentic feel. The food and hospitality was great: owner Johan Genade and his sons are always around to keep an eye on things and to pitch in with a barbecue dinner. I was impressed with the variety of foods and did not lack for vegan options.
Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary has become increasingly popular with tourists visiting the Murchison’s Falls National Park as it is conveniently located just over 100 miles from Kampala, en route to the park. Ziwa is the only place where rhinos can be seen in the wild in Uganda.
From Ziwa we drove up to Murchison Falls National Park, spending the night at the very pleasant Paraa Lodge, on the northern bank of the Nile River. The area is spectacular in several ways: boat cruises on the Nile River are very productive with excellent bird and other wildlife sightings, with the Shoebill Stork being a highly prized find. We boarded an afternoon ‘sunset’ cruise on the Nile from Nile Safari Camp to Paraa Lodge – this turned out to be one of the most enjoyable outings of the entire trip. This massive river was teeming with birdlife as well as hippo and crocodile.
I would not hesitate to recommend including Murchison Falls National Park on any trip to Uganda. The landscape is somewhat reminiscent of the Maasai Mara, with lots of rolling hills and open plains, even prettier than the Mara. Plus there is the Nile River and Lake Albert as well. We were taken on a good game drive the next morning (lots of giraffe, buffalo, Jackson’s Hartebeest, Uganda Kob, some elephant, oribi, Patas monkeys and several other species, but no lions) which was followed by a second river cruise in the Nile Delta area. This is where I finally came face to face with a Shoebill, which obligingly took to the air right in front of us. These amazing birds, which are specially adapted to predate lungfish, have an almost cartoon-like massive bill which gives it an ungainly appearance, with the bill being almost as big as the entire head of the bird. We got some very good pics of African Skimmers, as well as various herons and other water birds. One of the best outings of the trip by a long margin!
Come to think of it, the birdlife in both Uganda and Rwanda was fantastic: even though I really had no time for any proper ‘birding’, I still ticked off a bunch of life birds including the Shoebill and several other endemic or highly localized specials. The boat trips on the Nile River at Murchison Falls provided ample opportunities for photographs of birds in flight. I had not seen an area this good since a visit several years ago to the Tana Delta of Kenya (Delta Dunes Camp).
Our second (upstream) launch trip on the Victoria Nile River took us to the base of the actual Murchison Falls. As we approached the Falls, the river starts to get more and more narrow and the two sides of the canyon move closer and closer. Not surprisingly the velocity of the water rushing downstream starts to increase. It got really interesting as our skipper – a very capable and knowledgeable guide – had to crank up the outboard motor to keep our skiff from being swept backwards. The Nile River was in near flood stage so the current was massively strong and there were some ominous-looking whirlpools and standing waves in a couple of places. While all this was going on, the Falls themselves were coming into better and better view as we approached, so I would look at the rapids for a second, then lift my head towards the Falls, snap off a pic only to turn back to the rushing water to see if we were still moving in the right direction. Steering to the left side of the river – which was slightly less turbulent than the other side – we eventually made it to a safe docking point, but not before seeing a crocodile gorging on a huge Nile perch. Looking around, we quickly realized that this area is simply infested with crocodiles; they hang around here to feed on fish killed by the violent whirlpool effect of the water going down the Falls.
At the base of the Falls we disembarked and hiked up to the top of the Falls. It was a pretty arduous walk, with a little bit of scrambling here and there and of course it was very hot and steamy. Don’t do this if you’re not at least reasonably fit – or at least take it very easy and tote some water. If you do make the walk, be prepared for one of the best experiences you might find in East Africa: being this close to the fury of the entire Nile River exploding through a narrow gap in the rocky gorge is just flat-out amazing! I marveled at the fantastic power of nature in this raw and 100% unspoiled display of force and violence. It gets better and better as you get closer to the top – observing mountains of water crashing downwards with a thunderous roar is mesmerizing. One viewpoint is better than the next; there are some overlook points with superb views over the adjacent Uhuru Falls as well. I really rate this experience to be every bit as impressive as Victoria Falls; very different as there is no huge curtain of water and the drop itself is not that high. However it is the proximity and the unbelievable force that practically shakes the rocks you are standing on, that does it for me. Emerging at the top, after a quick drenching from the spray, we were greeted by a few rangers. No curio sellers, no soft-drink dispensers, just the sound of the water behind you.
Paraa Lodge and its sister property Mweya Lodge were built in the 1950’s and although they are both great places to stay, they have retained somewhat of a ‘colonial’ flavor; also both of the lodges are quite big with as many as 50 rooms. On our short stay at each of the lodges, this never bothered me. The rooms at Paraa were perhaps a bit dull and not overly big but they have private balconies and pretty nice views over the pool or the river. There are several public areas so we never felt crowded, in fact I did not really see many other people except a handful at mealtimes. No complaints about the food at Paraa: extensive buffet choices and a comprehensive a la carte menu as well; several vegetarian/vegan options.
We also made an inspection visit to Nile Safari Camp which appeared to be a good choice for the Murchison Falls area as well. The common areas and most of the rooms have great views over the Nile itself and the lodge is quite small (a mix of 12 wooden chalets and tented rooms). A couple of the rooms appeared to be rather close to each other and the views from at least one of the verandahs were obscured by the overhang from the roof. A couple of the rooms we saw were very nice though.
APES AND MONKEYS
Of course the primary reason for going to Uganda is the abundance of apes and monkeys: we had some superb chimp sightings in Budongo Forest Reserve, which made up for the subsequent Kibale Forest chimp trek which turned out to be rather unsatisfactory with the chimps mostly way up in the trees and moving around.
We were very lucky with the chimps at Budongo Forest Reserve where one individual posed quite happily for the cameras. I did not have the right lens otherwise I might have had some really good chimp pics! At one stage several of the chimps literally ‘fell’ from the trees, grasping one or two seemingly flimsy twigs as they came crashing down. You don’t see that kind of stuff in the movies, folks! Awesome!
Budongo Forest can be included on any Murchison Falls itinerary, probably best at the end of this segment, before returning to Entebbe/Kampala. The night prior to the chimp trek at Budongo we slept at Budongo Eco Lodge, a very pleasant ‘no frills’ lodge right on the edge of the forest. The big advantage of staying here is that you can walk literally right out of the lodge, to the start of the chimpanzee trek or birdwatching outing. No additional driving involved. This is an important consideration in a country such as Uganda where (at least for now) most transfers between areas are by road.
The gorilla trek in Uganda (southern sector of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest) was good if somewhat tricky: we had to walk down and along a very steep slope, not for everybody! We got very close to the gorillas but photography was difficult: they kept turning their backs on us or dodging behind the vegetation – inadvertently one assumes. I did not have the right photo equipment for a gorilla trek. My 200-400 zoom lens was too much glass and too heavy; I could barely pick it up towards the end. My other lens – a 28-70mm 2.8 zoom lens was just a little on the short side. The ideal lens would be a 70-200mm 2.8: will have to get one of those before the next trip! A good 100-400mm zoom lens would also work.
The gorilla trek on the Rwanda side (Volcanoes NP) was easier although not by much – it involved quite a long walk with some pretty rough spots towards the end, close to where the gorillas were. This time the gorilla family was in a wide open area and I would have gotten some great shots if the weather played along. All went well until about 10 minutes before we got to the gorilla group. About 1 hr walk, not too strenuous, nothing like the slopes of Bwindi. It started to pour just minutes before we got to the gorillas and never let up, in fact it got worse. I took a couple of quick shots and then packed my camera and lens away; I did not want to risk potential serious damage to the camera and/or lenses – just too much water around. Someone else in the group (a dentist from Sheffield England) had 2 cameras seize up on him. Even so it was a great experience. Even in the rain we marvelled at the proximity to those magnificent animals. Back at the lodge the staff cleaned my muddy dirty boots in no time and they are now as good as new. So high marks to everyone at Sabinyo Silverback Lodge.
The service and food at Sabinyo Silverback lived up to expectations: it was impeccable in every way. On the afternoon that I got there after being driven from Kigali (2 hr 30 minutes), I requested some red wine and was pleasantly surprised when a bottle of Nederburg Pinotage showed up. Promptly enjoyed a glass of it while soaking in the best bath I had in the entire trip: the tubs at Sabinyo seem to have been form-fitted for someone of about 5′ 10″ (178 cm): in a pinch it will accommodate slightly taller or shorter persons too… The water was near boiling hot and there was lots of it! Nice robes too – not to mention those cute gorilla gift items for all guests, two hot water bottles in the bed and lots of space to unpack and hang stuff.
There was no shortage of firewood, the personal butler kept a great fire going until late that night. Dinner was exceptional and served family style, met some great folks from California & Sydney, amongst others.
A few of us also did a Golden Monkey trek in Volcanoes National Park. I would not necessarily recommend this activity as a high priority on anyone’s list of things to do in the area but it was a worthwhile outing nonetheless. Our local guide was very entertaining and made abundantly sure that we got some good looks at these rather elusive little creatures. Initially they were in the open on the edge of a bamboo forest but the lighting was no good for photography, with the sky behind them getting blown out. We waited a while for them to hopefully come down to ground level, but that did not happen. Eventually we ventured into the dense bambook forest and for the next hour or so it was a case of hide and seek with the monkeys, grabbing photos where we could. Sometimes it turned into a bit of wild goose chase because we would be following a guide beckoning us along, only to find the monkey already gone when we got to the ‘right’ spot. So it goes. If you have an extra day in this area, by all means sign up for the Golden Monkey trek; it is also the perfect substitute for those younger members of a party (under 15) who do not qualify for a gorilla trek.
The night prior to the Golden Monkey trek we spent at Gorilla View Mountain Lodge. I can’t say that I was very impressed with this lodge, but most people would probably find it a perfectly fine place to stay for one or two nights, as a base for a gorilla trek. For one thing, it is very close to the park headquarters and for another it is not nearly as expensive as the only other close-by option. I was a bit put off by the initial appearance: the reception/lounge area is very dark and poorly lit – the generator is switched on and off at various times during the day. So on arrival one got the impression of being in a power cut situation. The rooms are large and they were rather cold and very, very damp. Probably something to do with the time of the year but really it felt like someone had sprayed my bed with a fine water mist, when I finally got into it that night. A huge bonfire in my fireplace did not really make much of a difference. Also the bathrooms are massive but poorly designed; there was nowhere to put anything or hang anything, and the water pressure was not great. The food was ok: very plain and not really exciting at all (a large buffet) but it was edible and there was a lot of variety, especially in the way of vegetables and starches. Vegetarians and vegans would be quite happy with the choices.
Coming soon in part 2: Kibale Forest, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Kigale and Nyungwe Forest. Also a bit more about our guides and hosts.
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