Part 2: Uganda and Rwanda

By Bert Duplessis, Fish Eagle Safaris

Back to Part 1.

UGANDA AND RWANDA TRIP REPORT: PART 2

It is raining softly at Nyungwe Forest Lodge in far Southwestern Rwanda.  Through the glass panels in front of the lodge’s spectacular dining room, my eyes are drawn to shifting patches of fog clinging to and sometimes obscuring the beautiful primary forest covering the hillsides beyond the camp.

I can practically feel the heavy cloud bank closing in, with giant 90-feet tall trees disappearing in the gloom.  The hills turn into massive waves and a tsunami of fog advances in my direction.  This is the theater of the wilderness, the living breathing manifestation of nature at its finest.  It is moments like these that distinguish an Africa trip from just traveling somewhere.  Those moments when you forget about the trappings of civilization and truly bond with the environment such as when you are gazing upon gorillas in a rain forest, following chimpanzees scattering through the trees or checking the slow wing-beat of a blackheaded Heron flying down the Nile River. A little mental flashback to eons ago when our forefathers roamed the African savannah.  Welcome home.

A cup of Rwandan coffee later, my fleeting Africa moment was gone – and the forest was back.   The fog had dispersed. I turned my attention to a beautiful little black-capped waxbill feeding low in the vegetation on the edge of the lodge.  It was the last morning of my Uganda and Rwanda journey and I was mentally bracing myself for re-entry into the daily routine awaiting back in the USA.

We had seen and experienced some amazing places and things up to that point.  Previously I had mentioned walking with rhinos, trekking chimpanzees and Golden Monkeys, coming eye to eye with the rare Shoebill Stork, experiencing the awesome power of the Nile River thundering down Murchison Falls and of course the highlight of all highlights: observing Mountain Gorillas in their rain forest habitat.

There were several other stops on our itinerary starting from Entebbe in Uganda where our party of 10 visitors had gathered in late April 2012. We started off in a westerly direction towards the country’s well-known game reserves.

KIBALE FOREST NATIONAL PARK

After a long drive  (almost 7 hrs) from Entebbe via Kampala – with nearly 2 hours being spent just to get from Entebbe to Kampala and out of Kampala –  we reached the striking Kyaninga Lodge, a massive log cabin construction perched on the edge of a crater lake.  It was easily the most impressive lodge structure we saw on the trip.   If you are ok with negotiating a lot of stairways and steps, you will love this place!  Everything about it is interesting, warm and inviting, particularly the large fireplace, bar and dining room with a fantastic view over the crater lodge.

While some members of our party hiked around the crater lake, I ran – or rather jogged – the same route.  It was not easy going as the often very narrow path was wet, steep in places and also quite rocky in parts.  Probably best suited for hiking.  Great views though and a bonus sighting of some vervet monkeys along the way.  I added another few miles of running on the dirt road from the lodge to a nearby village.  As was the case on all my little running jaunts while in Uganda and Rwanda, I attracted quite a bit of attention with everyone being very friendly: lots of smiles, ‘how are you’s’, and even a few inquiries about my well-being such as “… are you physically fit?”  I got the impression that some of the younger kids wanted to practice their English.  Fine by me!

Later that evening we enjoyed drinks in front of the cozy fireplace, and then a superb dinner with a curried vegetable dish.

The following morning we trekked for chimps at Kibale Forest and as I had mentioned earlier, it turned out to be a frustrating and ultimately rather disappointing outing.  There was a lot of hiking involved.  Although the trails were initially quite good – much easier-going than Budongo Forest – it turned into a rather tedious and fruitless pursuit.  We trudged around this admittedly beautiful forest for near on three hours without actually getting any really good looks at the chimps.  There were a few of them scampering around the tree-tops but with no clear looks or any chance at photography, we all felt rather glum at the end of the proceedings.  For a while towards the end there, we followed a small party of chimps along a pathway inside a cane sugar plantation.  Unfortunately they headed into the thickets and by that time most of us had enough of the pursuit.  It was hot and we were getting pretty hungry so by unanimous consent we called it a day.

On the way back to the lodge – in the vehicles – we spotted some chimps in the trees and actually got some decent looks at several of them descending to the forest floor.  We tried to get some better looks by following them into the undergrowth but it was not to be:  in fact the last 20 minutes or so of the chimp trek turned out to be more frustrating than any other part of it:  very dense forest which made for exceptionally difficult walking.  It was a relief when we realized we were back at Primate Lodge. Lunch at Primate Lodge was a bit of a grab-bag affair consisting of potato salad, vegetarian pizza, a pasta salad, fried fish fingers, and a couple of other items.  It took a while to get ready but it didn’t matter: we were starving and would have enjoyed pretty much anything edible by that stage!

NDALI LODGE

Most of us – except a hardy few including Omar and Lut – opted out of yet another hike around the Bigodi Wetland Forest.  Our thoughts had already turned towards the next destination which was Ndali Lodge, a stone and thatch construction stunningly located amidst the Bunyaruguru crater lakes region of Western Uganda.  It was difficult to decide which view – from Ndali Lodge – was the best.  The crater lake on one side or the spectacular Ruwenzoris (the Mountains of the Moon) on the other side.  My room (#8) faced towards the mountain and in retrospect that was my preferred vantage point.

Dinner at Ndali Lodge that night was splendid, with genial host and co-owner Aubrey Price regaling us on stories of bygone years, and more specifically giving us the history of the family-owned farm and lodge.   His late father Captain Mark Price reclaimed the property in the mid-90’s and built the lodge which opened in 1996.  It is a lovely property and the experience of staying there is very much like being a guest at someone’s country home.  It is very relaxed and casual, with home-style food (roast chicken on the night we were there), and a great breakfast with the freshest eggs you can imagine.   You simply have to have some of the ginger & lemongrass tea! My room was very comfortable and I thoroughly enjoyed the luxury of another hot bath, with plenty of piping hot water available.  Ndali Lodge does look a little frayed at the edges:  nothing major but I just got the impression that upkeep is not quite what it should be.

Reminder for Kibale Forest: It is essential to wear  long pants  and hiking boots with long socks to tuck pants into or alternatively (or even additionally) some gaiters.  There are safari ants in the forest  which can inflict a painful bite and there are lots of nettles and other  plants with thorns so by all means protect your lower legs.

MWEYA AND THE KAZINGA CHANNEL

Our next stop was Mweya Safari Lodge (same group as Paraa Safari Lodge) with a very similar feel.  However at Mweya it was quite a hike to the room, which had a very nice view over the Kasinga Channel but with parking spaces (and tarmac roads) right in front of the entrances to the rooms.  This does not make it feel like a very wild place but of course appearances can be deceiving. The next morning – walking to the dining room – I saw the telltale signs of several hippo having visited the road right in front of our rooms, the previous night.

Everything else at Mweya was perfectly fine: the large dining room & lounge with great views over the water, the food (good coffee!); the bar (I showed them how to mix a dry gin martini!) and the amazing birdlife around the lodge grounds.  It is a pity that I did not have time to do some birding here, but it can clearly be very rewarding.

Our two activities at Mweya were a Banded Mongoose trek on the day of arrival and a cruise on the Kazinga Channel on the day of departure.  The mongoose trek was a first for probably all of us.  It was quite amazing to see a whole group of mongooses – there must have been 30 or so of them – come scampering out of the woodland to inspect the ‘bait bucket’ (they know there’s good stuff in there!) and see them clamber all over the scale without any coercion on the part of the research assistants.  Banded Mongooses with their sharp little faces are definitely in the ‘cute’ category – but that is not why they are being studied. It has to do with their peculiar breeding hierarchy where all females are allowed to breed, in contrast with most cooperative species where only one female (the alpha) breeds and suppresses the others from doing so.

The cruise on the Kazinga Channel was definitely a highlight.  Even if there were no wildlife or birds to be seen, this would be worthwhile excursion – a peaceful and relaxing cruise along a beautiful shoreline.  Of course there were plenty of interesting things to be seen including many buffalo, a few elephants at a distance, plenty of crocodiles, hippo everywhere and a staggering variety of birds with literally dozens if not hundreds of pied kingfishers, a couple of other kingfisher species, herons, egrets, storks, and African Fish Eagles every few hundred meters.  Some of them have clearly seen one too many cruises go by, because they just sat there and stared at us, not even bothering to take off.  Eventually one pair did put on a bit of a show for us and I captured a couple of good images.

En route to Mweya we had made a slight detour and stopped over for lunch at the superb Volcanoes Kyambura Gorge Lodge.  This superb lodge has great views over the gorge and the lush savannah of Queen Elizabeth National Park.  The very eclectic main lodge building has been sensitively restored (it was originally a coffee store and processing plant) to create a stunning living space with several  luxurious contemporary spaces for guests.  The rooms are no less impressive either, each with its own color scheme and distinctive design elements.

ISHASHA WILDERNESS CAMP

From Mweya we headed towards Ishasha, a less-traveled part of Queen Elizabeth National Park.  This time, it was not too long of a drive, just a couple of hours or so  – with lunch enjoyed picnic-style en route .

As a group we all really liked this remote tented camp on the edge of the heavily flowing Ntungwe River.  It is a low-impact camp with pretty basic but very spacious tented rooms and a very functional, yet quite attractive main area consisting of a lounge and dining room under canvas.  Contrary to so many of the other properties we stayed at in Uganda and even later in Rwanda, this place really felt like it was way out there in the wilderness and it was!  Camp manager Neil was very friendly and welcoming and had set up a riverside sundowner for our group, which was a great way to relax a bit, enjoy  a gin and tonic and a nice spread of snacks as well as each other’s company outside of the vehicles.  Dinner was quite good too: a vegetarian take on shepherd’s pie which most of us preferred over the meat choice.

That night it poured (we had rain several nights during the trip) and the river came up even higher.  I was not the only person in the group to suffer from disturbed sleep – some water did in fact get into the bathroom portion of my tent.  By early the next morning the river in front of camp was in fact noticeably higher but it was still well under its banks:  the only casualties were a few low-hanging weaver nests.

We missed out on the tree-climbing lions at Ishasha but they are there; visitors should just spend a bit more time than we did!  The Ishasha region of Queen Elizabeth National Park had plenty of other game though; we enjoyed some excellent views of buffalo, large herds of Uganda Kob, Topi and giraffe, amongst others.  Ishasha is definitely a good place for a stop-over en route to Bwindi.

BUHOMA & BWINDI IMPENETRABLE FOREST

Our long drive from Ishasha to Buhoma was made even longer due to a bridge being out: it was the rainy season and apparently bridges are fairly regularly being washed out at this time of the year. Driving in the wet season in Uganda is definitely an adventure: very narrow roads in places, muddy conditions and plenty of slopes, hills and ravines make for some nervous moments.  Our driver-guides Male and his colleague Abdul handled it professionally and calmly and I felt extremely safe at all times.

Even so the twisty roads and poor conditions make for very slow progress.  When there are detours involved such as on this day, it can seemingly take forever to get somewhere.  Fortunately, the people of Uganda – and particularly the children of whom there are many everywhere – are very friendly and welcoming.  If we got waved at once, we got waved at a thousand times, and each time more enthusiastically than the previous time.  Little kids would literally drop whatever they were holding and come running towards the road helter skelter, just to gawk and wave at the collection of msungus passing by.

By lunchtime we reached the village of Buhoma right outside of the northern edge of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.   Our accommodation for the night was Mahogany Springs lodge, where we received an enthusiastic welcome and which certainly impressed me as being a good choice for a stay in this area.  I shared a large cottage ‘suite’ with a huge common area and two big rooms, very comfortable bed and shower with plenty of hot water.  Dinner was great too, as were the views of the impressive forest from the front of the lodge.  What I did not have time for was to do some birding in the gardens: there were lots of interesting-looking species including sunbirds flitting about, but I was planning on some running.

Which brings me to a general observation about visiting Uganda and Rwanda: it is a perfect destination for active travelers who want to get out of the vehicle  and enjoy some invigorating exercise by running, walking or hiking.  Outdoor exercise opportunities are practically non-existent in most Southern Africa destinations such as Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kruger Park in South Africa, Mashatu, Pafuri etc. and many East African areas such as the Maasai Mara and the Serengeti, Samburu and others.  Very few camps have gyms or any kind of exercise equipment or facilities. So visitors end up gaining weight and getting ‘stir crazy’ through a lack of exercise.  Not so in Uganda and Rwanda.  Almost every day – with a few exceptions such as inside Queen Elizabeth National Park or parts of Murchison Falls National Park – I could take to the roads and run as far as I could go.

As it turned out my running outings were some of the most memorable events on the entire trip.  Invariably, the scenery was spectacular and always, there were interested observers and often other participants. This was certainly the case at Buhoma where I ran along a narrow winding mountain road, first through the village itself – with all kinds of interesting shops lining the streets – and then further into the valley below.  All along the way there were friendly villagers measuring my progress and checking out my bright orange running shoes.  Several times a few kids would join in briefly, big smiles lighting up their faces as they outpaced me, their bare feet lightly skimming over the rocky surface.  On the way back a young man – he turned out to be 21 and his name was Robert – accompanied me for quite a distance. Initially the long machete (panga) in his right hand was a bit disconcerting, but just for a moment as his big wide grin dispelled any apprehension I might have felt.  Machetes  are as common as cellphones in Uganda – especially in the rural areas.  Soon enough Robert and I were  chatting about family (him married one year, 1 child; me married 30 years, 2 children) and where we were from.  Me from Texas, him from just across the road from our lodge in Buhoma Village.  I had made a new friend.

The next morning our little group set out on a hike of about 4 hours through the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.  With porters carrying our bags it was much easier than most of us had anticipated. Really more of a stroll through a beautiful forest than a serious hike.  The environment was spectacular with giant trees pretty much shielding us from direct light, creating the typical interior forest gloom, a soft  light with few shadows  – great for photography if you have a fast lens.  The best part of the hike was at the end where we enjoyed real cappuccino coffee or tea if you preferred.  From there it was a bit of a slog  as it started to rain quite heavily and we were all ‘trapped’ on a steep, muddy trail up to the spot where the vehicles were parked, about a half mile higher up.  It was interesting, to say the least. I was drenched and was worried about my camera gear.  Thanks goodness the Nikon brand is very rugged and a bit of water turned out to be no problem.

Our stop for the night was Nkuringo Lodge, which arguably has the best location of any of the Uganda lodges (and that says a lot considering we stayed at Kyaninga and Ndali) with stupendous views over the  mountains and the volcanoes.  On arrival we were all pre-occupied with getting dry and taking care of our soaked boots – a fireplace with coals came in very handy for that purpose.  Dinner later that evening was quite enjoyable.  By this stage I had started to ask for the local specialties so my bean dish with maize porridge (posho) was perfect.  Nkuringo Lodge was one of the more basic camps on the trip with shared bathrooms & showers  and dormitory-type rooms with inadequate lighting and really nowhere to unpack or hang anything.  Even so the location makes up for the lack of facilities and for budget-minded travelers this would not be a bad choice.  Shortly after arrival I strapped on my running shoes again and went on a 10-k run down towards the village at the base of the valley – the lodge is up against the crest of the hill.  It was not one of the easiest runs I have done in my life but it was certainly the most spectacular – a rave run if ever there was one.  Definitely in my personal ‘Hall of Fame’of running  ranking right up there with outings at Grootbos in the Southern Cape (sun sinking into the ocean to my left), San Francisco with the Golden Gate bridge in the background, and the Maasai Mara where I did a ‘game run’ one day a few years ago.  Saw more animals – including buffalo – in an hour of running than I have seen on many many game drives lasting several hours, elsewhere in Africa.  The run at Nkuringo Lodge was sublime with constantly changing views of the mist over the mountain valleys and the far-off volcanoes.

The next day early we embarked upon our first gorilla trek which I dealt with in Part 1 of the trip report.  It was a happy bunch of travelers who arrived at the deluxe Cloud’s Lodge the next afternoon.  I think we all loved the beautiful setting – again with jaw-dropping views over the mountains and volcanoes – and the beautiful lounge area and dining room at Cloud’s.  The rooms were pretty nice too:  soft linens , lots of space, lots of privacy.  One of our team members – Gabi – celebrated her birthday on this day so dinner was a festive affair complete with birthday cake and sparkling wine.  We had a great time and the dinner itself was good too if somewhat unimaginative – a variation on the usual vegetarian stew.

The only disappointing aspect to the stay at Cloud’s was the picnic lunch which they packed for us for the next day’s trip into Rwanda. It looked like someone threw together a few sandwiches and that was it: they completely forgot to include a vegetarian option so I was not impressed.  The day itself was pretty much a washout  as we had to make a long detour due to a blocked road (large truck got sideways) and we did not make it to our destination – supposedly a Batwa village – until hours after the daily trek/outing was supposed to start. Some of the roads en route, especially the last couple of miles – were bone-jarringly bad.  In the end we made the long journey out to Mgahinga National Park for absolutely nothing.  We did not see any of the Batwa people.  Or their village.  A few of us hung around the vehicle while the real troopers took a short walk.  We then ‘enjoyed’ the picnic lunch (sorry for the sarcastic note) and bumped our way back to the main road to drive out of Uganda and into Rwanda.  The only redeeming feature of the day was some spectacular scenery over a lake which we were ‘forced’ to circumnavigate due to the detour. It was one of the prettiest scenes of the entire trip and as you can tell by now, I am running out of superlatives to describe the views. How many times can you say spectacular, gorgeous, stupendous or mind-blowing…

RWANDA

After a rather tedious yet uneventful border crossing from Uganda – nice not to have to pay for a visa! – we found ourselves in Rwanda, dodging the many pedestrians competing for road space with trucks, cars, motor bikes, bicycles and what not.  Quite a scene and it was to be repeated pretty much throughout Rwanda.  The roads are mostly paved so quite easily negotiated, they are just narrow with practically no thought for the well-being of the hundreds of pedestrians. There are no shoulders – mostly just deep ditches to get rid of the large amounts of rainwater which fall here in months including March, April and May.  It was getting to be late afternoon by the time we made it to Gorilla Mt. View Lodge where we spent the night and where several of us did a Golden Monkey trek the following morning.  This was also covered in Part 1 of the trip report, as was my subsequent gorilla trek in the same area, but based at the superb Sabinyo Silverback Lodge.

The following evening we were in Rwanda’s sparkling and attractive capital city – Kigali – at the Serena Hotel.  My room was perfectly fine, with everything you could possibly want for a comfortable night’s sleep including a room that gets totally dark, soft pillows, and it was quiet.  All the other amenities including a nice range of toiletries, a real bath (not a shower person…), in-room mini-bar and good lighting were bonuses.  On my subsequent stay at the Serena things did not initially go well as I found myself in a room without hot water – for several hours – and it turned out to be very noisy with a loud band playing pool-side, right below my room.  The Serena handled it well though, upgrading me very quickly to a Junior Suite.

On the last night of the main part of the trip, our group enjoyed dinner at Khana Khazana, a large and clearly quite popular Indian restaurant.  It took a while to get our orders in but as it turned out the kitchen was fairly quick.  The restaurant has a very extensive menu with a bewildering array of Indian specialties. Fortunately I spotted Chana Masala, a reliable chickpea stew.  Just what the doctor ordered and it was pretty tasty!  We thanked our hosts, said our farewells – some members of the group would be departing later that same evening – and went back to the hotel.  As a group we had grown very close in the space of just 10 days or so, and there were several new friendships established.  It was a particularly amiable yet very well-travelled and knowledgeable group of people.  I hope that we will be able to meet up for a similar trip to Mozambique next year.

The following two days I spent at  Nyungwe Forest (a 2-night minimum stay is recommended, 3 nights would be even better as it would enable guests to do a chimp trek as well as some walking and possibly a visit to the local tea estate).  I  would recommend the area for visitors to Rwanda who are keen on hiking/nature – there are some spectacular trails and an impressive Canopy Walk, as high as 90 meters in places, with amazing views over a beautiful primary forest.  Nyungwe is also a chimpanzee trek destination so visitors can extend their stay in Rwanda by a couple of nights and do a chimp trek there.  There are flights available in both directions from Kigali to Kamembe (about 1 hr drive from Nyungwe Forest) but I would recommend driving from Kigali to Nyungwe and stopping over in Mutare for a visit to the King’s Palaces (traditional and modern) as well as the superb Rwanda ethnographic museum.  I found the visit to the two palaces to be particularly insightful and it really opened my eyes to the ancient history of Rwanda stretching back to the 11th Century.  There is so much focus on the time period from colonial times until the Genocide and its aftermath, that the early history tends to be glossed over.

Nyungwe Forest Lodge was the best of any of the properties we stayed in during the trip – only Sabinyo Silverback and Clouds rivalled it but the rooms at Nyungwe Forest Lodge are really nice, tucked in on the edge of the forest.  The food was very good too – the chef was happy to serve me the local fare consisting of posho (a variation on polenta) with beans and dodo (locally harvested wild spinach).

Our time spent at Nyungwe Forest was mostly contemplative and relaxing but we did undertake a stroll along the Ngishigishigi Trail, deep inside the forest itself.  On the day it was quite foggy and the interplay of mist, color, light and shade made it a very special experience.  All thoughts of time and place disappear as you become totally focused on the colorful flowers, massive trees and tree stumps, and swathes of bright green moss seemingly growing on just about every surface.  Butterflies, secretive birds and monkeys chattering in the distance add yet another layer to the experience.  The canopy walk which took us some 90 meters (more than 270 feet) above the forest floor was well worth the effort.  It is a very sturdy construction and all but the most height-phobic individuals should feel comfortable looking down upon the tree-tops, imaging what it would be like to lift off and land softly on a branch below.

CONCLUSION

It was too much of a whirlwind trip (one night stands galore!) to get a truly representative sampling of the wildlife but if one were to spend a few days each in the Murchison Falls NP and in Queen Elizabeth National Park (Mweya area with the Kazinga Channel and Ishasha), you should come away with some pretty decent game sightings in Uganda.

In addition to that, Kibale (for chimp trekking) and of course Bwindi for a gorilla trek should be on any Uganda itinerary.  I would be inclined to add a second chimp trek at either Budongo Forest or at Nyungwe in Rwanda if that country is part of the itinerary.

In Rwanda the focus is very much on gorilla treks at Volcanoes National Park; time permitting (or for children under 15 years) a Golden Monkey trek – in the same general area – is also a fun outing. Nyungwe Forest is spectacular and a drive out there, with a stop at Mutare for the museum and the King’s palaces – are highly recommended also.

In summary I would say the best reasons to visit Uganda and Rwanda are the apes and monkeys with chimps and gorillas at the top of the list; scenic beauty; and then wildlife (mammals, reptiles, birds etc).  Of course the people and cultural experiences rate very highly in my book – some of my most memorable moments were all about connecting with people while running or on activities.

For anyone with more than a passing interest in birds and birding, both Uganda and Rwanda are loaded with spectacular and in many cases endemic or near-endemic species.

Our hosts – The Far Horizons company – could not have been more helpful in the time-frame leading up to or during the trip itself.  I received complete and very useful formation well in advance and was for once well-prepared right down to gaiters and a water bottle.  Patrick Shah and his capable team in Uganda and Stella Wadulo and her support staff in Rwanda did a sterling job all-round and we all felt extremely well taken care of and safe.  It was a great trip and I will certainly do what I can in future to encourage travel to this wonderful, lovely part of Africa.

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