Uganda is a fascinating country of contrasts. From bustling, almost westernized cities of Kampala and Jinja to simple settlements all over the countryside and vast untouched wilderness in the national parks. From dry savanna in the north to lush mountain rainforests in south-west and rolling hills in between. I was lucky to have been able to spend 13 days in this roller coaster of sights and impressions.
After having been to Botswana, it is almost a shock to travel through Uganda. Nothing of the emptiness. Instead Uganda is very densely populated and, for lack of a better description, very much in your face. You can’t escape it, sights and smells are relentless. Every last bit of space is used up by small plots of banana, coffee and beans, which are the main staples of Ugandan cuisine. And then, drawn with a ruler, is the boundary of the parks and tea plantations and the quietness and peacefulness within. However, once giving in to the friendliness of the Ugandan people, it is the best part of the trip.
Trip was an organized tour through Drifters. It is a barebones camping tour with a couple nights in simple rooms. The barebones part is actually a plus as we get to stay in the middle of what we came to see rather than isolated in some posh hotel room. We lucked out with a small group of 4 and our guide.
Day 1: Kampala – Lake Mburo
The trip started in Kampala after a very short night as we only got in at 2 am after 20+hrs of flying. Kampala is a very interesting city and sort of a condensed version of Uganda in itself. From modern buildings to ramshackle outskirts, which are much more like the rest of Uganda as it will turn out. The first night was at Lake Mburo national park. On the way there, we crossed the Equator and had to do the obligatory selfie. As with all the other stops, camping at Lake Mburo was in a established campsite. There is no wild campaign in Uganda as there simply is no space left. So we went to sleep to the sound of the hippos, which would follow us throughout most of the trip.
Day 2: Lake Mburo – Lake Bunyoni
In the morning we had to fight off a couple baboons, a warthog and a vervet monkey which were after our breakfast. During the game drive leaving the park in the morning we found a deeply wounded hippo in a drying pond. It seems he took on the wrong male and paid dearly for it.
The drive to Lake Bunyoni had us crossing many villages. All of Uganda it seems is completely developed. All of it are roadside villages, some more upscale, some less so. The area in between is divided in small plots of agriculture. The panorama below shows the mosaic of little fields. In Lake Bunyoni we spend the night in a private campground with more upscale showers and facilities. The lake itself is very deep with steep slopes. This makes the lake free of Bilharziasis and hippos and thus one can swim. It is the only lake where we could swim if we dared as the water was rather on the cold side.
Day 3: Lake Bunyoni – Bwindi
We started the day with a boat ride on the lake with a local guide. He explained a bit about the various islands, especially punishment island. That’s where they used to abandon pregnant unmarried women. It’s a very small island without any food or shelter. Quite a few women supposedly died there, while others were rescued by their lovers. Today the little island is home to a large number of birds, including Uganda’s state bird, the Grey-Crested Crane.
Before we moved on, we paid a quick visit to the orphanage just above the campground. It is a small collection of simple buildings with 40 children up to age 10 (roughly). We were treated to a couple dances and songs from the children, but I think we were a much bigger attraction to them.
The rest was a fairly quick trip to the Wagtail eco safari camp in Rubuguri where we abandoned our tents and upgraded to private rooms with showers. That would come in very handy after the next day. To close of the day, we hired a local guide to do a village walk and visit a family of the pygmy people. They are known as Batwa and are mostly considered sub people by others and are rather neglected. What they might lack in social status, they more than compensated in attitude in dance and song. We then continued through the village to see public and private schools. With about 100 students per class, public schools are somewhat overtaxed.
To add to the excitement, the end of that week was election day in Uganda. So everywhere we went there was a political rally.
Day 4: Bwindi (Gorilla Trekking)
This is the Gorilla trek day. Trekking Mountain Gorillas, also known as Silverbacks, is an arduous tour up a steep mountains. First all visitors meet at the ranger station for a briefing by a national park ranger. Then everyone was divided into groups of 8 and drove to the starting points for the individual gorilla groups. Ours was to be the Busingye Gorilla family. That is where the actual hike started. Seeing the steep hill we had to climb, I broke down and hired a porter for the backpack with all the photo gear.
Going up the road and then a path, one can really appreciate the density of development. Every last square inch is used for fields. Then, all of a sudden, a line drawn in the field marks the start of the national park and the fields become a wall of trees and thick grown underbrush. That is where we learned why Bwindi forrest it is called the impenetrable forrest. So on we went. After 2 hrs of hiking we found the gorillas. At that point we left the porters behind and the real fun started. We left the path and two rangers using machetes cut a way through the forrest. We started with a silverback happily munching on the vines. As he started moving, we slowly followed and were treated to a mom with an infant a bit further away. Sorry, there are a lot of photos here, but I just couldn’t decide which ones I liked best.
After returning pretty shot, we spend some more time with Gordon, our local guide, and his youth soccer team.
Day 5: Bwindi – Queen Elizabeth National Park
After an early start we made our way to Queen Elizabeth National Park. QE national park is famous for its tree climbing lions. And sure enough, on the way in we saw several lions on a tree. However, once we paid and got to the point we saw them, they descended from the tree and started hiding. In order to make up for it, we saw a couple elephants up and close.
This night we set camp in the Ishasha wilderness camp, which like all the other sites, is a campsite with showers and pit toilets. It was right on the river which defines the border to Congo and thus we had 2 armed guards posted at night. That said, I am not so sure they would have been of much help should a raid come over the river.
Day 6: Queen Elizabeth National Park
The day was spend entirely within Queen Elizabeth National Park on game drives. The goal was to find the tree climbing lions again. But no luck. Not a single lion to be seen. Nonetheless, the rest of the flora and fauna is still very pretty and interesting. We were treated to a huge herd of buffalos. Of course, since we were camping by the river, we got lots and lots of hippos. I can still hear their grunts.
To be continued with the events of days 7 – 13 on a separate post.