And so the big day dawned- I was off to Uganda, playground of former Idiot Amin but also to Gorillas, Chimps and amazing bird life, never mind the culture, food, people, drivers and good beer.
Here’s how it all started 15 May 2010 when I downloaded my email, one being from life time friend Carl, who is now based in Singapore.
“Just wanted to let me know my dates for a trip to SA and Uganda. I was also wandering if you wanted to join us in Uganda. I can help with the cost, and would be great to have you along. Mainly going to see the Gorillas, assuming we can book in.” Carl
Bit of a dumb question I guess.
Safely transported to the airport by pal Miles, an air rifle acquaintance, we got Carl’s finer half Davina checked it and then checked in ourselves. Goodbyes were said to Darvina and we boarded SA160 to Entebbe.
The onboard service was superb and our hostage did a superb job in ensuring we didn’t dehydrate over the 3h50 flight up North and the middle seat’s food tray came in extremely useful. The 1st officer, a lady named Wendy I had met years ago when she was flying Beech 1900’s did the leg and greased it in – absolutely superb. We’d been joined by Carl’s pal Paul, also from Singapore and an avid photographer.
We got through customs ok and were fetched by the lodge where we’re staying at by their driver. A tasty bowl of soup and a few beers put us to bed.
Chris, the fourth member of our party arrived Sunday morning as did our driver, Godwin, a master in defensive driving which I’ll talk about later.
His Hiace type transport soon has us loaded as we made our way to Kibali, where our adventure would truly begin. Not without the obligatory puncture I might add, along with the incorrect jack. All was sorted however in an hour.
Monday morning arrived and we assembled in the forests for our first trip- Chimpanzee tracking. The affable Johnson, complete with AK-47, was our guide and no sooner having been dropped off in the forest did the action begin.
Just 20m away and high in the canopy we’d found the chimps. It was now a game of patience as their shrill calls travelled through the forest. One by one they came into view and started their descent to ground level. We followed as they moved closer toward the remainder of the troop some distance away and what we were about to see amazed us- domestic violence at its best, in the middle of Africa. Uganda is after all, on the equator.
A youngish female has come into season and had set her sights on a subordinate male.
This is not the Chimps’ modus operandi and although free to choose her own mate, may not stoop down to a junior.
The ‘cabinet’ set about rectifying her wayward thinking and systematically took turns in beating her up with their fists, and with ado I might add, along with much shouting, screaming and wailing from the various parties involved. She took pounding after pounding with one male deciding that his fists weren’t having the desired effect and simply kicked her off a branch from around 10m up. A short while afterwards, our victim was seen sidling up to a more senior member.
If a female does do the dastardly thing and bear a child from a male in another troop, her troop will beat her mercilessly for three days, kill the baby after that and eat it to punish her.
We then happened upon a chap further into the forest who was quite content with his lot in life and simply lay on his back, staring into space and occasionally giving us a glance with his one eye- the other eye had a large cataract.
Playing with his feet like a newborn does, he simply stayed in the same spot while Paul and Chris snapped away.
We took a leisurely stroll out the forest a bit later on and headed off to lunch.
A tour to a vlei/swamp later that day proved interesting with its many inhabitants, including the rather rare Blue Turaco. Several Colobus species were present including Black and White, Red and Red Tailed, although they aren’t habituated and tend to keep their distance.
Next up was a trip to the Kazinga Channel in the Queen Elizabeth National Park which joins Lake Albert with Lake Edward. There are lions there, plenty Bushbuck and Kops, similar to our Impala, but not much else. We didn’t see the kitties in the park and I’m not sure I’d recommend going there given the poor variety of game on view.
The channel itself proved much more interesting and besides the birds, some angry Hippos with calves not much older than two weeks made their unhappiness known.
Getting your smallish boat nudged by a grumpy mother isn’t fun but the sightings were amazing.I had more skidmarks in my under jocks than Brands Hatch!
From literally thousands of Pied King Fishers feeding in the rich waters, countless Fish Eagles providing the background music, Terns, Maribou and Saddle Billed stalks also made appearances. Now add in Black Throated Coucals, Darters, Little and Great Egrets, Goliath and Great Herons, African Jacanas, a Palm Nut Vulture, Hamerkops, Crested Crane (Uganda’s national bird) Skimmers and the brilliant Malachite King Fisher and this was truly Twitcher’s Paradise!
We then made the long trip to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park for the highlight of our trip. It’s not called that for nothing either!
Chimp’s Nest where we stayed was truly awesome, along with the tree-houses we stayed in. Ok, the trek from the lodge itself hardly made us happy, and neither did the coldish water for showers, but hell, sitting back in the darkness after a long day with tall scotch in hand watching a large bat navigate his way with high precision through our veranda catching his supper was awesome.
Thursday dawned and we made our way to the assembly point for the Gorilla part. There are three families in the forest and each tour consists of just eight people who are allowed just one hour with the primates once successfully tracked. The Ugandans are a clever bunch though, and at $500USD per person, know which side their bread is buttered. Trackers are sent way ahead of each group and they in turn relay the position of the family to each tour guide via two way radios. Less fuss if you want to look at it that way, more efficiency, less walking.
( I could have sworn I saw my insrtuctor’s face fron Bourkes Luck when he gave us an ‘opfok’ in 36 deg C when subjected to this quiet amble. Looking back as I carried a boerbull up the slopes, Bourkes Luck was tame!)
That said, we stumbled our way up the mountain, stumbling being the operative word on a 45 degree slope. In just over an hour, we’d reached the troop, which now consists of 19 members, thanks to the addition of a youngster a few months back.
The tour guides and her aides are extremely efficient, the former brandishing machetes with much deftness and quietness – they chop away foliage to give a clear view for pictures etc, which in some cases isn’t necessary as you get really close to them. Gorillas are habituated and take little notice of humans, but merrily go about life stuffing as much foliage into their faces as possible. They eat perpetually and in huge quantities.
We were ushered down the slope to view the jewel in the troop, the Silverback and in this case, the leader of this family. You might get one or two, sometime three in a family and they are termed this once they reach a certain age, thanks to the back that gets a broad band of silver hair. (Blerry tour guide nicknamed yours truly Silverback, thanks to him being the oldest in our quad squad!)
Silverbacks are truly spectacular and this particular chap’s shoulders were larger than a door’s width, much larger. The absence of a neck in appearance is also apparent, thanks to super developed muscles but as many would know who have done these trips, largely peaceful and ‘rustig’, despite his formidable size. The apes entertained for at least an hour as they foraged around and the canopy that they had occupied was largely destroyed by the time we left- they’d eaten, broken it and one specimen had a vine snap as it attempted to get down to ground level. Much laughter as it descended to the soft forest floor.
The highlight was of course getting really close to two Gorillas. Paul and I were watching the antics as one decided to cross the ravine. He simply slid down the ravine toward us, stopping halfway to decide and survey which route to follow across. Nick, Paul, shrub, Gorilla = 1.5m…. yep, Paul could have reached out and patted the beast but that’s dumb and a strict no-no. Gorilla genes are around 98% similar to ours and are thus very susceptible to catching our flu, colds or what have you, hence the 1 hour limit you’re supposed to spend with them. Our tour guide happily broke that rule…
Finally, they’d located mum under a small tree and motioned us closer. The youngster, just like a human, was incredibly inquisitive and after his third failed attempt to get closer to us was hauled away by mum who we could hear admonishing her offspring. Work on 2.5m proximity.
Of interest of course is that Gorillas make a new bed each night (around 4-5 minutes) and in the mornings, use it as a lavatory. This ensures that no-one else uses it, while the faeces simply dries up and eventually blows away in the light breeze.
Down the mountain and we came across another favourite of yours truly, a small chameleon of the flap necked variety. Much more colourful than ours too.
Our final point of interest was Lake Bunyoni, a former volcanic crater which now supports the locals and their subsistence farming. Our bus decided to overheat on the way there but was soon fixed in the dorp, no hassle.
Ok, coffee and tea are big exports but the population largely feeds itself and we didn’t see one tractor-ploughed field – it’s all done manually with hoes. There aren’t many fish in Bunyoni and birdlife is scarce. The terraced hills are an eyesore so turn that one down if you do head up that way and your tour company offers you a trip.
Finally, we were on our way home of Uganda’s abysmal roads, if you can call them that. A mere 430km from Bunyoni to Kampala and then onto Entebbe took an astounding 11 hours- guess who was frumpy when we got to Entebbe?
Besides that, Uganda is an interesting place. It’s progressed in leaps and bounds since they got rid of Idiot and are generally a happy lot, except when getting bombed during SWC. All in retaliation to Uganda lending military assistance to a neighbouring country.
The food is ok, but we steered clear of Matoke, a starchy banana, although the avo salads are a must have. Chicken (rather stringy) and chips are popular while steaks are ok, even if pulverised extensively.
Avoid tap water and preferably buy a tipple or two at duty free.
Eggs, fruits and juice are common breakfast items although bacon is largely scarce. Jams are common which you tire of, so take along Bovril or Marmite!
The locals dislike having their pictures taken, a suspicious lot, so do that surreptitiously if you are going to snap away.
Public transport is non-existent so taxis are popular, as are motorcycle taxis. I’d avoid the latter, even if it is novel as they ride like complete kamikaze pilots. The riders rarely wear helmets either so fatalities are quite high when they do wipe out. I’ll publish an addition to this shortly
The Gorillas are protected with fervour and each tour group has a chap at the front and the rear, both armed with AK’s. It’s these chaps that are sent deep into the forest every time the Gorillas venture near the Congolese border and chase them back again, although the Gorillas have worked this one out largely and stay far away from this non eco friendly country. Rwanda and Uganda appear to work together quite closely.
Besides protecting their Gorillas, Ugandans also protect their autobanks with aplomb.
Two chaps with AK’s and one with a bolt action hunting rifle were found at one in a rural town to give you an idea. The roadhouse we stopped at on Saturday when returning had an AK armed guard while the various hotels and lodges also
boast AK47 armed guards.
You also fear not walking around at night while the Red Rooster in Entebbe is a hoot too, although laced with countless hookers plying their trade.
Beer is cheap, especially from roadside stalls, although not always cold, given that Uganda has yet to run power lines in many parts. Nile Lager was my favourite and at around R7.50 per quart, was a bargain. Its has hints of Weissbier taste and goes down well, as does the locally made Gin derivative, Waragi, which has the kick of an ill tempered mule but also tasty.
Most accommodation has mozzi nets but your prophylactics in the form of tablets and Tabard are crucial.
The weather is great and you’ll need a light windbreaker or jersey on occassions.
On a very humbling note, I had the privilege of joining Carl for lunch with his uncle Keith. A doctor by profession, Keith arrived in Uganda in 1964 as a missionary doctor and is now 74 years of age. Keith has countless degrees and papers that he’s written so I won’t stop short of guessing that he’s pretty close to MENSA.
This kind man earns absolutely pittance and spends his time driving into remote areas with a trusty 1988/1990 Hilux where he performs eyes operations on the locals, mostly removing cataracts and so forth. He’s also taken countless children under wing in his 46 years in Uganda, supporting them and ensuring that they receive a good education.
He’ll be packing his bags shortly after which, among other things, he’ll lecture in ophthalmic science and medicine and which will hopefully put a few extra scheckles into his retirement fund. A truly remarkable soul, who’s intelligence, expertise and passion will be sorely missed in Uganda. He did hint at a return from time to time to pursue further eye operations.
Finally, to my friend of incredible patience, understanding and generosity. Never have I had such an amazing experience, and eye opener of all proportions and unforgettable privilege and holiday.