Uganda and Rwanda 2014

Day 1: Kampala & Lake Victoria

Arrived in Kampala late and with no bag. Headed straight to my friend Clare’s house to be greeted by the cutest 3 month old Maltese puppy called Ralphie, and immediately all my woes disappeared.

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After a short sleep, we woke up to the official African morning. The view from the balcony of my friends ex pat apartment was of one of the Kampala kills, surrounded by lush green vegetation. Squealing monkey birds (East African Plantain eaters) filled the air with noise and made us eager to explore for wildlife. SO many butterflies were flittering around; I have never seen such numbers before!

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For a late lunch we headed to a place called The Bay, on the edge of Lake Victoria. It was beautiful here, and we ate the scrumptious local fish at the restaurant overlooking the pretty lake, while hundreds of dragonflies scooted around us – Ralphie was in his element.

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Day 2: Kampala Life

Our friend took us to a local shopping centre in an effort to get me some emergency supplies, mainly pants as I had nothing but what I wore on the plane! Lucky for me she was my size and outdoorsy, so I was able to borrow all her things for my hiking adventure.

That evening we went to a traditional African dance show, by an award winning troop. The performance was a combination of different tribal dances with comedic, romantic and dramatic stories interwoven throughout. The costumes were fantastically exuberant and music was mesmerising. It really was something I will never forget, particularly as in true African way, a 2 hour show was easily extended to 3.5hours long!

 

Day 3: Kampala Guided Tour & Relaxation

We were shocked to discover a monsoon as we awoke; a stark difference from the past two days, yet we decided to continue with our plans of a tour of Kampala. We were picked up by our guide and first driven to Gadhafi’s Mosque – the biggest in Uganda. After climbing up hundreds of steps we had 360 degree views of Kampala, and saw the fascinating lay out of the 6 straight roads that come out from this central point, dividing the king from the slums, from the markets and from parliament, with each hill around Kampala having its own meaning.

After this we headed to the palace. Currently unoccupied since the tyranny of Idi Amin, there were still people living here working the land and offering ad-hoc tours. After waking the guide up we headed to the prison hidden at the back of the land underground. It was a chamber of 3 rooms, each smaller than average sized living room, which would’ve been filled with 300 or so people each. The entry to these rooms was blocked with a pool of water that would’ve been electrified preventing any escape. This was where thousands of people would’ve been hauled from their day-to-day lives, considered threats to the king/parliament and locked up until they died. They were driven around for hours so that they had no idea they were still in Kampala. It was truly shocking the acts that were inflicted on the Ugandan population, yet no repercussions seem to have been a result and complete denial of the atrocities was admitted. It was a sombre sight to see, but an important part of Uganda history.

After this stop, we headed to the central market place, going past the infamous Hindu temple and thousands of boddas (taxi vans) that pick you and drop you off anywhere, along with 8 other people. Such a vibrant and people filled city. We were in dire need of a relax and signed up for a local massage where our friend recommended. I was poked and prodded until I was bruised, but definitely felt relaxed.

After our relaxation, our friend then dropped us off at Red Chilli hostel where we were planning to meet our tour group. There were 4 people; English, Australia, New Zealand and Swiss German. A good bunch! We went to bed early as we have a 4.30am start!!!

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Day 4: Kampala to Queen Elizabeth National Park

It was a long drive from Kampala, travelling about 350km. By lunchtime we had arrived at the Equator where we were given a demonstration of the flow of river each side of the equator and on the line – really very interesting! According to this, water travels clockwise on the Northern Hemisphere, but anti-clockwise on the southern hemisphere, only to go straight down on the equator itself – fascinating stuff! The drive was consumed of lush banana plantations, steep mountains and tangled forests with herds of the great horned Ankole cattle roaming the roads and villages.

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On arriving at the park, we saw elephants, warthogs and so many stunning birds. We set up camp a short distance from Queen Elizabeth National Park where we had a lovely afternoon of relaxing. Setting up camp was a team effort, from getting dinner ready, to washing up and putting everything back in the truck. The truck itself was pretty jaw dropping, being as tall as a double decker bus and storing what appear to be 40 people worth of stuff!!

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Day 5: Queen Elizabeth National Park

DSC_0743We set off very early to go on our Chimpanzee hike in Kyambura Gorge – a lush area of valley with a small river going through it. The hike lasted about 3 hours, but we were lucky enough to find the chimps in the first 30 minutes. It is beyond me how the tracker looked at a bush and could tell that over 30m away on the other side of the river were chimps, truly amazing. We saw an entire family in the trees and had about 15 minutes with them before they started to leave. The guide led us a different way so that we could follow them, which involved shimmying over a fallen log to cross a river packed full of hippos growling at us – scary times! We didn’t find the group again, but a lone male did come up right to us on the path, obviously investigating and then diverted to the nearest tree, a true close encounter! This was one of the happiest moments of my life; I was in true awe to see these creatures so familiar looking to us.

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That afternoon we went on a safari drive around the park. Unfortunately with the sun being at its peak and some bush fires going on around the park it appeared most animals were spooked, but we did see kob, water buck, impala, warthog, hippos, elephants and buffalo. We even headed to Lake George where the local village were mining salt and living alongside hippos that regularly kill villagers in the evenings as they pass through to graze.

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Day 6: Queen Elizabeth National Park to Lake Bunyonyi

After another early start we travelled approximately 240km to Lake Bunyonyi, where we were to camp before the gorilla trekking. This lake named after ‘Place of many little birds’ was true to its name and was abundant with brightly coloured sunbirds and kingfishers. This lake was 27km long, 7km wide and at an elevation of 1950 metres above sea level, surrounded by undulating hills between 2200m to 2478m high. With a depth of nearly 900m in parts this lake is the second deepest lake in Africa (the deepest being Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania). It was a beautiful view from the campsite and really relaxing place to set up camp for 3 nights.

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Day 7‐8: Gorilla trek day aka G DAY!

After waking up at 4.30am we headed to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. There we met our local guide and tracker who would take us through the jungle to find1 family of the 700 mountain gorillas that inhabit the area. These gorillas have been habituated to human interaction, but that doesn’t mean they want us there always, and therefore we are limited to just 1 hour viewing time, which in my eyes seems perfectly acceptable. We trekked for 3 hours in a small group up extremely steep and difficult terrain. Half of us hired local men as sherpers to help us up the mountain and carry our very heavy bags full of water and supplies in case the hike was 6 hours long before we found them and had to head another 6 hours back. When we found them we were desperately searching the trees with our eyes, struggling to catch a glimpse, and then suddenly we spotted a female sitting in a tree, watching us while she lounged along a branch. It was amazing. The guide was talking to us saying we have to be patient; they will only come to the ground when the silver back arrives and gives them the ‘okay’. We sat there for 15 minutes, half bewildered half upset that we weren’t seeing more. Looking desperately around us into dense vegetation it dawned on me that we might never get a good look at them, and they might be only metres from us. Then the guide interrupted my thoughts saying “the silver back is coming back behind us” and we all suddenly stood up, looked around us as if waiting for them to shout “RUNNNN!!!” but they just stayed super calm and said just wait and pointed 1m to the right of us…and there slowly making his way through the shrubs was the silver back. He just plonked himself down, ate a little and moved on. I was amazed but admittedly at the same time thinking, “wait, come back, that can’t be it surely!?” It was at that point that I realised the hike was only just beginning, as the guide gestured us to follow him and follow him into the depths of the jungle and so we did.

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Every few metres we stopped to take in the sight of the silverback munching away, while grunting to the guides who responded with specific grunts that apparently meant they were having a conversation. Incredible. I have never been so mesmerised. Although it was tough terrain, the pull of following this huge majestic beast, made your body easily gravitate further and further down the mountain just to keep up with it. It was until another 10 minutes or so that we were greeted with the incredible sight of the baby gorilla; just 2 ½ years old and eager to entertain. He was eating, playing and beating his tiny chest for us, all under the watchful gaze of daddy silver back. As they moved on again, we followed, and came across another young male, a few years older and also showing signs of manliness as he weakly beat his own chest. We stayed here for quite some time watching them play, eat and act as if we were not even there. It was difficult to see through the undergrowth, but as soon as they stopped, the guides would hack away at the nettle and soft vegetation, opening up a scene for us as if set up purposefully. It wasn’t clear where the others were in the group, but we knew they were close by as you could hear branches breaking and leaves crunching. With our hour almost up, we came across the silver back one last time, and having kept his back to us the entire time we were rewarded with a glimpse of his face for just a short while before he growled and grunted at another gorilla, reminding them who’s boss. When the guide said times up, my heart sank, but having been rewarded with this chance to see such incredible creatures in the wild, I was more than happy to leave them be and let them return to their natural world – who am I to disturb them any longer? I am just eternally grateful that they were happy with us to be in their presence, because if they weren’t, then we would definitely know. I will never forget that day and how hard it was to do, especially as the hike back was one of the worst in my life. But despite getting back to the campsite 12 hours later, we were thrilled at the day’s events and spent some time indeed going over videos and pictures captured from the day.

 

Day 9: Rwanda

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Although originally I wanted more time to relax and explore Lake Bunyonyi, but we were offered a day trip to Rwanda and I thought it would be crazy to turn down an opportunity I might never have again! It involved a long drive to the border, an intricate procedure of crossing and then another long drive to get us all the way to Genocide memorial ground. Here was a church and mass grave for nearly 40,000 souls killed back in 1994 as a result of the Rwandan Genocide between Hutus and Tutsis. It was a shocking revelation, not having learnt much about this at school, and to see the evidence of bullets and grenade explosions in a place as sacred as a church was sickening. They had piled up the clothes, bones and skulls in such a way, as there was no room, and in most cases no way of identification, so that the tombs could fit thousands. It was solemn to be there, but we actually ended up meeting a survivor, who had now grown up to be a successful author based on documenting his experience of hiding in a tree for 15 days to avoid persecution from the Hutus. After that visit we went to the Rwandan Genocide Museum in the city centre, it was such an informative place that really opened my eyes to the horrors of 1994, and after talking 1:1 with our driver I got the impression that it’s not really over and the threat of it happening again forever looms. I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like to live through that, and for some to even see people in the street who you know delivered such acts of evil upon your friends and family, but there is nothing you can do or say against them. There were other rooms focusing on genocide around the world, with obviously Nazism being the highest number of murders ever. What was most disturbing is how recent some of these are around the world and how in many case no repercussions have come from these atrocities, with countries like Turkey even denying it ever happened (Armenian Genocide 1915). It was a thought provoking day, although I was admittedly bummed out from the experience, but it interesting to see the comparisons with Uganda – that the country was so much cleaner, good roads, drainage, infrastructure, and even a ban on plastic bags paired with compulsory city clean up days for everyone. Obviously this “control” stems from such a dark history, but from an outsiders perspective it looks like it’s going the right way. After a long drive back to the campsite in Uganda we enjoyed watching gorilla videos to cheer ourselves up, and enjoyed our final supper with the group. The food our guide has prepared each lunchtime and dinner time was amazing, from local beef and fish, to fruit and veg so sweet it really made the UK appear bland in comparison.

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Day 10: Driving back to Kampala

Travelling approximately 550km it was a long long day in the loud and bumpy truck, but felt good to know we were heading back to Kampala, getting to see our friend again and appreciating a nice normal shower! We stopped for lunch at the equator which was well needed, and even had time to buy a few souvenirs for ourselves, as well as a gift for our friend for her kind generosity and having us to stay. The guide told us we were going to be dropped off outside the city centre and they would pay for a cab to go to the designated hostel as they didn’t want to take the truck through the city during rush hour, but after talking to our friend, it turned out they were dropping us off at a shopping mall 2 mins from her house, perfect!

It was an incredible adventure in Uganda (and Rwanda!) with experiences I will never forget! Such a lush country full of life and I would happily go back some day. I hope that my visit to the chimps and gorillas will prove that ecotourism is possible and successful, even though it clearly doesn’t work in some countries (e.g. Galapagos). But overall I hope I live to see these gorillas another day when their population is far more than a mere 600. I think the guards, trackers and vets that dedicate their lives to protecting these animals in their native country and habitats, are the most wonderful people.

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About wilsoemi

A 1st Class Biological Sciences graduate, with a Masters degree in Conservation Biology. Dedicated to nature and conservation, with over three years voluntary experience in environmental and conservation charities and NGO's. Currently working for the World Society for the Protection of Animals and volunteering for London Wildlife Trust.
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