Uganda

30 January – 13 February 2013

When we started the trip (gosh, that seems a long time ago now!), we weren’t planning on going to Uganda. Luckily several overlanders we met along the way encouraged us to reconsider, saying it was one of their favourite countries in Africa. That’s the beauty of being on your own schedule: we just had to look at the map and re-plan our route. It’s safe to say that we’re really pleased that we did as we had some remarkable experiences in Uganda. The people are warm and friendly, the countryside lush and it’s home to some amazing, and endangered, animals.

Our first stop was Jinja, the “adrenaline capital” of Uganda. We have to say, just getting to Jinja was fairly adrenaline-filled as what first looked like a nice tarmac road soon declined into not just a pot-holed but crater-filled one. If this wasn’t enough, every time you got near to a village/town, there were a succession of speed bumps to contend with. The result was a lot of breaking, swerving and a few heart-in-the-mouth moments where what first looked like a small dip, wasn’t and we had to hope that it sounded worse than it was.

We stayed at the Nile River Explorers Camp, a great place with wonderful views over the Nile. We checked out the various “extreme” activities on offer, but decided to stick with our original idea of white water rafting. Prior to this however, wisely or otherwise, we went on a sunset cruise along the Nile, which took us close to the source of the White Nile (having also been to the source of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia). The potentially unwise thing about the cruise was that it included unlimited beer and spirits and we were sharing it with a bunch of party-going 18-22 year olds from one of the overland trucks at the camp. Luckily the hangovers (all round) weren’t too bad in the morning and everyone made it to, and through, the rafting without incident!

The rafting started about an hour outside Jinja and we had eight rapids in all, most of which were grade 5. There used to be a lot more, but unfortunately a new dam built less than a year ago flooded half of them. There were five of us in our raft, plus our driver, Hassan. He started out with the usual basic instructions on the flat water and then showed us what it would be like if the raft flipped and how to turn it back over etc. Looking back, he was probably also gauging our response to going overboard so he knew what kind of ride to give us.

The first rapid was probably the most exciting of all as it was a long succession of churning water with a waterfall drop of a few metres about halfway through. As we got to the second rapid, Hassan explained that the rocks were deep in the water on this one so it was safe if we did flip. He then proceeded to try to get us to do just that whenever there was a deep rapid, with varying degrees of success. He even got us to paddle back and try again when we didn’t capsize.

The whole day was great fun and was made even more so by Hassan who tried to give us the most exciting ride he could. We “paddled hard” into the rapids then got down and hung on as we hit the white water, feeling the raft twist, bend and tilt. In the end we capsized twice, with an additional man-overboard incident (including our driver who was practically ejected off the end) on the last rapid. It certainly made the rafting more exciting and, despite both of us getting pulled along under the water for what seemed like a pretty long time the second time, we felt completely safe. Not only did we always get advice about where to swim towards before each set of rapids, there was also a safety raft as well as several safety canoes on standby to pick up those rafters that hadn’t managed to cling on.

After a rest day we set off for Kampala. We bumped into Colin and Diana and Gabriela and Evo who we’d met in Nairobi at the Red Chilli camp (where we were kept amused by the avocado-eating vervet monkeys). Our main reason for going to the capital was to organise our tracking permits for both the chimps and the gorillas at the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). It also gave us the opportunity to stock up on groceries. Marcello had been tipped off by fellow Saffer Jacque, the manager of Nile River Explorers, that there was a Shoprite in the City meaning, amongst other things, we could get hold of some Mrs Ball’s chutney!

When we got to the UWA HQ, there were limited permits left for the gorillas for the coming week. Initially Grace (who was helping us) persuaded us to take the last two permits for the Nkuringo group, the group where the trekking is the hardest but apparently the most beautiful. However, after finding out that the only camping option available (or that we could find) was a mere $120 per person, we decided to go along with Colin and Diana to Ruhija where there was a community campsite nearby. After doing very little exercise for goodness knows how long, we were also secretly quite pleased that the hiking was likely to be a little easier! Having booked this in for the Friday (it was Monday) we decided we may as well get moving the following day, so booked chimpanzee tracking in Kibale for the Wednesday as it was on-route. Our ape-fest was soon to begin!

We set off early to escape the worst of the Kampala traffic. After a long drive we arrived in Kibale Forest National Park and the Kanyanchu River Camp. What a spot! Not only is it right next to the UWA office where you start the chimp tracking but, even better, you’re surrounded by the forest and the sounds (and when you’re lucky) sights of colobus and red-tailed monkeys. It was especially nice as we had the place to ourselves, enjoying a lovely wood fire under the stars in the evening.

The following day we set off with four other tourists and our guide for our first ape encounter. As we started the trek through the forest the anticipation and excitement was starting to build. This intensified when we heard the first shrieks of a chimp calling to its community. Then, about half an hour later, we were rewarded with our first sighting. And an amusing sight it was as the chimp was reclining on its back amongst the branches of a tree, happily snoozing away. In the flesh, they’re actually much larger than you imagine, but it was very chilled and didn’t seem overly bothered by our presence.

Next we heard the creaking and breaking of branches and one of his mates swung its way through and down the branches, landing with a final leap onto the ground to then scurry off through the forest. Over the next hour or so we saw at least eight chimps. A few were just hanging out on the ground, snoozing and grooming, giving us the opportunity to stand and admire them and take plenty of photos. Others were moving around in the trees, their presence given away by a flurry of leaves: and a few times we had to move out of the way to avoid being peed on! The guide told us that one of the females in the community was on heat, which explained why the males were looking a tad excited. A fight also broke out way above us in the trees and it was incredible hearing the sudden eruption of shrieks both between them and the rest of the group. It caused quite a stir and some of the chimps on the ground got quite animated and rushed to get up in the trees where the action was. One of the male chimps Karen was watching sitting on a tree root suddenly got up and started marching towards her. As it set off it pounded on the root making a drumming sound, something that would have broken our hands if we’d tried it. As it got closer the instinct was to back up as quickly as possible (whilst trying to take a photo of course), but the guides shouted to stand still. It stomped straight past, but to say her heart was pounding puts it mildly!

After what felt like a very special experience with the chimps, we set off back through the rainforest to the camp. As we only had a day in-between this and going to see the gorillas we decided to get some of the journey under our belts and drove to just outside the north-eastern section of Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP). As we entered the north of the park we crossed back over the equator where we took our rightful places in the northern (Karen) and Southern (Marcello) hemispheres for the obligatory photo. The little lodge/camp we stayed in that night had been recommended by fellow travellers Bram and Lore. It was a fantastic place overlooking the savannah and we were lucky enough to have the place to ourselves. Another peaceful night under the stars with beautiful scenery all around us: not bad at all! We were even given fresh avocados from their tree as a parting gift.

The following day we were very pleased we’d driven part of the way already as it took us the majority of the day to get to our camp in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The roads the whole day were terrible – we felt like we were back at Lake Turkana – but the scenery was fantastic. It was especially nice driving with the rainforest all around us. Perhaps we should have anticipated such a difficult journey with a name like “impenetrable” forest! When we arrived at the camp in Ruhija Colin and Diana had also just arrived. That evening we enjoyed supper together around a fire watching the lightening in the distance and getting excited about what the following day would bring.

Then the day we’d been looking forward to since planning the trip (and had been on the “to do” list for much longer) was here. As we were hiking through the forest, it felt good to get the heart rate up and muscles working again. It was fairly steep and slippery in places but luckily not too tough going. We passed over a couple of log bridges and just being in the forest, looking at all the vines and huge tree roots upped the anticipation levels.

After about an hour and a half of walking we spotted our first gorilla up in the trees. We deposited our bags and walking poles and headed into the jungle with our cameras poised. The gorilla we’d seen up in the trees started making its way down and it was incredible to see this powerful creature sliding down a big tree trunk, not looking dissimilar to a koala the way its arms were clasped around the tree. The guide then took us further into the undergrowth and we got our first sighting of the silverback of the community. He was sat munching his way through the plants and, even though he was sat down and partly obscured, his authority and strength were in no doubt.

After a few minutes of munching, he moved on, his size flattening a path through the bush. He then led us to some more of his group who were snacking on the sweet wood of a fallen down tree. What was particularly nice was that this included the baby of the group. He/she was clambering around, occasionally peering over at us wondering what strange creatures were peering back. It was adorable. (Yes, you guessed it, it’s Marcello writing this!) It was quite amusing as the more of the red tree bark they chomped on the more it looked like they had lipstick on.

The guides did a great job of chopping back the undergrowth so we could get a better view of them. One of the gorillas snoozing at the side would give a warning swat of their arm and grunt if she/he felt they were getting too close. However they seemed quite happy with us being within a few metres of them, just going about their business of filling their stomachs.

Then all too soon our time was up and we left them in peace to make their way through the forest. It was an incredible experience and not one that’s easy to put into words. To have seen these amazing endangered creatures so close up is something that still feels quite surreal and as though it didn’t actually happen. They have such an air of calm about them, and yet you never take for granted how big and strong they are.

After another night at the community camp we headed to Lake Bunyonyi and the overlanders resort there. It was another beautiful spot and, other than the disco blaring out the first night, very peaceful. Here we bumped into Floris and Anneke again and caught up on their adventures since Nairobi. We also experienced our first proper downpour while we were there. From what we’ve heard (and can tell from the lush surroundings) heavy rain is not uncommon in Uganda, but we got away very lightly. We did think to ourselves that this is what is to come when we hit the rainy season in Malawi and Zambia though …

Then, after a nights’ stop in Masaka, we were on our way to the Tanzanian border. Although we only spent a couple of weeks in Uganda, it will definitely be one of the highlights of the trip. The people are all very friendly and relaxed; the countryside, particularly the rainforest, is beautiful; all the camping spots we stayed in were great; and to get to spend time with some of our nearest relations was a truly unique experience. If all this wasn’t enough, we also discovered our new favourite breakfast (well, we had to write about food sooner or later!) … a rolex. This is a vegetable omelette wrapped in a chapatti: delicious! And it was with one of those in each of our stomachs that we crossed into Tanzania.

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