November 2011, Uganda
By Lyndsay Harshman
Enjoy the following trip report from Lyndsay’s November 2011 tour through Uganda with Classic Africa Safaris. For more information, photos for marketing purposes or information on CAS, please contact the Kusini Collection.
November 1, 2011 – Entebbe, Lake Victoria Hotel
After clearing customs and immigrations (USD$50 for visa paid on arrival, post-2006 dated bills only), we were met in the arrivals hall at EBB by our guide, Denis Erabu, one of CAS’s senior guides. Since just three of us arrived together, Denis picked us up in one of the new 5-seater Toyota Land Cruisers that recently arrived from Tanzania (we will be making a few modifications to the new vehicles, including lowering the seats slightly to increase front visibility). The new vehicles are quite nice and will be ideal for 2-4 pax. I flew in to Entebbe after spending the previous night in Nairobi, but I was still tired from the previous day’s long-haul flight and it was nice to have such a quick (10 min) transfer to the Lake Victoria Hotel. Entebbe is quite pleasant, relaxed and green – very different from hectic Kampala.
One of the first things that struck me en route to the hotel was how green the countryside was. The Lake Victoria Hotel is a big colonial-style hotel near the president’s house and very close to the CAS office, airport and Lake Victoria. It is nice to arrive and go straight to the hotel rather than sit in traffic for over an hour and a half getting into Kampala. The hotel certainly isn’t anything fancy, but the rooms were clean, had A/C and the bathrooms were quite nice. The swimming pool and gardens are lovely and the food was good (although there was a cheese & cracker platter served, sans crackers – they were apparently out of stock – to someone in our group!). The rooms (I was in the new wing and was not able to see the old wing) included a writing desk, TV and well-appointed en suite bathrooms with shower/tub. Linens were crisp and white, which is always a plus. After seeing other options in Kampala, I do have to say that the LVH is the best option for travelers who spend just one night in Entebbe on arrival – it is close to the airport and has everything most travelers require. A more luxury-minded traveler would likely find the boutique hotel, Emin Pasha, preferable. The Kampala Serena is also available – more on both of these to come!
November 2, 2011 – Entebbe/Kampala/Murchison Falls NP
After breakfast at the Lake Victoria Hotel, we were met by Lydia, client services liaison at CAS and briefed on our upcoming safari plans. Please note that this safari itinerary should not be viewed as a suggested itinerary – this trip was designed as an exploratory trip and was quite the whirlwind tour!CAS does not recommended fewer than 2 nights in most locations (3 in some areas) and we are careful to limit daily driving distances as much as possible to do logistics and road conditions. That said, Uganda is NOT a massive country and scheduled flights are not available (PRIVATE charter flights are available) so most travelers do spend a good amount of time on the road. The Ugandan countryside is beautiful, varied and there are lots of opportunities to stop en route and interact with locals. Should travelers not want to do a driving itinerary, we highly recommend requesting PRIVATE charter flight rates when the itinerary is initially quoted.
During our safari briefing, Denis loaded the stretch (7-seater GUARANTEED WINDOW SEATS) 4×4 and we were on our way! Our first stop was the Kampala Serena for a site inspection (approximately 1-1 1/2 hrs from Entebbe depending on traffic). The Serena is exactly what I’d expect from a Serena. The public areas and gardens were actually really lovely and the hotel is chock-full of amenities. The rooms (152 total) look very similar to the Nairobi Serena, but aren’t as nice as the Kigali Serena. The hotel is truly smack-dab in the middle of Kampala, but I’m not sure that anyone on a first visit to Uganda would venture out on foot from the hotel.
From the Serena we continued to the boutique hotel, Emin Pasha. Set in a quiet and posh-looking corner of Kampala, Emin Pasha is a good luxury option for travelers continuing on to Clouds or for those looking for more intimate accommodations. Many of the 20 rooms overlook the lush gardens and are designed with a classic colonial feel. All rooms are en suite, some with bath others with shower, balconies, all with beautifully hand-crafted wooden furniture, draped mozzie nets and subtle floral patterns. Amenities include a swimming pool, spa, bars, restaurant, lounge area and a shop that is stocked with high-quality local art and crafts. I really liked this hotel and would recommend it for a more luxury-oriented traveler.
From Kampala we began the drive to Murchison Falls National Park (approx. 6 hrs under normal conditions) with a picnic lunch stop en route or lunch in Masindi at the Masindi Hotel, which is a cute historic lodge. The roads were paved for about 4hrs to Masindi where the gravel road starts about 30 mins before the park gate. We arrived in time to catch the last ferry across the Nile to Paraa Safari Lodge set high on a hill overlooking the river. The ferry crossing was quite picturesque – the vehicle is loaded and passengers walk on – cruising across the Nile with hippos surfacing in the distance and a flame red sunset behind it all. It is just a quick ride up the hill to the Paraa Safari Lodge. The lodge is one of the larger properties that we use (with 54 rooms), but I do think it is a good option for travelers in MFNP. With so many public areas, the lodge doesn’t tend to feel crowded. Upstairs a spacious bar and dining area offer indoor and outdoor seating. The buffet choices were generally good, but group members did comment that the quality of the meat wasn’t very good. I enjoyed my fish and the soups, veggies, salads and dessert options were nice. Downstairs there are plenty of places to sit back and relax or connect to wi-fi (slow!), plus the pool outside is huge, boasts a swim-up bar and beautiful view. It is a great place to relax before/after lunch with a Nile Special! CAS includes all meals at Paraa Safari Lodge in our itineraries, drinks are additional. The rooms are on the small side, but most of the overlook the river or pool and all have private balconies. My room had an A/C unit, but it didn’t work and my room was really hot overnight. The en suite bathrooms include a shower with soap and shampoo (you don’t usually find conditioner in Uganda). My common complaint: please just upgrade the linens and the whole place will look loads nicer! Some nice neutral duvet or bed-spread really freshens things up. The rooms are really dark finished in dark wood and the dark bedspread on top of it all made the rooms look quite colonial and a bit outdated, but plenty of hot water and good water pressure. There were plugs in the room for charging batteries. Note: Please advise clients to take a headlamp or flashlight at minimum – many hotels in Uganda are on solar power or generators and do not have 24-hr electricity and/or occasionally experience power outages.
November 3, 2011 – Murchison Falls NP
After breakfast we headed out on a game drive in the park. Murchison Falls has a wide variety of game activities including boating, hiking near Murchison Falls and game drives – the Nile and the Falls being at the heart of this park. I really had no idea what to expect, but Murchison Falls really surprised me in terms of scenery and wildlife. The landscape is much like that of the Masai Mara, rolling hills and open plains, plus a unique water element in the way of the Delta and Lake Albert. On our game drive we spotted Patas monkeys, hartebeest, Rothschild giraffe, hippos, buffalo, a pair of jackals chasing an immature Bateleur eagle away from a recent lion kill (the lions were spotted earlier that morning, but we didn’t see them), a beautiful flock of crowned crane – Uganda’s national bird, a herd of elephant by the Delta and an impressive variety of birdlife. We returned to the lodge for lunch and a bit of down-time before our afternoon private boat launch on the Nile. Dennis accompanied us, as well as the local boating guide, who was superb. The couple-hour trip heads upstream towards the Falls and gets travelers within a good viewing distance of them, but the pressure of the water coming downstream is truly awesome and a bit scary! As we headed upstream we spotted buffalo, hippo, elephant, crocodile, black and white colobus monkeys, red-throated bee-eaters, fish eagles, black kite, goliath heron and more…I really enjoyed how wild this excursion felt. I envisioned myself an early explorer heading upstream for the first time. The lighting was beautiful and the Falls were really impressive. I loved how undeveloped the area is – no hotels sitting right on the edge of the Falls, just lush forest and wild riverfront. While the game was OK, it is much better in the dry season when large herds of elephant and buffalo come to the water’s edge to drink. The birdlife was excellent. It was fascinating to learn how the wildlife populations really suffered under Idi Amin (there were once 14,500 elephant in the area and now the number is estimated at half that, but with anti-poaching efforts the numbers are increasing). The boat was comfortable and drinks are available for purchase. A wide-brimmed hat and sunscreen are a MUST on this boat trip! All of our boat trips are private versus done on the big boats with 30-40 other people, the boat guides are excellent. After the afternoon launch, we drove to Nile Safari Lodge for dinner and overnight. The entire afternoon a storm had been brewing in the distance and the rain chased us all the way from the Falls to the lodge. We arrived at Nile Safari Lodge in time for a hot shower (bucket showers) and a great view of the storm rolling in over the river. I really enjoyed Nile Safari Lodge – it is smaller than Paraa with just 10 rooms, 5 are tented with attached bathrooms and outdoor bucket showers and 5 others are wooden en suite cabins with indoor bucket showers (all rooms have flush toilets and running tap water in the bathrooms). The lodge has a very Robinson Crusoe feel and a lovely sitting area built over the river under the canopy of a massive Tamarind tree. The rooms are simple, but the staff was sweet and the meal (my dinner in particular) the best I had the entire trip. I slept soundly that night and only woke a few times to the hippos bellowing in the Nile below. The lodge has a pool set overlooking the river, a nice fire pit for pre-dinner drinks and a small covered dining area. There are plugs in the tents for charging batteries while the power is on from 6:30pm to 10:30pm and 5:30am-7:00am. Outside of these hours power in the rooms is solar. The lodge is located outside of the park on community land and community visits as well as traditional dance can be arranged on request.
November 4, 2011 – MFNP to Fort Portal
This morning we head back into the park to visit the top of Murchison Falls and hike down to the river bank (it was quite the haul and a good warm-up for gorilla trekking!). The view from the top of the Falls is quite stunning and really helps give scope to the amount of water that is flowing over. All said and done we spent about an hour and a half at the Falls before continuing out of the park along the Albertine Rift and through through Budongo Forest. The drive from Murchison Falls to Fort Portal is normally about 8 hours and is not done on the same day as the Falls visit. Unfortunately, the rains had been so heavy in preceding days that the normal/direct route to Fort Portal was impassable due to a flooded bridge so we had to backtrack towards Kampala and the road conditions were quite poor and we arrived Kyaninga Lodge very late at night. Throughout the entire day, our guide, Denis, was an excellent driver and constantly updated us with facts and history of the areas we were traveling through (such as the place Hemingway’s plane crashed – for the 2nd time!) and the tribes/people in that region. Denis even told us personal stories about his family and their story. He is one of CAS’s senior guides and it shows!
November 5, 2011 – Fort Portal/Kibale Forest/Ndali Lodge/Kyambura Game Lodge
Kyaninga Lodge not only offers unique accommodations in carefully crafted log chalets, but the setting is stunning, as well. The lodge is set on a ridge overlooking rolling hills and a small crater lake. The lodge is no wider than the ridge itself and a rather steep set of stairs snakes its way past each of the 8 cottages and leads to the main lodge with a small dining area, cozy bar and restrooms. Outside, a set of decks overlook the swimming pool and lake below. The atmosphere is really great, very cozy and welcoming. When we arrived late that evening, a fire was roaring and guests were enjoying drinks in the bar area. The rooms are huge and feature a sitting area, huge bed(s) and well-appointed, luxe bathroom with shower, soaking tub and double sink basins. All of the furniture is handcrafted and the log chalets are simply so unique that I couldn’t help but find the whole place quite charming. The food was excellent, as well. The staff went out of their way to make sure we were taken care of after arriving so late the night before.
After a beautiful sunrise and tasty breakfast we continued on to Kibale Forest for chimp trekking. En route to Kibale Forest we passed picturesque tea plantations set on steep hillsides dotted with tea pickers standing out against the green in their brightly colored clothes. The drive was approximately 45 mins from the lodge to Kibale. After a safety briefing at the park HQ, we headed out into the forest in two groups of three. The forest was really beautiful – colorful butterflies flew past, birds called and in general it was just a pleasant forest walk. I’m not really a dense rainforest girl, but put me a beautiful forest any day! We walked on fairly well cleared trails for about 30 mins before reaching the location of the chimps. Several walked across the road not far in front of us; others were high in the canopy above us. We followed a couple of quick-moving chimps into the forest and left the trails behind. A major warning here: long pants are an absolute requirement and hiking boots with long socks to tuck pants into are a must, as well. SAFARI ANTS are prevalent and hurt like heck if they get past your socks – believe me! I actually wish I had worn my gaiters this day…Once we reached the hub of activity, the chimp viewing was fairly good. I’ve trekked in Tanzania at Mahale, as well, and there were some distinct differences between the two experiences: Kibale is a bit denser than Mahale in places and the chimps tended to be up in the canopy or scattered on the forest floor rather than grouped together in large numbers, at least on the day we trekked. Once off the path you really need to keep your eye out for branches at eye-level and vines and safaris ants on the forest floor. However, the other half of our group did find a small group of chimps sitting together on the forest floor and reported great sightings. I did enjoy the chimp trekking and the forest experience and guiding at Kibale were both very good. After trekking we had our picnic lunch before visiting Primate Lodge located just up the road from the park entrance. Primate offers 7 cottage, 1 tree house and 8 tents. The tents are a nicer option than the cottages, but I would be concerned about the tents being really hot during mid-day after returning from trekking. Décor was nicely done with local fabrics and white linens – it was nice. Primate is a good option for travelers interested in doing 2 treks in one day due to its location. We continued up the road to Tinka’s home for an overview of the lunch program he offers, as well as the women’s craft co-op. Most of our groups who visit Kibale have lunch at Tinka’s home and enjoy traditional Ugandan food. Thanks to Tinka’s involvement with community development and wildlife conservation, he has traveled the world and learned to appreciate the cultural connectivity that a meal allows for and aims to provide that experience at his home. Tinka has also spearheaded the development of the Bigodi Swamp walk adjacent to the community. The swamp walk is ideal for birders, provides great primate viewing opportunities (no chimps here) and is an excellent way to support the local community. From Fort Portal we headed to Ndali Lodge – another gem! This lodge is really quite special. The atmosphere is immediately captivating and the setting is stunning looking in one direction towards QENP and in the other out over a crater lake. The lodge is decorated in a welcoming style with soft pinky/orange walls, handcrafted wooden furniture and lots of regional artifacts, photos and art. The lodge itself feels like a story. We enjoyed homemade ginger tea and gingersnap cookies before taking a peek at the rooms. Each of the 8 rooms are simple, but beautifully decorated and felt so cozy. In addition to providing accommodations, the lodge has been instrumentally involved in the local community through the operation of a vanilla plantation and other community projects. Kyaninga and Ndali are very different options in the area and I do think they are both so unique that it is a bit of a tough call to pick one over the other. Ndali felt like it had a bit more soul, but Kyaninga has a leg up in terms of amenities (ie brand new kitted-out bathrooms!). Both are really great options, with amazing views and excellent service. From Ndali we continued on to Kyambura in Queen Elizabeth NP. Just before we got on the road from Ndali (the short road, too!) there was an accident and the road was blocked so we had to backtrack through Fort Portal and added about an hour to our drive time. Road conditions in throughout the region are certainly an issue, especially during the rainy season and travelers should be warned that being flexible and keeping an open mind and positive attitude will go far while on a driving safari in Uganda! The drive to Kyambura was on paved road and traced the Rwenzori Mountains – stunning views! We stopped for a bathroom break (roadside/gas station bathrooms are usually squat toilets and often the bush bathroom is preferable!) and enjoyed a quick soda pop and continued on our way. NOTE: Sadly, the Kyambura Game Lodge was severely damaged in a fire just last week and is closed until further notice. I decided to include this section in my report because I felt they did such a wonderful job creating a lovely place with wonderful atmosphere and I hope the team at the lodge takes this as inspiration to push on and rebuilt! Kyambura Game Lodge is located overlooking QENP and just adjacent to the gorge (you can see the top of the gorge from the lodge but not down inside the gorge). Something that is key to keep in mind with this property is its location! Kyambura Game Lodge is located in the community, outside of the park. This is actually something that I really enjoyed about lodges in Uganda – the variety of choices inside the parks and in communities/towns. After driving through the village, a short driveway takes you to the lodge. The lodge’s setting is actually really prime – up on the hillside overlooking the forest and the park below. The lodge manager did warn us not to be alarmed if we heard gunshots at night…it was the local community, with the help of the park rangers, shooting blanks to scare the elephants back into the park and out of the community gardens. The evening we arrived there was a football game on and I could hear it in my room (really in the bathroom more so) being broadcast at the local pub. After dinner I didn’t notice any noise from the village. The call to prayer starts early in the morning, but it only woke me up initially and only for a few minutes. If someone is a light sleeper and is concerned about that, they could wear earplugs. Once again, clients need to realize that this is lodge is not in the park…The lodge is fairly new and it shows – everything looks fresh and clean. The 7 rooms are tented with attached bathrooms, shower, double sink basin and flush toilet – fallen timber and local red clay are used in the bathrooms and the tent itself is quite large. Wrought iron beds draped in mosquito nets, a built-in day bed and fresh white linens really give the tents a chic feel. The verandahs overlook the valley below and offer a day bed ideal for enjoying the vistas. The swimming pool is amazing – clear blue, lined by hammocks and chaise lounges draped in Maasai shukas and overlooks the valley and park below. There is a beautiful dining area overlooking the valley/park, a cozy bar with a fire place (this entire area is very open and has expansive views), and lastly a fire pit area for cultural dances and sundowners. The staff was very friendly, eager to please and the food was tasty. My only true complaint about the food in Uganda was that breakfast became a bit monotonous. I have dietary restrictions and it was a little difficult to find variety in breakfast – thank goodness for lots of fresh fruit!
November 6, 2011 – Queen Elizabeth NP/Kazinga Channel/Kyambura Game Lodge
What a busy day! This morning we headed into QENP and to Jacana Safari Lodge. The lodge is part of the Geo Lodges of Uganda group and is a sister property to Nile Safari Lodge and has a very similar feel. I do think it is slightly nicer than Nile Safari Lodge, although I think I preferred Nile a bit more just because of the location and the more intimate feel. Jacana has 10 cabins and one family cabin with two bedrooms. The cabins are the same style and almost exactly the same as the cabins at Nile Safari Lodge. Wooden walls and floors, a nice little screened sitting area overlooking the lake directly in front of the lodge and en suite bathrooms. Once again, the linens were quite outdated but this is not a luxury-level lodge so it is a bit expected. The public areas, bar, patios and dining room were dark, but very cozy and had a nice, arty feel to them. The swimming pool had seen better days! There is a pontoon boat that is designed for floating dinners or sundowners – that would be a nice surprise for a small group or family to enjoy. The one thing that I didn’t like about the lodge was how deep in the forest it was set – it was a bit dark and damp feeling. I personally preferred the location and feel of Kyambura Game Lodge, but it is key to remember that Kyambura Lodge is not in the park and doesn’t feel as far out in the bush as Jacana does. Kyambura is certainly newer and more updated, chic feeling.
From Jacana we ventured into the forest and walked on a guided tour to see the bat cave. The forest in the area was really beautiful secondary forest. We spotted lovely birds, walked across a river with fresh water crabs and saw a few spider monkeys. During certain times of the year there are quite a few species of monkeys that come into the forest for the fruit on the trees. The walk was about 2 hours total and was quite easy. Half way through we reached the bat cave…wow! That was quite the site, and smell, and sound. It was pretty impressive to see so many bats in one place (they don’t know how many are actually there, but thousands upon thousands!).
After our forest walk, we drove back to the main road (about 20 mins on dirt road to get in/out of Jacana Lodge) and continued on the paved road for about 15 mins through the park before reaching another dirt road that took us up to Mweya Lodge (about 25 mins). Mweya Safari Lodge is part of the same group as Paraa Safari Lodge and has a similar feel, but is considerably more updated and offers more in terms of luxuries and amenities. The lodge is quite big and feels very big. Car parks line the entrances of the rooms and it doesn’t feel very wild. We enjoyed a great lunch at Mweya, the views of the Kazinga Channel are lovely and for those travelers (or larger groups) who are looking for the services and amenities of a larger hotel, this is a great option. I just found that the hotel wasn’t as intimate as Kyambura or Jacana simply based on size alone. Mweya Safari Lodge offers 32 standard rooms (fans only, no A/C), 12 deluxe rooms with A/C, 2 suites, the Presidential Cottage (which would be nice for a family or 2 couples traveling together), the Queen’s Cottage (same as Presidential), 2 family cottages and 4 tents (which are fairly new) 2 are luxury and 2 are standard. The Standard rooms and the tents really had the best views. The public areas were nicely refurbished and well decorated. Warthogs and mongoose were running around on the grounds, which added a fun element to the place. It is certainly a good option for travelers who don’t mind staying at a larger property.
From Mweya, we drove down the hill to the boat launch for our private boat cruise along the Kazinga Channel. This boat was a new pontoon boat and nicer and larger than the aluminum boat on the Nile in Murchison. The game viewing on the Kazinga Channel was quite impressive: buffalo, huge hippo pods, a lion hiding almost out of sight in a candelabra euphorbia, fish eagles hunting, crocs, spoon bills, pied kingfishers (more than we could count!), malachite kingfisher, pygmy kingfisher, elephants, saddle-billed stork, yellow-billed stork, sand pipers, herons, egrets and more! The next boat that launched after we docked spotted a leopard drinking from the channel. This boat cruise was really a highlight of the trip for our group. It was so relaxing and refreshing to be out of the vehicle, the game was excellent, our guides were very good and it was just a peaceful afternoon all-around! We also passed some of the local fishing villages that live in and around the park, a very Ugandan element: human/wildlife spaces in close proximity.
After the cruise we returned to Kyambura Game Lodge and were surprised by the local dance troop in the boma area at sunset! The sunset over QENP, the valley below and the local music and dance made for a really special evening. The local dance troop was really impressive and the vibe at the lodge was great. Dinner that night was very good and after the dancers took a break, they came and presented their finale as we were eating dinner. Bravo to Kyambura Game Lodge for arranging such a fun evening!
November 7, 2011 – Ishasha Region (QENP)/Bwindi Impenetrable Forest NP
After an early morning departure from Kyambura Game Lodge, we drove south through the park and into the Ishasha region – famous for tree-climbing lion. It was a hot day in the valley and the road is dirt, but not too rough most of the way. Ishasha has a very typically East African feel with the rolling hills and mountains of DRC in the distance, expansive grasslands and chocolate-milk rivers. We did go on a short game drive en-route, but didn’t have good luck finding the tree climbing lions that are common in the area – a reminder that animals in Africa are wild, after all! We headed to Ishasha Wilderness Camp for lunch and a site inspection. The camp is in the middle of an extensive refurb and the old tents are being replaced with newer, larger tents (the new tents reminded me of Oliver’s Camp in Tarangire). The camp has a lovely location set along the Ntungwe River, and the public areas are really nicely done with beautifully crafted wooden furniture and local baskets and art. There is a small shop and an area for sundowners and a fire down by the river. The 10 tents should be fully updated by the end of the year and the new tents will offer flush toilets (vs the old eco toilets) and running water. The old tents are much smaller and still have the bucket showers, eco toilets and are much hotter than the new tents. The camp still maintains its “low impact” ideology. Lunch was very good – grilled kabobs, rice and veggies with fresh fruit for lunch. The manager was boisterous and friendly and had recently relocated to the camp from Southern Tanzania. I really liked this camp – it felt wild, remote and had a good adventure slant, even with the new fancier tents. Ishasha is certainly a great stop-over en route to Bwindi or ideal for people interested in taking more time and searching for the tree climbing lions. CAS travelers who spend a night or two in the region do often see the tree-climbing lions – no guarantees, though!
From Ishasha we continued on dirt roads into Buhoma – a really picturesque drive through rolling hills and small villages (about 5 ½ hours total). Waving is a big deal in Uganda and it is really a must to wave at the locals and smile as you pass by. People in Uganda were so friendly and welcoming. We arrived at Mahogany Springs Lodge in the mid-afternoon and I went to visit the Bwindi Community Hospital while the rest of the group rested, caught up on email and enjoyed the views across the valley and into the forest. Mahogany Springs is a newer lodge and has a nice location in Buhoma town. The gardens are lovely and the individual cottages are fresh and nice…my only negative comment is that the lodge needs to add some finishing touches to the rooms, they do seem a bit stark. The management has noted this and said that those additions are in the works for 2012.
Bwindi Community Hospital is a great cultural experience and I highly recommend it for people who have a little extra time when in Buhoma. The Kellermans originally built the hospital to provide medical treatment to the under-served and displaced Batwa community in the area. Aida, the communications lead at the hospital, a sweet young woman took me around the site and explained how the hospital works and the various projects. Having been involved in medical volunteer projects in Africa before, this was all very interesting to me. What a cool place! Other options for travelers interested in cultural exchanges in the area include a full day Batwa experience (this requires adding an extra day in Bwindi in addition to the gorilla trekking day(s)). An optional afternoon community walk visits the hospital, local craft makers, a small Batwa village – not as in-depth as the full day experience, but a good overview of the area. CAS does NOT confirm the community walk in advance as we cannot guarantee the length of time gorilla trekking will take. If time allows, travelers can arrange the community walk on site and pay the $25 donation directly – our guide will facilitate these arrangements.
Dinner and overnight at Mahogany Springs was nice. Dinner was quite good, the atmosphere was nice and service was good. I did really enjoy that the public areas were so welcoming and comfortable and in the free time that our group had, everyone spread out in the lounge and on the verandah overlooking the valley below, connected to the wi-fi (Slow! Like almost everywhere in Uganda, but at least you can check in with those at home) and just enjoyed the setting. We all headed to bed early in preparation for our big trek the next morning. Word was that the gorillas were fairly low on the mountain (the R group); we were tracking the H group and had an hours’ drive then the trek to reach them. The next morning, I was glad that I had taken the time to prepare for the trek the night before; gaiters: check, waterproof outer layer: check, gardening gloves to protect my hands from the ants and nettles: check, 3 litres of water: check, layers (you start out cold and get HOT fast!): check, back pack with lunch, snacks, water, sunscreen, bug spray, camera equipment: check! I was ready! After having tracked gorillas in Rwanda in 2008, I was really looking forward to the experience in Bwindi and comparing the two. I was, honestly, a bit worried about having to trek for 6+ hours…I’d hear stories of those experiences (and worse) and I wasn’t looking forward to that possibility. Fingers crossed, I headed to bed. I did have a problem with the handle on my shower that night and it was immediately fixed the next morning with apologies.
November 8, 2011 – Gorilla Trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
After an early morning (but not as early as in Rwanda), great French press coffee (the coffee throughout Uganda was superb!) and a hearty breakfast, we headed down the road 5 mins to the Bwindi park headquarters for our safety briefing and to meet the rest of our group. After meeting the two other trekkers in our group of 8, I have a warning for everyone who reads this: DO NOT EVER allow your travelers to go gorilla trekking in Uganda without hiking boots. One lady in our group was trekking in socks and Keens. It didn’t go well, needless to say, and I would highly recommend that all agents carefully review suggested packing lists with their travelers.
After our safety briefing, Denis drove us up and “behind” the mountain to our starting point to trekking the H Group. I think that the drive to the trekking point was one of the highlights of being in Bwindi, and of our trip. The scenery was surreal. Actually other-worldly. I’ve never seen such vibrant greens, so many soaring hills and steep slopes seemingly impossibly planted with tea and maize. Villages dotted the hillsides; locals clad in bright fabrics carried baskets of freshly-plucked tea leaves on their heads and smiled their brightest smiles as we passed. It was such a wonderful way to start the day, and it felt so real – just one of those moments that I will tuck away in the Africa corner of my heart (maybe I should say “a corner of my African heart”). After reaching the Forest, which is quite easy to identify as the farmland halts instantly and the truly impenetrable forest rises up like a green wall, we stopped on the side of the road and Denis announced it was time to start trekking. I looked out the window and there was a small, um, pathway leading deep into the dark forest. I guessed that was where we were headed. When we asked the guides and trackers how far we had to hike before we would reach the H Group, they were very vague and their response reminded me of parents answering kids, “are we there yet?”… “almost…” They do this with good reason as the whole trekking experience is a bit like a junior high algebraic equation: if the trekkers are trekking at .5 miles per hour in one direction and the gorillas are moving in the same direction at 3 miles per hour how long will it take the trekkers to reach the gorillas?!
It had been raining heavily on the opposite side of the mountain at Park HQ, but this side was drier and even held the promise of sunshine. Still, I was glad I had my gaiters and gloves as the foliage and underbrush were wet and there were lots of spiny plants and nettles and it was MUDDY! We ended up trekking, part of the way on a wild-hard-to-follow trail and part of the time bushwhacking until we reached the first three gorillas who were lounging in low grass and bushes preening each other; the older female had a tiny baby who was nursing and playing. The silverback was moving through the underbrush above us and we crossed a little stream (wet feet!) and continued to follow the female with the baby, a couple other individuals and the silverback through the forest – what a feeling! We are truly so lucky. From the forest, the gorillas skirted the park and then continued into the shambas and open farmland. Just as we spotted the gorillas, the sun broke through the clouds the colors were so rich and bright. We continued to watch the gorillas for an hour (maybe a little longer) as they interacted, lounged in the sun and climbed trees to eat fruit. Time stands still when you are with gorillas. After our viewing had ended, we hiked up a VERY steep hill to head back towards the vehicle (which really took as long as the trek TO the gorillas). NOTE: the trekking is difficult in Uganda. You are at a higher altitude, walking on paths that don’t exist and the adrenaline is pumping. An older lady in our group really struggled with the steep hillsides and the altitude. But, if you can manage and with hiring a local porter (who are $20 to hire + tip and will essentially carry you if needed), almost anyone could manage, and the pay-off is 100% worth the toils.
After hiking back through those vibrant hills that we drove past on our way to the trek, greeting children, walking past tea pickers and small enclaves of homes clinging to the hillsides, we reached Denis and the vehicle. We bid farewell to our guides (by the way, our guide was one of the few who habituated the H group and considers them family…he had quite the stories, harrowing and heart-warming all at the same time) and our trekkers and headed back down the mountain to Buhoma. What a sense of accomplishment, of witnessing something so magical for the second time in my life…I feel honored. We quickly headed back to Mahogany Springs to pick up our baggage and transfer to Gorilla Forest Camp for overnight. When we pulled into Mahogany Springs there was a small group of people gathered at the top of the driveway and when we parked and asked what was going on I heard someone saw, “gorillas are close” and we walked to the top of the driveway and looked across the valley and saw the R group making their way through a farmer’s plot. Ah, Bwindi. We drove down the street a few minutes and arrived at the base of the stairs at Gorilla Forest Camp. NOTE: GFC is currently being reburbished and a completion date of mid-Feb is expected. After trekking for a couple hours that morning staring up the stairs at I wanted to start walking, but I felt my feet just stay put. I think it was a mental block. Ha! The staff was lovely and so helpful – my box lunch had accidently been given to a porter and the lodge immediately arranged for a warming bowl of soup for me; additionally they worked very hard to wash and dry all of our clothes (GFC has a washer and dryer, which is HUGE as clothes tend not to dry if they are not dried in machine dryer) and cleaned our trekking boots and gaiters. The setting was really beautiful, right in the forest (but quite different than down the street at Mahogany Springs where we were out in the open overlooking the valley; each lodge appealed to different people in our group – the Pacific North-Westerners who are surrounded by trees at home preferred the location of Mahogany, the travelers from the high desert preferred the location of GFC in the forest). The public areas weren’t quite what I expected –a bit dark and not very stylish, quite rustic. The tents are very spacious with 2 queen beds, lots of room for luggage, a bathtub with a forest view, toilet, shower and sink area…but the tents themselves seemed a little tired (linens were fine) and things like shampoo (no conditioner) was in local full-sized bottles rather than small glass containers or reusable metal like we saw elsewhere in Uganda. The lodge just lacked some of the finishing that Sanctuary provides at their other properties. The lodge was just fine, really great service, good food, lovely setting, but I think the issue is that if someone comes expecting a Sanctuary-level property, they will be a little surprised. I do have to say that a highlight of the trip for me was dinner that night. The food was very good, wine was flowing and the lodge had several small groups so the ambiance and energy was nice. BUT…at cocktails before dinner, there was an amazing local musician, Warren, playing mukiga (the local music) on a dingidi (a regional, hand-made harp). His music was subtle and powerful, just noticeable enough to steer the direction of the evening, guide the vibe, if you will. Excellent and really special, very Ugandan. Nothing flashy, colorful or particularly “tribal” in the way that people would expect from East Africa, just beautifully haunting. Stay tuned for a very low-fi recording of Warren on YouTube soon!
November 9, 2011 – Lake Mburo National Park
After breakfast (cold cereals, fruit, porridge and omelets/eggs/sausage), we headed out on the road for the half-day (6 or so hours) drive to Lake Mburo and Mihingo Lodge. I was really looking forward to seeing Mihingo as CAS travelers always rave about it. Leaving Buhoma we hit an impassable patch of road where buses were abandoned, vehicles a foot-deep in milk-chocolate-colored, silky mud (I repeat, road travel in Uganda during the green season requires heaps of patience, flexibility and an iPod for tunes and camera ready at every turn)…We turned around and back-tracked a couple hundred yards to where we then had to maneuver (well, Denis did!) up a steep and muddy roadway dotted with stuck vehicles before connecting with the original road many kilometers into the journey. Today was the drive through what is known as “the Switzerland of Africa” and perhaps with good reason. The views were amazing, but the only thing I was really thankful for was Denis’ decades of driving experience on those roads! Muddy, slippery “roads” clung to the edge of steep hillsides – erosion is a problem in Uganda with all of the hillsides, deforestation and farming. Once again I was amazed at the landscape we were traversing. The colors were so saturated that they didn’t seem real. The villages were relaxed and friendly, people waved as they laid coffee beans out to dry or sat in front of their small shop. Uganda just feels warm – not like a country that was ravaged by civil war and haunted by violent, war-hungry leaders for decades (really until the early 2000’s). I loved it. I was sad that we were ending our time here. After a couple hours of really bad roads and great scenery, we reached the paved highway and continued on to our lunch spot, the Agip Hotel. But, first, in keeping with our roadway luck on this trip we encountered President Museveni’s entourage (we were in the Ankole area where is wife is from – the farming side of the tribe, not the cattle side). And what an entourage it was! Get this: he doesn’t use any public restroom facilities, wait, he doesn’t use any restroom facilities that aren’t HIS. How does he do this? Simple: he as a washroom vehicle, a huge kitted-out overland vehicle that has a shower, toilet, sink, the whole deal, inside of it! It a country where there are millions of people living in dire poverty…He also doesn’t eat any food that isn’t prepared for him by his people. Big surprise there. I guess you develop a bit of a complex after ruling a country for 25 years (he has 5 years remaining on this rule, or so they say). The entire road was closed off and we waited, trying to catch a glimpse of him or the first lady with no luck. It was interesting to see, for sure. We finally reached the Agip Hotel for our lunch stop. The food was OK, lots of fried choices (samosas, croquet monsieur sandwiches, etc). We normally use the Agip Hotel for travelers who are on a budget or due to logistics of an itinerary cannot reach either Entebbe or Mihingo Lodge that same day. The standard rooms were VERY basic. Like a Motel 6. The suites were a bit better, outdated linens, but all rooms were clean and tidy. It would do in a pinch. We continued on to Lake Mburo for another hour or so. The road is paved until the Lake Mburo turn-off then dirt into and through the park to the private reserve that Mihingo Lodge is located on. We drove into the park and went on a game drive before arriving at the lodge in time for a quick rest and sundowners before dinner. Lake Mburo is famous for its number of antelope species and also for its zebra population. There is a bit of a problem with cattle roaming in the park, so you do see them, but they are Ankole cattle with their massive horns. We ended up sitting and watching and photographing a herd for 10 mins before we decided to move on to real game! We spotted bush buck – and finally ones that weren’t too shy to photograph, water buck, topi, impala, eland, zebra, vervet monkey, baboons, warthogs, many dwarf mongoose, woodland kingfisher, tawny eagle, immature Bataleur eagles, brown parrots and many other birds. After heading down to see the Lake, we made our way up to the Lodge for sunset, which is a must! The lodge is situated on the top of a high kopje and commands an incredible 360 degree view. They have an amazing pool set on the edge of a ledge overlooking a waterhole below (where zebra, eland and lots of other species come to drink) and a panoramic view of the reserve, park and mountains beyond. Ahhh! Lovely. I wish we could have stayed 2 or 3 nights. Upon arrival we were briefed and taken to our rooms. All of the rooms at Mihingo are permanent tents, really cool ones! There’s lots of stone work and in the middle of my bathroom, my shower was built around a huge boulder. The tent was quite spacious, with a writing desk, twin/king bed with mosquito net, an incredible verandah with a day bed and chairs looking out over the view, a look nook in the entry for luggage and a small passageway led to the en suite bathroom with a beautiful wooden counter, rain shower head and separate loo with a view! It was nicely decorated and had such a classic feel. The couple that owns Mihingo Lodge also owns the Banana Boat shop in Kampala, a high-end craft retailer (the quality was excellent and the prices were a fraction of what you’d pay in Nairobi – they also had quite the collection of locally made Ugandan baskets) and it shows! The décor is lovely and they do have a small shop on site, as well. If you have travelers who have bad knees or don’t want to climb the stairs, request a tent closer to the reception. But, being that most travelers in Uganda have trekked the gorillas they can probably manage the steps at Mihingo…it’s only that you have to climb the steps the day AFTER trekking! I could feel it in my thighs! The public areas were equally impressive. There was an intimate bar area with built-in seating, lots of candles and an attentive barman who also furnished chips and guacamole! Dinner is buffet, with soup served first at the table. Seating is by group. The food was excellent. We had very, very good pork with cabbage, potatoes and a sweet sauce, veggies were perfectly cooked and the wine was good (additional cost). It was a great meal and a wonderful spot for a last night! I would HIGHLY recommend two nights at Mihingo Lodge. It has such a good vibe and it is a great place to finally relax after trekking, sit by the pool and watch the game in the waterhole, be spellbound by the amazing sunsets and eat really tasty food. Maybe do some horseback riding (they have full stables and offer a variety of riding options, including multi-night fly-camping) or shop in the store for those gifts you were meaning to buy but didn’t have the time. I crashed that night, and slept so soundly until 4 am when…an ibis started calling…about 2 feet from my head outside my tent on a branch. I think I jumped so high I was actually OFF the bed. Only in Africa!
November 10, 2011 – Lake Mburo/Kampala/Entebbe/Departure
After a really great breakfast – vanilla crepes (which they call pancakes), full hot breakfast, fruit, cereals, excellent coffee, tea, etc. – we headed out of the park to the main highway and back to Kampala. This drive wasn’t bad, all paved highway and we arrived Kampala just after lunchtime. And in time to stop at the Banana Boat for some shopping! We then continued on to Entebbe and met for a de-briefing at the Lake Victoria Hotel. But, not before another road block and a different presidential entourage…we think it was Mozambique this time! We enjoyed a cold beer at the hotel and went through the highlights and details of the trip with Rachel (our amazing GM at CAS) and Lydia. It was so nice to look back at everything we had done – truly a whirlwind tour in 10 days! Denis drove us to the airport and 4 of us headed back to Nairobi. I was sad to leave Uganda. It resonated with me in a similar way that Zimbabwe did last May, but with the connection that I have to East Africa. I felt at home there. I would tell you all, and your travelers, to look beyond the primates, plan beyond the primates. Spend time exploring this stunningly beautiful and welcoming country. It’s different and it’s well worth the time.
For more on CAS in Uganda and Rwanda:
See my photo album for Uganda on Facebook
Photos copyright the Kusini Collection (Denis Erabu and vehicle copyright CAS)