“If you can only visit two continents in your lifetime, visit Africa …. Twice”
Somewhat a motto of mine, having just got back from an educational trip, I would change it slightly to visiting Uganda, twice. I am already desperate to go again.
Uganda is one of the smaller African safari destinations which is great because you can be driven round the country experiencing a great diversity of activities. Not to mention the stunning scenery as you go along, through tea plantations, fruit markets and along the Great Lakes as your knowledgeable guide tells you stories of the country. The beauty is one day you can be trekking Gorillas in Bwindi, the next seeing the famous tree climbing lions of Queen Elizabeth National Park, riding horses in Lake Mburo or taking a river cruise along the Nile to Murchison Falls or if you love primates heading north to see the chimpanzees.
Joining five other travel agents and our guide Peter we embarked on a 10 night tour aiming to show us as much as possible whilst allowing us to partake in all the activities our guests would. Scrapping our midday siestas for sight inspections armed with cameras, notepads and sturdy footwear we set off from Entebbe heading for Lake Mburo. The first thing to strike us was the greenery of the country, for most of us this was our first time in Uganda having seen the vast and somewhat dry plains of eastern Africa we were confronted with mountainous, colourful and succulent landscapes. With red dusty roads lined with tea plantations, banana trees and waving children. One of the most welcoming countries you will ever visit the kids run alongside you jumping up to say hello or simply waving at the curious ‘muzungus’.
Lake Mburo National Park, is a beautiful area with the lodges perched up high giving great views across the grassy plains below. The park has many plains game and a huge variety of birds and so is the perfect place to relax before or after your journey to Uganda. With no lions, rhinos or elephants you can enjoy getting out of the vehicles to go mountain biking, walking, horse riding or simply enjoy the views over the waterholes. During our stay I was lucky enough to get a tent next to a salt pan, watching curious warthogs, impala and bushbuck all pass by as I showered and spotting some strutting civets at night. A perfect place to ease into life on safari.
Next on tour was Bwindi and the moment we had all been waiting for, our gorilla trek. I was pretty pleased we were doing this at the start of our journey fearing I would fall and break an ankle or get sick it seemed safer to just go for it. Although we soon learnt for just $300 four porters would carry you in a make shift stretcher to the gorillas. Considering the treks last between 2-8 hours in dense jungle, this is an incredible opportunity for those who have difficulty walking.
Arriving at the headquarters, with all the other groups trekking that day, you are split into groups according to your ability-the young and fit go for the gorillas further away and the older and less fit can try for those closer. After a quick safety briefing and a short drive we set off through the tea plantations to reach the edge of the park. Waved on by the local kids we reached the edge of the forest and it soon became clear why the word impenetrable is used. Steep hillsides, tightly packed trees, thick vegetation and swinging vines seemed to block our trek. Naturally the guides and porters are used to this and quickly find routes. I cannot stress enough the importance of a porter. For a mere $20 a magical man will carry your rucksack and push, pull and stabilise you up or down the steepest of verges. Even for those most experienced trekkers.
No matter how long or short your trek is the sight of the gorillas is breath taking. Whatever your expectations are you forget them. Armed with a camera you leave the porters behind and your guide and guards lead you in, where you have a magical hour watching as the babies play, the silverback feeds and the smaller males squabble. Sat in the middle of the group we had magical experiences watching a 3 month old baby play with his older cousins, his mother walking right behind us as she moved to feed, the silverback showing his authority to other males as he pushed them out of his feeding ground and a rather curious young male providing the ultimate selfie for one of our group. It seemed as if only five minutes had passed before we were told to pack up as our hour was over.
From Bwindi we headed north to Queen Elizabeth National Park famous for its tree climbing lions, with the roof open and sun cream applied we were eager for a day of safari-ing, spotting Ugandan Kob, herds of elephant, buffalo, zebra and the lions. Looking like a group of twitchers the binos came out and pointed up into the trees, we didn’t have to search long before finding a male and two female lions in a rather sturdy sprawling tree. Contorted in some quite unusual poses the cats seemed perfectly happy in the shade balancing over the joints of the tree.
In the afternoon we took a boat ride along the Kizinga channel, an excellent opportunity to do a spot of birding, watch herds of elephants come down for a drink, see the buffalo wallow in the water and watch crocodile inch closer to their next meal. There is nothing quite like the sun shining, a cold drink and plenty of animals to see. In the morning we got the special opportunity to take part on a hot air balloon trip. Taking off at sunrise it is a romantic way, or not as we were in a group of 6 travel agents, to see the incredible scenery and spot the animals from a different angle. I would recommend taking your guide as their eagle eyes never cease to amaze me at spotting something from nothing!
After a restful night we drove north to the Murchison Falls National Park, where we stayed just outside the park at the newly built Baker’s Lodge. Set on the banks of the Nile, just opposite the park, there was plenty of wildlife to see from the luxury of your tent. Early in the morning we loaded into the vehicle ready to catch the river crossing into the park as the sun rose. We spent the morning game viewing before a quick lunch back at the lodge and then a river cruise towards the famous Murchison Falls. A real highlight, the cruise was peaceful and the sightings were plentiful. We were shown prolific bird life, a massive crocodile and lots of elephants bathing and drinking. We then approached the waterfall itself which was both impressive and stunning, a vast mass of water being pushed through a 7m wide gap in the rocks. We hopped off the boat ready to climb up alongside it with a local guide with our guide picking us up in the landrover at the top. The background was atmospheric with large grey clouds starting to form and a rainbow over the top of the falls. Sensing an imminent rainfall and carrying an expensive camera a few of us chose to run on ahead (which proved to be a wise choice) with plenty of viewing platforms in the sun and the roar of the waterfall drowning out our noisy steps it turned out to be a great place to spot reptiles. With the storm looming we took some pictures of the colourful lizards and ran on. It’s not a hard hike and well worth the varying views and as if by magic as soon as we arrived at the car the heavens opened.
And so we pressed on to Budongo Forest to go chimp trekking. Arriving late at night and with the rain persisting we had a hot dinner and went to bed. As the sun rose, the rain stopped and after a hearty breakfast we headed into the forest ready to find the chimps. All ready for the trek we were not two minutes in when the guide pointed to a curious face up in the trees! And so our adventure with the chimps began, zoom lenses on and at the ready we followed them as they made their way further into the forest. It must be said that the chimps are far more vocal than gorillas. Whilst gorillas gently grunt at each other the chimpanzees scream at each other with as much reverence as a toddler having a temper tantrum, which is supposedly harmonious. The trek suddenly took an exciting turn when some colobus monkeys entered the picture and the chimps went wild. The hunt began. Whilst we were listening to a series of screeches and desperately following any branch movements the chimps caught the monkey threw it to the ground right next to us. Much to our horror the desperately hurt monkey tried to crawl away but the party of chimps came hurtling down after it. The monkey was snatched up, torn limb from limb and shared out amongst the chimps whilst we watched on stunned.
It was probably a good thing we only had one more night in Uganda as I’m not sure how we were going to top that sighting. So with heavy hearts we set off to our final destination, Wildwaters near to the town of Jinja.
En route we stopped at a rhino sanctuary. The only place to house rhinos in Uganda, they are breeding them in order to set up their own wild populations bringing back the species and completing Uganda’s big five status. It is here you have the unique opportunity to track the rhino on foot and get remarkably close due to a habituation with the men looking after their safety. It is also here we met Gammon a friendly pet warthog with a penchant for shoelaces and belly rubs. Not to say it wasn’t incredible to see rhinos on foot up close but it was rather unique to be able to have a cuddle with a young warthog!
At the end of a long drive we hopped into canoes, paddling across the Nile to an absolutely stunning lodge set on its own little island near the source of the river Nile it is the ultimate place to chill out and relax and a romantic hotspot. With massive suites overlooking river rapids and massive stand-alone baths on your own private veranda it is a small piece of paradise. We had our last supper, a five course feast which continued to amaze us, especially considering the only way to get to the mainland was by canoe. It was the perfect end to a fantastic trip.
We embarked on our final journey to the Great Lake offices in Entebbe to meet Amos and his team we so often contact and finally put faces to names before enjoying lunch all together. We then said our farewells as some continued on to further destinations and some home.
It is always exciting for us to travel to Africa, see old friends, meet new ones and it was a particular highlight for me to visit Uganda. Having heard lots of stories from Vicky about her time working there it has always been high on my bucket list. Great Lakes Safaris showed me that Uganda is far more than just somewhere to see the gorillas, and it surpassed all my expectations. What struck me was the infectious attitude everyone had, whilst not the luxury destination like some of its eastern neighbours it has a true sense of adventure and excitement. It is clear to see Uganda is on the rise and welcoming visitors with open arms. With the wildlife more abundant than I had expected it was a much more well-rounded destination offering the apes, safari, some picturesque places to relax and a vibrant culture. With cheaper gorilla and chimpanzee permits in the off seasons making it a more affordable destination, you should make this dream a reality.
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