TRAVEL UPDATE:
Vicky meets old friends on her return to Uganda

It's known as the pearl of Africa and visiting Uganda earlier this year reminded me how much I love the country, the scenery is outstanding and the Ugandans must be some of the worldís friendliest people. I first went there in 1996 when I was driving through Africa, from the UK, delivering a landrover for Save the Rhino International and we stopped off for Christmas in Uganda where a friend was running a tented camp and building a lodge. We arrived to find Simon in distress as he had 12 clients arriving and the cook had just walked out. Having some experience, I volunteered to be the cook for Christmas and for some other clients who were arriving for new year. After an eventful week I, jokingly, offered my services as a cook and to train the staff when the new lodge was built. Ten months later a call came in from Simon and I immediately resigned from my office job in the UK and headed back to Uganda and to the Semliki Safari Lodge. The local staff were mainly farmers from the area except for two brothers Okech who was 17 and Oketa only 14. They had moved down from Kitgum in northern Uganda with their family to escape from Joseph Kony and his Lordís Resistance Army who were kidnaping young boys to use as boy soldiers to fight the Ugandan army. Both Okech and Oketa were bright and keen to learn and we kept in touch over the years but I hadnít seen them for 22 years, until this year. Okech is now a highly successful safari guide with his own safari company and Oketa a fully trained chef. So in Febraruy I accompanied my parents and some friends of theirs to Uganda to celebrate my parents 60th wedding anniversary and Okech was our guide. It was so lovely seeing him again and we had many reminisces of the fun and adventures we had in the early days of Semliki.

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My parents and the Barnetts had been with Okech for a week in the west of Uganda and when I joined them in Kampala and we flew up to the north east of the country to the wilderness which is Kidepo National Park. I had heard so much about Kidepo from Johnny, one of the owners at Semliki, and canít believe it took me another 22 years to get up there and it was every bit as spectacular as he had described. The park consists of 2 valleys the Kidepo and Narus which have huge savannah plains and are surrounded on all sides by dramatic mountains and extinct volcanoes some of which are over the border in South Sudan . As we flew in we could see a huge black smudge below and only realized when we came in lower that it was a huge herd of buffalo, there are masses of them in Kidepo, they say some of the biggest herds in Africa and depending on the rains and availability of water they can be there one day and gone the next. There are 80 types of mammal and over 450 species of birds recorded in the area and many are indigenous, within Uganda, to Kidepo. Rothschild giraffe have been translocated back to the park to broaden the gene pool and are now thriving. We stayed at the lovely Apoka Safari Lodge set on a kopje with amazing views over the savanah to the mountains beyond and with a dreamy swimming pool set into the rocks. They have a prolific waterholde in front of the lodge and you can just sit here and watch numerous animals coming to drink. On our second day on returning from a game drive a family of 20 plus elephants arrived dusty and thirsty. I managed to creep down to the hide, which is at ground level, and only 10 yards from the water hole and had one of my most amazing wildlife experiences. Once they had had their fill of water it was lovely watching them interacting with each other and experiencing the intimacy of the family group at such close range.

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Walking is one of the main activities in Kidepo and there are numerous walking trails and of course mountains to climb. I went out walking two mornings with a National Parks game ranger. Walks are all about luck and our first morning luck was with us as we saw 2 young male lions, then some giraffe and of course plenty of buffalo and plains game. My second walk wasnít quite as prolific though very beautiful walking along a ridge of low hills but a black cloud hurtled our way and the heavens opened and a huge electrical storm with thunder and lightning crashed around us. I was more concerned about walking into a buffalo, of which there were many, than being hit by lightning. At the end of the ridge, soaked to the skin, we were picked up by the others in the vehicle and they had had a close encounter with a lightning bolt which hit the ground only 5 metres away from them. The thunderstorms for some reason in Uganda are always amazing but I donít think I have ever seen or heard ones as long and loud as at Kidepo. Of course with the rains the animals scattered and suddenly the plains were empty and the waterhole only frequented by a few resident water buck. The rains in this part of Uganda are sporadic and the area dries up as quickly so the game viewing is generally excellent. It has always been an expensive journey to fly up to Kidepo but there has been a huge investment in the roads up to the north of the country so it is now possible to drive up there, itís a long journey but definitely worth it for the pristine wilderness and huge amounts of game.

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We then flew directly west to the Nile following it until we circled around the Murchison Falls, I had been to the falls once before in my backpacking days but had forgotten how dramatic they are with the whole of the Nile being squeezed through a very narrow gorge before widening out again and then flowing into Lake Albert before meandering its way north. It was amazing to see them from the air, then from the top of the falls and then on a boat trip to the bottom of the falls. The Murchison Falls National Park is one of Ugandaís best known parks but sadly oil has been found within the park and we will have to wait and see if they can combine oil and wildlife conservation! If itís been on your bucket list then I would visit the park sooner rather than later. The boat trips on the river are lovely and the bird life is exceptional. Our favorite trip was a private boat trip to the delta where the river opens up into Lake Albert. We found the elusive Shoebill Stork which twitchers come from all over the world to see and in the delta there are huge flocks of skimmers and darters and all types of water birds. We watched the fishermen elegantly throwing their hand nets into the water to scoop up the fish, tilapia, nile perch and even small tiger fish. We stayed at Bakers Lodge right on the banks of Nile, a fantastic lodge with a very welcome swimming pool.

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Ugandaís tourism industry has been developing extremely fast over the past 20 years and I can safely say it has caught up with its more experienced neighbors, Tanzania and Kenya. There are some top quality lodges and even though it's mainly known for the gorillas and primates there is so much more to the country with some stunning national parks and remote wilderness areas. It was lovely returning to Uganda and introducing my parents to a country where I have so many happy memories. Meeting Okech again was the icing on the cake, he is a fantastic guide with so much knowledge of his country and I hope it wonít be another 22 years until we meet again.


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