Our first stop in the Pearl of Africa was the town of Kisoro in order to pick up the permits for our gorilla trekking expedition. Our reason for targeting a gorilla encounter at this time of the year was that the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) dropped the price of a permit from US$600 to US$450 during the rainy season, a price that is far more palatable than the US$750 asked in Rwanda. It is noteworthy to mention that electronic payment can only be pre-arranged with the head office in Kampala. As the office in Kisoro does not accept credit cards, the only option available (if you don’t have enough US$ on you) is to withdraw Ugandan shillings from the ATM across the road in a series of transactions. We had been assigned to the Rushaga camp where five gorilla families have been habituated but desperately wanting to avoid the crowds of tourists, we chose to change our permits to Nkuringo where we were sure that the four hour hike through the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest would not only give us the opportunity to take in the beautiful surroundings, but also deter most people from choosing this camp.
The big day having arrived, we reported to the Nkuringo UWA office at 07:30, thrilled to find that we were the only permit holders for the day and began familiarising ourselves with the twelve members of the gorilla family that we were about to meet. Greeted by two armed rangers and our very pleasant and amiable guide, Amos, we began our descent though the village and into the forest buffer zone. The reserve is completely surrounded by local farmland and the gorillas were previously tempted to venture into the banana plantations and help themselves to the much desired fruit, unfortunately resulting in the locals retaliating against them. The solution was to plant tea bushes as a buffer zone around the forest as the gorillas have no interest in eating the tea leaves and therefore no longer wander out of the safety of the park.
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After an hour and a half of hiking, Amos’ radio came to life and two trackers, who had gone out early in the morning to check up on the group, informed Amos that the gorillas had smelt us approaching and were excitedly making their way down through the forest to meet us. Slightly puzzled by this information, Amos explained that this gorilla group has been habituated for fifteen years already and quite enjoy interacting with Mzungus. Our adrenaline levels soared as the trees in front of us began swaying and the most beautiful silverback imaginable made a striking entrance. Second in command, it came as no surprise to us that this gorgeous boy is named Handsome. Quite sure of himself, Handsome began strutting past us, up and down the path, while we crouched down in a submissive gesture, completely awestruck and slightly scared. One by one the other members of the group appeared including a toddler, who playfully bounced around, occasionally pausing to curiously take us in. Being in the presence of this family was such an honour and brought on many over-whelming emotions that even lead to a few tears of joy.
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Close by, a commotion could be heard and over the unsettling shrieks, Amos explained that one of the group was being punished by the dominant male, possibly for daring to munch on leaves that he had set aside for himself. The shrieking having died down, a loud knocking sound then reverberated through the forest and again glancing wide-eyed at Amos for an explanation, he informed us that the group leader, Rifiki, was beating his chest and asserting his dominance. With shivers running like electricity up and down our backs, all photographing and videoing was forgotten as Rifiki brushed aside the foliage and stood before us grunting. Having just come to terms with the thought that there were worse ways to go than being taken out by a silverback gorilla, we felt the reassuring arms of Amos draped over our shoulders as he grunted back at Rifiki, asserting his own dominance and showing that we were part of his family group and not a threat. Satisfied, Rafiki gathered the troops and led his family past us in single file at which point a young adolescent called Tabu couldn’t help herself and smacked me on the shoulder, a gesture that we were told invited us as friends. Needing no encouragement from Amos we gladly made the river crossing in persuit of the group, although not by way of the precariously placed log that the gorillas had used. The last of our hour with the gorillas was spent observing their behavior and mannerisms which often had us chuckling as each distinct personality revealed itself. It was with a heavy heart that we parted from the group and left them to continue on through the forest while we began the hike home. While struggling with the last steep incline, Amos casually mentioned his relief that everything had gone smoothly. He hadn’t had all twelve members come in such close proximity to Mzungus before and what we had experienced was very unusual. This made an already amazing experience all the more special to us knowing that we were incredibly blessed and fortunate. These memories will be with us always.
Over a much deserved cold beer at the Bwindi backpackers we looked through the photographs and videos that we had captured that day. While you wouldn’t think it possible after such an exciting experience, a certain sadness came over us as the reality of the mountain gorillas’ position hit home. There are only two areas which the estimated nine hundred remaining mountain gorillas can habitate. The Virunga Conservation Area spans 434 km² incorporating the Volcanos National Park in Rwanda, the Virungas National Park in the DRC and the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda. The Bwindi National Park spans a 330 km² area in Uganda and despite the close proximity, these parks are now separated by subsistence farmland encroaching all the way up to their borders and spreading throughout the country. We were told that Bwindi is home to fifteen gorilla families that need upwards of 30km of territory to roam. As the current number of gorillas means that families are already forced to share territory, an increase in the number of families, while desirable, isn’t actually possible given the limited land allocated to their protection. On the other hand, there is the rather sickening estimate of anything from two hundred to four hundred people per square kilometer of the surrounding land.
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We have come across a number of blog posts where travellers recount their decision to avoid these expenses and take the risk of employing locals (or militia in the DRC) to take them gorilla trekking. This option is highly discouraged, not only because you are putting yourself at risk, but more importantly you are putting the gorillas’ welfare at risk. The habituated gorillas are accustomed to specific trackers and rangers that have developed a relationship of trust with the group, protecting them from the threat of poachers and monitoring for disease or illness within the group. The rangers that accompany tourists will ensure that the gorillas are only subjected to these outsiders for a maximum of one hour and that the tourists maintain a distance that the gorillas are comfortable with at all times. Gorilla trekking encounters are expensive but all funds are used responsibly towards maintaining the gorillas’ welfare and protection.
The lake is a fantastic stop over point and studded with islands which make for lovely photographs of the area. The main attraction here is birding, however, given that every square inch of the lake’s banks are populated, most species have taken refuge on the secluded islands. Lake Bunyonyi Overland Resort was pushing it’s luck asking for US$10 to rent a local canoe for half a day and we managed to find a young fisherman who agreed to half the price. Local dugout canoes in Southern and East Africa are referred to as a “mokoro” made from a hollowed out tree trunk. With the intention to simply go out on the lake for a casual paddle, it soon became evident that we had severely underestimated how difficult it is to steer these canoes. While we shouted instructions to each other, the howls of laughter from the young fisherman rang out over the water as we zigzagged our way across the lake under the scrutiny of other local paddlers who glided by gracefully and left us in their wake. We never did find our rhythm, but we did manage to navigate around a few islands and stop off for a swim. The lake is rumoured to reach a depth of 900m in certain sections which leaves you with the strange sensation of hanging precariously in the water above a deep void where all sorts of undiscovered and strange species might be lurking. Back in the canoe, we zigzagged our way home to camp, arriving late and in need of marriage counseling. Offering apologies to the fisherman for running over time, he assured us that he was merely relieved that we had made it back at all.
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Our original plan had been to head up towards the Queen Elizabeth National Park and on to the Murchison Falls National Park. However, during our stay at Bwindi, news reached us from the Rwenzori area reporting the death of dozens of people when government forces clashed with the Royal Guard of the regional customary king, outspoken against Museveni’s limitless term in power. Aside from taking in fleeing refugees from it’s neighboring states over the decades, Uganda itself has suffered much political strife after gaining independence in ’62 and as such it is no wonder that the Pearl of Africa has lost it’s shine. From the atrocities suffered under the rule of Idi Amin, the reappearance of Obote to the fanaticism and lunacy of Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army in the ’90s. One could admit that Museveni’s twist on democracy to bring about “no-party elections” (while arguably a synonym for dictatorship) has certainly brought about stability and development, although this too seems to be ebbing in a tide of unfounded arrests of civilians and journalists seen to be opposing the current administration. Continuous intertribal rivery, the spark of many conflict flare ups and the unknown agenda of the LRA, means that political unrest and mass killings will continue to haunt this country and carries with it the question as to whether or not a democratic regime truly is the best solution for an under developed African State. Through our research on the area we had also been reading up on current affairs in South Sudan where ethnic cleansing continues in the form of gang raping women and killing civilians. It is noteworthy and somewhat disturbing that while living at home in South Africa we had always been aware of the news reports pertaining to these regions, but it is only upon being in such close proximity to the troubled areas that we sit up and take notice. Not wanting to place ourselves in a compromising position, we reluctantly made the decision to drive east towards Kampala.
The Illusive Shoebill Stork
Our journey up to Kampala would take us over the equator and past the Mabamba Swamp, one of the few remaining locations where the near extinct Shoebill Stork can be found. While we haven’t yet attained the status of confidently calling ourselves “birders”, we thought we would definitely have a go at this one. Following Tracks for Africa, we made our way down to the edge of the swamp unsure of what we would find, but a passing game vehicle full of Mzungus confirmed that we were heading in the right direction. It wasn’t long before a guide approached us and after swiftly extracting the non-negotiable USh150,000.00 it would cost for our swamp expedition, our search for the Shoebill Stork was underway. As there are only nine individual storks left in this area, the task at hand was equivalent to looking for nine needles in a 2400 hectare heystack, but our guide showered us with assurances in his ability to locate their favourite spots. He further explained that one of the reasons that this species is on its way out is because the females only lay two eggs every five years and these eggs are extremely sensitive to even the slightest disturbance. Another reason for their decline and one that we were able to deduce from the many fishermen on the swamp was that these storks directly compete with the locals for lungfish and tilapia. Our time on the swamp afforded us the pleasure of seeing many species of birds including the purple heron and malachite kingfisher. Unfortunately however, after three hours and with dusk fast approaching, we faced the disappointment of having not found a Shoebill. Our guide then suggested that we try again the following morning and as we had forked out enough money to fund about ten excursions on the swamp, we were thrilled by the suggestion.
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After spending the night bush camping next to the swamp near the local village, we made our way back down to the boats at which point our excitement quickly dissipated as the guide asked us when we would like to pay the further USh150,000.00 it would cost to go out on the swamp again. In retrospect, after eight months of dealing with the likes of our guide, we should have seen this coming. However, it was precisely because we had experienced eight months of constantly handing over money to locals who have claimed ownership of every possible natural attraction that our frustration would culminate on the banks of the Mabamba swamp. If you had to ask my friends and family for a character reference, they would (hopefully) describe me as easy going. There are a few moments in life away from the office when I am forced to use what Gary likes to call my “lawyer voice” which usually accompanies some very assertive and stern words. On this occasion, however, I skipped right passed my “lawyer voice” and went straight to what Gary has termed “fireball” mode. “Fireball” has only made an appearance once before when a neighbour in Cape Town tried to submit building plans to extend their apartment and effectively block our views of the ocean, halfing our property value. So it was on this day that “fireball” blazed out over Lake Victoria and our guide looked on, quite startled by the transformation of the little blonde, mild mannered Mzungu. To give him credit, he managed to survive the ordeal somewhat unscathed and we negotiated down to half price, which money would only be paid on condition that we find this bloody stork. After two rather tense and frustrating hours on the swamp, during which time everyone was glued to their binoculars and the guide and I were doing our level best to ignore one another, there she was. We’ll admit that at that moment the number of storks in the area almost dropped from nine to eight as we resisted the temptation to throttled the bird. However, as it was certainly not the storks fault that so few of them remain in the area, our next port of call in order to release our frustration would have been our guide who had shown an aptitude for not only bird spotting but also the ability to extract large amounts of money from our wallet.
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Crisis and it’s Remedy
Leaving the swamp behind, we decided to aim for Kampala but stopped in at Entebbe to have lunch at a local restaurant. The news channel was being broadcast on an old television in the corner and gauging the reactions of the people around us to the news of the deaths in the north west region of the country, we both suddenly felt quite weary of our travels. Taking on this trip as an overlander is a vastly different experience to being a tourist who simply flys in and out, perhaps naively thinking that the rest of a country is just as fantastic as the tourist spot they’ve visited, where lions roam the grassy plains, the beer is always ice cold and the smiling locals are actually happy to see you. In between the game parks and attractions, we are exposed to the day-to-day reality of a country that isn’t always a pretty picture. That being said, we chose this path for ourselves for the very reason that we wanted to have our eyes opened by this experience, to not only traverse the geography of an area but to come to understand the substance of that area. Often we have come across fellow travellers who are surprised by the length of time that we are taking to complete this trip as most overlanders tend to breeze through a country in a matter of days. Our argument is that it is only by spending a substantial amount of time in a country that you really come to grips with the geography, the environment, the people, their attitudes and insights, the politics and the challenges faced, the combination of which has unfortunately often left us feeling somewhat despondent.
So it was, feeling travel weary and homesick, that we drove through the gates of Red Chilli Camp in Kampala. Fortunately for us, the only thing that could possibly put us in better spirits reached us as we got out of Jimny, the sound of home. Afrikaans music was blaring from a bar area surrounded by South Africans and the delicious smell of meat on the braai was wafting through the camp. We have never been so happy to hear Kurt Darren belting it out – correction, we have never been happy to hear Kurt Darren belting it out, but accompanied by the sound of laughter and children playing in the pool, we were transported back to a place that represents normality to us and we are unashamed to admit that this escape from the world outside of the camp was most welcome. After chatting to the owner, a South African who had gathered his cricket club together for a Sunday lunch, word soon got out that two South Africans had just arrived from Cape Town in a Suzuki Jimny. Surrounded by Toyota Land Cruisers, we chuckled to ourselves as we heard remarks such as “Het hulle rerig van Kaap Stad tot hier in daai klein karretjie gery? (Did they really drive here from Cape Town in that small car?) Nee! Ek kan dit nie fokken glo nie!” (No! I can’t fucking believe it!) Being well into the afternoon, it was reasonable to assume that each member of the cricket club had by this time consumed about a case of beer and it didn’t take long for one well liquored-up chap, fully clad in Springbok apparel, to make his way over and courageously drop a comment about the ability and small size of our Jimny. Little did he know that this wasn’t our first rodeo and as such, was left somewhat taken aback by the swift delivery of a comment referring to the not so small size of his beer paunch. With fast wifi, sumptuous chocolate cake, the odd South African accent and mince pies on offer to bring in the Christmas season, we ended up staying at Red Chilli Camp for three nights before moving on to Jinja.
The Last Overland Uganda Stretch – Jinja and Sipi Falls
Jinja is the adventure capital of Uganda and offers tourists the opportunity to fish or river raft from the source of the Nile. However, even these two activities come with attached terms and conditions since a dam wall was built in 2012. What was previously the first portion of heart racing, adrenaline pumping, rocky rapids, is now a rather serene extension of the lake that also happens to have been completely fished out. If it’s the Nile Perch that you are after, your best bet is to charter a motorised boat at US$100 and venture out onto the deeper waters of Lake Victoria. However, the beauty of this area is spectacular and the Nile River Camp offered great views of the sunset and a rope swing into the river from where you can float on your back and watch the Fish Eagles circle above.
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Our last destination in Uganda was Sipi Falls positioned at the base of Mount Elgon and close to the Kenyan border. While this area is quite remote, it’s a shame to overlook as it offers reasonably priced activities such as hiking the falls and venturing onto the coffee plantations for a guided tour and the opportunity to make your own roast using local methods. From de-shelling the beans, grinding them with mortar and pestle to roasting the coffee over an open fire, the end result is a cup of arabica that will knock your socks off.
The only factor that might have dampened our last week in Uganda was that we were scrapping the bottom of the barrel when it came to meal options. We had made the mistake of skipping Shoprite in Kampala when we had driven past to find it overrun with hundreds of locals. We would soon pay the price for this mistake as finding a decent butchery in Uganda is not only challenging but near impossible. Not too keen on expanding our culinary horizon by purchasing goat, we had managed to get by on two uniquely Ugandan and inexpensive food items that can be found in any village. The first is called a “Rolex”, which we are assuming evolved from “egg roll” and consists of fried onions and tomatoes rolled in an omelette and chipati. The other, even better find, were “pork joints” which serve delicious and crispy pork belly that is best paired with a Club or Nile beer. However, on one of our last nights in Uganda Gary had us eating kapenta, small dried fish that no amount of seasoning or tomato and onion mix was going to make appetising.
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The only thing that could cheer us up from this rather dismal state of affairs was meeting up again with a lovely Dutch couple who we had bumped into at various camps throughout or stay in Uganda. They share a very similar story to us in that they were also newly married, bought an old Land Rover (we won’t hold that against them) and were overlanding from Cape Town back home to the Netherlands. If you would like to read up on their adventures, the blog site is www.2throughafrica.com
and is worth a visit just to look at the extraordinary wildlife photographs that they have posted. As this couple had not made the mistake of bypassing Shoprite, we awoke on our last morning in Uganda to brew a pot of coffee and savour the taste of Ouma Rusks, generously donated to us by our new Dutch friends.
The road around Mount Elgon to the Kenyan border at Suam is a 100km stretch of road that takes up most of the day. While Jimny handled the difficult sections beautifully, our admiration went to the piki piki also know as boda-boda (old buggered up motorbike) drivers who fly over the eroded dirt and rocks often with up to three passengers on the back. While some of these passengers looked absolutely terrified, others just smiled and waved, giving us a send off as we left Uganda.