From Amsterdam we took a 9.5 hour flight to Kigali, Rwanda. We had a very short, 45-minute layover on the tarmac, before a quick half-hour flight to Entebbe, Uganda. Our guide collected us from the airport and dropped us off at the Gately Inn, where we'd be spending the night. In the morning our African adventure would officially begin!
Uganda, officially known as the Republic of Uganda, is a landlocked country in East Africa. They have a population of approximately 35.8 million people. The capital, and largest city, is Kampala and the official languages are English and Swahili. We spent the majority of our time in rural areas in the southern part of the country, visiting Bwindi, Queen Elizabeth, and Kibale National Parks.
|Uganda (dark blue) as located within Africa (light blue)|
|A map of the different regions of Uganda|
We booked our entire trip with Bush 2 Beach Safaris, but each tour company is only licensed to operate in one country. This meant we would be using their sister company, Great Lakes Safaris, for the Uganda portion of the trip. Our driver/guide was David and he turned out to be really great. He was very knowledgeable about the country, the people, and the wildlife. We learned a lot from David over the course of our week together.
Our first full day in the country featured a long drive from Entebbe, up to Kampala, and then southwest through Masaka, Mbarara, and Kabale to Lake Bunyonyi. We passed through countless small towns and villages and were treated to a few hours of "African Massage", which is the polite way of saying, extremely bumpy roads! We spent the night at the Birdsnest Lodge on the shore of Lake Bunyonyi, which is rumored to be between 44m (144ft) and 900m (2,952ft) deep. If true, that would make it the second deepest lake in Africa.
|We spent a lot of time inside this Land Cruiser|
|We stopped at the Equator on our drive to Lake Bunyonyi|
|It was the first time any of us had stood on the Equator|
|Beautiful Lake Buyonyi as viewed from our balcony|
|Grey-Crowned Cranes are the official bird of Uganda|
The next morning we toured the lake via canoe. Our end-goal was Punishment Island, which is a tiny island with a single tree. The Bakiga people used to banish unmarried pregnant women to the island so they would die of starvation. This was done to "educate" the rest of the women not to make the same "mistakes". If a man did not own any cattle with which to pay the bridewealth, he was allowed to go to the island and rescue one of the women, who in turn, would become his wife. Fortunately this practice was abandoned sometime in the first half of the 20th century, but it is still possible, even today, to find women who have been rescued from Punishment Island.
|Canoe selfie on the lake|
After the canoe trip we were back on the road and heading towards Bwindi Impenetrable National Park; home of the Mountain Gorillas. Bwindi is also home to 350 species of birds, 310 species of butterflies, 200 species of trees, 41 species of reptiles, 88 species of moths, and 120 different species of mammals. It was a long, dusty drive, filled with numerous Africa Massages. We would be spending the next two nights at Mahogany Springs Lodge in the Buhoma region, which was just outside the park's boundaries.
|We spotted this Black and White Colobus Monkey shortly after entering the park|
Our main reason for coming to Uganda was to track the Mountain Gorillas. There are only three countries left in the world where you can trek with gorillas; Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Uganda. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is home to approximately 340 gorillas, which is roughly half the world's population of endangered Mountain Gorillas. Of those 340, about 116 are considered to be habituated and they comprise 10 different family units.
We would be tracking the Kyaguliro Gorilla Family, which is one of three in the Ruhija region of the park. The Kyaguliro Family was just opened for tourist access in July 2013, making it one of the newest families that you can visit. This particular family has 19 members, including two silverbacks. The dominant silverback is Rukina and the second silverback is Rukara. They also had five or six babies that were constantly running around and wrestling with each other. All of the habituated gorillas are known individually by the rangers and have been given names in order to identify them. There are strict regulations around who, how, and when the gorillas can be visited and our time with them was limited to a maximum of one hour.
|We hiked for an hour through dense vegetation and down a steep gorge before we found the family|
|A female member of the Kyaguliro Gorilla Family|
|This is one of the playful youngsters|
|One of the two silverbacks. This guy was estimated to be 200kg (440lbs).|
|A close-up of another member of the family|
|By far, this was one of the coolest things I have ever done!|
After our unforgettable experience with Bwindi's gentle giants, we were given an opportunity to visit a Batwa Pygmy Tribe that was living within walking distance of our lodge. We were intrigued by them and wanted to learn more about their culture, so we gave David the green-light to set it up for us.
Traditionally, the Batwa Pygmies were forest dwellers who lived in caves and hunted and gathered for sustenance. For thousands of years they were known as the, "Keepers of the Forest" and they lived peacefully within Bwindi's dense jungle. In 1992 the Impenetrable Forest became a national park to protect the Mountain Gorillas and the Pygmies were evicted from the only home they'd ever known. They became conservation refugees in an unfamiliar and unforested world. Unskilled in the ways of farming and relying on broken promises from the government, the survival of the Pygmies was threatened. Our guide explained to us that conditions were so bad that a small group eventually defected back to the forest and are now living illegally within its borders. Missionaries and tourism have helped keep their traditions and culture alive as the Pygmies try to integrate themselves into an unknown world.
|The Batwa Pygmy village near the Mahogany Springs Lodge|
Our visit with the Batwa people featured a tour of the small village, a hunting exercise using a bow and arrow, a traditional song and dance performance, a fire lighting demonstration, and finally we were given an opportunity to sample some of their cuisine. We were all given a chance to hunt using the bow and arrow. Christine hit the target on her first try, but I was absolutely terrible at it! Sarah and I were each asked to take part in a dance with a few members of the tribe. We attempted to mimic their movements, but I feel we thoroughly butchered the performance. Mike was given an opportunity to light a fire in the traditional way, by rubbing sticks together. I'm happy to report that he was successful at it, but he wasn't nearly as fast as they were! I fear we would be terrible hunters and would be eating a lot of cold meals if we suddenly had to move into the forest!
|The hunting demonstration|
|After the fire was lit, they proved it to us by inhaling the smoldering embers|
All of us had the opportunity to sample roasted goat meat, which Mike and I happily tried. It was actually pretty tasty, but the fermented banana beer and the incredibly strong banana gin left much to be desired! The girls decided not to sample the food and I'm happy to announce that both of us managed to avoid getting sick from this tasting experience.
|Roasting some goat meat over an open fire|
Before we knew it, it was time to move again. Our next destination was Kibale National Park, but we had to drive through Queen Elizabeth National Park in order to get there. This gave us a bit of an unexpected safari and made the drive a lot more exciting. The park is named after Queen Elizabeth II and is Uganda's most visited national park. It's home to the unique tree-climbing lions, which, disappointingly, we were unable to see during our brief visit. The park is home to a variety of other species, however, and we managed to see Black and White Colobus Monkeys, Vervet Monkeys, Baboons, Elephants, Topis, Waterbucks, Ugandan Kobs, and Cape Buffalo.
|Queen Elizabeth National Park|
We were stopped for lunch somewhere outside Queen Elizabeth National Park when David was approached by a nun who was looking for a ride to a church. As luck would have it we would be driving by that same church before reaching Kibale National Park. David asked if it would be okay if we gave her a lift and we agreed that it would be more than fine. When we arrived at the church all of these children came running up to the vehicle. The only English word they knew was "sweets". They kept repeating it over and over again with their hands extended towards us. They'd obviously been given treats from tourists in the past, but unfortunately we didn't have anything to offer them. It was pretty cute interacting with them even though none of us could speak the other's language.
|Children running to the vehicle hoping for sweets|
Later that afternoon we arrived at Kibale National Park and were greeted by a family of Baboons. The Baboons are one of 13 different primate species that call the park home. We had traveled to Kibale to search for another species of primate though, the Chimpanzee. We would be spending two nights at the Primate Lodge in the heart of the park before making the long trip back to Entebbe.
|This is an adult male Baboon that we spotted just inside the park|
|This baby was hitching a ride on the back of its mother|
|This is a male Agama Lizard. They were quite common around the Primate Lodge.|
As I mentioned earlier, the main reason we were in Kibale was the Chimpanzees. It is widely accepted that Chimpanzees are the closest living relatives to human beings, sharing about 98% of their DNA composition with us. We weren't really sure what to expect, but to be honest I was a little skeptical about the whole thing. The idea of tracking Chimps seemed a bit anti-climactic after our phenomenal experience with the Mountain Gorillas. I was willing to give it a try, however, since the tour had been booked and our permits were already paid for.
During the briefing my fears were confirmed when we were told that Chimps spend approximately 80% of their lives up in the trees. This meant our chances of seeing them on the ground were pretty slim. Like the gorillas though, our chances of actually encountering them was around 95%, which was reassuring. There are approximately 1,500 Chimpanzees living within Kibale National Park, but only a small percentage are habituated. The family we were after are known as Kanyanchu and they have 140+ members, including an old alpha male.
Once we were in the forest it didn't take very long to find the rambunctious Chimpanzees. As we expected they were all up in the trees and we were only able to see a handful of them as they feasted on vegetation. I had positioned myself on top of a dead log to get a better angle for photographs when the girls began yelling at me to "turn around!". I was distracted because there was a solitary Chimp looking directly at me, which made for a great photo, but the girls continued yelling at me and they were getting louder. As I turned around I was surprised to see this...
|The alpha male had already crossed the log as this old fellow and a young Chimp followed behind him|
The alpha male of the entire family, accompanied by a two elder statesman and a toddler, were walking across a different log directly in front of me. They couldn't have cared less about my presence and they just kept moving towards me. Eventually their log paralleled mine and the oldest members of the family were just a few feet away. I was looking at them, trying to get some photos, while they glanced up at me and kept right on moving. This single experience made the whole Chimp expedition worth it...and we weren't even close to being done yet!
|This little guy was just lounging in the trees without a care in the world|
|He posed like that for quite a while. We were able to get some neat shots of him.|
Our time in Uganda was coming to an end. David drove us back to Entebbe where we spent one final night back at the Gately Inn before flying into Tanzania. Unfortunately our original flight had been cancelled, so we'd been moved onto a 3AM flight instead. None of us slept very well that night, but spirits were high as we landed at Kilimanjaro International Airport and the next leg of our journey began.