I hit Ugandan ground at full speed with a drive across the heart of the country from the shores of Lake Victoria to the jungles of Kibale Forest on the Western edge.
Every one of the many towns we passed through was filled with motorcycles. This surprised me until I learnt that the locals use motorcycles in lieu of taxis, so they are everywhere. Most of the scenery consisted of beautiful green rolling hills interspersed with tea or banana plantations. The motorcycles shared the roads with goats and cattle and children walking to and from school.
My time in Uganda coincided with annual exam time so many of the grades only had partial days. You could always tell when we moved from one school’s area to another by the color of the sweaters. They changed from green to blue to bright pink.
In Kibale, we stayed at Kyaninga Lodge. This is officially my favorite lodge in Uganda. It is built up on stilts and designed like a massive tree house. My cottage overlooked a crater lake with the mountains in the distance and an absolutely gorgeous view.
A short, but steep trail led down to the lake and a jetty where you can take kayaks out on to the water. It is safe to swim here, but the lake is incredibly deep. As I definitely believe in the Loch Ness monster (as all reasonable people do), my keen scientific mind prevented me from doing anything more than paddling around the edge. For those who would like to swim elsewhere, the lodge also has a pool carved right into a lava flow.
The next day was an early start for the drive into the national park where we would be doing our morning and afternoon chimpanzee treks. We were the last to arrive of the morning group, so we set off onto the trail straight away. Unlike with gorilla trekking, the chimpanzee treks don’t use trackers to find the groups. Instead, you are very quiet as you walk the trails. Listening carefully for the sounds of chimps and looking for signs of activity.
It didn’t take long before we heard a lone chimp calling for the rest of his family. We doubled back and took a different trail to get closer. Suddenly, many more chimps started joining in the chatter. This gave the ranger enough of a sense of their location that we were able to take off into the bush to the top of a hill where the family of chimps were gathering.
They were scattered all around; on the ground, in the trees, males, females, adults, and infants. It was fascinating to watch the activity. Words cannot describe what it is like to be so close to these animals that are so human like.
After a while they began to move off, we trailed them for a bit before looping around and linking back up with the trail system. We returned to the headquarters in perfect time as I was ready to devour the lunch the lodge had packed so artfully in a banana leaf. After lunch, we headed out again on our afternoon trek.
The chimps were much more difficult to find this time around, and you could feel the humidity rising as the afternoon rainstorm approached. We trekked off-trail through some very dense foliage, catching the briefest of glimpses of a solitary chimp. He was having a much easier time with the jungle than we were. I nearly gave up hope of catching up to him, when our guide spotted a freshly dropped fig on the ground and we were off once again, up a hill, to find a small group relaxing in the shade. We followed this group down the other side of the mountain, where they lead us to a forest access road.
With our fill of pictures and memories, we set off down the road to where our vehicle was waiting to whisk us back to the relaxation of our lodge; arriving back just as the afternoon showers started pouring buckets.
Queen Elizabeth National Park is where I really hit my stride as a master klutz. I was constantly walking into things, falling out of the vehicle, tripping on rocks, slipping in mud puddles, almost getting stuck in an outhouse and in one mortifyingly embarrassing moment knocking over a sculpture in the middle of the lodge dining room, in front of several staff and other guests.
To add insult to injury I then passed my bad luck on to our guide who locked the keys in the car during lunch. Luckily, he was able to get them out by the time we finished our picnic lunch.
After lunch, we put the roof of our vehicle up and set off on a game drive through the savannah. We saw a lot of buffalo, elephant, kobs, waterbuck and warthogs. The Kazinga Channel boat cruise delivered a plethora of birdlife, as well as hippos and crocodiles.
On our second day in the park, we managed to find some of the tree climbing lions. Three males lounging in the tree, one of them very uncomfortably so. This was rather lucky for us as he kept moving around trying to find a better perch, jumping from one limb to another, giving us a great show.
Finally, the big day arrived – Gorilla Trekking! I had approached the moment with a bit of apprehension purely because the long airline flights had left me with a cold that I hadn’t been able to shake. Gorillas are so closely related to humans that they can catch our diseases. The rangers will not let you trek if you are too sick and contagious. Lucky for me, the small cough that I had did not bother them.
While we were being briefed our guide was negotiating who would trek to which Gorilla family with the other guides. They make sure people on their second day of trekking visit a different family. We were assigned to the Habinyanja Family which lived in a different part of the park. Our trek began with an hour’s drive through the winding mountain roads to a different trailhead. At the trail head, we each hired a porter then set off through the tea plantation bordering the national park.
Once we entered the forest proper I was extremely grateful to have my porter. As I became entirely focused on not tripping, he was making sure I didn’t bump my head on anything. When I got myself completely tangled in a vine, he helped to cut me free. It took us just under an hour to reach the gorillas.
The trackers who had set out before dawn were already there. They gently cleared away some of the dense foliage around the area where nine gorillas were relaxing. These included a silverback, a juvenile, a female, two babies and four young adult males. We spent an hour watching them relaxing, eating, grooming each other and climbing trees.
The gorillas were so docile it was hard to believe they were wild animals, though we were careful not to get too close and disturb them.
I’ll stay on my side, you stay on your side, and there won’t be any trouble.
The trail out was easier to manage as we had cleared it on our way in. We stopped for lunch on the border of the public lands. Our porters had thoughtfully brought along a poncho for us to sit on. Then it was back to the vehicles for the drive back to headquarters.
We had enough of the afternoon left to visit a local women’s project and then made it back to the lodge just as it started pouring rain. We had the best luck with the rain on our trip. I do know that some of the other groups were still trekking at that point.
It was an amazing adventure, full of wonderful memories.
~ If Uganda isn’t on your bucket list yet you should go right now and write it at the top. In pen. ~