Descending through the clouds to land in Nairobi, I finally understood why Ernest Hemmingway called his famous book “The green hills of Africa”. The swelling and shifting cumulonimbus clouds floated over these green hills about which so much is written and romanticized. Those that coined and made the word “safari” famous around the globe. For me, this was just a layover on the way to a destination referred to by Winston Churchill as the “Pearl of Africa”, the old stomping grounds of Idi Amin.
Fast-forward a week. Sitting overlooking the spectacular vista of the eight Virunga Volcanoes – one glowingly active – fire crackling in the hearth to keep out the cold at 7,000 feet. The tallest volcano towering 15,000 feet on the horizon. With a sore body after the previous days trek, a whole day with the incredible gorillas. One of those ‘bucket-list’ items many have on their list, and sadly few ever realize.
Jim and I have known each other since 2004. Six Namibian safaris, both hunting and photographic, Tanzania and now Uganda. Jim has had the privilege of hunting all of the big 5, and 6 of the dangerous 7. His excuse for not shooting a crocodile is that “my house is full – and I am NOT moving.” He has fulfilled his African hunting aspirations, and at 69 is still in love with the continent of Africa, and wants to explore more of it.
I arrived in Entebbe – the original capital of Uganda – at 22:00 on the first night, sans check-in luggage. The lights of the plentiful bars lit the streets, the presidential palace illuminating the night sky, overpowering and unnecessary. I was happy to see Jim at out guesthouse for a nightcap before the safari started in earnest the following day.
The morning light brought the sound of beautiful birdlife. Opening my door was a new adventure after my arrival in the dark. Birds a plenty – family names of which I knew, but not the specific sub-species. After a hearty and very healthy breakfast we made our way to the airport. Our accommodations where high up on the hill with a spectacular view, close to the unwanted light from the night before. The view sweeping over the plains and the seemingly endless Lake Victoria below. I asked our driver – “any hippo or crocs in Lake Victoria?” – he answered with “yes… there are a few crocs, but if they are seen the are saved and taken to the zoo!” Needless to say this was not the answer we were expecting. With my vehement distaste of zoos, I was not impressed that these poor animals were incarcerated for the rest of their natural lives for occurring where they naturally should.
A scheduled flight took us over a very rural and agricultural Uganda to Kasese. On a firm grass landing strip we were met by our driver and guide – Mali. Jim and I were both surprised to see that all we flew over was agricultural land – small plots cut into the red Ugandan soil with a multitude of different crops growing in their fertile soil. Subsistence agriculture supplying most of the food for the population. 42 million people inhabit this country, a third the size of my native Namibia. The country is 241,038 km²in size – 0.005 km2per person (150,000 miles2and 0.003 miles2per person). Compare to a US state?
There are two types of roads in Uganda – bad and worse. That which is asphalt has giant potholes in it, and gaining any speed is next to impossible. And then you discover the speed bumps, just to slow you down a little more. Of gravel roads… more later. Scheduled flights are both affordable and strongly recommended to save you from the worst of these roads.
Nestled on the edge of an extinct volcanic crater lake at the foot of the Rwenzori Mountains we spent our first night.After the afternoon of exploring the nearby village, the mist, the sun, the clouds, the view – I started to love the quaint and very different lodge, and understood why it was build where it was. The vision that the owners had when building it. A real treat, their homemade goats-cheese and locally sourced honey.
In Uganda one has to pre-book permits to see both chimpanzees and gorillas – and there are two options – trekking and habituation. Trekking simply means a hike in, about an hour with the primates and then the hike out. Habituation is a much more intense hike in, finding the primates and spending several hours with them, watching them interact, feed and being the primates they are.
For both chimpanzees and gorillas we opted for the habituation. Furthermore we bought all the permits for both trips to make it a more intimate and exclusive experience.
In the black pre-dawn we followed the lights of the cruiser as we bounced our way down the road to Kibale Forest National Park. The rural substance-farming world of Uganda was lit with a soft light as the sun returned for its next revolution, and the small fires of humanity.
As we experienced time and again in this interesting country, the civilization suddenly stopped, one was immediately plunged into pristine wilderness. The road improved, and there was evidence of elephant and other animals on the road. In the eerie pre-dawn the forest looked dark and mystical, waiting to share its secrets with us – but only after some foot-work.
We met a cheerful Jenifer – our armed park ranger for the day. Old AK-47 slung over her shoulder as we started our trek into the forest. The weapon used as a walking stick – barrel down – occasionally. The smells of the wet soil, the drops of water constant like rain, it was like no place I had ever been. A place where fairy tales are set – with trees displaced by forest elephant. Butterflies vibrant in color and variety everywhere. Beautiful birds vocal, but not seen – they preferred the treetops. Rays of sunshine breaking through the dense canopy like spotlights here and there.
The trees were enormous. We got to a particularly big tree with yellow stem when figs rained down from above. Our first chimp sighting. We spent some time looking straight up, catching glimpses of them as they moved around picking fruit.
With stiff necks, Jennifer then set off in a different direction. We then found a large troop of chimpsin low trees. Our habituation started in earnest – as did the photography. Over midday, siesta was the order of the day. The dominant male making a brief appearance by climbing down the tree and walking amongst us. A thrilling experience to spend time with these interesting animals.
The brown and fast moving flood waters of the Ishasha river gurgle by our tented camp set on its banks. Topi and Ugandan kob were plentiful. We got to experience seven magnificent, yet small in stature tree climbing lions, snoozing in a fig tree, sleeping their sore distended bellies away. The bird life is incredible – something I truly enjoy.
The river runs red with clay, high on the banks, swollen, its tributaries adding to its girth. Several pods of hippo stand submerged in the shallow water, in their diurnal-slumber till dusk before going to fill their bellies. Most of them being Congolese, this maybe changing with the setting of the sun.
In the distance the Rwenzori Mountains, the summits of which reach 17,000 feet are snow capped and daunting in the bordering Congo.
I would not call myself a naturalist, having grown up in the bush and spending most of my adult life emerged – I have learnt a thing or two. On leaving the Ishasha river area we encountered several elephant bulls. This amazing with-in itself. What was more interesting was the apparent genetics of these elephant. Both forest and savannah, in the same herd, interacting and living together as cousins. The forest with their smaller physique, straight almost translucent ivory and smaller heads. The savannah with their gigantic bodies, curved ivory and massive heads. The transition area for this sub-species, in the savannah plains of Uganda. One of the highlights of my trip.
“I survived the road up to the clouds” is what the t-shirt should say. Picking up from before, the road up the mountain passes was rough. Very, very rough. Cut into the side of the mountains down to the bedrock – they were hard and bumpy. In the rain, red soil slid down the side of the steep embankments, making them slippery. We climbed from 4000 feet to over 7000, with sheer drops that looked twice as high as they really were on the sides of the road. No guardrail.
Our final lodge of the trip was literally in the clouds. A place of peace, quiet and tranquility. A place meant for recovery from the physical challenges of the gorilla trekking.
On the misty morning we were given our briefing in the southern end of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Introduced to our police and military armed escort, guide, trackers and porters. The trek for our gorilla habituation began. April is rainy season in Uganda. Slick underfoot and loads of streams to cross. Physically it was challenging with the up and down, slip and slide, high altitude and the crossing of streams. All this exertion to see some of the 850 highland gorillas that remain in the wild.
After three hours of the forests slow torture, climbing a hill covered in foot grabbing vines we rounded a bush and there was a juvenile gorilla, reclined on a branch looking at me, as if waiting bored for our appearance.
The walk forgotten, camera gear got spread out and covered under rain-ponchos and the photo session commenced. I had no idea we could get so close. Being 6 feet from a 450 silverback is intimidating. Head the size of a colossal cannon ball. I don’t care who you are. I inched forward expecting to be attacked at any second. The trekking team surrounded the band about 180 degrees and I settled in to get my shots. Completely habituated, we were able to move as freely as the vines let us around these amazing animals. After an hour a mother with a newborn relocated towards the silverback from thick cover. The interactions were amazing. The tenderness when the baby came close to the massive figure of the dominant male. The reaction of the female when she disapproved of her mans actions – swinging backhanded at the male, not hitting him, resulting in him throwing his hands up in the air and falling on his back theatrically. Another female with a hand damaged by a snare. The thin line of existence these animals live – squeezed into the last parts of this enchanted impenetrable forest by human over population.
For those of you reading this, you might sense a bit too much reality in my words, certain negativity? It is reality in parts of todays Africa. Plan your trip to Uganda. It is worth the terrible roads and speed bumps, and the multiple police searches at the airport. The lodges and people are incredible, the food fantastic and the scenery truly amazing. The wildlife that coexists in the islands of remaining sanctuary absolutely worth the trip. A trip of a lifetime for me, I cannot wait to return. This wildlife will not exist if they have no value, your trip will help keep these wild places wild.
Photography by: Jofie Lamprecht