Monday, August 13, 2018

Guest feedback from Uganda

Dramatic Ugandan landscape.

Our clients from the UK, Jaco and Caitlin Jansen very kindly gave us a detailed report from their safari to Uganda, arranged by Africa Unlocked. Take the time to read their detailed and unbiased account below. For more information on our safaris to Uganda you can also look at the following links:

From Caitlin and Jaco:

Work leave was confirmed for Winter (in the Southern hemisphere) with the plan we would try and fit in a trip to Namibia, avoiding the long hot Summer days as we expected lots of driving and camping.  Then the idea struck us to try and change this to a trip to do Gorilla trekking in either Uganda or Rwanda as it was also a good time of year for it and thanks to selling my flat, we had funds available for a real bucket list trip. Huge gorilla permit price rises in Rwanda, led us to decide on Uganda.

Both fairly well travelled, we set about trying to put together a trip ourselves.....not as easy as we hoped and we hit many brick walls, the first one being that our Puppy completely destroyed and shredded the Brandt guide book we were recommended! Back to the internet then...

We decided early on that we would like to explore more than just the Gorillas, initially considering a safari in East Africa (Kenya) alongside a few days Gorilla trekking and following some research realised we could do a safari in Uganda too so made the choice to make the most of Uganda and spend our whole time there.  We got lots of good suggestions of other places to see and things to do from tripadvisor, friends and the internet and narrowed down what we thought was a good plan! Trying to organise it and book it was a whole other story!

It wasn't choosing and booking the hotels / lodges that was the problem but the logistics of it really, public transport isn't ideal, distances were great, time (and money) wasn't unlimited and we were unsure of the safety of self driving given the road conditions! Jaco was very practiced on gravel roads having grown up in Namibia and spent most of his adult life living in game reserves in South Africa but a puncture on a remote road, possibly at night, in rural Uganda didn't fill us with joy!

So we set about finding help! Thats where Africa Unlocked and Albie and Freda Venter came onboard.....Phew!

An initial email was met with an almost immediate reply (Jaco has worked with Albie in the past so we knew they ran a company that could help us) and a request for a rough idea of what we were thinking of. We went back and forth a few times with our ideas, their suggestions, based on experience of actually having visited Uganda and doing the activities we were hoping to do and a Skype call, as we are based in Manchester in the the UK and Africa Unlocked in South Africa, and a basic trip plan was formed!

Once it was narrowed down and confirmed, we paid a deposit and tried to put it to the back of our was almost a year to wait!

All of a sudden the balance was to be paid, 60 days to go and we were on countdown to our trip! Yellow fever vaccinations to be booked, Uganda visas to arrange (we used the newish online system and it worked very well), Malaria tablets to collect.....

Now its just 9 days to go and the final itinerary has just pinged into our inboxes.  Just a bit of work left to do, for me thats a trip to San Francisco and for Jaco, dogs to massage and treat and a Flyball competition in Eggborough with our 2 Cocker Spaniels. We can start to pack and organise all our stuff now at least.

More of the emerald landsape.
Sat in the lounge in Nairobi, almost there now but only just! Our flight from Manchester to Amsterdam was delayed meaning an announcement on board by the curiously jovial cabin crew that we'd missed our flight, someone somewhere was watching out for us as the lady at the top of the airbridge said she'd checked and it was still boarding....we could run at our own risk to try and get it! We sprinted as fast as our legs would carry us, knocking over only a few that stood in our way....this was a time when we wished our transfer was in a small airport, not one of the largest in Europe! Jaco ran ahead shouting at the gate asking if we could still get on...phew we could, however she was delighted to tell us our bags would probably not make it! Oh in Entebbe loomed! We realised we could manage as long as we were on that plane! bags met us in Entebbe, we were about last through to the carousel as the queue for the visa, that we already had, was painstakingly slow! The carousel was still going around with only a few unloved bags going round and round, none of which were ours!
Missing bags reported, no idea where they were and we finally wandered out to meet our guide Robert. We were taken in a yellow cruiser to The Boma and had our first insight into Ugandas skyline.

Now to get some clothes....packing light due to light aircraft transport around Uganda meant we really only had what we stood up in! A few hours visiting every option we were directed too, resulted in a onesie type playsuit (shorts and vest) and dress for me and a t-shirt, shorts and pants for Jaco, getting stuff big enough for Jaco was the hardest, then navigating dollars, shillings and english pounds was next. No insect repellent to be had though...that was tomorrows problem!

Forst stop - The Boma in Entebbe.
The Boma- room 14. Very friendly welcome, and briefing by guides. Exhausted from our adventures shopping we ate in the restaurant (very good steak) and retired early, after checking if our bags made the evenings flight from Amsterdam to Entebbe...they didn't!
Your wings - a Cessna 172.
A walk around the beautiful grounds before breakfast set us up for the day and we were collected in a yellow cruiser to be taken to KEA aviations hub, Kjjansi! The road to the airport was like nothing Ive ever experienced before and I did wonder where exactly we were being taken. It certainly bared no comparison to my journey to work at Manchester Airport! The 2 cant really be compared though although the runway length isn't actually that different. Kajjansi was 3759' above sea level though and a red, shingle surface! The 'terminal' was a shack with some weighing scales and a bench and the inflight catering a muffin and bottle of water! My expectation of a light aircraft transfer was a Cessna caravan or Beech 1900, what we got was a Cesna 172. 

The flight was amazing, it was a calm day, more cloud cover than usual apparently but still good enough for visual flying, the arrival at Bugungo was just as interesting as the departure from Kajjinsi!
Ankole cattle with those unreal horns are common in Uganda.

We were met by Greg in another yellow cruiser, in the very posh arrivals hall and transported to Bakers lodge along a few roads of the Murchison falls National park!

Phew..we'd done very little research of our own in the end, of the lodges in Uganda we were staying in as we'd entrusted our trip to Albie and Freda and knew they'd personally stayed in them and what a great decision this was. 

We were met with refreshing cloths, passion fruit juice and a very friendly smile. Gabriel had heard about our luggage and put our mind at ease with regard to lending us insect repellent and providing us with a t-shirt each and arranging laundry of our clothes etc. I felt so relieved that we could actually make it through the trip if our bags didn't ever turn up! Now was chance to enjoy the area and Bakers lodge. 

Crossing the Mightly Nile on a pontoon. 
All I can do is sing the lodge and its staffs praises. Amazing location on the banks of the Nile, serene and relaxing atmosphere amongst nature. Brilliant staff and beautiful rooms. Everything's been thought of and planned without ever feeling rushed or herded about. First afternoon activity was a cruise up the Nike to the Murchison Falls then a hike to the top. Ellis was our guide and he collected us after lunch and took us to the boat jettys, explaining that he would be waiting for us at the top of the falls. He explained a bit about the journey and the level of the hike, also what we should take with us. He had plenty of ice cold water onboard too...such a welcome treat!
Murchison Falls where the Nile gashes through a 7 meter gap in the rocks. 

We caught a small boat (10seats) over the river then transferred to a slightly larger, double decker boat to begin our journey against the current! We had a guide onboard who talked us through what we were seeing and rapidly put on a life jacket to lean overboard and help sweep the motor of plant debris picked up along the way! The boat was new and a bit more precious about matter getting caught up on its propellor! An alarm sounded and off he went again!
We made a slow journey all the way upstream to the falls, it took about 3hours and we had some fantastic sightings of birds and animals, stopping for photographs and explanations along the way then it was time to hop off, while the boat powered against a stepping stone.  Our guides in Entebbe has pulled quite a face when we said we 'd prefer to hike up than down from the falls so we werent sure we would survive it! It was however a great (although pretty exhausting) experience!
Starting at just over 500m above sea level we climbed, via a pathway to just over 700m, in about 30degrees, 70%humidity and on sparkly soil, whilst avoiding tetste flies in about an hour but it was worth it!  The views were amazing and we got so close we danced about in the spray to cool down as a reward for making it to the top!

Bakers Lodge on the banks of the White Nile River. 
Ellis was waiting for us in a cool (a/c) vehicle as he recommended we keep the windows closed due to the volume of tsetse flies in the area, having both already had a bite or 2 we were happy with this! Although the bites nip a bit, he reliably informed us that they don't cause sleeping sickness in this area! Thank goodness.

Lovely dinner (all the food was amazing, chosen from a menu the meal before) on the deck listening to the sounds of the bush. Our resident hippos chuckled away on the shore line. A few spits of rain meant we moved under the thatch but it was heaven listening to the thunder crashing away in the distance! Overnight we were treated to hyenas and lions calling and I was briefly woken by the hippos grazing close by and I thought had gone for a swim in the pool...funnily enough Jaco wasnt keen to know this at 3am!

Alarm call at 6am the following morning, quite a sleep in in the bush, for breakfast at 6.30. Our carriage, a small 4 seater boat, was picking us up at the lodge jetty just after 7! Our suprise was the driver was Ellis, our friendly guide from the previous day..hes multi talented, also told us he could fly a plane but we didnt find that out for certain! The cruise to the delta was fantastic, the idea was to spot birds, including the illusive Shoebill as we made our way down the Victoria Nile towards Lake Albert. We were also lucky enough to see a few giraffes, waterbuck and locals dancing on the shore, doing their washing! Everyone in Uganda is happy and smiling and delighted with a wave...or hand shake if you get close enough!  No Shoebills by the time we got to the delta, we saw Pink backed Pelicans on Lake Albert and many small boats of fishermen, rather suspicious of us, the lake is over fished and they use illegal nets to catch too small fish! They really want the huge Nile Perch from the river but it is protected and fishing prohibited!
Powering back Ellis suddenly stopped the boat, he'd seen a Shoebill on the bank in the distance. It was huge and much lighter in colour than we expected. It flew off rather quickly so no chance of a picture unfortunately! He was very concerned we had no evidence of our sighting but it was a great spot from him. Only the second one in the last month at Bakers Lodge, probably due to the higher water levels at the end of the rainy season!

Searching for Shoebills.
Another brilliant lunch then straight out again for a game drive. We had to make the 2pm ferry. The lodge is on the Southern side of the river, however most of the game viewing is done on the North side. The animals etc are the same but the area is less on the North and the vegetation and forest less dense, making game viewing easier! They've recently translocated some giraffe from North to South to even it up a bit...they sedated them and put them on the ferry!
The ferry is a small, yellow vehicle and foot passenger platform that motors, rather noisily across the Nile every couple if hours. If you're in the queue at the departure times, it goes back and forward until the queue is gone, if you miss it you're stuck!

Once we crossed over to the Northern side with the ferry, Ellis raised the roof of the Land Cruiser, enabling us to stand up in the vehicle with our heads out.  There were animals everywhere in the open areas: Elephant, Ugandan kob, Jacksons hartebeest, Rothschilds giraffe, Chad buffalo, Nile bushbuck, oribi, warthog, hippo and Bohor reedbuck.  We also had sightings of olive baboons, vervet monkeys and patas monkeys.  Ellis is an excellent guide with a wealth of knowledge, and a keen birder. Several 'lifers' were added to our list.  Whilst driving down a track, with Ellis and Jaco chatting away about birds, my eye caught sight of a few spots in a tree almost next to the road.  It was a leopard!

A great find!!

After alerting Ellis, we backed up to see a beautiful young leopard, although very nervous.  She gave us a good look, before climbing down the tree to hide in a thicket at the base.  It was a great sighting and we continued down the track, all smiling.

We had a coffee break on the shore of Lake Albert, watching lots of hippos in and out of the water, as well as a pair of pretty grey crowned cranes, Uganda's national bird.  Then we had to headed back rapidly to make the last ferry to cross back over the Nile.  Back at Bakers Lodge we sat down for dinner when Gabriel, the camp manager, informed us that our luggage would be waiting for us at Kasese airstrip the next day.  Our relief was immense and it called for a couple of celebratory drinks at the bar, still not quite believing it would actually be there!

Sad to be leaving Bakers lodge but excited to be moving onto the next part of our adventure we set off after breakfast to Bugungu airstrip. Placing bets on our aircraft type...we were both wrong, it was a Cessna 210 this time. A little bigger and faster than the C172 we'd arrived on, with retractable wheels. A quick chat to our pilot and we loaded up and set off following a quick animal check if the runway!
1hour 20 flight time with slight head winds and a few minutes of drizzle, we flew the whole length of Lake Albert, towards Kasese. The ground rose up towards us, the airfield was at almost 4000' above sea level and the highest snow capped peak of the Rwenzori mountains (about 13500') was hidden beneath some cloud. We approached the grass strip and arrived successfully, clearing customs and security in record time!! JP, our next guide was waiting for us....with our bags!

The 2hour journey, via a shortcut, was interesting. Im not sure google maps would have the roads on it! The local kids we past all wanted to wave and shout How are you, to us in the vehicle. We were a bit of a novelty but we made it with a few monkey sightings and gorgeous views passing the Volcanic crater lakes.

Our next accommodation was at Primate lodge, a little more basic than Bakers but in the perfect location for Chimpanzee trekking. First we were to experience a night walk to hopefully view some of the nocturnal primates resident in Kibale forest...but it wasnt meant to be. We spotted a few pairs of eyes by torch light but it seemed they were having a quiet night in, trying to keep out of the rain! Fingers crossed our luck was being saved for great sightings on the Chimpanzee trek the next morning.

Photographing Chimps in Kibale Forest.
Old male Chimp. 
Well we were in luck...someone, somewhere answered our prayers! We had the most amazing sightings and time spent with the Chimpanzee community this morning. I heard them in the trees overnight and JP greeted us at breakfast saying they were very close to us, however it was raining and that can often keep them up in the trees! Fortunately for us, they wanted to play in the rain today. No sooner had we walked into the forest with Ali, our guide and small group of 6, we came across a sub adult sitting against a tree trunk sheltering from the rain, asking for his photo to be taken. We started to hear all kinds of noise and commotion and then we were surrounded by a whole lot more of the community. Every step we took resulted in yet more Chimpanzees going about their business.

We saw the dominant male, "The Boss" and his no 2, who sounded as though he'd had a heavy night partying last night, then we saw lots of youngsters sitting around, playing, fighting and chasing each other. One came towards us and literally brushed past us standing there. Not to miss out on the attention, along came Mum with a big baby on her back (we did also see a Mum with a very small baby on her chest, but she stayed quite high up in the trees. The guides were very excited about her though) and started flirting with the dominant male, they tried mating but the baby got in the way! We stayed with this community until the rain became much heavier and sent them all running for cover up in the trees...what an amazing experience!

Red-Tailed Monkey- one of the many primates encountered in Uganda.
Back to the lodge for a lazy afternoon. We walked the forest trail in the grounds a few times and were rewarded with great sightings of Black and White Colubus, Red Tailed Monkeys and Grey Cheeked Mangabey, who rather cheekily kept dropping things from the tree down to the ground next to us!

Last night here tonight them moving on, on the long road towards Bwindi!

Long journey to Bwindi, we set off at 8am and finally arrived about 4.30 with a short stop to refuel the cruiser in Kasese and a short stop to refuel us in the Queen Elizabeth National Park. I discovered some new style toilets on the road....I couldn't decide quite how you were meant to use them, learned the "African massage" wasnt fun for 8 hours, crossed the equator and we saw another leopard, unfortunately no tree climbing lions though.  JP had us scanning high and low....his description was they look like flowers in the fig trees! The "African massage" I talk of is the bumping around on the roads! The short trip(!) through the Queen Elizabeth national park (70km) took over was so bad. We saw one truck (how a truck had even got that far was beyond me) on its side and heard later another one we passed also fell over a bit later! Every vehicle passing made a quick stop beside the other and asked how the road was....every single time, the answer was met with a sigh and a pulled words needed!

We weren't convinced the signs with the distance on were very accurate either, 4km took us 40minutes then the 17km to the next lodge only took 15! We were so excited to finally see a sign with our lodge name on that the distance didn't really matter!

Crossing the equator.
So Buhoma Lodge....we were welcomed by a friendly, smiley Thomas, the manager, fresh watermelon juice and a wet towel...pure heaven after a day on the road and shown up to our cottage, 74 steps up in the tree canopy! The view more than made up for the long, steep climb to get there though and we were well and truely in the Bwindi impenetrable national forest!
What a view!!!
Food and an early night to prepare us for a possible long day ahead gorilla tracking. Our permits were for the Ruhija area, The Eastern side of the Bwindi forest, unfortunately that meant breakfast at 5.30 and a 2 hour journey of more African Massage! Oh boy was it worth it though! 
Buhoma Lodge.
We met Medi, the head ranger for a general briefing then we were separated into our group of 7 for a more specific briefing and information about the gorilla group we would be heading for.  Here we learned how the guides call some favours in to get their guests in the best /most appropriate group! Fortunately for us JP is well known and liked and we drove with The security and rangers in our car and had the most amazing trackers, who had already found the gorillas! We learned afterwards that they stay with the gorillas for up to 8 hours in the day to keep track of their location to make the following days trekking possible too!
Great Silverback giving his son a lift though the forest undergrowth.

We walked up a track and into the dense forest, on a few occasions it was impossible to see how we'd get through but not once did we have to back track. 2 guys had machete type instruments (2 escorts had AK47s too!) to cut down what was needed to forge a path through. We heard a few shouts then Albert stopped us and said the trackers had found the gorillas after only a 45 minute walk...phew. We had to leave our porters and take only the necessary equipment and water with us and walk on to view them. The terrain was no more forgiving but adrenalin made it easier, then we spotted our first one. A sub Silverback lazing asleep on the ground. 
Mountain Gorilla. 
We could hear more in the trees around us so we continued our trek until we came across the dominant Silverback, the female and young stay with him for protection so we were rewarded with amazing sightings of many of the family. The group we were allocated are a large group of 19 and we think we saw at least 12 of them including the youngest. Paska, was born at Easter and was a real entertainer. He was dancing on his dads back, trying to bang his chest quite unsuccessfully and swinging on vines and branches. He was like an unsteady toddler taking his first steps!

Once our time with the group was over we began the trek back up the hill to get out of the forest again and head back to our meeting point euphoric at having spent time with these most amazing creatures and having a little charge from the huge silverback just as we turned to leave! We had a ceremony and certificate giving once back at the vehicles to show we had successfully trekked the Mountain gorillas in Uganda.

Our journey back to Buhoma gave us more opportunity to admire the most beautiful views that had mostly been in darkness in the early morning as we'd made our way there. Its sometimes known as little Switzerland, but in my opinion it is even more beautiful. Everywhere you look things are growing, tea, bananas, coffee, mangoes, apples. The landscape is so green and fertile and the mountains covered in dense forest with a little mist in the valleys.

We had a relaxing afternoon back at the lodge, topped off with a complimentary massage that was much needed, it was tinged with sadness really as the end of our trip was looming!

Our journey to Kihihi airstrip in the morning wasn't too long, only an hour and a half so we had a leisurely morning walk around Bwindi and managed to add another species of monkey to our list, the l'Hoest monkey. We were catching a scheduled service to 

Entebbe, however it wasn't what you'd expect of a scheduled service. It was a Cessna Caravan (hooray!) with 11 other passengers that didnt really run on a timetable! It was a rather thermally hour and a quarter journey to Entebbe, avoiding a few big thunderstorms that were building up and the start of our long, eventful journey home. A 5hour wait in Entebbe (and the dreadful security) tested our patience and then another mad dash through Nairobi almost guaranteed our bags would once again not meet us at our destination! A confused Captain didn't seem sure of his destination on the next leg and then thick fog delayed us further in Paris. We finally touched down in Manchester 28 hours later...exhausted but happy. We'd had an amazing trip overall, now time for some rest and starting to plan the next trip!
Mission accomplished - Bucket list Gorilla Trekking done. 

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