Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda
So I got up after my great river rafting adventure on the Nile to discover that half of my body had changed to the colour purple. Yikes. Oh well, bruises will heal, but my arm looked like hell. I grabbed some breakfast and packed up and was ready to go when my guide from Volcanoes Safaris arrived at Cassia Lodge just after 9:00 a.m. to begin our journey to Queen Elizabeth Park in Western Uganda. The trip was going to take about 6 hours, and I was really looking forward to the drive since it would give me a rare opportunity to actually travel through the countryside of an African nation rather than being ferried from point to point in a bush plane as I had done in Botswana and to a lesser extent South Africa.
Anyway, my guide, Vincent, introduced himself and told me that he would be accompanying me for the entire 12 day trip and would not only be my guide, but would also be my driver. Wow! Vincent and I were going to be spending a lot of time together then. Vincent had been with Volcanoes Safaris for ten years and has also spent five years as a Park Ranger in Queen Elizabeth Park.
After loading the jeep with my stuff, we set off. Vincent gave me a map to show me our route and advised it would take at least an hour to get out of Kampala. We passed the usual street fare with lots of people walking on the sides of the road, lots of street markets, lots of furniture for sale (which seems to be a really big deal here – everywhere we drove we saw new furniture for sale on the side of the road), lots of of boda bodas and lots and lots of traffic. As we sat in the endless line of cars and boda bodas, Vincent told me that the opposition party in Uganda was asking people to “Walk to Work” to jam up the roads and cause traffic delays (which seemed odd to me since if people walked to work back home, it would result in LESS congestion not more). However, in Kampala people were walking in the road and across the road and beside the road and with the narrow two lane road it meant chaos. Apparently this was only the latest in a line of protests the opposition leader had devised to disrupt Kampala. The guy had been arrested numerous times for attempting to overthrow the government, had been defeated in elections many times, but still persisted. Sounded a lot to me like Ron Paul (except for the arrested part). I asked Vincent about the arrest part, and he told me that the government believed the opposition leader had a hidden agenda. Uh I don’t think so. Nothing hidden about the fact the guy wants to be in power. Anyway, the guy’s tactics appeared to be having an impact as traffic was at a crawl and hundreds of people walked beside the road and in front of and around the the cars.
We finally made it out of Kampala and onto the road to Queen Elizabeth Park (which happened to be the main road to the Congo and Rwanda as well). The road was a VERY bumpy two lane road and I was astonished to realize this was the main “highway”. Yowza. Vincent assured me it would get better the further we drove from Kampala. So for the next hour we bounced around through village after village, past school children and markets and lots and lots and lots of banana trees and bananas for sale. Eventually, the road did indeed become quite good.
As we drove, I was becoming hotter and hotter. It was very, very sunny and humid and the jeep had no A/C, but I didn’t think that was the problem. I could feel hot air blowing on my right foot. I finally figured out that there was a tiny gap in the metal casing between the two front seats and hot air (hopefully only hot air) from the engine was blowing into the jeep. I finally had to tell Vincent who apologized profusely and promised he would get it fixed when we stopped for lunch.
About an hour out of Kampala we made a stop by the roadside to see the royal drum makers. These guys have been making drums and traditional instruments for centuries and were the craftsman to the former royal families in Uganda. I had no real intention of buying anything, but after meeting a few of the fellows and watching them work, I ended up buying a shaker that contains seeds and makes a rattle when you shake it. (I’m a sucker … but I think it will be a gift for the Big E, who I am certain will love it. I am also certain my niece and her husband will not love it, but that’s what Grand Aunts are for….) Anyway, we decided to visit one more shop and the sucker in me continued to be on a buying spree as I found a small ornamental wooden drum to purchase. (Uganda is such a poor country, and these people are so so nice it makes it hard to say no!)
We continued down the bumpy road which finally gave way to actual payment. The road wound through rolling hills (the landscape reminded me of bit of upstate New York) and past more villages than I could count. We drove by lots of cows and goats (and mini goats) grazing by the side of the road (ok not like New York) and people selling potatoes and bananas by the kilo. We passed two three and four people at a time on motorcycles and men, women and children carrying large containers full of water. We flew by more Kodak moments than I can possibly describe, and I enjoyed every minute.
About two hours after we began the drive we reached the Equator. We pulled over and I jumped out and got the requisite tourist picture straddling the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere. Great fun!
We jumped back in the jeep and took off again finally pulling over for lunch in the town of Mbarara about two hours from the Volcanoes Kyambura (pronounced Cham boo ra) Gorge Lodge where I would be staying for three nights. After a very nice chicken curry and banana lunch, we were on the road again passing the now very familiar scenery and village pictorials plus lots of lush green landscape, rolling hills, flowers, banana plantations and open space. As we drove, school was letting out and the children would waive and yell at me “How are you Muzunga?” (means “how are you white person” in Swahili). I waived so much I felt like the Queen.
Finally, about 5:30 we passed through the little town adjacent to the lodge, drove down the very bumpy road past dozens of school children waiving at me and yelling the now familiar “How are you Muzunga?” and arrived at the entrance to the Kyambua Lodge. Vicent pulled over and I had an opportunity to get my first look at the Queen Elizabeth Park savannah, the Kazinga Channel that connects Lake Edward and Lake George as well as the Rwenzori Mountains that made up part of the border between Congo and Uganda. The view was absolutely magnificent. We jumped back in the jeep and pulled into the Volcanoes Kyambura Gorge Lodge. This place was the newest lodge for Volcanoes Safaris, which has three other lodges each with eight bandas. Guests on the twelve day gorilla trek/safari stay at each of the lodges during the twelve day trip.
Anyway, the Volcanoes Kyambura Gorge Lodge was absolutely gorgeous and was perched on a hill overlooking the Queen Elizabeth Park savannah. The lodge only opened in July and presently only has four bandas. There are four more under construction as well as a pool. The place was magnificent with a large stone terrace leading to the wood lodge with a thatched roof and natural landscaping. The Ugandan folks are very proud of this place (as well they should be). There was a five person party to greet me on arrival, and I kind of felt bad that there was just me to meet them. I was handed a glass of freshly squeezed passion fruit juice, given a tour of the main lodge and then led to my banda. It was spectacular. Again, all wood with a thatched roof and gorgeous sliding wood and glass doors. The banda was filled with African décor, had a huge veranda, sitting area, king size bed and beautiful bathroom with shower. The veranda looked out over the savannah, was surrounded by trees and flowers and there were birds singing in the trees as I walked it. Uh can I say here forever please?
I soon learned that the whole lodge and all the banda had been constructed with sustainable and recycle products. The lodge and all the bandas are also powered by solar energy (there was a large solar panel unit behind my banda) and the art is all second hand and locally made. They had done a marvelous job on this place. (I actually got to meet one of the Aussie architects, Ross, the next day when I ran into him on the terrace and he told me he had partnered with locals to build this place and is working on others in East Africa. I later met his partner Campbell. Quite the amazing fellows!)
As I was getting settled, Francis, one of the staff members, came to my door and asked me what I would like to eat for dinner. This was much different that what I was used to at other camps I had been to in Africa. Usually, they serve a buffet style meal with a couple main courses and choices of salads, soups, vegetables and deserts. Here, they provided you with a choice of two appetizers and two entrees (and this was the mode of operation at all of the Volcanoes Safari lodges). Made an awful lot of sense to me. I always thought the buffets at the other lodges provided way too much food and resulted in way too much waste. As Francis was leaving, he warned me to make sure I did not leave any food out because the baboons can be a problem. Ah yes, the pesky baboons. Those creatures get into everything and can create a HUGE mess.
I got changed for dinner and headed up to the terrace for drinks just in time to see the start of the most fabulous light show: a thunder and lightening storm over the mountains. The sky was ablaze with the largest streaks of lightening I can recall ever seeing. As I sat and watched, I thought about my wonderful late stepfather Tom who used to love, love, love sitting on my terrace in Texas and watching the thunderstorms. Thomas … you would have had the time of your life watching this storm. It was one of mother nature’s finest.
We were finally summoned to dinner of wine, lovely Minestrone soup and a delicious chicken dish with the every present local potatoes. There was only one other guest at the Lodge when I arrived, although there were two other women staying at the Lodge who worked for Volvanoes Safaris and were learning about the facility for their job. With only one other guest, we had the place to ourselves. (Because I am traveling in the off peak time for gorilla tracking, the lodges are less busy. (In fact, I was going to have the entire lodge to myself on the last day, although the day I was leaving the lodge would be filling with 7 guests.)
By the time dinner was over I was done in and headed to bed. It had been an exhausting day, and as I dozed I listened to the crickets, some hypos in the distance and the sounds of the savannah. Just before the sun rose, I was awakened to the sound of what I thought was the call to prayer. I listened for a bit and yep there was no mistaking that sound. (I later learned that there was a mosque in the village near the lodge). I started to dozed, but could hear roosters crowing in the distance. I must have fallen back to sleep though because before I knew it, I was being awakened by Francis with a pot of tea and muffins. Time for a game drive.
Vincent and I hit the road at 7 on the dot and were on the road driving through the savannah in no time. The jeep we were in was different that anything I had ridden in before. On game drives in South Africa and Botswana we had ridden in open top jeeps and open sided jeeps with tiered seating. The jeep I was in did not have tiered seating, I sat in the front beside Vincent and the top could be lifted up permitting you to stand out the top of the vehicle to watch the game. Different, but pretty cool.
Now a little bit about Uganda game. The national parks in Uganda were decimated during the Idi Amin era in the 70’s and are only now starting to recover. There are no rhinos (although there is talk of reintroducing them), no cheetah, no zebra and no giraffes (although I understand there never were giraffe in Queen Elizabeth Park). The area is most known for its elephant, lion and primate population (including chimpanzees). The Ugandan government and a number of trusts are working hard to restore the game population. However, until the game population becomes more plentiful, the primary reason people come to Uganda is for gorilla treking and all other animal sightings are just icing.
With all this in mind, I really didn’t know what to expect from the game drive, but my first of the trip turned out to be wonderful. The drive was very different than anything I had experienced in South Africa or Botswana. As we entered the park, we drove on a main paved road for a bit past a very nice fishing village and by cars loaded with people (Vicent told me these were maintenance workers and there was likely 18 in some of the cars … holy crap) before turning off onto a trail (this I had experienced in Hluhluwe Umfolozi National Park in northern South Africa), but what was different was that we encountered a number of locals riding bicycles loaded with bananas and walking through the park and working on the sides of the roads (cutting away brush that apparently grows very quickly and destroys the main road through the park). It had been my experience in other countries that you never saw folks just wandering the parks. I asked Vincent about this and he pretty much shrugged and said that they stay in groups and try to be careful. Uh not sure that will keep you safe from a charging elephant or lion. (Vincent later told me that a villager was killed last year by a lion and the villagers took matters into their own hands and stoned the lion to death. Had the park rangers arrived before the actions of the villagers, the park rangers would have had to destroy the lion because once the lion acquires a taste for human flesh it will continue to kill … yeah its graphic, but it’s nature!)
Anyway, we immediately saw lots of Ugandan Kob (aka sausage according to Vicent just like the impala), water buck, wart hogs and a few cape buffalo (fresh off of a roll in the mud). There were fish eagles all over and even some vultures. We had not been driving more than an hour before we encountered …. a lion. YAYYYY! Beautiful female lazing in the grass. We did not see the rest of the pride, but we speculated that they were in the nearby underbrush.
After watching the lion, we drove through a large heard of cape buffalo and then down the road to … another pride of lions. This time we saw the big cat, momma and a young male and female lion. They were lazing in the tall grass making it very hard to see them. It took me forever to finally get a read on them. Gorgeous though!
We next drove to the far edge of the park bordering on the Kazinga Channel. We drove through a small and obviously incredibly poor fishing village. Vincent told me that these folks had pretty much dropped out of society and were eeking out a living off the few fish they caught, some chickens they raised and a few cows. There was apparently a huge birth rate in the village and it was common for girls 11 and 12 to be pregnant. Vincent clearly did not like the circumstances of this village and was uncomfortable talking about the place so I kept my questions to a minimum.
Anyway, as we drove to the edge of the channel, we saw a significant number of hypos grouped together close to the banks of the channel within a stones throw of the village. The fishermen were putting in very rickity, very old, worn gray wood boats right near the hypos, oblivious to the fact that these creatures are the most dangerous animal in Africa. When we stopped, kids began climbing all over our vehicle. They were a riot.
We moved on from the fishing village back across the plains. We ran into another huge herd of cape buffalo, but still no elephants. Vincent promised me we would see them in the afternoon. So after a successful morning drive we headed back to the lodge. When we arrived, the staff had set up a table for me for breakfast on the terrace overlooking the savannah and the Rwenzori Mountains. I assure you there are few places finer to dine in this world. It was gorgeous.
After breakfast, I had a rest and then before I knew it they were calling me for lunch. Uh I just ate and if I keep this up, my trainer is going to kill me when I get back. Good thing I have some major league hiking ahead of me.
I spent the early afternoon on the terrace watching another thunderstorm (it is the middle of the “light” rainy season in Uganda, which is why there are less tourists) before it cleared to gorgeous sunny skies. Vincent and I headed out for another game drive at 4:00 and encountered a bunch of baboons on the road into the park and …. yep a couple elephants off in the distance. We took another route this time and after passing by the requisite water buck and Ugandan Kob as well as a myriad of wart hogs, we finally found my favorites … a herd of elephants. We got a little too close to one of the big guys who was not too happy with us. He made a few threatening gestures towards us, raised his front leg and shook his head and that was enough for us to back slowly away and get the heck out of dodge. The jeep was big, but it was no match for this bull (and no I am not talking about my friend the “Bull” although our jeep might not be any match for her either).
We drove across the savannah towards the area where we encountered the pride of lions in the morning and saw hundreds of Ugandan Kob all on high alert and looking in the same direction. We looked through the binoculars, but did not spot anything. Vincent speculated that the lions were under a nearby thicket so we decided to park ourselves in the area as the sun set, have the traditional sundowner (any alcoholic drink while watching the sun go down) and see if the lions would make their appearance. About twenty minutes later we noticed a hippo trundling across the plains. Pretty unusual since it was rather early for hippos to be out of water. As we watched the hippo, Vincent spotted the lions. Another YAYYY! I grabbed my binoculars and watched as the big guy and his mate started to make their way out of the thicket and across the savannah. We watched as they suddenly found a spot and lay down in the grass. We jumped in the jeep and headed over to watch them in the grass. By now the sun had set so we only spent about ten minutes watching them and then headed back to the lodge. It had been a perfect day.
I had dinner with the architects and the other guest at the lodge and then called it a night. About two hours into a very deep sleep, I was awakened by gun fire and screaming. Uh oh. I had been warned that if this happens not to panic. It was only the villagers and park rangers shooting in the air trying to scare the elephants away from the village cotton fields. Apparently, there is a herd of elephants that like to encroach on the village and the fields. I lay in bed and listened to the hoopla for about 10 minutes. When it became silent, I presumed the elephants had left.
The next day I was awakened by a torrential down pour. Uh oh. This did not bode well for my hike in the Kyambura Gorge to try and find the chimpanzees. The Kyambura Gorge is home to about 21 chimps and it is very difficult to track them since the Kybambura Gorge is so large and the chimps move so quickly. I was told that there was less than a 30% chance of seeing them, and that the hike was pretty arduous, but I wanted to give it a try.
I had a fabulous breakfast and was ready to go by 7:30 a.m., but the rain continued to pour. Vincent came by and advised me that there was no way we could go right now, but that it would likely let up so we would wait and see. By 9:00 the rain had stopped and the guide who was going to help me track the chimps contacted Vincent to say we could head out about 9:30. We jumped in the jeep, picked up my chimp tracking guide, Bernard, and were off to the Kymabura Gorge. I knew this was going to be a very wet, muddy excursion, but I really wanted to give it a go.
Bernard advised me that some chimps had been spotted close to entrance 3 to the Gorge the day before so we were going to start there. We reached entrance 3, jumped out and headed down the very wet and very slick trail into the Gorge. As we hiked through a canopy of dripping trees and muddy paths, I had to be careful to avoid stepping on the protruding roots from trees that were slick from the rain. We scanned the trees as we walked and we could hear baboons calling. As we headed further into the Gorge, the brush and trees became thicker. However, we could make out through the leaves overhead that the sky was clearing and trickles of sunlight were piercing through the thick canopy.
After about thirty minutes we reached the area where the chimps had been seen the day before. No sign of them so we treked on, however, my guide was now on high alert, stopping and staring up in to the trees. We were moving very slowly through the brush and I was hot, dripping in sweat and very muddy. However, after another ten minutes, Bernard stopped and looked, grabbed my binoculars and got very excited. We had found them! Bernard said that because of the rain (chimps don’t like the rain), the chimps had not moved very far and were hanging out in two nests. (I did not know that chimps built nests, but I assure you they do near the tops of the trees.) Anyway, I scanned the nest that Bernard was pointing to and suddenly I saw movement. OH. MY. GOD. I was going to get to see the chimps!
Bernard told me that the chimps sleep during the rain and only become active once the sun comes out. Fortunately, the sun was coming out so we watched and waited. Suddenly a young juvenile made his way out of the nest towards the edge of a limb. Unfortunately he had his back to us, but I continued to watch him as my guide walked around and scanned the trees. A few minutes later he came running back and told me that there were chimps in another nest. Holy crap that meant there were more than just a couple in the trees overhead.
I continued to look straight up and watch junior who was starting to move around. My neck was getting strained from staring up with the camera pointed at him. Finally, I was rewarded as the little guy turned, looked right down at me and then started swinging from the branch. In the mean time, Bernard kept watch on the other nest. We finally saw another juvenile in the second nest along with a mother and a very young chimp. I continued to watch the original nest as Bernard hiked up the Gorge hillside (which was straight up through the grassy vines, thorns and trees). I suddenly saw a baby through the leaves make an appearance out of the nest. Next thing I knew, I could see an arm and the head and upper body of the momma. This was awesome. At the same time, the two juveniles were now playing overhead swinging around the branches. I stood and watched the show for about fifteen minutes.
My guide then summoned me up the embankment. Uh really? How the hell was I going to climb through the thicket of thornes and vines. He assured me it was not a problem and it would be worth it because he had spotted the two large males high overheard. For the next ten minutes, I slipped, slid, fell and lunged up the side of the Gorge. It was the toughest hike imaginable. There was mud and ants and thorns and vines and water everywhere. I finally made it up to the area where I could see through the trees to the branches where the two big guys were sitting. It was very hard to see them, but I could make them out through the leaves and watched as they cleaned each other. After struggling to stay upright for ten minutes on the slick embankment, we finally headed back down to the main trail. Thank God. I envisioned a Kathleen Turner moment sliding down a hill into a pool of mud had we stayed there much longer. It was really tough to keep my footing.
As we reached the trail, I took one more look at the two juveniles, a last look a momma and it was time to go. As we turned to head out, the chimps started their shrill calling (ooooo aaaaa) back and forth. How kind of them to say goodbye. It was absolutely thrilling.
And just when the trip couldn’t get any better, it was time to head to the Kazinga Channel for a boat trip to see the various water and bird life on the Channel. The Kazinga Channel separates the two lakes: Lake George and Lake Edward and is host to hyppos, crocs, elephants, water fowl and a myriad of bird life. Since the weather had cleared and the sun was out it was going to be a perfect afternoon.
Two of the young employees from the lodge joined us for the drive to the Kazinga Channel. The trip began with a drive through the village and we passed young children waving (“How are you Muzunga?”) and through the Queen Elizabeth Park towards the channel when all of a sudden we ran into a huge herd of elephants. Yay, Yay, Yay. Elephants are my absolute favorites and I had only seen a few the day before. Well I assure you, this herd more than made up for it. There were at least twenty elephants. I jumped up on the roof of the jeep and watched them pass. I was watching and taking pictures when a very large bull veered towards us for no particular reason we could tell, until … out of the bushes came the tiniest little elephant I had ever seen on my three safaris. This little one was so small that its trunk dragged on the ground and was longer than his legs. He stopped in the middle of the road and turned to look at us and tried to make his ears flap. It was hysterical! The two young guys in the jeep were just cracking up. The large bull in the mean time was hovering really close to us. We didn’t make a move and just watched the little one turn and scoot across the road. Once the baby was out of site, the bull turned and wandered back towards the bushes. We watched the parade of elephants continue and finally after ten minutes we could continue. It was the best show ever!
At the Channel, I met my guide, Simon. The boat was a lovely covered cruiser and we headed out right at 2:00 with a couple and their daughter who were from Washington D.C. We cut across the Channel in bright sunshine and immediately spotted a large group of hippos, cape buffalo and even a crocodile. As we puttered along the coast lining the channel, we saw a very large monitor lizard as well as numerous yellow billed cranes, fish eagles, a myriad of multi colored birds and the largest pelicans I have ever seen. We passed a small fishing village that is only permitted to fish the lakes and not the Channel (and heard more cries of “How are you Muzunga?”) and huge groups of birds lining the sand bars in the Channel. Every now and then a hippo would pop up unexpectedly near the boat and we would see a crocodile floating in the water or hanging out on the river’s edge.
By 4:00 were back at the dock. It had been a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. We headed back towards the lodge (giving Simon a lift who was starting his two days off) and ran smack into the elephant herd again apparently coming back from an afternoon swim in Lake George. We did not see the tiny one again, but did see one very young juvenile as well as a handful of larger elephants. Love it.
Once back at the lodge, I had drinks on the Terrace with Ross and Campbell (the architects). As we were sitting the terrace gun fire and screaming erupted. We all started laughing. The persistent elephants were back. The sound soon died down and we were left to enjoy the sunset, some great South African wine and a fabulous meal before turning in. It had been an absolutely amazing three days surrounded by amazing sites, a gorgeous lodge and an incredible, beautiful staff.