Winston Churchill probably summed it up best in his book “My African Journey” when he said of Uganda “For magnificence, for variety of form and color, for profusion of brilliant life — bird, insect, reptile, beast — for vast scale — Uganda is truly “the Pearl of Africa.”
It really is hard to argue the sentiment, crossing the border (one of the smoothest we’ve had anywhere in the world) from Kenya we were struck by the immediacy of the landscape change. Kenya is not only mostly flat, but just coming to the end of dry season shining in a golden hue and, as the name would indicate looks fairly dry. Uganda on the other hand strikes you with its verdant green pastures and rolling hills covered in lush forests. Despite a rough time and steady stream of coups, dictators and turmoil, headlined of course by Idi Amin in the 70s, Uganda today has a feel of safety and security, as a tourist.
We head straight to the chaotic but charismatic capital Kampala, and made our way around the city by way of motorbikes, or ‘bodas’ as they are known here. It was fun and frightening at times but great to feel a connection to what was going on. In the old parts of the city it was a sensory overload similar to the likes of India, with street sellers, pedestrians, bicycles and the occasional car or boda competing for real estate on the crowded sidewalks. The newer part of the city is a stark contrast, as business types wander the streets, with a coffee and an apparently obligatory brown envelope tucked under their wing hurriedly hail a boda and zoom off. The energy and pace of Kampala make it well worth visiting, and elevate it above being just a demur capital with decent transport links.
From Kampala we headed up to Jinja for a couple of days. Jinja is the adventure capital of Uganda where white water rafting on the Nile is most common, although we just chilled, and Mark made the most of the fact the owner was a South African with a similar taste in sports and beers. The sunsets over the Nile were amazing, with Red Tail monkeys and Vervet monkeys hopping around to add some ambiance.
Next stop was to Kibale National Park, which is home to a high concentration of Chimpanzee communities. Our camp site, on a small crater lake called Nkuruba was one of the highlights on its own, before we’d even seen a chimp, we’d seen 4 different types of monkeys, hopping in the trees, stealing things out of cars and, like a cuter, less disturbing kind of peeping Tom, staring into cabin windows. The Ugandan Red Colobus, the Red Tail Monkeys, the omnipresent Vervet monkey, and our favorite, the Black and White Colobus monkey, which were performing endlessly entertaining death defying leaps between tree tops, with an energy that belied their grumpy (but very cute) faces.
Of course the main event was the Chimp tracking in the rain forest. We’d been forewarned by some that they were boring, it was kind of lame, and curiously, to (somehow) “make sure it isn’t raining” when we were up to see them. Unsure of the mechanics of “making sure” it didn’t rain, we relied on luck, which happened to be on our side, and as for the former arguments, they couldn’t be further from the truth. The walk through the forest was nice, but after an hour and a bit, we were quickly becoming worried we might not see Chimps at all. So as we wondered having heard nothing it came as a shock when out of nowhere we heard some thunderous cracks. An alpha male was announcing to his community his presence by pounding on tree roots. With that we turned a corner to see some chimps sitting on the path, and proceeded to follow the large alpha deeper into the forest, as he approached the group the forest suddenly came alive. No less than 25 chimps all making themselves heard, snapping branches, climbing trees and calling to the others.
It was like nothing we have ever experienced, while focusing on one chimp, another would almost brush past you. During the habituation process, which can take 10+ years, the rangers try to make them used to human presence, without them adjusting their behavior. So they acted as if we weren’t there, and for the next hour and a half we tracked them as they moved through the forest, we saw both young and old go from playing, to fighting, to feeding, and even copulating, we got to see and hear it all. We were extremely lucky to encounter such a large group, see them so active and that there were barely any other travelers tracking, it’s an experience we will never forget. To see these animals in their natural habitat was something so special, only time will tell how it will compare to seeing the Gorillas, but it will certainly be hard to top, and ranks as high as any travel moment either of us has ever had.
From Kibale we made our way to Lake Bunyoni which was a beautiful sweet water lake, one of the deepest (900+m) in Africa by all accounts. We managed to get ourselves a lovely safari tent right on the lake, and got to watch under star filled skies a distant electrical storm over the hills that separate Uganda and the DRC. Upon departure, we hopped on the back of a boda, and apparently signed up for get taken all the way to Kigali, Rwanda. It turns out being on the back of a boda is fun in a city, where speed is limited by traffic, about 3km later we had immediate regrets, about 25kms both of us were questioning the validity of any driving permit held by our drivers, questioning whether or not our insurance policy covered motorbike accidents when you are wearing shorts, a T-shirt and no helmet. Thankfully, we got off at the border and found ourselves a nice comfortable bus to cover the rest of the way to Kigali. Among the things that we liked most about Uganda was the seemingly unending stream of genuine smiles, handshakes and high fives from virtually everyone we met along the way. We look forward to exploring Rwanda next and catching up with a friend from NZ as we track Gorillas!
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