5 days, Two Girls, One Land Rover, Mountain Gorillas, Queen Elizabeth NP and a Warthog named Kevin

Destination: Western and South Western Uganda

It is always a rewarding feeling to know that there is something special to every trip. Sometimes, it’s what you see while on safari, an experience or even someone you may meet. Megan and Kiersten came to Uganda as volunteers with a Non-Governmental Organisation. They had never been to Uganda or even in this case, never been to Africa. Kevin, the CEO of Health Access Connect, the NGO they were working as volunteers with, recommended that there is nothing like coming to the Pearl of Africa without a wildlife safari. Who is Kevin? That’s a story for another day. He is my American brother, from another mother, but one of my best friends, yet also a Ugandan. He’s a mzungu Ugandan. Crazy…? Right? He is a crazy good friend. Where were we…?

Okay! Back to the serious stuff.

For the time they had, Gorilla Trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park was on top of the list and we decided to combine that with a visit to Queen Elizabeth National Park and finally, Lake Mburo National Park.

Megan and Kiersten at the Equator along the Kampala to Masaka highway

Megan and Kiersten at the Equator along the Kampala to Masaka highway

   

Where would the Journey take us?

The journey would take us from the Capital City of Uganda, Kampala, to Queen Elizabeth National Park, where we would spend two nights at Pumba Safari Cottages, then continue to Ruhija, Bwindi via Ishasha, which is the southern sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo. From Bwindi, we would head to Lake Mburo National Park. We would later on be joined by Kevin and Jasmine and spend two days at Lake Mburo National Park.

And yes, we would be in a Land Rover Defender, ready to explore Uganda on this special five-day safari.

We assigned ourselves some fun roles during the trip. Megan was the trip photographer, Kiersten, the Head Guide and I, just some unknown safari guide, who is trying to impress the girls by manually gear shifting the Defender through the rough and dusty winding lush hills of Bwindi.

And so the safari adventure began…

We began with Queen Elizabeth National Park, the Medley of Wonders

We were glad to learn from our self-imposed trip head Guide, Kiersten, that Queen Elizabeth National Park is understandably Uganda’s most popular tourist destination. That the park’s diverse ecosystems, which include sprawling savanna, humid forests, sparkling lakes and fertile wetlands make it the ideal habitat for classic big game, ten primate species including chimpanzees and over 600 species of birds. Six hundred….! Who counted them? Anyway, that’s what she told us.

Set against the backdrop of the jagged Rwenzori Mountains, the park’s magnificent vistas include dozens of enormous craters carved dramatically into rolling green hills, panoramic views of the Kazinga Channel with its banks lined with hippos, buffalo and elephants, and the endless Ishasha plains, whose fig trees hide lions ready to pounce on herds of unsuspecting Uganda kob.

We also continued to learn that as well as its outstanding wildlife attractions, Queen Elizabeth National Park has a fascinating cultural history and that there are many opportunities for visitors to meet the local communities and enjoy storytelling, dance, music and more. The gazetting of the park has ensured the conservation of its ecosystems, which in turn benefits the surrounding communities.

Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park is truly a Medley of Wonders!

 And we moved on to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park

The Journey to Bwindi for Gorilla Trekking is a life time adventure. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park lies in south-western Uganda on the edge of the Rift Valley. Its mist-covered hillsides are blanketed by one of Uganda’s oldest and most biologically diverse rainforests, which dates back over 25,000 years and contains almost 400 species of plants. More famously, this “impenetrable forest” also protects an estimated 400 mountain gorillas – roughly half of the world’s population, including several habituated groups, which can be tracked.

This biologically diverse region also provides shelter to a further 120 mammals, including several primate species such as baboons and chimpanzees, as well as elephants and antelopes. There are around 350 species of birds hosted in this forest, including 23 Albertine Rift endemics.

My friend Kevin has a fascinating story about the Bwindi Forest Elephants that I will tell exclusively on its own blog. He doesn’t tell it to many people, I seem to be the one that tells it to everyone. I am yet to find out why. He’s just a weird guy. But an intrepid explorer…haha!

As we drove to Bwindi, we noticed that the demarcation between cultivated land and the rain forest is clear; the former beautifully terraced slopes growing tea, bananas and matoke, and the latter an unbroken blanket of hugely high trees, wrapping the slopes from the highest point to the deepest valley. The air like crystal, bright sunshine and dappled light; so many noises; birds, monkeys, insects; a honey comb with at least a 6ft drop draped over a branch; alongside the liana vines that Tarzan used to traverse the jungle.

We loved every bump and jolt of the trip; feeling saturated with life.

Tracking the gorillas started at 8am the next day. We tracked the magnificent relatives from Ruhija, one of the starting points for Gorilla Trekking in Bwindi where we visited one of the habituated gorilla families. There are local trackers that set off very early having the GPS coordinates from the previous day, to see how far the gorillas have moved on; once found they radio back to the lead guides. It can normally take between 1- 8hrs to trek to a group (average is 2 to 3) hours.

Each of us took a long but strong walking stick; a requirement as trekking is through virgin rainforest with the tracking guides slicing a path with machetes, and often steep slopes where stepping down can lead to an unexpected slide on one’s butt; or sinking into a hole, the layers of soil and vegetation being deep rich and soft in spots. Unlike the cultivated land, denuded of the trees that hold the web of the forest together.

Banter and chat faded into breathless whispers and then silence, as we crouched in the grass while the guide, slowly so slowly, pulled down the grass, blade by blade to reveal one of the Silverbacks, enormous with thick short black fur the silver grey across his back and stomach a total contrast to the jet black of the others.

Spread out, the family calmly allowed us to lie in the undergrowth around them, perhaps wondering as to our strange muted attempts to manoeuvre inch by inch around them to see as much as possible, drinking in the moments.

We sadly had to leave Bwindi, for another epic adventure in Lake Mburo National Park. The drive took us about five hours to reach our next destination.

Lake Mburo National Park

We met Kevin and Jasmine at Sanga, a small town just outside Lake Mburo and we continued to the park via the Sanga gate. It was dark when we reached Rwonyo Camp but the rain, nocturnal animals crossing the road as we drove in made it worthwhile. We were in for a well-earned dinner and a good night’s sleep before we embarked on exploring this special park the next day.

Lake Mburo National Park is a compact gem, a very special park in which those who are in a hurry will miss out a lot if they only want to go for the obvious sightings. The park is located conveniently close to the highway that connects Kampala to the parks of western Uganda. It is the smallest of Uganda’s savannah national parks and underlain by ancient Precambrian metamorphic rocks which date back more than 500 million years. It is home to 350 bird species as well as zebra, impala, eland, buffalo, oribi, Defassa waterbuck, leopard, hippo, hyena, topi and reedbuck.

Together with 13 other lakes in the area, Lake Mburo forms part of a 50km-long wetland system linked by a swamp. Five of these lakes lie within the park’s borders. Once covered by open savanna, Lake Mburo National Park now contains much woodland as there are no elephants to tame the vegetation. In the western part of the park, the savanna is interspersed with rocky ridges and forested gorges while patches of papyrus swamp and narrow bands of lush riparian woodland line many lakes.

We drove to the top of the Kazuma lookout in our Land Rover Defender. Few vehicles get to the top of the lookout because of the steep incline on the way up. With careful driving and a sturdy vehicle like ours, we went up amidst clapping and cheers from the girls…oh yes, and my brother, Kevin. The Kazuma Hill look out point provides probably the best vantage point to view the rolling hills and grassed valleys and also to see the lakes that make up the land mass and surrounding area of the park.

At the end of our stay in Lake Mburo National Park, we set up a campfire by our permanent tents at Rwonyo Camp where we had talked through the night, shared stories about the trip, listened to hyena laughs nearby, including an incident when Kevin was temporarily frightened by “unknown sounds” in the bush that ended up being a warthog (his favourite animal sighting on every safari trip, the reason why we dubbed warthogs members of the Kevin Clan) that was happily feeding around the Camp. He probably thought it was a hippo or lonely buffalo. Kevin has always made fun of me on these trips that I am part of the loser buffalo clan. You now know the reason why I strongly believe he is totally weird.

This is in line that with the fact that buffaloes are extremely gregarious herd animals that will gather in groups of hundreds or thousands when grazing is good. In the dry season they break up into smaller groups of 30 to 200 or so to find food. Within these herds are several smaller sub-herds that stick together and travel together.  Therefore, when buffaloes move away from the herd and live their solitary lives or amalgamate with other buffalo bulls, they leave the protection of the rest of the herd. By doing this they make themselves susceptible to predation. They tend to be more on their toes, realising that they might have to fight for their life at any given moment. A lone buffalo bull is probably the most dangerous animal in Africa. They have unbelievable power, courage to burn and a frighteningly bad attitude! No wonder my friend calls them the loser buffaloes.

Also known as Cape buffaloes, these animals that excite my friend Kevin are herbivorous bovines, effectively plant-eating cows, but they are extremely aggressive and downright vengeful. Both males and females have horns, but the males’ horns grow larger and can measure close to 4 feet across. Males also develop a thicker neck, a larger hump over the shoulders, and a fringe of long hairs around the throat that looks a bit like a beard, but is called a “dewlap”.

The Journey back to Kampala

Our safari had come to an end and we had to drive back. We drove from Lake Mburo via the Mbarara to Kampala highway with a stopover at the Equator in Kayabwe along the final stretch to Kampala. It was a very fun and thrilling safari, one that I will not forget in a long time. Sitting in a vehicle with two very nice people, (later on four) making fun and occasionally stopping along the way to observe and take a note of something, learning, and taking in all the special moments as we headed back home. There was another trip coming next with Megan and her Family from the United States in a few days from then.

The adventure had just begun.

Written by Ronnie of the loser Buffalo Clan @ Native Safaris.

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