I will never forget that calm Sunday morning, when I was on a guided walk with a group of guests from Australia, in Lake Mburo National Park. A buffalo emerged from a nearby bush with foliage draped over his horns, a ludicrous looking garland on such a cantankerous animal. For some reason, the old boy was just having a bad day. Many male animals, when upset, take out their frustration on inanimate objects and this loser buffalo, just as my friend calls them, had just beaten up a bush. I had no doubt that despite being vegetarian, he would be just as happy thrashing something meaty, like the group of us standing in the open savannah plain.
The air was dry, without a breeze so I knew the buffalo wouldn’t smell us, but seeing the group would not be a challenge. I remember making slow hand motions for everyone to squat while our armed ranger guide did the same while boldly pulling out his AK47 rifle ready to scare shoot in the air, in case this old geezer attempted to charge at us.
I didn’t look to see if my guests had followed my instructions. I just kept my eyes on the buffalo, waiting to see if he would spot us. The buffalo spotted us but luckily was not really interested in confronting us, for some strange reason. He must have been distracted by zebras nearby that kept whistling as they ran, a surprisingly cheery sound for a call indicating danger.
Bugger it, he must have thought, or some bovine equivalent, and he ran off with the zebras in a cloud of dust.
Nevertheless, on this safari, I have to sadly say that I forgot to tell the two very lovely Australians about that time (among so many other interesting stories I told them), a buffalo had almost caught my guests and me.
I am so glad that I have to tell this on a blog after they left because they would have probably withdrawn all the niceties and gifts they gave me during this short but exciting safari trip we had.
And the adventure began
On the night of 28th of July 2017, a lovely Australian couple, Colin Maskell and Tania Kunda touched down at the Entebbe Airport runway for an intrepid safari starting the next day.
Because we were going to Lake Mburo National Park and staying at Rwakobo Rock, we decided that they would stay in Entebbe. I would not have to bother coming back to the dreaded Kampala traffic but instead would pick them up from their hotel in Entebbe early the next morning. We would then use the Kisubi to Kasanje to Mpigi route that connects you to the Kampala-Masaka highway then to Lake Mburo National Park.
On arrival at their hotel in Entebbe the next morning, at first, I thought I was picking up Bruce Willis and his wife, the two have some striking resemblance. I never asked if they were brothers or even distantly related. I just focused on our mission of the day – to find some kangaroos along the Uganda highways, something we joked about as we drove on our entire safari. We would say, “What if a kangaroo showed up right now, in front of the Land Rover?” We would even mimic a Kangaroo talking in a semi human voice. To anyone who didn’t know us well, they would probably think we were high on something or we must have taken some abnormal or possibly unhealthy amounts of caffeine that morning.
To Lake Mburo National Park
And so, we set off at 8am for our intrepid expedition. In true Australian tradition, we posed for some photos. Of course I was the one harassed to pose for photos twice since for them, they only had to pose once while I posed with each of them. And because they knew what “trauma” I had gone through to pose for the first photos of the day, I was given a wonderful Australian camouflage cap. I don’t know if it was my friend Brenda (who recommended them to me) that told them about my love for caps, but it was spot on. On it was a kangaroo, a map of Australia and some other silly animal that looks like a koala; I mean, who sleeps for 22 hours in a day?
Colin and the Rollex
Tania had been to Uganda before so she knew some niceties to recommend to Colin who was the newbie to Uganda. She knew what a rollex was and we could tell that Colin had no idea what it was. He probably thought it was an edible watch!
We stopped at the Equator in Kayabwe along the Kampala-Masaka highway for a short break and also have a chance to quench Colin’s hunger for this unknown thing called a rollex. The restaurant where we were really know how to make a good rollex and they didn’t disappoint. After a photographic session at the Equator, we embarked on our next leg of the journey to Lake Mburo National Park.
There was a lot to see on the way. At Lukaya, hawkers selling fruit, plantain and roasted meat on sticks wore blue coats each bearing a number painted on the back; enabling people making purchases from bus windows to track the seller, and their change, in the melee of people. Fish was being sold at the side of the road. Tilapia and Lung fish are shaken on sight of a likely customer, a novel plan to convince prospective buyers that these fish were so fresh as to still be twitching. Ingenuity is never something that is missing in this wonderful country.
Colin loves soccer and as part of our drive to Mburo, we had a few stops to buy some soccer balls to give out to kids we would find playing soccer along the way. As we drove, we randomly would give out some of these and you could tell how grateful the kids were by the surprised and joyous looks on their faces.
We drove on and arrived at our destination in time for lunch. We really did! And you could see it by our beaming smiles. We were now at Rwakobo Rock. I personally have a thing for this place. It is one of those special and beautiful places that is simple with a unique blend of luxury and mid-range accommodation.
Rwakobo is nestled on a scenic outcrop with breath-taking views. Animals such as zebra, warthog, impala, olive baboons, black faced vervet monkeys, eland and bushbuck abound around the lodge and often congregate at the water hole beneath the dining area. At night, the sounds of bush come to life and allow your imagination to run wild. We went for an evening game drive where we saw Zebra, Baboons, Bushbuck, Vervet monkeys, Topi, Waterbuck, Hippos in Lake Mburo and Buffalo.
In the morning, I knew that Tania and Colin would be pleased if we saw giraffes on our final morning drive in the park. Giraffes have just recently been introduced in Lake Mburo National Park and their total population is about twenty. They will sometimes be in a larger group or may split into smaller groups as they like. Knowing it was the dry season, and armed with some background info on the behaviour of giraffes, we hit the game tracks at an opportune time for a morning game drive. I silently did my background research on recent giraffe sightings in the park, because you know, I had to come up with something impressive this morning. The clock was ticking. I also knew that in such a dry season, giraffes will normally move towards lake Mburo for water. So, I took on the most opportune track, sharply scanning the acacia trees for anything with a long neck that moved on four long legs.
At some point I passed another safari vehicle and paused to ask the guide driving if he had seen any giraffes on the way. Not wanting to blow away my surprise and hard work, the other safari guide was so sharp not to ruin the moment that he quickly signalled me to just hit the gas a little faster. I knew what that meant. Colin and Tania didn’t. After about two minutes, from nowhere, like I had staged all this…there were over ten giraffes in front of us, as if saying; “Hey guys, you were about to be late for the party.” I drove to a good vantage viewing point for all of us and we had a good view of them crossing the road, feeding, walking past us with whatever they wanted to show off with.
The giraffe sighting was a special one this morning and my two friends were pleased.
Happy with our efforts after an interesting morning game drive, we continued to Sanga Gate and got onto the Mbarara highway, set out for Bwindi; the land of the Mountain Gorillas.
On the way to Bwindi, I learnt that Tania had been told, on her last visit to Uganda, that her name meant Love! I could see Colin so happy to hear this for the first time, with a beaming smile on his face. I almost wanted to break it to Colin that it was a lie, so he would go low for about a minute before I explained what was behind his beloved wife’s name.
With a silly smirk on my face, I explained to both of them that Tania’s second name kunda is similar to the word that means love in a few languages here. For example, in Rukiga, one of the languages in western Uganda, from the Bakiga tribe, Love is “rukundo” and is derived from the verb “kukunda” which literally means “to love”. This would pass in Runyankore as well, another major language in Western Uganda. “Ni nkukunda” would mean “I love you” in Runyankore. Not being an expert in these other languages, I didn’t add anything beyond that lest I end up being asked some other language things and I embarrass myself. Anyway, that’s where Tania derived her excitement about the meaning of her name, and yes, it means Love. Anyone who thinks otherwise would have to take it up with Colin.
On the way to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
Our next destination was Buhoma, in Bwindi. We had to leave by mid-morning so that we reach Bwindi by evening. The tricky bit of the journey is the 76 km stretch off the Kabale-Kisoro road to Buhoma.
The road to Bwindi welcomes careful drivers. The road is narrow, winding, hilly and rough in several areas so you will probably drive at an average maximum speed of 30 to 40 kms per hour at high altitude. Going off the narrow edge of the road would mean an over 60 feet drop to the bottom of the hills. You also have to strictly keep left because of the sharp turns where you won’t see anything in the “blind sharp turns” so this helps you avoid driving into any incoming traffic.
We drove on and after nearly three hours, we reached Buhoma. Amazingly, we passed a local taxi with a mattress hanging out of the boot attempting the same and with some success!
Ruhondeza Silverback Lodge, was our lovely safari lodge in Bwindi, for two nights, with only three cottages at the moment. Each of them is on some form of stilts but nestled between trees and was the perfect spot for a quiet and calm evening in Bwindi. In total contrast to Rwakobo Rock, the night time was layered with noise; squeaking, clicking, chirping, whistling and whooping; an orchestral performance deep in the jungle.
The next morning, we rose very early to prepare ourselves for the wonderful excitement of Gorilla tracking. We went to the Buhoma Park Headquarters at 8:00am with our lunch boxes and all that we would require for the tracking experience. Here Colin and Tania were briefed and set off with their group to where the guides led them to track the Mountain Gorillas.
Coincidentally this day was The World Ranger Day and is celebrated worldwide. It is one of those days we celebrate the special men and women that put their lives on line for conservation.
They tracked the Rushegura group also casually termed as the “R” group. Luckily enough, the advance team of trackers had already notified us that this Gorilla group was very near and the walk to track them was going to be a short one.
Nevertheless, the gorilla tracking is always a special and exciting experience. To be able to sit with our relatives, never having met before and for them to trust, and not be offended by our presence, in spite of the actions of those other human apes; having awareness and great intelligence. That is something for the human ape to aspire to.
We came back to the starting point after about three hours. This gave us time to relax all afternoon and evening at our safari lodge and take in all the moments. Ruhendeza Silverback Lodge is just at a few meters from the border of the forest so it is lush and green around the cottages and we were told that on a lucky day, you may even see gorillas walking across from the forest to the community land. Apparently, there is a fruit tree they really love around one of the lodges in Buhoma so if it’s fruit season, they will visit that tree often for the good stuff. I would do the same if I were a gorilla. Why walk so many kilometres for food when there is easy food amidst the humans that check on you every single day?
Gorillas are not supposed to move into community land but that’s not a statement meant for the gorillas. The speed, direction and distance they move in a day is determined by a number of things but one of the main ones is the availability of food.
Gorillas stick to a mainly vegetarian diet, feeding on stems, bamboo shoots and fruits. Bwindi mountain gorillas are known to incorporate a considerable amount of fruit into their diet, which may be easier to control access to, than herbaceous vegetation. This causes them to gain energy faster than when feeding on other foods, which is explained by the fact that fruit contains higher energy levels than other foods.
Ishasha sector – Queen Elizabeth National Park
The next day, we set off for Ishasha Wilderness Camp situated inside the Southern Ishasha sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park on the Ntungwe river, an idyllic retreat for people who truly enjoy the wilderness.
We chose this as the last destination for our safari trip before we headed back to Kampala. Staying at Buhoma would make the distance to Ishasha short. The drive from Buhoma to Ishasha takes, on average, two hours.
The Ishasha Sector of QENP is home to the tree-climbing lions, unique to this area. The males of these lions sport manes that are black, another unique feature. Much as there are times when these lions are not very easy to find up in the trees, if you spend some time in this region of the park, you will most likely find them in one of the suitable fig or other trees in the area.
However, we didn’t see any lions on our one-day visit to Ishasha in Queen Elizabeth National Park. The night before though, I was told by the Wilderness Camp staff, lions had been roaring near the Wilderness Camp. Guides always feel that the lions are always conspiring against us when they do this, because as the sun comes up, they always manage to disappear into bush too think to follow, leaving your guests disappointed and convinced that you have absolutely no idea what you are doing.
Even when you set out on a game drive, you know that no matter how skilful a tracker you are, no matter your ability to read the signs of the bush like alarm calls, or even the predator signs like vultures soaring up in the air at the sign of a kill, it is still a lottery. If a lion decides it is hot, it may flop right beside a termite mound in full view, making it easy to find, or it may slink into deep, gnarled woodland where no vehicle can follow and it is unsafe to go in on foot.
Nevertheless, we had good sightings of buffalo, elephants, topi, waterbuck, hyenas, Uganda kobs and a number of beautiful birds.
At any time, while in camp, it is possible to have sightings of elephants, buffalos and maybe Henry, the lonesome hippo, across the river from your luxury tent.
The one thing not to forget is that Ishasha Wilderness Camp is in the park and at night, anything lurks around, from Buffalo, lions, elephants and the many other inquisitive animals. The Camp management is aware of this and they have armed rangers that patrol the camp for security reasons and only for making your stay, as safe as it should be.
On the road back to Kampala
Knowing that the Ishasha sector of the park is a full day’s drive to Kampala, we decided to use the Mbarara to Kampala route rather than the Fort Portal route, that was still under reconstruction. Thus the drive would be smoother. This is what we did the next morning, driving through the 70km stretch of the park to the main road that leads to Mbarara via Bushenyi.
We had a quick lunch break in Mbarara and continued on our way to Kampala, with another short break at the Equator in Kayabwe. The traffic into Kampala from Kyengera town tends to slow everything down but we weaved through and reached their hotel in Kololo. We were back and that was the end of our short but wonderful journey.
A journey that transformed my life
I know I will meet Colin and Tania again some day. There is always this connection you get when you meet special people in life that come as clients for a safari but by the time they leave, they are like family to you. That’s what Tania and Colin became to me. We shared a lot. Lots of jokes and stories. And I learned one thing. Today is Tania’s birthday and I know how old she is! How? Because Colin told me so! No…No…No, because am part of the Uganda family.
(Tips to gents: Never, under any circumstance, for any reason or no reason, should you ever disclose how young your baby girl is)…hahaha!
It’s time for coffee, I mean beer…and I know Colin and Tania will agree with me. 🙂