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johnkok

Uganda - gorillas and more (I had hoped)

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johnkok

Uganda - gorillas and more (I had hoped)

[Warning: This will be written up as time permits; and there's precious little of it]

 

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First Part

 

Let me mention a wonderful side benefit of this safari: our preparations for Uganda and gorilla trekking (all those hours spent hiking up and down hills in HK) made us lose some weight that had stubbornly refused to budge for years.

 

I left Uganda a while ago already (many more than 21 days and ebola free, not that I was concerned but so many people did ask). Three long haul business trips later, I am going to try and put some stuff down. As usual, I hope my information is useful for those who are thinking of doing something similar. I am again grateful to all those on SafariTalk who have written about their travels, and especially those who chipped in with such useful information when I wrote on the trip planning forum prior to going.

 

To recap, here is my Uganda itinerary.

Our 10 nights looked like this: (starting end-September and into early October 2014)

 

Arrive at Entebbe Airport via Doha from HKG on Qatar Airways

1 Night at Serena Lake Victoria Hotel, Kampala

Flight from Entebbe Airport to Kasese Airstrip

2 Nights at Kyambura Game Lodge, Queen Elizabeth National Park (about 1,100m above sea level)

Road transfer from Kyambura Game Lodge to Bwindi

3 Nights at Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (1,160 - 2,600m asl) - for 2 separate gorilla treks (being a masochist)

Flight from Kihihi Airstrip to Kasese Airstrip

4 Nights Ndali Lodge, Kibale Forest National Park (1,100 - 1,600m asl)

Flight from Kasese Airstrip to Entebbe Airport

Leave Entebbe Airport, via Doha to HK on Qatar Airways

 

Also to recap, these days we try to stay within a country for our safaris as we think all the border crossings really chew into our previous few safari days, especially when one factors in the hurry-up-and-wait times for usually inconveniently-scheduled flights and/or long long drives.

 

First up, just a quick note about the Qatar lounge in Doha airport. They have a free flow of premium Bordeaux reds for those who are interested in such things. Downside? We arrive after an 8-hour flight from HK and it's 4:30am local time. Taste buds are shot. Not to mention red wine for breakfast is not a common pairing. Still we had a 3 hour layover before the Qatar flight to Entebbe and the Lounge was better than a poke in the eye :-)

 

On arrival at Entebbe, two officials in protective garments make us all "wash/rinse" our hands in a bucket of bleach. All the usual signs are looked for (fever, etc). All this before we join the queues for immigration. All this is as much to reassure us tourists as it is to keep ebola out I think.

 

Getting into Entebbe at 1:05pm meant that the daily scheduled flight out from Entebbe to Kasese airstrip would have already departed. This required an overnight, and we were booked into the "Lake Victoria Serena Resort Hotel ", just under an hour's drive from the airport. It's nice enough but there's nothing there. You get to see Lake Victoria in the distance but you can't get to it, the resort grounds being fenced off.

 

We had an early dinner. We over ordered and had two fresh tilapia from the lake, done differently. I guess each fish must have been more than a kilo each. Those and couple of local beers set us back the grand sum of US$30. Wines are horrendously expensive in Uganda (for what they were).

 

The morning pick up for the airport was at 6am, just as the restaurant opened for breakfast so we had to forget about that. The scheduled flight out of Entebbe was at 7:45am (Aerolink 111) and took us to Kasese or Mweya (I now forget which) Airstrip in Queen Elizabeth National Park.

 

A word about the National Parks we visited in Uganda. They all have public roads cutting through them. So we have all sorts of traffic going through the Parks; cargo trucks, buses, mini-van buses/taxis, motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians, ... and the odd elephant and buffalo.

 

I now have the feeling that Mweya Safari Lodge is sort of like the centre of gravity for QENP safari drives. It brought to mind what Namutoni Camp was in Etosha in Namibia. The drive from Mweya to Kyambura Game Lodge takes an hour (if memory serves), with a dreadful part where there are so many potholes all the vehicles weave to avoid them and so it looks as if everyone is drunk.

 

Kyambura Game Lodge is outside QENP, and the drive into any part of QENP for the animals takes at least 45 minutes (30 minutes of which is due to the drunken weaving pothole avoidance part). It's a smaller lodge than Mweya and generally pleasant but nothing to write home about. I could hear the sound of the big trucks on the public road well into the night, and starting up again in the early hours. So, even if they get around to filling in all those pot holes, there's still not a whole lot to recommend it.

 

Following the advice that had been proffered on ST in the planning forum, we booked a private boat for the Kazinga Channel. All the boats seem to use Mweya (just down from the Mweya Safari Lodge) as their terminus. Maybe this is just for Mweya as the operator. For the record, I pre-booked and paid US$300 for my wife and I (they charge per person !) for the 2 of us in one of their smaller boats. The guy who "drove" went through his spiel, but I had the feeling it was a "by the numbers" recitation. We were enthusiastic enough with the birds, especially when we sighted and got really close to a Malachite kingfisher.

 

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Mweya Safari Lodge did provide us some "entertainment" for a couple of hours. There were enough birds flying around to keep us occupied prior to our boat ride. And their resident, habituated pack of Banded mongooses did not disappoint when they made an appearance just before we had to leave.

 

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QENP had lots of Ugandan Kobs, and the odd lion up a tree (we had two separate sightings of this). Other highlights were primates and birds not seen in southern Africa. The monkeys were a treat - but so often they were hard to shoot, having all that foliage to throw off the auto-focus.

 

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We spent 5 hours on the drive from Kyambura (QENP) to Bwindi, but that was because we had our share of stops. Highlights for us were our first Double-toothed barbet, an African crowned eagle and a pair of the national bird of Uganda, the Crested crane. A cute Blue monkey showed itself, as did a shy but even cuter Red-tailed monkey, which stayed a lot behind foliage. There was a lioness up a tree which we managed to get closer to than earlier in QENP. As usual (for us) it clambered down on the "wrong" side, behind the tree trunk.

 

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Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp was a cut above Kyambura. Unluckily for them, a tour group had cancelled ("ebola") which meant that we shared the camp with another couple the first night but then had the run of the house the next two nights. This Camp is the one which is visited every so often by the so-called Rushegura gorilla troop. It is situated just a few minutes stroll away from the staging/starting point for the gorilla tracking.

 

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In this part of Bwindi, there are three habituated troops. For our first track, we (8 tourists per group) were assigned the "medium" distance Rushegura troop. This turned out to be a 2 hour 30 minute plus hike through the hills to get to them. As had been stressed so frequently, the porters are from the surrounding villages and this was a direct way for them to benefit from tourism. They have to take turns (not sure who gets to play god) and they do not get to do this every day for what is good income. The standard rate is US$15 per porter and we had two. Our camp mates had told us they tipped US$25 on top of that per porter. I thought this a bit rich, but I have to admit I paid that myself at the end of the day to the lady who was assigned to Jill. I saw her volunteering, asking the ranger's permission, and following us down to the gorillas to help us and others even as the other porters stayed behind at the pre-contact point (which is the norm).

 

One note I'd make to others of you. I strongly suggest you convert US$ into Uganda Shillings for the porters (paid directly to the porters) and the expected tips for the rangers (goes into a tip box) at the end of the trek. Especially for the porters. The porters have to go to the only dude who is the money changer. (The nearest bank is hours away). While I do not know if this forex king is a shylock, the milk of human kindness may well not be flowing too strongly through his veins. I feel that it has to be better to give the porter the full amount in Ugandan Shillings (whether it be US$15 or US$40 equivalent) than to have another middleman take away yet another cut.

 

For this first trek, Jill and I made it just fine in the 2 and some hours it took to get to the "pre-contact" point. Here is where we had to leave our hiking sticks (I highly recommend two each, as that really helps for any slippery downhill bits) and our water bottles, and take our own cameras from the porters.

 

And this is where I got into trouble. I thought we were "around the corner" - so to speak - from the gorillas. It turned out it was another 15 minutes before we made contact (to be fair, the gorillas were not staying still), and mostly through thick foliage (slippery from dew/moisture) and downhill. I must have fallen three times on this part. And I was now sweating buckets, without replenishment. All of this did me in. Which really surprised me as I had not minded the hike at all. I felt like I had just been hit with (mild) altitude sickness. I stayed with the whole group (tourists) mostly, but the gorillas were quite spread out. They also continued feeding and moved quite a bit - through thick shrubbery, and out in the sun (for us).

 

There were some good moments. One of them walked right past me (close enough to touch). On another occasion, another walked past behind me. Too many people, too close in, too much foliage. Jill couldn't get those shots of the close encounters. As it turned out, the photographic opportunities were limited. For comparison, we have three times as many photos on the trek the next day.

 

After our hour (borne out by photo time stamps which say 11:05am first shot and 12:04 last shot of a gorilla) we hiked back. Fortunately, the movement of the gorillas meant that we could take a different, easier route back to the starting point. So instead of another 2.5 hours, we made it back in less than that (after we had stopped for our packed lunches of course).

 

For the trek the next day, we were assigned the "easy" (nearest) troop - Mabare. We had an elderly gentleman of 78, who had not planned on assistance other than just a porter (or two). One can arrange to be carried (they assign 12 porters to the carry-team, rotating them in and out of the 4 actually hauling the chair, for a fee in the range of US$350 depending on weight and such I was told). While he looked like he could walk OK while we were at the level ground of the starting area, his advanced age was also pretty clear.

 

So his was the pace for all of us. There was a feeling that he felt under pressure when he was with us (not sure why he would not have expected this), so our ranger/guide told his porters to walk ahead, with us following after giving him a good many minutes head start. When we inevitably caught up, we would see him being mostly pulled/pushed and almost mostly carried by his porters.

 

So an easy hike became easier still as we were really slow. It turns out we got to the Mabare troop later than we had the harder-to-get-to Rushegura. Time stamp says 11:48 am for the first gorilla shot versus 11:05am.

 

The Mabare were mostly settled in for the morning. The head honcho was eating underneath some bushes, and soon laid down for his siesta. But we were hugely entertained by their 10-month old baby. There was also a 2-week old who was mostly clasped close to mommy's body the whole time. Two little babies make for a lot of excitement amongst tourists of course.

 

I had a 70-200/f2.8 on one camera body and a 50/1.4 on another body. Jill used the 24-120/f4 lens. This turned out to be the best lens for those circumstances. On the second trek, I left the 50/1.4 and just used the 70-200. And that's the two lenses we settled on (for the second gorilla trek as well as for both chimpanzee treks).

 

For the first trek, I had the cameras and lenses dis-assembled and inside protective covers inside the backpacks. When we got to the pre-contact point, I assembled them. They worked fine. For the second trek, I had the two lenses attached to their camera bodies inside respective backpacks during the trek. This created a totally unexpected problem. For reasons which still escape me, the 24-120 lens got fogged up - at both ends - AFTER some minutes of shooting. On the front, this was behind the protective glass and could not be reached. On the back (the side you attach to the camera body), the lens was also fogged up - which I only discovered after I had had the camera & lens held out in the sun to help with evaporation. Once the front had dried up (which took too long), I then had to remove the lens from the camera and Jill held the lens back-side-up to the sun to help the fog evaporate. This took even longer. Jill had to waste lots of shooting time with the gorillas because of this. Thankfully, the 70-200 did not have this problem so I could continue shooting.

 

[i thought I'd just post what I had so far. If I were to wait again for time to write more(the writing time had already been broken up enough), I might never get this in ...]

 

More to come (I think)

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Soukous

love the banded mongoose pic

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TonyQ

@@johnkok

Thank you for finding time to begin posting.

It is always good to read about gorilla trekking.

Some teasing shots so far - I look forward to more gorilla pictures!

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graceland

Thanks for starting your report and giving details of the physical requirements to do this trek.

 

Great pics to start; can't wait to see the babies!

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Kitsafari

love that first shot - with the baby cradled on her lap. and love that crane shot too.

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inyathi

Honestly the ignorance of some people when it comes to Africa asking you about Ebola when you returned from Uganda some people are just so ill informed thinking you might have Ebola when they should have asked you if you had Marburg virus. Just a few days ago Uganda was declared free of this similar virus after the 42 day surveillance period ended, thankfully only one person died from it so it wasn’t much of a threat to you or anyone else.

 

Great to see another Uganda report and nice to see a shot of a red-tailed monkey and more gorillas I look forward to reading more about your Ugandan adventure.

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AKR1

Have been looking forward to your report, John. Your details of on the ground experiences are always great. The initial installment did not disappoint and a bunch of cracking photographs as well.?

Thanks.

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Treepol

@@johnkok thanks for taking the time to post your TR.

 

Great photo of the Malachite Kingfisher, the Banded Mongoose and the gorillas of course.

 

Looking forward to the baby gorilla photos when you have time.

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Atravelynn

Glad you are both a bit lighter and ebola free.

 

"Mweya Safari Lodge is sort of like the centre of gravity for QENP safari drives" Great way of putting it. I had wondered what a private Kazinga Channel trip cost. $150 per person? I think that's pretty darn good. Helpful advice on being carried in. I recall that topic on another forum.

 

Beautiful set of shots so far. You were nose to nose with the mongoose. That "I had hoped" part is foreboding foreshadowing.

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twaffle

Lots of very useful info, thanks John, looking forward to more photos when you have time. :)

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michael-ibk

Thanks for all the detailed information, John, a great help for everybody planning Uganda! And super pictures (of course), the Mongoose is a hit! :)

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johnkok

Thanks for reading and writing in.

That "I had hoped" part is foreboding foreshadowing.

 

That's just continuity - in trip planning, I had used "I hope"

Edited by johnkok

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madaboutcheetah

How did I miss this??? Thanks for posting @@johnkok ......

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Safaridude

@@johnkok

 

Oh, I hope you do find the time to post more. A great start. Very instructive.

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Marks

I like your point of converting the tip money. I always like to exchange my cash for this and other reasons.

Great photos all around. The mongoose is really exceptional.

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johnkok

I like your point of converting the tip money. I always like to exchange my cash for this and other reasons.

 

I do too, but I was under the impression that US currency was readily used/exchanged and so I did not get any shillings from the airport ATM machine as per my normal practice. I am a frequent traveler and I did not want to add to my already large stash of different currencies in my drawer.

 

And thanks for reading and leaving your kind words too @@madaboutcheetah @@Safaridude @@Marks

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pault

Hah! There you are at last. Will read properly a bit later (spent my lunch with Paco and Namibia already) but what an amazing expression on the first gorilla - never seen anything like it and it's fabulous. And what a mongoose shot - that was you warned!!

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SafariChick

@@johnkok In starting to plan a trip to see gorillas, I've been reading or re-reading everyone's trip reports. I realized I had never seen yours so I searched for it and here it is - any chance you might continue it? Pretty please? :wub: The mongoose photo is amazing! Would love to see more gorillas, hear about chimps, etc.!

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johnkok

@@SafariChick,

 

I was really really surprised to see a notification popping up. I had not visited ST for so long.

 

Thanks for reading. It's amazing how time flies - a cliche I know, but Uganda was Sep-Oct 2014, and it's now Sep 2015. In between I have been flying around like a madman (for business and pleasure), and have really had very little time to sit still. For me, photo curating & processing takes a lot of time and attention (as does writing).

 

As it happens, I was in Ndutu for the cheetahs in February this year. On return I did not even have time to properly unpack my safari gear before I was off again somewhere (on business). I came to regret this somewhat as I have been packing over the last few days for a Samburu and Mara safari. We (my wife Jill and I) are leaving tomorrow night. 

 

And now you have my fully-rounded-off dog-ate-my-trip-report excuse for not having continued this TR :-)

 

Just to add a quick one. Something I still remember fondly from last year. If you are going for the chimps in Kibale, and if you like birds, do go for a ranger guided walk in their "swamp" (I'll have to look for the name of that place another time). Do ask them for Wellington boots if you go. Our hiking shoes got submerged in parts of the walk and got totally soaked. Bring the longest lens you are willing to carry. There are lots and lots of birds. And if the ranger is a birder, all birds will be identified (my ranger-guide did - to my amazement). You'll also definitely get closer to some of the monkeys that Uganda is famous for. Since the chimps hunt and eat these monkeys, you will not find them together, so to speak. Chimps will be one trek. Monkeys will be another.

 

John

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SafariChick

@@johnkok I realized I hadn't seen you post on ST for a long time - glad to hear all is well and you're just really busy and traveling a lot! Well I suppose I shall have to let you off the hook in terms of finishing this TR for now seeing as you're about to be off on another trip! Thanks for the tip about Kibale. I'm still not sure if we're going to Rwanda or Uganda - torn! But if we do go to Uganda then I probably will want to stop in at Kibale. Problem is we're also doing two other countries so it's going to be a bit of a whirlwind! Well, have a great safari, and enjoy your ST GTG up a mile high and if you ever get a chance to come back to this report, I would love it!

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johnkok

@@johnkok I realized I hadn't seen you post on ST for a long time - glad to hear all is well and you're just really busy and traveling a lot! Well I suppose I shall have to let you off the hook in terms of finishing this TR for now seeing as you're about to be off on another trip! Thanks for the tip about Kibale. I'm still not sure if we're going to Rwanda or Uganda - torn! But if we do go to Uganda then I probably will want to stop in at Kibale. Problem is we're also doing two other countries so it's going to be a bit of a whirlwind! Well, have a great safari, and enjoy your ST GTG up a mile high and if you ever get a chance to come back to this report, I would love it!

 

fwiw - I try to stay in one country for safari trips. Border formalities eat too much into precious safari time. For the gorillas, that's how we ended up in Uganda. We thought there were more safari destinations than Rwanda.

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Game Warden

@@johnkok Please do consider writing a review of the properties in which you stayed for the new Lodge and Camp review subforum. Thanks, Matt.

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pault

@johnkok How was the Mara? Did you catch the glut of crossings after the drought of them? Where did you stay? Someone who apparently "knew" me was at Serian while I was at Kicheche Bush. Was that you? Or were there still more of us in the Mara? I just told my guide it was because I was famous..

 

Strange how we ended up in the same place at roughly the same time second year in a row! Great minds think alike, right?

 

Sorry the dog keeps on eating your trip reports!!

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johnkok
On 10/13/2015 at 6:14 AM, pault said:

@johnkok How was the Mara? Did you catch the glut of crossings after the drought of them? Where did you stay? Someone who apparently "knew" me was at Serian while I was at Kicheche Bush. Was that you? Or were there still more of us in the Mara? I just told my guide it was because I was famous..

 

Strange how we ended up in the same place at roughly the same time second year in a row! Great minds think alike, right?

 

Sorry the dog keeps on eating your trip reports!!

 

We were at Serian Main Camp. We were waiting there with bated breath from the time and us flew over to NBO together. The storied @@pault was gong to be in the Mara at the same time as the rest of us mortals. Alas! It was not to be. A ST getogether a sundowners in the Mara notwithstanding , you were apparently showing up at a Serian sister camp on 4 Oct and we were to leave Serian main camp on 5 Oct. And the temp camp managers at Serian left on 3/4 Oct (I forget which) and so we left it at that.

 

Maybe next time.

 

I hope you had a great time (we did not bother with crossings; went cheetah hunting, of cheetahs hunting).

 

That darn dog is still eating my trip reports!

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pault

@@johnkok. Ah, that's a pity. I thought our mystery "friends" had left. Although I am really not sure we would have braved the bridge after dark at that point anyway. My wife had a tsetse-induced swollen foot and we'd just done a 6 hour transfer from Nkorombo (not quite by the direct route).

 

We did have a great time.And I hope you found your cheetahs.

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