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MMMim

Uganda - Mixed Emotions

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MMMim

As I had alluded to in my Cape Town trip report, I have dreamed of going to Africa since I was 9 years old, and it took me 45 years to get there.  I also had mentioned that it took a bit of work to get to Africa, including a nasty false start, so….

 

A quick word about my false start so that others new to safari trips may learn from my mistake.  I was so desperate to get to Africa, that 2.5 years before our actual trip, I started looking for affordable, budget safaris in Kenya and Uganda (I really wanted to go gorilla trekking) and used a website that kind of ‘brokers’ safari companies.  You type in keywords/interests and safari companies that might fit-the-bill come up, so when I put in Kenya safari and gorilla’s, only a couple of names came up.  The one company seemed ‘perfect’, they promised to provide me with what I was looking for.  I checked their reviews on the ‘brokering’ site, and on TripAdvisor, and the reviews were all really favourable, fantastic actually.  I made an enquiry, they responded quickly (turns out it was with a song and dance), and they convinced me to make a 50% deposit so that gorilla trekking permits, which take a long time to obtain, and a balloon ride in the Maasai Mara at a phenomenal discount, could be arranged. 

 

Really, in hindsight, those all should have been the warning bells; price too good to be true and all those absolutely glowing reviews about the company (I am now convinced there is a cottage industry somewhere in the world, that when their hackers aren’t busy interfering with political elections, they are writing fantastic TripAdvisor reviews for payment).  Needless to say, the whole deal fell apart in spectacular fashion when the owner of the company was arrested for tourist fraud in August 2019.  Thankfully by then, I had discovered SafariTalk and had learned a lot more about going on safari by reading all the wonderful advice posted by members.  One company name kept coming up over and over again, Gamewatchers, and so by November 2018, I had rebooked the Kenya/Uganda portion of our tour with them.

 

While I was out a large portion of my initial deposit (I had managed to recover some before the fiend was arrested), in retrospect, Jay and I have realized that we dodged a bullet by going on safari with Gamewatchers versus the original company (even if that had still been an option).  For a start, Gamewatchers uses Toyota Land Cruisers as their vehicle of choice, a safari vehicle, with open sides and lots of room, compared to the pop-top mini vans (which would have been our original mode of transport).  Based on my own observations in the National Parks, the Land Cruiser provided us with a far better safari experience than travelling in a mini van (perhaps no window seat, pop-top roof, not a 4X4).  No one in those vehicles in the parks looked particularly comfortable or happy.  As well, the drivers/guides all seemed to be keeping a schedule and they zoomed from one animal sighting to another, ticking animals of their lists – the Ferrari safari.  If there was a good sighting or we wanted to observe the animals’ behaviour, we could stay for as long as we wanted.  This would not have been the case with our initial company.

 

We also now realize how awful the roads are in Uganda and Kenya, and we would have spent innumerable hours bumping along these horrible roads, stuck in traffic jams, with little or no real time spent on game drives (the original had been a 15 day driving safari).  Flying between camps, although I was a bit nervous about this, small planes and all, was definitely the best possible option.  Staying in conservancies was also a fantastic choice.  We were spoiled for wildlife sightings, and were able to get much closer to the animals than if we had relied on just visiting the National Parks.

 

Back to business.  We were up very early on 2019 September 28 (Saturday) to shuttle to the airport.  We flew South African Airways to Jo’berg to catch our connecting flight with SA Airways, to Entebbe.  Flight from Cape Town to Jo’berg was approximately 2 hours (included take off and landing/taxi time), had 1.5 hours in Johannesburg O.R. Tambo International, which was good as O.R. Tambo airport is enormous (leave lots of time between connections). We departed on time at 0930 hrs, and arrived in Entebbe at about 1430 hrs.  We had no problems at immigration getting the East African Visa I had applied for online.  There was a health check, to ensure you had your yellow fever vaccination, and that you weren’t carrying Ebola into the country.  Customs wasn’t a problem, and our luggage showed up.  Awesome!  We cleared the airport in less than half an hour.

 

 

Again, I had arranged this portion of the trip using the internet (by-guess-and-by-golly) and was very lucky with how things turned out.  I had booked 3 nights at Pineapple Guest House, which is approximately 10-15 minutes from the airport, using booking.com.  They sent a driver to pick us up and take us to the guest house.  We drove through a kind of sketchy area on a really rotten road to get to the guesthouse (I later realized that pretty much all the roads in Uganda were in bad need of repair).  I was wondering what terrible place I had booked us in to, but we arrived at a big security gate, and were admitted into a garden paradise.  We met Norah, the reservations manager, who took us to a very nice garden view room, and explained the ‘house rules’, basically how the honour bar worked.  That’s all we needed to know! 

 

We immediately availed ourselves of a couple of Nile Specials (it was now 1600 hrs) and sat in the back-garden area.  There were so many birds and exotic flowers, and the garden and pool area were gorgeous.  We both ran around, Jay with his binoculars and bird book, and I with my camera, trying to identify all the wonderful birds.  We saw eastern grey plantain eaters, sunbirds, palm vultures, and a few other birds too that we were unable to identify, all in the garden!  Then, the bats and house geckos came out at dusk.  The guesthouse manager, Mrs. Allen Nagadya, was absolutely fantastic, such a wonderful, kind person.  During our 2.5 days there, she went out of her way to make us happy and comfortable, and her cooking was fantastic (we only ate dinners there).   There are 4 or 5 bedrooms in the guest house, and there is a family cabin at the back of the garden, behind the pool area.  This place was convenient, quiet, friendly and very affordable (breakfast included with room, and excellent lunches and dinners for a very price) – highly recommend it.

 

Eastern Grey Plantain Eater (in the garden - there was a whole flock in this tree)

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Some of the beautiful flowers in the garden of the guesthouse2136189201_STUganda(2).JPG.d8ed6ce744b64e44131f2ce113fc8ea7.JPG

 

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On 2019 September 29 (Sunday), we had time for a very quick breakfast before our guide from Nature Trails East Africa, Tony, and his intern, Gloria, both wonderful guides, picked us up at the guest house at 0630 hrs (not really light yet) to go birding at the Mabamba Wetlands (they prefer that term to swamp), in search of the shoebill stork.  I had used the internet to communicate with a couple of tour operators in the Entebbe area, and David from Nature Trails East Africa had won out.  I had heard that Uganda’s birding is the best in the world, and as our flight from Bwindi was leaving from Entebbe, I thought it might be nice for Jay to experience some hard-core birding before the gorillas, for a couple of days.

 

Mabamba Wetlands, situated on the northern shore of Lake Victoria, west of Entebbe, is a prime wetland birding site, famous for the shoebill stork.  The wetlands cover 2424 hectares with thick marshes of papyrus, water lilies and other wetland grasses.  A lot of what looks like grassy land and islands are actually floating plant masses and they float around in the wetlands.  I was surprised, as a lot of plants I saw in the wetlands were plants that I pay big bucks for at the pond nursery (water lettuce, water hyacinth, papyrus). The Mabamba Wetlands are a Ramsar site (the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, especially as waterfowl habitat, is an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands), hosting over 300 bird species that include many globally threatened species.  The wetlands also host huge flocks of Paleartic migrants every year from October to March.  I was pretty certain we would see some birds.

 

According to the Nature Trails itinerary we were supposed to catch the early ferry and travel on the dirt roads, reaching Mabamba within 20 minutes. Instead we drove, and drove, and drove, on red dirt roads, until we arrived at Mabamba Wetlands.  I have no idea how long it took, but it seemed like forever.  During our trip to the wetlands, Tony took his birding seriously – he made birdcalls and even had recorded birdcalls with him – and stopped to point out several species of birds along the way.  I think this delayed our arrival, as we should have been there for the shoebill much earlier in the morning.  I think Tony figured all bird sightings were important, and perhaps we should have stressed that first and foremost we wanted to search for the shoebill, and after that, everything else was a bonus.

 

All along the roads were houses/huts generally made with mud bricks (we saw men making mud/straw bricks at one of our birding stops, and there were walls of the bricks being stored under tarps everywhere).  We saw people living in their front yards, Gloria said it was to save kerosene in their lamps for night; women sweeping dooryards of leaf debris (and yet that was surrounded by all sorts of garbage), cooking their morning meal, kiddies and babies bathing, people brushing their teeth, doing laundry, ladies in fancy dresses leaving for church.  I didn’t know what to think – my first time in a developing, poverty stricken nation.  I thought it was sad, you could see right into these peoples’ lives; very personal. 

 

Seen on the way to the wetlands:

Pink backed pelican

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Hammerkop

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Woodland kingfisher

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MMMim

There wasn’t a lot at Mabamba landing; there were a few motorized dugout canoes, also passing for water taxis, ferries, and cargo transport canoes, and cars backed into the water as an erstwhile car wash.  We climbed into a rather dilapidated looking canoe, with another secondary guide and headed out into the dense papyrus to look for the shoebill and other papyrus specialists.  We trolled around the wetlands, up and down the water channels, for at least 2.5 hours, sighting many birds (my new favourite, the malachite kingfisher), and a sitatunga antelope (marshbuck) swimming across a channel, but just not the shoebill, unfortunately.  Our wetlands guide was very good at spotting birds from his vantage point on the prow of the boat.  I’m not sure how he managed to stand up there the whole trip without falling in to the water – I was impressed.  Tony even sent out the boat ‘captain’ to wade across one of the ‘islands’ to see if it was worth trying the next channel over to find the stork, but to no avail.  I later read that it is estimated that there are 9 to 12 shoebills resident in the Mabamba Wetlands (no wonder we couldn’t find one), and the best time to see the shoebill in the wetlands is early morning, perhaps at 0700 hrs, before there is a lot of activity.  We had arrived too late apparently.  While looking for the elusive bird, we did see many, many other species of birds, that perhaps to seasoned birders would be ho-hum, but for us they were very exciting.

 

The fleet

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Pied kingfisher

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Rufous-bellied heron

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Yellow billed ducks

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Long toed lapwing

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Reed cormorant

 

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Malachite kingfisher

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African jacana

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searching for the elusive shoebill

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We eventually gave up and stopped for lunch at the Nkima Forest Lodge, a very nice little lodge up the ‘mountain’ from the wetlands, where the birders seem to go for lunch.  We were somewhat mollified by the fact that no one had seen the shoebill that day – we had all been skunked.  While waiting for lunch, we saw a black-and-white casqued hornbill just outside the restaurant – what an amazing looking bird!  Just as lunch was finishing up, the skies opened up.  I have never in my life seen rain that heavy – unbelievable. 

 

The only shoebill stork seen today:

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Black and White Casqued Hornbill

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In the torrential rain, Tony navigated our way down the washed-out roads that were raging torrents, heading to Mpanga Forest to look for forest bird species.  On the way, we stopped several times to spot and to call for more birds (we did see a few).  However, at Mpanga, the sun never re-materialized, and because of that, neither did the birds.  We did get to see some mongoose and red-tailed monkeys.  Those little monkeys make it sound like there are a herd of elephants crashing around up in the tree canopy.  While chasing birds that day, I developed a theory: the more brightly coloured and flamboyant a bird’s feathering is, the less likely it is to alight or sit still long enough to focus on it and take a picture of it. Frustrating!  More practice required.

 

Red chested Sunbird

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Mongoose

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Red tailed guenon

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We returned to the guesthouse via Kampala – what a madhouse of a city.  The traffic is a nightmare, little stores line the roads, roadside vendors for food and produce, boda-boda’s (motorcycle taxis – it turns out that’s why there are so many motorcycles with 2 to 4 people on them), pedestrians – Jay was so glad he was not driving.  We took the toll expressway back to Entebbe – no toll though – which did speed up our return.  Tony said that although they had opened the expressway, parliament couldn’t decide on how much the toll would be, or when it would be implemented; he said that they are still arguing.  We had been out and about for about 12 hours. 

Edited by MMMim

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dlo

Good start @MMMim. Can't wait to compare gorilla tracking notes. I'm very happy for you that you finally got things worked out. I will say I've done plenty of flights in Africa but it's really nice to do a road trip and really see the country you're  in. I'm a weirdo though because I'm sure not many people enjoy Nairobi like I do and my biggest regret on my last trip was not riding a boda boda!

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BRACQUENE

@MMMim

 

Incredible and very rewarding to have two Uganda reports the same evening at a time when the Zambian Connection seems to be in a bit of a sleeping modus , surely temporary after a few extremely busy months 

I love your storytelling with no lack of humor and some beautiful photos like that gracious first of the long toed Lapwing and that majestic black and white casqued  Hornbill !

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MMMim

Thank-you @dlo .  Don't get me wrong, I did enjoy our time on the roads in central Uganda, I've more on that coming up.  It was eye-opening to say the least.  And you are absolutely right that it gives you a real sense of the country.

 

Thank-you @BRACQUENE.  My report is short (especially compared to @dlo :) ), as it was really just a side trip to see gorillas.

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MMMim

On 2019 September 30 (Monday) we were picked up by Tony and Gloria at 0600 hrs for our drive to Jinja, Mabira Forest, and Sezibwa Falls.  We had already been awake since before 0500 hrs because of a tremendous thunderstorm and driving wind and rain.  It was still raining when we set off into the dark, and would continue to rain well into the morning.  We were to stop at Mabira Forest for a nature walk first, then Sezibwa Falls, but Tony thought that due to the rain we should leave these until afternoon to let things, hopefully, dry out a bit.

 

Our first order of business was to clear Kampala during the morning rush hour – easier said than done!  Even the tour company’s website warned of the traffic congestion.  They were not kidding!  It took us just over 2.5 hours to travel from Entebbe to the East side of Kampala.  We travelled up the A109 highway, and the entire trip from Entebbe to Jinja is only 123 km (Google maps indicates that this trip, started at 0600 hrs at the Pineapple Guest House, using the expressway and Kampala bypass road, should take between 2 hours, 20 minutes and 3 hours – not!) and we arrived in Jinja well after 1000 hrs for our boat cruise.  I reiterate, the roads are a nightmare, cars, boda-boda, people, goats, cattle, schoolkids, potholes, and speedbumps – chaos! 

 

We eventually arrived at the Jinja Sailing Club for our boat cruise to the Source of the River Nile.  Jay told Tony about the program we had seen on TV claiming that the Nile begins in Tanzania.  Tony flatly replied that they must be mistaken, for that is not so!  On the cruise, we were shown a number of tilapia farms on Lake Victoria, all net enclosures closely guarded by cormorants, pelicans, herons, and yellow-billed storks.  Then to the spot where not only does the river leave the lake, but where ‘water bubbles’ or ripples, can be seen, indicating the spot where a spring contributes water, mixing with water from Lake Victoria, to form the Nile River. We saw many bird species, including various species of cormorants, storks, pelicans, a striated heron, an African darter (snake bird), a giant kingfisher, pied kingfishers, 2 magnificent African fish eagles, and we saw 3 big Nile monitors basking on the shore.  It wasn’t a long boat trip, but we saw some very interesting things.  In addition, on our way to and from the sailing club, we had seen hundreds of huge Angolan fruit bats flying above the golf course.

 

Pelican

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Yellow billed stork

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African Fish Eagle

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African Darter

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Striated heron

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Giant Kingfisher

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And 3 wonderful big Nile Monitors!

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MMMim

After lunch, we headed to the Mabira Forest Reserve, established in 1900, in the Buikwe District along the Kampala – Jinja highway.  It is the biggest forest in the central region of Uganda, and is an important water catchment area for Lake Victoria. It spans 306 km2, and is predominantly secondary forest, which has been growing for the last 100 years. The forest is comprised of approximately 312 species of trees and shrubs, some of which have been identified as being unique to Mabira and are not found anywhere else, and is home to 316 bird species, 219 butterflies, 97 moths, and 35 species of small mammals such as duikers, bushbucks, squirrels, red-tailed monkeys, and grey-cheeked mangabey.

 

We met the site guide and set off for a shorter hike, due to the mud, and traffic time constraints.  The site guide was very knowledgeable about the forest, and pointed out so many interesting features, including some of the unique trees and shrubs, and their medicinal uses; the Prunus Africana, known locally as Entasesa, is used to treat prostate cancer.  There was a tree (sorry, no name for it) that had a big spikey belt around its trunk, but only to about elephant height, to apparently stop the elephants from leaning into/destroying the tree.  And a sighting of one of the biggest, nastiest looking centipedes I never want to see again! Shudder!  We heard many birds, and monkeys, but didn’t really see too much animal life. 

 

Elephants beware!

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After leaving Mabira Forest, we travelled back down the highway towards Kampala, for a stop at Sezibwa Falls, a small waterfall on the Sezibwa River, in the Mukono District.  The falls were nice, but not really worth a trip of their own.   There was a park-like setting around the falls, that claimed to have a lot of birds and monkeys, but again, we didn’t really see anything of note there either.  I suppose the big draw of the falls was that they are an important Buganda Cultural Heritage Site where traditional worship of ancestral spirits is still practiced. There are numerous shrines and elements used for traditional rituals around the waterfalls.  The worshipers believe the falls have supernatural powers that connect them to their ancestors, and engage in rituals at the shrines to ask for favours such as long life, defeat of their enemies, wealth, successful businesses, health, children, jobs, and happy families. 

 

The Sezibwa River, according to the Buganda people, was believed to have been born by a woman named Nakungu Tebatuusa, when she gave birth to twins in the form of water, the rivers Sezibwa and Bwanda.  Our park guide was excited when I told her that I had twin boys, and she started calling me Nakungu Tebatuusa.  I guess it is a big deal in Uganda.  One of the shrines is Musoke’s shrine, where it is claimed that a resident python, known as Nalongo lives in the cave, and can, with a ceremony performed by a traditional healer, help those seeking to conceive twins.  The python is brought offerings of eggs and coffee, and if the people have twins, they bring a second offering of an amphorae (although I missed what was put in the amphorae) to bless and protect the babies. 

 

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Nalongo's cave

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It took over 2 hours and 40 minutes, over extremely potholed roads (I will never complain about Edmonton’s springtime pothole problem ever again) to get from Sezibwa Falls back to Entebbe.  We arrived back just after 1900 hrs; a 13-hour trip today.  Tony and Gloria came in to the guesthouse and reviewed all of the bird species that we had seen and heard over the 2 days.  It turns out we (Jay, not so much me) had seen 102 bird species, and heard another 6.

 

 

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MMMim

I will say that over 2 days in central Uganda, most of it was spent in the vehicle, fighting our way through the traffic.  But that time also provided its own opportunities. I was able to see so many things that are so very different to how people are living their lives in Canada.  As the photographer in the family, I was fairly content taking photographs as we drove, as long as I felt it wasn’t intruding on peoples very private lives (like into their front yards as I mentioned earlier).  I thought I could share some street scenes here (sorry, some were taken through a closed, grimy window, while moving).

 

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It’s probably pretty obvious that this was my first trip to a developing country, there were so many things that made me go, “Whaaaat”.  I am not trying to be disrespectful or judgmental, and I know that there are many contributing factors to what I saw, but so far, from what I had seen on those 2 days of travel around Entebbe and Kampala, I was saddened by Uganda.  I wondered where they obtained their famous moniker, ‘the Pearl of Africa’, because from what I had seen up to that point, it was very far from that.   I saw so much that appeared wrong, and yet I could also see that there was great potential.  Certainly, the Ugandan people that I had met were lovely and so friendly, and the children were something I will always remember; they lined the roads waving like mad at our van, and were so delighted when we waved back.  And yet, I had some heart wrenching moments that culminated in a complete melt-down in Jinja when I witnessed newborn puppies thrown on the road because they were surplus to requirements.  After thinking about everything I had witnessed in the last few days, I concluded that it must be difficult to care about the garbage or feed a starving dog, when you are wondering where your own next meal is coming from.  I felt Uganda was a heartbreaking country, and I was not keen to revisit it, however, Bwindi was about to change my mind.

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MMMim

Oh I forgot to mention @dlo, you could not pay me enough to ride a boda-boda in Kampala!  What a terrifying idea!!

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Caracal

I always enjoy African street scenes and am much enjoying your photos and  your informative and thoughtful commentary @MMMim.

I can empathise with your unsuccessful search for the Shoebill. Same thing happened to me in the Bangweulu Wetlands years back!

Looking forward to following the next part.

Edited by Caracal

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gatoratlarge

Beautiful photos and the ones of African life are especially compelling!  Thank you!

Edited by gatoratlarge

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dlo
4 hours ago, MMMim said:

Oh I forgot to mention @dlo, you could not pay me enough to ride a boda-boda in Kampala!  What a terrifying idea!!

Hahaha you are not wrong but it would be fun. And I will complain about the potholes in Winnipeg because they are ridiculous.

 

I also understand where you are coming from in regards to the poverty and how life goes. I've spent close to a year of my life in Africa and I've seen alot. I have said enough a couple of times but I love it and I've experienced truly wonderful things that outweigh the negative by far. And as someone who owns 3 dogs and loves them more than anything I understand how you felt at that moment. 

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BRACQUENE

What a very interesting follow up of your report @MMMim or should I call you Nakungu Tebatuusa from now on ; I am reading this in the early morning here in Brussels whilst the storm Chiara is still blowing outside and I can understand your mixed feelings about Uganda and Africa in general at this stage of your report ; I had thoughts like that in and around big cities like Lusaka and Dar es Salaam and traveling long distances by car through the Kafue and I am looking forward to see how it will develop for the rest of your first trip 

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Biko

@MMMim thank you for your TR, it brings back memories to two visits I made to Kampala and Jinja some 25 years ago. Looking forward to the next episodes of your report.

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adamt123

a great report so far @MMMim. your puppy episode is indeed heart wrenching. I openly admit I don't like travelling to developing countries in fear of seeing something like this, though fortunately I haven't (yet). great shots of the monkeys though, and stunning giant kingfisher.  

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MMMim

On 2019 October 01 (Tuesday), our driver from Volcanoes Safaris (Gamewatchers had arranged this part of the trip for us through their affiliate) picked us up, gave us our gorilla trekking permits, and dropped us off at the airport (they will store luggage for you if you can’t make the 15 kg limit – whew!).  We boarded a tiny little Cessna at the Entebbe airport and flew to the airstrip in Kihihi in just over an hour.  We were met by our driver/guide Joseph from Volcanoes Safaris, and he indicated that it was going to take 1.5 to 2 hours to get to the Bwindi Lodge.  The drive to the lodge was beautiful, and I was now getting to see ‘the Pearl of Africa’.  What a contrast to Central Uganda, this area was uncluttered by garbage.  I was fairly certain that as this was an important tourist destination (Queen Elizabeth National Park and gorilla trekking areas) there was an extra effort made to make sure it remains cleared of garbage. 

 

Hmm...a tiny Cessna and pilots that don't look old enough to have a drivers' license let alone a pilots license!

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Over the escarpment

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At the airport in Kihihi

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On the way, we saw many tea plantations, rural communities, and the steep mountains covered in thick vegetation.  We saw a bit of bird life between Kihihi and Buhoma, a little grey kestrel, speckled mousebird, and grey crested cranes (better picture in the Kenya TR).  We arrived at Bwindi Lodge, located in the town of Buhoma, and we were offered tea, hot chocolate, and banana bread, during our official welcome and orientation.  The lodge, although under some construction, was lovely, and our ‘banda’, or cottage, the ‘Mama Bwindi’, was wonderful and spacious.  The people at the lodge were really attentive and friendly, and we were assigned our own ‘butler’, Francis, who went out of his way to make sure we enjoyed our stay, and wanted for nothing.  The forested mountains surrounded us, the views from the main lodge patio were stunning, and it was exciting to think that somewhere up there, the mountain gorillas were waiting for us!  There were pretty birds and butterflies everywhere, and bird watching from a comfortable chair with a cold drink in your hand is absolutely the best way to conduct this activity. 

 

Walking your pig, as one does

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Boda boda here too

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A little dog guarding the drying cassava

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Beautiful tea plantations

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grey kestrel

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Grey Crowned Cranes (thought I had better include this even though it is a poor picture, as they are the national bird)

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"Mama Bwindi" banda - very spacious and comfortable

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The patio of the main lodge - a good place to sit and bird watch with a beverage of your choice!

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Following lunch, we toured the Batwa (Pygmy – the traditional, but not nice, moniker for these people) Village, the local community, and the Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) supporting the community with Thomas, a community guide. Traditionally the interior of Bwindi was home to Batwa hunter-gatherers who now live on the edge of the forest.  The Batwa used traps and snares in the jungle to obtain food.  While they did not directly hunt the mountain gorillas, their snares inadvertently killed or maimed them.  When Bwindi Impenetrable Forest became a World Heritage Site in 1992, the government evicted the Batwa from their forest home.  The Batwa, who had thrived as hunter-gatherers for millennia in the rain forest, were left in extreme poverty, homeless, with no real land of their own, limited job skills, and few options for improving their lives.  This NGO is helping to re-train the Batwa to enable them to cope in the modern world.  We spent quite a bit of time at the Batwa Empowerment Village, learning how they used to hunt in the forest, how they lived and now live, traditional medicines, fire lighting, and dancing.

 

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Thomas, our community guide - explaining tea picking

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Greeted by 3 men at the entrance to the Batwa Village - every time you took a picture you got the big thumbs up

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One of the younger village members (he was 3 years old and my husbands main dance partner)

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King Kanyamugara (87 years old!)

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My husband being out-danced by the 87 year old King and the 3 year old!

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By the time Jay had finished his dance he was sucking wind pretty good - not the King or the 3 year old!

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Edited by MMMim

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MMMim

After the Batwa Village, our guide, Thomas, took us along the little river to a banana plantation and brewery.  He explained the different types of bananas, and the growing and harvesting techniques.  Thomas explained that the bananas are harvested green, placed in an underground pit and covered to ripen them.  Then the fruit is mashed up in long troughs, by stomping on them with their feet, and the juice is poured off from the trough, and fermented with yeast from sorghum to make ‘wine’ (I use this term in the loosest sense of the word).  Another traditional and popular Ugandan fermented beverage made from bananas is called Tonto, also referred to as ‘mwenge bigere’, a type of banana beer, but at this plantation, they make wine and banana gin!  A smiling lady brought us banana juice, banana wine, and banana gin (‘waragi’), to taste.  The juice was very sweet, but nice enough, the wine was pretty awful (and I am not a wine snob), and the gin will blind you! We chose not to purchase any, making polite excuses about import limitations into Kenya in a day or two.

 

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We wandered through town, and visited the women’s employment centre, Ride 4 a Woman.  This cooperative was created to empower women and create change in the community.  Initially Ride 4 a Woman began by renting out mountain bikes to tourists to fund their training programs.  Soon there was a need to maintain the bikes, so they started training women to be mechanics.  Eventually they began a sewing program, and then the rest of the programs followed (agriculture, safe water, domestic violence, microfinance, education and baking).  They have recently opened a hostel.  Today 300 women from 11 different villages in the Bwindi area are registered with the organization.  Their crafts, sewn products, woven baskets, and woodwork, are very well made and are quite lovely.  Unlike @dlo and his wife, we did not bravely avail ourselves of the mountain bikes, but like him and his wife, we were very impressed by this program. 

 

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After our tour, Joseph met us at the centre and took us back to the lodge to provide an orientation on gorilla trekking tomorrow, and to collect our permits and copies of our passports, to be verified by the Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA).  Getting really excited and nervous now!!

 

 

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dlo

Haha I think I joked in my report about the gin temporarily blinding me😁. So glad you visited ride 4 a woman they are fantastic. And you are obviously much smarter than I am for not riding!

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MMMim

Yes I felt the same about the gin - sterno! :blink:

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BRACQUENE

@MMMim 

 

I heard some stories from my wife Anne , who was born in the Congo and stayed there for eighteen years , about the effects of that banana beer on the locals ; apart from Uganda and Tanzania it is a speciality of Rwanda, Burundi and the  Kivu in Congo and of course you should drink it with moderation when eating the famous national dish of the Congo moambe which Anne prepares to perfection 😍 like my mother in law did before !

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MMMim

 @BRACQUENE

 

Given my initial experience with banana beverages, I believe I will stick with good old Canadian beer, but I am intrigued.  What is moambe?  Unfortunately I found that most of the menus at the camps were 'sanitized' for western tastes.  Both my husband and I are adventurous eaters (ie. we like to try local dishes) but that did not really happen on our trip, other than a couple of curried dishes in SA and one in Jinja.  We did have an absolutely stellar kudu steak and a delicious springbok pie in SA.

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MMMim

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is located in southwestern Uganda on the edge of the Rift Valley, and is believed to be Africa’s oldest rainforest.  Bwindi Impenetrable Forest was gazetted as a National Park in 1991 and declared a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site in 1994. The park is 321 km2, and ranges from 1,160 m to 2,607 m above sea level.  The most famous inhabitants of this “impenetrable forest” are an estimated 400 mountain gorillas (more now as of the most recent study!!) – roughly half of the world’s population.  Several mountain gorilla family groups have been habituated for tourist visitation.  Bwindi Impenetrable National Park has four gorilla trekking sectors, Rushaga, Buhoma, Ruhija and Nkuringo, each with their own habituated gorilla families.  We had permits for the Buhoma Sector, which is situated in the northern part of the park, and was the first sector to receive tourists when gorilla trekking was first launched in 1993. 

 

One more fun fact: gorillas share 98% of their DNA with that of human DNA.  We really are not so different!

 

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2019 October 02 (Wednesday), the big day, the one I had been looking forward to, and dreading, for so long. We had an early breakfast, and were taken to the Gorilla Centre for 0730 hrs. We were entertained by dancers from the Bwindi Community Women’s Skills Centre, welcomed and oriented by the UWA head ranger, given the dos and don’ts of trekking, and then assigned a group of gorillas (and our fellow trekkers) and a ranger. I felt for sure they would take one look at me, and put me in the trekking group for ‘oldies and unfits’.  But no, somehow, I managed to get placed in the group of fit, 30-somethings, that all looked like they had a lifetime membership with the local hiking/trekking clubs in their respective countries.  Oh dear!  Mandela, our ranger, went over the rules again; only 1 visit per day per family, only 8 tourists per group, we have 1 hour with the gorillas, and we must maintain a 7 m distance from the gorillas (the gorillas didn’t know this).  We hired 2 porters for our packs (I highly recommend this!!!), and set off at 0830 hrs, to track the Habinyanja family group, a family of 18, led by the dominant silverback, Makara.  Oh, and take the proffered walking stick!

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The UWS began habituating the Habinyanja Gorilla Family in 1997, and the group was first visited by tourists in 1999. The word Habinyanja comes from a local word Nyanja that means ‘a place with water’, referring to a swamp in the forest where the group was found. At the time of their habituation, this large group of 25 was led by one dominant silverback called ‘Mugurisi’, a local word meaning ‘old man’. When Mugurisi died of old age, the group was inherited and led by his 2 brothers, ‘Mwirima’ and ‘Rwansigazi’.  The 2 brothers had different characters, Rwansigazi was an adventurous leader who loved travelling, and Mwirima loved to remain locally with the family members. The 2 brothers separated peacefully in 2002, the group staying with Rwansigazi was named the Habinyanja family, and the members staying with Mwirima formed the Rushegura family. These two groups crisscross each other now and again and co-exist peacefully. After some time, Rwansigazi gave up his leadership of the family to ‘Makara’, who is currently the dominant silverback.

 

Mandela, and 3 armed guards (to protect us from jungle elephants and unhabituated, wild gorillas), took us to the main Buhoma trailhead right behind the headquarters.  The trackers for the group had been out since early morning and knew where the gorillas were located.  It didn’t take long to figure out I was going to be in big trouble on this hike.  The biggest problem for me was that I overheated.  While stopping occasionally to catch my breath wasn’t such a big issue, I just couldn’t cool down.  About 1.5 hours in, I didn’t think I could go on.  Yes, the trail up the mountain was switchbacks, but they were steep and rocky.  Our porters, Emanuel and Dan, started pulling and pushing me, and fanning me with ferns when I stopped to catch my breath.  I was enormously embarrassed and felt terrible for holding up our group of trekkers, as it was I that set the groups’ pace, but the group of young, fit trekkers (still not sure why they would have put me in this group – not young, and definitely not fit), were incredibly supportive.  Mandela was concerned for me, and I promised him I would not have a heart attack on his watch.  Unbeknownst to me, he had pulled Jay aside to ask whether he thought I would make it, or whether I should be sent back.  Jay told him that he (Mandela) had no idea how stubborn I was; yes, I would get to the gorillas, and no, I would not be sent back.  I was even threatened with the ‘African Helicopter’.  That would have been a definite no!! 

 

we are headed straight up there

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Mandela - our ranger

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The African helicopter - you can pay approximately $500 USD to have 4 porters carry you up the mountain on this contraption

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When we ran out of switchbacks, the mountain went straight up.  Mandela told me it was not much further; he lied.  We then dropped down the backside of the mountain, and the trackers had hacked through some very thick undergrowth to make a narrow trail (it’s called Bwindi Impenetrable Forest for a reason).  The going on the trail was difficult because of the slippery, uneven footing created by the lying foliage.  We traveled a long way down this trail, through a swamp and along a forest track frequented by the forest elephants, as evidenced by their poop and tracks.  Thankfully, no elephants were encountered. 

 

Steep terrain

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Thick forest, uneven footing

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Finally, exhausted, after a very long time and a difficult hike, we arrived at our gorilla group, the Habinyanja family group.  Just before finding them, the heavens had opened up – big thunderclaps and drenching rain (yes, I know, it’s a rainforest).  I quickly found out that rain jackets, and I don’t care what brand they are, are not at all waterproof in rain like this (this was even heavier than the rain we encountered in Entebbe).  Arriving at the Habinyanja group, the gorillas were huddled under the branches of a large bush, except for one poor soul, out in the rain.  They were soaked, and miserable looking (just like me).  I tried taking pictures of them with my camera tucked into my lunch Ziploc bag (high tech), and tried keeping it dry, but to no avail.  After 10 minutes with the family, the rain eased (a tiny bit) and the gorillas came out to eat.  I threw caution to the wind and exposed my camera to the elements.  We were so close to them, it was fantastic, and a super-zoom lens was not really required. 

 

Absolutely drenching rain

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unhappy looking gorilla

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The silverback disappeared around the back of the bushes they had been taking shelter under, and the group dispersed somewhat.  Luckily, a mom, her infant, and 3 younger gorillas stayed back to eat.  Moving around a bit to take photographs, I stepped in gorilla poop – lucky, right?!  I was able to take some great shots, but unfortunately missed the one of another mama walking through the bushes with a tiny baby on her back; she was gone too soon.  But living in the moment, and just watching them, was an incredible experience too.  Making eye contact with a gorilla is like looking into your own soul, it is very difficult to describe the feeling, I found myself just getting lost in the soft brown depths, and crying (I warned you in Cape Town that I cried a lot).  Also unexpected, while the gorillas were relatively silent, they are able to make more noises than I thought, beyond just grunts and roars.  There was a trilling/purring vocalization from behind the bush where the silverback had disappeared.  Mandela said it was likely the silverback telling the others that he had found some really sweet or tasty food, and that they should join him.  Luckily not all of the gorillas did go to him. 

 

Makara - before he disappeared around the bushes - sorry crappy cell phone picture

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Makara

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Our time with the family went quickly, and then Mandela said that we should head back, that because of the rain, the descent was going to be very difficult; it was.  The walking stick really helped me here.  We reluctantly left these amazing, magnificent creatures and began our slow, treacherous way down the mountain.  On the way down, I really got a feel for how steep the hill was, as there was a torrential river running down it because of the storm.  Emanuel was very helpful and prevented me from slipping down the slope; it seemed that his only mission in life was to ensure my safety.  By this time, I could hardly move my legs and lift my feet, especially my left hip joint.  I just focused on getting down the hill, I had no idea who or what was going on around me, just focusing on my feet and Emanuel.  I was vaguely aware that the others in our group were also taking their time and struggling at points too, due to the conditions.  We eventually made it back to the park centre at approximately 1530 hrs, having tracked gorillas for approximately 7 hours; talk about exhausted.  I realize I was partly to blame for slowing our group down, but it would still have been a very long, strenuous day. 

 

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note the hi-tech lunch ziploc bag over the lens

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I couldn’t have done it without the help of our porters, and Mandela and his team, and of course, Jay.  Without their support, I would not have made it up the mountain to the gorillas.  I was profoundly thankful that I had been able to spend time with those intelligent, gentle, magnificent animals.  Needless to say, I tipped very well (not to Jay of course!).  We received our tracking certificates, returning to the Lodge at approximately 1600 hrs.  At the Lodge, we were relieved of our mud covered, soaking wet boots (I must have had half a cup of water in each boot), and Francis arranged to have a real lunch (the boxed lunches hadn’t quite ‘cut it’ and I had given mine to our porters, as they didn’t have anything to eat) ready for us for after our shower.  We tried to clean our clothes, I just walked into the shower wearing mine, and to hang them, knowing already that they wouldn’t dry – nothing seems to dry here.  We emptied our packs to find our soaking wet passports and health documents; that might be a problem.  Remember to leave your travel documents back at your hotel, the park takes photocopies of them as that they are linked to your trekking permits, so you don’t have to risk damage to your real documents!!  Or put them in a Ziploc bag if you really feel the need to take them with you.

 

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I had booked 2 gorilla treks to ensure that we were able to see the gorillas, and I felt I would be able to manage the 2 treks.  There was no way to know that ours would be the worst of the week (the other groups returning to our lodge had been out between 2.5 – 4 hours).  And as Robert Burns said, the best laid plans of mice and men… mine had been to get fit as soon as I had confirmed that I was going gorilla trekking. Two years out, oh sure, plenty of time, no worries. One year out, I still have time.  And then I got very sick, and was not able to train or go to the gym.  Oh dear.

 

After our late lunch, we went back to the room for a rest, and Jay and I came to the sad, but mutual decision that another trek tomorrow, although paid for, was out of the question.  Both of us wouldn’t be able to lift our feet enough to negotiate the rough trail (Jay’s right knee was shot after the descent), and with Kenya still to go, neither of us wanted to risk falling and breaking anything.  We informed Joseph of this decision, and he advised that the permits were neither refundable (we knew this) or transferable (we had hoped we could donate them to a local person that may want to trek, but couldn’t afford to).  He said we could do the river-walk (I wasn’t sure I could even manage that) and the tea processing tour tomorrow.  We told him that we would consider these activities for the afternoon, but we needed the morning off to recover from today's activities. 

 

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MMMim

2019 October 03 (Thursday) was supposed to be our second day of gorilla trekking, but to actually have gone would have been unrealistic.  I suppose I could have arranged for the African Helicopter (NOT), so we consoled ourselves that the money spent on today’s trek was still going towards gorilla conservation.  We slept in, a luxury on this trip so far, and had a very late breakfast; the lodge was quiet, as all the guests had gone gorilla trekking (yes, I was sad). We returned to the banda, and as the sun had made an appearance, we tried to hang things out to try to dry them. When a girl came to clean our room, she took one look at the state of the ‘drying’ clothes, and insisted that she take them to be laundered. Our boots had been returned clean, but still very wet, so we put them, and our packs and passports, in a sunny spot too. The staff at the Bwindi Lodge was absolutely fantastic!!  They also offer massages at the lodge, and so I took advantage of that service to try and ease some of the pain currently being felt in every muscle in my body!!

 

We met Joseph for the river-walk at 1345 hrs, and while Joseph and Jay were birding, I left them behind on my ‘hunt’ for butterflies (there were no flowers). I tried taking pictures of the butterflies, but was only partly successful, because like pretty birds, they never sit still long enough for a picture. I popped out of the trail at the tea processing demonstration, and was shortly thereafter joined by Jay and Joseph.   Erin began the tour in the tea field, showing us the large seeds for the tea plants, and explaining the propagation and planting processes for the tea plants. She explained how the workers pick the tea leaves (not old leaves, 2 new leaves and a shoot), the process of curing the tea to make either black or green tea, and then we tried the 2 types of tea. Neither Jay or I are tea drinkers, but I would say that the green tea was very different from what we would consider to be green tea in North America, and that the black tea was quite nice, we definitely preferred the black tea.

 

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tea seeds

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picking tea leaves 

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brewing the tea

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Afterwards we climbed up to the Bwindi Bar on the main road of Buhoma. The Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust opened the Bwindi Bar in 2015, to provide practical training and experience in the tourism industry for local disadvantaged youths, and to create more job opportunities in the region. The young trainees are given practical food and service training before they intern at the cafe for two months, then they are sent for further internships at nearby lodges. Jay and Joseph had a drink, while I went to have a look through the touristy shops along the main drag. Everyone wanted me to shop at their store, especially when they figured out I was buying; it was quite intense. Beware the false charities - I was scammed by 2 men purporting to be operating an education charity (this was Joseph’s assessment when I returned and told him what had happened).  When it comes to charities for kiddies or animals, I’m usually all-in.  I didn’t lose a lot of money and wisely bailed out when they started pushing for my contact information.  There were a few other shops, with the big-time hard sell, so I gave up and returned to the Bwindi Bar, just before the guys sent out a search party for me.  As I said, the interactions along the road could be quite intense, but I never felt unsafe. After Joseph left, Jay and I had another drink and did some more birdwatching from the deck, which was surrounded by a nice little garden that brought in the birds.  I should note that the patio in front of the lodge was also a great place to bird watch from.  Between the Bwindi Bar and the patio, we saw horn bills, blue turacos, speckled mousebirds, ashy fly catchers, northern brown throated weavers, what might have been a Baglafecht weaver, red billed fire finches, and non-bird, blue headed tree agamas.

 

view over a tea field as we climbed up to the Bwindi Bar

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red billed fire finch - male

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red billed fire finch - female

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Baglafecht weaver (we think, but are not 100% sure)

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northern brown throated weaver

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Today was a transit day (2019 October 04 (Friday)), and our flight back to Entebbe wasn’t scheduled until early in the afternoon.  This allowed us time to leisurely pack-up and breakfast.  We were advised that our flight had been moved back and we wouldn’t leave until later in the day, so we moved out of the banda so it could be readied for the next guests, and spent the morning at the main house drinking coffee on the patio, birdwatching, journaling, and watching lizards. We heard that there were some issues on the mountain this morning, that one trekker had been removed on a stretcher, and another had to be sent on with a group of trekkers that had been assigned an easier group of gorillas to trek than he had been assigned. I felt relatively unscathed in comparison.  Francis arranged to have lunch for us at the Bwindi Bar, and Joseph would collect us from there at 1330 hrs.

 

blue headed tree agama - visitor to the patio

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black and white casqued hornbill seen from the patio

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Off to the airstrip, and we noticed how awful the road to Kihihi was, must have been the rain we endured on the mountain that washed it out, as I didn’t remember it being that terrible on the way to the lodge.  At the airstrip, a cursory ‘wanding’ of our bags passed as their security screening, and we were admitted to the lounge. We left Kihihi after 1500 hrs, much later than originally planned, for our 1.25-hour flight back to Entebbe.

 

Back in Entebbe, we negotiated a poorly signed airport (from arrivals through to departures – crazy), eventually finding the departures area. We traversed the initial screening area, checked in at Air Kenya, proceeded through immigration screening and had to be finger printed before leaving the country! They didn’t do it on the way in, so I’m not sure exactly what they were comparing these fingerprints to? And finally, through main security. We found a mediocre dinner, and without warning on the board (we had been given absolutely no indication of what gate we were to be at), we were asked to immediately begin pre-boarding. Through yet another security gate into the lounge, followed by mass chaos during boarding, and a walk to the plane. They were loading the plane from the rear as well, which was good, as we were in the 3rd to last row of seats.

 

The flight to Nairobi was already delayed by 30 minutes, and then it was delayed by just over 30 minutes more, as in the chaos, people had gone to the wrong plane, but the actual flight was only about 1 hour and 10 minutes. They even fed us a sandwich and drink in that short time. Unfortunately, in Nairobi they did not unload from the rear, so we were pretty much the last off the plane, with no directions on where we were to go and little signage, it took a while to figure out how to get into the arrivals area.  We eventually found our way, presented our health certificates, and went through a thermal scan to ensure we didn’t have Ebola (the screening lady did say I looked tired, but stopped short of telling me I looked like hell). We finally located immigration, what a nightmare, only 2 people handling international passengers, and 3 or 4 large flights had arrived at the same time. We were in the line for over an hour before we were fingerprinted and given the 3rd degree. Customs was pretty quick, we found an ATM, and were finally met by a Gamewatchers guide and driver, who admitted they didn’t think we were coming (we were very late by this point). On the way to the Eka Hotel we saw zebra grazing on the roadside – welcome to Nairobi!

 

More to follow in the Kenya Trip Report section.  Thanks for following along.

Heather

 

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BRACQUENE

@MMMim

 

I felt like climbing that mountain with you waking up and reading with much anticipation the Bwindi part of the journey ; Even without knowing which of the four routes are the most difficult ones , the awful weather conditions made it look like a extremely enduring climb and descent but still a very rewarding experience I guess ; thanks a lot for sharing !

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Zubbie15

I can imagine how disappointed you must have been to have to forego the second trek, but at least you had some really nice views on the first one. You've certainly had a great adventure so far, looking forward to reading about the Kenya portion of the trip. 

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