A Travellerspoint blog

Uganda

Muzungo, Howareyou?

A quick tour of Uganda


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Hey Muzungo, How are you! This is the cry from just about every child and friendly local you pass in Uganda. Muzungo is the their word for foreigner and is used freely amongst all. The people we met in Uganda continued on in the jovial spirit we found in Kenya. Local people whom we met and had the chance to talk with were a highlight in their own right. Uganda also challenged our math skills with an outrageous exchange rate of 2,200 shillings to one USD. We laid down 45,000 for a room in the capital and it was not uncommon to be pulling 400,000 to 500,000 out of the ATM!

The boarder to Uganda was nothing more than a dusty lane with a few shanty buildings set up to serve the purpose of immigrations. We handed over a big chunk of our dwindling supply of US dollars for the visa and were on our way.
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Meghan makes her way through a busy market in Jinja
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A “Rolex” stand. This Ugandan street food is usually a cabbage, onion, and tomato omelet wrapped up in a chapatti. Sometimes the egg was in the inside, sometimes on the outside. Cheap and good.
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Lake Victoria
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Meghan and some kids from a small fishing village on the lake.
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Fish Market
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Huge Maribu Storks on the golf course

Jinja, set on Lake Victoria and along “the source” of the Nile river, has dubbed its self the “Adventure Capital of East Africa“. Bungee jumping and river rafting fuels this title. Nile River Explorers offered a full day of rafting class 5 rapids that we could not turn down. We have passed on some good rafting in New Zealand, Nepal, Thailand, and India and now we realized why. The Nile was huge. Spanning 500 to 700 meters in places the river could flow at up to 60,000 CFS. This is three times larger than the Colorado river in high season. The rapids felt like they grew expediently with the increased water volume. My mental image of the Nile as a big brown muddy river slowly making its way to Cairo quickly disappeared as we were lost in a world of whitewater rapids such Silverback, named after the dominant male in a family of mountain gorillas. We did what we could to stay in the raft but we flipped and people were violently ejected from the raft on many occasions during our day. The intensity of the river kept our adrenaline pumping and the scenery and wildlife never let us forget we were on the Nile. A huge Nile monitor lizard worked on a fresh fish lunch on the bank while we waited in a eddy above a rapid, Kingfishers dropped out of the sky plunging below the rivers surface in search of fish, and all sorts of storks, cranes, and other birds were always present. We finished the day and spent the night at their riverside camp, an incredible spot up above the river in the glow of the setting sun.
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The Nile
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Rafters on one of the rapids in the section we did.
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Nile River Explores porch overlooking the river

The next day we walked down to the river one to see rafters making their way through of the rapids. Bujagali Falls is a series of class five rapids spread out across a nice waterside park were we were able to sit in the shade and watch the river. There is a group of locals who call themselves the “Bujagali swimmers” who hang out here trying to get money out of tourists by courageously swimming the rapids with nothing but a “jerry can” or a 5 gallon plastic water jug, for a flotation device. Fortunately others who were present were more liberal with their shillings, I don’t think I could have paid someone to throw themselves into this river.

“Bujagali swimmers” video

We spent the rest of the day lazily hanging around the camp, swimming in the river, and waiting for the free shuttle to Kampala, the capital of Uganda. The price of free transportation turned out to be a broken down bus that turned an hours drive into four hours and getting dropped off at one of the worst hostels at 11:00 at night. Kampala Backpackers was blasting gangster rap when we arrived and was filled with drunk NGO workers. We reluctantly stayed on another night and the place was actually pleasant during the day when everyone was gone. They had free internet and comfortable place to hang out that toned down my initial impression. The little bit of exploring we did revealed an chaotic city brimming with people. The matatu (local taxi) stand was huge. Hundreds and hundreds of vans crowded a sunken lot. How anyone could find the right matatu in that mess remains a mystery to me. Fortunately we did not have to deal with it.
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The chaotic Kampala matau stand
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Chapatti, BBQ Beef kebabs, Corn… all available from the bus window

Early the next day we set out to explore the crater lakes around Fort Portal, four hours west of Kampala. The Lake Nkuruba Nature Reserve Community Campsite was set on grassy lawns directly on the crater rim above the lake. There were a few nice bandas and even a lakeside cottage but we opted to set up the tent on the grass below a nice tree along the crater rim. A large number of black and white Colubus monkeys, as well as one lone red Colubus, resided in the trees around the campsite and provided constant entertainment for the three days we stayed. We visited one of the villages outside the camp on their market day were I picked up a small pocket radio. Most everywhere we have been their has been great radio playing African music that has been a joy to listen to. Here we also saw the Obama line of jeans! Apparently the love for our president is not just in his fathers native Kenya! We had planned on exploring more of the dusty lanes and crater lakes of the area but afternoon rain storms and the free entertainment the colobus provided kept us close to the camp.
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Black and white Colobus
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Bikes and Bananas - Bringing the “matoke” home from the market
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Obama Jeans!
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Another Black and White Colobus showing off his bushy tail.
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It ain’t no ghetto blaster but I still can get down to it.

We had to spend a night in Fort Portal before moving on because the only bus going our way was scheduled to depart at 3:00 AM. We explored a few other options including hiring a private vehicle with another couple we had met at Lake Nkuruba but reluctantly decided on the bus. We were at the pick up point at 3:00 am where the adjacent bar was still going strong and we patiently waited, and waited, and waited. Just after sunrise at about 7:30 the bus showed up… and was full. At this point everyone’s patience was short and my blood was boiling. After refusing to get on a standing room only bus for an 8 hour ride the conductor kicked some people who had not purchased tickets in advance as we did out of their seats and we got on board. Feelings of frustration turned to guilt as we boarded and settled in for the ride. The guilt turned back to frustration as the overcrowded bus slowly crept down the highway making frequent and long stops to pick up even more passengers and load even more cargo. It took 2 ½ hors to reach the next major town that 40 Km away. Fortunately the pace quickened after that and before long we were cruising our way through Queen Elizabeth National Park en route to Kabale. We saw an Elephant, a warthog, and some Ugandan Kob (type of antelope) from the bus which took some of the sting out of the 4 hour late departure.

Our next stop brought us to southern Uganda to Lake Bunyoni. There are a few good campsites on the lake but we really wanted to get out to an Island. We got into a traditional dugout canoe and paddled for 45 minutes into the setting sun to Byoona Amagara on Itamira Island.
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A view from a bus. Picking up more people.
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Dug Out Canoes
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Making our way to the lake

Lake Bunyoni is the type of place were you can hear locals drumming and singing on the surrounding Islands and were the traditional dugout canoe is still the primary means of travel across the lake. Relaxation is the major attraction and we spent three lovely days doing mostly nothing. We were able to set up our tent lakeside and once again got thick foam mattresses to put in the tent. This made things very comfortable. Byoona Amagara had a nice open aired restaurant and lounge were we were able to look out over the lake and surrounding islands while reading and making new friends. The camp was environmentally friendly running all electric from solar power and using composting toilets. Apparently most of the proceeds from the lodge were put back into community projects. We enjoyed the relaxation, good food, and company on the Island.
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Local man coming to shore at the end of the day
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The Byoona Amagara fleet of dugout canoes
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Lake Bunyoni
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Grey Crowned Crane - The Ugandan National bird
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One of the Buildings at Byoona Amagara

Next stop… Bwindi Impenitrable National park were we would get to spend some time with our closest relatives.

Posted by pmunson 05:46 Archived in Uganda Comments (4)

Gorillas in our Midst

A days trek to visit our brethren

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We had not really planned on visiting the mountain gorillas. Permits have to be arranged months in advance and, well, we don’t really plan in advance. But when we were presented with the option to buy permits last minute from a Spanish couple who could not make the trip we could not refuse. We dug deep into our reserve cash deposits; remembering a generous gift from a certain Aunt who wanted us to do something special. A decision we would not regret.

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The mountain gorilla shares 97% of our genetic makeup and is only found in three countries of the world. Uganda is home to slightly more the half of the population with a bit over 300 gorillas living in two national parks. The rest call the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda home. This is an incredibly endangered species. One way in which conservation is accomplished is through tourism. Gorillas live in defined groups and maintain home territories. Different groups with in the park have been “habitulized” in such they do not fear humans any longer. Each group can be visited for one hour per day by no more then eight tourists. By charging tourists an incredible amount of money for permits the governments and local communities have a value in maintaining the viability of the gorillas. Otherwise this great animal would have been lost to poachers.

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Out of Camp by 7:00 we had an hours drive on rugged road before we got to the park HQ were we would start our day. The early morning mist hung low in the valleys of the surrounding forest. The sunlight on the mist was absolutely beautiful. After a quick briefing at the ranger station we were off with our guide John as well as an armed escort just incase of any trouble with wild Elephants who also live in the park. We set out on established trail but before long we were off the trail and testing the name; Impenetrable Forest. It took over 4 hours to find the Gorillas.

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Morning sun lighting up the mist
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Penetrating the Impenetrable!
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Africa’s Primary Rainforest is the oldest natural habitat in Africa as it survived the last ice age 12,000 to 18,000 years ago. How much longer will it last?

A tracking team set out in front of us to the spot were the group was seen the day before. Then, using their tracking skills they followed evidence of their movement through the forest to were they nested for the night and then on to their current location. Once the gorillas had been spotted the advance trackers called in on the radio and we headed straight to their location. The guides and trackers are able to do all of this without any type of GPS or location devices, just from their extensive knowledge of the forest. Moving on the route becomes immediately more difficult. We leave the faint trail and dive into the “impenetrable forest”. Machetes come out as we made our way straight up and down the steep terrain which was covered in dense bush. The anticipation built as we slowly moved through the forest. It was over 2 hours from the time we received the call until we finally met up with the advance team. Here the going got even tougher. Multiple times we had to slide down the hillside on our butts and crawl on our hands and knees through freshly cut tunnels in the bush.

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When we first approached the gorillas they were on the steep hillside and before we were able to climb ua and get close they moved further up over a ridge. We had a second encounter in dense undergrowth were we could just barely spot a 400 pound silverback male peering out from behind a tree. The gorillas kept on moving and I was starting to fear that this would be the limit of our visit with them. After more heavy machete work and crawling through tunnels in the bush we came out in a long open corridor were a few juveniles took time to check us out while feeding.
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They moved on and we followed them a short way and into a large clearing. Almost 5 hours after departing the park HQ, we found the entire family of over 20 Mountain gorillas. It was incredible, a sight I will remember for all my life. Nshongi, the alpha male, was front and center and gave us a long inquisitive look. Mature male gorillas become silver or gray over their arms and back and are therefore called silverbacks. Other females and adolescents were moving about in and out of the open allowing us to view most of the family at once. Apparently in the dense vegetation this is not common and our guide let us know that we were really lucky to see them like this. A female with a newborn baby on her back walked right through the center of the clearing followed by another silverback.

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Nshongi
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Nshongi and Family

The second silverback gave us the best viewing of the day slowly walking through the clearing, stopping to check us out, and then rolling around on his back. Some of the young ones were playing around in the trees putting on a good show. Towards the end of our hour, almost on queue, the gorillas started to move back into the forest and a few climbed high in the surrounding trees. Our final view of the day was a large female lounging on a tree branch watching as we slipped away back into the forest. The time went by fast but the experience will last a lifetime. Our way out required a lot more bushwhacking and slipping and sliding down a steep hillside until we got on to a small trail that brought us back to the park headquarters.

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We retuned back to our camp just after dark to hot water waiting for our “bush” showers lit by oil lantern. We spent the evening replaying the images in our heads of such a magical experience. We met a researcher who had been studying the gorillas for the past 17 years. She was using the camp as a base to do her research, a luxury compared to her early days camping in the forest. We had a long conversation about the gorillas, the habituation process, and the impact of tourism found in her work. It was a fascinating conclusion to such an incredible day.

Posted by pmunson 11:47 Archived in Uganda Comments (3)

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