Uganda & Rwanda Trip Report

Sandra Kossacoff

10 Sep 2014

Uganda & Rwanda Safari Review

We've had a fantastic first few days, with a highlight being seeing Obama's (a rhino at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary) mother and sister on our first day, amazing safaris, and seeing chimpanzees. We arrived in Entebbe, Uganda on Wednesday after an 8 hour flight from London. We arrived shortly before midnight, and after passing through customs, collecting our luggage, and driving to the hotel, we managed to go to sleep around 1:00 am. On this trip, there's no rest for the weary, however, as we were up at 5:00 am for our first full day in Uganda.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

We met our guide, Elias, just after breakfast. Elias is from Kampala, and has already impressed us as a kind, thoughtful, and knowledgeable host for our trip. We had the opportunity to get to know Elias well today, as our drive from Entebbe to the Murchison Falls National Park took eight hours. As we left Entebbe and passed through Kampala, we were able to see the people in the city starting their days. Everywhere one looks, one can see motorcycles packed with either dozens of bunches of bananas or, alternately, up to five people piled on a single motorcycle. We learned that since there is only a limited public transportation system in Uganda (other than vans that function as busses), people line the streets waiting for motorcycles that function as taxis.

In addition to seeing the lush, magnificent landscape and topography that have contributed to Uganda's nickname as "the Pearl of Africa," we had an early taste of the diverse flora and fauna that the country possess, seeing papyrus, pine trees, rice fields, wranglers herding their Ankole cattle (which have the most amazing horns), and hundreds of termite mounts on the road. On our way north, we stopped at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, which was established in 1997 by the Rhino Fund to reintroduce rhinoceros to Uganda after their extinction in the country in the 1980s. The sanctuary currently has 15 rhinos, and we were fortunate to be able to approach four of rhinos (two mothers with their children) by foot, coming within 30 meters of them. One rhino was named Obama, as its mother was a rhino brought to the sanctuary from the United States and its father was a rhino from Kenya. Although we did not see Obama, we did see Obama's mother and younger sister napping in the shade under some trees.

After lunch at the preserve, we drove three more hours into the Murchison Falls National Park. Along the way, we passed dozens of baboons and birds until we reached the Nile River, where our car pulled onto a ferry to cross over to the Paraa Safari Lodge, where we will stay for three nights. Our tents are incredible, with toilets, showers, electricity, and extremely comfortable beds.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

This morning, we woke up early for a magnificent game drive in Murchison Falls National Park. This vast, lush savannah was filled with amazing animals. We saw giraffes, elephants, various species of gazelles, Cape buffaloes, kob, warthogs, and amazing birds (including beautiful bee eaters and fish eagles). A highlight was seeing a lioness prowl around in the tall grass and following her in our Land Cruiser for about 30 minutes.

After lunch at the lodge and a swim (and nice cocktails from the bar!), we crossed the Nile by ferry and boarded a boat for a river cruise up the Victoria Nile to the base of Murchison Falls. Along the way, we saw countless hippos, elephants, crocodiles, warthogs, baboons, and hundreds of beautiful birds. It was a very interesting way to experience a "safari by water." At the base of the waterfall, we disembarked and began a 90 minute hike uphill to the top of the falls. We enjoyed spectacular views as we sweated our way up to the top. Our guide picked us up and raced us back to catch the last ferry back across the Nile to our lodge. After a terrific dinner, we were fortunate to see several elephants right by our tent.

Friday, July 25, 2014

This morning, we left the lodge early and crossed the Nile by ferry. After a 90 minute drive, we arrived at the Kaniyo Pabidi, in the Budongo Forest, which is home to one of the largest populations of chimpanzees in this area. A naturalist hiked with us through the forest to find a family of chimpanzees, which we spotted 100 feet up in the trees. We were permitted to spend an hour observing a family of five chimpanzees, including one baby chimp. Watching them climb through the trees, eat figs, groom, rest, and play with each other was fascinating, and the hour we were permitted to spend with them passed all too quickly. The highlight for us was towards the end, when the naturalist pointed behind us, as a sixth chimp silently came up not 30 feet away from us on the ground and proceeded to climb a nearby tree to join his friends up above in the canopy. As we hiked back to our vehicle through the forest, we heard the welcoming vocalizations of the chimps greeting yet another friend to the group.

Elias raced us back to catch the 2:00 pm ferry back to the lodge, where we quickly changed for an afternoon game drive. Although the animals were not as easily visible in the afternoon, the park ranger Andrew in our vehicle used his remarkable skills to spot three lions in the tall grass. Two lions were resting, having killed and enjoyed a gazelle that day; we saw a third lion eating his share of the meal. On our drive back, we saw a magnificent lone elephant standing about 30 feet from our vehicle, and at least 50 giraffes during our game drive.

Before dinner, we enjoyed a glass of wine together on the deck from our tent, and after our meal, the night guard called to us to see two hippos that had walked up from the river and were standing directly in front of our tents -- the perfect way to end our time at Paraa Lodge!

Saturday, July 26

Today was mainly a driving day for us (9.5 hours!), with a few scenic stops along the way. We arrived at the Primate Lodge in Kibali National Forest in the late afternoon, and were escorted to a more primitive, although still comfortable, tent for our stay. Tonight, we went on a nocturnal hike, which turned out to be basically nothing more than a hike in the dark. As can happen, it started to rain in the rainforest, and all the animals ran for cover. So while it was enjoyable (despite the rain), not much to report.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

We had an incredible day today -- right up there with weddings, births, and graduations. We have to say that the chimpanzee habituation program in the Kibale National Forest was absolutely extraordinary and a day we will always remember. Our guide for the day, Harriet, has worked in the forest for over 14 years and was extremely familiar with the behavior of the chimpanzees. She led us on an incredible ten hour hike through challenging forest terrain, stepping through roots, vines, branches, mud, trees, shrubs, and more.

We entered the forest at approximately 7:15am. At first, it seemed as though there were no chimps to be found, as we walked for well over an hour without any sign of them. All of a sudden, however, we heard the cries of the chimpanzees, and our guide led us over to a tree filled with male, female, and infant chimps. We were completely enthralled by their behavior.

The most exciting part of the experience was being able to follow the males when they came down from the trees (mothers and their infants rarely leave the safety of the tall trees with humans present). As the males would come down the trees, we would follow them through the forests, racing after them in order to be able to keep up and observe them. We were able to see the males close up as they groomed themselves and each other, took naps, played, ate, and fought. In fact, in the middle of a chimpanzee fight, a chimp bolted straight at Alex and tried to slap him, stopped only by Harriet menacingly threatening the chimp with a stick while Sandra pulled Alex to safety away from the chimp! Our hearts were beating so quickly, but it was such an amazing encounter (Alex is somewhat disappointed the chimp did not succeed in hitting him, as it would have made for an even better story!).

Over the course of the day, we visited chimpanzee communities in 4 trees, saw over 30 chimps in total, and tracked approximately 15 male chimpanzees that had come down from the trees to roam the forest. It was exhilarating to be so close to close to these primates, as they often passed within just a few feet of us. It was remarkable to observe the similarities with human behavior (we share approximately 98.5% of our DNA with the chimpanzees). It's difficult to explain in an e-mail how incredible this experience was.

We spent over ten hours in the forest, tracking the chimpanzees over approximately ten miles up and down hills and difficult jungle terrain, but it was so worthwhile and a magical experience that will long stay with us.

Monday, July 28, 2014

We ended our experience in Kibale Forest National Park with a 6 km hike around the Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary. A young naturalist and his trainee escorted us through a swamp-like area, sighting various species of monkeys and birds. It was very interesting to experience a new ecosystem so close to the forest where we tracked the chimpanzees.

We had a quick lunch at Primate Lodge and jumped back in our vehicle for a three hour ride to Queen Elizabeth National Park. We saw the Crater Lakes and some volcanic mountain ranges, passing enormous tea and coffee plantations along the way. Once we entered the park, we took our first game drive and enjoyed an amazing elephant encounter, watching about 30-40 elephants wallowing in the mud and having what appeared to be an enjoyable time together. We finally left for our hotel after almost being charged by female elephant who was angry about our vehicle separating her from her baby.

We checked into our lodge at the amazing Mweya (pronounced Moi-ya) Safari Lodge overlooking the Kazinga Channel. We are staying in an amazing luxury tent with an ensuite bathroom and great accommodations.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A very early wakeup to join the Lion Research Project, visiting different prides of lions who can be located via radio collars to track their movements. It was very exciting because we were permitted to drive off road with the researchers and view the lion prides from a very close distance.

We were able to take a late morning nap when we returned, then had lunch overlooking the water. Alex and Howard enjoyed the swimming pool, then we prepared for an afternoon cruise on the Kazinga Channel. We saw more wildlife and many, many species of beautiful and interesting birds.

On our way back to the hotel, another guide told Elias that a leopard had been spotted nearby. So we quickly turned around and raced with several other vehicles to that location. Leopards are solitary animals and can be very hard to spot, so we were very excited to be able to find one. It ended the day on a very high note!

We depart for another part of the national park tomorrow, so time to pack and get ready for another invigorating day!

We realized that one of the things we have yet to mention is that in addition to the amazing lions, leopards, birds, elephants, and so on, Uganda has the most incredible butterflies we have ever seen. One cannot go outside without seeing many diverse and colorful butterflies flitting about -- almost out of a fairy tale!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

We departed Queen Elizabeth National Park after enjoying a beautiful sunrise and breakfast on the deck overlooking the Kazinga Channel (the waterway between two lakes in QE Park). We took a leisurely game drive to our next destination, Ishasha, a national park within the main QE Park. Ishasha is renowned for its tree climbing lions, and sure enough, within minutes of entering the park, we encountered a lioness napping in a tree! The lions in this region have adapted their behavior to include climbing trees in order to sleep, avoid insects on the ground and look for prey.

After driving through a portion of the park, we made our way to our next overnight location called Ishasha Wilderness Lodge, the only lodge located within the national park itself. We were fortunate to be one of only two sets of guests at the lodge, so it felt as if we had the entire place to ourselves. We checked into our amazing tents and enjoyed lunch overlooking the river. We then rested and read in anticipation of our afternoon game drive. The lodge is not fenced and we were told we were required to be escorted back and forth from our tents during the evening so as not to be surprised by any wildlife within the lodge's boundaries.

Departing at 4 pm, we left in search of more lions in trees. Our driver Elias took us to a campsite by the river and we learned that just across the river was the border with Congo. Soldiers are posted 24/7 to guard against unlawful crossings. It was really interesting as we did not realize how close we would come to the Congo border. We continued on our game drive looking for lions. Sometime around 6:30 pm, Elias pointed out a vehicle in the distance that had stopped. He suggested that we drive toward the other vehicle in case they had spotted a lion or leopard. As we approached, we saw a table covered with a white cloth, drinks and hors d'ouevres and a waiter - a "sundowner" awaited us!! We disembarked the vehicle and were actually enjoying drinks and appetizers right there on the ground in the park, watching an incredible sunset! It was a magical experience!

Suddenly, Elias told us to hop in the car, as he had spotted a lion in a tree approximately 300 feet from us! We drove right up to the tree and saw a magnificent male lion in the tree. We also saw another male lion about 25 feet away. We watched the lion come down from the tree to join the other lion, drink some water together and prepare for a night of hunting. It was another extraordinary experience, especially as we were so very close to the two lions!

We returned to Ishasha Wilderness Lodge completely enchanted with the sundowner and lion encounter. We then enjoyed a lantern-lit dinner on the deck right by the river, recounting the day and telling stories. We went to sleep with the sound of the river flowing by our tents and intermittent elephant trumpeting during the night -- really cool!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

We departed Queen Elizabeth National Park after enjoying a beautiful sunrise and breakfast on the deck overlooking the Kazinga Channel (the waterway between two lakes in QE Park). We took a leisurely game drive to our next destination, Ishasha, a national park within the main QE Park. Ishasha is renowned for its tree climbing lions, and sure enough, within minutes of entering the park, we encountered a lioness napping in a tree! The lions in this region have adapted their behavior to include climbing trees in order to sleep, avoid insects on the ground and look for prey.

After driving through a portion of the park, we made our way to our next overnight location called Ishasha Wilderness Lodge, the only lodge located within the national park itself. We were fortunate to be one of only two sets of guests at the lodge, so it felt as if we had the entire place to ourselves. We checked into our amazing tents and enjoyed lunch overlooking the river. We then rested and read in anticipation of our afternoon game drive. The lodge is not fenced and we were told we were required to be escorted back and forth from our tents during the evening so as not to be surprised by any wildlife within the lodge's boundaries.

Departing at 4 pm, we left in search of more lions in trees. Our driver Elias took us to a campsite by the river and we learned that just across the river was the border with Congo. Soldiers are posted 24/7 to guard against unlawful crossings. It was really interesting as we did not realize how close we would come to the Congo border. We continued on our game drive looking for lions. Sometime around 6:30 pm, Elias pointed out a vehicle in the distance that had stopped. He suggested that we drive toward the other vehicle in case they had spotted a lion or leopard. As we approached, we saw a table covered with a white cloth, drinks and hors d'ouevres and a waiter - a "sundowner" awaited us!! We disembarked the vehicle and were actually enjoying drinks and appetizers right there on the ground in the park, watching an incredible sunset! It was a magical experience!

Suddenly, Elias told us to hop in the car, as he had spotted a lion in a tree approximately 300 feet from us! We drove right up to the tree and saw a magnificent male lion in the tree. We also saw another male lion about 25 feet away. We watched the lion come down from the tree to join the other lion, drink some water together and prepare for a night of hunting. It was another extraordinary experience, especially as we were so very close to the two lions!

We returned to Ishasha Wilderness Lodge completely enchanted with the sundowner and lion encounter. We then enjoyed a lantern-lit dinner on the deck right by the river, recounting the day and telling stories. We went to sleep with the sound of the river flowing by our tents and intermittent elephant trumpeting during the night -- really cool!

Saturday, August 2, 2014

We hiked this morning to a village of Batwa (or pygmy) people in the forest hills. The Batwa have been displaced from their centuries long residences deep in the forest in order to provide a habitat for the gorillas. We spoke to the Batwa's 74 year old juju (meaning king), watched several traditional tribal dances, learned how to light a fire using by rubbing two sticks together, tried our hand at using a bow and arrow to "hunt" a wooden pig, and viewed some huts and caves where the Batwa reside. After leaving the community, we visited a local blacksmith and watched him make a sharp metal knife using primitive hand-activated bellows, stones and the metal ore. Alex tried his skill at riding a wooden bicycle and successfully navigated the rocky terrain.

We departed Bwindi and Uganda, leaving behind our first gorilla tracking experience, for our final few days in Rwanda. After a long afternoon in the car, we reached the border at 4 p.m. We had to exit the vehicle, crossing the border on foot and clearing immigration on the Rwanda side of the border. We waited for our guide as he had to clear his vehicle through customs and also clear immigration.

Rwanda is known as the Land of a Thousand Hills (Milles Colines). We immediately noticed a few differences from Uganda -- the main roads are well paved rather than bumpy dirt roads, the local people seem a little better dressed, the cities seemed a little more developed. We made our way to our final residence, Mountain Gorilla View Lodge, in time to watch a young dance troupe perform traditional Rwandese dances. The lodge is located at the base of Volcanoes National Park, overlooking a large volcanic mountain range. Alex's hand was grabbed by a sweet young dancer and he grudgingly joined her at the end of the performance as audience members tried to follow the dance steps.

We made our way to an incredible cottage with a comfortable sitting area and a fireplace. After preparing for our second gorilla experience the next morning, we made our way to an enjoyable buffet dinner. As we had a very early morning the next day, we fell asleep to a roaring fire which lulled us to sleep.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Our second gorilla tracking experience took place at Volcanoes National Park. We made our way to the staging area, where we were assigned to a gorilla family and a guide named Oliver. Each guide takes a group of no more than 8 people to see a gorilla family for 1 hour, so as not to tax the gorillas by their exposure to humans. Our gorilla family's name translates to "Friendship" and contained two silverbacks and a baby gorilla, so we were very excited! Although the initial portion of our hike was across acres of farmland, once we entered the bamboo forest, the going was a lot tougher than the forest in Bwindi. The ground was wet and marshy; any plants we might step on caused us to sink down deep onto layers of ferns and other plants. When we reached the area where the trackers had found our gorilla family, Oliver demonstrated how gorillas peel leaves from the plant they want to eat and how they communicate certain feelings via grunts and other sounds. We again had to leave our backpacks and hiking sticks with our porters. Almost immediately, one of the bushes started shaking as Alex walked by it, and a young gorilla poked its head out from below! Our excitement continued to rise as we immediately came upon the main silverback! He was an enormous, magnificent and powerful animal. The guide and trackers were amazing, clearing away brush and branches so that we could have as clear a view as possible. It was mainly feeding time for the gorillas, so we got to observe firsthand the behaviors that Oliver had earlier demonstrated. Once again, the 7 meter rule was ignored as the gorillas would brush past us as they searched for the most delicious shoots and branches to eat. We were able to observe a mother gorilla with her 6 month old baby at a distance of about 2-3 feet. The exciting culmination came when we were all taking turns having our photos taken by Oliver in front of the silverback. The silverback decided he wanted to find another area to forage, so he headed straight toward Oliver and a couple having their photo taken. Sandra happened to be seated on the ground just by the couple at the time. The gorilla pushed the woman out of the way, then changed his mind and pushed Oliver aside, sending Oliver tumbling down a small hill. No one was injured, and we all laughed at the surprising encounter. Oliver ended up giving us a little extra time that visit, so we were actually with the gorillas for 1 hour 20 minutes. We hiked out of the forest, across the farmland and back to our vehicles, telling stories and reliving the magical time we spent with the gorillas.

In the afternoon, we had lunch at the lodge with our guide Elias and Howard and Sandra took a short ride to retrieve our gorillas certificates and check out a few more shops. We returned to the lodge for some hot showers, a nice dinner and reading by the fireplace before turning in.

Monday, August 4, 2014

We rose early again today for a golden monkey tracking experience. We met again at the Volcanoes National Park and were assigned to our guides and trackers. We set off again across farmland, seeing fields of Irish (red) potatoes and beehives. As we finally entered into and hiked into the forest near where the golden monkeys had been located, we once again left our walking sticks and backpacks with the porters. The monkeys were plentiful and easy to spot once we reached the bamboo trees where they were cavorting. We were able to get quite close to the monkeys and observed them eating, grooming, jumping great distances between branches, playing and entertaining each other and us! The hour once again passed very quickly and we retraced our path through the forest and back through the farms to our vehicles.

We went back to the lodge for lunch and some preliminary packing. Our driver Elias picked us up in the afternoon to take us to the regional office of the Mountain Gorilla Doctors where we were privileged to spend over 2 hours talking to one of the veterinarians who cares for the health and welfare of the gorillas. He showed us slides and told us stories about the work that the "Gorilla Doctors" perform to help save the gorillas from poachers' snares and illnesses. We were able to ask many questions and he patiently and enthusiastically answered them all. It was so hard to tear ourselves away, but we had to have dinner and finish our packing. It is truly an amazing organization and we felt like we left with a true understanding of the work being done to help the gorillas while permitting a moderate amount of tourism to raise the necessary money to help the gorilla conservation efforts.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

We once again rose early for a drive to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. On the way, Elias told us the history of the Rwandan people and explained the tensions between the Hutus and Tutsis that led to the genocides of 1959, the 1960s, the 1970s and finally, the genocide of over 1 million people in approximately 3 months in 1994. He also explained the aftermath of the genocide and Rwanda's recovery from that terrible period. This year is the 20th anniversary of the genocide which began in April 1994. We then spent the morning at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, learning about their history and experiences. A portion of the memorial is devoted to other genocides in the world, including the Holocaust, and the genocides which were fomented against the Armenians, the Balkans, the Cambodians and the Namibians. We then visited the exterior grounds, where 250,000 people who were murdered in 1994 are buried in mass graves. Although it was a very sobering experience, we felt it was very important to visit the memorial and to pay our respects to those who lost their lives.

Amazingly enough, the Rwandan people have pushed past the genocide and seem to be recovering as a people and as a nation. The economy seems to be fairly strong and the roads and infrastructure certainly seem more prosperous than that of Uganda. Hopefully lessons have been learned, but only time will tell.

We said a fond farewell to Elias and boarded a flight from Kigali to Entebbe. We are writing this final e-mail from the original hotel we slept at when we first arrived in Entebbe 14 days ago. We will shower, eat dinner and depart for the airport for our flights to London (Alex) and Los Angeles (Sandra and Howard) in about 4 hours. It has been a remarkable trip and one that we will long remember and enjoy recounting.

If you are interested in exploring two countries that offer remarkable animal, bird and primate experiences, have kind and wonderful people and true natural beauty, then we can recommend Uganda and Rwanda to you. Despite taking malaria pills, receiving a few mosquito bites, spraying daily with insect repellent, enduring stings from the stinging nettle plant, getting dirtier than we ever have before, and surviving early morning wakeup calls, it was such an exhilarating and memorable trip. We return very happy with our great adventure and excited to have had such a great time on our 30th anniversary celebration trip.

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