Friday, 29 January 2010

Fort Portal and Kibale Forest: 23rd - 27th December 2009

The next part of our trip took us to Fort Portal, a town near the Rwenzori Mountains, a couple of hours drive from Queen Elizabeth National Park. We were staying in a place called Ndali Lodge, which is actually built on the rim of an extict volcano. The crater is now filled with water, and is called Lake Nyinambuga.

Ndali Lodge is run by a very nice Englishman and his fiancee, and it felt like being in an old English country house. The rooms are individual thatched cottages with en-suite, and we were very impressed. The food was fantastic, and the staff were so warm and friendly. It was really nice to be somewhere so relaxing, as all the game drives etc had taken it out of us a bit.  On Christmas morning we woke to find that Father Christmas had visited us - there was a big basket full of fruit, chocolates, handcrafts and even some of the very nice Ndali Vanilla Pods (which apparently sell for a fortune in Waitrose). It is the little, thoughful things like this that made our stay at Ndali Lodge so special.

The Sitting Room at Ndali Lodge

Ndali Vanilla pods growing

Lake Nyinambuga

We left Ndali Lodge after lunch on Christmas Day - unfortunately we missed proper Christmas dinner there, as it was going to be served in the evening, which Jason was a bit sad about. Mind you, he couldn't complain too much, as my parents had brought us lots of christmas goodies like mince pies, chocolate Santas and even some chocolate coins.

Our next stop was Primate Lodge, which is right in the middle of Kibale Forest. We had permits to do Chimp Tracking on Boxing Day, which we were all very excited about. Primate Lodge was the most expensive place we stayed in, although it was nowhere near the best. The Luxury tents are fantastic, although the cottages (where Jason and I spent the first night) leave a lot to be desired. The manager was very keen to listen to our comments though, and even gave us a free bottle of wine as an apology, which went down very well indeed (well, what was left of it after my Mum 'accidentally'(?) threw a glass all over Jason!).

It felt good to be staying in the middle of a forest with monkeys (and possibly chimps) in the trees overhead. My parents left some christmas cake wrapped up on their balcony when we went for dinner, and when they came back, something had been eating it. We assumed it was a bush-baby, as the wrapping had been carefully opened, and surely a mouse would have just bitten its way through the plastic.

Luxury Tent at Primate Lodge

Multi-Coloured Lizard / Gecko

The Restaurant at Primate Lodge

The next day was Chimp Day, when we would be going Chimp Tracking in Kibale Forest. We went down to the park headquarters, only a couple of minutes walk from Primate Lodge, where we met our guide. Luckily, we managed to get a guide for the four of us, whereas some of the other people had groups of six or seven people.  We started walking through the forest, straight through the undergrowth, not on any paths. Our guide heard some chimps in the distance, so we started heading towards the sound. We saw a chimp sitting on the floor, but he moved away pretty quickly. Then we came to an area where there were a few chimps in the trees overhead, and we stayed there watching them for a while - it was an amazing experience. The chimps are habituated, and are used to groups of people being in the forest watching them, but they are by no means 'tame'. We watched them feeding from the fruits in the trees, it was fantastic to see them so close up. It was really hard to get any decent photos, but both Jason and my Dad got some pretty good video footage. We spent about an hour tracking them, and then we had to head out of the forest before it got dark.  It wasn't an easy walk, as it was very rough terrain, but it was well worth it, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to visit Uganda. 

Chimp on a Branch in Kibale Forest

Chimp in Kibale Forest

The next day, we left Kibale and drove back to Entebbe with my parents. We'd had a wonderful holiday, and were sad to say goodbye.

However, the next part of trip was just about to begin, as our friends Peter and Christine were coming out to see us!

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Ishasha and Queen Elizabeth National Park: 20th - 23rd December 2009

We travelled from Lake Bunyoni to Queen Elizabeth National Park via the outskirts of Bwindi Inpenetrable Forest (home of the mountain gorillas). We were very excited about going on 'proper' safari and maybe seeing things like tree-climbing lions, elephants, leopards etc.

Pretty soon after we entered the Ishasha sector of QE National Park, we came to a tree which had two lionesses sitting in it, shading themselves from the sun. They looked so peaceful, even cuddly and friendly, although when our driver Herbert got out of the vehicle, one of them got up and started walking along the branch, having a look at her potential lunch. Luckily, Herbert made it back into the vehicle before she had a chance to get too close!

Sleeping peacefully in the tree

Hmmm....What's for Lunch?!!

What you looking at?

We stayed at Ishasha Wilderness Camp, which was beautiful and had uber-efficient staff - the tents had bush showers in them, which the staff would fill with hot water on demand, to your exact temperature specification. It was the first really luxurious place that Jason and I had stayed in for a while, completely different to our flat in Mbarara.

The following morning we set out on a game-drive (thankfully not too early!). We saw lots of elephants, buffalo and antelopes.

Elephant eating the leaves from an Acacia tree

After all that, Jason said he really wanted to see a male lion (which is apparently quite a rare occurrence). We were driving along and Dad told Herbert to stop because he thought he saw a lion in a bush right next to the road - we were laughing at him, saying it was probably just a rock or something. Herbert thought he meant a bush somewhere in the distance, and got out of the vehicle with his binoculars (which he didn't need because the lion was less than 5 metres away!). Luckily the male lion was a scaredy-cat and he ran away into the distance. We got some brilliant pictures and video footage of the lion, and it made Herbert's day that he'd got so close!

Scaredy-cat lion

After the game drive we drove to a place called Katara Lodge, which is just outside the national park. It's a stunning setting for a hotel, on the escarpment overlooking the rift valley. The accommodation is in thatched cottages, each with a private balcony. The cottage is a timber frame with tent-material over it, so you can open the front of your cottage and get amazing view of the savanna below. Each cottage has a private balcony, and the management are planning to put wheels onto the four-poster beds so that you can sleep out under the stars on the balcony.

One of the cottages at Katara Lodge

In the evening we ventured up to the restaurant area for dinner, and saw a spectacular sunset.

Sunset from Katara Lodge

We had a lazy morning the following day, and left for the Mweya Peninsula after lunch, where we had booked to go on a boat trip along the Kazinga Channel.  On our way there, we saw a herd of elephants crossing the road in front of our vehicle - all very exciting.

Elephants Crossing

View of a fishing village on the Kazinga Channel

The boat trip from Mweya was probably the most touristy thing Jason and I had ever done in Uganda - the boat was packed, and in some ways it felt like we were on a boat trip on Lake Windermere or something. However once we set off, the boat trip was fantastic. We saw elephants drinking from the channel, hippos and buffalos cooling themselves down in the water, crocodiles, monitor lizards, and loads of birds. The boat is manned by Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) staff, and they give a commentary about all the wildlife you see from the boat - they are so knowledgeable, and it amazes me how they can spot tiny animals and birds from so far away.

Elephants and Buffalos in the Kazinga Channel

Fishermen heading out to Lake Edward

After the boat-trip, we headed to Mweya Safari Lodge, where we stayed for one night. It is on the Mweya Peninsula, and has beautiful views. Some of the animals even come into the hotel grounds - there was a waterbuck grazing outside our room, and we also saw some mongooses (or mongeese?!). Mweya Lodge has fantastic facilities, and we really can't fault the place - except for the fact that it feels a bit corporate, and you could be anywhere in the world. Having said that, the service was excellent, and the food was delicious - especially the desserts!

View of the Mweya Peninsula

Lake Bunyonyi: 18th - 20th December

We headed down to Lake Bunyonyi, which is a couple of hours from Mbarara. It is a flooded valley, and the views from our hotel, Arcadia Cottages, were absolutely stunning.

View from the Bar Terrace

View of Lake Bunyoni and some of the Islands

Sunset over the Lake (with a volcano in the background!)

The next day we woke up to the beautiful sight of the mist rising over the lake. We really were above the clouds, and you wouldn't necessarily have known there was a lake below us.

Rising Mist

We decided to do a community walk, which was arranged through the hotel. Our guide Monday (so-named because of the day he was born) took us on a walk right down to the lake, passing alongside fields and houses.

We took a boat trip on the lake to see the different islands, including Punishment Island. This was an island where unmarried pregnant girls were left to die by the Bakiga tribe, unless they could manage to swim to safety (pretty unlikely), as a punishment for what they had done. Any man could go to the island, and take the girl as his wife, without having to pay the usual bride price. A pretty gruesome practice, and it only ended in the first half of the 20th century.

Punishment Island

We stopped off at Bushara Island for a swim and some lunch, before heading back to the mainland to start the steep climb up the hill back to our hotel. We attracted an ever-growing crowd of children, who proceeded to follow us up the hill. Monday took us to a village near the hotel, and we had a walk around. We didn't go into people's houses, which I was very glad about, but we learnt a bit about how the villagers live, and what they grow in the fields etc. We were all extremely tired after the walk (it took about 2 hours to get back up the hill), so were glad to refresh ourselves with a cold Club (beer) when we got back to the hotel.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Mbarara and Lake Mburo: 14th - 17th December

When Mum and Dad arrived in Uganda, we thought it would be nice to bring them to Mbarara for a few days before we started travelling properly so that they could settle in to Africa a bit and also see where we live.

Mum and Dad at the Equator on the way to Mbarara

It was fantastic to see them again, and we were very grateful for all the gifts they brought us - there was so much chocolate that we nearly couldn't fit it all in the fridge!
We spent the first day showing them all the interesting sights in Mbarara, like the university, the market, the high street....and that's about it really. We had dinner with a few friends and colleagues in the evening at the Agip Motel (about the best restaurant in town), which was really nice.

Arriving at Lake Mburo National Park

The following day we set off early in the morning for a trip to Lake Mburo, which is a couple of hours drive from Mbarara. We had planned to have a guided walk with a ranger when we got there, but it was raining really hard, so Andrew the ranger came on a game drive with us instead, getting out to walk if we came across anything interesting. We saw a huge hippo wallowing in a mud pool and Andrew took us to within about 10 metres of it; I was a bit scared that it might start charging at us or something, but luckily it got out of its pool and waddled away in the opposite direction.

Hippo not looking impressed at having its wallowing session interrupted!

Jason and I have been to Lake Mburo a few times now, but we really love it. It's a pretty small National Park, which means you generally don't have to travel too far to see all the different animals. There are no elephants or giraffes there, and we have never seen any lions (although there is reported to be one pride inside the park); but it is one of only two parks in  Uganda where you can see zebras, and there are also impala which aren't common in other national parks. There is a lovely boat-trip you can do around the lake, where you see things like crocodiles, loads of hippos, and lots of different kinds of birds - we saw one called the African Finfoot, which is apparently very elusive.

The day after our trip to Lake Mburo, we relaxed in Mbarara. We were invited to our friend Gary's farewell dinner, as he was returning to the US after 4 months of teaching and research at MUST. Leaving dinners at the university are a pretty formal affair, with a top table for important people - my parents were a bit surprised (and slightly embarrassed!) when they were called to sit on the top table (especially as they had never even met Gary before), but they enjoyed it in the end. My Dad particularly liked being introduced to Waragi, which is the local gin!

Epic Tour of Uganda!

Since the university semester finished for the Christmas holidays, we have been on an epic tour all around Uganda. My parents came out to visit us from 13th - 28th December, and our friends Christine and Peter were with us from 27th December - 8th January.

It was really good to spend time with family and friends again, and it also gave us an excellent excuse to travel all over Uganda. We visited so many places and saw so many wonderful things that we thought it would be best to describe them all in separate blog posts.

We really were very lucky to see all the fantastic things we did - as our driver Herbert kept telling us "We were blessed"!