The pearl of Africa Uganda Pt 1

In 1907, the famous and respected statesman, Winston Churchill, travelled to Uganda and named this landlocked country in East Africa the Pearl of Africa in his book, My African Journey, published in 1908. He attributed this praise to the incredible scenery and the variety in colours and flavours, and the abundance of brilliant bird, insect, and reptile life that the country offers… Not to mention the famous and beloved gorillas. Anton and Natasha Schutte from Sunset Adventure Travels went to see if all the praise was justified.

Many of us are sceptical of venturing into deep, dark Africa to explore, but in the face of the declining numbers of eastern mountain gorillas – and because it has been a lifelong dream of ours to see them in their natural habitat – we decided to be brave! Little did we know that the trip to Uganda would involve so much more than just the endangered gorillas!

After plenty of research, we decided to fly to Uganda and rent a 4×4 vehicle there with a guide – and after our tour, we can confirm it was the best decision. The option is not necessarily cheaper, but when you need to squeeze a tour that usually takes three weeks into twelve days, it helps to have a local guide who knows where everything is.

When deposits (in US dollars!) are paid, you can only hope everything goes smoothly. At times, you lie awake worrying, but at the same time begin to count down the days to this adventure. However, our concern was unfounded – our guide, Emmy Gongo, booked everything, arranged permits for the gorillas, selected, and paid for accommodation, rented the 4×4 and even sorted out the diesel. What a relief! However, it is important to take extra cash with you as its always a good idea to have some money in your pocket when travelling through Africa.

Upon our arrival at Entebbe International Airport, everything went smoothly. The militaristic police and the fighter jets outside the airport are remnants of a country that has been in conflict for a long time. Something we noticed immediately was how the people here communicate with each other – it was clear to us from the gentle and humble people you meet here that the country has long been tired of war. It’s hard to believe that the capture drama of 1976 took place here.

As we found our way from the airport and through the relatively large city of Entebbe (about 45 km from the capital Kampala), you can see the country is dirt poor but rich in terms of what the country can offer for both residents and tourists. Almost every house does its own thing, and the people live entirely off the land – they even bake their own bricks at home. As our driver told us: if you are starving here, you are simply lazy!

In the urban areas and small towns (of which there are many), people mostly ride motorcycles and road rules do not seem to apply. Everyone here drives the way they want to and from children to chickens are transported on the motorcycles – we even noticed a whole family on a bike!

The first of many first

Since we had agreed to meet Emmy (our guide for the adventure) only the next day, we decided to explore the Botanical Gardens, which border Lake Victoria. This lake is one of Africa’s Great Lakes and the Nile River’s primary catchment area. The lake is 337 km long from the north side to the south side and 240 km at its widest. It also boasts a coastline of 3 220 km!

The lake boasts more than 200 fish species, including the Nile perch. This invasive species was released into the lake in the 1950s but is still on many anglers’ bucket list. When walking around here, you sometimes feel like you could be along the coast of Mozambique. New species of birds kept us busy for the afternoon before we headed to our overnight stop, the Karibu Guesthouse. This guest house offers neat rooms with Wi-Fi for those who want to upload a photo or two for the family in South Africa.

Thanks to our bird watching bible for this trip, Birds of Eastern Africa, we were able to tick off quite a few highlights after we visited Lake Victoria. Highlights on our first afternoon included the Blackheaded Gonolek, Eastern Plantain-eater, Double-toothed Barbet, Sulfur-breasted Bushshrike and Ross’s Turaco. This is where we saw the African Grey parrots in their natural habitat – what a privilege! We also saw the black and white Colobuses monkeys – another first for us! Little did we know exactly how many firsts were waiting for us on this tour.

The following day our Land Cruiser was ready and we met the legendary Emmy Gongo, bird watching specialist from East Africa and founder of the Broadbill Forest Camp in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

One for the books

As we started driving, we soon realised that this tour promised to be one for the books and that Uganda would exceed our highest expectations. We immediately felt at ease with our guide and exchanged stories of Uganda and South Africa. Even though most guides walk in the parks with AK-47s glued to their sides, I have to say that we never really felt unsafe. Emmy told us that an AK-47 costs less here than a bag of sugar but that it contributes to law and order in the country.

Upon our arrival at Mabamba, the expectations and emotions were high because here is where we would have the best chance to see the world-famous Shoebill Stork. It is located in Lake Mburo National Park, the smallest park in Uganda, boasting 16 500 hectares of wetland selected by the RAMSAR convention as an international conservation area as it includes 260 bird species – including the Shoebill Stork. The park consists of long canals and lagoons that made it difficult to reach the Shoebill and since the stork is on any avid bird watcher’s bucket list, enthusiasts from far and wide come in hopes of catching a sight of this highly endangered bird. This incredibly rare and highly endangered bird only occurs between the papyrus wetlands of East Africa in Uganda, Zambia and South Sudan.

You have to commend the guides’ determination to wrestle through the papyrus and water plants to take visitors to the best viewing points for a potential sighting of the Shoebill. When you come to such a mega spot as a birdwatcher, it can go one of two ways… If you do not see the bird, you go home feeling disappointed for days and even plunge into a depression… If you see the bird, you almost tip the boat as you jump up and down with joy and the poor guides have to stop the boat from capsizing.

Obviously, we were hoping to fall into the latter group… And then… Suddenly, as if from nowhere, he was standing there in all his glory. Sometimes the Shoebill is referred to as a statue as they can stand very still for long periods and wait for the right fish, snake or small crocodile to catch. The particularly shy bird is usually between 120 – 140 cm in size, with yellow eyes and the third-largest beak of all living birds. Its paws are excessively large to move easily among the water plants and the bird appears on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list for endangered species.

Abundance… and then some

We spent the night at the Rwakobo Rock Lodge, which offers a beautiful view of the park, and we were spoiled with another highlight: the Pennant-winged Nightjar. It is a special place built on a massive rock overlooking the waterhole that quenches the thirst of hundreds of animals.

Our cameras worked overtime in Lake Mburo National Park and we realised that Churchill certainly did not exaggerate when he spoke of the abundance in Uganda. Here you not only see two fish eagles but 30+ pairs all around the edge of the lake – something we have never seen on our many tours through Africa. It reminds us of the poem called The Call of Africa by Emily Dibb… “You’re hooked for life in Africa… and you will not be right again until you can watch the setting moon… Africa is waiting – come!”

The following day, we woke up early, and since most of the camps offer takeaways for those who plan to have an early start, we sorted out our breakfast and lunch. You will not easily find a supermarket around here, so take everything with you if you decide to drive yourself and explore the country. Today we were heading to the famous Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, where our guide owns a camp – the Broadbill Forest Camp.

A story dedication

Upon our arrival, mist was hanging over the mountains – we were 2 600 m above sea level, after all, as Emmy had to remind us. Breathing was difficult because the air is thin. One can only wonder how Emmy could have started this lodge all on his own – there is no infrastructure here, and it must have been a challenge and a half, but his passion for conservation made it happen. His perseverance in trying to protect this piece of paradise for the people who have not yet experienced it, is truly an inspiration, and we are happy to share it.

He said that while he was on the trail of a relatively rare bird, the Dusky Twinspot, he came across a road that showed signs of poachers moving in and out. This is the road that leads directly to the Bwindi Forest, where the gorillas occur. At this point, he had already found two Duiker skulls and decided that he had to do something, or the wildlife was going to become completely extinct due to the poaching. So, he started the Broadbill Forest Camp on the road, where poachers gained access. He decided to build the lodge in the most impossible but most beautiful place. Furthermore, he taught the local community about conservation and its importance for their future. Today he can proudly say that poaching around his camp and in the area has decreased dramatically.

What an incredibly positive story of dedication! If there is a will, there is a way! Emmy and his team also grow their own fruit and vegetables used in the lodge’s restaurant.

Paradise birdwatcher

Broadbill lies on the edge of the Bwindi Forest near Ruhija, from where the gorilla and chimpanzee tours are launched. If you have ever seen the famous movie Gorillas in the Mist, you can imagine what this camp looks like… Simply breathtaking. The camp may be primitive but quiet and comfortable. The layout is well thought out, and they they fire up the donkey for warm water to enjoy a hot shower daily. All six en-suite tents offer breathtaking views of the Bwindi Rainforest. Bwindi is listed in the Top 100 Birding Sites of the World book by Dominic Couzens and has been declared a World Heritage Site. It is a natural rainforest, stretching from traditional veld to mountain forests with a range of steep ridges and valleys. The isolated rainforest is home to excellent biological diversity. Unfortunately, it is also the national park in tropical Africa that is home to the densest human population around the park. This, of course, makes conservation projects crucial. The park is located in the Albertine Rift Valley in the western part of the Great Rift Valley and forms a border that includes some of Africa’s highest mountain ranges and where you will find some of the deepest lakes in the world.

Emmy is an expert in every bird sound, and we searched on our hands and knees for birds and mammals and sometimes sat for hours waiting for a White-spotted Flufftail to make its appearance… What a little tease this bird is! If you blink, he’s gone!

Gorillas in the mist

In the evening, we sat around the cosy fireplace and discussed the day’s many highlights as well as the tour’s other big highlight: the gorillas! We are told that one cannot join the hike if you feel sick as people can transmit diseases to the eastern mountain gorillas. After all, their DNA corresponds to 95% of that of humans. Luckily, we are all fit and healthy and the big wait for tomorrow left us lying awake.

In the area of Ruhija, our dream will hopefully come true. A total of 11 groups of gorillas were sensitised to human presence and we were among the lucky ones to spot the Mishaya group within about 45 minutes. We had to maintain a distance of 7 m between the gorillas and us, but it is almost more difficult than the 1.5 m social distancing that has become such a big part of our lives this past year, as we struggled to keep our excitement and emotions in check. We were about to experience something extraordinary… Something that is destined for only a few!

Next month, we will find out if Natasha and Anton realised their dream of seeing the gorillas. Do not miss it! – Ed.

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