In a 4WD with chauffeur along varied landscapes
Uganda has varied landscapes: mountains, lakes, craters and plantations. Because of its altitude it's not too hot, because of its volcanic origin and the availability of much water it's green everywhere. In a 4WD with chauffeur and guide Buggala Island, Masindi, Murchison Falls, Fort Portal, Kibale Forest, Queen Elisabeth Park, Kisoro, Lake Bunyoni, Lake Mburo and Entebbe are visited.
Travelogue & photos: Martin & Lottie van Rutte
After an eight-hour flight we land on Entebbe airport. When we leave the plane, the damp heat greets us.
After a short drive we arrive in our hotel. We have a cold drink in the garden, where the warm wind from Lake Victoria brings innocuous little flies. Our first destination is Buggala Island, the largest of the Ssese islands in Lake Victoria, which can be reached by ferry from Entebbe.
All kinds of birds rummage about along the water
Next morning our Ugandan chauffeur picks us up with a 4WD convertible. But there is a problem: the new ferry is out of service because of technical failings. But our guide comes up with a nice solution: we'll drive to the old ferry, which leaves from Luku, near Masaka. It's a detour of a few hundred kilometers, but that is to be expected in Africa.
On the way we cross the equator and after four hours of driving on bad roads we arrive at the landing. There is a long line of trucks, loaded with bananas, fish and other merchandise, 4WDs and many, many people.
The ferry hasn't arrived yet. After over an hour it appears on the horizon. Ferry? It's more like a square container with and engine on every corner which drives the propeller. How are they going to fit everyone and everything on this? But with some African improvising it all works out. Fortunately the weather is good and there is not a lot of wind, so we reach the other side safely.
People, especially women, in Uganda look neat. On the ferry is a group of women wearing extraordinary garb. It turns out they're on their way to a wedding. After we speak with them, we are allowed to take a picture.
On Buggala island a local guide takes us on a wonderful tour. First on the beach, along fishers villages where fish is drying on the ground. The women are working the land or are doing laundry and the men are one the lake to catch tilapia and nile perch. It is small-scale fishing with nets, in mogoros, tree-trunk canoes.
We continue our walk and arrive at the ruins of a fortress, according to our guide built by John Hanning Speke, the British discoverer of Lake Victoria. In our cabin on the beach we enjoy the peace and quiet.
Next morning around 7 AM all kinds of birds rummage about on the beach: ibises, marabou storks, waders, Egyptian geese and more.
After two days we return in the same, exhausting, fashion to the mainland. On the way we see a lot, beautiful trees and small villages with banana plantations.
We spend the night in a round African hut
After hours of bumping on a road with many potholes, we arrive, covered in red dust, in Masindi. In the restaurant there we meet Sally, who asks with interest where we are from. Sally is an English lady who is well over the age of retirement. In the past she lived in Africa for many years. When she returned after the stormy years of the guerilla war, her business was completely destroyed, but she rebuilt it with huge success. One can feel and taste that she has everything under control.
We spend the night in a banda, a round African hut. We're not just here for the animals and the plants. Whenever we walk in a town or village we also try to speak with people. We visit, among other places, the public library and the microcredit office.
There are around 40 tribes in Uganda, who don't all speak the same languages. Because of this, in school lessons are taught in English, which makes it possible for us to speak with most people. It's also nice for us that most signs along the roads are in English, as are the newspapers.
Murchison Falls National Park
A leopard rests in a tree, digesting
Next day we drive north to Murchison Falls. The rebels have left, so it's safe to go there now. When we arrive, the car is immediately accosted by tsetse flies. But the ointment we brought works very well, we are not stung.
Our guide is already waiting for us and in the heat we walk to the top, where we have a great view of the Nile which falls 53 meters via the waterfall and then flows into Lake Albert. Here we also sleep in a banda, around which roam warthogs. I had never seen that they kneel to eat.
Early next morning we cross the river and pick up a ranger for a game drive with our car. Guinea fowl and Abyssinian ground hornbills run ahead of the car.
The Murchison Falls National Park is the largest park in Uganda and known for its Rothschild giraffe. We also see buffalo, elephants, oribis (small antelope), kobs (waterbuck) and hartebeest.
It's nice and cool, the 4WD's rooftop is open. Nearby we see a leopard. It has been hunting at night and now is resting in a tree with a full stomach. Unfortunately we don't see any lions. There are some here, but not many.
The ranger tells us that the game in this park suffered terribly during the Obote and Idi Amin regimes. Poachers were free to hunt as much as they wanted and soldiers also killed a lot of game. Nowadays the park is strictly supervised and the numbers of wild animals are slowly increasing again.
In the afternoon we enjoy a boat tour of the Victoria Nile. From the upperdeck we have a great view and see a herd of hippopotamus lying in the river. On the banks lie enormous crocodiles, most with their mouths open for cooling. This way, one gets a good look at their huge jaws.
Two hours upstream we arrive at the Murchison waterfalls again. From the boat we watch this force of nature at a safe distance.
In the light of the evening sun we sail back in an hour along a savannah with palmyra palms and giraffe trotting elegantly.
At the foot of the Rwenzori mountains
Our next long, but beautiful drive is via Lake Albert to Fort Portal, a town at an altitude of 1800 meters at the foot of the Rwenzori mountains. This altitude is well-suited for tea plantations.
In the afternoon we have a guided tour of the tea plant. We have to wear white coats and are told about sorting and fermenting tea. At the end of the whole process we arrive at the quality inspection. We also get to taste: the tea is very fine and strong. After packing, everything is loaded on big trucks and taken to Mombasa, Kenia's port, and from there is shipped to places all over the world.
There's a lot to see in the surroundings of Fort Portal. There are caves, but we'd rather stay outside. By foot we climb to an altitude of 2300 meters, where we have a great view of the many crater lakes and the mountains on the border with Congo in the distance. Everything is green and the heat makes the air hazy.
In the past, Uganda consisted of many kingdoms, one of which was Tooro. The kings still exist, don't have official political power, but they still have a lot of influence. We read about this at home and because we're in the neighborhood anyway, we ask our inexhaustible guide to take us there.
The new, round castle that was built for the now 15 year-old king lies on a hill. His father died over ten years ago, at a young age. Inside the palace we are told about all the rituals and special inauguration festivals, which are still very important to the population.
A little farther is the deceased king's tomb, which is remarkably austere. The guard accompanies us to a building; inside is are bare space with a curtain, behind which is the coffin. In front of it lies a moth-eaten leopard skin and a few of the kings attributes, like drums and spears.
After a short drive we visit a botanical garden with many trees and plants from the jungle. They are mainly collected to make sure that medical knowledge is not lost. There is an experiment with a vegetal, preventive medicine against malaria. It is supervised by a Belgian expert, who lives nearby.
On the way, by car, we see lots of people walk or bicycle on the same road. For us, it's a colorful spectacle, but for the people themselves it's not really fun. They have to walk uphill with their overloaded bicycles with wood, bananas or jerrycans with water. They're really toiling.
The chimpanzees make a deafening noise
In Kibale Forest, not far from Fort Portal, we go looking for chimpanzees with a guide. The rainforest is damp and hot and lies at an altitude of 1500 meters. We have to edge our way through the overgrowth. Animals of course don't use the paths. Our hiking boots come in handy in this country.
All of a sudden we hear chimps screaming, the noise is deafening. We hear twigs break, the chimps are making a terrible racket and jump from tree to tree. It's a family, what a spectacle. Some of the chimpanzees climb down and we have trouble keeping up with them. They won't sit still for pictures.
In the evening we eat outside by the light of an oil lamp. We spend the night in a stone cabin in the forest. There even is a hot shower: water in an iron container is heated by a wood fire outside the cabin. It's crude, but efficient.
I would have loved to stay another night. Especially to hear one more time the deafening concert by hundreds of birds and crickets when the sun sets.
Queen Elisabeth Park
Children, crocodiles and hippoes in the Kazinga Channel
We stay in Queen Elisabeth Park for a few days. The pretty lodge sits on a peninsula with a great view of the Kazinga Channel, which connects Lake Edward and Lake George. When we enter the park, a family of elephants crosses the road just ahead of us.
Next morning at 6 AM we make a game drive. It has rained and the 4WD has trouble plodding through the sticky red African mud. We see a lot of birds: open-bill stork, hammerkop, and the national bird of Uganda: the grey crowned crane.
A lion walks on the side of the road, but he doesn't show even the remotest interest in us, nor in the Ugandese bicyclists. In the distance we spot many grazing animals, like kudus, kobs and waterbuck.
Back at the lodge we take a nice swim; there is a wonderful swimming pool, what a luxury. We are in the middle of the bush, with a view of the African landscape and take laps in crystal-clear blue water. On the edge of the pool sits a royal-blue agamid. This is for spoiled safari tourists.
After lunch we sit down on our private terrace with a view of the channel. On the other side of the water we see all kinds of animals seek cooling. Around us, warthogs, incredibly fast mongoose with their cubs in their mouths and beautifully colored weaverbirds are co close by.
There are gorgeous plants and flowers around us, like giant bougainvilleas and euphorbias as big as trees.
In the afternoon we take a boat trip the Kazinga Channel. We see many kinds of waterbirds from close by: ibises, storks, geese, pelicans and kingfishers in several colors, marabou storks, too many to name them all.
And there are crocodiles, buffalo and hippoes with some kind of herons on their backs, which eat insects that cause the hippoes discomfort.
The guide on the boat tells us that 550 different kinds of birds live in Queen Elisabeth Park, the highest number of all nature parks in the world. A lone, colossal elephant bull approaches the bank and drinks. It is Februari, the dry season, and many animals move closer to the water.
Despite the crocodiles and hippoes, children swim in the channel and fill jerrycans with water, which they drag up with their bicycles. In the channel, fishers in their boats are working, they live in the hills.
An elephant family walks past their village. Higher up the hill we see a few lions lying down, we heard them roar tonight. It's clear why there are always guards in the background at night, when we walk from the restaurant to our room.
Next day we take a wonderful walk with a ranger in the Kyamburu Gorge. There is no time for a briefing, we have to go down immediately, because the chimpanzee family happens to be nearby. Even down here we hear the hippoes in the river.
Because we read about salt lakes at home, we ask our guide to take us there. It looks like noxious washing soda in bright colors: pink, green and blue.
The percentage of salt is so high that several foreign companies have failed to exploit the lake commercially. The stainless steel tubes are rusting. The local population works here bare footed in the water. The women harvest the salt with their bare hands and sell it in a market place. The men carry large lumps of salt on their heads to a truck. A little farther we see flamingoes forrage.
The loitering kids turn out to be rikshaw drivers
We drive over the mountains, again on an unpaved road, to Kisoro, at about 2500 meters in the far southwest of Uganda. This is the worst drive of our trip, if I had known this! Many potholes and deep ravines.
But our chauffeur is a wizard and the view is constantly gorgeous. Everywhere we look are all shades of green, of trees, bamboo, banana plantations and cultivated fields by the houses.
Half way we climb to a mountain pass, at the top we are treated to a wonderful view. All slopes have cultivated terraces and in the distance the volcanoes of the Virunga mountains rise up, on the border between Congo and Rwanda.
During our descent, we drive through bamboo forest. The atmosphere is mysterious, it's cold, with patches of fog and sometimes the plants and trees look European.
We spend the night in the famous Travellers Rest Hotel, which is 50 years old. Dian Fossey (Gorillas in the Mist) stayed here often.
From Kisoro on can make all kinds of interesting tours: a bird-watching walk in Magahinga, a walk to Lake Mutanda and the Cultural Village Walk through the land of the Bufumbria tribe.
Most visitors of Kisoro also visit the mountain gorillas in the southern part of Bwindi Forest. Individual permits cost $500. We decide to have a day of rest instead. In the morning we sit and read in the tropical garden. In the bookcase are all kinds of old books about this region and the history of the hotel. We enjoy the wonderful view of the three volcanoes (3000 to over 4000 meters), where some of the other guests are climbing to the top of the highest volcano.
In the afternoon we visit the local market, where the women are dressed in bright colors, many of them barefoot. Every now and then there's a tropical rain shower. On the dusty red roads with potholes and puddles we see many people walk or bicycle.
Here we notice that bicycles are also used as taxis. At first we thought they were loitering kids, but these boys are waiting for customers. On the luggage carriers are red cushions to sit on. There are foot rests for the legs and in this fashion one is taken to one's destination for a few shillings.
Walking back to our hotel we pass by an internet café. While we're sending an e-mail there's a power outage. This happens all the time and nobody gets upset. Africans can take a lot. The owner sits on his desk and waits. We ask him how long this will last, but the man, used to all those white neurotics, remains silent. The hotel doesn't have that many power outages, because its electricity comes from Rwanda.
Bushara Island is overgrown with eucalyptus trees
Via Kabale we drive to Lake Bunyoni, at an altitude of about 1800 meters. On the way we have a delicious meal at the Kalebas (pumpkin). The owner is called Bas and he is bald, which is "kaal" in Dutch, so the combination of his name and his lack of hair forms the Dutch word for pumpkin. He's a nice Dutchman, who owns a restaurant here with his African wife.
Lake Bunyoni lies between mountains and has a surface of 60 km2. The lake was formed after a volcanic eruption, when rocks closed off a river. It's safe to swim here. There is no bilharzia and there are no crocodiles and hippoes.
Today, it rains and it's cold. We take a boat trip to Bushara Island, a small island at the center of Lake Bunyoni. It's overgrown with eucalyptus trees to ward off the malaria mosquitos. Our tent has a view of the lake.
In the evening we warm ourselves at a big fire in the restaurant. We walk back to our tent in complete darkness and once there, we light a candle. Oil lamps and candles are atmospheric, but you can't read by their light. It's so cold that we go to bed wearing sweaters and socks.
Next morning the sun shines and it gets warmer soon. In the morning we take a walk with a bird guide, but we actually wouldn't have needed to do that. The beautiful birds come very close to our tent, we even see a bird of paradise.
In the afternoon we go paddling in a tree canoe. Those are made of eucalyptus trees or ficuses, which both have very light wood. On the other side of the lake, in Mukoni, we talk with people. The population grows beans, coffee, sweet potatoes and bananas. The children herd goats and cows on the roadsides and they all ask: how are you?
Park Lake Mburo
The buffalo makes the most victims of Africa
Park Lake Mburo is our last destination in Uganda. At first we drive between green hills. But little by little they are replaced by plains with dry grass and herds of Nyankole cows with huge horns.
The park is situated beautifully, with the lake between the hills. It is a small park, but the only one in Uganda which has zebras and impalas. We have to spend the night in a luxury safari tent with all amenities, even a butler who wakes us with a cup of tea in the morning.
The tent that was reserved for us sits near the water and has no amenities. And it is almost dark when we arrive. How are we supposed to eat and do other earthly business when we know for certain that the hippoes will leave the lake at night? After a fierce argument, we refuse the reserved tent.
Indeed, we hear the hippoes at night, when they leave the lake to graze. And this at a distance of 9 km from the lake. This luxury tent that we eventually got, sits safely on a platform; we have a bucket to shower and our own latrine; we are accompanied when we walk to the restaurant.
Before sunrise, in the dark, we enter the park on foot with a guide. There are no lions here, but there are buffalo, which make the most victims of all animals in Africa and which need to be treated with great respect.
Slowly it gets light. We follow the ranger and pass huge termite mounds. All of a sudden a herd of buffalo appears. We are not protected by our car, the ranger gestures that we shouldn't move; in dead silence we stare at the buffalo, which observe us carefully as well. They raise their heads and sniff the air. One of them sways its head, but fortunately they don't consider us a danger and trot off. I can breathe again, relieved.
Here and there we see other grazing animals, like zebras. At a great distance we see a hippo, which walks fast on a track back to the lake.
In the afternoon, on our terrace, we enjoy the wide views of the savannah with acacias and tall honey locusts. Then another ranger takes us for a trip on the lake. Around the lake, in the tree tops, ospreys are scanning the surroundings for prey.
After we pass by some crocodiles and hippoes, the ranger points to a rolled-up python in a papyrus bush. It has a shining skin, dark-green and brown in a pretty pattern. At night, the stars in the sky are beautiful.
The shoe-bill stork is over 1.5 m tall
The time has come for us to return to Entebbe. We have travelled over 2000 km in this beautiful country, without any problems and in good health.
We stay in a hotel in Entebbe for a couple of days, to relish the memories and to relax at the pool. We also visit the botanical garden with giant trees, which are around a hundred years old, and all kinds of colorful flowers one can imagine.
In the Wildlife Education Center we take a picture of the famous shoe-bill stork, a bird that is over 1.5 m tall. We haven't seen it in the wild.
When our plane departs at 11 PM, I look outside and just see the lights of the fisherboats on Lake Victoria.