Northern/Eastern Uganda: Elephants & ATVs

Feb 7th, 2008: The Gorillas That Were Missed

Chatting With The Locals
Chatting With The Locals

Today is gorilla trekking day! Or so we think. We are picked up promptly at 8am to go on our trip, which is a good sign, but our driver takes us to the tour company office in central Kampala, an 8km, one-hour journey, rather than straight towards the gorillas as planned. We don't know why we're going to the office, but we're not sure it's a good omen.

When we arrive, they let us know that the location for our gorilla permits has been switched - this is for the 3rd time, despite having told us each time that the new permits are 100% confirmed. Still, we're flexible and this is no big deal except that the new gorilla permits we have are for Rwanda. While the idea of sneaking into Rwanda to see gorillas sounds pretty cool, there are a few issues:

  1. Over a 3-day trip, it would include a 15-hour, very hard drive each way
  2. We would likely arrive at the Rwandan border after it had closed, meaning we'd have to sleep there for the night
  3. If we slept at the border, we may end up too late to get to the camp and then not get to see the gorillas at all

This sounded distinctly un-promising. With only one week in the country, 30 hours of driving and 9 hours of hiking over three days to quite likely not see gorillas wasn't exactly sounding appealing. Steph & I huddled.

We come up with a plan: rather than head on a wild gorilla chase to Rwanda, the company could take care of us for the next 4 days, with a 3-day safari and a 1-day trip to the base of the Nile. Financially, this worked out for them and so a deal was struck. Steph & I were pretty gutted to have the gorilla trekking fall through, but with all the Malarone I've been taking, I've been seeing gorillas in my hallucinations anyway. And mine are pink!

Our driver, Joseph, a 50-year old with a typically Ugandan leisurely gait to his speech, was equally happy not to have to drive to Rwanda and smiled for our whole 7-hour journey to Murchison Falls in Northern Uganda. A few thousand 18-inch deep potholes later and with some nicely brusied tailbones, we arrived.

Trying to make up for the lost gorilla trek, the tour company put us up in a 4-star resort that overlooked the Nile, a rather opulent change from our backpackers in Kampala - this place even had electricity seven days a week! Fancy shmancy. We ate dinner beside Kristin Davis of Sex in the City fame, so we are finally hobnobbing with celebrities as we so richly deserve.

Highlights of the drive up include seeing a family of hippos (my first ever) and passing a store I was very interested in that was called only "Yunga Yunga Acrobatic Man".

Muchison Falls Flora Photos

Feb 8th, 2008: The Elephant in the Room (Almost)

The Elephant At Our Door
The Elephant At Our Door

Joseph picks us up at the crack of dawn and off we go game tracking inside Murchison Falls National Park. While this park is not the best place to see game and not home to all of the "Big Five" (lion, elephant, rhino, leopard, buffalo), I'll still be very happy as long as I get to see my "Big Three" (giraffe, polar bear, unicorn).

The drive takes us on miles of dirt roads, circling in and out of lush grasslands and palm groves. At every turn we see new wildlife - vervet monkeys, baboons, waterbuck, kob, oribe, hartebeest and too many different types of birds to remember. We see warthogs and we see African buffalo, literally by the thousand. Our eyes grow dizzy, flicking left & right to keep up with all the new and exotic animals, standing, watching, eating, loping.

And then we see them. Off to the left, tearing down a tree, is a family of elephants. Two adults and two babies, about 500m away, feeding. They were amazing. I was awestruck by them, and even more so when we saw our 5th elephant about ½ hour later, walking alone and purposefully along a hillside. He was a behemoth, even at ¼ mile away, a giant bull rumbling alone in a sea of yellow-green.

Much of the landscape here is wide open which makes it great for game viewing. It is a series of vast green meadows dotted with palm trees that the elephants themselves helped plant - they brought the seeds with them accidentally when they wandered here from the Sudan, and let the trees grow in their wake.

Our game drive continues and morphs into a 3-hour river cruise on the Nile. We float past hundreds upon hundreds of hippos, snorting and bellowing and swimming about. The occasional crocodile hides on the shoreline, including a 14-foot beast that we came up right beside and who I and my sphincter were quite glad didn't make any sudden movements.

On the return journey, it is evening feeding time for the animals and we suddenly pass two dozen more elephants along the shoreline, drinking and eating, the final half dozen of which are wandering only a few hundred metres from our lodge.

Buzzed after a great day, we wander up to our lodge, walk into our room and I open our drapes. And there, 20 feet outside our window, is the family of six elephants. Two parents and four babies walking literally about six metres outside of our room, sauntering past and paying neither us nor any of the other shocked residents any mind. They wander in front of the lodge and so Steph and I sprint down for a very glamorous photo shoot beside these incredibly docile beasts. Spending a half hour with elephants 20-30 feet away is one of the most breathtaking things I've ever experienced.

With a day like that, I'm not even bothered that we didn't get to see any giraffes. Or unicorns!

Muchison Falls Fauna Photos

Feb 10th, 2008: It's Not Just A River in Egypt

Riding the Source of the Nile
Riding the Source of the Nile

Another early wake up call and we begin our return to Kampala. On the way, we stop in the park to go chimpanzee tracking. It was very disappointing to not go gorilla tracking on this trip, but I figure: what are chimpanzees but gorillas that are less likely to rip your arms off?

While some people hike five hours and don't find any chimps, we get very lucky and after 10 minutes find a group of five. They eat, sleep, swing about and throw branches at us; exactly what we were looking for.

Back to Kampala for a night, then off to Jinja, an hour drive to the east and home of the Source of the Nile. After checking out the source, we get a little ridiculous and go for a ride on some ATVs, following a route near that takes us along dirt paths and through tiny villages. Children everywhere watch as we tear down the path, shouting "Jambo (welcome)! Howareyou!" and squealing with delight as I ride past, high-fiving them.

And now, our time in Uganda is very sadly finished - I leave with the feeling that the country is highly underrated from a travel perspective, with fantastic people and so many things to do here and so many more we didn't get a chance to do. But now we are flying to Tanzania, which will be fantastic. Our journey there will also be interesting: I am a nervous flyer at the best of times; flying on a small, unknown airline in Africa would hardly count as the best of times. I wonder if I can buy Zoloft at duty free...

Jinja Photos