Strolling through Ruhija
Since our trek to visit the gorillas had been relatively short, we decided we could take a tour of the Ruhija community. It’s interesting how the government has allowed the native people to remain on plots of land in the park.
We visited a family to watch them demonstrating grinding sorghum into flour for porridge. No Cuisinart here, just two flat rocks and you own power. It would not take long to develop strong arms grinding flour each day.
We also observed a young medicine man mashing medicinal plants in a large wooden mortar and pestle to make a tincture said to settle stomach pains and clear intestinal parasites.
From there, we strolled along the road meeting goats, pigs and the occasional chicken or cow. There were bricks drying in the sun next to the gouges in the red soil.
The amount of hand labor required for each building here is impressive. Each brick being hand formed, stacked, baked, transported to the building site and eventually used to
construct a home or trading shop.
Our final destination was the primary school and orphanage where we met some of the 330 pupils who reside and study there.
It was heart wrenching to see the dormitories where the children sleep two and three to a bed. The classrooms are also quite crowded with about 8 wooden bench style desks and seats for around thirty students.
Most of the students had gone home on break for the holidays but the few who remained drummed and danced to welcome us. They all appeared content although most have few possessions.
The majority of small children run around without shoes and their clothes are most often second hand. One particularly precocious 3 year old followed us around hamming it up, chattering and hassling Sam asking for his pen and his phone, then entertaining us with a spontaneous dance with a basket on his head as a hat.
His gregarious nature serving as a reminder to both appreciate all the comforts and prosperity we have and to remember that true happiness is not dependent on material goods.
The Road to Murchison Falls
From Kibale it was an all day drive to Murchison Falls. The road is rough and a lot of it is also under construction between Kibale and Hoima.
We tried taking short cuts to avoid some of the traffic congestion. It’s hard to know if it saved us much time but it was scenic, traveling through tea plantations with row upon row of lush green shrubs.
We even saw some tea being harvested, a process that is still done solely by hand. We passed through many small trading centers with shops selling household goods and motorcycle tires and parts the most common goods for sale. We also passed one market that was enormous.
It was an open air affair and the traders were setting up their wares in a large field as we passed. The space was crowded with bright plastic tubs and utensils as well as batik clothing in an array of colors and patterns. There were still more vendors on their way in trucks loaded with both the salespeople and their products.
It would have been fun to stop if we hadn’t needed to travel so far. Blackie said the market was bigger because it is close to Christmas. Although it hardly feels like it to us, being over 80F every day.
We continued onward towards Hoima, our lunch break destination. The ruts and potholes in the road providing an “African massage” as the locals like to joke. Just about 30 miles from Hoima, Blackie saw a man he knew waving on the roadside, in front of a school. He needed a ride to Hoima so we picked him up. His name was Owen and he was a teacher at the school.
We had a nice chat, learning he had a sister and brother in law in Salt Lake City.
We dropped him off when we reached Hoima and went to have our lunch. Hoima is a fairly good size town. It is home to King Solomon, the ruler of the Bunyoro Tribe.
His grandfather put up significant resistance against the British and was exiled to the Seychelles. Solomon was restored to power, at least symbolically, at a coronation in 1994.
The landscape became more rural again outside the city with the main crop transitioning from corn and bananas to cassava root. This starchy staple is popular because you can leave it in the ground until you are ready to use it. The green tops are also good fodder for goats and cattle.
The closer we got to the rift valley the poorer the area became with fewer brick houses and the majority of residents living in mud huts with grass thatched rooves.
It is hard to imagine 5 or 6 people residing in these tiny structures, most of which were smaller than our garage. There were many people hauling water and other necessities like firewood on their heads. Some of loads seemed to defy gravity and indicated both the strength and ingenuity of the individual carrying them.
As strong as these individuals were, some were overly ambitious about the capability of their vehicles. We passed one car that had failed to negotiate a turn. The result appeared to be mostly chaos without serious injury as the former passengers collected their possessions and milled about waiting for another ride.
A second car was so overloaded its rear bumper was dragging in the dirt, the only part of the vehical that was visible as we approached. Incredibly, it looked as though the entire contents of a household has been loaded into the trunk along with at least four passengers inside.
There were matresses, overflowing bags of clothing, plastic cleaning and cooking tubs and even a enormous bundle of firewood strapped in place. Not surprisingly, the car appeared to have overheated ascending a small hill.
We soon crested the top of the rise and were greeted with our first views of the rift valley, Lake Albert and Murchison National Park.
The land stretching in a broad plateau to the lake with the foothills of the Blue Mountains hiding in the haze on the opposite bank. We quickly descended and covered another 40 or so miles to our ultimate destination for the night, Murchison River Lodge.
We thought we may have to walk the last few miles as the deeply rutted road continued to narrow. Just about the time we thought we would not make it the road flattened again and we soon reached the property gate. Taylor and I agreed we were impressed with Blackie’s driving and even more impressed with people who negotiate these roads on self guided tours.
If the driving had been up to me I would have given up long before, thinking there was no way the lodge could be down such a nearly impassible road.
We were greeted cheerfully as we arrived and appreciated the traditional hospitality of offering a cool beverage, in this case mango juice, to road weary travelers.
We were excited to learn ther was a pool! After getting situated in our well appointed tent, we headed straight for the oasis. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones drawn to the refreshing water. As we stood ready to enter the pool gate a large male baboon made his way over the fence and settled himself down by the wading pool for a drink.
We watched and waited for a minute or two while he finshed and made his exit before hopping in for a swim.
We completed our evening with a beautiful BBQ dinner, l had Nile perch! Then dancing to a local band around the campfire. It feels like an amazing camp with incredible wildlife.
Monkeys, monkeys everywhere!
We were up early for the chimp trek at Kanyanchu Tourist Site. The guide explained that there are four groups of chimpanzees who have been acclimated to humans, two for tourists and two for research.
The surrounding community is discouraged from poaching and harvesting timber because they receive dividends from the tracking permits. On our way to the starting point, we were accompanied by Molly, a Ugandan student doing an internship at the site.
She was very sweet and excited to talk to us to learn we were enjoying our visit to her country.
Richard, our guide, called our group of 4 South Africans, the two of us and Molly over to the edge of the road and we followed him into the forest.
We walked along with Richard demonstrating the various bird calls we were hearing and identifying the bird. Eventually, we began to hear a few chimp cries too. The chimps were enjoying figs, one of their favorite foods, for breakfast. We watched them feeding and moving about in the branches.
They were waiting for a cue from the dominant male that it was time to come down. Soon enough one of the males came down and sat very close to us. He was finishing his figs by squeezing the pulp between his lower lip and teeth to get the juice. He looked like he had a big wad of chew in his lip, then he spit the dry pulp from his mouth.
All of a sudden there was a loud crash and a lot of vocalizing. The biggest dominant male was crashing his way through the trees. The President, as he is called made a big display of his strength and the other chimps called out with cries of respect.
He soon settled in to let the slightly smaller but still high ranking male groom him. We followed the chimps as they made their way from the forest out to an open area where they were eating vines and leaves. We had a good view of them there.
Unfortunately, some people in another group kept getting closer and closer, in spite of the warnings of their guide. The chimps were clearly becoming stressed and our guide wisely suggested we turn back to observe some other chimps feeding further back on the path.
We soon left them to themselves and headed back through the forest to the road. The experience with the chimps was totally different than our time with the gorillas. The chimp’s energy was more frenetic and they were much louder and seemed more stressed having humans nearby than their giant cousins.
We were glad we had seen them but the experience was not as enjoyable as our visit with the gorillas.
We had a wonderful time later in the afternoon taking a walk around the Bigodi swamp with a super sweet guide, Robert. He works for KAFRED – Kibale Association for Rural Development.
This organization has been promoting ecotourism and conservation by using the fees from the walks, gift shop, cafe and community tour to pay school fees and help the local population with microloans for agriculture. The area surrounding the marsh is cultivated with corn and coffee. The coffee plants discourage the monkeys from eating the corn.
Robert was a fabulous guide. He knew the calls of all the birds and could mimic them. He also knew how to converse with the monkeys. We saw the emblem bird of KAFRED, the great blue turaco and a few sun birds.
We spotted the crested crane, also known as the grey crowned crane, in a pair with two immature young adults. This is the national bird of Uganda and it was wonderful to see it up close and in its natural environment. While we enjoyed seeing the birds we really wanted to see more monkeys.
At first it seemed we might have to be satisfied with the single black and white colobus hiding in a palm tree and a red tail that was high up in a tree, making it a challenge to see. He seemed to be able to see us just fine however, urinating on one of the ladies in our group as she stood below.
As we made our way around the swamp, our luck changed and we saw a few more red tailed monkeys, a couple of grey cheeked mangabay and some red colobus monkeys. We were happy to have seen three of the 8 species of monkey in the reserve.
Then as we rounded a corner there was a black and white colobus very close to the ground. We looked around and saw movement in many of the branches of the trees. There was a whole group which was playing and feeding on vines in the trees.
They were quite content with the buffet and didn’t mind our company. We were lucky to see a very young one as well. Robert explained this baby was a new born because they are born all white and get the black pigment as they age.
This little one was high up in the trees, practicing his climbing but sticking pretty close to mom. We did get some good shots. Too bad we haven’t had a good internet connection for uploading photos. There will be a flood of photos when I get back.
Happy with our swamp walk and hungry after getting the most exercise since our arrival, we headed back to KFC (Kibale Forest Camp) for dinner.
Taylor had beef and I had tilapia for dinner. Our food has been wonderful and we are certainly getting eough! We were joking by the end of the trip our resemblance to the hippo will be astonishing.
Kibale here we come!
The next day found us “on the road again!” as we got an early start towards Kibale National Park. Traveling in the shadow of the Rwenzori or Mountains of the Moon we also enjoyed views of more of the crater lakes in the region. Similar to our alpine lakes, these are small lakes clustered together and surrounded by lush vegetation.
We got a chance to stretch our legs a bit and chat with some local children as we walked along the road to see the views of the brother and sister lakes, Nyinambuga and Rukwanzi. Between the lakes the land was cultivated with crops of corn, matoke and tea.
Most of the corn is exported, often by the World Food Program to the refugee camps in and near Uganda. The matoke is taken by the truckload for sale in Kampala and transported locally by bicycle. Some of the bikes we saw were loaded down with as many as 8 stalks of the large green bananas.
On the road just outside the park, we were greeted by a group of baboons who were quite accustomed to the cars and motorcycles zipping by. One of them even lied down in the middle of the road to be groomed. Our baby sightings continued and photos of an infant baboon will be added to our collection.
It was mid afternoon when we pulled into Kibale Forest Camp, KFC as our chimp trekking guide would say the next day. We made our way through the lush tropical gardens to reception and decided to eat lunch before exploring the trail around the grounds.
We were happy to hear they had hot showers as we were directed to our tent after lunch.
We explored the trail hoping to see some monkeys. They were probably there spying on us but we did not see them. We did find several of the 140 species of butterflies who live in the forest.
As advertised, a hot shower and early dinner rounded out the day as we retired early. We wanted to be ready for our early start chimp trekking the next day.
Day 2 in QENP Hippos and elephants, TNTC!
Our wildlife experience began well before sunrise when we were awakened by the sounds of a large hippo grazing just outside our tent. We could hear it plucking up the grass and chewing it before taking another bite.
It was within about 10 feet of the tent and we could make out it’s masive frame in the moonlight but it was too dark to take a photo. This was our first night in a tent. We found it quite functional and the resident geckos did not seem to mind sharing their space.
We got up early and headed out at 7 AM for a morning game drive. It was peaceful driving through the park with the birds calling as the sun rose. Unfortunately, most of the animals seemed to have slept in on this particular day. We returned to the area where we had seen the lioness.
We found another vehicle parked there waiting. She was there but hiding in the grass. We waited for a few more minutes to see if she would show herself but she remained hidden. We cruised along slowly and came upon a large number of buffalo. This group included a young calf that we got a shot of to add to our “wildlife babies of Uganda” album.
The sunrise reflected in the clouds and foothills of the Rwenzori mountains provided a scenic background for our tour. The Rwenzoris include Mt Stanley, the third highest peak in Africa. The mountain lies along the DRC border.
Blackie was proud to inform us that the biggest (highest) part is in Uganda! We continued towards Lake Bunyampaka and saw the salt gardens and small craft market there. As we headed back we were met by a young kob and its mother, more baby photos. On the main road back to camp, we saw a large herd of elephants. This group also included a baby who was quite adorable flapping its ears like its mother.
At lunch we chatted briefly with an Australian family we had met the previous day. They had also gone for a morning game drive and we exchanged stories of our sightings. They had been fortunate to see the lioness that morning as well. We all enjoyed our lunch and prepared to set out to Mweya Lodge for an afternoon cruise on the channel.
The lodge at Mweya is lovely, situated on a hilltop overlooking the channel on one side and an isthmus of land on the other where wildlife often congregate by the water. We could see a large herd of elephants as well as buffalo enjoying a soak.
Our cruise was narrated by a knowledgeable local guide who pointed out the many birds who live along the water. The bright yellow weaver birds with their community of small basket like nests decorated an acacia in a festive style appropriate for the season.
The black and white pied kingfisher demonstrated its fishing skill, hovering like a hummingbird above the water before diving in for its meal. The goliath heron, cormorants, pelican, spoonbill and maribou stork also made appearances along with the tiny malachite kingfisher.
Our friend with the largest nest, the hammerkop aptly described by our guide as a “small coffe brown bird” meandered along the shore. Uganda is truly a birder’s paradise with so many species commonly seen together. They were TNTC – too numerous to count, a medical abbreviation we shared with Blackie.
He took it as a challenge to achieve for each new species. We soon accomplished that goal regarding hippos (pronounced hee-po by most Ugandans) as there were several groups of ten or more along the edge of the channel. A few even dared to graze in the shade along the shore.
Most of their day is spent in the water as their skin is prone to sunburn. We enjoyed our cruise but had no desire to enter the water as our guide pointed out the “small” crocodiles lurking just below the surface.
Three warthogs sprinted along the shore and into the bush to round out our wildlife viewing as we returned to the dock.
We rattled our way along on the dirt track stopping briefly at a crater lake called Nyamunuka, meaning “bad smell” due to its high sulfur content.
Luckily, we visited during the rainy season when the scent is minimal. Heading back to the main road, thinking we were finished with animal sightings. Uganda had its own version of “but wait there’s more” in store us. A family of elephants was enjoying an early dinner, feeding on the shrubs along the road.
We pulled over at a safe distance to get a better look. As we watched, more elephants joined the group including several babies. There were two that appeared to be twins. They were the same height and followed each other around scampering and pushing one another like overgrown puppies.
They were small enough to be under a year old with light grey skin, smoother than their mother’s. We continued to be amazed as even more elephants came sauntering over the hill.
They were eating and drinking from a marsh, the baby elephant mimicking its mother curling its trunk up bring water to its mouth. The excess reflected the sun as it dribbled from his chin.
We must have watched them for close to an hour when suddenly a male began chasing one of the females with her baby. We were not sure what they were up to until he separated her from the herd and tried to mount her.
His effort was short lived however as the biggest bull we had seen came charging in to put a stop to his antics. There was trumpeting and dust blowing to round out the display before the younger male chose to exit.
This extra large bull was the first of three to arrive on the scene.
They dwarfed the others who had been so impressive just moments before. Each of them was easily 4 tons and they stood majestically surveying all of their domain. Even the WWF employees who had stopped next to us were impressed.
They said it was the largest herd of elephants they had ever seen!
The sun setting, we returned to the van with big smiles and Blackie cheerfully exclaiming the elephants were TNTC!
On to QENP Ishasha
Leaving Ruhija we had a chance to bid farewell to the gorillas once more as we came across them on the roadside exiting the park. It was the same family group we had seen the day before.
A young male was crossing the road and the Silver back, mother and baby were feeding just off the road. We had been listening to a South African musician called Lucky Dube and felt quite lucky ourselves to have a second opportunity to view these amazing creatures.
It was a long day in the van getting to Queen Elizabeth National Park from Bwindi. We saw more local crops including coffee beans drying in the sun and trees loaded with jackfruit. One unique feature for the day came at an unexpected locale, a petrol station washroom.
I admit I was initially hesitant to use the facility, given that even in the US gas station washrooms can be dicey. As I entered I noted a small clay colored structure in the corner that had been assembled from bits of mud pushed together.
As I was looking at it more closely trying to figure out how the bird who called this home entered, its resident, a swallow came swooping in through the transom window which lacked a glass pane. As it turned out this was the first of a number of surprises we would experience on our trip.
We logged a number of miles across the less rugged terrain before entering the southern end of QENP, the Ishasha sector. The Ishasha river forms part of the border between Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda.
We entered the park and headed northward. The road is rough with many potholes created by the heavy commercial trucks using it to cross to and from DRC for trading. We took a small detour to look for lions in a particularly large acacia tree they are known to frequent but they weren’t there.
We did see a mixed antelope herd including waterbuk, topi and Ugandan kob farther off the road. Blackie pointed out a large nest in a tree near a slightly marshy area that belonged to the hammerkop, a small brown bird who continues to build and add to its nest year after year.
The nest may be occupied by the same adult, or the adult may leave the nest to one of its young. The remainder of the drive was mostly an exploration of flora as we passed from the savannah and along the border of the Maramagambo forest.
Finally arriving at our destination, Bush Lodge near Katunguru along the Kazinga channel.
The channel links two natural water bodies Lake Edward and Lake George. Native people are still allowed to fish in the lakes and some fish in the channel as well.
We would leave exploring the channel until the following day. After settling in our tent, it was time for an evening game drive. We popped the top on the van and set out to “shoot” our trophies, using only cameras of course.
We were excited as we entered the park hoping to see a lion or an elephant.
Blackie talked to one of his friends who is a ranger at the park to check the locations of some of the larger animals. We started out heading towards the kob mating ground where there were also a large herd of buffalo.
These animals were content in the location they had chosen to spend the night and did not seem at all bothered by our presence. We were taking photos through the pop top when Blackie started to drive away saying the buffalo would stay here, there was something better to see.
We followed the dirt track around a few curves before coming to a stop facing a large cactus tree on the far side of a broad field. When we looked closely, there was a tan spot in the crook of the tree. A telephoto picture confirmed our hopes, it was a lion and she was looking right at us! We watched with excitement as she shifted position and eventually jumped down from the tree.
She was much larger than she looked in the tree! She strolled across the field allowing a few more photos before lying down and disappearing in the grass. Both Taylor and I were thrilled to have seen this magnificent feline and considered ourselves very fortunate. Little did we know Mother Nature had another amazing trick up her sleeve.
We decided to leave the lion in the grass and proceeded down the track and around the corner to find ourselves blocked by another vehicle. As we looked to the left we could hardly believe our eyes when we saw why they had stopped. There in the field less than 100 yards away was another lioness.
She was seated in the grass and when she stood to walk two more small sets of ears appeared just behind her. We could hardly contain our excitement as she and her cubs meandered out into an open area and sprawled on the ground rolling and pushing each other.
KITTENS!! We were seeing kittens!! Technically cubs but they looked so much like overgrown house cats we couldn’t help but whisper “kittens!” excitedly to each other. We could hardly believe our eyes when the lioness climbed into the tree and the two cubs became four as they followed their mother into the tree.
The other two cubs must have been playing or hiding on the other side of the tree when we arrived. They were adorable as they positioned themselves in the branches with legs splayed on either side. Just when we thought we had reached the limit on adorable, the cub closest to us fell asleep with his tongue sticking out and his head against the branch pushing the adorable factor into overdrive.
Once they seemed settled in for the night, we reluctantly drove back to the buffalo who were bedded down where we had left them. We got a few more photos of the group then continued on our way out of the park as it was just beginning to get dark.
Taylor and I were chatting and laughing as we reviewed the photos of the lion cubs when suddenly Blackie was shushing us. We quieted down as he quickly pulled forward and as if by magic, a leopard appeared beside us. It stood perfectly still just long enough to get a photo before it shot off into the bush in search of its dinner.
We were truly amazed at this incredibly lucky experience. To see gorillas in the morning and a leopard in the evening on the same day seemed like a dream.
We decided Blackie should add to his name and be known as Lucky Blackie. We felt incredibly fortunate to have him as our guide.
Exiting the park to the main road we thought we had seen all we could or would see for a single day but there was one last surprise.
Just about a quarter mile from the park entrance a large group of elephants including several babies, decided to cross the road.
We were able to pull over and watch them as they passed from one side to the other completely stopping traffic in both directions! We counted at least twelve in the group, which is eleven more than I saw on my last trip to Uganda.
We returned to Bush Lodge and tried to sleep so we could be up early the next morning for another game drive. We couldn’t imagine a day like that happening twice. Would our luck continue? Day two in QENP coming up.
Taylor and I awoke to the sound of colobus monkeys calling to each other in the light of the nearly full moon as it set over the mountaintops. We took it as a good omen.
We dressed and headed to breakfast, meeting our fellow trekkers in the open air dining room. Everyone was excited as we received instructions from one of the rangers about the rules of tracking and observing the gorillas.
It was all pretty routine, no food or drinks, no smoking, oh and if they charge you just stand still and take photos. That last instruction was greeted with nervous laughter from the group.
We gathered up our courage and our packs, rented gloves from our guide and hopped back in our trusty van to drive to our starting point. Trackers had gone out earlier in the morning to locate the gorilla troops. Our guide Steven, who has been tracking for 23 years was with us in the van.
We were not sure what to think when he and Blackie started laughing after he got a call on his radio. As it turned out, it was good news. The trackers had found our community of gorillas just a short distance from the road.
We parked the van, grabbed our walking sticks and proceeded off the edge of the road and down a steep hillside passing earthworms the size of your thumb wriggling through the damp leaves rotting on the jungle forest floor.
Within minutes we could hear the grunts of the silver back and smell their pungent musky odor. Excitedly, we left our walking sticks and packs as instructed, grabbed our cameras and prepared to be amazed.
The group consisted of a silver back, an immature male and two females with babies. One of the females had a large healing wound on her head. We asked Steven what had happened and learned she had been in a fight with the immature male over food.
The group was peaceful and relaxed as we observed them going about their daily routine. They were napping, feeding on plants and wood from the trees. The silver back moved from the ground to a coveted spot in a tree with a broken branch.
He gnawed on the end of the branch for awhile then tossed a few pieces down to the immature male below. When he had his fill, he came down and the immature black back went up to enjoy a snack. We were able to stand quite close to the animals and several times they came even closer as they moved from place to place.
We could hear them grunting and when we first arrived the black back let out a long, loud fart that even made our guide laugh. This group was quite relaxed around humans, it’s one of four in the Ruhija area that has been habituated to humans.
The habituation process takes three to four years with trackers following the group day and night until they can approach the gorillas without eliciting fear.
We watched the group until they wandered further into the forest then hiked a bit ourselves in search of the other silver backs and their entourage. The hiking was challenging on a steep slope with heavy undergrowth and poor traction.
The only trail was cut by the first guide with a large machete. There were some vines and trees that could be used as hand holds but you had to watch for thorns on some of the trees. At one point I reached for a tree and slipped, sliding about 10 feet down the hill before coming to a stop in a slightly flatter spot. Luckily, it was actually easier to get back to the group from there and aside from some mud on my pants I was fine.
The second troop had both silver backs in close proximity. These two were both younger than the one we had seen first but just as impressive. The first came down to the trail and did a little charge which our guide assured us was just a small charge, not really serious. He just “wanted to see what we would do”.
After we all stood our ground, against normal instinct, he settled in and sat with his arms crossed surveying the scene. He was impressive standing about 6 feet tall and likely weighing close to 600lbs. The second group was more hidden in the trees with a mother and baby, two immature males and the two silver backs.
I ended up at the back of the pack as others wrangled for better positions for photos. As I stood watching both the gorillas and the people there was a rustle in the bushes behind me. One of the trackers was with me and made a few low grunting sounds as the silver back emerged from the undergrowth so close to us I could have reached out to touch him.
In awe at the moment, I fumbled to take a photos, all of which are a bit blurry. It was incredible to be that close to such an amazing and impressive animal. He did not seem threatened or threatening, in fact he seemed more interested in finding another good vantage point for surveying his group while enjoying a snack.
Shortly thereafter, our viewing hour expired, we hiked back up the short but steep hillside to our cars. Our guide Steven sporting a broad grin as we all chatted with each other about the incredible experience we had just shared.
We returned to the lodge to relax and review our photos.
Taylor and I still wanted to walk a bit since we had been prepared for a longer trek. We decided to go on a walk through the surrounding community accompanied by Sam, a teacher at the orphanage school at Ruhija.
More to come…..
By Sherie and Taylor