It’s Friday, the day after we climbed the Bisoke vulcano in Rwanda and we wake up with soar muscles. We are planning to cross into Uganda today so we can hike up to the Gorillas tomorrow. But with muscles like this that might become a challenge….
In 45 minutes we drive to the Ugandan border which we cross with no real hassle. It is however quite a challenge to find our way around: we need to register in a big book at building number one, bring a tiny piece of paper (not bigger than a square centimeter) to office number two where we receive a stamp which we need to show at another office, etc etc etc. All together we visit 8 offices, register our details in 4 different books and receive 3 of the small pieces of paper. But… we are in!
The first stop in Uganda is the Uganda Wildlife Authority, to secure our encounter with the Gorillas. Normally you need to book months in advance for this activity, but we manage to book a spot for tomorrow! One of the advantages of the rainy season.
The mountain gorillas, some of our closest ancestors with only around 700 still alive, can only be found in three countries in central Africa: Rwanda, DRC and here in Uganda. Some of the families have been habituated over time and can be visited by humans by trekking through the dense forest of their habitat. And that is exactly what we are going to do!
At 8am we arrive at the foot of the Mgahinga mountains, and are over-excited for what is about to happen. In matter of hours we will be eye-in-eye with some of these mighty apes. The Mgahinga mountains are the Ugandan side of the Virunga massive, and the gorillas we are about to visit apparently are bigger and fluffier compared to their fellow neighbours in the other areas. This due to the height of their habitat and their diet.
Because of his excitment, Krijn barely slept last night, and can’t wait to take some stunning photos.
After a short briefing in the rangerpost we grab a walking stick and start the hike in beautiful sunny weather. You never know how far away the gorillas are, since they can move fast in search of food. They might be around the corner or it might take us a few hours…
A team of trackers leaves daily at sunrise to track down the gorillas from where they left them the previous day. This in order to make it possible for us to find them, as well as to look after them, assist them in case they are ill and protect them from poachers. As we are walking, our guide has frequent radio contact with the trackers who guide him in the correct direction. And then, after not even an hour of hiking, our guide tells us what we’ve been waiting for: “you have to make yourself ready, the gorillas are just around the corner”.
It is impossible to describe the emotions you feel the moment you are eye in eye with a 2 meter Silverback gorilla, when he walks up to you, stops, looks you in the eye, accepts you and continues with what he was doing. We will try: we feel small, fearless but a little insecure (Linde was admittedly a bit anxious), full of respect & speechless… It really is an amazing experience! They are so impressive but so peaceful at the same time.
For an hour we sit on the ground and watch the babies play, 2 silverbacks fight, the mothers take care of their babies, and the dominant male called Mark being dominant. He is massive and he is in charge, he really is!
An hour flies by, but is more than enough to get a good insight in the life of these mighty animals. We are back at our car around mid-day and drive towards lake Bunyoni. A beautiful drive of about 5 hours, with the last 2 hours being quite rough and leading us right past the lake.
We set up camp right at the lake, and decide to stay for 4 days. We feel we need a bit of time to reflect on the trip we’ve had so far: we have experienced so much, so many impressions and quite some heavy stories to process from Rwanda.
And we also feel another emotion coming up: we become a little bit ‘Africa tired’. This sounds very negative, but we don’t mean it like that. Travelling can just be very exhausting, specially in Africa. Wherever we are, there is always someone who wants something from us. People want to talk to you, touch you, stare at you, shout at you, whistle at you, sell something to you or what not… It doesn’t matter what we are doing, we are always interrupted. This is all very understandable and with the best intentions, but we are a little bit over it at the moment. We even almost think we know how Bratt Pitt must feel, all day long and all his live…
So 4 days of doing nothing, that is it for now! We peddle around the lake in a traditional dugout canoe, have some beers with 2 great South Africans (who we will meet a few more time throughout the trip) and a Canadian, who drives through Africa by motorbike. Great to share experiences.
Once we feel re-energized, we leave the beautiful lake Buyonyi and bump into our new love: the rolex… This local dish sold and preparred on every corner of the street is basically an egg, onion and tomato rolled in a chipati, a merger of a pancake and a pizza base. The perfect breakfast.
We drive through the mountains towards Queen Elizabeth National Park. Arriving at the campsite, we are all alone again. It is low season and no other tourists are around. We are treated by the camp to an interesting nature walk along the river (elephants, black & white colobus monkey and endless ants building nests in the trees), a rainbow above ToeToe and a lovely meal overlooking the river.
Early the next day we drive towards the gate of the park, only to find out they want to charge $230 for 1 day. This absolute absurd amount sets the tone for the rest of the National Parks here in Uganda. We say we are not willing to pay this ridiculous amount and are told we can drive the main road through the park, free of charge. We take this option and start the drive.
We turn off to visit a little fishing village, where we have to register for safety reasons. The village is situated at lake Edward, which is full of hippos and the border with Congo. We are greeted by the priest and get a private tour through the village whilst he explains the life in a village like this. Buffalos walk around us and the village is flocked with Maribu Storks, the ugliest bird alive!
People run very succesful fishing businesses here and catch enormeous mudfish & tilapia, which is sold in Congo. However, because they live in a national park, they are not allowed to farm so they have to buy expensive groceries which puts them back down at poverty level. Bizarre world…
We move on and drive through the park and see butterflies, thousands of butterflies. We have never seen so many of them before, and they create a colourful spectacle dancing in front of our car.
When we are about to exit the park, we see a little sideway on our GPS called “crater lake road”. Because we are only allowed to drive through the park on the main road free of charge, all side-roads are blocked by gates: except for this grassy track. So we take the chances and turn off. We end up on a track that is hardly ever used and takes us high up into the mountains. What we see is just magical: 3 volcanic crater lakes, blue, red and yellow, surrounded by flamingos, buffalo and all kinds of deer. After the final lake, we decide to turn around since this is too beautiful to be free. Continuing our way on the main road again takes us along one of the gates called “crater lakes gate”. We must have entered an old road, and it saved us $230… Cherry on the cake: we cross the equator for the first time! Quite a special moment…
We camp in a community campsite just outside the park and have a beautiful view from our tent. Just before we leave the next day, we hand over a big bag of pens to the head master of a primary school next door to the campsite. She was over the moon and we felt good by our deeds.
After buying some more rolexes we drive off and see them again: 2 Canadians who are cycling through Africa and we met for the first time in Rwanda. This literally is the 4th time we bump into them, in the most random places: here on top of a hill. Great to see them again! They however bring down our spirit every time we see them; just at the moment we feel cool about our trip, we see them battling the elements on their bikes. Respect!
This is one of the nicest things of this trip, building up a ‘travelling friends’ network along the way. We keep eachother posted about nice places to visit and security updates and have great catch-ups when our paths cross again.
The crater-lakes continue to surround us as we drive further north. It looks like they have been thrown out of the sky, scattered amongst the hills over an area stretching out tens of kilometres. We camp at another community campsite, right on the edge of one of the lakes. The campsite is run by orphans, and all the proceeds of the campsite, food and tours go to the orphanage where they live. We play rummikub with our host (we teach him the game) and he takes us on a walk the next day, visiting many crater lakes and the orphanage. The kids are thrilled with the photos we take of them with our polaroid camera. The orphanage itself however is shocking: the hygienic conditions are very poor and the beds are without mattresses. The kids however look happy, go to school and even university is paid for them… When we leave we get a sugarcane stick as a present, happiness is hidden in the smallest things…
Today is Sunday and we leave the craterlakes behind us and drive a very entertaining but rough 270km through the tiniest villages towards Murchinson Falls. Driving through Africa on Sunday is like being a kid in a candy-store: everyone is wearing their Sunday best, the most beautiful coloured dresses, dancing and singing along the way to church: Africa at its best! It takes us 9 hours to reach our next destination, but what a beautiful road again!
Along the road we are greeted in the most enthusiastic ways which makes us think of the Dutch saying “doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg” translated: if you act normal, you are already crazy enough. In Uganda it’s more like; “the crazier the better” this makes the world much more fun!
We set up camp at a lodge which is situated along the impressive river Nile. We enjoy the views, hippos and beautiful birds from the lodge lounge as the park is again way too expensive to enter. Only problem this time: we can’t cross the park free of charge like we did at the Queen Elizabeth. However we find out, by chatting to locals, that a ferry runs across Lake Albert taking cars, which is exactely what we are going to do to continue our route up north.
At 6.15 the next morning we line up in front of the ferry, with at least 200 other passengers (we are the only white people) and try to get our tickets: “Madam, it’s free of charge”. “but what about our vehicle?” “Free as well!”. What?! A signature on our hand is enough to secure our free ticket, for a three hour boat ride trough, wait for it… the National Park!!!! We sail the Nile for 2 hours, finished of by the crossing of the lake. The most stunning boat ride! We see hippos, fish eagles, fishermen, the Congo mountains, and three local guys in front of us enjoy the ferry ride as much as we do. People sleep, kids are breastfed, goats and chickens are walking around the deck and the smell of rotten fish comes from a truck. This is Africa to the fullest!
Krijn drives our car amongst the big, stinking trucks of the ferry, and is a real attraction. Linde walks off the ferry in the stream of local people, and is an integrated part of the bigger picture: joking with the ladies.
The culture on this side of the lake is different, with stone buildings being replaced by wooden huts again. We also see a new crop being grown: cotton. White fluffy dots grow out of the plants. Something we’ve never seen before.
When we arrive at our next campsite, we are completely on our own again. It’s a community run campsite again, and we watch the sunset together with the 24 years old host David. As we are chatting about the Northern culture and history of Uganda, the conversation suddenly turns 180 degrees when David tells us he was kidnapped by the LRA, the Lords Resistance Army of Joseph Koni, the infamous rebellion leader who has been terrorizing Uganda and Central Africa for years. David has served as a child soldier for almost 10 years, before he managed to escape. We have a long chat about this, but without asking for the details. He is very open about his past and the current political situation.
When we invite him for dinner (we are cooking a simple pasta), he refuses: “in the ‘army’ we were only fed once a week, all other meals we had to organise ourselves, so nowadays my stomach is only used to one meal per day which is lunch”. He sits next to us whilst we cook anyways, and we continue our chat.
After all the stories we’ve heard last night, we drive through the North of Uganda with a different feel. From here suddenly there is a lot of police presence, UN vehicles, NGO’s and refugee camps (we assume South Sudanese refugees)… From a happy country to this, quite bizarre.
We make our way to Kampala, the capital of the country. Kilometers before we arrive to the city, we are already caught in an absolute chaos of traffic. If you think you’ve ever experienced chaotic traffic, think again. This city is a nightmare…
We stock up on groceries and get the hell out of here! What we did appreciate was the fact that Kampala had a REAL supermarket. By this we mean more than just onion, tomato, water and white bread. They even played Christmas music! We’ve never been so excited to be in a supermarket and if it wasn’t for the minimum amount of bags that fit in the taxi, we would have emptied out the entire store!
We give ToeToe a Christmas look and finally start to feel the Christmas vibes… It reminds us of the stupiest songline ever: “and there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time” by Band Aid… As if people are waiting for snow here…
And than the honeymoon ‘finally’ begins: we arrive at The Haven lodge at the Nile. We received this as a great tip from Koen & Sharine, and it really is a piece of heaven. Overlooking the stunning rapids of this mighty river, this lodge has everything we could wish for: a pool, great food and a beautiful and quiet campground. We stay for 3 nights and enjoy every second of it!
The last stop of our Uganda adventure is Sipi Falls, a group of 3 waterfalls set high up in the Mt Elgon mountain range.
In all its simplicity, the Sipi Falls may actually be the highlight of Uganda for us. We sponsor a local guide and hike to all three of the waterfalls through villages, along the edge of the cliffs looking out over the plains, 2000 meter below us.
We sit down on a rock and our guide starts a story, asking us: “this flower and this leaf, where do we use it for?” We have no clue, and he starts explaining the boys circumcicion tradition of Uganda. “When boys are between 14 and 20 years old, they have to be circumcised. This happens during a ceremony, right here, on the street. Everyone watches, including the policemen, teachers and ministers, to witness if it’s done properly”. “What is properly?” We ask. “Well, the boy is not allowed to give any sign of pain for 10 seconds, otherwise he is not classed as a true man. All the girls will laugh at him and he will never get a wife”. Circumcisions only happens in the month of December, which we notice when we see groups of boys walking around dressed in skirts. The flower and leaf are tradional medicins to heal the wounds. It is truly amazing to see how every piece of nature is used for something.
On our way back we visit a small coffee farm, and learn to make our own coffee. From picking the beans of the trees, pounding and deskinning the dried beans, roasting the beans from grey to dark brown and crushing it to powder: all done by hand. We enjoy a cup of our very own coffee together with the farmer and family. A fantastic experience!!
We chat about the 3 very different regimes most of the family have experienced. With the 9 years under Idi Amin being extreemly tough as Catholics. They also shared their Christmas plans. Whole communities come together and eat cow, goat or pig on the spit. The start 7 days before Christmas, when the beer is brewed in big drums. Children receive cookies and baloons as presents. We help our guide and give him a bag full of baloons for his community.
After church in the morning, the families come together for discussions: the community eldest chairs the discussion, and minutes are taken. Everyone shares their intentions for the next year, and they discuss best farming practises, progress kids make in school and who needs help where. Only after the discussions they start drinking to ensure quality outcomes. Throughout the whole year they hold eachother accountable for commitments made during Christmas.
So, what are your commitments for the new year?
We wish you all a fabulous Christmas and an adventurous New Year! Stay safe and happy!