The Swiss and I travelled back to Entebbe together, and the rest of the group drove on to Nairobi. To say good-bye, I got up at 5:45 to have breakfast and with them well. We all got along quite well on this trip – despite the long, hot drives – I knew I would miss them.
The Swiss and I drove together to Kampala in a van and had dinner together at the Red Chili Hideaway. Lovely Sabrina let me use her shower and extra bed for a few hours of sleep before leaving at 11:30 for a 4:00AM flight out of Entebbe. I connected through Cairo and landed in Geneva at 8:00AM, where I’d spend the next few days with one of my favorite European families: the Comptons.
Breakfast was served at 7:30, before my 9:30 private white water kayaking lesson and trip. David, my guide, was “one of the best kayak instructors in Uganda”, which may or may not be something to brag about but he clearly knew what he was doing.
Phase 1: Kayaking Basics:
We walked our kayaks down to the water just below the campsite, where David taught me the first and most important lesson – the emergency escape and quick release out of the skirt and the kayak. Then we paddled around so I could learn each of the following:
• Power stroke
• Turn stroke
• Hip flips
• Paddling in current
• Ferry glide (angle against the current)
We practiced my lessons and strokes by ferry gliding across the Nile and in/around some nearly by islands, stopping for a stretch and a break on one specific island. The sight-seeing tour included a trip past a group of locals doing laundry in the river, and a sighting of a Nile monitor. No photos of any of these, though. White water kayaking lessons don’t leave time for snapping photos., and I don’t have a housing for camera anyway.
Phase II: Kayaking Fo’ Real:
After lunch at the camp we put the kayaks on the rooftop of a car and drove twenty minutes to the drop-in point at the dam. David took me through some white-water drills in a rapid, mostly edging, how to “break into” a current, and how to recover from a partial roll using David’s kayak. We hadn’t even hit the actual rapids but my arms were already exhausted. Hips too. Kayaking involves a great deal of control of your hips and abs.
Then we hit the white water. Our trip took us down four different rapids: Joes, Pyramid, and two smaller “unnamed” – I managed to stay topside for all of them, following David’s lead and doing my best not to… well… die. Though the entire trip was probably only 20-30 minutes I felt like I’d run a marathon. I was so grateful after the last rapid when we could coast and could catch my breath.
Phase III: The Self-Roll
As we coasted David taught me the concept of recovering from a full roll. It involves keeping a cool head, aligning your paddle in a “T” perpendicular to your kayak, and using that as leverage against the water to push yourself upright. I practiced the self-roll w paddle 4-5 times but my arms were terrible tired. I just couldn’t manage to get it, but I did manage to get most of the Nile up my nose.
We pulled up to our drop off point and celebrated with a large beer called “Nile Special”. Probably special because it has 5.6% alcohol. I enjoyed every sip of it on the 20 minute ride back.
Sadly, there was no water in the room so I couldn’t shower for hours. Instead I wandered around, had my second beer, talked to Kate and J, talked to the kayak guys, and had David show me the wall map. Then he inexplicably tried to kiss me so I hustled away and read in my room until dinner.
We had quite a long drive to Jinja, part of which was navigating around midday Kampala traffic. So we had a quick breakfast, made our lunches so we saved the stopping time, and departed at 6:00AM.
It was a long, hot, HOT, dusty day. Bus-truck seating rules includes a daily clockwise shift in seats. So this day I was at the fourtop table with Australians Brett and Jackie. Most of us spent the morning sleeping, and then in mid-afternoon the three of us played card games. One of these was a card version of monopoly – similar to the board game but very different in it’s execution. And MUCH more fun. After a few rounds of being beat by me and Jackie, Brett called it quits. So we switched to my childhood game of Egyptian Ratscrew, which of course they picked up quickly. It’s been a while since I’ve played, and I was reminded of when we played with Mom as kids (who taught us this? Doug Fritz?). We used to laugh so hard wed cry, and this game was just like it. I can’t find the words to describe what was even so funny, but my stomach hurt from laughter.
We stopped at the edge of Kampala for a loo break around 11:00, and we all loitered outside the service station to avoid additional time In he stifling truck. Pam mentioned a few days ago that the hours in the truck have caused her legs to swell. After this trip I fully understood what she meant. My toes were the size of little sausages, and my knees had swollen to the point that my knee ached. Water retention?
John told us we were making such good time that we were gong through – rather than around – Kampala. That might have been a bad idea. Just on the other side of the city we hit a massive line of traffic and a dead stop due to construction shortly ahead. The matatus begin do drive on the left dirt road, causing two massive lines of traffic at a dead stop. Then matatus begin to pass on the right in the opposite lane. Three massive lines of traffic at a dead stop. Then traffic began to come through from the other side and couldn’t get past because of the three lanes of traffic blocking them. Kampala madness for an hour and a half. TIA = This Is Africa. Hot afternoon sun shined in. No breeze. None of us spoke to each other, because what is there to say?
After an hour and a half of barely moving, John got out to help the few poor souls directing traffic. He said to them and other matatu drivers “I have to get theses tourists to Nairobi for their flights! You want tourists to stop coming and spending their money? Fine. Don’t let us through.” That’s when we finally got through. But then – on the other side of the construction – we found the identical problem: inbound trucks created multiple lanes and outbound our outbound traffic.
When we finally arrived in Jinja we’d been on the road for 9 hours. Jinja is the explorers capital of Uganda – rafting, kayaking, bunjee jumping, many western backpackers have to begun to transform it into a destination. As we pulled into The Nile River Explorers Club – we were greeted with people doing yoga on the grass, a beautiful campsite and bar/restaurant, and full explorers activities – all perfectly situated on the Nile. Since these were my last two days of vacation I splurged on a private room and bath.
The guides threw together a wonderful dinner with meat, carrots, and rice. I’ve no idea what spices they use but it was delicious. As we ate we had two guides come talk to us – one for rafting and another for kayaking. I was sure I’d do white water rafting but they swayed me the opportunity to learn white water kayaking. I signed up for the full day: lesson, lunch, and a kayaking trip down the Nile.
I went to the bar area to sit with Daniel, Francesca, and Sabrina and to watch the World Cup game before turning in early to sleep.
As Emmely and I packed up our room for our 9:00AM departure. I realized that my camelback spout was open all night and and dumped 2 liters of water in my corner of the room. Everything was drenched; my backpack, sleeping bag, laptop, my newly-dried clothes. It was a bit of a problem. I wasn’t sure my laptop would ever recover – though of course it did.
My Soaked Clothes
We left Lake Bunyoni after breakfast, and I spread my clothes out to dry. It was a long, dusty drive to Bunji (?) , as always, and part of the drive included bus-truck karaoke by our guides.
Ian Brought Coloring Books to Local Kids
Roadside Pottystop Flowers
That afternoon we set up camp on the grounds of a university. Lunch was guacamole and hot dog sandwiches – an odd combination. There was not much to do but walk into town, which is what most of the group did. I decided instead to sit, read, and watch my wet clothing / backpack / computer quickly dry in the African heat.
Ian, Taking Pictures of the Cat
Photo by Ian
Dinner and a movie. Ana bought a DVD of Madagascar while in town, as Lizette hadn’t seen it but needed to be briefed since she was on her way there. So a group of 6-7 sat in the “bar” of the nearby building to watch it. 1/3 of the way through, I said goodnight and hit the tent.
I woke up in the morning to the rude noise of Emmely’s alarm, thinking “Why in the world did Em set an alarm for so early?” It was 9:00 AM; I’d slept for 10 hours. I suppose gorilla-trekking takes a lot out of a person.
Five of us arranged for a visit to a nearby pygmie village: Pam and Doug, Maj, Stefi, me, our guide Tom and our boat pilot Livingston. We packed our lunches (I love my holiday pb&j sandwiches) and boated an hour across Lake Bunyoni – truly lovely. Tom shared about the Ugandan economy and culture, and soon we landed on the peninsula for the pygmie village and looked up a steep, steep incline. Day #3 of climbing; and this time in flip-flops. If I did this everyday I’d have killer glutes.
A few kids accompanied us up the hill until we reached the school at the top. There, we went into one classroom after another and listened to the students greet us and sing. It reminded me of Ghanian schools with their welcome: “You are WELcome visitors” and their rote lessons. Though this school was much more primitive than the ones I taught in Ghana – walls were made of branches and mud and 80% of the kids had no shoes. But each room sang us a few songs, and the oldest class (P3) had a few questions for us.
After the school we went to the village just up the way, where we met the locals, took photos of clamoring children, and watched as they all performed some song and dance. It was really lovely, though it’s difficult to remove yourself from the dirt, grime, and poverty that covers everyone here. You want to give them all baths, clean clothes, and school uniforms (for the ones who cannot go to school because they don’t have money).
There aren’t many true pygmies left; inter-racial mixing has diluted the gene pool. But you can recognize the facial features – wide, thick lips and a flat nose.
We ate our lunch on the boat ride back to the campsite. Once we landed, I spent the rest of the day on the porch of the bar with Doug and Pam, writing in our journals and comparing photos.
Dinner was the traditional Ugandan meal of mattoke, with meat, potatoes, and bananas. After the meal some of us shared tea and stories at the bar, before the air cooled and we needed to move indoors.
Gorilla Day: 4:45 Wake up
5:00 Breakfast and pack lunch
7:40 Arrival at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
8:00 Separated into 3 groups. We were myself, Emmely, and the Swiss (Daniel, Francesca, and Sabrina) and assigned to visit the Nshongi gorilla family. Our guide was John. Another John.
John briefed us on a number of things:
• Hike Time: Could be 2-4 hours, depending on where the Nshongi family had relocated to during the night. The trackers had already left to go to yesterday’s location and track them to their new one. John estimated about 2 hours but we’d need to see.
• Fire Ants: We were instructed to tuck our trouser legs into our socks to protect our ankles and feet from their bites.
• Water: Water. Drink lots of it.
• Note about “habituated” – they are used to humans but not dependent on them. And they know we are not a threat. They see 8 tourists in the AM and 8 in the afternoon – for 1 hr each visit. We were well prepped.
Our hike was two hrs into the forest. Uphill. The trail started with wide paths, then medium, then narrow and surrounded by bush. We hiked in until John could hear the trackers, who had confirmed that they tracked the gorillas to the current site. As we got closer we could hear them call out “woo!” and John would respond “woo!” And then we moved into the bush, hacking through trees and brush to get to where the gorillas were.
The Nshongi Family
As we got closer, we could hear the branches breaking from one of the gorillas in the tree. Then we saw the silverback. He was huge and beautiful.
Then the silverback came down and started walking through the brush. We were amazed at how quickly he disappeared into the camouflage of the bush, though he was only a few feet away.
Nearby, two gorilla babies climbed up a tree to play. As they climbed higher and higher, the weight of their little bodies bent the tree over they landed on the ground in a plop:
A female gorilla passed us as well, but none of the family was feeling terribly sociable or photogenic. The silverback would sit for a bit and let us get a handful of photos, but then he’d get bored and would move easily along. We’d move slowly after him, cutting through the bush and listening closely to any sounds or signs of annoyance by him. When he’d slow down and make his grunting noise, our guides – and eventually, us too – would make a low voice throat-clearing noise to show him respect and deference.
Two hrs later, we were still there – tracking them around the bush. I like to think it was because we were such a great, respectful group. Or because John liked us. Though it’s likely he felt badly because each time we found one of them they’d turn their back and disappear and we’d have to work twice as hard to find them again. Having said that, the whole experience was amazing: the hike, the proximity, the bush hunt, the human features, the wonderful group of people. It was worth the extreme uphill trek.
We got down in about an hour as it was almost all descent. John debriefed us with what a good job we did and he encouraged us to tell our friends and family to come too. Then we “graduated” (said John, “You must clap.”) and began the long 2 hr drive back to Bunyoni Overland Resort.
5:45 AM wakeup to disassemble tents, have coffee/tea and bread, and head out for a 6:30 hike to see chimpanzees.
There were a family of 35 chimpanzees in the area; so we split into 2 groups and headed into the forest. (Pat, Doug, Maj, Emmely, Steffi, Daniel, Sabrina, Francesca, and myself) We hiked for 1.5 hrs with Robert as our guide. He and the other guides connected through their mobiles trying to pinpoint the chimps’ locations but – being chimpanzees – they tend to fly through the trees very quickly and move away.
We finally found three of them and stayed for an hour with our necks cricked up and our cameras trained above us. The outcome was a load of treetop pics with black blobs. I gave up DSLR after last year’s trip to Myanmar, when I was finally enlighten that I’m just not a good enough photographer to warrant lugging around all that weight and lenses for less than impressive pictures. So I sold my DSLR and upgraded to a small but amazing Sony RX100 II. The zoom lens isn’t powerful enough to capture the details of chimpanzees in trees, which gave me great reason to sit back and enjoy them. One of the guides gave me binoculars and – as I looked through them – Emmely stuck her nose in front of me and joked she was a “really big monkey” which made me laugh out loud.
We had brunch back at camp: tuna and pasta and fruit. There were two picnic tables, one of which see-sawed up and down unless you and the rest of your table planned the weight distribution just so. Without that, the table would tip and half the people would tip over. Ana and Lissette and I sat at this table and giggled as we tried to coordinate our sitting/standing in unison.
Promptly after lunch we packed up the bus-truck and started our 220K drive to Lake Bwindi.
One forgets how immense Africa is until driving overland. It’s big. It’s bumpy. It’s often full of cars. And it’s dusty. I’d forgotten about the dust. We crossed over a long stretch of hot, rocky, bumpy construction road that slowed us down to a few km per hour and likely added 1-2 hours to our drive. But TIA. This Is Africa. I was reminded yet again of one of my favorite quotes, from a book called “Dear Exile” when one friend advised another: “Aways bring a book. But in Africa, bring seven.”
We topped for groceries in Kabale – a town 30 mins outside Lake Bunyoni and finally arrived at the Bunyoni Overland Resort – a beautiful campsite on the water. Emmely and I upgraded to a room with a shower which was pure luxury and had a beautiful view. We were so happy to shower in our own private room. Steffi made me laugh later when she asked, concerned, “Did you not know we were camping?” Yes I did, but when only on a 1-week holiday I’d never turn down an opportunity to upgrade. Especially after a long, hot, dusty day like this.
Dinner and This Is Africa
Dinner was mashed potatoes and chicken on the upper porch above the lake – and even though John told us to show up at 7:00 for dinner and a briefing we weren’t served food until 8:00. After dinner, John instructed us to wait so our gorilla guide could brief us. This was a bit of drama as apparently the guide arrived at the campsite with a driver who was not welcome and so they weren’t let in. Lots of phone calls back and forth, followed by a false alarm of “The guide says he’ll be here very soon” but never showed. After 9:00 PM we all gave up and went to our rooms to pack for the next day’s exciting gorilla trek.
Someday it will occur to me that – as much as I love adventure and wildlife trips – they always require early-morning wake-ups. Diving, safaris, gorillas – these are not lazy, sleeping-in holidays. So our 6AM departure should not have surprised me at all. The only wrinkle in the process is that I’d planned to leave my work roller bag at the Red Chili Hideaway and pick it up when we returned, but there was no one at the front desk to lock it up. So John said “You can’t just leave it there – we’re put it into the truck”. And away we went. Jimmy Choos and all.
The truck is almost exactly what Jon and I rode in during our Africa trip in 2001 – what we called a “bus-truck”. It’s a bus that fits all of us relatively comfortably, all our backpacks, camping gear, and groceries for the road, and has four-wheel drive for the rough patches.
We had a long drive to our next campsite – ten hours on the road in total – and stopped for a few breaks. lunch at a tourist shop. A few bathroom breaks in the bush, a stop to exchange money, and lunch at a tourist shop. The road was quite bumpy at times – but #thisisafrica.
Our campsite for the evening was a quick stop-over. Nothing elaborate or special, and no showers. Just a “shawer”.
We had an afternoon tour of the tea fields by a man named Robert and his trainees. He taught us a great deal about how tea grows and how it adds to the Ugandan economy.
Dinner was a stew of meat veggies and rice. The bus-truck did have a chore chart, though John’s rules were “just everyone pitch in” which means – after a day of observing – that no one really does.
Before bedtime a group of kids from the local orphanage came to perform some dances and songs for us around the campfire. They rounded it up by singing “Happy Birthday” to Emily and Mags. I crawled into my tent to fall asleep, but not not until 2AM. Darn jetglag. I listened to the sound of the baboons in the trees until I fell asleep.
All great trips begin with a long flight(s). For this one, it was NYC to Amsterdam. Amsterdam to Kigali. Kigali to Entebbe. I decided on Uganda was originally going to be part two of a 2-week trip to Africa. Part 1 was a volunteer pro bono trip to Nairobi with Salesforce.com, and this Part 2 was a “me trip” to see the mountain gorillas. (and to use an outstanding credit with G Adventures). When the travel alerts were raised in Nairobi, Salesforce.com cancelled the trip. By then, it was too late for me to cancel Uganda – so I was off.
I had two bags: a backpack for the Uganda/camping trip and a roller bag for a business trip to London the following week.
I was quite a sight to see as I checked in and left the airport in Entebbe at 11PM. Especially as my pre-arranged driver wasn’t there to meet me. A lovely American named Heather (who, incidentally, had a sister named Heidi) took charge of me and other wayward traveler, Leigh from San Diego. Heather was based in Minnesota but runs a nonprofit in Uganda that helps missions run their school programs. She, one of her locals David, and a driver drove Leigh and myself – and three carts of bibles – to Kampala. Along the way we stopped by a grocery store – in a mall – to pick up bread, water, and snacks. The parking lot of the mall was packed with people partying out of their cars. A veritable tailgate, but without the sports paraphernalia. Our driver told us later it was a local dance that had let out and this is where the party landed. By this time it was almost 1AM.
We drove to the Red Chili Hideaway, only to discover that no one was there except a guard who informed us that it had moved. Poor Heather- doing a good deed by safely delivering lost travelers turned in to an unintentional late night drive. We were deeply appreciative, though, and we got to know her very well. She and her husband have adopted three Uganda children – each of whom had a traumatic childhood and suffer from different elements of that trauma and dissociative disorder. It’s amazing – the capacity of the human spirit to give. Heather and her husband have, essentially, dedicated their lives to making these children better. When we finally arrived at the real Red Chili Hideaway 20 minutes later, Leigh and I were thankful, inspired, and exhausted. We checked into our rooms and crashed.
The next day I’d intended to volunteer at an orphanage down the street – I’d even brought onesies and some plush toys to give – but that was “down the street” of the old Red Chili Hideaway. There was no orphanage near this RCH. And I slept until 1PM. Instead, I sat on the balcony of RCH in the rainy gray day and read. Leigh took my onesies and plush toys since she was staying in Kampala and would find someone who could use them.
The G Adventures group showed up around 6PM. We had dinner and introductions – though they’d been together for 2 days since Nairobi – and I sorted out various details with the G Adventures staff on the trip: John, Johnson, and Johannes. No kidding.
There were 18 of us on this trip: Emmely (Sweden), Jackie and Brett (Australia), Maj (Netherlands), Xander (UK), Steffi (Germany), Julienne (Australia), Pam and Doug (Australia), Ian and Mags (Ireland), Ana and Lissette (Chili), Daniel, Francesca, and Sabrina (Switzerland), and Kate (UK)