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Trip Report 16 Days in Uganda - mountain gorillas and so much more!

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I'm also posting this on tripadvisor - I feel somehow cheesy about putting it in two places, I don't why. I think some people are either fodors or TA people and don't look at both forums. And since there's not a heck of a lot here about Uganda I thought it might help to share.


I'm sorry but this turned into a novel-length trip report. Read on at your peril!

I'll post it in pieces so it's not too, too much at once.

Feb 7 - 24, 2013

Part One

My quest to see mountain gorillas started with a trip to the local zoo where we spent an afternoon mesmerized by the lowland gorillas. It was painful to see them fenced in (yes, zoos are painful in general) but at the same time I was fascinated by the intelligence in their eyes. Not to insult the gorillas, but it was like looking into a human’s eyes and seeing some kind of recognition looking back...a kindred spirit. Watching them play was incredible: the silverback and a juvenile were chasing each other around the open yard with the silverback running upright the whole time. He looked like a stocky football player charging around. Sometimes he would come up to the big glass window and chest-bump it where we stood. So that afternoon led to googling gorillas, watching youtube videos of them, reading a lot of information on their plight and slow recovery in numbers and it spiraled into “we need to go to Uganda!”

At first I thought we should see them in Rwanda also but the higher permit fee there plus the desire to see more of Uganda after reading so many wonderful reports on others’ trips there led me to narrow it to just Uganda. With much help from the tripadvisor forum (thank you, thank you, thank you!) I came up with an itinerary that included as many of the highlights as I could squeeze into 2 weeks. Well, it dribbled over a bit into a third week -- but there wasn’t anything I felt I could cut out since we’d only be there once and we had to do as much as possible in that one visit (now I don’t know if that one-time-only will hold true!).

Here’s a link to pictures. I don’t know how people view them (IF they view them) but when I look in slideshow format when it comes to a video (there are 4 short ones) it’ll play but then not move forward to the next picture unless you hit the arrow.

https://picasaweb.google.com/jamison.leslie/Uganda2013

Here’s what we did:

Boma Guesthouse in Entebbe - 2 nts

Amuka Lodge at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary - 1 nt

Paraa Lodge at Murchison Falls - 2 nts

Kyaninga Lodge near Kibale - 2 nts

Katara Lodge near Queen Eliz. NP - 2 nts

Mahogany Springs at Bwindi - 3 nts

Mihingo Lodge at Lake Mburo - 1nt

Boma Guesthouse - 1 nt

Ngamba Island Chimp Sanctuary on Lake Victoria - 1 nt

Boma Guesthouse -- dayroom

About the lodges (and I’ll also do TA reviews with photos) -- we thought they were all excellent. No complaints. Lots of raves. With such busy days there mostly was not enough time to enjoy the lodges and that felt somewhat wasteful. We really wished for another day at Paraa both for the lodge and the great game drives at MFNP. Also, for example, we got to Mihingo Lodge, which is stunning, in time for dinner and then left the next morning after an early breakfast. That was one of the bigger disappointments -- 2 nights there if you’re staying would be highly recommended.

Another point about lodges - I chose them based on TA reviews and went with what sounded the most fabulous. Sometimes I was cautioned that the location wasn’t optimal because it would be a long way to the park gates but I stuck with what I picked and yes, that long distance did turn out to be a bummer. Katara, for example, was a beautiful property but a 40 minute drive from the park gate at QENP and so we did that drive up & back, up & back -- a lot of wasted time in one day.

We chose Churchill Safaris after getting prices from a couple of operators for the same itinerary. Ether at Churchill was very responsive to emails (I had a phone message from her the day after sending my first inquiry which was a pleasant surprise) and worked with me to customize our trip. She made suggestions, answered questions promptly, assured me we’d have a Land Cruiser with pop-up top, and came back with a price that seemed more than fair.

We booked with them in summer 2012 and then started the count-down to our February safari. During that time I did request a few changes and it was never a problem. We made our down-payment and then final payment by paypal.

Everything on our trip went as planned -- no glitches. We had a fantastic time, a great guide (Emmy) who was sweet and helpful and fun to talk to (and on those looooong drives that was a good thing!) and I’d recommend Churchill with no hesitation.

So -- a bit of a blow by blow --

I had booked 2 nights on arrival in case we had any flight delays due to weather. The weather cooperated but our luggage got left on the tarmac in Amsterdam and we had to go pick it up at the Entebbe airport the next night at 11:30. I don’t know what we did in a past life to pi$$ off the luggage gods but we’ve had numerous experiences over the years with sinking-stomachs at the baggage carousel, filling out lost bag forms, crossing fingers that they’ll reappear someday soon. By now we should’ve learned only to travel with carry-on -- I’m not sure why I’m so dense about that lesson!

I was glad to have that extra day at the Boma to let the bags catch up and also the pool there was a great place to relax and get over jetlag. The Boma was a wonderful way to start the trip - lovely gardens with beautiful birds and basic, very clean and quiet rooms.

The buffet breakfast was quite good and pretty much what we had everywhere we went -- juice, fruit, cereals, bacon, sausage, beans, toast, muffins, eggs to order (wonder why scrambled eggs in Uganda are white and ours at home are yellow? something different the chickens eat changes the color of the yolk?). Oh, one thing -- for a country that grows a lot of coffee I think they are not experts at making it. Sorry. Just did not have one good cup of coffee in Uganda - I think they prefer tea maybe?

During our down day Emmy took us to change some dollars to shillings. We changed $600 (using clean, big-head hundred dollar bills to get the best rate) and that amount was just about right for our 16 days. That doesn’t include what we tipped our guide at the end in dollars but for beer (6500 everywhere we were - sometimes more), a bit of laundry, the tip-box at each lodge, porters and rangers on treks, and a few little souvenirs that’s what we spent for the two of us.

Our first ‘real’ day -- we left the Boma at 8 to head to Ziwa for rhino trekking. The drive through Kampala was extremely slow and chaotic (and considered very light since it was a Sunday!) Little did we know then how wonderful the paved road was. We made good time to Ziwa passing small villages with mud-brick huts and subsistence farming along the way. It was very hot and with the windows down there was a constant swirl of dust, exhaust, and soot. Seeing Ankole cattle for the first time was exciting -- how are those horns not a hindrance to the animal which evolution should’ve taken care of? Do the farmers intentionally breed the biggest horned ones for some reason? I’m really curious.

We got to the Amuka Lodge (and I should put lodge in quotes- it’s not really a lodge but a camp with very nice decking) at 2:00 (so a six hour drive which was a warning that drive-time estimates on our itinerary were low!) and had a fabulous lunch. We were the only 2 guests that day and had the place to ourselves. The main area is open with a bar, some tables and a nice pool and firepit off to the side. Our chalet was on a decked platform a bit away from the main ‘lodge‘ and was very basic with screened walls, one chair, and a big bed and mosquito netting. Good thing - lots of mosquitos here. Very dim light so at night to read or get ready for bed a headlamp was necessary. The bathroom was separate but also nice; large & with a shower with stone floor & walls (don’t mind the slug on the wall, he moves slowly). This was the most basic place we stayed during the trip and the most like real camping -- it was a little, um, rustic for me but I fully admit that anything without four solid walls, a roof, and ensuite bathroom is camping for this city girl.

We had time to take a dip in the pool and then set off to the ranger station and our rhino trek. After learning about the sanctuary and the effort to re-populate the rhinos that were wiped out years ago we drove a bit closer to the rhinos (rangers with rifles stay with them so their location is always known) and then hiked maybe 15 minutes to where 4 of them, including young Obama, were grazing. It was amazing to be so close to these huge, prehistoric looking creatures -- they seemed completely oblivious to our presence and never stopped munching. We were told about the need to climb a tree if they did happen to charge; whatever you do don’t run! The trees we were near had trunks only a few inches in diameter so I don’t know if they’d have survived the challenge of a charging rhino if that had been necessary :) I’m reassured to hear that’s never happened so far.

After an incredible half hour with the rhinos we walked back to the truck, dropped our guide back at the station and then returned to Amuka for dinner. Funny about beer -- when we had first gotten to Amuka and were having lunch the owner suggested Bell beer as a good refreshing choice. Well, we kept ordering them everywhere but finally at some point later along the way one of our waiters said to my husband, “we consider Bell beer only for women, would you like to order something else instead?” Haha, he switched to Nile Specials from that point on.

The food at Amuka was excellent with huge portions and several courses per meal. I’ll just say that now and try not to keep repeating it -- everywhere we stayed the food was awesome. Best steak I’ve ever had - so tender you didn’t need a knife. Delicious soups, really good chicken and fish, lots of great sauces, potatoes, other cooked veg, yummy desserts. Too much food and I felt guilty not being able to eat everything on my plate some of the time. For our Amuka breakfast we were tricked. They had juices, cold cereal and toast and jam out so we ate up and then they asked how we wanted our eggs. So we were then served eggs, fried potatoes, beans, grilled tomatoes, and steak. I wonder why we didn’t say no thanks, we’ve already eaten...we’re piggies who can’t resist any offer of food, that’s why!

After our not quite restful night at Amuka (chasing mosquitos around inside our mosquito net wearing headlamps, having some centipede type creature with pincers drop on Rob’s shoulder from the ceiling, sweating with no fan and still crazy hot temps at night, showering in the dark since no sunrise until almost 7)-- we were officially broken in. You are in Africa. Your are on safari. But then the real breaking-in occurred when the pavement ended an hour into the drive to Murchison Falls and we discovered what everyone meant when they talked about the rough roads. No complaining, we knew it was coming but still it was shocking that such brain-jarring roads can exist. Two hours on those roads that day was a gentle introduction to some marathons we had later in the trip.

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    Shall have to come back and read this Leslie as past my bedtime now so won't even start. Am doing the gorillas in Rwanda in June so most interested to read how you guys went in Uganda!

    Kind regards

    Kaye

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    Thanks for the feedback :)

    If anyone wants more, here's Part 2:



    When we reached Murchison we went straight to the top of the falls. Awesome force of nature there -- seeing the mighty river squeeze through such a small space with rainbows criss-crossing -- powerful and beautiful. It’s hard to believe there was once a footbridge over the river at it’s narrowest; you can see the remaining foundation on each side and we saw photos of it later in Paraa lodge when it was still there.

    On the drive from there to the ferry to Paraa we saw buffalo buried in mud, kob, waterbuck, Jackson’s hartebeest, warthogs, and baboons. Our first game!! Even baboons were exciting at that point!

    We got to Paraa at 2:30, in time for lunch. I’d read some comments about the lodge being too big and impersonal, more like a hotel than a lodge -- maybe they’re valid points but we really loved it. Everything was great - our 2nd floor room looked out over the pool (a very nice pool I’d have liked to have enough time to enjoy for a bit longer) and the Nile behind. Overcoming first world guilt asking about the air conditioning, Rob found that it’s $25/night to run so we were fine with the fan. Really, a/c on safari is just wrong - I tried to tell him!

    Our game drive at 4:30 that afternoon was very good....we saw a large number of animals and different bird species. My new binoculars were a treat - small & light so you don’t need major delts to hold them up. We saw some wary elephants. One of the babies was trumpeting again and again (an odd sound, more like a cat growling) and running around, something obviously wrong. Finally a group of 3 adults came over a hill and there was a big reunion; I guess she was just missing her mom, she then calmed down. They weren’t happy to see us sitting in the road between them and the baby but a little ear flapping and foot stamping was all we got.

    A lot of the grass had been intentionally burned so it was black and grim to look at but Emmy said they do that because the animals like the new grass shoots that come up. Is that the reason? We saw patches on fire - a big flock of Abdim’s storks was on the edge of it having an easy meal of fleeing bugs. There was no control of the fire - it seemed odd to me to risk that but I guess they do it all the time??

    Our second game drive the next day we stayed out for 6 hrs and saw a lot more -- buffalo, Jackson’s hartebeest, oribi, warthog, kob, reticulated giraffe, Patas monkey, bushbuck, a lion stalking oribi (but then stalked away out of sight), and a leopard in a tree. And lots and lots of birds. A few more really good elephant encounters - it’s amazing how fast they can move.

    In the afternoon we did a 3 hr Nile cruise on the Wild Frontier boat. It was packed but we had a seat on the left side and had a good view. I felt sorry for the people on the top deck with no shade -- it was scorchingly hot. Saw tons of hippos, Nile crocodiles (one especially huge one on the bank), beautiful birds and also a lot of game on the banks -- elephant, buffalo, waterbuck. We saw a suicidal warthog swimming across - wonder what was so compelling about the other side that he’d risk crocs for. Didn’t get to see if he made it or not. We got close but not too close to the falls and stopped to let a few people off to hike up the side. They served beer and snacks on the boat - we didn’t partake - but some backpackers with the filthiest feet I’ve ever seen did and spilled their beers when they passed out on the benches -- good times for the ants.

    We got back to Paraa in time for a quick pop into the pool before dinner. Another good dinner, more cold Nile Specials. The outdoor passage back to our room had -- not sure what, nightjars? some said bats? -- that would swoop at you as you ran the gauntlet to the room door every night & morning. Exciting! I looked in the curio shop and bought a carved elephant on wheels -- considered buying the East Africa bird book but they wanted $57 so I just stuck with using Emmy’s.
    Another day of game drives at MFNP would’ve been such a good idea. Next time. Instead we took leave of Paraa enroute to Kyaninga Lodge. The drive was 10 hrs on BAD roads. I don’t think there’s any good way to break up that drive, is there? You just have to tough it out. Admittedly, somehow I slept -- sort of got rocked to sleep like a baby by all the potholes and missed several hours of the drive. Along the way there was plenty to look at -- beautiful scenery, interesting villages, never a dull moment. The further south we went the more lush the landscape became, lots of tea plantations, and the temperature dropped a good bit. Every school we passed had masses of children playing out front in their bright-colored uniforms. Emmy would say “taking a break” -- hmmm, lots of breaks.

    We were sad to get to Kyaninga so late - almost dinner time. The lodge is gorgeous with individual cabins with thatched roofs on the lip of a crater with a beautiful 700 ft deep lake. The design is so cool and so well-done. Lots of steps -- maybe that’s a problem for anyone with mobility issues. Tons to do there - hiking around the crater or swimming in the lake, there’s a grass tennis court and a croquet lawn, a fruit orchard, and a kitchen vegetable garden, a swimming pool -- really, really lovely property. Our cabin was also remarkable with a huge bed, a deck on the back looking over the crater lake, a claw-footed tub and glass shower. The main lodge has a few seating areas and fireplaces. The food there was especially wonderful.

    We tried to go to bed early since we had to get up at 3:30 for the chimp habituation at Kibale the next morning. Awful. When I have that pressure to hurry up and sleep I just can’t so I was up all night, finally gave up trying at 2:30 and started getting ready for our big day. Kyaninga was wonderful to stay at - would’ve been even more so if we’d had time to actually be there - but the distance from Kibale made it probably not the smartest choice of lodging.

    We left at 4 to get to the ranger station in time for the 6 am start. It was raining lightly when we arrived but not enough to get drenched and it stopped after an hour or so. I think I was picturing walking into the forest on trails but no, it was just charging in to solid brush, in the pitch dark, pushing branches aside, ducking down, trying not to let them snap back on the person behind you, trying not to trip on roots, vines, fallen trees, and certainly not thinking about snakes or spiders! Our group was just us and a family of four including two young sons. There were a few other small groups all visiting the same chimp family but the ranger/guides did try to keep us spread out so it was rarely a big bunch of people collected in the same place at the same time.

    So as I said above, I’m not a camper, not a hiker, and I guarantee you at home you couldn’t pay me to clomp into the woods with just a flashlight at 0-dark-thirty! But this was truly a magical experience -- I hate to say it but maybe more exciting than our gorilla treks. We didn’t have far to walk before getting to the trees the chimps were in - still in their night nests. They started moving around -- watch out for chimp rain! -- and then we heard the amazing echoing pant-hoot symphony for the first time. Otherworldly. It was so loud, so intense and sounded like they were ready to go berserk -- it was the coolest thing I’ve ever heard. Gradually they climbed down and moved around us -- how unreal to be so close to them.

    We followed them and watched as they ate, groomed each other, copulated, and chilled out on the forest floor. The main excitement of the day was the fact that a female was in estrus and all of the males were scuffling, trying to mate with her. We saw the alpha male defending his first-dibs rights, going apeshit (sorry) and displaying - stomping the ground, beating on tree trunks, shrieking, chasing other chimps through the treetops, wielding a big stick (which conked one of the women in another group in the side of the head -- never turn your back on a displaying chimp!).

    Besides looking out when they were displaying we did learn not to stand directly under them (Rob got poo-ed on, I think that’s good luck, right?). We were able to stop, sit on a log and eat our packed lunches at a point. We didn’t travel far throughout the day but we were constantly moving around through the brush and also constantly looking up - by the end of the day my neck was screaming. I can’t say enough about how awesome the day was. Around 3:30 after 8 hrs with the chimps we agreed with the others we could leave the forest and not stay until they went back up into the trees for the night. I didn’t regret that; we’d seen a lot and felt satisfied. I was glad I’d changed our itinerary at the last minute from just doing the one-hour visit to the all-day habituation. I don’t think an hour would be enough time to fully appreciate the chimps.

    We learned a lot about chimp life from our guide and we talked about how the visits from humans affect them. His position was it was a necessary evil to help the chimps as far as conservation efforts. Also he said they’ve found that when wild, unhabituated chimps come into the territory the habituated chimps will stand close to humans for protection. Interesting. So there’s definitely an impact - ultimately for the better or worse?

    Back at Kyaninga late afternoon -- no chance to walk around the property or even relax and enjoy it beyond a few minutes by the fireplace before dinner. That was really the running theme of the trip -- not enough time! Too much rushing, too much driving also, but that’s unavoidable. If at all possible stay at least 3 nights in as many places as you can.

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    Thank you for this installment. Just the stuff I wanted to learn about. If you hadn't stayed at Kyaninga which lodge would you have picked? You said the temp dropped. How cool was it and did you need long sleeve shirts? Fleece?

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    Kyaninga is incredible. It really was sad to not have more time there (and almost everywhere we stayed). We were only actually at the lodge for sleeping and eating - really a waste of a good place with outdoor activities we'd have liked to experience and also of money, ultimately, for just a place to lay your head.

    I think doing it again I'd look at staying at Ndali for being close to Kibale and the chimp habituation ranger station.

    Temps at night and early morning, maybe 50s? Definitely glad for long sleeves and fleece but then during the day it warmed up. Compared to MFNP area it was cooler in general, maybe low 70s compared to upper 80s. But the big temp drop was when rain came through - our first day when it was sunny we were really warm in the room, had all the windows open to get a breeze and were laughing at the hot water bottles in the beds. The next 2 nights we were happy for them!

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    Part 3

    After our second night at Kyaninga we woke to a sunny, chilly morning (one of the few times I needed my fleece - we were mostly HOT this entire trip) and saw that a night visitor had tested Rob’s power bars and found them worth not more than a nibble. I have the same opinion. Put away your food securely even when staying in the lap of luxury!

    Off to QENP -- a not-bad drive on mainly tar roads. Maybe 3 hours to Katara lodge to check in and eat the packed lunches we’d brought from Kyaninga (fancily wrapped in banana leaves). Another stunning property with beautiful individual thatched-roof cottages overlooking the valley. Our cottage had huge rooms, hand-crafted furniture, and 2 beds: one with wheels that could be rolled out onto the deck to sleep under the stars (we had rain both nights so no chance to try that....as if!). The wall of the tent overlooking the valley was completely open but flaps were rolled down both nights we stayed since storms were approaching. Again, the lighting is super dim so headlamps served well at night.

    After lunch I caught up on my journal in the pavilion by the pool and then we headed back to QENP for a game drive at 4:30. The drive back was 40 minutes and that did seem a bit out of the way and I had regrets about not taking the advice that Mweya was a better location. Going back & forth once or twice a day - that 40 minutes adds up.

    After the great game drives at MFNP I have to say QENP was disappointing. It was a beautiful park, yes, and there were - thank god - many beautiful birds to look at but we saw very little in the way of 4-legged creatures. A few buffalo, kob, waterbuck, and warthogs. The biggest thrill was a large monitor lizard in the road (which paled in comparison to the many huge ones we saw later on Ngamba island!). When we saw several vehicles congregating ahead we thought, okay, what have we here....oh, a lizard. You get jaded fast on safari, right? The first day at the Boma an agama lizard was worth 10 pictures!

    Forty minutes back to Katara and a good BBQ dinner before lightning started flashing and we scurried for our cottage.

    Early morning drive...not too much to see. Back to Katara for lunch. Then out again at 1 pm to do the Kazinga channel boat cruise. It was 2 hrs and we saw many hippos - some mating, but what can you really see underwater, ellies and buffalo on the bank, lots of birds, some monkeys, only one croc. We passed the fishing village which is inside the park and saw many people doing laundry, bathing, and children playing in the water. This was a few feet from visible hippos and an area where crocs are known to take grown men so it was a little surprising that so much activity takes place in the water without fear (?). When we had driven through the village earlier in the day you could see hippo prints everywhere - maybe the villagers stay inside at night.

    We left early the next morning for a game drive in Ishasha in the southern sector of the park before going onward to Bwindi. Although Emmy valiantly circled every fig tree in Ishasha we had no luck with the elusive lions. A few kob, buffalo, topi. A beautiful drive but uneventful beyond watching a Martial eagle try to fly off with a dead baby monkey and drop it from a height.

    The road to Bwindi was our worst yet I think, not only bumpy and full of potholes but also big stones all throughout the surface. Luckily it was only a few hours and we got to Mahogany Springs at Buhoma around 3:30. The surrounding area is gorgeous with a lush green valley full of farmed terraces, banana trees, tea plantations and forest. Went through lots of pretty villages where banana trees are, truly, growing everywhere.

    Mahogany Springs is another beautiful lodge - individual thatched-roof rooms (ours was named Henry) with big beds, a huge mosquito net curtain that covered most of the room when closed, and a nice front porch to enjoy the view. The temperature there was lower than elsewhere and we really enjoyed hot water bottles in our beds and sitting by the fireplace in the main lodge. We loved everything about MS and were happy we got to spend 3 nights there and finally slow down and stop the rushing around for a bit.

    We went to bed early to be ready for our big adventure - -really, the whole reason for the trip boiled down to this one event -- and were up and ready to go at 7:30. The ranger station is right up the street so we didn’t have to spend a long time driving (for a change!). Our first day we’d be visiting the Rushegura family and we knew the day before they were very close to the ranger station so we probably we wouldn’t have that much of a hike.

    After receiving our orientation - how far back to stay from the gorillas, what to do if you need to make a short call, don’t use flash, etc. - we were matched up with porters (most people took a porter even though we knew it wouldn’t be a long, challenging hike -- I think we’d all read about how helpful it is to them personally and the local economy, and for thinking of gorillas as a positive revenue source so they’re not tempted to poach, etc.) and set off in our small group for the jungle. It was very thick, lots of vines to climb through and around. The porters carried our daypacks and were very helpful in getting us across a small stream -they moved rocks around for us to walk on - and in the case of one woman basically carried her over.

    We did encounter biting ants - they got everywhere, in everyone’s clothes, especially around the neck. I don’t think they were the infamous safari ants but some evil bastards all the same. The wazungu were constantly grooming each other and trying to fend them off and not, as our guide said, habituate them!

    An hour’s hike in and we came to the R family sitting quietly. They were spread out but maybe 7 or 8 were right around the silverback. He was massive! He made what sounded like a very long, drawn-out groan but our guide Rita told us he was “farting to welcome us.” There were several females and a baby playing -- those few minutes we had watching them were some of the best part of the visit. Unfortunately after not very long the silverback decided to move a bit away and they went with him. We stayed and watched the others - mainly they were just eating, another baby was sleeping in her mother’s lap.

    Although! A juvenile ran past us and slapped me and then Rob in the leg and then grabbed onto the guy next to us and hugged his leg for maybe 30 seconds. We were watching in disbelief and waiting to see what he’d do next. He eventually ran a bit further, sat down and then rolled sideways down a hill. Too funny. The hugged-guy was ecstatic. He showed us his leg - the gorilla had been mouthing his pants and leg and there was a red mark on his calf - he wasn’t bitten but the little gorilla just had to see what he tasted like, I guess.

    The rest of the hour went very fast and it was soon time to hike back out. I knew going in that any pictures I took would be mediocre at best so I didn’t take a lot. And I was right - they pretty much stunk. I’m not into photography per se and feel fine with just taking pictures to have memories of travels - nothing more serious. But in this instance I was annoyed that I didn’t at least bother to learn how to use my camera off the automatic setting so I could have manually focused it and gotten better shots of the gorillas rather than whatever leaf or branch was in front of them.

    It did feel like a cheat to have such a short hike, especially after packing provisions for a much longer day -- we didn’t get to eat our packed lunches until we got back to our room. There was the opportunity to do other hikes later in the day including ones up to waterfalls but since we were going out the next morning on another, longer gorilla hike we decided to be lazy and stay at the lodge. We later talked to a guy in our morning group who did the waterfall walk and he said it was amazing and they ended up seeing gorillas and spending another half hour with them so clearly we made a tactical error.

    Our housekeeper cleaned our muddy boots and gaiters to better-than-new condition (I did tell him please don’t bother we’ll be going again tomorrow but he said yes, and I will do them again tomorrow. Oh the guilt.)

    The rest of the day we totally relaxed and read and spent some time at the main lodge on their front porch.

    The next day, same drill, out at 7:30, went through orientation at the station again but then we drove a little ways to where we’d start our hike to visit the Habinyanja family. We knew this would be a bit more challenging and longer hike but that was what we’d been looking forward to - only I was not looking forward to the rain that started an hour into the trek. You’re in a rainforest, go figure, it rains. Not just a drizzle, it was bucketing and I quickly learned the importance of waterproof gear - which I’d chosen to leave at home so it didn’t get torn by thorns or branches. What kind of logic is that?!....not the good kind. I was literally soaked to the skin in 10 minutes and then resigned myself to just being saturated. Not so bad as long as we were moving and generating heat but anytime we stopped it was a cold, cold wait to get going again.

    My porter earned his pay that day - many times he helped me, once grabbing my arm just as I slid off the side of the muddy hill. Not sure how I didn’t pull him down with me all the way to the bottom but they have some serious strength and never got winded at all during the climb.

    The rain made it very dark inside the forest and it was hard to see where you were walking but there was a bit of a path to follow. When we got to the gorillas after maybe 3 hrs they were in a sort of a clearing so at least there was some light and we could see them. Our guide suggested waiting the rain out so we could have good pictures of the gorillas but I think we were so drenched and it didn’t seem to be slowing up at all -- waiting didn’t feel like a good idea.

    So our hour with them was in pouring rain and I never even took my camera out. Rob took a few pictures and videos. They mainly were eating and/or just sitting. The silverback did have a few words with another male and charged around a bit - -that was good for getting our blood moving. He came over near us doing some chest-beating and then sat with his arm across his chest and stared at us for the rest of the visit.
    It was for the most part a sedate visit but still incredible and wonderful.

    Half an hour into our return hike the rain stopped. The guide had been right of course in suggesting we wait a while for it to quit. We made a brief lunch stop (as suggested we’d brought our huge packed lunches even though we knew we wouldn’t want all of the food and the porters were very happy to share them).

    Rob did try to give himself a lobotomy on the hike out by bashing his head into a branch that was across the path. I heard a thump and turned and saw him sprawled on the ground. My porter, Justice, pushed me to the side to run back to him to make sure he was okay and help him sit up, etc. It was very touching. Attempted trepanning aside, Rob did survive and with only a small scab.

    Here’s something I couldn’t figure out - if I have a sweaty sock I’ll get a blister but somehow having soaking wet socks in pools of standing water in my (supposedly waterproof) boots I got no blisters at all. I didn’t stop on the way out to dump the water, it seemed too convoluted with gaiters etc. and then I’d still be in wet, wet boots and socks. I don’t know if actual pools of water reduce friction? I noticed Justice didn’t dump his boots either. He had on gum boots and I could see the water level in them half-way up his calf. Maybe from experience the porters know something about water in boots not being a bad thing? But I digress...

    We got our official gorilla tracking certificates at the ranger station and then headed back again to MS where our housekeeper again worked his magic on seriously muddy boots. A few Nile Specials to celebrate our successful second trek, a great dinner, and off to bed.

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    And lastly, Part 4
    The drive to Lake Mburo the next morning included a brief stop to change our one and only flat tire of the trip. That was the only problem at all with the Land Cruiser and I counted that as a major blessing after reading people’s stories of various mechanical difficulties. It’s no wonder with the way the roads beat up the vehicles that they would need constant repairs. Another long day of driving - 8 hours to reach the park gates. Again, lots to look at so it’s not a boring drive.

    At Lake Mburo we saw zebra, very shy elands, waterbuck, topi, warthogs, impala, a big herd of Ankole with the longest horns we’d seen yet. We stopped at a zebra carcass to watch 2 leopards who were nearby. They never did move in to eat and after a while we went on. When we drove by the carcass the next morning it was down to bones with a Fish Eagle sitting on the ribcage.

    As with other lodges, Mihingo was spectacular but we got there pretty late in the day to do more than be shown to our tent, take showers, and go to dinner. It’s another very special place - the tents are wonderful. The pool/deck/main lodge looks out over the savannah and there’s a waterhole where we watched a bunch of impalas gather. We were asked if we’d want to do the nature walk in the morning but unfortunately it was up and at ‘em bright and early to get back on the road. Definitely this place deserves two nights if you’re staying here and can fit it in your schedule. For us it was mainly to break up the drive across from Bwindi to Entebbe but it deserves much more than just a quick overnight, I think.

    Good tar road the rest of the way to Entebbe. Well ‘good’ is relative but by then any paved road felt like heaven. We made a stop in Kampala to see the Churchill office and then got to the Boma in Entebbe around 4. We had time to get a little sorted before our final day at the Ngamba Island Chimp Sanctuary.

    We headed there in the morning. After a visit to the Chimpanzee Sanctuary & Wildlife Conservation office in Entebbe to show our proof of vaccinations and learn more about what they do as an organization we got on the speed boat for the 45 minute ride to the island.

    The island is approx. 100 acres, 95 of which are forested and used by the chimps. The other 5 acres (separated by electric fence) have housing and offices for the staff that live there, a vet’s office/operating room, and 4 tents where visitors can stay the night. We were the only two staying while we were there.

    The tents are great - right on the water’s edge on raised decks with attached bathrooms. We hung out in the covered main area (some seating and dining tables) and watched the gazillion birds and huge monitor lizards.

    We got an orientation to the island and were told if we heard a whistle blowing to run to the evacuation spot or into the water as it meant a chimp had gone over the fence and they can’t swim.

    Twice that afternoon and also the next morning we watched them feed the 48 chimps that are currently living there. Because the island doesn’t have enough acreage to support the chimps if they only feed in the forest, they get supplemented with 4 meals a day - mainly cut up fruit and vegetables - also porridge - and once a week they’re given eggs for protein.

    Learning about the individual chimps’ backgrounds and the terrible situations they’ve been rescued from was incredibly moving. They talked about being able to someday re-locate some of the chimps into the wild but I don’t understand how that would work without the resident chimps attacking them.

    We watched the very intelligent chimps using dry sticks to drag pieces of fruit under the fence - they’ve learned how to avoid getting a shock. We also watched some idiot tourists learning the hard way how to avoid getting a shock. The fence is clearly marked “danger - electric fence” in many places but at each feeding we’d see the visitors put their cameras right up to the fence. Every time the staff would warn them. One gentleman got his reminder by way of a zap. Good to know it’s just enough to zap the chimps (& humans), not knock them out or worse!

    After a wonderful dinner we sat by a bonfire and talked with some of the staff. At sunset we’d watched the sky filled with thousands of fruit bats crossing from one side of the island to the other, nonstop for 15 minutes...very cool! We slept well although the birds at the water’s edge seemed more nocturnal than I would’ve thought.

    The next day we were up early for a forest walk with 6 of the guest-compatible chimps. It was an amazing opportunity to interact with them. Well, mainly they were interested in whatever food we might have. The initial contact involved them patting down and putting their hands in our pockets to see what we had on board! When the staff gave us roasted peanuts to share some of them would gently take one at a time from your hand but one especially greedy girl, Pasa, would hold your wrist with one hand and use the other to move your fingers back to get the whole handful at once. She was not only greedy but liked to be carried and so she first climbed up on Rob’s back for a ride and then later mine. 50 lbs of chimp is no joke! She would scootch herself up higher and hold on tight. How unreal to feel her breath on the back of my neck. I carried her as far as I could but when we got into an uphill section of the forest and my knees began buckling I put her down and we spent time sitting with them and grooming. I guess I was doing a good job on Yoyo, she rolled over on her side so I could get at various ungroomed areas!

    This was a really great experience - -not inexpensive but a helpful contribution to the running of the island. I think just coming for the feeding might be okay but zoo-like. But staying on the island overnight was lovely just for the location itself and spending time with the chimps up close and personal was definitely a priceless once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us.

    After our walk we had breakfast and later on took the boat back to Entebbe and returned to the Boma where we’d arranged for a day room. The original plan was to have the day in Entebbe to do whatever...the zoo maybe or botanical gardens but having a room to shower and nap in before our 11:30 flight that last night was a really good way to end the trip.

    Sorry it was such a long report.....if anyone even got this far! We loved Uganda and had a fabulous time there and would love to return some day.

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    Hi Leslie

    I am pleased to say I did read it all and am as always, amazed when people write so much but your report was very interesting. I am going to do the gorillas in Rwanda in June so not Uganda, but a similar experience I am sure. I have been to Africa a lot of times, and now really go to work in animal rehabs twice a year. For the first time one of my sisters is coming with me, so will do the animal rehab and then onto Tanzania and finishing with the gorillas. We are both very excited by our upcoming trip and your gorilla report makes me even more excited - though not the getting to gorilla part. I have decided we will do 3 walks over 3 days, which i know will be hard but i am into photography and this way i will ensure I hope, some good photos.

    Your photos were good and the place certainly looks lovely and green. I did think you moved around a lot and I would have to say, that two nights in one place would always be not enough time, but in saying that, I can spend weeks in one spot and still not want to move on.

    Burning grass certainly brings fresh growth for antelope etc if done at the right time with rains etc. If done too much I think it would cause a lot of damage though. Many places alongside Kruger would be burns each winter to keep dead grass at a minimum in case a fire went through and the burns would rotate from year to year so that they did not burn the whole place to nothing every year! But you can barely see green tips one day and within a very short time, fresh new growth is everywhere.

    The roads and driving bit didn't sound too much fun and you are lucky that you can fall asleep in such conditions. We have a lot of flying in this trip as 3 countries which even I think is a bit silly, but Di does not think she will return so I want her to see a few things and a few countries and she only gets 3 weeks holidays so hopefully all will go well and she will be pleased with it all!

    Thanks for your report, interesting and entertaining at the same time! :)

    Kind regards

    Kaye

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    Thanks Kaye; I know it was a slog to get through!

    I hope you and your sister have a wonderful time. I'm sure she'll be thrilled with how much you'll see in three weeks. And in three gorilla treks - how wonderful!

    The 2 night stays were tough and I know from reading your posts over the years how lucky you are to spend lots of time in one camp when you're on safari. Part of our problem is only having 2 weeks of time off from work and trying to maximize that because we generally don't go back to the same place twice. So many countries to visit still...

    I'm starting to read about Tanzania now and hope to plan a trip there if not next year then in 2015 -- I'm going to try for some 3 night stays at least :)

    Enjoy Rwanda!

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    Forgot to add also - thanks for the info on the controlled burns. Haha, I picture firemen standing around ready to put out the flames if it's really to be controlled and obviously that's not the case, they just let it go. I guess they know what they're doing and won't ever burn a whole forest down!

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    Your gorilla treks brought back memories, but also made me realise how lucky I was to have encountered no rain. I also experienced poor luck in Queen. I've concluded that it is not worth a visit for safari drives, but rather for chimp visits and other activities.

    Enjoyed your description of Ngamba Island. I still have not been able to visit. How were the rangers on the island? I find a huge part of my enjoyment comes from listening to the vast knowledge that rangers have accumulated, and they can make or break a trip.

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    Yeah, QENP was a major disappointment as far as game. I knew that for me Uganda was about the primates and I wasn't the level of game we've seen elsewhere in Africa. But after having good game drives at MFNP I was happy and looking forward to more but QE and also Lake Mburo didn't have a heck of a lot going on.

    On Ngamba we had some time with the staff that work/live there and learned about how the chimps are cared for and spend their time each day in the forest and then at night when they come into the fenced part of the island. Also learned a lot about the various backstories and how the chimps came to be living at the sanctuary. And they were very open to conversation and questions so I think you can learn a lot from them. The vet that stays on the island was away for a conference so we didn't get to meet him but that would probably be a great learning experience too.

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    Leslie - good trip report - thanks! You have some really nice photos, even of the gorillas despite the rain. I enjoyed the videos too - can't wait for my trip to Rwanda in a few months for my first visit with gorillas!

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    Hi Leslie

    No it was good to read - sometimes they put in too much detail on a day to day basis and i don't have the time to be reading that. But yours was interesting with detail where needed, so not a slog at all! :)
    Di is so excited and I always am when I return, so we will have a great time and doing a real mix of things as well. The 3 gorilla treks will either be fantastic or it will kill my knees! I am very lucky to have been able to spend so many weeks at one place, and I realise not many want to do that let alone can afford the time to do that, but i did love doing that and no doubt, i have had lots of incredible sightings and in a way, it makes finding suitable places for gameviewing so hard now, I am pleased that i have changed my purpose for why I go to South Africa these days.
    Yes do try for 3 night stays as that only gives you 2 full days in any one place and you lose so much time in travelling and that is more important when you only have 2 lousy weeks of annual leave, that really sucks I must say!
    Depends where you are to how controlled those burns are - certainly seen evidence in South Africa, not near reserves of burns done and there looked to be nothing controlled about them at all, they should be controlled though! No don't think i would say that they all know what they are doing either, I wish I could say that though!

    Kind regards

    Kaye

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    Cateyes555- thanks and enjoy your trip to Rwanda! I'm happy enough with our pictures but I was looking at someone's yesterday from a TZ safari and it was an a-ha moment - Oh this is what a good camera and good photographer can do! Big difference!

    Kaye - the knee part - I thought going uphill was hard (it was!) but coming down was harder. I had to sort of crabwalk sideways because my knees were screaming. I might be wrong but aren't the gorilla treks in Rwanda in a less vertical park? Maybe I have that backwards.

    And just to clarify so my job doesn't sound worse than it is (!) I do get more than 2 weeks of annual leave - a little over 5 weeks which is pretty good I think (for the US anyway). But I can usually only be gone 2 weeks in a row. I'm looking forward in that sense to retirement so we can go and stay put for a while especially when there are long flights involved. But that's a ways off so until then I'll try to do at least 3 night stays on safari!

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    Leslie!! A great report. i Couldnt stop reading. You are fantastiic!
    will write more on the "other " forum! I know JUST what you mean about how little time one spends at the lodges. I put my foot down at Buhoma--TWO nights instead of one, I had my "melt down" day between leaving QE and arriving at Buhoma. Glad you had three at Mahogany Springs. Everyone going to Uganda needs to add a couple days of "nothing" or they too will have at least one day when you want to scream!!

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    I meant three days at Mahogany...not three meltdowns!
    Agree too about game in QE , which is why i think Mweya Lodge (or in your case, Katara) are perfect for at least one day of doing nothing but relaxing on the terrace and watching the birds and people.

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    Hi Leslie

    Don't be telling me that! :) I am so excited to be finally seeing the gorillas that I decided I am prepared to put up with the pain, especially as it is the last thing on our trip, hopefully not the last thing i do though! I had heard that they can be an hour or 4 hours away, and it is tough going, someone likened it to Kokoda, which Di has done, and that is a nightmare walk, especially if wet, you do it on your hands and knees.

    Oh that is lucky that you get 5 weeks as I thought most of you guys from the states get very limited annual leave. Mmmmmmm 2 weeks you just get into it, so don't think I could handle just 2 weeks, especially with those flights as you say as i go via Singapore so takes me about 34 hours to get to my Sth African destination.

    Kind regards

    Kaye

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    Thanks Cali :)
    You're right about building in down time. It was a very hectic pace. I could've helped that by letting our guide know we'd rather stay out for the whole day with a packed lunch and not go back & forth twice. I assumed he knew best. I'm sure the guides like a mid-day break if they can get it!

    Kaye - The endorphins released from the joy of seeing gorillas will get you through any knee pain. And hopefully there won't be anything so intense that you'll be on your hands & knees!

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    Thanks for sharing your report. I just returned from Tanzania and feel like you captured the same sort of "joy" I brought back. Your excitement was palpable reading that!

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    Aw, thanks Amy!

    Since your report said "first but not last" are you contemplating your next safari yet? I was ready to book another one the minute we got home but I think it might already be late for Feb. 2014 planning. I've set my sights for TZ in Feb. 2015 instead and will definitely be using your report in my planning, so thanks for all of that helpful info!

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    Yes, I've been home a mere 16 days and I'm seriously thinking about one for 2014. I'm getting great ideas from here and Safaritalk.net. I'm thinking Kenya or maybe a different part of TZ, but this sounds like it was a great experience for you too, so I won't rule Uganda out yet. I think once you do it, it's in your blood! Great report!!!

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    Les, your photos are FANTASTIC!!! The one of your first gorilla--excellent! Whaddya mean, you're not a good photographer??!!
    I l loved Paraa Lodge too. The photos of your room brought back memories. i was in the same "wing" second floor overlooking the pool. (This is where i regained some mental clarity after concussion.) I agree totally on your impressions of Paraa. Next time there, i'm stayng at leat two nights.
    I think the best thing is to prepare for the roads. Imagine the worst you can, and you'll be pleasantly surprised if not so bad. Now you know why, on that road between Ishasha and Buhoma , I swore and wondered how the govt spends its money and expects to increase tourism when they cant even fix a road!
    Also, not cheesy to post on two forums. You are quite right to do so as they attract different people.
    You and Rob are an adorable couple!!!!!I hope he loved the trip as much as you did!

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    Coffee, you are right. Mostly i stuck to tea, or milk-tea(chai). But, i had goodcoffee at Sipi River Lodge on the other side of the country. They have their small plantation. Also, a cafe latte at Mweya which was ok, not great, but beautifully served. Getting any expresso drink at all was special, especially on a terrace overlooking the lake and surrounded by birds. For your next trip!!!

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    Maybe next trip I'll bring some of those Starbucks instant coffee packs ;)

    Thanks again, Cali, for the picture comments. If you take 3000 you can usually find 100 that are not TERRIBLE anyway!

    I don't think you ever finished your story about how you hurt yourself and ended up with a concussion. Was that early on in your UG trip?

    Amy - good luck planning your next safari - please write another trip report, I loved reading yours.
    You can consider adding just a few days in UG or Rwanda to see gorillas next time :)

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    Leslie_S- Your trip brought back memories for me as well and I think you did an amazing job trekking in the rain. We were so fortunate that we did not have any rain and the conditions of the trail were really good. The amazing thing about the gorillas that each experience can be so different. I do agree that Uganda really does need time and that the travel between places are long. Our trip to Uganda was 19 days including the international travel and we still felt that it was somewhat difficult in terms of the amount of time. Glad it was so memorable!!

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    lhgreenacres: yes, you do need a lot of time to do it justice -- it would be so different if the roads weren't so challenging. You could really see so much more and not waste such big chunks of time on the road. I felt for our guide having to deal with that constantly.

    The rain - ugh. I'm so glad we had the one hike in sunshine. It was a very different experience than the rainy one! The gorillas may or may not have been so low-key because of the rain but it did seem like they just hunkered down and didn't like it any more than we did!

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    Very nice report and pictures. Gorillas are on my wish list as well and its good to see a gorrilla-centric Uganda report rather than only Rwanda. Consider posting this with your pictures (within the text in context) over at Safaritalk.net.

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    Hi Leslie - I loved reading your report and seeing the photos. Thank you for sharing your experiences! First, I have to say that your lodging looked incredible. Which was your favorite?

    And as always, I really enjoyed your photos. I loved the "wheeled bed" (which would be nice as long as the bugs aren't too crazy I guess), the banana truck, and the primates peeking through the branches. It looks like your camera focused well on some of the ones where the branches were in the way. Also, I noticed that one of the chimps at the chimp sanctuary had grey hair - was he just old or is he a different kind of chimp?

    The rain/damp sounds absolutely miserable but you survived, huh? Now you know what it's like living where I live! (well, at least 9 months out of the year). Interesting observation about wet boots/socks not causing blisters... And it is funny that you mentioned how strong the porters are. It really is amazing. I had one save me from going over the edge at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe (tripped on my camera case strap) and I've got a lot of weight that was headed over!

    If you go back, would you limit your range and maybe stay in only a couple different areas?

    Great trip report! Thanks for posting.

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    Hi Carrie -- thanks for your nice comments :)

    Yeah, the lodging was pretty amazing. I'd say Kyaninga and Mihingo had the biggest wow factor and probably would be tied for favorite. But the others were all great in their own way. The place with the bed on wheels - I wonder how many people take advantage of it. It's a very cool idea but I think I'd just feel a little too exposed to ever fall asleep. But you already know what a major wimp I am since I chose Mashatu main camp over tented out of tent-fear!

    We were told that grey-headed chimp was that way from his 'previous situation' not age. I took that explanation to mean caused by stress. They all had very tragic histories.

    Haha, 9 months of wet weather - not sure how people handle that. Lots of ((c)) or ((d)) maybe!

    Thank god for porters!

    I would do it a little differently if I went back. But there are so many other places to go first! I have to talk to you about your TZ trip sometime - that's on my radar for my next safari.

    L

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    It's wonderful that you found this such a great experience! I tracked chimps with my husband in 2010 at Mahale and we tracked the gorillas last summer in Uganda in 2012. Both were amazing experiences. Our lodges were top notch. Where you stay really does make a difference - if you book this and end up in a place too far away or a place you don't feel safe, your trip is not as enjoyable as it could be.

    I work for Huffman Travel in Chicago and am a specialist in African travel. It is one of my favorite places on earth and I've stayed at some amazing camps. Luxury is available, but so are real deal camps with not a lot of frills. It depends on what you're looking for. It is NOT too late to book travel for 2013! I have clients who just booked for the wildebeest migration only last week. The right advisors will take what you are planning and make it even better. I would be delighted to assist in planning a trip of a lifetime, because that is what they are. African travel is a life changing experience. You can read about us at http://huffmantravel.com/about-us/huffman-travel-advisors/shelane-nunnery/

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    Hi Leslie,
    thanks for posting this, it’s a great read and good to see that you had the time to enjoy Uganda. I have lived in Uganda for over 7 years selling Safaris and its fabulous getting a well written travellers experience and photos that tell the true story of what Uganda has to offer.
    Thanks
    All the best
    Zara

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    Leslie..thanks for all those details..Uganda might have been my Dad's favorite place on that continent, (with Ethiopia a close second) and I hope to make it there someday soon.

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    Haha, too many details I think. My own mother never even finished reading it! But thank you and I hope you make it there someday - it was beautiful and our experiences with the mountain gorillas and chimps were especially magical. Ethiopia is on my list. So many places, so little time...

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    Leslie, thank you for choosing to travel with Churchill Safaris and most of all that you did enjoy your safari.Thank you for writing and recommending us as well. It will be a pleasure to see you travel with us again!
    Elizabeth,Marketing department Churchill Safaris

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