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Trip report - Kenya & Uganda Oct/Nov 2006

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Here’s a trip report from our safaris to Kenya and Uganda. The trip to Uganda was actually an 18 day birding tour. We then decided to add a week in the Mara with hopes of catching the migration. Thanks to all for helping us decide where to go for the migration. It was a great success!

I didn’t keep a journal, so this truly is a summary report and is not in any special chronological order. I’ll put our thoughts about accommodations at the end which might be helpful to those of you who are thinking of visiting Uganda.

We’re still working on pictures and will post a link when we get them uploaded. Our trip home was uneventful and we’re finally getting over jet lag. So of course we’re already contemplating our next trip to Africa!


ITINERARY:

Oct 23-24 Chicago to London Heathrow (overnight)
Oct 25 London to Nairobi (Holiday Inn Mayfair)
Oct 26 – 28 Rekero Tented Camp (Masai Mara)
Oct 29 – Oct 31 Governor’s Il Moran (Masai Mara)
Nov 1 Masai Mara to Nairobi to Entebbe
Nov 1 – 2 Imperial Resort Hotel (Entebbe)
Nov 3 – 4 Masindi Hotel (Masindi)
Nov 5 – 7 Sarova Paraa Lodge (Murchison Falls National Park)
Nov 8 Masindi Hotel (Masindi)
Nov 9 – 10 Mantana Tented Camp (Kibale National Park)
Nov 11 – 12 Mweya Lodge (Queen Elizabeth National Park)
Nov 13 -15 Gorilla Forest Camp (Bwindi Impenetrable National Park)
Nov 16 White Horse Inn (Kabale)
Nov 17 Mantana Safari Camp (Lake Mburo National Park)
Nov 18 Gately on the Nile Guest House (Jinja/Mabira Forest)
Nov 19 Imperial Resort Hotel (Entebbe)


KENYA MASAI MARA:

It was good to visit Kenya again. We were thrilled that we got to see our wildebeest migration in the Maasi Mara, as we knew it would be iffy at this time of the year. The migration was at the tail end when we first arrived, but the wildebeest started to stream back in droves from Tanzania. The Mara had gotten rain before we arrived and grass was sprouting.

Our first stop, Rekero Tented Camp, is situated on the Talek River in the Mara. One morning we were treated to our own private river crossing about 100 yds from our tent. The staff set up a table so we could have our breakfast and watch the wildebeest, zebras, and topis cross the river. Sadly, no crocs or cats to make the crossing interesting. This was the only place we saw a cheetah and got great views two days in a row.

At the second camp, Governor’s Il Moran, we got to see another river crossing but this time on the Mara River. In typical wildebeest style, they crossed the Mara…then a few minutes later crossed back…then they crossed back again. These critters are definitely not playing with a full deck! Unfortunately for us but fortunately for the wildebeest, predators weren't interested because they were already stuffed.

We dipped on rhino and leopard. Bella, the leopard from Big Cat Diary, was seen near camp the day before we arrived at Rekero. As it happened, one of the families staying at Rekero included a 12 year old girl whose nickname was Bella. So Bella got to see Bella! She was so thrilled and couldn’t wait to get home to tell all her friends. I’m sure that memory will stay with her forever.

Unlike our previous Kenya birding safari in 2002, we saw a lot of lion cubs this time at both camps. One cub was barely 4 weeks old and still hadn't completely mastered the art of walking...what a little cutie!

We also had an interesting experience at Il Moran watching a pack of hyenas hunting wildebeest. Our guide said they hunt if they can't find anything to steal. The pack got a wildebeest surrounded and down. From what we were told, the hyenas don't really know how to kill their prey so they just start eating. It was a gruesome sight but made for some colorful photography. The British couple with whom we were sharing a vehicle, kept saying "where's the blood and guts?" Well, they got more than they bargained for!


UGANDA:

We survived the mountain gorilla trek (hurray!!!) and have some fond memories of the experience. We got the "easy" group, but as it turned out it was the hard one! We scrambled straight up a steep, "impenetrable", slippery, muddy mountain for 3 hours in a driving downpour before the trackers finally located the gorillas.

Luckily, the rain stopped just as we met up with the gorillas. Unluckily, the silverback had just had a run-in with a wild silverback who was interested in swiping some females from the family. We got to hear the run-in but not see it...pretty cool sounds...grunts, growls, screams and chest thumping!

As a result of the run-in, instead of sitting in one area eating, sleeping or playing, the gorilla family was on the move a lot. We spent a good portion of our 1 hour viewing time chasing them. We did get decent views from about 20 ft when the family stopped moving. However, they stopped only 3-4 times for 5 min each. Each time the gorillas stopped, the tracker/guide kept telling us to "take many pictures now because the gorillas will move if the rogue silverback comes again." And move, they did.

Photographing the gorillas was difficult because they never stopped in an open area so it was quite dark, and we were huffin' and puffin' from chasing them. We had to move at a fast pace in order to keep up with them. So, I was out of breath most of the time and usually one of the last ones to catch up to the gorillas. Even though Dave was able to stay at the front of the pack, he had to use a high ISO and so his photos are grainy. I gave up trying to take still photos (shutter speeds of 1/2 second at 400 ISO!) but did get a few OK movie clips from which I made some stills. Thank goodness for that movie function on my camera!

The others from our tour group went to see the “medium difficulty” family. Ha! They drove about an hour to get to the area where the trackers had spotted the gorillas, got out of the vehicle, and the gorillas were waiting just off the road for them! In fact, when they finished viewing the majority of the family and returned to the vehicle, there was a second silverback lying on the road waiting for them!!! Well, we got the “true” gorilla trek experience (can you tell I'm training for a job as a spin-doctor?!!!)

Although we did get to see the largest primates, we unfortunately did not see the chimps...a long and still painful story to tell. But it’s not all bad news since it gives us a reason to return to Africa!

Uganda is a beautiful country. Our Ugandan drivers and guides were wonderful companions, and the locals were so friendly and accommodating. It’s sad to think the average lifespan of the gorillas (50 years) is longer than that of the average Ugandan (40 yrs). While at Bwindi, a doctor and a midwife from the local clinic came and talked with us...very sobering statistics.

ONE STRONG WARNING RE: MONEY - Make sure you bring large denomination US bills ($50 or $100) which were printed in 2001 or later and are in excellent shape (no tears or markings). Some places will absolutely not accept any bills dated 2001 or earlier. Some will accept them, but will give a lower exchange rate. Smaller denomination bills even if printed after 2001 were also given lower exchange rates. ATMs didn’t seem to work anywhere and travelers checks were not accepted. Cash is King in Uganda!


ACCOMMODATIONS:

Holiday Inn Mayfair (Nairobi) – OK for an overnight, but a bit pricey for what you get. Rooms were very “worn and tired”.

Rekero Tented Camp (Masai Mara) – FABULOUS!!!! We loved the relaxed, unpretentious owners and homey atmosphere. The food was the best we had, our Maasai guide and tracker were excellent, the 7 tents were comfortable and well appointed, and the owners’ 18 month old son Charlie, a budding birder, was as cute as a button. The camp site was stunning…right on a bend in the Talek River. They knew we were keen birders and gave us a tent where we would see the most birds. We also ended up with a private vehicle without our asking for one. The only downside we can think of is less game than the area around Governor’s camps. However, there are also virtually no other vehicles in sight. Can you tell we liked this camp? We are already thinking about returning and staying much longer.

Governor’s Il Moran (Masai Mara) – Very different from Rekero. Aside from huge, luxurious tents with hot running water, it was everything Rekero wasn’t…and that isn’t necessarily good. Although Il Moran has only 10 tents, it had the feel of a large impersonal lodge. Hands were not outstretched, but it sure felt like the staff was always looking for gratuities. The food was mediocre and I actually got sick the last day there. Here at Il Moran, each group was seated at a private table so there was no interaction with others except on game drives. We missed the communal dinners around a big table at Rekero. But, to each his own.

Imperial Resort Beach Hotel (Entebbe) – A huge “luxury” hotel. One of the 2 elevators didn’t work so we had quite a hike each day. Most of our group’s rooms had very low water pressure or showers that didn’t work at all, and air conditioning (no ceiling fans) that didn’t always work. Other than that, the rooms were quite large and well appointed. The food was OK, but it took forever to get served. Some folks waited over 2 hours for their meals, and only got them when they said their tour was leaving in half an hour. The ground agent said the usual hotel, the Windsor Lake Victoria Hotel, had gone downhill and they wouldn’t recommend staying there. So we ended up at the Imperial Resort.

Masindi Hotel (Masindi) – Masindi is a stopover town because the driving time is so long to the parks. The rooms in this hotel were a bit basic, but fine and the food was quite good. The Democrats in our group got the election news while at this hotel. They screamed so loudly, the security guards ran to their rooms to see if they were OK!

Sarova Paraa Lodge (Murchison Falls) – A very nice lodge with fantastic views of the Nile. The rooms were large and comfortable and the food was very good.

Mantana Tented Camp (Kibale National Park) – This camp is on par with the seasonal camps in Kenya. The tents were on the small side but comfortable with en suite bucket showers and long drop toilets. The staff was very accommodating and the food was quite good given the camp was out in the middle of nowhere. We tried very hard to conserve water since it has to be bicycled up from the main road.

Mweya Lodge (Queen Elizabeth National Park) – Another very nice lodge with fantastic views of the Nile. Large and comfortable rooms, and good food. There are no fences around this lodge and we had resident warthogs and mongooses right outside our rooms. A friend who stayed at this lodge a few years back, was greeted by a lion when she opened the door to her room one morning!

Gorilla Forest Camp (Bwindi Impenetrable National Park) – FANTASTIC!!! Tents are on par with Il Moran, but the staff was much more low key and genuinely friendly and helpful. A very nice place to relax after an arduous gorilla trek. This camp is close to the entrance of Bwindi so it was an easy walk to/from the gorilla trek starting point. This is the camp from which the tourists were taken hostage by the Rwandan Hutu rebels and killed in 1999. The camp closed not long afterward and only reopened a few years ago. There is now a soldiers’ encampment between the camp and the park, and you cannot enter Bwindi without armed guards. I felt safer there than in my own house.

White Horse Inn – This was the “best” accommodation in the area. Yuk. Need I say more?

Mantana Safari Camp – Sister camp to the Mantana Tented Camp, but not up to par with it. The setting is spectacular, overlooking Mburo National Park, but the staff always seemed annoyed with us.

Gately on the Nile Guest House – The best place to stay in Jinja! A nice guest house with beautiful gardens and large but fairly basic rooms. The food was some of the best on the trip, and the manager was wonderful.

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