Rather lengthy as it will be used to reflect on the trip years from now. And, if you have little interest in birds you might be overwhelmed by mentioning of so many birds.
Trip Report Uganda Safari September 2013
With the decision to make a return visit to Uganda we opted to go with Churchill Safari based on great time we had with them in 2012. Communications with Ether were excellent and with input from mfuwe and others on Trip Advisor we roughed out an itinerary for 16 days (September 8-23) covering a nice cross-section of the country. Although not serious, serious birders emphasis was birding and general wildlife. No interest in chimp or gorilla trekking.
Packing was relatively easy given experience from previous trips to East Africa. Standard items included “Birds of East Africa” by Stevenson and Fanshawe, two pair of binocs, a Canon Rebel T1i with a 100-400 mm lens (the 70-300 mm unit as a back-up), a Canon power shot S3 camera for general use, extra rechargeable batteries and cards for the Rebel and a pack of regular batteries for the S3, power converter/adapter, charger, 2 flashlights, toiletry items, meds, bug spray, a small alarm clock, wash cloth (critical) and a Nook reader. Clothing included light rain jackets. Luggage was soft-sided multi-zippered units from AAA with an over the shoulder “back pack for the wife and a small athletic bag for me as our carry ons for critical items including one change of clothing used to wrap cameras and lens. I also took a 1:550,000 scale map of Uganda from International Travel Maps (Amazon.com) to follow our travels.
Susan at our local AAA office was most helpful in arranging flights. We opted to go with Ethiopian Airlines as rates were excellent and the outgoing flight was a direct one (13 hrs) from Dulles Int Airport to Addis Abba and then a 2 hr connecting one to Entebbe, Uganda. We also decided to fly from the State College airport practically in our backyard to/from Dulles given a good price and not having the 4 hrs one way Dulles drive. We left early Saturday morning and arrived in Entebbe early afternoon on Sunday. Except for children literally running the aisles during the flight from Dulles to Addis Abba, flights were uneventful and food reasonable. The return flight from Addis Abba to Dulles included a short stop in Rome, Italy for refueling. Appreciating that English is not the universal language we were still disappointed with announcements from the captain/stewardess in English to be barely understandable.
Our flight and another of similar size arrived at Entebbe at the same time and a mass of travelers descended on the immigration/visa area. Immigration forms were not distributed on the flight so a mad scramble occurred for cards and writing space. But, lines moved along quite well (visa $50 each), luggage arrived in short order and we were off to the exit area. We soon found Brighton (guide from 2012) and after hugs and handshakes we were off to the Boma Guest House just a few minutes’ drive from the airport.
There we met Dennis from South Africa who was out photographing birds and who gave us a quick rundown on what he had been seeing around the Boma. Except for airport pied crows and swallows, our very first sighting was a pair of Eastern Grey Plantain-eaters in a tree at the main building. A first for us! A beautiful male black-headed gonolek seemed to be posing for photos in a nearby area! Before we left the Boma we saw scarlet-chested sunbirds and black-and-white shrike-flycatchers among others. Supper was spaghetti bolognaise and rolls. We slept well. After a buffet breakfast we departed at 7 am.
We were off to the Mabamba wetlands, an off-shoot of Lake Victoria, for a short boat ride to look for shoebill and other birds of the papyrus habitat. Maria (also from 2012) was our guide. Immediately upon leaving the launch point we began seeing kingfishers, jacana, cisticolas, ducks and weavers. Then, up one narrow inlet we spotted a solitary, motionless shoebill! Suddenly, it lunged forward and came up with a fish, probably a lungfish which it soon swallowed. We noticed a black crake foraging along the bank and then a blue-headed coucal and a papyrus gonolek in the reeds practically at the boat!
Then back to the hard road towards Masaka. Through Brighton we exchanged $100 for Uganda shillings (rate of Ush2,500 per $1) I remembered passing the spot where our radiator failed during the May 2012 trip, the Equator crossing photo stop and the stands of produce for sale. Where the road neared Lake Victoria vendors were selling tilapia fresh from the lake. At one roadside stop for buses and taxis, venders swarmed around each vehicle selling soda, roasted corn and meat on a stick. Brighton treated us to roasted banana. Outside of Masaka we had a lunch at the Highway Takeaway Eatery same as in 2012. The beef/chicken rice buffet also included veggies, cornbread and mashed bananas cooked while wrapped in banana leaves. Even though birding was the main emphasis of the trip we agreed with Brighton that unless he spotted a really unique bird, we would not stop each and every time one was spotted. Although common we could not help but stop for a photograph of a long-crested eagle atop a roadside utility pole. I think we saw more Ankole cattle in route to Lake Mburo than in 2012. A light rain was falling as we entered the park but failed to dampen our enthusiasm for safari.
Brighton used the same Stevenson and Fanshawe bird book as us so that simplified use of reference material. Also, his tape player with some 1,000 bird calls came in handy for bringing a few species closer to us But, it developed technical issues and lasted only a couple of days. However, his laser pointer really was an asset. Often, he was able to point out a bird by referencing placement of the beam. But, he was very careful to never shine the beam directly on the bird! The laser made it much, much easier to spot birds rather than the typical “go out the branch on the right to the first clump of leaves just below the vine on the right”. And, we appreciate his mouth calls for a few species including tinkerbirds. When Darla and I walked around the camps we often took pictures of birds we saw. Then, the camera’s play back feature enabled Brighton to check our identification. Often, that was the only time we saw bird “x” on the trip.
Warthog abounded perhaps with so few predators around (leopard exist in the park). We saw zebra, waterbuck, warthog, eland, topi, hippo, Cape buffalo, baboon, vervet monkey, mongoose, impala, numerous bush buck and a host of birds! The bush buck really impressed us as usually we have found them to be a bit shy but numerous individuals were seen atop termite mounds. On our second day we enjoyed a late afternoon boat ride (sit on the left side if possible and towards the front) seeing African finfoot in particular. Striped kingfisher, broad-billed roller, white-headed barbet, montaine oriole, African paradise- flycatcher, striated heron, Nubian woodpecker, brown parrot, and fish eagle were but a few of the birds we saw.
We again stayed in the Arcadia Cottages and had excellent food. An African wattled lapwing greeted us the first time we sat on the cottage porch. During a mid-day break we sat at the lounge where Brighton wanted me to introduce him to using his new laptop computer including creating/receiving email. As I am not the best of computer instructors I also introduced him to the saying “the blind leading the blind”. During the walk back from supper our escort had to “shoo” a foraging hippo away so we could reach our cottage. Lake Mburo NP is a great place to break up a long drive and has a diverse wildlife community particularly for birders. As we drove to the gate I recalled how wet the area was in May 2012 when great pools of water covered the road and herons and related birds were in abundance. I think the same African pied wagtails greeted us at the gate as we exited the park. Onward to Kabale.
Once past Mbarara it was all new country for us. The paved road was terrible and numerous drivers were using the berm. At times it was not uncommon to see 4 lanes of traffic on what was supposed to be a two-lane highway. Then, we came upon miles and miles of highway in the process of being upgraded to include passing lanes given so many large lorries. Erosion controls were non-existent and I saw numerous places where wetlands were being encroached on with fill and runoff from vehicle parks. Elevation increased and views were wonderful. We stopped in Kabale and ate our box lunches (fried chicken, pineapple, and a tomato-honey sandwich) while Brighton ordered from the buffet. I bought a coke and bottle of water for Ugh2,700. Brighton said he was thinking of suggesting no box lunches while in transit mode as local restaurants were reasonably priced and in fact, often less expensive than what the lodges charge for boxed lunches. We agreed particularly after experiencing buffets on the road. As we sat on the front porch of the eatery I was impressed that despite being two of the few muzungu (white person) in sight we were not swarmed with vendors as we often were in other Eastern African areas. Brighton indicated such was typical in Uganda. He ventured to a clothing store next door and purchased a jacket having left his at home. He told us his home area is Kisoro just a short distance away and closer to the Rwanda border. Also, he shared a few comments about the Idi Amin reign and the relatively peaceful occupation by Tanzanian troops.
He said we had about 2 hours to reach Ruhija. I was following our progress on my map and I noted the distance didn’t seem that great and that maybe we were going to go slow for birding. Hardly the case as once we left the hard road somewhere near Ikumba, the going got quite interesting. The narrow and somewhat crude dirt road, in some cases, bedrock wound up thru the hills thru agricultural areas and past small hamlets giving one to wonder how larger lorries, buses and the like made it. The term “African massage” took on a stronger meaning. We had great vistas of terraced farming, small forests and scattered houses and buildings. Yes, occasionally, we stopped to check out birds. Then, across the valley we saw the sharp change from farm areas to solid forests, Bwindi National Park. Shortly past the Ndego Gate we saw black-and-white colobus monkeys, waxbills, yellow-fronted canary, and more. Then we moved into the bamboo zone a new experience for us as vegetation was quite thick and mysterious. A dark-colored duiker darted off the side of the road before anyone had a good look at it. The road got a bit smoother ‘til just past the ranger station (for gorilla trekking activities)where we turned off onto a side road to Ruhija village and the lodge. Much of that road was on solid bedrock that was not cut nor blasted but simply followed the contour of the layers of rock. Interesting. And, it followed the ridge where in some cases was just wide enough for the one lane road and a house on each side, with one of them often on stilts given the steep terrain. A few small shops, homes and a couple of lodges made up the village. Then, we pulled into the parking area for Gorilla Mist Camp a first time experience for Brighton and us.
Elizabeth, the manager, gave us a warm welcome and an overview of the camp. Evening hot water was available on a 5 minutes’ notice but a 2 hr. wait in the morning. Battery charging was available only in the lounge. Our room was Silverback just a short distance down the hill from the main building. An African dusky flycatcher landed on a porch post and other birds were noted in nearby shrubs. As we sat on the porch admiring the great view we soon noticed considerable smoke coming up from the valley below. It seemed workers just downhill from the camp were burning brush from clearing a field for planting. I enjoy the “tang” of wood smoke but depending on wind direction this was a bit much. In any case, the fire died out shortly and all was well. Evenings are chilly at this elevation (2,200 meters or so) but we slept well particularly with blankets and hot water bottles which kept warm ‘til morning.
Brighton decided we would do a long walk the next morning. We left camp birding along the road thru the village and onto the Ruhija ranger station where we would pick up our armed escort. Just across from the station and the gorilla trek briefing point we saw blue monkeys moving about in tree tops. Gray-cheeked monkeys were there also. We continued on the road ‘til reaching an obvious path into the forest. We followed the path up, down and all around seeing various birds including white-collared oliveback, sunbirds, buff-bellied warbler, African golden-breasted bunting, black-and-white casqued hornbill, and others. Our best sightings were along the road and anywhere in the forest where openings encouraged grasses and shrubs. We saw where gorilla had fed and fresh dung indicated a recent presence. Brighton pointed out in the distance the swamp which would command a couple more hours to reach and return. Given the steepness of the terrain we opted to return to the camp in what turned out to be maybe a 10 mile or so hike. Fast moving dark clouds suggested a major rainfall event was in the making.
Lunch was shepherd’s pie, layers of mashed potatoes, minced meat and finely diced onions and other veggies. It was delicious and very filling. Plans were for an afternoon bird walk but about departure time the clouds opened for a major downpour event. We opted to hang out in the lounge chatting with Brighton and enjoying coffee and tea. He told us about one party of birders who ventured into the swamp about a year ago and got held hostage by a group of elephants. It seemed the elephants kept blocking the trail despite the efforts of the escort and the group was forced to spend the night on the trail. Cell phone reception was very poor in the steep terrain so rescuers had no choice but to wait ‘til morning. All turned out well however.
The next morning after an excellent breakfast (eggs, potatoes, toast, fruit, cereal, juice and coffee) we paid our bill (cokes were 2,000 each), signed the guest book and said goodbye to Elizabeth and staff. Still in the area we saw a yellow-rumped tinkerbird, northern puffback, brown-throated wattle-eye, and then more monkeys. We drove by the sign to “Cuckooland” mentioned by Mfuwe in his posts. Then, Brighton pulled over having seen a new bird for us and for him. A flock of olive pigeons! As at other times I always attempted to take pictures regardless of distance. Many were not of print quality but often provided means to discuss sightings long after the subject flew away. We appreciated his efforts to keep a watch for birds while negotiating rough roads. At one spot he stopped so we could observe what I recall was a stripe-breasted tit. As I was exciting the vehicle I could not help but notice a bar-tailed trogon on a limb just a short distance further down the road! Another new sighting for us in East Africa!
Arrived at the Silverback Lodge (Buhoma) where we ate our box lunches (ham sandwich, hard-boiled egg, muffin, mango juice and banana) from the Gorilla Mist Camp and then settled in for a rest ‘til the late afternoon bird walk. Our room was spacious with two comfy armchairs, luggage rack, standing shelf unit, hanging bars, small table, nice bed, tile floor, more than adequate bathroom and porch with chairs. In-room charging was available but only a dim light for reading at night. Excellent view of forested hillside across the valley and the grounds had numerous shrubs and bushes. The edge of the property was bordered by trees, grasses and a thick hedge making for good bird habitat.
Late afternoon we drove to the gorilla trek briefing area, parked and walked the road past the park headquarters up to the turn-off to the military barracks. Various plants were in flower and birds were everywhere. One large leafless tree had 3 or 4 different species and the membership seemed to change whenever we walked by. Red-headed malimbe, pink-footed puffback, olive long-tailed cuckoo, and others kept us excited. Tambourine dove and a pair of African paradise-flycatchers surprised us practically at the gate as we exited the park.
At supper, Geon, the cook came out to greet and welcome us to the dining room. We had a mixed veggie- fruit salad, rolls, a nice portion of chicken with rosemary potatoes, beans and carrots, and cake with choc sauce. Darla had a Fanta and I tried a Bell beer. While we were eating, staff turned down the bed, placed the mosquito netting and inserted hot water bottles in the bed.
After a buffet breakfast we met Brighton and were off to the park. Since our plan was to leave the road we had two armed escorts. I think it was Brighton’s intent to venture into the park and wander up the trail seeking open areas with flowering bushes and the like. The higher we moved we saw fewer birds and not much in the way of open bushy areas with flowers, berries, etc. So, we took up a path towards the valley crossing one small stream and then crossing back given the extent of downed trees from severe winds in the recent past. It was an interesting procession given the really slippery rocks and steep banks. But, we saw birds including yellow-throated tinker bird, Petit’s cuckoo-shrike, Shelley’s greenbul, tiny sunbird, pygmy kingfisher and more. More than once I wished for my trusty machete for the vegetation encountered during our cross-country hike and detours due to downed trees. Darla and I chuckled with the idea of two armed guards as we were within a quarter mile or so of the main park road, park headquarters, the office at the gate, etc. I think they enjoyed the “soft duty” that morning.
During our lunch break, clothes/shoes had a chance to dry out. Then, Darla and I explored the area around the lodge. We added green-headed and scarlet-chested sunbirds, cape wagtail, and black-bellied firefinch to our sightings plus several lizards. In the lounge we met a lady who lives in the same town in NC as does our one daughter. Then, a serious rain began! (hey, this is the rain forest!)
For the afternoon bird walk we again parked at the gorilla trek briefing point and walked the road to the near the military camp area. Sightings really got going particularly in the open sunny areas. Yellow bill, collared sunbird, black-billed weaver, Bocage’s bush-shrike, and great blue turaco were but a few of the sightings. And, all of this along a road with a fairly constant flow of people going to and from. Brighton’s laser pointer really made it easy for us to pick out birds he spotted.
Back at the lodge we had occasion to hear about gorilla trekking and village visit by fellow guests. Seems more than one trekker decided to take the next day off to rest up from climbing and hiking. And, gladly mentioned the idea of hiring porters to carry knapsacks and assist in negotiating steep areas during the trek. I turned in laundry and was very pleased with the end result (trousers Ugh5,000, shirt 4,000). Reinforced my decision to pack lighter. The beer was Ugh6,000 and soda 3,000. Ketrah was our hostess and was always available for questions and assistance.
At the buffet breakfast I noted banana bread, doughnuts, cupcakes, toast, cold cereal, pineapple and passion fruit juice, and coffee. One could order eggs in several fashions with bacon and sausage. A white-browed robin chat greeted us as we walked back to our room. With a long drive ahead of us we were off by 7AM.
We passed saw mills where logs were rolled out onto an elevated platform. A long saw manned by a guy above and one below was used to cut boards from logs 8’ and longer. A long tedious process especially to keep boards a consistent thickness. Elsewhere we saw acres and acres of tea plants, leaves being picked by hand and by machine, numerous churches and a chain of eateries called the “Pork Joint” in several towns. Congo border was close.
Near Shisha we entered Queen Elizabeth National Park. We began seeing Cape buffalo, elephant, Uganda kob and topi. Somewhere I saw the sign touting “tree climbing lions” and we began seeing safari vehicles some stopping to ask if we had seen the lions. We drove several stretches not seeing much game. Then, we turned left onto the main road from Mbarara and I remembered the turn off to the QENP Bush Lodge and then the bridge over the Kazinga channel where the lorry got stuck in the bridge ‘til staff jumped onto the cargo so it could clear the bridge top. Was rather nostalgic and I thought of daughter Beth and how she enjoyed that safari. Numerous boats were out on the channel from the fishing village. As we drove onward more elephant, kob and a herd of Cape buffalo made for an interesting drive with long-crested eagle, grey-backed fiscals and other birds.
At Kabirizi we turned right heading for Kasese and eventually Fort Portal. There Brighton stopped at a local restaurant were we ate our box lunches (not bad, hard-boiled egg which I gave to Darla, juice box, apple, fried chicken, ham and tomato sandwich, veggies and a cupcake) while he had lunch. Also, two sodas for Ugh4,000. Then to Nyinabulitwa Country Resort, a handful of small cottages overlooking a steep-sided crater lake. One hippo lives in the lake and supposedly is not appreciated by the locals given its nightly sorties for feeding. Noisy plantain-eaters greeted us as we moved into our cottage and then a second given a leaky commode in the first. We noted bronze sunbirds, pintail whydah, grey-headed sparrow, hadada ibis, bronze mannikin, and fish eagles within a short time of being at the lodge. We experienced a major presence of numerous tiny midges (flies) that must have just emerged from the lake. Even with a nice breeze the air was thick with them even on the porch and under the eating pavilion. A heavy shower did clear the air except for under the porch roof!
Our cottage had a very high tee-pee type ceiling of logs, roomy bed w/mosquito netting, lg bench, shelving unit, couple of table lamps, chairs and an attached bathroom. Compared to other accommodations on this trip the room was at the bottom. No bottled water in the room, a very slippery shower floor, no hooks to hang clothes, shower curtain was ineffective in keeping water in the shower area and the curtain was held up by a cheap set of rods which fell apart at the touch, no means to charge batteries unless the table lamps were unplugged, and no power ‘til 7 pm. Glad we brought our own soap and wash cloth. Had plenty of hot water, however. Meals were served in the pavilion and all food was in covered canisters. Food was very good. One supper was vegetable soup, a nice portion of chicken, rice, mixed veggies, and paw-paw for desert. We were the only guests both nights except for a couple for S. Africa who slept in a tent atop their vehicle. During in-camp time we walked around the lodge noting birds, geckos, the hippo etc. But, any venture into the taller grass resulted in mosquitoes enjoying the muzungu visitors.
The next morning we got off to a good start for the 30 minute or so drive to Kibale NP and the Bigodi Swamp. Brighton wanted to be there when the office opened. I was excited knowing we would have a walk around the swamp and anytime near water is always a good time to see wildlife. As soon as we pulled into the office parking lot I knew we were in for a great experience seeing a snowy-headed robin-chat before exiting the vehicle! There were 7 of us, our swamp guide, Brighton, a young Dutch photographer, a birding couple from South Africa and Darla and I, too many in my opinion for a birding walk where we most likely would be strung out along a path. We opted to not use rubber boots (based on local input) which might have been a mistake. And, we were encouraged to “blouse our trousers” given the presence of red ants!
I was glad Darla maintained a list of our numerous sightings. Lizard buzzard, white-breasted and grey-headed negro finch, red colobus monkey, splendid glossy starling, grey-headed negrofinch, collared sunbird, green crombec, white-crowned waxbill, little green sunbird, red-headed bluebill, ross’s turaco, and more. More than once we came across areas with red ants! Much stomping and brushing off these persistent critters. Western nicator, buff-spotted woodpecker, compact weaver and more kept us entertained. The board walk thru the swamp was interesting to say the least. Some areas were inundated a couple of inches making for slippery conditions. Maybe the boots would have been a good idea. As I feared, our group got strung out and those in the rear missed what the local guide was saying. He seemed to have a schedule to keep as I noted we were moving right along. The couple from SA also seemed to be annoyed with the pace and the photo guy often moved ahead of even the guide. We decided to maintain a more comfy pace as we had Brighton to point out birds we were seeing. He got me into a wonderful position for photographing great blue turaco feeding on fruit in a nearby palm tree! Several times his use of the laser pointer was a great asset and the birding couple from SA made serious inquiry as to the item. At a couple of spots along the trail we came upon local crafters selling carvings and sculptured items. As we exited the swamp hitting the main road we noted local youngsters having a swim in the stream “al la natural”. Was unfortunate our local guide rushed the group. The Biodi Swamp is a great birding spot with lots to offer.
Later that afternoon we had a birding walk from the lodge. Along the road bordered by woodlots and grassy areas we spotted white-headed saw-wings, more grey-headed negrofinches, African paradise-flycatcher, collared sunbirds, plantain-eaters and others. On than one occasion I found myself talking to myself as to not getting a picture (for whatever reason) only to have the same bird re-appear later. Brighton called in a yellow-rumped tinkerbird. Two young lads from a nearby village tagged along with us. I took pictures of them and showed them the pics on the digital camera display. I watch major movement in roadside vegetation and thought a special wildlife sighting was to be only to see the head of a young goat tethered to the bank!
With another long drive ahead of us we were off by 715 am. An African crowned hornbill was spotted on a wire near a church where we saw a walk-behind gasoline lawn mower and then, a common stonechat on a stick in a sea of tea plants. Soon, Brighton pulled off the road having seen a group of great blue turacos in a tree. Just a few feet off the road we stood in knee high grasses so I could take a picture. Suddenly, I realized something was crawling inside my trousers where nothing is supposed to crawl! It was one of those huge red ants with the large mandibles. AWA (Africa wins again!). Despite the image stabilizer on the camera I am sure the one pic was off focus but a bit. Further down the road a sign “wild animal crossing” set us to laughing once we recovered from the ant incident.
When we pulled over near a small collection of shops and homes to look at Angola swallows on overhead wires I am sure the locals wondered what the crazy muzungu were doing. We saw southern bishop, green pigeon, red-eyed dove, ring-necked dove, black-and-white casqued hornbill and yes, grey-crowned crane, the national bird of Uganda. An overturned lorry plowed into the road bank humbled us as to speeding on these difficult rough roads.
Brighton continued to enlighten us with stories. One was about mothers telling their squalling kids that if they didn’t quite squalling a hadada ibis would get them (call of the hadada sounds like a squalling baby). His mother’s one sheep attacked by red ants and not having insecticide it being killed from the incident. His 107 year old grandmother fearing that muzungu would kill and devour him. Seems, as a little girl she was told of bones of her ancestors being found in areas where white colonists killed locals in the early settlement of the country. Undoubtedly, scavengers such as hyena and vultures, were involved by the local thought the white men were cannibals. He said some day he wants to take a safari group to visit his grandmother and dispel the wife’s tale! We passed thru the town of Kyenjojo which means elephant.
We stopped in Hoima at a Catholic run restaurant where Brighton enjoyed the buffet while we had our box lunch from N Country Lodge. Worst box lunch we have had during 8 safaris. A toasted bread sandwich with tomato/peppers and a banana. (Churchill Safari was very unhappy to hear of such during our end-of-safari debriefing and said they would be sure to follow up on this as charge to them same as for a hot meal). We enjoyed cold soda (Ugh2,500 each) watched the business crowd come in for lunch and listened to more of Brighton’s stories.
Then, onto Masindi with dirt roads most of the way. There we checked into the Masindi Hotel right on the main street. A former hotel for the British. Electricity/hot water available all the time, in room charging, ceiling fan, tub/shower, full size bed, roomy, lg mirror with drawers and light, and a tv but no bottled water in the room. A gated courtyard with shrubs, flowers and trees abounding. Very large area behind main buildings bordering a grassy field and shrubs. The lady at the front desk informed us the Wi-Fi had just been installed. We used Darla’s Nook to send email to family for first time of the trip. An overland safari truck pulled in with a group from Spain. We walked around seeing a few birds, mostly, pied crows and bulbuls. Staff was quite pleasant as we explored the building and grounds.
At 730PM went to the buffet. Darla was not exactly thrilled with the sliced leg of goat and fried tilapia entries but the tomato soup w/croutons, sliced potatoes, rice, veggies and fruit salad filled her up. We also had soda (Ugh2,000 per bottle). It was interesting to hear conversations in the dining room as definitely English was in the minority with the large group of Spanish travelers as well as one from Germany. We slept quite well using the ceiling fan to not only cool the room but also to drown out the occasional noise from outside. Enjoyed a buffet breakfast departing at 0745 am northward to Murchison Falls NP again dirt road all the way.
Just outside the city limits we began birding as Brighton drove, dodging walkers, bikers, and the like. Brighton owns a farm and said he was considering purchasing a tractor. When we came upon a house/garage with several tractors outside he asked if we minded him speaking to the owner. So, we pulled into the complex. While he talked with the farmer we visited with his young sons who we thought were pleased to have muzungus talk with them. Northern red bishop, black bishop, viellot’s and grey-headed weavers, speckled mousebirds, and others kept us looking.
At the Murchison Falls NP gate while Brighton handled paperwork we checked out the craft gift shop. Staff had a high pressure sales approach. I thought Darla would succumb but she held her ground knowing what she was seeking (cloth similar to what local ladies use for making dresses). Heard tinkerbirds in the surrounding bushes. Onward, a bateleur in flight as well as firefinches, blue-naped mousebirds, as well as one of my favorites, helmeted guineafowl, an African jacana in a wetlands areas, and a female grey hornbill.
We passed the turn off to the Budango Forest Eco Lodge where we would be staying later. Then, past the Sambiya River Lodge entrance. Then, the invasion of the tsetse fly. We had the windows open and as we drove along one particular stretch a number of these pests got inside the vehicle. ‘til we rid the car of those uninvited guests, it was not pleasant for a short time. With windows closed, air temperature begins to rise. As I opened a window for a breath of fresh air, I noted a glare from my loving wife as “don’t you dare”.
As we continued to descend we saw more and more sign of big game and realized we were getting closer to the river. Then, we were at the ferry site for crossing the Albert Nile River and access to the Paraa Safari Lodge. As we waited our turn, Darla and I walked around checking out the sights, the hippos across the river, the agama on nearby rocks, the female park ranger armed with an assault rifle, the large world globe showing Murchison Falls NP, the approaching ferry with a host of vehicles and passengers and several safari guides sharing news. I was particularly interested in Murchison Falls NP as I really wanted to see Abyssinian ground-hornbill, a really colorful and large bird. Then, it was our turn to load and after all the vehicles were onboard, passengers walked onto the ferry. The diesel engine came to life and we were crossing the river. A group with stringed instruments and drums provided music while we loaded up and drove a short distance up the hill to the Paraa Safari Lodge just in time for lunch.
The Paraa Lodge was a bit upscale from the other accommodations on this trip. Our room looked out onto the pool area which also had a bar for in-pool users. The dining area run a major length of main lodge, was open-aired and faced the river. We could see Cape buffalo across the river. A reading room, game room, etc were available for guests. Lunch was served and included cream of veg soup, salad, chicken joints w/sauce, green beans/cauliflower, French fries, and marble cheese cake. A sign in the lobby indicated the meal was Ugh55,000. Darla had a sprite and I a Pepsi (Brighton seemed pleased to have a Pepsi over a Coke). Our room was spacious with a nice size bed, plenty of light, a very nice bathroom, mini-fridge, wardrobe, ceiling and portable fans, and plugs for in-room battery charging. Later we returned to the dining area and read ‘til game drive time. I tried a Nile Special beer (Ugh7,000 for a 500 ml bottle).
Our game drive began near the lodging for guides where we saw another gasoline mower. We were soon into birding. Brighton took great photos of blue-naped mousebirds which often are quite mobile moving around in bushes as soon as we would stop. Sometimes he was in a better position to photograph birds so I was only too happy for him to take pictures. Saw our first oribi, brown hartebeest (? Jackson’s hartebeest), and piapiac. The Hildebrandt’s francolin provided for interesting discussion as we checked the book for the right id. On the way back to the lodge near the barracks for rangers and the training school for guides we encountered a solitary jogger from the lodge. Given the dung on the road and the potential for large mammals to be out and about with the approaching darkness I don’t think that person was too smart!
We ate on the balcony and enjoyed a buffet including onion soup, salads, fish, pork ribs, rice, spinach, potatoes, veg pasta, several fruits and numerous deserts. Visited the Internet site (free) and successfully emailed family as to our status. Had great night’s sleep, up at 6 for buffet breakfast (egg station for personalized fixing, hot beans, fruits, juices, toast, bacon, pancakes, pastries, potatoes, etc) at 630 and game drive at 7 am.
Great morning for birding. Added silverbird to list for the area, saw the oil-drilling site in the distance, drove past the Pakulsa air strip and then eventually to the river. Numerous giraffe, kob and brown hartebeest, several Cape buffalo and couple of elephant. Then, Darla spotted a group of Abyssinian ground-hornbill on a low termite mound! Shortly, we encountered a male close to the road and he hung around for good pics. Just a short time later we got into a bunch of beautiful northern carmine bee-eaters, another new species for us. As we were slowly moving down the road there was a bit of commotion as a black-bellied bustard took to the air practically next to the car. At the river black-headed lapwing, African wattled lapwing and spur-winged lapwing , Egyptian geese, goliath heron and grey heron were noted. As we watched hippos and Cape buffalo we could look across the river to Congo. On the return trip we met another safari car which stopped so the guides could chat. Darla and I noted the one passenger had a very sour look on his face and sat with arms crossed. Once we pulled away we mentioned such to Brighton. He said the guide who he knew indicated his client was very unhappy not having seen a lion. Being veterans of several safaris we are not that hung up on seeing big cats but were disappointed in that with all the variety of game around that someone was not enjoying a game drive. Onward we went seeing more antelope, birds and the like. Grass was rather high but as we approach a tree line that intersected the road we noted a palm-nut vulture in a tree. Then, a number of African white-backed vultures took to the air. Just as someone said ‘there must be kill nearby” we looked down the road a short distance to see a short-manned lion cross the road towards what must be the kill! Exciting yes, as we were not expecting such and again Africa surprised us. Brighton said he would share the sighting with his colleague when we got back to the lodge. A Ruppell’s Griffin vulture was also seen nearby. We agreed it had been an excellent morning seeing new birds, a lion, a large elephant on the road, and numerous other mammals.
After a quick but enjoyable lunch, we headed for the ferry crossing for the boat ride to see Murchison Falls. Numerous people including a large group of students were at the site. In addition, several baboons were walking around vehicles perhaps looking for easy access to snacks. I was surprised how unconcerned some visitors were in letting the baboons get so close. We boarded the craft only to cross the river and get onto a much larger, two-decker boat. For us, highlights of the ride upriver were seeing rock pratincole and a colony of red-throated bee-eaters tending nests in high clay banks, and the falls. Maybe due to the deeper draught of the boat we seemed to stay considerable distance from the shore much of the time. Kingfishers, herons, darters, Cape buffalo, waterbuck, hippos, elephant, crocs, weavers, and the like were seen on the trip. The falls were impressive. Maybe based on great sightings we had during our 2012 ride in the Kazinga Channel and two on Lake Mburo, I expected more on this trip. No one can show us what isn’t present but the guide and driver seemed indifferent. Heck, the guide even fell asleep on the 50 minute or so return trip where we stayed mostly mid-channel.
Another game drive before returning to the lodge for the night. Saw more piapiac but this time on warthog, elephant and Cape buffalo. Beautiful sunset!
As we enjoyed a buffet supper Brighton asked for input for the morning program. Originally we were going to take a leisurely drive to the falls and then to Budongo Eco Lodge birding on the way. However, he was thinking of an earlier start driving into another reach of Murchison Falls NP seeking bustards we had not seen on this trip. Okay with us.
Checked out of the lodge around 7am and headed into the interior. Birded out past the air strip noting a hen helmeted guineafowl with tiny chicks, numerous antelope, elephant and Cape buffalo and a mongoose or two. Saw numerous species of birds including a pygmy kingfisher and then a gray-headed one, another Abyssinian hornbill, oxpecker on giraffe, tawny eagle, sooty chat, and then a Denham’s bustard relatively close to the river in short grass areas. Brighton said this is one of few places he can find it and the Kori Bustard.
The road to Murchison Falls was interesting to say the least. Part of it was on sheer bedrock that required special attention on the driver’s part. The Falls were impressive with so much water going thru such a narrow gap in the rocks. I got fairly well sprayed by a rogue wave. Pictures were taken and off we went to Budongo Eco Lodge after driving thru the tsetse fly area but no encounters!
Arrived at the Budongo Eco Lodge around 12:45 just in time for lunch. The main building, a combined dining area both inside and outside, lounge, gift shop, info center and office also had a charging station for batteries and electronic devices. Our cabin Chimpanzee, actually half a building, was quite spacious with several screened windows also curtained, solar lights, solar heated water, pit latrine, a long long sofa, table/chair, a comfy large bed with mosquito netting, and a large rubber tank outside for holding rainwater from the roof. Bordered gravel walkways wandered thru the dense forest connecting cabins to the parking area and main building. We noted that in the construction of the walkway if a small tree was in the path it was not cut down but a metal can had been placed around the trunk at ground level to maintain the canopy as natural as possible. We could hear birds but sightings were less common given the dense canopy. Noted the cabin was damp but not surprised being in a rain forest.
Had lunch on the porch also with the Spanish group from the overland truck we saw in Masindi and at the ferry crossing. Then, it began to rain and really poured (another rain forest event). Had a bird walk scheduled for 430 or so. I was doubtful given the rain but we met Brighton at the main building and set off up the road. The rain tapered off and soon we began to see birds. It would seem open areas and large leafless trees were favorite habitat at that time of day. Yellow-throated tinkerbird, superb sunbird, gray-chested illadopis, yellow-crested woodpecker and others were seen. Right at the parking area a pair of tambourine doves were drinking at a mud puddle and snowy-headed robin-chat were along the forest edge.
Plenty of hot water for shower but none at wash basin (okay by us). Slept well, awakened a couple of times by unusual noises from the forest. Sounded like something being murdered! Next morning someone said chimps were in the immediate area and responsible for the noise. Whatever it was added to our appreciation of being in the rain forest. Up at 530am with breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast, fruit, juice and coffee/tea. Headed to the “royal mile” and Charles a staff member at the lodge was going with us. Seems he is pursuing a career as a guide and Brighton asked if he could accompany us. We were delighted for another set of eyes to look for birds. We had to drive back to Masindi and then onto “Bilywango” town birding on the way. Much of the area is engaged in sugar cane cultivation and the edges of fields had loads of birds. Red bishop, yellow-mantled widowbird, black bishop, plantain-eaters, a blue-headed coucal, crowned hornbill and a red-collared widowbird kept us entertained. Then, more great blue turacos and a tawny eagle as we approached the forest area Brighton wanted to visit. He checked in at the local government office set up to reduce encroachment onto forest habitat by local farmers. Seems official said he had to accompany us and that we would have to bring him back to the office. As that would mean backtracking to bring him back to the office Brighton said ”you have government provided transportation (a motorbike) so no”. The guy would not agree so we headed off to another entrance near the Nyabyea Forest College.
At our parking spot was as female researcher and her guide. They were waiting to hear vocalizations from a chimp group so they could continue her research. We started down the road and right away Charles spotted a pygmy kingfisher. I was impressed with the size of some of the trees and seeing one that had fallen across the road and been cut into sections, envisioned how much firewood was there. Red-tailed greenbul, crested malienda, wood warbler, red-chested cuckoo, a pair of nesting yellow-crested woodpeckers and others were sighted. As we approached a small stream crossing under the road we noticed a sign restricting access to a special research area ahead and bright red bird in roadside vegetation just a few feet beyond the sign. A beautiful male red-bellied seedcracker! I was able to approach it quite a bit (okay, so I walked past the sign a few feet) for pictures before it finally flew back into the forest.
A great morning! Saw new birds, shared stories with Charles, saw locals at market day in small village, watched the local carwash in a small stream and continued to add bird sightings as we drove back to the Eco Lodge. A lizard buzzard, black-headed heron, pintail whydah, the ever present common bulbul, a collared sunbird and another Abyssinian ground-hornbill.
At the lodge we had an excellent lunch of spaghetti bolognaise and soda. Then, a rest at the cabin. I heard the tap-tap-tap of a woodpecker outside. I recalled how Brighton said woodpeckers were often territorial so I imitated the tap-tap on the lens cover. From the sound the woodpecker moved closer and closer but I never got a good look at the individual. I saw a flash as it swooped over the cabin porch only to lose it in the canopy.
The later afternoon bird walk to the same stretch of road as the day before resulted in yellow bill, red-chested sunbird, hairy-breasted barbet, tawny-flanked prinia, tinkerbirds, joyful greenbul and others seen or heard. We returned to the cabin only to find a swarm of winged “ant like” creatures on the inside of the windows, along the rafters and walls. Eco-minded or not, the can of insect spray was used but seemed to kill only if sprayed on the ants. As they were crawling everywhere even up the mosquito netting we thought enough is enough and got transferred to another cabin.
During a supper of tomato soup, bread, sliced potatoes, veggies, chapatti, chicken in gravy followed by a thin pancake and joy syrup we talked about the day’s events. Took showers, make notes, read and then to bed. Breakfast at 0630 and paid bill (9 sodas for Ugh22,500) and then off to Masindi. In route a pair of Abyssinian ground-horn bill crossed the road! We took our time as today was Sunday and Brighton knew Darla wanted to stop in a fabric shop so he was giving the locals time to get shops opened. Yellow-fronted canary, streaky seedeater, bronze mannikin, Viellot’s black weaver, and others kept us busy. At one tall tree overhanging a building a green pigeon caught our attention. Then, we notice a couple of other birds there as well. The Rupell’s longtail starling was one of them. But, then we realized we were looking at a male double-toothed barbet, another new species for us. No photo opportunity but great to see a new barbet.
Got into Masindi where Brighton dropped us off at a local motel/eatery so he could get the car cleaned (after some rather muddy roads the previous day or so). I had a coke while we enjoying watching birds in nearby bushes. Ring-necked doves, weavers, speckled moosebirds, grey-headed sparrows, plantain eaters, sunbirds, marabou stork and the ever present common bulbul kept us entertained. Brighton arrived and took us to a street having several fabric shops. While she and Brighton shopped I asked a seamstress outside the shop if I could take her picture at work on her sewing machine (foot powered unit). She said “no” so I honored her position. After a quick purchase of 6 yards of fabric for maybe $15 we were on the hard surface road towards Kampala and the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary.
We got to the gate around noon and upon entering the sanctuary with a 70 km (44 mile) fenced perimeter spotted a bush buck just off the road. Rupell’s longtail starlings, crested francolin and arrow-marked babblers greeted us on behalf of the bird world. We got the Verander Room in a double room cottage. Nice shared porch with comfy chairs and table. The room had a large 4-huge post bed and a clean bath room. Nice to have a screen door to increase air flow. After a pork chop lunch with potatoes, rice, veggies and coleslaw we relaxed a bit. The sanctuary is also a working ranch with Ankole cattle grazing near the cottage. I tried to get photos of a 2’ long monitor lizard but it kept darting back into a covered drain hole at the base of the cottage.
Several other visitors were around either having lunch or awaiting a ride to areas where walks were offered to see the white rhino. We have seen rhino before so a rhino walk was not included in our program especially as we would have a longer walk for birding later in the afternoon. With Brighton and Toban, an unarmed staff ranger, we headed out for birding. First we walked along a dirt road and then into grass and bushes. It was great to be out in that habitat. We saw rhino tracks, flushed a scaly francolin out of tall grass, and saw another bushbuck. The sanctuary hosts a variety of mammals but no Cape buffalo, no giraffe, no elephant and no lions. Leopard are present and I understand are frequently seen. Toban had a recorder with him and after hearing white-crested turacos calling he played the call several times but to no avail. Still we saw or heard something like 30 species on a relatively short walk. Broad-billed roller, African paradise-flycatcher, Bruce’s green pigeon, white-headed barbets and white-crested helmeted-shrike were among those we saw. Then, a handsome Ross’s Turaco close enough for pictures! And, we continued to hear a white-crested turaco. By now Toban and Brighton had the location triangulated so we headed cross country and were rewarded with seeing one white-crested turaco in a nearby tree. The picture might not be good enough for framing but will do quite well as a reminder of seeing this unique bird! We learned the Lugogo Swamp on the property has shoebill which are sometimes seen despite thick papyrus stands around the swamp perimeter.
For supper we had chicken and chips (fries) as the main course. As it was my 66th birthday I had a glass of red wine (Ugh5,000). Soda were Ugh2,000. Regardless of using mosquito repellent, we experienced numerous bites during evening meal and even breakfast.
Headed back to the cottage. Plenty of hot water but low pressure. While showering I noticed a lump of what I thought was plaster in the corner of the shower area ceiling was actually a small frog. Afterwards, I attempted to place the frog on a dark towel for a better photo background. It would not cooperate first jumping and sticking onto my arm then my leg and finally to the floor where it hopped behind the hot water tank! The next morning it or a second one was seen on the floor in the bedroom but it too eluded capture.
Paid our small bar bill and leaded towards the gate and the road to Kampala. Saw more bushbuck and vervet monkeys plus several birds including lesser blue-eared starling. Once on the hard road we continued birding adding a pallid harrier, and a banded snake eagle to our list. In Kampala we stopped at the Churchill Safari office for a visit with Ether and Brenda and a debriefing. Then, onto Entebbe for lunch and a very short drive to the airport. As we passed the lake shore we saw a little egret, the last bird on our safari to Uganda.
Return flights were uneventful. Arrived at Dulles and after short wait, flight to State College arriving about 1:30PM and we were in our driveway less than 20 minutes later. Took a few days for jet lag to wear off.
Odds and Ends
Saw or heard something like 235 different species of birds. Some 70 were new to us.
For the trip we averaged $ 25 per day for laundry/drinks and tips to camps, individuals incl. escorts (but not including Brighton’s).
Liked getting into Uganda in the afternoon but would rethink flying Ethiopian Airlines again due to 13 hr flight and inability of staff to handle younger passengers.
Glad we exchanged US dollars for local currency. All our bills were in Uganda shillings.
For birding the “royal mile” would stay in Masindi rather than the Budongo Eco Lodge. The lodge is fine for chimp treks and the like.
Not that we were rushed but would like to spend more time at Mabamba wetlands as there are opportunities to see more birds simply by being patient along areas of reeds and papyrus. More time or at least a less-rushed one at Bigodi Swamp. Unless an unusually dry season take advantage of boots available at the office.
As for the Murchison Falls boat ride without fully appreciating the shallowness of the river along long stretches would like a smaller boat. Seemed the operator was more intent to get to the falls than spend time observing critters. Obviously, he could not show us what was not to be seen but….
Second pair of shoes was appreciated so first pair could dry out from hikes. Shower shoes would be packed next time. Be sure to take alarm clock and wash cloth. Wear long socks and trousers for “blousing” when likely to be in areas with red ants.
Take along snacks as a special treat. What a great surprise it was when Darla pulled out a bag of miniature Pay Day candy bars.
Would certainly use Churchill Safari again. And, Brighton could not have been any better as a guide.
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Rather lengthy as it will be used to reflect on the trip years from now. And, if you have little interest in birds you might be overwhelmed by mentioning of so many birds.