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Let Us Go Meet Our Cousins: MyDogKyle’s Adventures in Uganda & Rwanda

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Mar 16th, 2009, 09:30 PM
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Let Us Go Meet Our Cousins: MyDogKyle’s Adventures in Uganda & Rwanda

As I walked onto the first of many airplanes that would take us from California to Uganda, I still couldn’t quite believe this was happening. A year earlier, in September 2007, my husband and I had taken our first trip to Africa – that “Trip of a Lifetime” to Kenya and Tanzania that was meant to fulfill all our safari dreams… and instead we’d been bitten so badly by the Africa bug that ever since we got on the plane home from Tanzania we’d been thinking constantly about how and when we could return. Trying to scratch that itch, we’d started volunteering at our local zoo, where we took classes to join the Behavorial Observation Team, and by summer found ourselves recording behavioral data for the elephants every Sunday. It wasn’t the same as being in Africa, of course, but it was a privilege and a pleasure to watch these magnificent animals for four hours at a stretch. [I think it’s important to add a note here that I am not generally a fan of elephants in captivity, but the program we’re working with is relatively unique among zoos. For more information, you can check out the Oakland Zoo online…]

The woman who taught our class is a chimp specialist, and she was the first to mention to us that the conservation manager and some other volunteers and zoo members would be taking a trip to Uganda and Rwanda in October, to visit several projects that the zoo helps fund in these countries. The focus would be on these conservation projects, and on primates in particular – chimps in Uganda and mountain gorillas in Rwanda. She asked if we’d be interested in going, and our immediate response was no – we can’t afford it, we can’t ask for another 3 weeks off from our jobs to go to Africa, it’s not practical… But life isn’t always practical, is it? And as it turned out we could afford it after all, because the zoo group was getting a great deal. We thought about it (nonstop!) for two days, hashed over every reason why we should go or not go. Our friends and families asked if Uganda and Rwanda were safe places to travel overland. And we asked ourselves whether we would be able to handle traveling with a group of 20 people, especially after being so spoiled on our private safari last year. But this was no ordinary tour group -- these were all people who were passionate about conservation and African wildlife, and were dedicated to learning more about the Zoo's work overseas. We knew the connection with the zoo would open doors for us in these countries that we'd never be able to open on our own. In every way, this felt like an opportunity not to be missed.

One of the hardest things was not doing any of the planning ourselves. But the itinerary was set, and all we had to do was show up to the pre-trip meetings and pack our bags. I thought about something I’d read in a trip report a few years ago… how if you take multiple trips to Africa, each one becomes less expensive, because you already have all the clothes and camera gadgets and gear you need. This time, I spent more time reading up on primates than worrying about where I was going to stay or what I was going to bring with me.

Here’s our itinerary, for October 13th-November 1st, 2008:

1 night in Kampala (Grand Imperial Hotel)

3 nights in Masindi (New Court View Hotel) -- our base for the Budongo Forest

2 nights in Murchison Falls (Paraa Lodge)

1 night back in Kampala (to avoid the rainy-season drive between Murchison and Kibale)

3 nights in the Kibale Forest (Kibale Forest Camp/aka Mantana Tented Camp)

3 nights in Queen Elizabeth NP (Mweya Lodge)

1 night that was supposed to be in Musanze, Rwanda (but ended up in a hotel on the Ugandan border)

2 nights in the Musanze area (La Palme Hotel & Kinigi Guest House)

1 night in Kigali (Hotel Gorillas)

[Note: I’ve posted a much shorter trip summary and links to some photos on another thread – if you want to skip my long-windedness, just click on my name and you’ll find it]

back to my story…

We slept most of the way to London and arrived at Heathrow around 2:00 in the afternoon. Here was the first hurdle of group travel – you might get a really good price on your plane tickets, but you won’t necessarily have the best schedule! After killing way too many hours wandering around the airport (was it 6 hours? Or did it just feel that way?), we finally boarded our Kenya Airways flight to Nairobi. As soon as I heard the flight attendants’ familiar musical voices, it became absolutely real to me. Africa, here we come again!

We fell asleep again and woke to see the little airline map with the plane hovering over the African continent, and were welcomed back by a beautiful view out the window, of Mt. Kenya silhouetted against a deep orange sunrise. My husband tried to hop across the aisle and take a picture (we were stuck in the dreaded middle seats), but he was foiled by the “fasten seatbelts” light and the announcement that we’d be landing soon. The Nairobi airport felt familiar and exotic at the same time. We’d spent many hours here last year, and the uniquely African combination of chaos and courtesy swept us up again in its rhythm. Milling groups of people from all parts of Africa and the Middle East, tourists in goofy new safari outfits (yes, there was actually some guy wearing a pith helmet and shorts!), scruffy backpackers, everybody crowding the narrow halls and trying to find a place to sit outside the gates. We made our way downstairs and had a real “this is Africa” moment—2 airplanes’ worth of passengers all smashed into one tiny waiting room, sitting on the floor in the heat and waiting for announcements in multiple languages. At last they started boarding… both flights at the same time! Fortunately, everybody in our group got onto the plane with the “Entebbe” sign at the bottom on the stairs, and we were on our way to Uganda.
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Mar 17th, 2009, 03:05 AM
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Oh boy...this is gonna be good! I'm loving it already! Keep it coming! Now I know how people feel who are hooked on soap operas- can't wait for the next chapter!
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Mar 17th, 2009, 09:57 AM
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Thanks for starting your report. As I read about your arrival at NBO, I felt like I was right there too!
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Mar 17th, 2009, 10:14 AM
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When you first left on trip #1, I bet you never thought you'd be doing something like this so soon for a trip #2. Did you happen to get a picture of the pith helmet? Great start and I'm looking forward to meeting the cousins.
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Mar 17th, 2009, 10:19 AM
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Not in my wildest dreams, Lynn!

One of the things we had to leave out of our first trip in 2007 was gorilla trekking -- I wanted to do it so badly, and did a lot of research on it, but we just couldn't afford the additional money and time it would take to add it to our Kenya & Tanzania trip. Now, I'm so grateful it worked out that way.

Thanks for the comments. I'll try to post the next installment tonight. (And no pith helmet pic, sorry! I really wish I had one.)
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Mar 17th, 2009, 10:47 AM
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And now you have trip #3 coming up! Looking forward to the next installment.
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Mar 17th, 2009, 01:32 PM
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Interesting side note about tagging the thread... I clicked Uganda first and Rwanda second, but noticed that it's tagged in the opposite order. Not that it matters that much, but this is primarily a Uganda trip report, with a few days in Rwanda at the end.

Thanks again for the encouraging comments!
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Mar 17th, 2009, 03:28 PM
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MDK,

great start - looking forward to more details about Uganda.

Cheers,

Pol
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Mar 17th, 2009, 09:36 PM
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PART 2 (Kampala) – Uganda at Last!

We had a lovely view of Lake Victoria and the islands as we flew into Entebbe. As soon as we stepped out of the plane, we instantly felt the change in the air—the humidity and blazing sun, but also the feeling of a new place. Africa again, but a new piece of the puzzle. We cleared customs (already had our visas, so the whole process was quick) and went to get our luggage. Twenty people, two flight connections, and not a single bag lost! In the luggage area we met our guides from East African Nature Safaris—Waziri (which sounds like “Wasil”), Kule, Wazir’s brother Ali (“Elly”) and Jhonie. We’d be splitting the group into 3 pop-top vans, with leader Wazir driving one, Kule driving another, and Ali driving the third with Jhonie riding along to do the talking (“Ali is a driver, but he is still learning to be a guide,” they explained.) In the weeks ahead, we would get to know these guys so well… and have ample opportunity to see how truly masterful a driver Ali was! Wazir was the mastermind of the trip, the guy who could pull the right strings and get you out of any jam; Kule was the animal expert, the park ranger turned safari guide; Ali was the fashionable cool guy with a megawatt smile; and Jhonie was the youngest and most soft-spoken of the bunch, truly one of the sweetest human beings I’ve ever met.

The drive from Entebbe to downtown Kampala reminded me (no surprise here) of our road trips in Kenya and Tanzania—the advertisements painted on the buildings (Zain is the cell phone company of choice here, with their bright pink logo everywhere), the creative shop names (“God Loves You Salon”), the butcher shops with huge sides of beef hanging out front. It was a beautiful day, but we were so jet-lagged and exhausted it was hard to focus, and the sun made us melt like ice cream. Everything outside the windows passed by in a dreamlike quality, colors too intense and sounds too loud once we reached the car-horn-honking center of the city, so it was a relief to reach the Grand Imperial Hotel and get out of the van. The hotel was a stately old dark-wood-and-grand-staircase type built in the 1920s, with a good central location and views of the city streets and tall buildings from our room, and no hot water. “Wait a half hour and try again,” the man at the desk told us.

Kampala was a contrast to Nairobi in many ways—it felt much smaller in scale, with not as many people on the streets, and definitely less noisy. Lunch at the Grand Imperial’s outdoor terrace was a pleasant surprise. This was not the kind of place I expected to find Ugandan food on the buffet, and it was delicious: goat broth and ribs, “peas casserole,” matoke (like mashed plantains), ground nut sauce, posho (maize) and the ubiquitous tilapia.

After lunch a small group of us defied our jetlag and took a short walk through Kampala with Jhonie, past the independence monument in front of our hotel, through the bank district and High Court, and over to the craft market. We crossed busy streets by taking cues form the locals (don’t hesitate!), walking past women carrying huge baskets of bananas on their heads, telephone booths (a guy holding a cell phone in a tiny wooden hut; you can pay him to use his phone), and treacherous gaps and open pits in the sidewalk. Flyers pasted to fences and telephone poles promised the reader that he or she could “Move to America!” or “Gain Hips and Bums!” Gigantic marabou storks perched in the trees overhead and on the tops of streetlights.

The craft village was a collection of small souvenir stalls filled with drums, masks, textiles, baskets, and colorful strands of beads made from recycled magazine pages, plus the typical soapstone animals and wooden carvings we’d seen all over Kenya and Tanzania. I was taken with the bright yellow suggestion box in the middle of the market and kept racking my brain for some suggestion I could make, but I was too jetlagged to come up with anything. We bought a wooden mask of a Ugandan kob and scouted out the price tags to get some idea of what things might cost, but it was too early in the trip to be shopping for gifts because we still had the better part of three weeks to carry them around. By this point we were all fading so badly that we had to stagger back to the hotel. (One of my friends nearly staggered right into a giant hole in the sidewalk!)

Our whole group met up at the poolside bar for a beer and we tried the local brand, Bell lager. Better than the beer was the menu, which promised such delicacies as “deep fried liver flakes,” “deviled chicken gizzards” and “fish cappuccino,” not to mention “the unavoidable black forest cake.” Our guides joined us to talk about the next day’s program, and we had our first inkling that things might be a bit improvised on this trip. There was confusion with the hotel about which of our meals were included, and also disagreement between the drivers about whether we should stop at the Kasubi tombs tomorrow or push straight on to Masindi. Since none of us had any useful input, we just said that either way would be fine. Then we headed off to dinner, and only after everyone had placed their orders did the hotel staff come to tell us that they’d set up a special buffet dinner for us in a private room downstairs. So we all rearranged ourselves and had another great meal of Ugandan comfort food (by this point I was already a huge fan of posho and ground nut sauce). We toasted the start of our adventure as a band crashed around on a stage at the other end of the room, setting up for the nightclub that would be taking our place in a couple of hours. But by that time, we were blissfully asleep.
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Mar 18th, 2009, 04:35 AM
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Great start - really looking forward to more!
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Mar 18th, 2009, 04:34 PM
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The menu items are a trip report in and of themselves.

The shop names are indeed works of art--God Loves You Salon.
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Mar 19th, 2009, 07:22 PM
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I guess one could get a really heavenly hairdo at God Loves You Salon.

Great start, MDK. I have read several times that Kampala is one of the most fun/most mellow African capitals. Sounds like you liked it.

I am looking forward to more. And I can't believe you volunteer at the Oakland Zoo. My sis lives in Oakland and we have been a few times with my niece.
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Mar 20th, 2009, 09:52 AM
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I'm so happy to see that some of my favorite Fodors people are reading this report! Don't worry, the trip gets more exciting very quickly. I'll post another installment this weekend.

Yes, I did like Kampala (even though we didn't have much time there, and some of it was jet-lagged). We were definitely able to get out and see a bit more of it than we did Nairobi, so I can't make a fair comparison. But it felt like a really friendly city, and I'm glad we stayed right in the middle.

I've been debating about posting my opinions on the keep-wildlife-in-the-wild thread, since I am (obviously) a supporter of certain (but not all!) zoos. I love our zoo and feel like it's given me a lot over the years, ever since I was a little kid and especially now that I'm involved with the elephants and the behavioral observation team. I had no idea until I started volunteer work there how much the zoo does for conservation projects all over the world... so Leely, your visits have helped contribute to that, and maybe you've even seen me working at the elephant exhibit and didn't know it! Not to mention they take very good care of their animals and have excellent education programs for kids (and adults) who are never going to have the chance to go to Africa (or Asia or Latin America) and see these animals in the wild.
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Mar 20th, 2009, 01:19 PM
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Heavenly hairdo, ha ha Leely! Keep typing MDK!
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Mar 21st, 2009, 12:04 PM
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Hijack alert - Mark and I are going to the Healdsburg Guitar Festival mid-August and will probably stop in Oakland (my sister lives there too) on the way there and back. Anyone up for a GTG? Maybe at the zoo!
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Mar 21st, 2009, 05:35 PM
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We are also from California and I wondering what airline and route you took. We are going to Uganda in July and still have not bought our international tickets. The prices seem to still be very high, around $2,250 per ticket. If anyone could give some feedback on what would be a good fare, that would be great. I do want to purchase fairly soon as we are leaving in four months.
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Mar 22nd, 2009, 12:08 PM
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Promising start of a new report by one of the best trip report writers around. I’ll have to try to keep up with this report.
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Mar 22nd, 2009, 02:39 PM
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Hi Patty -- what a nice idea for a hijack! When will you be in Oakland? (Not to hijack my own thread, but we'll be leaving for our trip to South Africa on August 13th, so we might miss you.) It would sure be funny to meet some Fodorites at the zoo!

lhgreenacres -- we took flights from SFO to London (on United), then London to Nairobi (on Kenya Airways) and finally Nairobi to Entebbe (Kenya Airways again). On the way back we went from Kigali to Nairobi, then Nairobi to London, London to SFO (Kenya Airways, then United again). I don't know exactly what the flight cost was, since it was bundled in with our total tour price and we got a group rate. At the time I searched to see what it would have cost us to fly this same route on our own, and it was right around $2100pp. (2008 prices)

Nyamera -- Aw, shucks. Thanks. Hope I can live up to that!
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Mar 22nd, 2009, 03:36 PM
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MyDogKyle,
When did you get your visas? Before leaving home or upon arrival?
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Mar 22nd, 2009, 04:14 PM
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Hi Lynn -- The Zoo required everyone to get their visas in advance, so there would be no surprises when we got to Uganda. That made sense for a large group, I guess, but if we'd been traveling on our own we would've just waited and got them at the airport. At the time we went that would have been fine, and the lines at the airport weren't long at all.
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