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

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

Mar 22nd, 2009, 04:14 PM
  #21  
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PART 3 (Kampala to Masindi) – Beautiful Tombs and a Ride in the Dark

We got our first taste of the inefficiency of group travel this morning, when we saw how difficult it is to get 20 people and 2 guides and 24 pieces of luggage and 3 boxes of bottled water into 3 vans. After our first “morning circle” gathering where we all introduced ourselves to the guides, we then stood around and waited and waited while they accomplished that feat of engineering required to load the luggage. Finally everything was packed in, stray people who had wandered off were corralled back into the vans, and we were heading off through the streets of Kampala toward the outskirts of the city. Lots of activity out the windows, a whirl of traffic and color and sounds that now made more sense after a good night’s sleep. We saw the same billboard several times – a well-dressed older African businessman in a suit, with the words: “You wouldn’t want him sleeping with your teenage daughter. So why are you sleeping with his?” (our guides told us this is a campaign to discourage men from taking advantage of young girls and keeping them as mistresses, which in addition to the toll it might take on the girls emotionally, has also contributed to the spread of AIDs) We drove through the “auto shop” district of the city, where we noticed a tall “tree” made entirely of car mufflers, and where the auto mechanics’ shops were often distinguished by the cars parked on their roof. I would not think of this until later, when we’d spent some time in the countryside, but it was remarkable how many women in Kampala had beautiful, elaborate hairstyles, compared with women in the small towns who almost always wore theirs cropped very short, like you see in many parts of East Africa.

Shortly after the intersection of Muammar Gaddafi Road, we arrived at the Kasubi Tombs. This was a late addition to our itinerary, and we were so glad (because we’d read about this place and had planned to figure out how to get our here on our own during our free time, if the guides didn’t take us). It was a special treat, a rare glimpse into Ugandan history and culture that seemed to be as much for Ugandans as it was for tourists. This place has great historical significance for the Baganda (people of Buganda, for which Uganda was named. FYI: these aren’t typos – you change the meaning by altering the beginning of the word rather than the end. “Baganda” refers to the people, “Buganda” to the kingdom, and “Luganda” is the language).

The drizzle turned to a downpour as we got out of the vans (did I mention we were traveling during the rainy season? Much more on that later…), but it let up after several minutes and in the meantime we had a fantastic place to shelter – the original palace built by the Buganda King Mutesa, which is now his burial place and the tomb for two other kings, as well. Our guide at the tombs, Nicholas, told us he was a descendant of Bugandan aristocracy, a historian whose great-great-great grandfather had been like a prime minister to one of these kings (we couldn’t quite get it straight, but it sounded impressive), and he’s written a book about the Kasubi tombs and Bugandan culture. He was a very funny and entertaining guy – he started right off by telling us how many days we had until the U.S. presidential election, and then said (with a wink), “All Obama voters please remove your shoes and leave them by the door. All others, you must stay outside.” In addition to removing our shoes before entering the palace/tomb, all the “women who are pretending to be men” (wearing pants) had to wrap long cloth skirts over our legs.

(Side note: this was a remarkable time to be in Africa, just a few weeks before the election. Enthusiasm for Barack Obama, and for Americans in general, was so high – we saw signs and banners in windows and bumper stickers on cars, and many of the African people we met wanted to know who we were voting for. It was a wonderful thing to experience and to share with people we met. We only talked with one guy in Uganda who said, “I’m for McCain,” and when we asked him why he said simply, “I think your president should be older.”)

The tomb itself was simply amazing – a gigantic domed structure made of poles, reeds and thatch, originally built 130 years ago and lovingly maintained. The ceiling was a dizzying spiral, supported by massive poles as tall as trees. There was a huge barkcloth curtain hung along one side from ceiling to floor, to hide the royal tombs, and in front of that were portraits of the kings, as well as their spears and military medals. We sat on mats on the floor as Nicholas told us about the history of this place and the lives of each of the men buried here. He explained about the royal drums and the women who live here and act as “wives of the kabakas,” taking care of the tombs, the drums, and even the stuffed pet leopard in a glass case by the doorway, which once belonged to one of the kings. I highly recommend a visit here, especially since it is rare to see traditional architecture on this scale. The Bradt guide to Uganda has the most in-depth information on the history of Uganda of any guidebook I read for this trip – it can be tricky to keep all the various names and kingdoms straight, but Uganda has a very rich and fascinating history that goes far beyond the more familiar grim stories about Obote and Amin.

The place was so fascinating, in fact, that we stayed here far too long… and our guides were far too polite to mention that we really should be going. By the time we emerged from the cool darkness of the palace, the rain had stopped and the sun was blazing again. We made our obligatory stops at the (first of many) squat toilets, and then hit the road for Masindi, our next overnight stop.

And what a long, strange road it was. Our itinerary indicated that we were supposed to drive about 2 to 3 hours and arrive at the hotel for lunch. Instead we drove and drove and drove, lunchtime came and went, and more than 3 hours later we were still nowhere near our destination. Along the way we had our first Ugandan wildlife sighting (unless you count those urban marabous sitting on the stoplights). During a “short call” stop by the side of the road where everyone went off into the bushes to relieve themselves, someone looked up into the trees and spotted a black and white colobus monkey. How fitting that our welcome animal for Uganda was a primate! He was probably looking down at all these short-calling humans and wondering what the heck we were doing in his backyard. (Also impressive was the way our drivers used a series of hand signals out the window to let the others know whenever any one van needed to make a stop.)

Finally everyone realized we were never going to make it Masindi for lunch, so the guys decided to stop at a restaurant in Hoima. As my husband put it, “I spent a week one afternoon in Hoima…” We sat inside a dark, empty dining room with no electricity except for the TV on one end of the room that alternately showed some nutty Ugandan soap operas (people falling in love! somebody being taken hostage! somebody else being shot! families fighting! more falling in love!) and highlights of the U.S. presidential debates (with Ugandan newscaster commentary). Everyone placed their orders, but it all got so confused that more than an hour went by and some of us still didn’t have any food, while others were given things they hadn’t ordered. We just shared our plates around and eventually everybody had something to eat, and at long last we could hit the road again.

But now the road became a narrow, rutted dirt track, made slippery by the recent rain. The main route to Masindi had been blocked by an accident, so the director of the Budongo Forest field research station, Fred, had driven over to meet us and guide us the “back way.” We felt very adventurous following this little red dirt road through lusciously green countryside, past tiny villages with enthusiastically waving kids standing in front of mud and brick huts. “Mzungu! Mzungu!” they cried, waving and jumping up and down and breaking into spontaneous dances… and while a few people in our group were bothered by this at first (“Why are they calling us ‘White?’ Or does that mean ‘Rich Foreigner?’ Should I be offended?”) by the end of the trip someone in the group had taken to calling us “The Mzungu Tribe” and everybody understood it wasn’t meant in a negative way. (At least, not usually… I imagine sometimes it might be!) We shared the road with goats and chickens and dogs and pigs (who had a habit of darting out of the bushes right in front of our van). School kids walked up the road in their smart uniforms, leaping out of the way and waving as the vans thundered past. It was quite a drive, with some harrowingly close calls, and some gorgeous vistas of maize fields and gently rolling, misty green hills.

But things took a nerve-wracking turn when darkness began to fall and we were still barreling full-speed down this same tiny country road, with animals and people still walking along it in the dim, inky light. The headlights caught the fast-moving shapes of dogs and pigs and children ducking into the bushes, so frequently and startlingly that my heart began to pound with fear. We started to worry about flat tires, or – far worse – about hitting a walker or a bike or a boda-boda coming the opposite direction down this one lane with no headlights. All the warnings I’d heard about why you don’t drive after dark in Africa flashed through my head. I just kept thinking, “We’re almost there. We have to be almost there.”

Everyone in our van breathed an audible sigh of relief when we finally reached Masindi and the New Court View Hotel, and our guides apologized profusely for the delay and for the road problems that had rerouted us (not that that was their fault!). We tumbled out of the vans and went to explore the hotel. The rooms were little brick cottages, just big enough for a bed and a small bathroom. The mosquito nets were functional, the water worked better than it did in Kampala, and the Ugandan-style food, served under a tent in the hotel courtyard, was delicious – goat muchomo for my husband, and rice with ground nut sauce for me. We were pleased to see that they had Stoney (our favorite ginger soda from our trip to Kenya), and we also tried another Ugandan beer, Nile Special. It wasn’t really all that special, but we were just glad to be here in one piece! I was also glad to have the experience of staying at a place that wasn’t a fancy safari lodge or business hotel, that felt a little more down-to-earth. Not that I don’t like a good safari lodge or tented camp (because you know I do!), but it was nice to experience something that didn’t feel like it was just built for wealthy tourists. It’s good to mix it up, and I’m very glad we got to do that on this trip.

After dinner some of us gathered around a map of Uganda in one of the hotel’s outdoor gazebos and tried to trace our route from Kampala, as well as where we’d be heading in the next few weeks. Tomorrow we’d be off to the Budongo Forest, where we’d visit our first zoo-sponsored project and our wildlife adventure would really begin! But first, another good night’s sleep (slightly interrupted by the sounds of a generator kicking in right outside our cottage in the early morning hours, and the more soothing tones of the Muslim call to prayer… though a loudspeaker). This is Africa!
MyDogKyle is offline  
Mar 22nd, 2009, 06:52 PM
  #22  
 
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Thanks for the visa info and for the next installment. I've been wanting a first hand account of the tombs.

Interesting reporting on pre-election sentiments too.
atravelynn is offline  
Mar 23rd, 2009, 08:46 AM
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Thanks for another installment! Our current plan is to drive up on the 11th and spend the nights of the 11th and 12th in Oakland, then drive to Santa Rosa on the 13th. Let me know if you guys would be free to do something on the 11th or 12th but I can certainly understand if you're going to be too busy prepping for your trip.
Patty is offline  
Mar 24th, 2009, 04:31 PM
  #24  
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Hi Patty! Hmm, we might be able to work something out on the 11th. It would be so much fun to meet you, especially since one of your Kenya trip reports was the thing that got me hooked on this forum in the first place. Am I crazy, or did I see a thread somewhere where you posted your e-mail address?
MyDogKyle is offline  
Mar 24th, 2009, 07:45 PM
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That would be great pchang1972 at yahoo dot com.
Patty is offline  
Mar 24th, 2009, 08:07 PM
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Thanks for the latest. Colobus monkeys are an auspicious beginning. I'm also enjoying all the Ugandan foodie details.
Leely2 is offline  
Mar 25th, 2009, 10:33 AM
  #27  
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Thanks, Patty! I'll be in touch. Leely, want to join us?

Hey, I've never thought of myself as a "Ugandan foodie" -- I like that!
MyDogKyle is offline  
Mar 28th, 2009, 08:57 PM
  #28  
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PART 4 (Budongo Forest) – The Primates of Budongo: Monkeys, Chimps & Humans

This morning we headed out for our first visit to the Budongo Forest, about a 45-minute drive from Masindi. Specifically, we were going to visit the Budongo Conservation Field Station (BCFS), where the Oakland Zoo helps fund the snare removal and community education programs. (See their website for lots more info, and be sure to check out their fantastic blog about the chimps: http://www.budongo.org/) It was such a privilege to be able to visit this place, since tourists aren’t allowed—it’s a working scientific research center where people come to do various primate and forest conservation studies, and the permanent staff also has an amazing outreach program for the local community. This visit was one of the unique things about traveling with the zoo group that convinced us to sign up for this trip in the first place.

Driving from Masindi to Budongo we passed through several small towns, typical with their little shops—the butcher shops with huge sides of meat hanging out in front, women selling vegetables spread out on blankets, piles of purple and green sugarcane and dark green bananas. One shop had an impressive outdoor shoe display, with all sorts of shiny shoes arranged on a terraced stand like something from Macy’s, just sitting out in the dust amid all the fruit and vegetables. The houses we passed in this area were round clay huts with thatched roofs, and tires placed around the point of the roof —“So they won’t blow away in a storm,” our guide told us.

We gradually began to pass into some isolated patches of forest (which used to all be connected into one great forest belt, but are now splintered by agriculture into a string of forested “islands”). In one of these outlying patches of forest, the Kasokwa reserve, we spotted a young chimp hanging from a tree branch with both arms stretched to their full length, just dangling there gripping the branch and facing the road. As we drove past, I saw his little pink face and the way his feet curled upward in surprise, and then we were too far down the road to see him anymore. It happened so fast, and yet that first glimpse of a chimpanzee in the wild is etched into my memory, one of my favorite moments of this trip. What an amazing welcome to this forest that is home to so many beautiful primates – not just chimps, but also a large variety of monkeys (and some very nice humans, too). On the drive in I also spotted three black and white colobus monkeys sitting on the very top of a huge focus tree, as well as a group of sprightly vervet monkeys.

As we drove up the Royal Mile to the field station, we saw lots more black and white colobus, and dozens of brilliantly-colored butterflies flitting around our open windows (a few even bopped into the van for a moment and then flew back out). We were greeted at the field station by Fred Babweteera, the Project Director (who had helped our guides find the way to Masindi last night), Tonny the resident veterinarian, and Zephyr, who runs the education and snare removal programs. Over the next two days we would get to know these guys better and spend a lot of time in the forest with them and asking them questions at the field station. I was so impressed by all of them and the incredible work they do here. We had a group meeting with Fred and he told us a lot about how their projects work and the challenges they face, and also about what makes the Budongo Forest so important. It’s the largest primary forest intact in East Africa, for one thing, and is also one of the few major remaining strongholds for wild chimps. There is a group of habituated chimps here who have been invaluable for years’ worth of research projects (there’s a fascinating book about them by Vernon Reynolds, who was instrumental in establishing the BCFS, called “The Chimpanzees of the Budongo Forest” – not a light read, but I highly recommend it if you’re interested in recent research on wild chimps and forest ecology). Research is still the primary focus here—studies of the different types of primates, of course, but also research on the forest itself, the effects of poaching and logging in the area, and climate change. For example, fruiting patterns have changed dramatically in the last decade, so the chimps end up raiding local farmers’ crops and getting a bad reputation with the local people, who used to be more tolerant toward them. As Tonny told us, they are also studying disease transmission between people and other primates, and they hope to eventually build a lab on site so that they won’t have to send their samples to the USA and Germany for testing.

The education program, which our zoo helps fund, includes a natural history museum on site and an outreach program in the local schools, where they have established a Conservation Club at Kinyara High School to teach local kids about the importance of the environment (and the kids in turn help teach their families). Tonny and Zephyr also visit local villages to educate people about disease transmission and the negative effects of poaching.

One of the most important uses of the funds from the Oakland Zoo is the snare removal project. It started with just two men—former poachers who were trained to patrol the forest and trigger and remove snares before animals could be trapped in them. Although these bush meat snares are usually intended for duikers and other food animals in this area, many chimps have been trapped in them and have been crippled or maimed as a result (some have even lost their limbs). The BCFS now has four men working on snare removal and earning a better salary than they could as poachers; they patrol 34% of the Budongo Forest, recovering about 200 snares per month. Thanks to the project, researchers have seen a significant reduction in the number of snares and snare injuries to animals in the patrol areas.

In addition to all this, Fred told us that they’re also starting a “piggery” project, to teach bushmeat hunters to raise pigs instead. As far as future plans go, they hope to expand the research center facilities and build on on-site veterinary lab; they’re hoping to attract more visiting researchers in areas other than chimp studies, to take advantage of all the forest has to offer and supplement their own full-ecosystem research agenda; they want to expand their education programs, and they hope to start a library; and they also hope to expand the snare removal project so that it can patrol the entire forest. Finally, Tonny hopes to expand the disease monitoring program beyond their habituated chimp group. These are very ambitious plans, but the enthusiasm here is palpable and if anyone can succeed, these guys can. It was so amazing and inspiring to see what they’ve accomplished so far, even with limited resources. And especially inspiring that it is all run by Ugandans.

After our talk, we broke up into smaller groups and they took us into the forest to see how the various types of snares work. Tonny was my group’s guide, and the guys from the snare patrol set and demonstrated them for us. There are three main types of snares used in this area. The first we saw was the “landmine” snare, using wire and the tension of a bent branch which springs as the animal walks by and triggers it. The second was the most gruesome—the “man trap.” This is a huge metal vise with teeth, made of old car parts (similar to what we might call a “bear trap”). It was absolutely terrifying to watch the snare patrol guys set this one, and when it was triggered it snapped shut on a thick branch and nearly severed it. Tonny told us about one chimp who got caught in a man trap, and how the veterinary team had to follow the poor animals through the forest for six days before they could safely sedate him and remove it—the chimp even climbed up trees and built night nests with this massive trap hanging from his leg! Fortunately that story had a happy ending, but many don’t.

The last type of snare we saw “in action” was a wire loop snare, the most common type used in Budongo. As Tonny was demonstrating this one on his wrist and showing us why it’s so difficult for the chimps to get them off, we glanced up the dark forested path ahead and saw two chimps on the trail, looking at our group with frank curiosity. Tonny told us they were Pascal and Zalu, young males from the Sonso community. We were all so excited, everyone stopped to watch them until they ambled off into the forest. One of the chimps swung his hand up as he was turning to go, and we saw how it pointed downward at an awkward angle—how poignant to see an example of snare damage right at this moment. Jackson, one of the field assistants, was following these guys and taking data with the little computer hanging around his neck. He told us he spends 10 hours a day with the chimps. When I said, “You must know them all really well,” he smiled and replied, “Yes, and they know ME very well, too!”

At this point we took a break for a quick picnic lunch back at the field station, but this glimpse of the chimps had whetted our appetite for getting back into the forest and seeking out more. While we were in the grassy clearing where the field station is located, we had a constant show going on in the dense forest all around us—blue monkeys with their sleepy little faces hanging out in the treetops, and athletic groups of black and white colobus leaping from branch to branch with their glamorous long tails flying like banners. Some baboons came by and managed to steal part of a lunch box left over by one of the vans.

Finally it was time to head back into the forest. Our little group was once again with Tonny, Jackson, and another tracker (whose name I unfortunately can’t recall). As soon as we stepped into the shelter of the forest from the clearing, we were immersed in the sounds—a symphony of insects and birds—and enveloped by the rich, dark smell of the forest. It was primal, beautiful, and almost overwhelming as we walked along the narrow paths beneath towering ficus, fig trees, and mahoganies. And then we found more chimps, feeding in the trees above us: the orphan brothers Zed and Zalu were together, and a bit farther along we came across Kwera and her little baby Karibu. Mom Kwera was busy feeding on figs, while her pink-faced baby scampered from one branch to another, dangling from one arm like the baby we’d seen earlier, and flashing the little white tuft on her rear like a beacon in the leafy green. (It was nearly impossible to get good photos in the dense forest, but our video is great. I mention this only because we all quickly realized that it was more important to just watch the chimps and be there with them in that moment, than to try to shoot perfect portraits of them. Forests aren’t always the most cooperative places for a camera!)

We had a funny moment while talking with Jackson. Someone asked who the alpha male of the group was since the old alpha, Duane, had died, and when he told us it was now Nick, several of us all said, “Ah, Nick!” in unison, as if acknowledging an old friend’s success. We’d read Dr. Reynolds’ book about the Sonso chimps, so it was like we knew these guys.  And that certainly enhanced our visit with them, knowing some of the history of this community. As we continued on through the forest, we heard blue monkeys barking in alarm at our presence, saw duiker tracks in the soft earth, and found some spots where the chimps had gnawed on exposed tree roots. One very strong memory I have is of the end of the walk. As we stepped out of the forest and back into the field station clearing, there was a sudden and jarring absence of sound, smell, and sensation, as though I had suddenly lost all of my senses. If that moment doesn’t illustrate the final, grim results of deforestation, I don’t know what does.

Our last activity of the day was visiting the BCFS’s little museum, where Zephyr showed us their collection of chimp, baboon and monkey skulls, and preserved specimens including snakes and infant chimps who’d died as babies. There were also two intact chimp skeletons—one of them a chimp named Zesta who had been attacked and killed by members of his own community. We spent more time talking with Tonny and he showed us a closet full of wire snares they’d removed from the forest. One of our friends gave him a button that said, “Proud to Be a Primate!” and he pinned it to his shirt with a big smile.

We said goodbye until tomorrow, thrilled by this magical place and so glad that we had another day tomorrow to hang out with the BCFS folks. As we drove back to Masindi, exhausted and happy, we stopped along the Royal Mile road to watch a gigantic trail of safari ants, and then wore our arms out waving back to all the little kids along the way home. “How are you?” they called, and like everyone here we called back, “I am fine!” Much more than fine.
MyDogKyle is offline  
Mar 28th, 2009, 09:00 PM
  #29  
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This is probably as good a place as any to re-post my photos (the same ones I put on the shorter trip report thread), in case you want to see little Karibu and the BCFS:

Uganda Part 1 (Kampala, Budongo Forest and Murchison Falls NP)
http://tinyurl.com/bylv39
MyDogKyle is offline  
Mar 29th, 2009, 05:41 AM
  #30  
 
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The snare demo and your recounting of it is quite interesting and disturbing. That poor chimp with the trap clamped to him! Glad that turned out ok.

Maybe the chimp with the wrist injury knew exactly what he was doing in emphasizing the hideousness of the traps for you.
atravelynn is offline  
Mar 29th, 2009, 07:53 AM
  #31  
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You know Lynn, I thought about that too. Certainly those chimps were very interested in what we were doing (and they all know Tonny), so I don't think it's a coincidence that they took an interest when Tonny was acting like he was trapped by a wire loop snare. That chimp may well have been trying to show us something, or warn us.

The blog on the BCFS site includes several stories about how the chimps have dealt with the snare problem, including some instances where they have figured out how to remove the snares from other chimps. Unfortunately, most of the time they aren't able to do this.

When you visit Budongo, check out the little JGI shop there --you can buy cute chimp greeting cards made with chopped-up pieces of the wire snares.
MyDogKyle is offline  
Mar 29th, 2009, 09:43 AM
  #32  
 
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I’ve caught up with the latest two instalments. Wonderful reading. I’d really want to meet some chimps.
Stoney is so much better than the other one. I don’t remember the name, but while it has a more appetizing colour it’s not as sweet and gingery.
Nyamera is offline  
Mar 29th, 2009, 01:09 PM
  #33  
 
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Somehow I missed your photos before -they are really great --
my favorite is of baby Karibu.
maxwell is offline  
Mar 29th, 2009, 04:05 PM
  #34  
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PART 5 (Kinyara High School/Budongo Forest) – How Are You? I Am Fine

Today we visited the kids at Kinyara High School, where the Budongo folks have started a Conservation Club for the students. It was amazing how many children ran up to greet us when our vans arrived outside the school—dozens of tiny kids, all wanting to shake our hands (boys) or take our hands and curtsy (girls). Each time, a little voice would pipe up, “How are you?” And when I replied, “I am fine. How are you?” I would get a huge smile and a whispered, “I am fine” in return, as if we two had just exchanged a wonderful secret. The kids loved posing for photos and then running over to see the results on our cameras, pointing and laughing at the images of themselves and their little siblings. One group carrying an infant kept cracking up over pictures of the baby and wanted me to take his photo over and over. As Tonny told us later, “These kids never get tired of being friendly. It’s their hobby.”

It turned out that our visit was the big attraction in town today, and everyone had turned out—parents and little siblings of the high school students, and pretty much everybody for miles around. The Conservation Club kids had prepared an elaborate program for us and for their families. But first, the two Peace Corps teachers and members of the staff gave us a tour of the school grounds. We visited the little “wildlife reserve” area the school has set aside for the kids to study nature (so far they have birds, insects and “some rodents” moving into the area), and a small hillside farm where the kids are learning about sustainable farming practices and planting fast-growing native trees that can be harvested for firewood. From the student farm, we had a view over neighboring farmers’ fields to the thick green belt of the Budongo Forest, not far away.

Then it was time for the show. Our hosts led us to a little outdoor theater area ringed by shady trees, where the Conservation Club had put up a huge sign to welcome us and decorated the grove with toilet paper garlands and bunches of wildflowers. They had set benches off to one side for their “special guests from California,” and the rest of the seats were filled to overflowing with friends and family members, everyone waiting for us to arrive so the show could begin.

We were so moved and impressed by what the kids did, especially considering that they were taking time out on a Saturday—during exams week! It’s clear that the students at Kinyara High have to work very hard and get by with very little, and their passion for the Conservation Club was incredibly inspiring. I know I wasn’t the only one who was moved to tears several times during the program, and I saw such happiness and pride on their parents’ faces, too.

The kids started off by singing us a “conservation welcome song” (sample lyrics: “We are very happy today, dear visitors – you’re most welcome on this occasion. Have you ever seen the fishes in the water, swimming very happy? Today we are! Have you ever seen the creatures in the forest, running very happy? Today we are!”), then sang the Ugandan national anthem. The school principal gave a talk about the history of Kinyara High, including the special conservation programs for the kids funded by the BCFS and the Oakland Zoo. Then Tonny got up and talked to the audience about the ways that disease can spread from wild animals to humans, and the importance of avoiding bush meat. After that, the kids performed a number of songs and dances for us, from conservation-themed songs to raucous traditional dances with drums. One girl read a poem about conservation and the environment that she had written for the occasion—she was so nervous her hands shook and her voice faded away at the end of her sentences, but it was a lovely poem and she had such an impressive vocabulary for a high school student. I was especially touched by her writing, and went to talk with her and tell her so afterwards.

The best part of all was a very funny play the kids had written about deforestation. Several boys and girls played bumbling villagers who cut down trees in the Budongo Forest, only to be caught by park rangers and put on trial. At first they are afraid they’ll be sent to prison, but in the end the judge just teaches them about conservation and gives them baby trees to plant. The whole play was full of jokes (some we got, but others sent the local audience into gales of laughter… while we scratched our heads at the punch lines). The kids really put their hearts and imaginations into this program, and we appreciated it so much. Two of the Zoo’s staff members got up at the end and thanked everyone for the wonderful show, and then the kids asked US to sing for THEM! We were totally unprepared for this, but we sang a few songs. They only ones we could come up with that most everyone knew were “American the Beautiful” and “This Land is Your Land,” which I guess…sort of… have a “conservation” theme. As awful as we sounded, people in the audience nodded and smiled at certain words (“mountain,” “forest”), and some even sang or clapped along, then they gave us a big cheer when it was over (probably because it was over!). Despite our incredibly mediocre performance, it was a fantastic moment. After that the drums started up again and the kids launched into a boisterous dance with traditional beaded skirts flying and bells on the boys’ legs jangling, and before long they’d pulled their less-talented Californian visitors out of the audience to dance with them. (I filmed as much of the show as I could, so I could send a DVD back to the kids.)

Afterwards we had some time to visit with the Conservation Club kids and share more photo-taking mayhem with the little ones, and then it was time to pile into the vans and head back to the Budongo Forest. As we drove away, the littlest children ran after our vehicles, waving and calling, “Bye bye!!” This morning was definitely one of the most moving and personal experiences we’ve ever had with people during our travels, and I know it was another door opened wide for us by our connection with the Zoo.

Back in the Budongo Forest, we had a picnic lunch (with monkey audience) at the research center, and then another Q&A with Fred and Tonny. The rain clouds were starting to hang ominously low overhead by this point, so we quickly gathered everyone to take a photo by the Oakland Zoo plaque they’d put on one of the buildings. Seconds later, the sky opened up and it began to pour! We were supposed to go out on a bird hike this afternoon along the Royal Mile, but instead we all huddled under the roof of a little shelter while a dark curtain of rain pounded down all around us. Within ten minutes, the ground had flooded to the point where we were on an island surrounded by a moat. It certainly did not look like hiking weather! So instead, we took the opportunity to talk with Tonny about his life story and how he ended up working as a wildlife vet, while lightning and thunder crashed overhead. It turns out that he was inspired to work with wildlife after growing up in Murchison Falls National park, where his parents both worked.

Finally, our guides suggested we call off the hike altogether – there was no point in waiting here while the roads home just got worse and worse. We all agreed, but it was sad to say goodbye to this beautiful place and these fantastic people. As we drove out of the forest, I thought of all the chimps somewhere inside that dense cover of trees, and how they must be hunkered down, waiting out the rain too.

Back at the New Court View Hotel (where it was no longer raining), I took a few hours to work on my journal (already woefully far behind!), while my husband and another friend walked down the road to visit the Masindi market. When I saw their photos, I kicked myself for not having gone with them. We’d gone out for a walk the night before to a little pub/internet café, but there was definitely more going on during the daytime. At night it had just been us walking along the side of the road, and the occasional person walking the other direction or riding by on a bike and calling, “Good evening, how are you?”

Tonight we tried a drink recipe Jhonie had recommended, called a V&A—Mirinda fruit soda mixed with Guinness (not as bad as it sounds). We continued to really enjoy the food here, despite the agonizingly slow and sometimes wacky service. We tried a good mix of Indian and Ugandan dishes, but I still think my favorite was ground nut sauce with matoke or rice and chapatti. My husband is a fan of goat stew, but me… not so much. Another thing we loved about this hotel was their resident dog, named either Good Dog or Puppy (depending on who you asked). He’s a bit aloof, but once you scratch his back you have a friend for life. They also have a nice little gift shop where we picked up some locally-made “Budongo” honey, little Ugandan good-luck dolls, and beaded bracelets. I think the New Court View is definitely a worthwhile stop for the Cheap Trips Gang, if you’re ever passing through Masindi.

Despite some of the rough edges—a few missed meals, a bit of driving in the dark, and some pouring rain—this trip was already turning out to be one of the best things we’d ever done. There are certainly challenges unique to traveling with a large and diverse group of people, but there are so some great rewards to be had from it, too. And our visits to the Budongo Forest and surrounding area would have been completely different (and, I think, less emotionally rich) if we had tried to do this on our own.

Coming up next… Murchison Falls and a little safari time!
MyDogKyle is offline  
Mar 29th, 2009, 04:10 PM
  #35  
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Nyamera and Maxwell, thanks!!

Yeah, Stoney is another good reason to keep going back to Africa (or to move there, I suppose!). I miss it.
MyDogKyle is offline  
Mar 29th, 2009, 05:17 PM
  #36  
 
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In one of these outlying patches of forest, the Kasokwa reserve, we spotted a young chimp hanging from a tree branch with both arms stretched to their full length, just dangling there gripping the branch and facing the road. As we drove past, I saw his little pink face and the way his feet curled upward in surprise, and then we were too far down the road to see him anymore.

One of many Wow moments. Thanks for continuing. I don't think I saw all your photos before.
Leely2 is offline  
Apr 5th, 2009, 05:57 PM
  #37  
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PART 6 (Murchison Falls) – “Pse Don’t Go Beyond This Point – Management”

Another long, bumpy drive today, from Masindi to Murchison Falls National Park. Along the way we stopped at the new visitor center at Kanyiyo Pabidi Forest, in a different part of Budongo Forest. This is where tourists can do chimp trekking, and they also have dormitory-style lodging. After seeing this lovely corner of the forest, we decided that we ever get to return to Budongo, we would love to stay here. (East African Nature Safaris put our group in Masindi overnight so that everyone would have private en suite rooms and access to a restaurant.) At this stop, we had a short talk with one of the women helping to run the chimp conservation program here, in conjunction with the Jane Goodall Institute. They are also active in snare removal efforts and community education; one of the things this group does is teach local teens to make art cards from old wire snares, which they cut into little pieces and fashion into pictures of chimps. We bought one as a souvenir, as well as a beautiful woven basket from a local women’s’ co-op. Throughout our visit here, brightly-colored butterflies were flitting all around, and landing on our shoulders and knees and hands while we sat on the deck for our meeting.

We stopped again for a stunning view over the Albertine Rift Valley, and then drove onward to Murchison Falls. The first animals we saw in the park were two cape buffalo wallowing in the mud right beside the road, followed by a quick glimpse of a Uganda kob leaping off through the tall grass. And I do mean tall – the grass was well over 5 feet high in places, and animals could vanish into in a flash. I wondered if it was going to be difficult to see anything here at this time of year.

Our first stop in the park was at the upper viewpoint of the mighty Murchison Falls, the point at which the Nile is squeezed through such a tiny space that it creates one of the most powerful waterfalls in the world. It was a stunning sight, with foaming, crashing white water rushing through narrow channels of stone and plunging down into a curving stretch of river below, silvery in the mid-day light. We all scattered to scramble around and explore different viewpoints, each more impressive than the last. The red earth beneath our feet and clinging to our shoes sparkled with silver flecks of mica, the whole place seemingly touched with fairy dust (lots of which made their way back into the vans with us). It was a bit treacherous, too, with slippery slopes of wet rock and very few guardrails. Posted right above the peak of the falls, partially obscured by mist, was a well-worn sign that read: “Pse Don’t Go Beyond This Point – Management.”

Our guide Kule started encouraging us (those who were nearby and could hear him over the crashing thunder of the falls, anyway) to climb higher to another viewpoint. We had to scramble up some steep, algae-slimed rocks to get there, grabbing his hand and leaping upward. But the payoff was a killer view back toward the falls, and down the Nile in the other direction as far as the eye could see. A vivid rainbow arced right across the plunging spray of the falls. At this point I realized my husband had both of our cameras (I was shooting video) and wasn’t at the viewpoint with us, so I climbed back down to find him. I didn’t want him to miss this.

The trouble was, I couldn’t find him. I searched all around the top of the falls, ran back up to the outhouses and the vans and searched around the shade gazebos by the parking area, and I asked everyone if they’d seen him. Nobody had. At this point, panic started to set in, and as I kept looking for him and not finding him, my eyes kept going to that “Pse Don’t Go Beyond This Point” sign and my mind conjured up the horrific image of him slipping off the rocks and going over the falls. Oh God, what would Management have to say about that?! But, thankfully, my vivid imagination is often at odds with reality – as it turned out, he and another friend had just headed up a different trail thinking they were following those of us in Kule’s group… and they were rewarded with yet another lovely viewpoint from there. Our group lingered around exploring the top of the falls for so long, in fact (and again, our guides were loathe to hurry us along), that we missed the 2:00 ferry over the Nile to Paraa Lodge and had to wait for the 4:00 one. Another missed lunch… another of many instances to be glad we’d brought Cliff bars… and somebody had to take the guides aside and let them know that it was okay to tell everybody what the schedule was, and make us stick to it. Especially since they were the ones who knew things like ferry schedules and how long it took to drive from Point A to Point B.

While we were waiting near the parking lot on the Nile, we noticed several warthogs snoozing next to a truck only a few feet away from us, like big, bristly dogs. Not to mention the ubiquitous baboons who frequent every parking lot and ferry dock and area where unsuspecting humans might leave their car windows open. There was a giant globe next to the river with a slightly-outsized Uganda marked on it (You Are Here!). And somewhere out on the river, we could hear the chuckle of hippos. It started to rain again, hard, so we ducked into a little shelter and wiled away the time reading all the notices posted inside—park rules and regulations, campground ads, a poster for fishing trips that was photoshopped in a way that made it look like you’d be fishing for hippos, and a Marburg virus warning. Finally, it was time to drive the vans onto the car ferry for the short, noisy chug across the Nile, where we could see our lodge perched high on a cliff above the river. It was too rainy to get out of the vans on the ferry, but through the windows we could see two hippos rise up out of the water, their big faces only yards away from us.

Paraa Lodge was very pretty, a two-story lodge in the African-themed “hotel in the bush” style, with every room looking out onto the swimming pool and beyond that the Nile. We were on the second floor, so we had a particularly nice view from our balcony. Their hippo logo was especially fitting, considering that a hippo was grazing right on the back lawn, and we saw a number of hippo trails leading up from the river.

We didn’t have much time to investigate the lodge, since we arrived two hours later than planned and everyone wanted to get out on a quick game drive before nightfall. We started to see animals even before we left the lodge grounds—baboons and warthogs were hanging out in the back yard of one of the employee cottages, and another yard had a hippo. Probably not a pet.

Out into the park, we quickly saw more warthogs (colored dark red from the soil, and with impressively long hair), waterbuck, and large herds of Jackson’s hartebeest. We came upon a beautiful small group of reticulated giraffes, with several babies and a big male whose spots were so dark they were nearly black. They were posing prettily on green grassland beneath towering palm trees. I was really taken with the scenic beauty of Murchison Falls NP – I guess I’d been so focused on researching the primate-centric aspects of this trip that I hadn’t learned as much about this place, and it was a delightful surprise. We also encountered buffalo, a few kobs, and oribi. As darkness began to fall, the sky took on a magical light with stormy, steel-grey clouds hanging low. At one point a flock of brilliantly white birds flew past against this sky, and the effect was breathtaking—I was standing up on the seat with my head out the open top of the van, breathing in the wet air and rich smells of soil and grass and, you know, AFRICA… and I felt such a rush of happiness and amazement. How could I possibly be here?

It was time to head back to the lodge then, with one more waterbuck caught in the headlights as we drove through the gate and back up the hill. In the darkness we saw the eerie sight of guards walking up the drive with their rifles (and early the next morning my husband would hear the even more eerie sound of gunshots). It was good to end this long day with a good dinner on the open-air balcony of the restaurant, but I missed my Ugandan food. Instead, we had “lodge continental” buffet… accompanied by hippos grunting in the river below, and little bats darting around the open areas catching bugs. When we walked back to our room after dinner we spotted dozens of little bats zipping in and out of the open-air hallway, and one clumsy bat knocked my husband in the head as it flew by.
MyDogKyle is offline  
Apr 11th, 2009, 10:28 PM
  #38  
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PART 7 (Murchison Falls) – “Stuck in the Mud”

Our whole group was up early and ready to jump in the vans today, anxious to spend more time out in the park. Fortunately each of the three vans went their own way this morning, so we had plenty of space and freedom (we didn’t see many cars at all in this park). We almost immediately saw someone from my bird wish list, a hammerkop. I know some of you won’t think that’s terribly exciting, but last year in Kenya and Tanzania we kept seeing their nests but never the birds themselves, so it had become a personal quest to find one. Another new bird for us was the tiny, brilliantly-colored red bishop. Then so many animals: giraffes (another of our vans encountered a group of 40 giraffes this morning!), hartebeests, so many Uganda kobs that we had to laugh at our frantic efforts to get a photo of one last night, and lots of buffalo. I had instantly become a huge fan of the kob – they might not have the coolest name, but they are definitely one of the loveliest antelope in East Africa, with their golden color and sharp markings and the graceful swoop of their horns. These sights out the window were fantastic, the savannah scenery so beautiful, but it had rained last night and the tracks were so muddy the van kept fishtailing. We saw several cars stuck in muddy ditches and felt grateful that we were in Ali’s van today (he of the impressive driving skills).

Everyone in our van got really excited when we saw our first elephants, particularly since about half of us do volunteer work with elephants, and two friends who worked at an elephant sanctuary had never had the chance to see them in the wild before. There were tears of joy in our van. And that’s another thing to be said for group travel, that I hadn’t considered before – you get to experience other people’s tears of joy, and their thrill of seeing a wild animal for the first time. The eles were standing in such tall grass that they were nearly invisible… but every now and then an ear would flap or a great head would lift slightly and a tusk would gleam in the morning light. There was, inexplicably, a camera crew of some sort up the road from us, quite close to the elephants, and some dumb guy walking around outside of their vehicle. (“Where are the elephants?” – “Right over there, near that dude in the white t-shirt.”) The elephants were in a tight bunch and seemed to be agitated by this, so we wondered if they might be closing ranks around a baby somewhere down in that high grass. (Sure enough, a photo one of our friends took from a different van later confirmed that suspicion, showing a tiny trunk lifted up beside its mother!) Ali suggested we wait a while until the camera crew left, and as soon as they drove off the elephants visibly relaxed and spread out, so we could see them much better. Patience definitely pays off on game drives. And I love seeing “invisible” elephants – it never ceases to amaze me how well such giant creatures can camouflage themselves, and how silent they can be.

Lots of lots of kob followed next, sometimes nothing more than horns sticking out above the grass and, when we looked more closely, the gleam of their big dark eyes. Hartebeest loped by, leaping up out of the grass and then disappearing into it. We came across another group of elephants in a more open area, with a long line of buffalo marching up the hill behind them. One big female elephant was resting with her immense tusk tucked into the crook of a tree branch. As we drove onward into the park, we saw stunning views of the Nile and the dark blue mountains beyond, and the long grass that hid these animals so well gave way to a short carpet of green that really showed them off. We drove through an impressive gauntlet of hoofed animals—kob, oribi, hartebeest, and red, red warthogs. From what I’d read about Uganda I hadn’t expected to see animals in such large numbers here, so that was a nice surprise. And so many birds, too: woodland kingfishers, crowned cranes, carmine bee-eaters, spur-winged lapwings, more hammerkops, hadada ibis, black-shouldered kites, white-browed coucals, kori bustards, palm nut vultures, piapiacs, red-eyed doves and various types of hornbills.

The Cute Animal Award for today went to a baby bushbuck (who hadn’t learned yet to be too shy to pose for photos) and his mommy (who had). The whole setting this morning was so pretty – tall palm trees and lily-covered ponds, the silvery stretch of river, the bright green grass, and gigantic iridescent dragonflies zipping alongside our windows, keeping pace with the van. I remember thinking that it was pretty nice to be traveling in the wet season this time, since everything was so green. The primates finally popped up at the end of the game drive, just as we’d turned to head back to the lodge for lunch. First we saw a family of baboons scampering around in an enormous sausage tree, and then I had my best spotting moment of the trip (so far, anyway)—two patas monkeys sitting up in another tree. They were remarkably beautiful, with dark red coats and somber-looking faces.

Only a few minutes after leaving the monkeys, disaster began to unfold. We saw a van stuck in the mud just up the road, with a bunch of familiar-looking people standing outside. It was Kule’s van, and it was so badly stuck they’d decided everyone from their van should squeeze into ours and just head back to the lodge, so we would make it in time for our afternoon boat safari. Everybody cheerfully piled into our van, sitting on laps and squishing into the aisle space. There was lots of laughter and jokes about voting somebody out of the van, and nobody seemed terribly phased by it. From my tight spot in the front row on my husband’s lap, I could see Ali turning the steering wheel back and forth rapidly with every slip and slide and fishtail of the van’s tires in the mud, and I wondered if we were going to make it all the back to the lodge after all. Don’t be such a pessimist, I told myself.

I had, literally, just had that thought when we turned a corner and came upon a huge truck that was also stuck in the mud, this time right in the middle of the road. He was gunning his engine and mud was flying everywhere, but the only thing he was accomplishing was getting more stuck. Ali got out of the van and went to talk to him, trying to convince him to put the truck in reverse, but the guy refused and started yelling. (We heard the normally ultra-cheerful Ali mutter a word I can’t print here as he came back to our van.) Desperate, he tried to drive around the truck—and sure enough, we got stuck. We all jumped out of the van and tried our best to free it, laying branches and rocks down in front of the tires, everybody pushing and rocking and pushing on cue, but nothing helped. The van just sunk deeper into the muddy trench at the side of the road, tipping toward a steep wall of mud. Red clay mud was caked so thick on our shoes it added inches to everyone’s height. Eventually, we had to give up and wait for Wazir’s van to come back from the lodge and rescue us (he was the only one not stuck by this point).

By the time he arrived and zoomed full speed back to Paraa Lodge (I think I held my breath the whole way, waiting for that slip-slide-stuck feeling again), the afternoon boat launches were starting to shove off and lunch was long since over. He told us to run back up to the lodge and grab a snack and some water – one of the boats had promised to wait for us. But when we returned to the dock, all the boats were gone. Wazir promised he would “fix this” and find another boat, so we hung around by the river with some large and very intimidating blue-black baboons, waiting to see what he would be able to pull off. We were getting the sense already that he was a very resourceful guy.

And indeed, Wazir managed to wrangle up another boat to take us up the river to the falls. It was a nice, small boat with an outstanding guide, and despite the fact that we had to share it with a family with extremely noisy kids, we had a nice ride up the Nile to Murchison Falls. We passed dozens of hippos, a baby crocodile, and hundreds of birds (including African jacana, pied kingfishers, malachite kingfishers, Goliath herons, darters, hammerkops, ibis, fish eagles, and weavers with their nests festooning the reeds and tree branches like Christmas ornaments). As we went farther up the river the pods of hippos got bigger, and we saw gigantic crocodiles with their mouths open on the reedy shore, basking in the sun. We couldn’t see their full awesome size until they startled and slid down into the water. The cliffs along the river were pitted with tiny holes that hid bee-eater nests. Close to the falls the river was speckled with white foam, created by the force of the pounding water. It was incredible to see the falls from this vantage point on the river, rushing down between that narrow gap in the rocks with a mighty roar and rocking our little boat with its power. There was a single African darter on a rock at the base of the falls, with his wings outstretched as though in celebration at the sight.

Back at the lodge, most of us jumped in the (chilly) pool in the dwindling daylight. We’d made a plan with one of our friends to have a toast at the swim-up bar (because none of us had ever done such a thing), but by the time we got there they were closing up and no longer serving alcohol. We toasted with Stoneys instead. Then my husband had to do an impromptu medical exam on another friend who had the great misfortune of a wasp flying into her shorts during a short-call potty stop—she had a painful sting on her leg, but it certainly could have been much, much worse, considering the wasp got stuck in her shorts. We all watched the pink sunset over the Nile from the pool, shivering in our swimsuits. After dinner, my husband and I had our first Amarula of the trip, sitting outside on our room’s balcony and listening to the distant chuckle of hippos. We were joined by a pale pink gecko, a bat, and a flickering lightning bug. Not bad company for a nightcap.
MyDogKyle is offline  
Apr 12th, 2009, 03:27 AM
  #39  
 
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MDK, how are you?

Murchison Falls sound embroidered on velvet and I’d like to be stuck in the mud there.
Nyamera is offline  
Apr 12th, 2009, 04:49 PM
  #40  
 
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Interesting hypothesis—that the chimp was warning you about the snare. I am putting the cards with snare pieces into my souvenir shopping budget. Thanks for the heads up.

Wildflowers and toilet paper--what a decorative combo that could be used for any festivity.

The kids will love the dance DVD.

I’m making a note of ground nut sauce with matoke or rice and chapatti.

In Murchison Falls, I wonder if the fairy dust will remain into the dry season. I can imagine your escalating fear when you couldn’t find your husband. Were those eerie sounds of gunshots ever explained? Another kob fan! I love them too. The Murchison Falls wildlife is most impressive. Patas Monkeys would be a real treat.

Good thing your husband could make a house call for the wasp sting. You’re right she was lucky it was just her leg that got stung. I guess we need to check inside our clothing after a potty stop for wasps or other insects. Normally the gaze is straight ahead throughout the pit stop, but a quick peek behind and below before zipping up may need to become part of my routine in the future. Thanks for that heads up too.

Nyamera, you've had your share of experiences being stuck in the mud, so coming from you that's a real compliment for Murchison Falls.
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