Uganda Trip Report (6 May – 13 May 2012)
(Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania)
After reviewing proposals from several tour companies we settled on Churchill Safaris based on comments from key contributors to Trip Advisor and reviews on the Uganda forum. It was a pleasure dealing with Ether and staff. The only negative, if one could call it that, was lack of feedback when payments had been received.
From Newark Liberty Airport we flew to Amsterdam and then onto East Africa with a short stop in Kigali, Rwanda arriving in Entebbe Airport around 10:15pm. I was truly impressed on how well organized immigration, visa procurement and baggage collection went. We had maybe a 15 minute wait for visa issuance ($50 each). The official asked for replacement of one bill as the date was before 2006.
Wife Darla, daughter Beth and I each had a soft- sided piece of checked luggage and one carry- on bag. We took the prophylactic Malerone for the malaria issue, small handiwipes, sunscreen and bug repellant in addition to our regular meds, binocs, a Canon S3IS digital point-n-shoot, a Canon Rebel T1i with a 100-400ET-83C zoom and an “old” Olympus C-740 point-n-shoot as a backup. I also included the Canon EF 70-300mm zoom for the Rebel but once I saw how bad the dust was I opted not to bother switching lens. The Birds of East Africa by Stevenson and Fanshawe was a priority item in our carry-on bags. Also, I took the appropriate outlet plug, converter, battery chargers, 3 batteries for the Canon Rebel and way too many double AA’s for the other units plus several memory cards for each unit. We each packed a flashlight (torch for the British readers), paperbacks which once read were left for others, one umbrella, notebooks, pens and packs of sugarless chewing gum. Each took some clothing in the carry-ons. T- shirts came in handy for wrapping cameras and lens. I need to remember to remove torch batteries before packing so “bumping” doesn’t turn on and waste them.
Brighton from Churchill Safari met us outside the baggage area and promptly got us loaded and off to Kampala maybe a 45 minute ride. Right away we knew we had a winner with him. On the way he got to know us and vice versa. He pointed out the former Entebbe airport where the Israeli forces rescued folks in the hi-jacked plane. Now that airport is used for a major storage facility for UN relief efforts in Uganda. Arriving in Kampala we noticed numerous citizens out and abound in what seemed like a party atmosphere. Brighton mentioned it being Sunday evening many people were enjoying local eateries and clubs. Traffic was heavy and once off the main road, local avenues and streets were some of the worst we have encountered in East Africa. Soon we arrived at the Cassa Lodge in a beautiful setting overlooking Lake Victoria. Our air-conditioned room was clean and quiet just what we need for our first night in-country. It was storming and the lightning lit up the whole sky over the lake. We awoke to a great view with local fishermen out on the lake, flights of herons, huge slugs on the walk and a speckled pigeon on the roof. A buffet breakfast awaited our attention.
We headed back into Kampala to see some real traffic (lots of motor bikes) en-route to the Churchill Safari office where Ether greeted us as we then departed to Mabamba Swamp. I asked about exchanging US currency for Uganda shillings and Brighton’s preference for currency in regards to his tip. He said he was fine with US dollars and unless we planned on major shopping we would be okay using US currency at lodges. The vehicle with pop-up roof and well stocked with bottled water was ready for safari!
En-route Brighton told us about Ugandan culture, life during the Amin reign, his family and the like. Plus, we were entertained with the sights of a Monday morning in a country new to us with all the youngsters smiling and waving to us. I know I was keyed up to see Ankole cattle. For some reason the ones on the “safari” ride at the Animal Kingdom at WDW, prompted my interest in these very unique animals. I asked Brighton if we might see some. He said sure and soon enough one was spotted in a small field. I am sure Brighton chuckled to himself as to what was awaiting me only hours later. It rained earlier in the morning and as we drove along a muddy country road people were diverting water flowing in roadside ditches to shallow pits. They were using this water in making clay bricks for home construction.
Soon the road dead ended at a small collection of huts where trips into the swamp originated. Mabamba Swamp, across a bay of Lake Victoria is practically in sight of Entebbe Airport but is an hour’s plus drive from Kampala due to a circuititous route and early morning traffic. Moses, our local guide and a fellow paddler soon had us in the craft and off to explore the swamp. I have seen the boats referred to as dug-outs but are actually made of wooden planks with a v-shaped hull. Once we left sight of the launch point, the only sound was the swish of the oar in the water, wind in the vast growth of papyrus and loads of lilies and the occasional voice of fisherman elsewhere in the swamp. The shallow draft, narrow, wooden boat enabled us to get quite close to pied kingfishers, winding cistacola, yellow-billed duck, weavers, and other birds. We learned about lungfish, mudfish and catfish sought by fishermen and avian predators like the shoebill. Soon, we came upon a pair of shoebill less than 50 yards away! The guide nodded when it was okay to stand and photograph the pair. What prehistoric looking creatures. We were impressed with the special sighting. Given the threat of a thunderstorm the ride was cut a bit short but on the way back we saw fan-tailed widow bird, yellow-headed weaver, purple heron, swamp fly catcher, long-tailed comorant, malachite kingfisher, hamerkop, cattle egret, and others. At the landing boats from another part of the swamp came in loaded with people, pineapple and even a motor cycle.
Back on the main road we continued to be amazed with stands selling bananas, potatoes, other veggies and pineapple. Cattle and goats were tied along the road to feed on grass. We had a brief stop at the equator for picture taking. And, I was surprised (and somewhat pleased) that the gals had no interest in shopping. Then, it happened, Brighton pulled the vehicle off the road and indicated we had a problem. After a quick diagnosis (while we watched Ruppell’s long-tailed starlings and weavers) it would seem a new radiator was in order. Brighton told us a replacement vehicle was en-route from Kampala and that he had made arrangements for a minibus-taxi to take us to the place we were to have lunch and that he would join us there shortly. He gave us money for lunch and loaded us into the mini-van taxi which arrived minutes later. Our destination was the Highway Hotel but w/o any idea as to travel distance. The trip was uneventful but interesting having never used this from of transportation before. The van was packed with 15 people it seemed, everyone was pleasant and we were kind of ignored. Various stops were made. Besides the driver another person handled pricing and collecting payment. Eventually we stopped at the Highway Takeaway (not Hotel) establishment. Seeing a mixed assortment of patrons we took a seat under a huge jackfruit tree and had a great lunch of fried chicken, chips (fries) and slaw with coke and sprite for something like 13,500 ushillings each. Somewhat of a paradox to be eating chicken as two live ones scurried around cleaning up crumbs under the tables. After a couple hours we began to wonder 1) if we were at the right place, 2) how to contact Brighton as we had no cell phones nor even a number to reach him, and 3) arrangements for the nite particularly as he had our luggage.
Soon, another vehicle pulled into the parking area and we recognized Brighton’s smiling face! Off we were to Lake Mburo NP. En-route we saw a dead snake flattened on the pavement, Brighton seemed happy (apparently Ugandans don’t like snakes!).
He continued to enlighten us on local industry and customs. We learned quite a bit about using fronds from the banana plant in cooking various meals. We appreciated his approach to birding. Not only would he point out the bird in his book but kept his own handwritten list. He also used an ap on his cell phone to play bird calls to entice reluctant one to come to us. And, he double-checked his identification and on occasion corrected an earlier id.
As we approached the Lake Mburo park boundary sightings of impala, zebra and wart hog increased as did birds. And then, a herd of Ankole cattle! A couple dozen of reddish-brown animals with the huge horns filled the road way! I was impressed (probably Brighton chuckled to himself). The signs “go slow- dish drain ahead” were unique. Being a former wildlife and fisheries biologist I appreciated the efforts of park staff to manage for grazers such as impala by converting tree/shrub areas to grassland. And, the resulting firewood was being sold to support local schools! Highlights of our two days at Lake Mburo NP included:
frequent sightings of bushbuck standing on termite mounds, numerous wart hogs, maybe more than we have ever seen, perhaps due to no lions in the park, boat ride on Lake Mburo. Got extra close to African fish eagles, kingfishers, African finfoot (one male swimming right at the boat launch). Wondered why portions of gill nets were in trees some 50’ above the waters? Seems the fish eagles in taking fish caught in the nets lifted parts of the nets into the trees! Other special bird sightings for us included the striped kingfisher, red-headed weaver, red-chested sunbird, a nightjar (seen on the ground in daylight), spot-flanked barbet, red-bellied paradise flycatcher, pygmy kingfisher, black-headed gonolek, palm-nut vulture, emerald-spotted wood dove, red-eyed dove, and wooly-necked stork.
While at Lake Mburo we stayed two nights at the Arcadia Cottages just a short distance from the lake. Our cottage was a short stroll thru the bushes/grass with frequent sightings of warthog, impala, cape buffalo and hippo particularly after sundown. Beth had her own bedroom and we shared a common bathroom. The cottage was clean and comfy although a small mammal or two living in the ceiling made for interesting noise at night but not enough to interrupt sleep. Food was excellent and being the only guests in camp we got great attention from staff. For supper one night we had fillet steak w/ rice and veggies. Another great meal was spaghetti bolognase w/meat sauce. Soda was 2,000 ushillings. Breakfast was eggs (various ways) toast, pineapple, always with choice of coffee/tea. A lunch was Maryland chicken, chips, coleslaw and tomatoes.
A number of different birds were seen in the immediate vicinity of the cottage. One just had to keep an eye out for the solitary bull cape buffalo that seemed to prefer the grassy habitat around the cottages and main pavilion. Brighton said it was a “loser” buffalo having been chased out of the herd due to old age.
Even though Lake Mburo NP doesn’t have lions, giraffe or elephants it is still worth a visit particularly for birders or even just a relaxed stop over while en-route to more distant parks.
On the way to Queen Elizabeth NP we stopped at Cielo Country Inn to eat our boxed lunches and order drinks as necessary. Since Brighton ordered hot tea I did the same but did not specify w/o milk. Much to my “surprise” my tea also included hot milk. I downed a cup mainly to be polite. Male and female red-chested sunbirds greeted us in the outside garden.
Soon we came upon acres and acres of tea plants and a processing factory. And, we saw the mechanical harvester (much like a giant hedge trimmer) pulled across the top of the plants to shear off new growth. Hand picking occurs on smaller plots and/or along edges where the mechanical unit is not practical.
Cresting a major hill we had our first view of Queen Elizabeth National Park. Baboons, banded mongoose, and a large elephant were some of the first mammals to greet us. Numerous acacia trees and grassy areas abounded. Almost to the bridge across the Kazinga channel between Lake George and Lake Edward we turned off to the QE Bush Lodge. Initially, we were to stay at the Kyambura Game Lodge. But, a few months before the trip, Churchill Safari contacted us saying an alternative lodge was to be used as the Kyambura experienced a major fire. From a TA lodge review the alternative one looked fine except I felt it was somewhat removed from bushy habitat and that might reduce bird/game sightings during in-camp time. Thus, I asked for another lodge even if such might be considered a downgrade. The Bush Lodge seemed to fit the bill in regards to being along a side bay of the channel, was located in a tree covered area and as it turned out had plenty of birds and mammals. Our’s was tent Buffalo. It took a bit for the ladies to get comfy with the tented camp. For one thing they were a bit taken back with the long drop toilet requiring the user to scoop sand into it after each use. The larger issue was use of the outside shower which required staff to fill a barrel prior to use. The timing of Beth’s first one was just as staff were bringing/filling the hot water! Inside lighting was either non-existent or insufficient for me to shave but it was great after the morning game drive to bring the mirror outside and shave with natural lighting. Shower water was hot. Bottled water was not provided in the tent. Staff could not have been any more accommodating and the food was excellent. The camp was hardly at full capacity so we had plenty of attention from staff. The tradition of escorting guests back to the tents after supper was a good one as hippo, cape buffalo and even elephant were known to frequent camp grounds. In fact, as we ate one evening, staff alerted us a hippo was already approaching the dining tent. Sure enough, it was less than 75’ away. More than one guests immediately ran outside to photo the “guest”. We did not and were surprised staff did not keep guests from getting so close to probably the most dangerous mammals in Africa!
Our first meal there was chef salad, mushroom soup, breaded tilapia (not bad), potatoes, rolls, greenbeans, carrots and a dessert with Sprite, Coke and red wine. In the evening, power was on from 7 to about 915PM. Battery charging was available in the lounge area. Breakfast included juice (passion fruit juice), coffee/tea, plenty of fresh fruit (pineapple, banana, water melon, passionfruit, etc) toast, eggs, cold cereal. Another supper was a cheese/eggplant/tomato salad, pumpkin soup, beef steak w/sauce and potatoes/carrots/beans and chocolate cake. The gals agreed the food was as good as any where we have been on our several safaris.
I was impressed with honesty of the staff. Seems when I turned in a pair of trousers for washing I left $2 in the pocket. A young lad brought the money to me. I was so taken back I told him to keep it as a gift from me and that I appreciated his honesty. (told his Mom about it later).
For our game drives we crossed the channel, drove thru the fishing village of Katunguru and then selected a side road. On an early morning drive we had to wait at the bridge. A lorry loaded with large burlap bags of something could not fit under the bridge ceiling until fellows jumped up and down on the load ‘til they had clearance! We saw relatively few vehicles on our game drives. Brighton also showed us the crater lake where locals own small plots of the lake bed where salt can be collected once ponded water evaporates.
Sighting a leopard lying atop a hamerkop nest. Seeing numerous Uganda kob (a first for us). Loads of elephants! One huge specimen forcing us to back down a road to get out of its way. Several new birds (new to us) including: Black flycatcher, blue-shouldered kite, African crake, fawn-breasted waxbill, Levaillant’s cuckoo, carruthers cistacola, and yellow canary. Two hr boat ride along the Kazingo Channel. Numerous water birds, crocs, cape buffalo in the water, large elephant, huge collection of commorants. The boat guide was quite knowledgeable and the $24 price of the trip is very reasonable. If serious about taking pictures sit on the left side if possible. Time at the QE Bush Lodge. We enjoyed walking paths within the lodge proper and looking for birds. With a variety of bushes, trees and grassy areas various birds including batis, whydah, black gonolek, kingfishers and more were approachable if one had patience. Even in daylight we would occasionally see elephant, wart hog, cape buffalo, hippos and various birds either on the hillside across the back bay or in the vegetation at bay level. The front porch was great for reading while watching for wildlife.
Then, it was time to leave QENP. Stopped at the Agip restaurant for our box lunch (chicken, hard-boiled egg, banana, cheese sandwich, mango juice, crackers and cake).
At the Brovad Hotel in Masaka Beth cleaned up and then was off to Entebbe airport for evening flight as first leg towards home. Darla and I sat at an outside table sipping soda and watching birds. Learned power was out which explained why Beth did not enjoy hot water during her shower. Later the hotel generator kicked on and we were fine. From our room we could watch birds coming to roost for the evening and witnessed an interesting “argument” between a pied crow and a marabou stork. Had a great chicken supper.
Brighton arrived and we headed off to the Mabamba Swamp for a longer boat ride. Maria was our guide. A group of college age travelers arrived before us and headed towards the area where we saw the shoebill a few days ago. So, we headed in the opposite direction into a wider channel with plenty of lower vegetation for easy viewing of numerous water related birds including pied kingfisher, squacco herons, purple herons, Black crake, and African jacana and even a pink-backed pelican. Fantailed widow birds, various weavers, wagtails, cistacola and others kept us entertained. We finally turned around and headed to the area where the other boats were. The route involved quite an effort as channel was quite shallow and cutting a new path means more poling than paddling. Soon Maria’s assistant hopped into the water in an effort to pull the boat what she and I used the paddles and pushed against the bottom. We approached the other boats seeing a pair of shoebill just ahead. The two remained still for a photo shoot. Then, we began the arduous journey back to the boat ramp. It was an exciting morning not only to see shoebill but also blue-breasted bee-eater, blue-headed coucal, and a heron near the parking area catching and then swallowing a huge frog.
Brighton indicated although we were just across the bay from Entebbe airport the overland trip would take an hour but we would not have to go thru Kampala. The drive gave us time to talk over an itinerary for a lengthier birding safari for our next visit. We arrived at Entebbe airport around 2:30 PM. When the security person x-rayed my carry on bag she seemed to have an issue with camera batteries. Eventually, she/I removed all so she could x-ray them separately. No problem and so we were off to Nairobi via Air Uganda ( one way at$195 includ. tax per person) for the rest of our safari.
We are still comparing notes but it would seem we saw something like 160 bird species during our short stay. Would we like to return to Uganda? Yes. Any regrets about the trip? None, other than the trip was too short.
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Uganda Trip Report (6 May – 13 May 2012)