As a birder, I have had many opportunities for wonderful trips overseas. This past June was probably the most unforgettable experience of my life.
I do my birding travel with Cheepers! Birding on a Budget. This year a trip to Uganda, with a gorilla trek as an optional experience, was offered. There was no way I’d pass up an opportunity to see gorillas in the wild. I spent months reading everything I could find. I posted questions on TripAdvisor and got marvelous tips and enthusiastic descriptions. I bought the thick garden gloves recommended, wore good, strong hiking boots, and made sure my walking stick was ready.
Fantasies being free, I spent nights before falling asleep picturing myself walking up a mountainside, sitting or standing near gorillas. In one fantasy, Momma gorilla sauntered over to me with her wee one and held it out to me.
As I said, fantasies are free. So is reality—well, actually it isn’t—it has its own price: incredibly steep trails and even a fall. But, oh, was it worth it! Here are a few highlights of my trip.
The trip began officially on June 25. We stayed at Victoria Lake View Lodge, aptly named as it faces Lake Victoria. Our rooms were in “huts” called rondavels, which were made of brick with pointed thatched roofs. They were quite basic. There, as in a number of places, hot water was a “maybe.”
Our first official day was spent walking the grounds of Entebbe Botanical Gardens and birding around Lake Victoria beneath gun-metal gray skies. We traveled via a fair-sized green and white bus that held the 12 of us and all our luggage, and which made every pothole and rut—of which there were far more than an abundance – a painful experience.
June 26: Early rising is the norm for birders. In several places where we spent the night, there really didn’t seem to be a need for alarms, as nearly every morning we were awakened at 5:30 a.m. by the Muslim call to prayer, which was also heard in the afternoon and again in the evening. By 6 a.m. we were in the dining area for the first of many excellent breakfasts, always served with delicious Ugandan grown fruit: mango, pineapple, bananas and grapes. Everywhere we drove, we saw women taking care of all the terraced plants by using long-handled hoes with a single broad blade. Never did we see, anywhere, tractors or any kind of labor-saving machines.
A long, long drive on ferocious, spine-compressing red dirt roads took us to Mbomba Wetlands, where the first of two trip highlights took place, and you can be sure, except in our lodges, bathrooms did not fall into that category.
The first highlight was a boat ride out into the Mbomba Wetlands marsh to see the African shoebill stork. We piled into two long, narrow wooden boats. The marsh was so thick that the motor had to be turned off, and the boat was poled by two rangers to a spot where we could see the shoebill on its nest. That these men would get out of the boat is significant, when one is reminded how prevalent big, fat crocodiles are. We made this boat trip, because it was the only way to see this rare bird. Outside of East Africa it is very rarely seen.
We spent a good portion of each day traveling to our next destination, nearly always on rutted, red dirt roads. After our shoebill adventure, we headed to Lake Mburo, a five and a half hour drive that took us through village after village, which were all alike: a line of mud stores, all connected, with doors of heavy iron open to reveal a dark interior. Vegetables and fruit were piled on a blanket on the ground or a small table. Crowds everywhere milled around.
Boda-boda motor bikes were arranged in little groups, kickstands down, the owners gossiping. Boda-bodas are motorcycles used as taxis or to carry huge piles of bananas, plastic gallon jugs, or anything that needs to be transported. The name comes from the Ugandan/English words for “border.” Some 50 years ago, people needed to cross the border (the English word is not easily said by Ugandans, so it ends up being heard as if it were its own word: “boda-boda.”). Those who owned one used it as a taxi to get people to the border.
In every town, streets were full of boda-bodas. They greatly outnumber cars. Not only do they carry piles of food and other goods, but they also carry people. It was not uncommon to see a child sitting in front of the driver and two adults sitting behind the driver’s seat. The boda-bodas weave in and out of truck and auto traffic. It all is quite haphazard and not for the faint of heart.
June 28: We arrived at Kabale. We stayed at Trekkers Tavern, which consists of square concrete cottages scattered around the grounds. A thin straw-woven mat was on the concrete floor. As with other lodging, the bed consisted of one mattress on several slats of a wood frame bed enclosed by the omnipresent mosquito netting. While they were not the most comfortable of mattresses, after long hours and full days, we were too tired to care.
The light source in nearly every lodge was solar-powered and generally quite dim. There was no hot water in this lodge; no lights lit the stone pathways to the dining area. One always brings a flashlight to Africa! As usual, the food was very good, and the service was perfect. Every staff person was the essence of graciousness. Because the nights there are very cold, we were given hot-water bottles for under the covers. Delicious!
June 29: The mother of all highlight experiences took place today, for it was gorilla trek day, the day I had dreamed of for months! Along with a number of other intrepid trekkers, we gathered at the wildlife management office of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest for a briefing. Only eight people at a time are allowed up into the forest, so there were several groups of trekkers besides ours.
After the briefing, we each sought out a porter after the wildlife officer very strongly advised it. My porter was Nicholas. I took his hand and never let go for the next 6 hours except to sit down or for him to help me up after I fell. The hike to the gorillas’ location was very, very steep, rocky, and rooted going down, and very, very steep going up. Our lead guide had to use a machete to get us through the bush. The first sighting of our gorillas was beyond description. There is no way to describe fully what it was like to be in the presence of these magnificent primates. Momma had a wee baby with her, and when one of the trackers went to cut back some of the bush so we could see her better, she rose up on her legs, bared her canines, and emitted a pure Stephen King growl. The tracker wisely did an about face and returned to his position farther away, and Momma settled down.
Our gorilla visit ended farther up the steep trail when we came upon what I can only describe as a National Geographic tableau: Poppa reclining, chewing on a stem of some sort; Momma reclining with her baby crawling over her chest and shoulders; and another youngster pulling down small, green leafy branches in perfect imitation of his dad. Dad took one look at us and stood up, as if to say, “If you’ve seen one human, you’ve seen them all,” and led his little family deeper into the bush. It all happened so quickly that taking photos was impossible. Cliched as it sounds, all I can think of even today is “What a wow moment!”
In Uganda there isn’t the presence of dramatic African animals one would find, say, in Tanzania, but it was in Queen Elizabeth National Park that we had quite a moment. A female elephant was walking along a path on land slightly higher than our road. We slowed down to keep pace with her. She was magnificent with long tusks. It was soon very clear that she didn’t like us “walking” with her. Not at all. She turned her massive head toward us, shook it a bit, and when we didn’t hightail it out of there, she flared out her massive ears and emitted a trumpet call that turned us to jelly and, yes, we most certainly did hightail it away. We were GONE.
We stayed at Bush Tented Lodge in Queen Elizabeth National Park. That was terrific. Each tent was set on a raised platform with a roof covering it to prevent monkeys from getting into the tent. After arriving, we had a briefing with one of the staff. She emphasized that we had to have an escort to our tent when leaving dinner and when going to breakfast, because we were near a large lake which had large hippos in it. Hippos come up on land during the night; it would be a decidedly life-changing event, if we were to encounter one as we returned to our tent. Each escort was armed with a flashlight.
I asked just how effective a flashlight would be against a several-ton animal determined to restructure our physiques, and we learned that hippos hate flashlights and will turn and race toward the lake when light hits their eyes. That night we fell asleep against the symphony of hippo grunts, crickets and frogs, as well as the high-pitched whine of jackals.
July 10: We had the great pleasure of birding The Royal Mile: a long road through a spectacularly beautiful forest in Budongo Forest Reserve. It gets its name from a king who liked to walk on it for—a mile. The massive trees, with massive roots, rise high into the sky, their canopies touching and creating a marvelous green ceiling over us. As we slowly made our way along the road, we occasionally saw folks passing by: women carrying large bundles of branches on their heads; a little boy pushing his bike which carried his own little bundle of branches, and a small boy carrying a machete.
July 11: The third highlight of the trip took place at Murchison Falls. It took us a few hours of driving on very rough and rutted roads to reach Murchison, but the view erased any memory of the long drive. We stood at the railing looking down at a double rainbow beneath which tumbled millions of gallons of water from the River Nile as it made its way to Lake Albert on the White Nile River. Later, we took a boat ride on the Nile to get closer to this beautiful waterfall. It was on this boat ride that we got to meet Henry, the biggest crocodile any of us has ever seen. The captain of the boat told us Henry is eighteen to twenty feet long. His head was massive.
July 14: We pulled out of Twiga Lodge to begin making our way back to Entebbe and our flights home. Although it was a goodbye journey, there was, tucked into the trip, a small highlight: a puff adder on the red dirt road. We stopped suddenly to avoid hitting it, scrambling out of the van as fast as we could. The puff adder is a very, very deadly snake, to be sure, but it is also a beautiful snake. We grouped around it—at a very respectful distance—and watched it slowly crossing the road, allowing us to take many photos. Many adult baboons dotted the red dirt road we traveled. They watched us with steady eyes, their tiny little ones hiding behind Mom, or scampering up into the safety of tall grass.
And so we made our way back to civilization and traffic and crowds.
Uganda is a big and beautiful country. Its citizens are strong and very, very hard- working. Their children are just beautiful. I have learned in my visits to several African countries that I cannot look at Africa with American eyes. I must leave behind all my own experiences of living in a wealthy, modernized nation, and look at Africa with openness to its unique culture. Uganda gave me a gift, this great, red dirt country: a reminder that machines and modern conveniences are not the stuff of a great nation. Its people are.
Susan Harrison, retired educator, is passionate about teaching literature. Since 2016, Susan has taught courses for OLLI on popular fiction, World War II thrillers, contemporary fiction, and the value of fairy tales. In October, 2018, Susan will teach: Why Who-Dun-It Matters: The Appeal of Mystery and Suspense Fiction.