From Kampala we headed north to Murchison Falls National Park, this meant leaving the capital city at daybreak, in a futile attempt to avoid the worst of the heavy traffic. Judging by the traffic when we got to Kampala, we estimated it taking us at least two hours to get out of the city and onto more open roads. In the end we managed it in about an hour and a half, then had the benefit of a good tarmac road taking us up to the town of Masindi, from here is a decent dirt road (they don’t do gravel in Uganda), all the way to and through the National Park. There are of course a number of bridges to cross and a couple of them were very tight to accommodate the width of the Daf, there was also one that had large holes that had rusted through the steel plate (deep breath as we pass over these).
So after paying our entrance fees at the gate ($40 per person per day, and $150 for Colonel K), and having a laugh with the rangers, we drove the short 10km to a small lodge that provides Chimpanzee Tracking in the rainforest. They had no availability for the tracking for two days time, and it would be leaving the lodge on foot early in the morning, so after negotiating a rate for us to camp in their small carpark for the following night and booking the tracking we drove on through the stunning forest to Red Chilli Rest Camp (about 55km further into the NP). The camp is right next to the ferry that takes you across the Nile and into the game viewing area north of the river. We decided due to the costs involved, that we wouldn’t go across on the ferry, we have seen plenty of animals on this trip, and we are sure that we will see lots more.
Next morning we decided to drive to the top of the falls, and view for ourselves this natural wonder. Shortly after leaving the Rest Camp we encountered our first Tsetse flies of this trip, these are vicious buggers, that have to be experienced to be believed. They have no respect for any fly repellent, they bite through clothes, and are very hard to splat! But worst of all they actually chase vehicles.
Now remember we have no air conditioning in the cab of Colonel K, and to be honest have not really missed it (you get used to the heat much better without air-con), but that morning I’d have sold my soul for a decent air-con system, (its very hot here in the mid day sun), but it was too late, the cab was full of them. Jac was trying frantically to splat them with her Dads old fly swatter, with a very low success rate, meanwhile we were being eaten alive. A Tsetse fly is about the size of a honey bee, and looks like a horse fly, and can bite you repeatedly, and each bite really really hurts. We turned off the main track onto a much smaller track that takes you to the top of the falls, the Tsetse flies got worst, and it was a nightmare driving on this track while trying to keep these buggers off of you, then just as we started our very steep descent to the falls, they disappeared as quick as they appeared! It seems the Tsetse flies don’t like changes in altitude, there were no new ones we just had to get to the parking area with the ones that were already in with us, and then get out quick.
Luckily we were the only visitors there (as usual), and there was no one there to laugh at the stupid British tourists falling out of their truck, thrashing at thin air! But the thunder of the water falls was immediately apparent, and we soon forgot the horrendous bites that were covering our bodies.
Murchison Falls is at the point of the River Nile as it descends down into Lake Albert (and then it turns north into South Sudan), and at this point the mighty Nile is forced through a narrow gorge only 6 metres wide (it was about 200 metres wide when we last saw it at Jinja). The result is a truly breath taking fury of water as it is funnelled through this narrow cleft and down the Rift Valley escarpment.
Winston Churchill visited the falls in 1907, and commented that the Nile was so narrow at this point that “it would cost less than £10 to put a bridge across the Nile here”. As you can see from the middle photo, someone decided to do just that (in Idi Amin’s regime days), it lasted less than one year, and was washed away in the first big flood!.
After spending a couple of hours at the falls (you can walk about quite freely, health and safety aren’t high priority here in Uganda), we headed back to the truck, and got “armoured up” and ready for the Tsetse flies, that we knew we were going to encounter again at the top of the steep track. Our plan was to,despite the extreme heat of early afternoon, keep the windows of the cab firmly closed and just sweat it out until we were clear of them, then at least if we did have to open the windows we had long sleeves, trousers and even shoes on to protect us a little. We also sprayed all our clothing with Tabard (a Deet based repellant), and hoped for the best. As we got near to top of the steep climb (on loose gravel and involving some very tight hairpins), and sweating profusely they descended on us once more, but with the windows tightly shut, they couldn’t get in. Like a scene from a horror movie that followed us, and I mean really followed us, at one point bearing in mind that we were driving along the dirt road at speeds up to 25kmph, there were at least a dozen of them hanging onto the mirrors and loads more on the windscreen and side windows, and then the vast number were on the rear cabin!
We were sweating buckets, but nothing was going to make me or Jac open those windows, then after about 45 minutes they disappeared again, we were thankfully gaining in altitude as we got closer to the rain forest. By the time we got to Kanyiyo Pabidi Forest, we had cooled down but still itching and scratching like mad, we found a nice place to park the truck for the night and settled down for the rest of the day with a few beers. We asked the guy in charge if we could pay for our Chimpanzee Tracking and camping on our Visa card (as we were worried that we might run out of cash), amazingly he said we could but that we would have to walk out onto the track with the cordless machine as there is no signal at the lodge. Next thing we knew we were blowing chunks as we were walked to the top of a hill to get a signal, incredibly the machine beeped into life and the transaction was made, in the rainforest!
That evening a group of Spanish tourists returned from the tracking hot and sweaty, and very down beat……. they hadn’t seen any chimps at all! Not good, and we were now worried that our $100 each for the tracking might have been a waste of money.
Next morning we signed our indemnity forms (whats this? health and safety in Uganda?) , put on our heavy walking boots, tucked our trousers into our socks, applied copious amounts of insect repellant, and was introduced to our tracking guide for the day, Pauline.
As we set off into the dense rainforest (or jungle as its commonly known), we realised that we were lucky to a) have a group of only us two, and b) have Pauline as a guide, she is very keen and passionate about the primates of Uganda. After walking on well trodden paths for about 15 minutes, we heard our first chimpanzee calls in the distance, both to our right and to our left. Pauline decided to try turning towards the right calls, and explained that in the morning, a group of chimps will split into 3 or 4 different groups and head out to find a suitable source of food, leaves, figs and other fruits, then once one group is successful they will call the others over, but at this stage no one knows which group will find the best food source. The noise in this forest is fantastic, with all the birds, monkeys, and insects, but once the Chimpanzees start loudly chattering across the large distances, it is something else (oh and the spiders and their webs are truly massive).
10 minutes later we saw our first Chimpanzee, way up in the top of the tree, but we saw one! Then another……
Pauline then decided that we should find the other group that we had heard, so we set off back the way we came, but this time we turned off the path and headed directly through the dense forest. We were glad we had decent boots on, we hadn’t a clue what we were treading on out here! But she was sure that we were safe (we had been told the day before that there is a huge number of Black Cobra’s here), and that we were heading towards the chimps. Again she was absolutely spot on, several hundred metres into the dense scrub she spotted about 5 chimps up the tree and they started calling, there was masses of fig fruits in the tree, and they were telling their mates…….
What happened next was very scary! Suddenly from our left came some very loud crashing and then the screaming and calling of a number of Chimpanzees as they sought to get to their mates and the food that they had been told about. Let me tell you, an adult Chimpanzee when its on the ground and running towards you screaming loudly, is a formidable animal, and here were about six of them. Just before they got to us, they shot up into the large fig trees above us. We spent about 40 minutes watching this large group that included male and female, young and old, eating, playing, grooming, even copulating. All the time Pauline was explaining about the social interaction of the group and what was actually going on, while Jac and I dodged the Chimp urine and figs from above.
Pauline explained to us that the female that was “on heat” (in photo above), has to copulate with every adult male in the group (this could be 10-15 males) each time she is in season, so no male is sure if he is the father to the baby or not. If a male didn’t mate with a particular female and he was sure that he wasn’t the babies “papa”, then he would likely kill the baby Chimpanzee. We even watched this particular female take a “lower ranked chimp” off to a more private branch of the fig tree, so the dominant male couldn’t see that she mated with this lowly member of the group! Chimpanzee social groups are quite complex.
It really was a magical few hours, and seeing these incredible primates in the wild, and in such a beautiful setting will be something that we will never forget. The photos were a real challenge as the humidity took its toll on the Lumix, a couple of times the zoom refused to move, and the lens was continually steaming up.
Back at the truck, we had a quick shower (it was extremely hot and very humid under the canopy of the forest), and headed back towards the gate for the National Park. In Uganda you pay for a 24 hour period, and we didn’t want to be charged for another day, so after once again giving the Ranger some stick about supporting Liverpool, we followed the dirt track back to Masindi.
Our next stop was at a safari lodge on the shores of Lake Albert, this meant going via the town of Hoima. The road from Masindi to Hoima was as we were expecting, dirt, and it was slow going through hundreds of tiny villages, but at Hoima the god of roads was truly shining down on us. They have discovered oil in Lake Albert, and in order to get the exploration equipment to the lake (and down the very steep escarpment) they have had to build a new tarmac road. It has recently opened and is amazingly smooth, no repairs, no pot holes, just lovely smooth bitumen, and it takes you right to the entrance to the lodge. This was just as well as it was starting to get dark when we arrived.
Down the centre of Lake Albert is the border between Uganda and the DRC, and the view from the safari lodge and where we were camped, was across to mountains of the Congo, and made a stunning backdrop.
We stayed here for 3 nights, and would probably have stayed longer but the camp site fees were $40 per night for the two of us (this is at least twice as much as anywhere else in Uganda), plus as its in Kabwoya Wildlife Reserve, we had to pay another $10 each per day in park fees. Mind you we did manage to talk the young ranger at the gate to only charge us for a saloon car instead of a 10 tonne truck, as there were only two of us in it!
The Manager at the lodge gave us a few tips about the route down to Fort Portal (including what track to avoid as it had been raining heavily), but we knew that it was going to be a long hard slog on bad dirt roads for about 130km of the 250km trip. The first short cut which cut off about 50km and meant we didn’t need to return to Hoim), was not too bad, it was quite muddy and slippery but not too bad.
Then we eventually got onto the “main road” between Hoima and Fort Portal, and it was really bad, and very very slow going. There were actually contractors working on the tracks in places, but what they were doing apart from causing chaos, and a mud bath I really don’t know.
Then we noticed a rattle coming from the under belly of Colonel K, sounds like exhaust bracket again, so we pulled over where is was reasonably wide, and not too many locals and had a look. The exhaust bracket nearest the front had snapped (we had already had the other one strengthened) and was hanging down and swinging on the 12mm bolt. I could see that if I didn’t remove it, then it would catch on a rock or a high ridge in the centre of the track and really damage the silencer. So laying in the mud under the truck I tried unsuccessfully to undo the seized bolt, I decided that a hacksaw blade would cut through it, maybe……
With the pull-out steps into the living accommodation indeed pulled out, it gave me a decent about of space to sit up and slowly but surely cut through the very hard bolt. Then it all went very horribly wrong. Another truck was coming up the hill behind us, and Jac had a mental black out……. She slammed the steps back into their housing, out of the way of the truck, but there was something stopping the metal angle from fitting back properly……. MY HEAD!!!
I was convinced (and so was Jac) that my head must be split open, the pain was incredible, but amazingly there was no blood, I laid there under the truck holding my head, with Jac screaming “sorry, sorry”. I just had a very big lump on my head. Eventually I managed to cut through the bolt enough to shear it of using two spanners, and we were on our way again. It was a long hard days drive to Fort Portal, and included driving through a massive thunder storm which of course made it very slippery, but eventually we got there and ended up staying at a hostel called YES (Youth Encouragement Services).
YES is run by an amazing American lady of 72 years called Carol Adams, she has lived in Uganda for over 20 years, and apart from running the large hostel, she also runs an Orphanage that operates for HIV Positive kids (still a huge issue in sub-Saharan Africa), with over 30 children there. On top of that she also has currently over 200 young people that she paying to go through the education system here, providing, fees, books, uniforms etc. This is one very busy and inspirational lady.
The next day we arranged (through Carol) for a mechanic to come out to the Hostel to take away the exhaust bracket and repair it, but upon looking at it John decided that we should follow him to his workshop/garage, and he would carry out the work there. Right in the town centre was the amazingly named ‘Stitch and Sew Garage Services’, we just about managed to squeeze Colonel K in there and two of his guys went about removing the rest of the rusted up bolts and re-welding the large bracket with extra reinforcement. This was then sprayed a very nice silver and when dry it was refitted, a couple of hours and we were away, the total cost for all this, just over £5.00!
Back at YES, Carol asked us if we would like to see her latest project, a newly built vocational training centre that is due to be opened by the Presidents wife in a months time. We jumped at the chance and before we knew it, we were in Carol’s old Suzuki Vitara, and arriving at the new centre. The buildings were a real surprise to me, the quality of the construction was on a different level to any thing we had seen in this part of Africa. The building work was overseen by a German that will be fronting the project, and it really shows.
There are separate buildings for ceramics (including kilns as shown above), carpentry, hair and beauty, administration, and even a coffee shop and curio shop for visitors.
Who needs a JCB?
During our time in Africa we have met many NGO groups, but Carol is different, she is truly passionate and hardworking, striving to help vulnerable youngsters in Uganda. We stayed in Fort Portal for nearly a week, and during that time we heard locals speaking very highly of Carol and her work in this area. Her website is http://www.caroladamsministry.com its well worth a look, and any donations are spent very wisely. All proceeds from the Hostel also go to fund her charities, no money is wasted here, there are no fancy new cars, no big salaries, every penny is spent on vulnerable young people.
Oh and the view from the “camping area” out towards the Rwenzori Mountains (Mountains of the Moon) is amazing.
We are now just south of Queen Elizabeth National Park, having camped one night at either end of the park, but only driven through it. We again decided not to actually visit the game driving areas due to the cost and we are unlikely to see anything that we haven’t already seen.
But even without driving in the park we still saw quite a bit of wildlife from the truck.
On our way through to QENP we once again crossed the Equator, this time heading south, so of course we had to take the usual photo opportunities.
We are constantly being asked what is our favourite country of the trip, and it is a very tough question to answer, but after just over 3 weeks travelling around Uganda, this place is definitely in our top 3, its people are amazingly friendly without any hard sell or asking for anything, and the country is so stunning and diverse (if a little challenging at times).
We have now managed to obtain our Gorilla tracking permits, so I’m looking forward to seeing some more of Jac’s relatives.
Thanks for reading