Uganda, Lake Bunyoni and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

So we got our Gorilla permits sorted, but we still had a bit of time to kill, so after Queen Elizabeth NP, we decided to head for Lake Bunyoni in the South of the country and chill out for a bit. On the climb out from QENP we past the stunning series of Crater lakes that are at the top of the hills here. Some appear to be just normal lakes that come right up to the road side, whereas others have very steep sides, and the water’s a long way down, but all are crystal clear and beautiful in the early morning low light.

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This was the start of the tea growing area for Uganda, and it was strange to see both large scale growing of tea, and also small scale (tiny plots owned by individual families), they sell the tea to large factories.

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At the town of Kabale, we turned off onto the dirt track that takes you up over the mountain and then back down to Lake Bunyoni, this is quite steep in places, but it was dry and we had decent grip. Then after about 10 km we drove through the small village and into the camp at the lake side. This really is a beautiful place, and is quite popular as a stop over for the overland tour trucks (each with up to 25 guests on board). With this in mind, we managed to drive right down to the lake shore, and parked up (not particularly level, but definitely in the best spot), less that two metres from the water.

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Lake Bunyoni was formed when a volcano erupted and the lava flow blocked the end of the valley, and this is the highest lake in Uganda at 6,500 feet above sea level. It has a lot of history surrounding the place, from both colonial times, and before, some quite dark too!

But today the lake is used mostly by local people for getting around, as the banks all round the lake are very steep and the water is the easier way round. There is a market every Monday and Friday, and on these days the dugout canoes are packed with either goods or people or both, some have tiny outboard motors but most just use a paddle.

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Obviously we visited the market, and of course it was mayhem! But we managed to get some fresh fruit and veg, but as usual the vast majority of items sold at the market were old second hand European clothes. Piles and piles of clothes. This has been the same in most Sub-Saharan African countries, bundles of clothes opened up on the ground and sold on, nice and cheaply.

This is most definitely the rainy season in Southern Uganda, and virtually every day we have seen rain. Usually it doesn’t rain until late in the day, and it involves massive violent thunderstorms, with torrential rain, so we tried to time it with a walk to the bar!

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But most of the time we just chilled out and read lots of books (well Kindle), caught up with jobs on Colonel K, and did all our washing. A very relaxing place, and we ended up staying here for eight nights. The staff were very friendly and the locals, as else where in Uganda were extremely welcoming.

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We decided one day to take a tour of the lake for a few hours, the lake was as flat as a mill pond, and it was a really nice morning. We were taken around the various Islands on the lake, including one Island that has not only a school, but also a hospital. Then there was Leper Island that was used to deposit anyone with Leprosy on it in years gone by.

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But the “highlight” of every boat trip here is a circle around “Punishment Island”. This tiny island (shown in the background on the photo below), was where unmarried women or girls were taken if they fell pregnant, they were dropped off here with no food, and left to die. If there was a possibility that they might be able to swim to the shore or another island, they were taken up the hill and thrown off the top of a water fall. 

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Jac asked our guide “if this is what happened to the girls, then what happens to the bloke that made the girl pregnant?”, to this he stuttered a bit, and then replied “we don’t do this to the girls anymore”, I don’t think Jac was satisfied with the answer!

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Lake Bunyoni is a great place to sit and watch the wildlife and every single day we were there we watched the otters, driving down and swimming around, but they are a nightmare to photograph. There are also lots of birdlife including, Sunbirds, Kingfishers, Ibis’s, and Crowned Cranes.

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Our Gorilla Permits were for Wednesday, so we decided to leave Bunyoni on Monday morning, just in case we had a problem (the two permits cost us $1,200 so didn’t want to miss the date). So after negotiating the steep hill again we drove into the nearby town of Kabale to fill Colonel K up, and try to seek out a “supermarket” to stock up with a few items.

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If you are wondering what a Ugandan “supermarket” is like, this is a photo of the main one in Kabale, it is Jac shopping at “Good times Supermarket” in the main street (smaller than most corner shops in England)

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Whilst I was sitting in the truck waiting for Jac to come back from the “Good times”, I was watching the security at the Bank opposite, and couldn’t resist taking these photos. I especially love the one with the woman guard, that looks very alert with her rifle across her lap, and the guy with the AK47 sharing a funny video on his phone with her. Every bank, however large or small in Africa has at least one armed guard, even if they are closed. You get used to these things and don’t think anything of it after a while.

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When we booked our Gorilla Permits we decided the best place in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest for us to see them would be at the most northerly place which is Buhoma. We did this for two reasons, firstly we knew that we could camp at the Community Camp and it was right next to the meeting point at the start of the tracking, and secondly we thought we would be coming into Bwindi from the North. Instead as we were coming from Lake Bunyoni, we found that we were coming from the south east of the forest. This meant that we had to drive the full length of the rain forest and up and over the various mountains, but on a plus point we had heard that the road had been upgraded. In Uganda (or indeed anywhere in Africa) ‘upgraded’ could mean anything, but we were hoping that it might mean that it had been tarmac’ed. Only one way to find out I guess.

After turning off of the main tarmac road, and following our Tracks4Africa software, we followed a very small track that was getting smaller all the time. It was then that Jac realised that our paper maps were in the back, so on the edge of a small village we stopped so Jac could retrieve the maps. It was here we had a stroke of luck, Jac started talking to a young guy that spoke very broken English and explained that much further up the track a bridge had been washed away and it was completely impassable. If we hadn’t of stopped there we would have carried on all the way to the collapsed bridge and that would have been the day gone! We had to drive on for another few kilometres before we could find a place to turn the truck around. 

Back at the tarmac road, we had a quick look at the map and saw that there was another track that went in the direction that we wanted about 15km further along. When we got to the turning there was actually a UWA signpost showing Buhoma off that way, so this was looking good, perhaps this was the upgraded route after all. 

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Well it wasn’t tarmac but it was a quite a good dirt track so far, though Buhoma was 80km up this track. For the first 15km everything was going swimmingly, then we hit Ugandan roadworks. There was a massive digger in the middle of the track and it was scooping out large amounts of dirt and rock right across from one side to the other to put in an underground culvert to take away the rain water.

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It was also digging away the bank on the right hand side, this was peoples access to their houses on the top, and check out the woman and the child standing on the mud bank as he is still digging.

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A guy came over to us and said that the road will be closed for about 40 minutes (I knew it was going to be longer, but we had to wait it out), so we switched Colonel K off, and settled down to watch as people walked around the digger as it was swinging around, climbing down in the ditch it was digging, and then climbing out the other side, just so they could carry on their daily lives. No health and safety here! 

As usual within minutes we were surrounded by local kids, and many of these kids had never met a ‘mazungu’ (white man) before, and a few of them were petrified of us (well me anyway). But it wasn’t long before these lovely kids started to get more used to us, and Jac was dancing with them and of course they all got a toy each (as donated by my great nephews and nieces back home).

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As you can see these kids are very poor, and many tourists visiting Uganda don’t see children like these from very rural areas, they have very little. This really struck home when we had to show them how to actually play with these toys, whether its a car, or a plane, or a doll. We ended up with fourteen of these kids with us and they all had a little toy each, and we had some good fun with them, you soon see which ones are the cheeky ones, or the ‘cool’ ones etc, these kids are no different from those at home.

Two hours later, we were told we could carry on!!!!

This is a stunning landscape and we were very quickly into the rain forest, yes it was steep (needing the low range gears for the whole time), but it was still dry and so quite grippy on the dirt track.

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Then just after entering the National Park the heavens opened and it started pouring down! Let me tell you, dirt tracks are a different thing altogether in the pouring rain, and it was very slow going, (10 tonnes is not easy to slow down on a muddy surface) we eventually got to Buhoma late in the afternoon, and parked in the very small Community Camp car park. It was a long day and we decided to eat in their small “restaurant” that evening. But sitting there having a cheeky beer we realised that we were in a very special place indeed. This was our view from our drinking hole, overlooking the vast rainforest in front of us, with the mist rising and blowing gently away, “gorillas in the mist”?

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As we still had another day before our long awaiting tracking experience, we decided to go on a 3 hour ‘village walk’ with a guide, this seemed a really touristy thing to do and usually we don’t do this sort of thing, but all the money ($25 each) goes into the community in Buhoma, and it looked quite interesting.

The walk turned out to be a fantastic and quite a personal experience, we saw how the tea and coffee was picked and told how it was sold to quite large factories back down in the valley . A truck comes up every day and takes each persons tea from their own tiny plantation. Then we walked past a couple of guys that were hand carving wooden gorillas with nothing more that a machete, mallet and a chisel. This was way out in a field, then they sell them to the shops in the village.

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The walk through these fields was stunning, everywhere is so lush and green.

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Next we visited the village healer, who uses natural remedies, he was a real character, and he also works in collaboration with the local hospital.Taking his patients there if they do not improve. He explained the “Dosing” marks on his containers and showed us how he rolls up banana leaves to get medicine into a child’s mouth and in a very animated way how he uses this method for ears, nose and bottoms ! He didn’t speak any English, so our guide translated, but you really got the idea, especially when he was explaining his remedies for constipation and diarrhoea.

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“Morgan Freeman?”

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But the thing that made me laugh was the posters that he had up in his “consulting room”, “Black Blood takes over”, “Barak Obama with Africa’s Strong Presidents” and in true Ugandan style “Arsenal FC”.

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Then we went to the local banana brewing site, where we tried the local Banana Gin, YUCK!!!!, but it was interesting.

Samuel our guide then took us to the local school, which was perhaps for us the best part of the day.

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This school has 600 pupils, in eight classes, with the lowest classes having well over 100 pupils in a class. The children in Uganda have to pass an examination before they can proceed to the next classroom level, so you could have a wide range of ages in each class, it’s dependant on that pupils ability to pass an exam.

One of the teachers came out to meet us and took us into a few of the classrooms, which the children found highly amusing, especially when the “muzungu” decided to sit on their desks with them.

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We were then taken into another classroom where the kids cleared the desks away and then started singing and dancing for us, I noticed that Jac had a tear in her eye, as these two stupid white people were treated to an extraordinary show of perfect singing and super high energy dancing, the kids really genuinely seemed to enjoy themselves.

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Then we were taken to see the head master’s office (last time I was taken to the head master I was given the cane!), but first we were shown the school library, this is the sum total of text books for all 600 pupils.

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We spent about 20 minutes in with the Head who was passionate about improving the education of these children, but he also explained that there was still pressure from many families for their children to withdraw from education altogether, many many children in Buhoma don’t go to school at all. There are at least 3 schools in Buhoma, so this give an indication of the number of children just in this village and the surrounding areas.

Next Samuel took us to the local Batwa Community, these are a tribe of Pygmy’s that have been removed from the rain forest in part to protect the Mountain Gorilla’s there. I’m still not sure what I feel about these people having their way of life taken from them, and being placed in a “normal” rural community.Samuel our guide explained that they were actually happy, as they now had houses to live in, easier access to food and shelter, but they may all not feel the same way. It was interesting to see them but we both felt quite awkward.

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It was a great day, with lots of walking and a torrential down pour, and there was also lots of different feelings felt, depending on where we were and with whom. The weird thing about the day was, that we had a guy called Edward follow us around all day with a Kalashnikov machine gun, in the brewery, with the Pygmy’s, even at the school! We have always felt very safe and secure walking around in Uganda (even in Kampala), and when we asked Samuel why we had an armed guard, he just said it was to stop the kids from pestering us! Blimey, even I don’t think kids are that bad!

Later when we got back to the community camp I noticed a discrete stone memorial plate on a wall of one of the buildings, with the names of 6 young people on it that lost their lives on that spot in 1991 (4 English, and 2 from New Zealand). When I asked what happened we were told that some armed guys came across from the DRC (Congo), and robbed and shot the campers, then fled. Perhaps thats why we had an armed escort.

Tomorrow we go Mountain Gorilla Tracking.

Thanks for reading






























































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