Uganda Self Drive Safari

Another big dream of mine from a young age was to do a ‘real’ jungle trek with machetes and lots of nature. I hadn’t really done this before on any of my other trips, and what better place to do it than in Uganda, home of the Mountain Gorilla. To be honest, this holiday found me, rather than me it. I knew the date we wanted to go away in September, and that we wanted something different, but this could be anywhere. I found the flights using the google flight finder tool and they were so cheap I booked them instantly!

We hired a car and booked gorilla permits from home, then followed this route:

  • Entebbe – 1-night
  • Bwindi (Rushaga Region) – 2-nights
  • Lake Bunyonyi – 1-night
  • Queen Elizabeth National Park – 2-nights
  • Lake Mburo National Park – 1-night
  • Sesse Island – 1-night

Here you can view all my blog posts from this trip in September 2018 in chronological order.

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  • How to book Gorilla permits for Uganda from the UK (6/25/2018)

    So I’ve just spent the last 2 weeks pulling my hair out stressing about booking our Uganda trip in September. If you just want the facts, go here.

    For those who follow mine and Pete’s adventures, you’ll know that we do not like to take tours or use travel agencies. Not that we have any problem against them, we just like to do it ourselves. For me, it’s the freedom and flexibility of doing it yourself, as well as the satisfaction of knowing you’ve accomplished everything through your own hard work. I also really enjoy researching the area and take great pride in organising the trip for other people. Pete also likes it when we do it ourselves, it gives us independence, no other annoying people around us and is generally miles cheaper.

    So how about Uganda? Is that the same?

    Well whilst browsing Google flights on my phone (one of my favourite ways to pass time), I stumbled across some pretty cheap flights to Entebbe in Uganda from Manchester with Brussels airlines. Relative to the area and considering the peak timing (in September) they were a steal at just under £350 each return with short (3 hour) stopovers. I confirmed holiday dates for work with Pete and within the day I had booked the flights. Perhaps slightly impulsively…

    Since booking, many people have asked where we’re going on our next holiday. To which they then reply “Why Uganda?”

    Why indeed…

    Well…

    Landlocked in Central-East Africa, Uganda has a rich (and at times difficult) history and culture. It borders Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake and the largest tropical lake. Waterfalls, vast rivers and the source of the Nile are also in Uganda. There are beaches (by the lake), grassland savannas holding the ‘big 5’ that people expect in places like Kenya and Tanzania. But tourism is far smaller in Uganda compared to it’s neighboring countries. But mainly, the significant feature of Uganda, for us, is that it falls within Africa’s Great Rift Valley. A dramatic region dotted with volcanoes and canyons. In Uganda the area is covered in a thick layer of tropical rainforest.

    Which brings us to possibly the main reason why most people visit Uganda; the Moutain Gorillas.

    Moutain Gorillas live only in 3 countries in the World; Rwanda, DRC and Uganda. Since the kidnapping of a group tracking Gorillas in DRC, this area is now off limits and Rwanda recently put the price of their Gorilla tracking permits up to $1500 each to attract high-end tourism…

    In Uganda, there are 5 places you can track Gorillas, 4 of these are located in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and 1 is in Mgahinga National Park. In total over the 5 areas there are 120 permits available a day, since only 8 people are allowed to visit one Gorilla family a day. All gorilla permits are priced at $600 per person, and sadly I believe the UWA (Ugandan wildlife authority) no longer offers off-peak tickets for $450… so they’re all $600.

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    From what I read, Buhoma is the most accessible by road, which is apparently mostly tarmacked followed by Ruhija, Rushaga and then Nkuringo.

    Accommodation seems to vary in each of the 4 regions of Bwindi that I looked at. There are lots of mid to high-end options in Buhoma and Rushaga with low to high options in Ruhija and few options in Nkuringo. However, I also found that the drive time between the adjacent sites is only around 30-40 minutes. So it is possible to stay in Rushaga and trek in Nkuringo if you wake up early and make the journey in the morning before the trek starts for example.

    Generally, accommodation seems overpriced in this region, the cheaper places look to be £40-50 a night (Bwindi Backpackers Nkuringo and Hornbill Lodge Ruhija) but do look pretty tragic compared to all other places I’ve seen online… I saved up some hotels.com rewards so we could stay at more mid-range places (Ichumbi Lodge Rushaga (before) and Trackers Lodge Buhoma (after)) which were about £120-150 a night (but cost me only £15-50 with the reward).

    Accessibility of the Gorillas at each site also varies. I read many reports of the Buhoma groups being close to the gate generally, with an ‘easy’ (I guess easier) trek to see them. Ruhija is a little harder, but still ok. It seems the North of Bwindi is easier to traverse. On the converse, Rushaga and especially Nkuringo are difficult treks, with Nkuringo being the most physically demanding…

    All treks start at 8:30 – 9am, but you are required to be at the gate to meet the ranger at 8am for a briefing and to prepare.

    You do not need to be on a tour to join a Gorilla trek. All you need is your permit for the day you plan to track the Gorillas, and to turn up at the right time. A ranger for the park takes the group of 8 out into the forest. Local people also wait at the gate to offer assistance as a porter. I’m not sure how this works really, but apparently they are cheap and it does help the economy locally, since most of the $600 conservation fee isn’t seen by the communities displaced by tourism.

    So, in theory, it’s relatively easy to visit Uganda by yourself, not in a tour group. You can hire a car on arrival in Entebbe, drive the 8-9 hours to Bwindi (perhaps stopping mid-way at Mbale national park or Bunyonyi Lake – which is what we had initially planned to do), stay in Bwindi, visit the Gorillas with your permit and boom… experience of a lifetime…

    Only… it’s not that easy…

    The Facts:

    1. You can’t book remotely – you can only book in person at a UWA site, with cash in USD. This means you will have to contact a person in Uganda to do this for you. Hotels in the Bwindi region should be able to help. But I contacted mine and they sent a lazy email back and didn’t follow up. The second option is to use the person who you are hiring your car from. Most will do this for free if you hire a car off them. This is what I did, I used Tristar Africa Skimmer Safaris.
    2. There are no live updates of which permits are available – the only way to find out what permits are available is to ask your Ugandan contact to physically visit or phone the UWA to find out. Most likely, by the time they get back to you, those permits are already gone… which brings me to my next fact…
    3. Gorilla permits are in HIGH DEMAND! As mentioned, there are literally only 80 permits available per day. In the high season these can sell out months in advance. I had 2 occasions with my contact in Uganda where he gave me the availability, I chose a date and site, he went to reserve the ticket and by that time, they had gone… 😦
    4. Transferring money to Uganda is HARD! Which leads me to my final point. Most agencies require the $600 to be transferred to their account BEFORE they book the permits. This is because permits are not refundable or exchangeable. Unlike transferring money throughout Europe or other parts of the World, most banks don’t even allow transfers to Uganda – mine wouldn’t, I tried on Nationwide and via my Starling app account. Uganda doesn’t use PayPal, it uses the PesaPal equivalent, but this comes with hefty fees. The other thing to consider is that the agent wants the money in their USD account (not UGX), because they need to buy the permit in dollars. Services like Western Union, MoneyCorp and MoneyGram, would allow transfers to Uganda, but only in Ugandan Shillings and also came with ridiculous fees… In the end, and after some hassle and cancellations using Azimo, I managed to do the transfer with HiFX and it was in my contact’s account within the hour!

    The advice would be to plan way in advance, and contact multiple agencies at the start. Work with the one you feel most comfortable or trusting of. I contacted 2 companies at the start, but one went above and beyond trying to find information on which permits were left available. So I transferred the money to them and booked my car with them.

    Conclusion

    Yes, booking a tour and getting them to organise everything would have alleviated the stress, worries and heartbreak (when at one point we thought we would not be able to see Gorillas at all, and even considered rearranging our flights)… BUT, this way we have saved the $500 or so extra that the tour group will charge and have the freedom and flexibility afterwards to drive where we want.

    We did have to make some small compromises…. I had initially planned to drive to Rushaga gate via stops in Mburo and Bunyonyi to break up the big journey. But because of availability, we had to book the permits for the second day of our holiday. Meaning we will start our 8 day trip with a 9 hour drive on the first day. Not ideal, but a small price to pay to see Gorillas, safe in the knowledge we have full control of our own holiday 🙂

    There’s just something so satisfying about self-drive holidays. I hope this guide helps others plan their own journies to Bwindi. 🙂

  • Arriving in Entebbe and Self-Drive to Bwindi (9/8/2018)

    After the struggles and worries of trying to organise our own self-drive tour of Uganda (read about that here) we finally made it to Entebbe ready for our adventure to start!

    We breezed through passport/visa control, with even enough time to pose for a good visa pic, before purchasing SIM cards for the week and meeting a pre-booked taxi to our first night accommodation. We were glad we arranged this as the airport was a little chaotic outside arrivals!

    On arrival at our first night at Secrets Guest House, we just went straight to bed in our beautiful cottage; a free upgrade from the standard room I had booked and woke refreshed for a delicious breakfast of traditional ‘Katogo’. A green banana (or ‘Matoke’) stew with sweet potatoes in a tomato sauce. It was really nice and set us up for the long day ahead.

    Our hire-car also arrived in the morning, right on time as we had asked. As with our other holidays, we wanted to take control of our own adventure and self drive Uganda. This is quite unusual really since tour groups and safari packages are still the norm in this part of the world, but it seems like the self-drive idea is gaining more traction now and we saw a couple of other people out on the road doing the same. If you want to read about how I went about planning our self-drive you can read my blog post on that here.

    We booked our car over emails, after I found the company on google. It was $45 a day for a small 2L 4×4. The company, TriStar African Skimmer Safaris, also booked our gorilla permits, which they also delivered to us in the morning. We were all set for our adventure! Day 1 was to drive to Bwindi impenetrable forest, ready to go on a Gorilla trek the following day.

    We took to the road with the petrol light on, so it became a race to find the nearest petrol station. We were warned by the guest house owner to only get petrol from big brand stations (shell, BP etc) because the fuel at smaller places is often low quality and can damage engines. We drove to the nearest BP who told us they had no fuel left! So another anxious 10 minutes passed as we drove to the next shell. They started off by saying the same, no fuel left, but we then saw them filling up someone’s moped, so we argued and ended up getting them to fill our tank! Then, relax, chill, drive and enjoy the view!

    Entebbe was a bustling and interesting hub, especially, we think, because it was Saturday. There were lots of street markets for clothes, electronics and food too. We also saw lots of wildlife just outside Entebbe, including Marabou Storks and pied Hornbills, as well as many other colourful birds. We passed food sellers almost continually dotted along the side of the roads the whole way to Bwindi. In fact, almost everything seemed to be centred around the roads. All the towns and villages were directly on the roads, and all the shops faced the main road, with smaller stalls on the roads too. The roads were also full of people. We never drove on a section of road (even when we thought we were remote) where we didn’t see someone walking or riding a bike. Usually loaded up with water or matoke. The amount the people were able to carry defied belief sometimes, along with dreading to think how long they must have been walking, or have to walk to reach their destination. Most of the cars on the road appeared to be safari vehicles, usually with blacked-out rear windows and local a tour guide driving up front. People were often surprised to see us driving up front ourselves and we got lots of waves and smiling faces (mainly from children) and only a couple of middle fingers or outreached hands begging…

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    Backstreets of Entebbe
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    Driving through Entebbe
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    Entebbe market
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    Driving through Entebbe
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    Entebbe market
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    Marabou Storks on outskirts of Entebbe
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    One of the better roads just out of Entebbe
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    Roadside shops on the main road
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    Roadside shop
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    Roadside fish shop
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    Making bricks at the side of the road
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    A ‘services’
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    People walking everywhere
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    Lake Bunyonyi from the road
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    As we neared Bwindi, the tarmac roads ended and we set off on a murram or dirt road. It was actually not that bad, but there were some pretty massive pot holes and bumps. Pete felt like a ralley driver as I clung on for dear-life. In the mountains the villages were still along the roadsides, as well as the quarries with people sat making pebbles and the goat/cow herders.

    After almost 10 hours on the road, we finally arrived at our guest house in Bwindi forest; Ichumbi gorilla lodge and had a nice chilled evening and early night in preparation for our Gorilla trek the next day.

    Our first impressions of Uganda; it was a lot more densely populated than we had thought it would be, although we think this had to do with all daily life being centred around the roads. The amount of people just walking on the side of the roads was incredible, there was never a stetch of road without someone walking.

    The landscape was also different to what we had expected, far removed from the African plains and savannah I had imagined, it was lush and green, even near Entebbe and even more so by the lake and entering the forest.

    Overall, we felt safe, relaxed and surrounded by incredible natural views.

  • Gorilla tracking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (9/9/2018)

    We woke at 5:30am on Sunday and dressed ready for our jungle adventure. We were tired and anxious to get to the Nkuringo gate on time for the 7:30am briefing. After an extremely quick breakfast (we took the rest with us to eat on the road) we set off for the 45-60 minute drive from Rushaga (where our guest house was) to Nkuringo (where our permits were for). The road was extremely bumpy, and although my rally-driver boyfriend got me to Nkuringo gate on time, I subsequently felt extremely car sick, and most probably, altitude sick too… Fortunately, we got there early enough for me to hug the toilet a bit and be sick a few times before settling down just in time to start the trek.

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    We felt prepared with the amount of water and snacks we had andclothing, so we didn’t feel like we needed a local porter to help us, but our guides Alex and Emanuel sold the porters well, telling us that they are all local people, some from villages displaced when Bwindi was declared a national park. Apparently the waiting list for being a porter is quite long and sometimes they only get hired by tourists once a month. We said yes and got assigned another Alex, a young man from the local village.

    At around 8:20am, we set off on our adventure… Pete and I, a retired American couple, a UK couple on their honeymoon, a German couple, our 2 guides and 4 porters.

    The trek started easily enough, and for the first hour or so was all downhill, down pretty steep hills into the valley of Bwindi. I was already dreading coming back up this hill…

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    Right at the start of the trek
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    Alex, our porter
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    Looking out over the jungle
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    Emmanuel and his AK47

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    We passed through Alex’s village, and his little girl ran over to say hello! Alex said he is a digger when he is not being a guide and helps his uncle on his farm and with his Ankole cattle.

    Just 30 minutes into the trek, our group encountered a problem, the American couple on our trip were already struggling and holding the group up as we had to continually wait for them to catch up. After about 45 minutes, they finally gave up and called for 2 ‘helicopters’. During the morning briefing, we were told that a helicopter rescue from the bottom of the valley was possible if anyone got ill or injured, like a twisted ankle etc. The helicopter was actually 16 porters and a stretcher who carry you between them. If you’re badly injured, this is free, but you could pay $300 to have this if you were tired or wanted one… Both the Americans got one… it was a pretty embarrassing really, but it enabled the rest of the group to continue at our own pace.

    Once we got into the bottom of the valley, we entered the jungle. The vegatation was thick and our guide Alex at the front had to cut a path through the vines and ferns. My porter Alex suddenly became invaluable, helping me with the slippery mud and wet ground and also picking good lines for us to walk along. We crossed the river and radioed the trackers. The trackers stay with the Gorillas until 5pm the previous day and then head out earlier in the morning to try and track the family from their last known spot. They were up the mountain into the jungle across the river. We started our ascent, through the dense foliage. It was crazy. I didn’t take many photos as we didn’t have time to stop, we were going so fast to try and catch the family before they moved. The climb was steep, and it was not a trail. We were literally machete-ing through the jungle. A few people slipped and a few some metres down the slope. I had Alex, who held my hand the whole way and told me where to step. The pace was intense, I had no time to catch my breath. My lungs and my legs were burning, all while I worried about slipping down the mountainside…

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    Being sick in the morning was not helping my state, after almost 90 minutes of uphill climbing through the jungle I was completely exhausted. We could hear the trackers whistling in the distance, communicating with our group where to go. We had to be fast, as the gorillas move quickly…

    They had come down the mountain… we had walked up there for nothing…

    We started the decent and it was twice as scary. You could see how long the drop was. The ground was so slippery and there was no safe place to put your hands. I put my hands on a branch once and was instantly covered in hundreds of black ants, Alex and Pete helped me get them off my sleeve. We came slipping and sliding back down the mountainside to the river again. Only it was deeper here. The porters from the helicopters had already dropped the Americans off, so they used the stretchers to help the group cross one-by-one. Pete walked across on the semi-submerged stones, getting water up to his knees and soaking his shoes. We had reached a point almost back to where we had come from… and then… Screams…

    ”He knocked the guy over! He’s attacking the American” was all I heard Pete yell.

    ”Who?”

    ”The silverback, he charged the Americans!”

    The American couple on the helicopters had made it to the gorillas first, the porters more nimble and able. Pete and I were at the back of the rest of our 8-person group, looking through the tress trying to see what had happened… We got there once the commotion had died down. Guide Alex was saying, “he’s safe, he won’t attack, he is just trying to scare you”. Apparently Bahati, the 500lbs silverback mountain gorilla, and head of this family, had charged the group and knocked the American couple over with his forearm in a “normal” display of dominance…

    Everyone was scared. And I mean, actually scared.

    The group was cowering behind bushes and trees, trying to take stealthy photos. I hadn’t even had time to get my phone out! I was too concerned with watching what was happening.

    Bahati stood on his back legs and beat his chest in another display of dominance. The noise was chilling. We all backed away and cowered some more.

    ”He’s fine, get closer, here is a good place for a photo” – Our guide Alex said as he pointed to a space directly in front of him in a small clearing.

    “No thanks, I’m good here”

    “You haven’t taken a photos yet though Libby… don’t you want a memory?”

    I slowly made my way out towards the clearing to get a better view. He reared and beat his chest again. The sound reverberating off the trees and scattering jungle birds from the area. Needless to say, I stayed put and found a good photo spot behind some cover instead.

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    Nothing could have prepared us for his sheer size, the loudness of him beating his chest, or how close we would get to him.

    He chilled out after a few tense minutes and eventually sat down to enjoy some fruit from the surrounding bushes. After about 10 minutes he moved on and we managed to see the rest of his family, including one of the infants. However, before he settled again, he charged some of the 32 helicopter porters, who were ironically, keeping back out of the way.

    He climbed a large fig tree and stayed there for the rest of our allotted hour. Whilst the rest of the family stayed close, they did move around and our group followed the mother and infant. However, by this point I was literally running on empty. I had trekked for 4 hours with no breakfast and after throwing up several times. Alex made me a nice ‘seat’ from some ferns and we sat and watched Bahati in the tree.

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    After our allotted hour we started making our way out of the jungle valley. The climb was steep again but fortunately, shorter this time. I walked at the front to try and set the pace at my level. We entered a grassy area with the grass above our heads. It felt like a scene out of Jurassic Park, I half expected a velociraptor to pounce on us any minute…

    We reached a clearing on the crest of a hill and had a short break to reflect on what had just happened. The whole group was in a strange mood, adrenaline still coursing through us. “Was that normal for a ‘habituated’ gorilla group?”, “Was this ethical?”, “Were we encroaching on nature for our own enjoyment?”… But also “What an incredible thing to have witnessed, a wild mountain gorilla family in their true environment”, “Surely this helps towards their protection and the local people”…

    We weren’t sure how we felt, but I knew one thing. We weren’t at the top of the trail yet… We had 2 hours of pure uphill climbing left in front of us. The group set off mainly in silence, contemplating the questions raised. One of which was also “What type of person thinks it’s ok to get 16 local people to carry them on their shoulders on a stretcher just because they cant be bothered walking the trek themselves?” And the answer is…

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    The rest of the trek was uneventful. We stopped for our much-needed lunch when we were far enough away from the gorillas and the continued on our path back to the starting point. I was struggling and eventually Pete and I found ourselves at the back of the group with just Emanuel sand our porter Alex for company. On the positive side, the slow pace enabled me to take more photos of the beautiful landscape. We also took the time to chat to Alex and learn more about the local people and area.

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    The group just after the gorilla encounter
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    That’s Alex’s house!

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    Alex and Emanuel

    We arrived back at Nkuringo lodge with absolutely nothing left to give. What an adventure, what an experience, what a day. Possibly the most physically difficult thing I’ve ever had to do, even more so than when I snapped my ACL climbing Rinjani! It was also mentally challenging and, at times, pretty scary. We gave Alex double what the usual price was, but even that didn’t feel enough given how invaluable he was.

    One thing we said to each other before this trip to help justify the $1200 price tag was that this is a once in a lifetime experience… But based on the experience we had, we are now looking at returning to Bwindi in a year or so to do it again. Although I think we’ll try for permits in an easier region next time 😉

  • Relaxing at Lake Bunyonyi (9/10/2018)

    After a physically tough and emotionally draining day seeing the Gorillas at Bwindi National Park, we used the next 2 days at Lake Bunyonyi to chill and relax around the serene waters.

    But first… we had to get there…

    We left the guest house early and began the journey down into the valley of lake Bunyonyi. The views were a nice distraction from the road, at least for me. Pete was getting used to the roads at this point, but they were still insanely bumpy, noisy and requiring constant concentration to pick the right lines to make sure we didn’t damage the underside of the car.

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    After about 2 hours we hit tarmac and the feeling was amazing. What an invention, these beautiful smooth roads with minimal bumps… suddenly we could hear the music again! Our enjoyment of a smooth road was ended abruptly when we turned back onto a murram road which followed the edge of the lake all the way to our home stay after only about 30 minutes!

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    We knew it wasn’t far to the home stay, so we took this part of the journey nice and slow, taking in the scenery and serenity of the lake.

    We arrived at Amasiko home stay just after lunch. If you’ve read our other adventures you’ll know that for us, diversity is key. We like to spend some days in built up areas, some in the middle of nowhere, maybe a night or so in a swanky hotel, try public transport if we can, and of course stay at a home stay. Amasiko was nice. It was a guest house linked to a local school for adults and children where they teach about agriculture and farming methods. As such, the guesthouse had its own substantial veg patch, and to our dismay, pigs… which had just had a litter of piglets which were adorable. Our little hut was built high above the lake on stilts and had access to a communal wood fire-heated shower and composting toilet, not that there was anyone to share it with… We loved it!

    After exploring the guesthouse grounds and farm for a short while, we headed down to the lake, one of the only lakes in Uganda safe to swim in. Others have hippos or crocodiles, or even poisonous algae/bacteria in them. I still wasn’t 100% convinced, but we dipped our feet in and chilled out… until a hawk attacked a small bird in the air above our heads. The hawk bombed the bird several times and on the final attack, the small bird, perhaps on purpose, dove into the lake to escape. The hawk flew off, not wanting to risk getting so close to the water. The poor bird was slowly starting to sink… Ever the hero, Pete immediately stripped off and dove into the water to rescue the bird. He swam out to it and scooped it up into his hand. The bird tried to hop off several times, before finally allowing him to hold it and carefully bring it back to the shore.

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    After this we did some bird watching with our new binoculars, there were some amazing birds, tiny bright red ones, yellow ones, crested cranes, cormorants. It was relaxing just sitting watching them all from our balcony.

    We ate with the family that night, a stew made with vegetables from the garden. It was nice, if not a little weird, but only because of the father’s abrupt personality!

    We left the following morning to head up to Queen Elizabeth National Park and we left Lake Bunyonyi in a different direction from the way we came in. The road was difficult and we almost got lost a few times, but we made it up out of the valley and stopped briefly to enjoy the spectacular view of the Lakes many islands.

    Lake Bunyonyi was the perfect place to relax after our Mountain Gorilla Trek, and we enjoyed seeing how sustainable you could live with the compost toilet and wood-fired water. But we were now well-rested and ready for our next adventure!

  • Safari self drive in Queen Elizabeth National Park (9/12/2018)

    From lake Bunyonyi we continued North towards Queen Elizabeth National Park, the most popular national park in Uganda thanks to it’s countless animals including elephants, hippos and lions.

    The drive there was quite long but extremely scenic, even when it rained, it was great to experience, the rain drops were huge, flickering from rain to hail several times, pummelling the car as we drove.

    We stopped along the way at around lunch time in a tiny village that was only about 20 houses big. We stopped because we clearly spotted a guy with a small roti shop at the side of the road. We got 4 rotis, 2 each, and 2 drinks from the shop opposite. The locals were fascinated by us and sat with us as we tried our hardest to communicate and chat with them. The meal cost us less than 50p in total.

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    Starting the drive

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    Our roti being made

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    Parking up in the village

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    The shop we got our drinks at

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    You could tell it might rain!

     

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    Horrendous downpour

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    Driving through tea plantations in the highlands

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    After a good few hours we finally made it to Kichwamba on the edge of the national park. Our guest house was here, but we weren’t sure exactly as it wasn’t on google so we ended up almost entering the park before eventually finding it.

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    During our detour we met these guys!

    After the homestay in Bunyonyi, our accommodation here, Parkview Safari Lodge, felt like utter luxury. After a nice welcome drink and introduction, we were shown to our stilted rondavel with views out over the national park and savannah. It was stunning and we loved staying here. We spent the rest of the late afternoon watching elephants from our balcony through the binoculars. There were also lots of mongeese playing under the cottage, as well as some large antelopes we thought were waterbucks.

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    Who needs a fancy camera when you can take a photo with your phone through the binoculars?!

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    We woke early the next day with the aim of getting into the park before sunrise. We hoped this would give us the best chance to encounter animals, mainly the lions which are best spotted at dawn. We packed the car with lots of water and snacks, sun cream and some tsetse fly bug spray I bought online. It seemed to work well as we got quite a few tsetse flies coming into the car, but they would abruptly leave and neither of us got bitten.

    We entered the park before 6:30 and bought our tickets. We were told at the gate that the Kasenyi route was the best place to spot lions. It was so easy to find, the map had colour coded trails and the signs were easy to read. What’s more, most of the trails were even on google maps! We were glad we didn’t pay for a guide and were by ourselves with our own flexibility.

    We set off on the Kasenyi trail. We saw lots of Thompson gazelles, warthogs, various birds, waterbucks, even elephants and plenty of hippos. But no matter how hard we tried, no lions. We pulled over almost every other safari van we saw and asked about their luck. Nobody we met that day saw the lions 😦 It was just bad luck. We were a bit gutted to be honest…

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    Setting off at dusk

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    A little defeated, we headed over to the Mweya region to eat at Tembo canteen. The Ugandan food was actually really delicious. Curries, rice, matoke, either fried or mashed, roti… Our kind of thing really. There were marabou storks at the canteen and they came really close to us. Oh my, are they ugly! There were also little yellow birds making handing nests, I think they were weaver birds. They were a lot cuter!

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    Ugly buggers

     

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    These guys were cute though

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    View over Lake Edward

    After lunch we decided for a change of scenery and to ditch the car for a boat trip. At the entrance gate, we asked about the boat ride along the Kazinga channel, she said that the 3pm boat was the best for seeing animals, so we bought our ticket from the information office at Mweya and were first on the boat at the dock. The boat was great, we saw loads more hippos, buffalos and elephants, and tonnes more birds. The slow pace of the boat was calming as well and the breeze was a nice relief from the sun.

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    I’m not sure I’d get that close to a Hippo, especially as this one had a baby!

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    Ah we headed back out of the park, we went via loads more trails, including the river train and Leopard pass. Unfortunately, we spotted no leopards. The weather was starting to turn, so we got back to our hotel just before dark and rains came. Not before seeing our pals again!

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    The hotel had reserved us a table in the restaurant, but during check-in when it asked for our tour company I put N/A. So guess what we were reserved as?

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    Our night time visitor

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    Queen Elizabeth National Park was beautiful, and we loved the self drive safari. We were disappointed we didn’t see lions or leopards, but the amount of wild animals we saw was incredible. We were so close to staying another night in our stilted cottage. To try and see the lions the following day. But we made the decision to keep moving. Next stop, Lake Mburo National Park!

  • Giraffes and Zebra in Lake Mburo National Park (9/14/2018)

    The drive to Lake Mburo National Park (LMNP) was along roads we had been before. We headed south from Kichwamba before joining the main road to Masaka.

    As I have commented previously, we still couldn’t get over how many people walk on the roads here. All life is centred around the main roads. The markets, the shops, the houses. It’s even where people sit chilling. Great from our perspective as we could see a lot of things just from our seats.

    A meeting of Matokes!

    Just over half way into the trip, we stopped at Mbarara for food, it was nice to see the towns and cities here, but they were super chaotic. The traffic was always quite bad and the parking was difficult. Just after Mbarara, we turned off onto a murram road towards Lake Mburo and our nights’ accommodation. After our fancy rondavel with inclusive meals and pool, I decided we needed a bit of grounding again, so checked us into a tent on top of a hill in the middle of the National Park. The views from the top, and even from inside our tent, were amazing.

    Lunch in Mbarara
    Murram road to LMNP
    I’m afraid we did get caught in this storm… it was wet!
    Our next accommodation was…. a tent!
    View from the bed

    We woke early again to get into the park at dawn. It was really cold that morning high on the hill in the mist. We packed the car with lots of water again and headed out to the entrance gate. When we arrived at the gate there was a single security guard there who said that nobody was in the gate to issue our tickets. The opening times were on the door and it should have been open. The security guard phoned someone and told us that she was on her way and was running late. We waited for almost 30 minutes before the National Park official arrived on foot, with a huge backpack… we suddenly didn’t feel so bad for waiting in our heated car. We also had company, there were some black-faced monkeys which were pretty cute in the trees around us, and we also took the opportunity to chat to the security guard.

    Lake Mburo is famous for it’s vast number of zebra, and more recently, a tower of giraffes that were reintroduced to the park after they were lost in the 80s. We really wanted to see the giraffes, but the security guy told us it would be almost impossible to see them. The family is only 15 animals-large, and there are a lot of trees in the Park. He told us not to get our hopes up, but did suggest a trail in the park which is the most likely spot for them.

    The lodge at breakfast
    The monkeys at the gate
    Clinging on for dear life!

    After getting our ticket and snapping a photo of the map at the office, we headed of immediately to the trail the security guy suggested. I was looking out the left windows, Pete out the right.

    After about 10 minutes, Pete slams on and just points…

    I gasp.

    Right in front of us, just off the trail to the right is a lone giraffe! We could not believe our luck! We drove a little forward to find a better vantage point then turned the engine off and got the binocs out.

    We sat and watched it for a good 10 minutes before it slinked off into the dense foliage. We tried to find it again from different positions both on and off the road, but it had gone.

    Still, what an experience, we were totally buzzing!

    We entered the park just as the sun was rising
    The best photo I could get of the lone giraffe – through the binocs again!
    We pulled over for a mini celebration!

    Feeling totally on form for the day, we continued our safari. We saw hippos, warthogs, a huge buzzard in a tree, Thompson gazelles, kudu antelope and other antelope we weren’t sure of, and, also excitingly, Zebra! The day was progressing nicely. We sat and watched ‘a dazzle’ of zebra for a while, they were very funny and when we tried to drive off, just walked in the road ahead of us.

    Sneaky hippo
    Some fancy looking ducks
    Road block of Thompson gazelles
    We worked out at this was a Tsetse fly trap
    They wouldn’t get out of the road!

    To be honest, we thought it couldn’t get much better. We had seen all the animals we wanted to. Even the giraffes, which we were told we extremely difficult to find. But just up ahead, after the zebra moved from the road, we saw something truly magical…

    The whole tower of giraffe right there in the road and in the open in front of us!

    We took our time edging forward, not wanting to scare them off, but after a while, they got used to our presence and we managed to get extremely close as we followed the family to a watering hole. Once we were as close as we dared. We turned the engine off and just watched.

    We were in this spot for at least an hour, watching the giraffe walk gracefully around the water and try and drink, not so gracefully! Buffalo turned up, more zebra, warthogs, ducks, we even spotted a hippo in the water. It was truly amazing spending time with these wild animals. What a day!

    We got quite brave and even got out of the jeep to have our photos with them!
    We managed to count the full 15 family members all around us
    Bufalo turned up too
    Big bum!
    Warthogs
    Kudu antelope perhaps?
    Another sneaky hippo!

    After an incredible day, we headed back out of the park, not before a quick stop to see the lake that this national park gets it’s name from. On the way out, we drove through a police car check point. They asked to see our tickets and which way we were going. We were initially concerned, but it turned out the guy’s boss just wanted a lift to the main village about 10 minutes up the road! He said he was police chief of the police in this region and his motorbike had broken down. We were inclined to believe him given the amount of police around who all seemed to know him.

    Lake Mburo
    Baboons
    Not the best road! 😂
    Ankle cattle on the way out of the park!

    After dropping him off, we continued on our road trip and our next stop, which was a night on the Sesse islands, the islands in Lake Victoria. What a day in LMNP, we were so lucky with the giraffes that it almost made up for not seeing the lions the previous day!