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Steve and Emma's Travel Tales

Southwestern Uganda by Public Transport!

UGANDA | Saturday, 31 July 2010 | Views [995]

Our new found friends in Kampala seemed more impressed that we reached Mount Elgon National Park, and back to Kampala, using public transport than they were on hearing we’d reached the top of said hillock!  When we said the next 2 week leg of our trip would also involve independent travelling using more buses, matatus and boda-bodas they looked horrified.  “Two weeks by public transport!” they cried aghast.  “I wouldn’t use it for two minutes!”  It just goes to show how reliant some people become on their cars.  Mind you, there were times (as you’ll find out as you read on) when we also wished we had our own set of wheels.

Kampala to Kisoro err, change of plan, make that Kabale     

We’d read that there were plenty of buses leaving the Horizon bus stand bound for Kabale between 4.30 and 9am so we got there ready to jump on the 7am bus.  We were most dismayed to discover that there was only a 7pm bus but, they had a regular service to Kbale which was on the way.  The next bus wasn’t set to depart until 9.30am and with the coach operators being spread out around the city, we had little choice but to buy the tickets and wait.  As luck would have it the bus was open so at least we could bag a seat and stow the packs.  In actual fact it was more comfortable to sit and read on the bus rather than the waiting area so we got ourselves comfy.

9.30am came and went with no sign of the bus starting its engine let alone moving.  Then at 10am the bus moved to a different parking bay but still people were turning up, buying tickets and boarding.  Things were not looking good and it got progressively worse when we were told we had to change buses.  Steve grabbed the bags; stormed off the bus and made sure we got good seats on the second bus.  Ready to go now?  No, there was the entire hold luggage to be shifted over and in among this chaos people were still turning up, buying tickets and boarding.  After more faffing about the bus eventually pulled out of the station at 10.45am and proceeded to painstakingly crawl its way up the hill to a petrol station.  Couldn’t they have filled up hours ago?  Since so many people had been sat on the bus for almost 4 hours; this turned into an impromptu toilet stop too.  We finally left Kampala at 11.30am and from the lack of engine power quickly revised the anticipated 6 hours to Kbale to 8 hours minimum!

At least we were finally making progress, all-be-it way behind schedule, so we knew we wouldn’t make it to Kisoro in one day.  It was time to revise our plans – instead of having back to back travel days we decided to visit Lake Bunyoni since it is close to Kbale.  We thought we’d be able to get to the lake in daylight but yet again we had to revise our plans as it was dark by the time we reached Kbale.  We’d been sat on a bus for a total of 12 hours and didn’t fancy wandering round in the dark trying to find somewhere to stay.  Kbale is a functional, dusty town but at least it has a smattering of streetlamps.  We tried to find the Skyblue Hotel and in a one street town this should have been easy.  To be fair to the locals it turned out that they did keep pointing us in the right direction and we found the spot where the hotel should have been.  We were told that this was the hotel we were looking for but the sign clearly said Flock Line Hotel.  Aha!  It’s changed its name.  It didn’t look too promising from the outside but we were hardly in a position to be fussy so went to have a look.  Fortunately the rooms were clean, came with hot water, only cost USh 30 000/= a night and the restaurant rustled up something warm and tasty.

We really shouldn’t have allowed ourselves to get so wound up over the early morning bus shenanigans – that’s just how it goes in some parts of the world.  We knew we had to change our mindset and since we weren’t on a set schedule we could afford to relax and be more flexible.  We were determined to show that you can travel around Uganda using public transport despite the expats’ opinion on such folly.

Lake Bunyoni

Following a surprisingly good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast we were all set for the next part of our adventure.  It didn’t take long for someone to deduce that 2 foreigners carrying packs might be in need of some transport.  We quickly established that the reasonable taxi fare to Lake Bunyoni is USh 15 000/= and off we set.  It’s only about 8kms from town but there is only a dirt road and that climbs steeply for the first half of the journey.  We asked to be dropped at Bunyoni Overland Camp as we thought they would be most geared up with local information, bikes for hire and other activities in the area.  How wrong we were and the place was obviously targeting backpackers half our age! 

We didn’t hang around and in fact 10mins later we were checking into Crater Bay Cottages .  At                USh 65 000/= per night B&B it wasn’t the cheapest place we’d stayed in but it worked out cheaper than the Overland gaff next door.  The traditional style bandas are set in beautifully maintained grounds and are spotlessly clean with hot water and a private garden area.  The longer we sat in our little garden or the huts spread around the lakeside grounds the more variety of birds we saw.  The menu is extensive and everything we had was freshly made and very tasty.  Above all else, we were very warmly greeted and the place has a lovely relaxed atmosphere.  On further investigation we reckon we chose the best option in the area.

We’d hoped to be able to hire bikes and cycle round the lake since it is way too big to walk around in an afternoon.  There were no bikes in evidence so we decided to go for a wander instead.  To give the walk some focus we followed the signs for a local craft shop.  The area is heavily cultivated with the crops spreading down the hillside to the lake shore as far as the eye can see.  We found the craft shop tucked in behind a Nursery and Primary school – well, the signs were there but no shop.  By this time we’d been spotted and someone materialised from the school and invited us in to have a look around.  A polite, “No thank you!” wasn’t going to work and the last place I wanted to look around on holiday was a school!  Honesty proved to be the best policy, I explained what I do for a living and the teacher retreated back to his charges.

We continued walking around the lake and replied to a constant barrage of hellos – to be honest it gets a bit tedious after a while.  Kids never tire of the hello game and they appear out of nowhere to have a stare or follow you for a while.  At one point Steve was too slow in getting his hands in his pockets and was dismayed to find a small child dangling from one of his fingers.  The poor lad didn’t know what to do but he eventually managed to shake the bairn off.  As for me; they just got my off duty Nursery teacher look and were told I would not be holding their hands.  All those backpackers we saw who think children are entertaining, engaging and endearing obviously don’t work with them.  They’re not – they’re just kids.  Would any of these people think it would be okay for a stranger to attract children to them, get them to follow them and hold hands in their own country?  I think not and indeed I’m sure it would be most frowned upon / an arrest-able offence in many countries.  So why do they think its okay to do it in Africa?

After a while we turned round and retraced our steps.  At least we could change the chorus of hellos to goodbyes!  Lake Bunyoni is set in a lovely area but it was a shame it was so hazy when we were there – but at least it was dry.  We reckon that all told we must have seen 30+ species of bird on our walk.  It makes me feel very ignorant as I didn’t have a clue what many of them were.  I know I’ve said that before but how do you start learning some of the more common birds without looking like a twitcher?!  That evening we spent time chilling in the garden enjoying the sounds of nature.

Following a cracking night’s sleep we were still up early even though for once we didn’t have to be.  It was lovely listening to the bird’s dawn chorus while having a leisurely morning.  The only thing we had pencilled in was a boat trip at 4pm so we went to explore the lake in the opposite direction.  The walk didn’t quite go according to plan as we lost the lake side road very quickly.  We detoured onto a forest path but it quickly descended into swampy area and we weren’t in the mood for soggy boots.  Plan B was to check out Birdnest Hotel that declared itself open and very grand it will be when they eventually finish it.  There were clearly no rooms finished but the restaurant was up and running; with a splendid outdoor seating area on the edge of the lake.  On returning to our guesthouse to decide how to fill the rest of the afternoon it started to rain so it was back to reading and relaxing.  Luckily the rain stopped before our boat ride although on hindsight maybe that should read unluckily – read on.

We were under the impression that we’d agreed to USh 35 000/= for 1½ hours on the boat going around the various nearby islands.  We clambered aboard and puttered along for about 10mins to the nearest island where the boatman said he would wait and then take us back to the guesthouse.  Huh?!  Now I’m sure this island was very nice and yes, I’m sure there are lots of birds living there, but we’d paid for a boat trip not a ferry crossing.  After some discussion the boatman agreed to take us around the lake and to be fair he did salvage a potentially hugely annoying rip-off situation.  It ended up being an enjoyable little trip but was way overpriced for the hour we were out there.

We decided to go to Overland Camp for tea and for a change of scene – we had fun watching the truck loads troop in.  I’m sure it’s a cheap(er); fun way to travel if you like human beings, but we’d not be happy being shoved in a truck with a bunch of young’uns for weeks on end!  The kitchen staff were so wrapped up in preparing the buffet for the big groups that it took 2 hours for us to get our food.  Overland Camp won the prize for the worst service yet and confirmed our suspicion that these places are best avoided.  It was not time to move on.

Kisoro

The staff at Crater Bay continued to provide good service right up to our departure.  They’d organised a taxi for us to get back to town and our pre-ordered breakfast was ready bang on time.  On driving back to Kbale our driver suggested that we take a shared taxi instead of waiting for a matatu to fill up.  Since it was the same price and we’d be able to put our bags in the boot we took his advice.  Obviously we still had to wait for 4 seats to have 6 occupants but this was quickly achieved and we were travelling again.  The road is gradually being surfaced and the first section was in great shape.  That meant that our driver could proceed at a maniacal pace and use the whole width of the road.  So we spent an hour or so squished up, being thrown around at every turn and generally hoping we’d reach Kisoro alive.  Luckily the road surface became steadily worse so that slowed the pace down and we just got bumped and jostled about instead.  We reached Kisoro in a couple of hours – intact!

Kisoro is another functional, dusty town but this one had more in the way of accommodation on offer.  The town has a captive audience of those going gorilla trekking and it seems the local opinion is all muzungus are loaded.  We wandered around trying to find somewhere to stay that wasn’t grotty and overpriced or simply ludicrously expensive.  We eventually settled for Heritage Guesthouse as it was the most appealing to look at and we received the warmest welcome there.  Even here we were quoted $45 a night but on looking astounded at the price managed to barter them down to USh 60 000/=.  This was still relatively expensive but acceptable since they’d throw in breakfast too.

We knew there was much more to do in the area than gorilla trekking.  We’d love to do this one day but the $500 a head for the permits was beyond our budget, just as it was 2 years ago.  The bloke in the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) office was very helpful and for once they had lots of information and a decent map.  We settled for Golden monkey trekking the following day and walking up Mount Muhavura (4127m) the day after.  It was the usual $50 a head per day park entrance fee and yet again the transport to and from the park proved to be expensive.  To be fair the driver does wait for hours on end for you to return from your activity.  The roads are so very, very bad that nobody negotiates them any more often than strictly necessary.

We’d read that it was possible to organise a python walking safari at a nearby lake so randomly walked into a shop that said it did tours.  It didn’t look too promising to begin with as the lads in the shop seemed spaced out but sure enough they knew what we were on about and were happy to take us.  The first part involved taking boda-bodas to the lake.  I’ve already pointed out how poor the roads are so it was another motorbike white knuckle ride.   On reaching the village near the lake we discovered the boats had already set off in another direction.  Not to worry we could walk a bit further and find another boatman. We enjoyed the wander through the crops and plantations and soon enough tracked down a fisherman.  Not only did he have a boat it turned out that he was the local snake expert.

He hunted and hunted in all the likely spots and known favourite python hang outs but no super-sized sidneys were to be seen.  The next plan of attack was to find the pythons from the water so we went down to the lakeshore and climbed into his boat.  Well boat is pushing it somewhat – hollowed out tree trunk actually.  I promise you I’m not exaggerating – check out the photo.  We paddled up and down along the edge of the reeds but again no serpents.  We did see numerous water birds and the highlight was 2 short clawed otters surfacing very near our log.  We never did see a python but another otter was spotted before we returned to dry land – fantastic.

As we were retracing our steps through the sweet potato plots Steve spotted a thin, green snake.  We both got a glimpse of it but the guide and fishermen were too slow.  Finally we’d seen a snake in Africa and to this day it remains the one and only.  Luckily we’d organised to walk back to town so the return journey was much less fraught and probably quicker to be honest.  We climbed out of the valley and over the ridge back into town.  Since we’d not seen any snakes our guide (Edward) wanted to show us around the market.  The matoke sellers were doing brisk trade and it was all very colourful and interesting.  There was a constant stream of people carting huge stands of matoke home by motorbike, bicycle or perched on their head.  Never a dull moment and all-in-all a cracking little side trip.

Mgahinga Gorilla National Park

Golden Monkey Tracking

This is the smallest of Uganda’s national parks and, for a while, had to lose the gorilla part of its name as said great apes had popped over to DR  Congo.  The good news is that they are back, and the increase in tourist numbers means there are the resources to protect them.  As I have said the permits were too much for us so we decided to go golden monkey tracking instead.  In fact we were 2 of only 4 tourists in the park that day that were not going gorilla tracking.  We did feel a little bit like second class citizens; left to the last to pay our park fees and shoved outside for our briefing.  In actual fact golden monkeys are even rarer than gorillas as they only survive in this one small national park.

The briefing included how to behave once / if we were near the monkeys and the usual introductions and getting to know everyone’s names.  Ugandans really do like to know who you are and share their names in return.  The path led up from the office through what had been farmland.  UWA are now trying to remove any plants that have been introduced and restore the park, as much as possible, to its natural state.  Once we reached around 2700m in elevation we entered the bamboo forest and the golden monkey’s favourite habitat.  A little further we met up with the rangers who had spotted the monkeys and had tracked them for some time for us.  It was very difficult to see them through the thick bamboo but they were there and we’d have an hour to try to get a good look at them.

Unfortunately the wind was picking up so the guide told us that they might go and hide.  Apparently these very sensible little primates don’t like the wind or rain.  Luckily they decided they were peckish, wanted to keep eating and moved into some sturdier trees.  We could now see these beautiful animals much more clearly and carefully and quietly followed them for our allotted hour.  They really do have golden fur on their backs and they are definitely one of the prettiest monkeys we have seen.  It has taken the rangers over a year to get this troop used to having people around, but even so they were very wary of us.  On the plus side our presence didn’t seem to be upsetting them and if people don’t pay good money to go and see them, they will lose their much needed protection.

We retraced our steps and on the way back down the guide pointed out some of the interesting local flora.  We were back at HQ by 11.30am, and hoped to be able to do the 10km border walk we’d been told about in the UWA office.  However the head ranger had other ideas; even though we pointed out we were strong walkers and 5 hours to cover 10kms was more than ample time.  He wasn’t to be persuaded and told us there were no other trails in the park.  In other words you can look for monkeys or gorillas or climb one of the 3 volcanoes but that’s it.  A shame as it’s a lovely little park and it would have been nice to have seen more.  Oh well, back to town for us.

Mount Muhavura (4127m)

Although we’d already spent some time in the park we’d not actually seen the top of this mountain due to it being constantly swathed in cloud.  As luck would have it the skies were clear the next morning and we could see where we were headed for from the car park.  Our taxi dropped us at the car park at 2314m and there we were met by a local who showed us up to the ranger’s station.  It’s obviously all part of the system as they were expecting us and presumably get paid too.  Once at the ranger’s station we had to go through the usual signing in, paying and guide allocation.  We were almost allocated the same guide as another group of westerners, but luckily one of their group pointed out that we didn’t know each other and that we’d probably go at different speeds.  Steve and I are plodders who have the odd short break and it turned out the other group liked longer breaks and were much slower than us.

Anyway we were each furnished with a bamboo walking stick and off we set.  It was 7.30am and a group of local students were just at the signing in stage so at least we wouldn’t get snarled up.  We steadily climbed up through the forest and bamboo sections as we’d done the previous day but at a much faster pace.  The path zigzagged its way up to the first rest hut at 3116m and the going wasn’t as tough as we’d anticipated.  However, we knew we still had 1000m to tackle so the terrain had to get steeper at some point.  Sure enough the gradient became steeper as we worked our way up to the 2nd rest hut at 3855m.  Luckily the weather was still clear and the views looking down were great.  We could see how far we’d walked and ascended and that always helps to push you on.  The clouds were gathering above us but from this vantage point the summit was over the next ridge – would the top still be clear?

The last section was steeper still, but on we plodded.  There were quite a lot of tricky, dodgy ladders to negotiate.  Well, I say ladders – random twigs and branches tied or nailed together in reality.  By this time the youngest, fittest students had caught up with us and were quickly scrambling their way to the top.  We were happy to take a little breather while groups past us as we didn’t fancy sharing the dodgy ladders!  It turned out there were 200 students in all so it was going to be a tad busier than the summit of Mount Elgon. 

We made it to the top – of course – and could just about make out the small crater lake up there.  It was a shame the cloud and mist had rolled in, but at least it wasn’t raining.  Ordinarily sharing the top of a mountain with 200 students would detract from the experience, but since we couldn’t see anything we enjoyed people watching instead.  Not one of them were properly attired or equipped for a 4000+m mountain.  One young lad had scrambled his way up in shorts, t-shirt and cheap plastic flip-flops and he seemed surprised that he was cold!  Believe me it was mighty chilly up there; we had fleece, jacket and gloves on not to mention thick socks inside our boots.  The best dressed prize went to one young fella who had on suit, tie and trilby. 

The mist cleared long enough for us to grab a couple of photos and circumnavigate the crater lake - well wander round the pond at the top.  In doing so, we know for a fact that we’ve set foot in Rwanda as the border bisects the mountain summit.  We stuffed our sarnies into our hungry mouths and set off back down.  There was still a steady stream of students reaching the top so the ladders were pretty busy.  However, not too bad considering how many people were on the mountain that day and we got past the hairiest sections without getting stuck behind large groups.  We wanted to keep moving to warm up!

Our guide (Alex) said that 4½ hours up and 3½ hours down was very reasonable but then he would say that as he was a lovely man.  To be fair to us we did walk 12kms, ascend 1700m and get back down 1700m in only 8 hours.  We’ve met some great people in our travels around Uganda but Alex stood out as one of the special ones.  Not only was he considerate and interesting to talk to but he was very kind and caring too.  He was constantly asking the students to pick up their rubbish, not break the trees and reminding them that they should respect their national parks.  Good for him.

Speaking of great people – one of the staff (Julianne) in our guesthouse constantly made us feel very welcome.  In fact we ended up having all of our meals there and that’s not like us when we spend 3 nights in one place.  Plus the lads got up very early for us every morning to make sure we’d had breakfast before setting out for our day’s activities.  We did try a couple of other places, but just getting a beer was such hard work that we didn’t fancy our chances of getting anything to eat before midnight.  In one place, to get over the language barrier, I pointed to the Club beer logo on the table cloth and indicated 2 please.  Off he scuttled to return with a cloth to wipe the table – good service we thought since town is dusty.  After a while we asked if the beers were coming and you could literally hear the penny drop as it dawned on him that I hadn’t asked him to clean the table!  All-in-all we would definitely recommend staying in Heritage Guesthouse should you ever find yourself in Kisoro.

Kisoro to Simba Safari Camp

Another travel day but this one had a better beginning than when we left Kampala.  This time the 7am bus not only existed but it set off on time – well 7.20am in Africa is bang on time, if not early!  We’d managed to buy our tickets and book our seats the previous day so when we turned up we were told to; “Board the machine.”  Another of those cracking phrases to add to our international collection of favourites.  The journey was quite smooth and being on a bus was preferable to the previous squashed up taxi ride.  This time we could take in the scenery and had the added bonus of not begin able to see out of the front window.  The driver still went hell for leather, of course, but we felt marginally safer in a bigger vehicle. 

We reached Mbarara in plenty of time to jump into a matatu bound for Kasese.  We weren’t actually going that far but knew we’d be able to jump down on the main road only a kilometre or so away from Simba Safari Camp.  Luckily our van driver knew where we were headed so we weren’t in danger of missing the junction.  In the end this leg of the journey took much longer than expected.  First of all we had to fill up the matatu and that involved crawling around town for the next 45mins.  There was no point getting wound up so we treated it like a free city tour.  Luckily for us they’d invited us into the front seats and for once didn’t try to squeeze an extra person in.  We didn’t feel like looking in the back, as we’re sure at times there were 6 people squashed into 3 seats. 

Again we belted down the road but of course had to stop in every village, homestead and at random junctions for passengers to alight or dive in.  It’s amazing how long it takes some people to decide whether or not they’re going to get into the vehicle.  This often involves some protracted discussions too; goodness only knows what about.  You’re either want to go where the vehicle is going or not - surely!  Sometimes the driver simply refuses to take them if they have too much luggage, or in one lady’s case, because she was carrying a bag of particularly stinky dried fish.  One family looked like they were trying to move house but the boot was already full. To add to all of these shenanigans the driver was doing his socialising and marketing along the way too.  We stopped for ages at some spare parts place while he chatted away.  Money definitely changed hands but nothing was bought and there wasn’t any work done on the van.  Then we had to stop to pick up some milk, don’t forget the stand of matoke and finally we went fishing.  Not literally; that meant buying barbequed whole fish.

Despite all of this we got to the junction before dark and our driver told us where we had to go.  Simba Safari Camp is just outside Queen Elizabeth National Park so we didn’t have to pay the entrance fee.  The main road actually cuts through the park and our friendly driver filled us in on some of its history.  Then he acted as our guide and pointed out Ugandan kob, waterbuck and buffalo.  All-in-all a fun packed, much better travel day.

We trudged up the hill to the camp and we’ll swear it was much more than the 1.2kms the sign board reckons.  They don’t seem to be very good with time, length and altitude in this part of the world.  On reaching reception it was beginning to darken and we were glad we’d made it in time.  We informed the staff that we’d tried to make a reservation via their website and by text but had never received a reply.  Guess what?  All the private rooms were full.  Have you got anything else we reasonably enquired?  Answer; we have dorms – no thanks; and we may have a tent – tell us more.  He then proceeded to flick through the booking file at least 20 times.  Oh for goodness sake!  Do you have a tent available or not?!!   Eventually the manager was called and he proceeded to flick through the same file numerous times, but, he decided they did have a tent.  Yippee!  We were invited to take a look at said canvas abode.  It was getting dark, we were in the middle of nowhere – we would take the tent!  At $25 for bed only, with very good shared facilities it wasn’t a ridiculous price. 

We asked about game drives and other activities in the park for the following day, but once again trying to extract information was painful.  To cut a very tedious story down to size we eventually agreed to go in Eddie’s vehicle for a morning game drive and afternoon boat trip.  The trip wasn’t going to be cheap at $120 so we decided to put our bags in the van and ask the driver to drop us at Kasese at the end of the trip.  So much for spending 2 or 3 nights there.  It turned out to be an inspired decision as the food was ludicrously expensive and virtually inedible.  Luckily we had some picnic supplies left for breakfast.

Queen Elizabeth National Park

The next morning our driver found us despite the extended power cut.  Steve and I were surprised to be saying hello to a Francis since we’d spoken to Eddie the night before!  The vehicle turned out to be a mini mini van that was as high as a jeep but didn’t have a push up roof.  Since there was only the 2 of us Steve was in the front and I had a window that fully opened in the back; so we still got a good view out.  As it transpired Francis ended up joining our ever increasing group of exceptionally nice Ugandans.

He quickly cottoned on that we were interested in all the animals; big and small and liked birds too.  As per usual there were way too many feathered friends fluttering around for us to stop and look at them all.  However, Francis made a point of identifying the more beautiful and interesting ones.  Steve turned out to be elephant tracker extraordinaire when he spotted a huge bull on the horizon just as the sun was rising.  You always secretly have a wish list of animals that you’d like to see, even though you know how unpredictable nature can be.  Steve is constantly on the lookout for the ever illusive leopard, I hoped for a big herd of elephants and it seemed we were in a good area for lions.  More than anything we hoped to see animals in big numbers.  The wildlife in Uganda was hunted virtually to extinction during recent turbulent times.  Fortunately it is starting to make a significant come back.

We saw loads of kob, buffalo and waterbuck which was very pleasing and to be honest, I’m happy to see anything.  Once the warthogs were up we saw them at regular intervals and always in a sizeable family group.  Plus we saw a couple of different types of mongoose; banded and Egyptian.  We stopped at a picnic site over-looking a salt lake where it was lovely listening to the birds.  People use the lake from which to make a living but even so there were kob nearby.  There might not be the abundance of wildlife in Uganda like neighbouring Kenya and Tanzania but the parks aren’t teaming with jeeps either.  In this section of Queen Elizabeth National Park we saw a maximum of half a dozen jeeps all morning.

Again Steve was the first to spot elephants; this time there were 3 of them hiding in the trees.  Francis tried and tried to find the lions but when we did pass another vehicle it was all shrugging of shoulders.  At one point Francis stopped to send a text to book us onto the channel boat trip later.  Since we were stationary all the other jeeps came to join us; they weren’t impressed to find that there wasn’t a leo frolicking about!  The initial plan had been to go on the 3pm launch but that was full.  There was space on the 11am launch and we decided to go for it; with it being cloudy we hoped the animals wouldn’t be hiding from the heat.

The Kazinghe Channel launch takes place near Mweya Lodge which we’d contemplated staying in; at $270 a night we reconsidered.  As I said we had planned to stay 2 or 3 nights so the lodge would have been way out of our league.  However, since we were now only hanging around for one night maybe we should have taken the plunge.  Anyway, we didn’t, and it leaves an extremely good excuse for revisiting the area at some point.  The lodge is 24km down a track leading off the main road through the other side of the national park.  Even though we were effectively going from A to B we were actually still on safari.

Not far past the main gate there were loads of jeeps parked up and everyone lining the edge of the road were clearly looking at something interesting.  Obviously we had to find out what; to our delight and amazement there was a lion.  In fact it turned out to be 1 lion and 2 lionesses and they were no more than 50m away from us.  So close, that you didn’t need the binoculars to get a good view of them, but they helped as the big cats were camouflaged in the grass.  As soon as the male went behind a thicket most of the jeeps moved off.  Not us and we were rewarded with watching the 2 lionesses stalking a waterbuck.  It didn’t end in a chase so the remainder of the jeeps decided to go too.

Steve and I couldn’t understand their hurry.  Fair enough the lions were no longer active but they were still there and you could still see them.  We never envisaged doing a lion walking safari!  The ranger kindly pointed out that they could be upon us within seconds should they choose.  I promise you, they really were that close, but luckily for us they seemed to fancy waterbuck for dinner.  As we were watching a couple of buffalo appeared on the scene – change of menu perhaps?  Far from it; we were astounded to watch the buffalo charging and chasing off the lionesses.  Now that there were so few people around, and we were being exceptionally quiet, the male came out of hiding.  We continued watching until they’d all gone to ground.

As were we walking back to our jeep a lady from the gate office was waving us over looking very excited.  On reaching her vantage point we were stunned to witness the big male in the top of a small tree.  We’ve read about tree climbing lions over the years, and in fact hunted high and low for them 2 years ago in Tanzania, but without success.  In Uganda we’d read that the best place to see them was Inshasa, but that would have meant a huge detour that we didn’t have time for.  We knew that tree climbing lions were very rare, but we’d actually begun to think they were an urban myth.  How wrong we were; there was one as large as life looking very comfy sprawled on a branch.  To put how privileged we were into perspective; the ranger said that was only the second time in 10 years he’d seen such a thing.

By this time we were in danger of missing the 11am launch so it was time to reluctantly leave the felines to their hunting.  If all those other jeep members hadn’t been in such a hurry to tick the next thing off their list; they would have seen Simba in his aerial perch too.  We trundled along the track and spotted all the same animals we’d seen earlier again.  On rounding a bend we came bumper to trunk with a family of 12 elephants.  That was my secret wish fulfilled and, despite time constraints, we had to watch them for a while.  How can you ever drive past elephants; especially when they have a very young calf with them?  I could have watched them for much longer but time really was pressing by now.  A little further down the track we came across another small herd but only had time to stop for a couple of photos.

By this point we really did have to get to the boat; so we whizzed past our first sighting of vervet monkeys.  I think the only thing that would have made us miss the boat would have been if we’d seen a big spotty cat!  We reached the jetty with moments to spare expecting to be last to board.  It turned out we were first there so got to choose the best seats in the house; Francis had given us the heads up on the best side to sit.  The rest of the passengers all arrived together; it was one big group, so we were soon on our way.

The Kazinghe Channel links lakes George and Albert and is teaming with wildlife.  There were hippos a-plenty with young, Nile crocs of all sizes and an abundance of water birds (many first ever sightings for us).  Since it was reaching the middle and hottest part of the day many animals were coming down to the water’s edge for a drink.  We saw; kob, waterbuck, buffalo, baboons and monkeys all within very close proximity to each other and within meters of a fishing village.  We were almost back at the jetty when a lion was spotted on the headland opposite Mweya Lodge.  As the boat carefully manoeuvred towards it we could also see a couple of lionesses with him.  The buffalos on this side of the water were in a bad mood too; they chased off a couple of hippos!  Superb.

We celebrated with a top, treat lunch in the lodge and boy did we wish we’d stayed there for just one night.  The food was extremely tasty especially washed down with a couple of cold Clubs and the bill was very reasonable.  How can you put a price on; a tasty meal with stupendous views and lions, hippos, crocs, lizards and birds in every direction?  By the way; Keith from the office was enjoying it all too!  On the way back down the track we saw another family of elephants and other beasties pottering around.  What a fantastic, amazing, wonderful, excellent day.  If you get the chance – GO!!!

Fort Portal

We caught the bus to Fort Portal from Kasese without any undue hassle or bother.  The short 70km journey took longer than we’d expected due to stopping every 10mins to pick up (or not!) passengers.  The Lonely Planet describes Fort Portal as a splendid place to use as a base.  Now granted it’s not as run and dusty as most Ugandan towns but it’s not that fantastic.  It didn’t help that the bus dropped us far from where we expected and it took way too much wandering to finally track down Rwenzori Travellers Inn.  They do have a good set-up there, but the new rooms were over-priced at USh 82 000/=.  Luckily the older rooms are clean, big enough to unpack and have excellent hot water showers therefore, not bad value at USh 52 000/=.  There’s also a restaurant, bar, gift shop, information counter and internet cafe – everything you could need then.   It would have been if; the internet cafe had a connection, the staff weren’t so useless and the food wasn’t so shabby.

A lady came over and introduced herself as the owner and started telling us about trips that were available in the area.  Well she tried but didn’t actually seem to know much.  Later it transpired that not only was she not the owner; she was obviously bordering on barking and we spent much energy avoiding her.  Anyway, she put us in touch with a so called tour organiser, but he didn’t offer what we wanted, wasn’t prepared to be flexible and wanted to charge way too much.  We checked out another place, but once again the tours weren’t quite what we were after and the prices we ludicrous.  In the end we decided to move on to Lake Nkuruba where we hoped to be able to potter around and organise trips from there.  The main aim for this part of the trip was to do some nice gentle walks and see if we could find any monkeys.  The next morning we jumped in a taxi from the stand down the road and the 30min journey along lovely rural dirt tracks, cost USh 30 000/=.

Lake Nkuruba

Unfortunately it was raining by the time we reached Lake Nkuruba Community camp site and nowhere looks very inviting when the weather’s miserable.  Still it was better to sit and watch the rain in a nice setting than in town.  Luckily they had a private double banda spare and it was very adequate at              USh 32 000/=.  Check in was tedious and before we’d been given the room key we’d had the menu thrust in our faces as they wanted us to order lunch.  What is it with this side of Uganda; they’re all a bit odd?!  The menu wasn’t the most inspiring but from past experience we’d come prepared; we would only need to take the gamble on dinner as we’d brought the rest with us.  We eventually got to plonk our bags in the room and ordered a brew – well it was still raining.  Within the hour we had our brew and some vervet monkeys were making a bee-line for the kitchen.

It might have taken a while for the drinks to arrive, but we did get a huge flask full each; so there was plenty to go around until the rain eased.  Luckily the rain did clear so we went to have a look at Lake Nkuruba.  There’s a little path that goes down to it and probably goes right round but I reckon it would be a mad scramble in places.  The lake is lined with mature trees and we could hear loads of frogs and toads; in fact we saw one as we almost trampled it.  By this time the birds had joined in with the amphibian’s choir and it looked like the weather was improving.  By the time we’d had our picnic lunch in the garden it was positively brightly overcast.

Since all the tours would have exhausted our funds; we invested in a map of the area and set off to find The Top of the World.  It was mentioned on numerous tours so we figured it must be worth looking at.   We struck off down many a wrong turn only to find ourselves in people’s gardens and back yards before eventually hitting upon right path.  It turned out it was a grand and exaggerated title for one of the many hillocks in the area affording a good view!  There’s a lookout hut set amid nice tended gardens, but there was no way we were parting with USh 10 000/= to see the same view we’d seen on numerous of our wrong turns.  From the hillock nearby we looked down on The Top of the World(!) and could see a couple more lakes.  We’d hoped to continue our walk down to the lakes and back round; however they were slashing and burning the area.  We retraced our steps and wandered up the road to Rwaihamba; the nearest village which was quite lively.  It turned out it was market day the following day and already the place was busy and there was an air of expectation.

The weather had steadily improved all day and by now we were basking in sunshine; we even removed our coats!  By the time we made it back to the Community camp site the skies were blue and the monkeys had emerged to dry out.  While walking back up the track we spotted some monkeys high up in the boughs.  At first we thought it was the vervets again, but on watching them move through the branches we realised we’d found some African red colobus monkeys.  Back at the banda we were finally unpacking our bags when a noise on the roof caught our attention.  We were delighted to see that this time the black and white colobus monkeys were on the move and right above our heads.  These are very striking monkeys with long, busy tails – check out the photos to see what I mean.  It was amazing to think that in one afternoon we’d seen 3 species of primate all within the one garden; with the added bonus that we’d not forked out for a tour.

With the improved weather; Steve popped back down to the lake to take some better photos, and on the way back up spotted a sign indicating a forest walk.  Who were we to say no when we knew there were monkeys around?  Sure enough, within minutes we were watching vervet and black and white colobus monkeys in the same trees.  Basically they were all trying to find themselves a comfortable roost for the night, and it was lovely to watch them again.  The path ended up in thick elephant grass that didn’t look like it had been used for some time. With the sun beginning to set we decided the wise move was to double back.  On getting back to the banda we noticed there was a group of black and white colobus in the trees near the restaurant.  There are so many times when we trek all day looking for animals only to find they were more visible at the starting point / HQ / restaurant area.  Sunset beer watching colobus monkeys in a beautiful setting; who says you need to book tours?!

Early to bed, early to rise once again well actually, compared to most of the holiday, 7am was a long lie in!  As we waited for our coffee we wandered up the track where we came face to face with red colobus monkeys and their toon coloured friends.  They let us get within feet of them as they were intent on breakfast and those leaves obviously tasted good.  What a great start to the day.  Over our breakfast we decided which of the many trails and quiet roads to go and explore.  We struck off down one of the main murram roads (that’s dirt track to you and me) with the target being Ndali Lodge.  We’d heard it was another lovely lodge, in a prime spot, on the edge of one of the many crater lakes in the area.  The road initially took us back through Rwaihamba and sure enough the market was in full swing.  There wasn’t a great deal of variety on offer and we weren’t really fancying a stand of matoke or a live chicken.  The road continued on taking us past crops and local communities.

Now yesterday had definitely been a primate day and today was looking like a reptile day.  Somehow or other I managed to spot a chameleon in the grass in the verge.  He was extremely well camouflaged and not moving so what made me look twice I really don’t know.  On closer inspection we noticed another smaller one clinging onto a blade of grass too.  It was great watching their eyes swivel in opposite directions and them gripping using their mitten like claws.  The bigger one was also using his prehensile tail and we saw him shoot out his long tongue to grab an insect.  It was just like watching a mini wildlife documentary.

Ndali Lodge is indeed a very nice place and it has a superb seating area overlooking a lake.  Although we weren’t staying there, we were warmly greeted and it was acceptable for us to order a drink.  Apparently it’s $390 a night full board – yes, it’s lovely, but how much?!  It made $270 at Mweya Lodge seem a steal and once again we found ourselves rueing the fact that we didn’t stay there.  Anyway we ordered a pot of tea with a bottle of pop and picked out prime viewing seats.  I’d not been sat for more than 2mins when I was up again; there were loads of agama lizards basking in the sun.  Agama lizards come in a range of colours, but these had bright blue heads and tails with yellowish bodies; I just had to get close enough for a photo.  Did I do it?

My pop arrived within 10mins and we settled back for the usual half an hour, minimum, wait for a brew.  You expect basic places to be slow but we thought an expensive, upmarket place would be more on the boil.   After 45mins Steve went to ask if anyone had bothered to put the kettle on!  The resulting answer / excuse; “I passed the order to the wrong person.”  Yeah right!  You mean you forgot.  We had to get back to the campsite to check out so Steve never did get his brew with a view.  We marched back to our place expecting a request for a taxi to result in much head scratching.  However, a very pleasant and helpful lady had appeared – where on earth had she been hiding?!  Anyway, late check-out was not a problem and yes she could get us a taxi; it would be here in 10mins and cost USh 25 000/=.  Result.

Back in Fort Portal, we decided to bite the bullet, and check back into Rwenzori Travellers Inn since we knew the rooms were good.  Plus, we needed a shower; the facilities at the lake were okay but it wasn’t warm enough for cold water showers for our liking.  We’d had a great trip out to the lakes area, and with doing it all independently had saved ourselves a bob or two.  That evening we had the best pizza outside Kampala in Piers Pizzeria; they have a wood fired oven and a full range of toppings.  Another good spot for a quiet drink and decent local fayre is The Garden Restaurant.  Okay, we admit it, Fort Portal grew on us.

The Kalita buses sounded well organised but the 6am and 7am buses ended up combining to form the 8am bus to Kampala.  It was annoying to think we could have had an extra hour in bed and some breakfast.  We were on our way relatively early, and the journey was comfortable enough and thankfully uneventful.  Once back in Kampala; it was time to catch up with Jason and spend yet more long hours in the pub! 

As 2 years ago; it was very sad knowing that we were leaving Uganda having had a fabulous 3 weeks.  At least we were on our way to the next leg of our trip, Kenya, and not back home.  We know in our hearts we’ll be back in Uganda one day; hopefully in the not too distant future.  In fact, on the journey from Fort Portal to Kampala, we made a list of all the things we’d still love to do; within minutes we had 10 more destinations to explore.

Travel Information

Lake Bunyoni – a great place to stay is Crater bay Cottages http://www.traveluganda.co.ug/crater-bay-cottages/

Kisoro – Heritage Guesthouse is a friendly spot to stay in town and they make the best chips in Uganda, I kid you not. http://traveluganda.co.ug/kisoro.asp The posh place in town, Travellers Rest is best avoided as they wouldn’t even let us in to have a meal!

Queen Elizabeth National Park – Simba camp could be a great place but the staff are useless and the food is rubbish, but is an affordable option to the expensive lodges. http://www.ugandalodges.com/simba/index.php If you have the cash, you must stay at Mweya Lodge, amazing setting with wildlife on your doorstep. http://www.mweyalodge.com/index.html

Fort Portal – Rwenzori Travellers Inn is a decent place to stay but beware of a mad women called Susan who will pounce on you when you arrive, the first thing she will do is pick up your key and find out your room number and then be bothering you every 5 minutes. She isn’t anything to do with the hotel. Apart from that the rooms are ok and good value but go elsewhere for food. http://www.rwenzoritravellersinn.com/index.html

Lake Nkuruba - Lake Nkuruba Community camp site has basic bandas but in a lovely setting by the lake, would be great if they sorted out the restaurant. http://www.traveluganda.co.ug/lake-nkuruba/

Ndali Lodge is a stunning place but very pricey and quite tough to get a brew! http://www.ndalilodge.com/index.htm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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