Brenda and Brent - Uganda/Tanzania

BE's Trip Diary

Monday, Jan 8 - Wed, Jan 17, 2007

Where to begin? We've been on the road for 10 days and this is the first opportunity I've had to sit and think and relax and laze and even read. What a pace! Dawn till dark, dinner, crash. Rich and varied experiences. So much to ponder, so much to appreciate, so much to report.

Monday/Tuesday
Vancouver; London; Entebbe, Uganda

Two 8-hour flights; a 7-hour layover and an 11-hour time change. We used the layover time to sip into London -- by the time we'd checked our hand luggage into storage and taken the subway both ways we had only 1 1/2 hours in the City -- just long enough for Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square and a wander to Westminster. Even at this time of year its bustling with tourists and office workers. This city just gets better and better. The new mayor's controversial campaign doesn't look crazy to me -- it looks brilliant. Lots of cars but no gridlock, spotless - almost bordering on antiseptic! Beats fumes and grime any day. The spectacular buildings and life are now on show. Speaking of show - I saw about 12 I'd like to see. Maybe a City trip is in my near future.

Wednesday
Mabamba Wetlands, then Kampala, Uganda

35 virtually sleepless hours and we arrive at 8:00 a.m. bleary-eyed but excited. Even at landing we get a sense of the country. Small airport, no other planes in sight. Tedious visa process. But it is warm, surprisingly green. And, as we step outside, we see friendly, smiling faces - with only a modest military presence.

Entebbe airport is remembered world-wide for the daring rescue by Israeli paratroopers of Israeli passengers hi-jacked by Palestinian/German terrorists in 1976. The rescue was accomplished when Israeli rescuers landed a plane at Entebbe, pulled a fancy Mercedes out of the hold and drove to the hijacked plane -- leading the hijackers to believe it was president Idi Amin coming to report on progress of the negotiations. There is some out-of-the-box thinking!

Looking at this inconspicuous landing strip and tiny airport, it's hard to believe it could have been the site of such drama. And unfortunately, for many including me, it is all we know of Uganda even 30 years later.

Waiting for us are the guides we have arranged from Canada -- bird watchers of course. Johnny is slender, elegant, almost dapper - dressed in beige safari clothes and hat - picture perfect. Alfred is broader, squarer, more casually dressed. Both smile and wave, pointing to an 8-passenger Land Cruiser. We know instantly that we are in good hands. And before we've walked the short distance to the car, Brent, Merrilee and Dan have spotted 8 species of new bird. They are happy already.

We drive straight to the Mabamba Wetlands - a trick name that birders apply to swamps! But, as swamps go, this is a nice one. It dries almost completely at certain times of the year. But we are here after the rainy season, so the water levels are high enough that shallow, open, wooden boats can be paddled or poled through the natural waterways where the reeds part. It is a labyrinth in which we were soon lost -- were it not for the sun we would have no sense of direction. We are completely alone (aside from our guides and polers) in search of the elusive shoebill stork (I think ornithologists need some help with their naming conventions!) found only in a couple of isolated spots in Uganda. After 5 hours we have not seen it, but its been a great afternoon rustling amongst the papyrus reeds and there have been lots of other birds. We are four to a boat, and one with local villagers passes us - about 10 in that one - being transported from an island in the swamp to the mainland shore.

We are parched. On return we gulp water, chow on a fresh, sweet, sweet, sweet pineapple - juices running down our chin and arms. Our polers - who often had to jump into the water to push our boats through particularly dense reedy bits - have earned their tip!

Although the swamp is only 45 km from Kampala, the trip into the busy capital of 2 million people takes a couple of hours. The street scenes are fascinating, the traffic is scary, it is the most bustling centre I have seen in all of our travels. Still, we are dog tired and have been on the water in the African sun in equatorial Uganda for five hours. I can't speak for the others, but I managed to nod off amid the bumps and excitement. Arrival at our hotel - the Holiday Express - is welcome. It is very basic but clean, has hot water in a dribbly shower, a kind-of restaurant and served us a beer. In short, heaven.

Thursday
350 km Kampala => Murchison

This was a long driving day, leaving Kampala at 8:00 a.m. ( after a loading up stop for Uganda shillings. Our delay meant we did not entirely miss the Kampala rush hour so we had lots of time to observe. The capital is reputed to be one of the most safe and orderly in Africa. And the streets teem with life. From stalls to markets to gas stations to storefronts. That said, it is still a busy city and with rare exceptions, cities are not my thing. It was better we hit the open road.

It was not long out of the tarred roads in Kampala that we hit hard-packed road which deteriorated into rutted and lumpy roads. While the country is not particularly densely populated, virtually the whole distance is inhabited. Villages range from 25 people in a handful of huts to about 200 homes. Virtually all of the homes are made of baked brick. The brick is made from reddish clay formed into brick shapes in simple wooden forms, laid on the ground to harden, then stacked in piles to dry, covered in banana leaves to slow the drying process thereby avoiding cracking, and finally stacked into an empty pyramid-shape with a fire ignited inside to bake the bricks. Sometimes when the baking process is skipped, instead the home is is built and then plastered or, in the event of no actual plaster, covered in a mixture of dung and sand. The typical home is tiny. A dirt floor, small room of 15' by 15' with a cooking area attached at the back. While the urban areas are changing, the rural areas still seem to comprise 5-10 kids per family. Whew!

Usually in the front of the home there is a burning area. And typically there are a handful of youngsters in the dirt patch in front of the home. School is out right now (kids do 3 stints per year, each of 3 months schooling followed by one month holiday) so mothers have extra company right now. Often the mothers will be attending to something in the front yard. Their bending posture is incredible. Flat feet, straight legs, bent 180 degrees from the hips rather than the waist; they could easily put flat hands on the ground. They hold this posture indefinitely. We spend thousands of dollars and hours on yoga, pilates, exercise class - they are doing something right!

There are minivans and transport trucks on the road, but no automobiles. So the kids all stop and stare solemnly at us. Their stare is so intent, you wonder what they are thinking. But one wave from us and they turn that sombre state into a big grin and wave wildly. Little kids jump up and down and holler, arms and hands flapping. Dan has taken to waving at all of them, which means he waves for about 12 hours! Often, the adults also wave in response.

As we near our destination, it is getting dark. We make slow progress in part because of the condition of the road, but also because the birders of the crowd (i.e. the other 5 people in the the vehicle) keep spotting new birds. The Land Cruiser slams to a halt, up go the binoculars -- oh dear, can't get a good view, everyone piles out, much pointing/gesturing/describing/animated discussion, then - oh, no - someone spots another bird. Traipsing down the road we go to repeat the process. A mere 15 - 20 minutes later, we are back in the vehicle and on the road again. Now we are making good time, when, slam! There go the brakes again. It turns out birding is simple. You start this at about 8:00 a.m. and repeat the process 60 times. Then you go to bed.

In order to reduce our requests for birding stops, as dusk approaches, Johnny pops the top of the vehicle and the four of us stand, heads poking out the top looking and pointing and waving. Those little kids have nothing on us! When the road looks impassable and the Land Cruiser lurches from side to side inching along, we resume our seats and cling to the window ledge or anything else handy. Who else could get down this road? How do they get supplies in? What can this campsite possibly be like?

We pull into an oasis. The campsite is full and we have had to upgrade to a luxury resort. It is well past dark, but the lanterns glow a warm yellow light. The paving stones lead to guest cottages complete with balcony overlooking the Nile. The hippos groan in the evening air and the leaves rustle in the gentle breeze. It is an American Express moment. Too bad the campsite was full!

O/N Nile Safari Lodge, double w full board $US 180

Friday, January 12
exploring Murchison Falls

An early start to be at the 8:00 ferry across the Nile. The Nile starts 90 km from Kampala our of Lake Victoria, hence this stretch is called the Victoria Nile; it empties into Lake Albert and then flows out north along a section called the Albert Nile until reaching Sudan and eventually Egypt. Murchison Falls is said to be the most spectacular spot along its 6700 km route. But before we do the falls......

The ferry is a four-vehicle platform powered by a gigantic motor. On our trip it carries our and another safari vehicle, one other carrying 5 gallon containers of water which bottoms out as it tries to lad and unload, and a 4th. On the other side there are about 10 rifle-toting guards since we are approaching the northeast corner of the country where the rebel Lords Resistance Army is most active. There has been no violence in this area for many months and the LRA is currently in peace talks with the government, so this is largely precautionary -- the guards are most interested in chatting or joking with us. One seems to be striving for stand-up comedy.

On the other side, up goes the top and we are on our first game drive! Water buck, Uganda Kob, reed buck -- that is to say, lots of antelope things. Excitement is higher for several small herds of forest elephants. All told, we saw about 80 Rothschild giraffes, usually in small groups of 5-7, nibbling elegantly on acacia trees, thorns and all apparently. Their slow stately stride, and long-lashed inquisitive stares make these animals oh-so-lovable -- although I am not sure how one would go about cuddling a giraffe. So instead I took 50 pictures. This is all savanna land so it is possible to see long distances across the 3-foot grasses. That is how Brent spotted two lions! It took binoculars to get good looks, but even so, this is the highlight. Even lean and at such a distance, their muscular form suggests strength and nonchalant power. My trip is made now.

The shadow of Idi Amin is never far away. Old people remember his time. Middle-agers remember his reign and have childhood memories of family members or neighbours being killed. In this case, Murchison National Park was ruined by the looting and poaching of ivory by Amin's soldiers and by the associated state of lawlessness with invited further poaching. If there is a silver lining, apparently the elephant population needed culling (elephants destroy the habitat by tearing down trees if their numbers get of of whack); a brutal way to go about it to be sure, but the animal populations are now on the rise in a balanced way.

An afternoon boat ride up the Victoria Nile takes us past crocs sunning themselves on the shore, half-immersed in water with only eyes and snouts showing, or perched on the shore with their long jaws wide open to cool themselves. All the better to nibble you with, my dear. But the hippos steal the show. There are hundreds of these prehistoric looking creatures. Weeny little ears, giant snouts, little pink pig-eyes, enormous girth, lumbering walk makes them fascinatingly ugly. Then a baby hippo comes up beside the mother cow and we all melt -- a small version of ugly is adorable! Go figure. I admit to taking about 10 pictures.

At the end of the 2-hour trip we near the base of the falls and begin the 25-minute climb toward the base and the 35 metre ascent. I confess to finding the falls a disappointment. Their most amazing feature is a 6-metre chute that all that Nile River water must pass through, so the power behind that force is truly awesome. The water shoots out, mists, churns, drops, eddies, foams. In 2001, a second channel broke through a few hundred metres away when the water was particularly high and the pressure therefore particularly intense. Even so, when you are from Niagara country or even are just a West Coast Canadian with our everywhere waterfalls, the hoopla seems overstated. No one else seems to ho-hum this, though, so perhaps I'm spoiled. For my money, if you 're in the area, do the falls. And in combination with a game drive and a boat trip this is an awesome day. But to drive 350km for a 35 metre waterfall -- even if it is THE NILE -- well, ho hum.

We have had such long days that our eight-cottage resort swimming pool doesn't get a glance. I hear there is a fine one somewhere. But my deck is calling for a beer -- so I take one to it -- while the others do their bird list. I talk quietly with the little monkey that visits my water cistern when he is not swinging about in the tree beside me. Dinner. Snooze.

O/N Nile Safari Lodge

Saturday, January 13, 2007
250 km Murchison => Kibale

Departing at 8:00, we drive until about 5:00 to reach Kibale Forest National Park. We have fewer stops, although we take time for a one hour walk as we climb the escarpment back out of the Rift Valley. But the roads are poor, so the kilometres pass slowly. In the rainy season these huge ruts form; in the dry season it is dusty. We have red dust all over our bodies, clothes. In our hair. In our eyes and nose. Merrilee noted we have dust in our wrinkles - now picture that!

The big trucks rumble past, the little minivans tear along, both creating great clouds of dust and playing chicken along the 1 1/2 lane road - or more like a track. We entertain ourselves opening and closing the windows to balance the dust resistance versus heat relief. We lose.

The towns and life remain interesting. And Dan is still waving to all the kids. He will have to switch sides of the van or he will grow muscles on only one side!

We are noticing new things. Many of the women wear brightly coloured dresses; some spectacular fabrics. They have long skirts, loose bodices, short puffed sleeves. We would like to take pictures, but most will not permit it when asked. Occasionally we have tried to take them surreptitiously but on one occasion a group of women noticed and became displeased, even agitated and angry. So no more inconspicuous picture-taking.

Uganda is much greener than I had expected, and there is a great diversity of crops: maize, millet, sorghum, yams, bananas, pineapples, the ubiquitous cassava, tea, coffee, highland rice (which grows without flooded fields and of which I have never heard).

There is an occasional plantation, but generally the crops are on individual land holdings. We have learned that individuals hold title to a plot of land and work it with their families. As the family grows and ages, the plot is subdivided to children. And then again to children's children. The story of third-world countries. When the plots become too small, an individual sells it and moves to a more remote location where the proceeds will buy a larger plot. Life may be harder, but a family can be sustained. And so it goes.

Kibale is in the hills. We have passed through substantial tea plantations to get here. We are now at the Chimpanzee Guest House which was a former residence on sizable grounds. The home is basic, but with a large general living area, small back porch which catches the evening sun, and a couple of acres of lawn sloping down the hill and offering a view of the lake far below. It looks like a great place to recharge batteries. However, we have no time for that. Tomorrow we track chimpanzees!

O/N Chimpanzee Guest House, double 50,000 Uganda shillings = $35 CDN

Sunday, Jan 14, 2007
Kibale National Park tracking chimps

Kibale National Park has the highest density of primates in the world. But we, like everyone else, are here to see the chimps ($US 70 per person) of which there are 600in this 560 sq. km. park. Five groups have been habituated. Each of our three groups of six people has three hours to track the chimps and, if located, may stay for one hour -- precisely.

It is a tropical rain forest at 1200 metres elevation with tall canopies filled with birds too high to spot easily. The ground cover is dense but passable. We start off on a dirt road, then head down a trail toward the area the chimps were seen the previous evening. From that spot we wander and listen. We are rewarded with the loud screeching/calling/hollering of the chimps, and bushwhack our way through to the noise. It has taken 1 3/4 hours, but we have found them.

On TV nature shows, chimps leap around and we are shown their extraordinary social mannerisms and behaviours. Our Uganda chimps are more meditative, relaxed -- perhaps lazy. They stretch along a branch or nestle in a corner, reaching languidly for figs, chomping away and peeing. Every once in a while, one stands or reaches out and all our cameras click. Even though there is relative inactivity, it is a magical encounter. We have "tracked the chimps" and are seeing them in their natural habitat. They seem to pay us no mind, so it appears e are seeing the real thing. We are silent.

And THEN, one of the chimps climbs to the ground. He wanders a few steps while we all stand motionless, mesmerized. We follow at a distance; he then lays down to sleep. We creep toward him, maintaining what we hope is a respectful 8 metre distance, guided by the guide. And process to take picture after picture of a motionless chimp. After a short power nap, he ambles off to meet a buddy.

Moments later another chimp and a youngster descend. The older pays no attention to us; the 2 year old throws a stick. Having made his point, they reascend and we are left alone in the jungle forest. We have seen a great variety; a youngster, a female in heat, the dominant male of this 33-member group and several others. Our day is made.

In the afternoon we do another marsh walk looking at birds but I don't remember much of it. Just writing this I have imagined myself back with the chimps. It is a powerful memory.

O/N Chimpanzee Guest House

Monday, January 15, 2007
200 km Kibale => Bwindi National Park

Driving days are now routine. We have packed the night before because we get up at 6:30 just before light. Although all the places we have stayed to date have generators, it is not a good idea to rely on them and they typically power only one dim light. We have headlamps as flashlights, but it is still awkward seeing. So we throw on the clothes we have set out (disgustingly often the same ones for the day before), perform our limited morning ablutions, eat breakfast at 7:00 and load the Land Cruiser at 7:30. We are always away well before 8:00. Today we lave at 7:30, arrive at 4:30.

We spend the morning chunking through savanna, then after lunch the terrain turns to jungle forest. At times, the other side of the valley is the DR Congo, at other times the ridge line marks Rwanda. I am reminded what a small country this is by Canadian standards.

As always, we have passed villages and towns where people are working industriously: tilling the soil, harvesting crops, making bricks or hauling water or wood. The women carry loads on their heads, either balanced easily or hauling sticks with a headband. Children carry the small size version. Men use bicycles -- for everything. There are trucks and minivans, but outside Kampala we have seen fewer than 5 cars. Bicycles are it. Brent has not mentioned how happy he is that no one wears a helmet -- and I would not be crazy enough to mention it!

Bicycles cost about $70, which seems a lot for such a poor country where a labourer's wage is $3 a day. But they are apparently sturdily made - in Kampala. They are sold and advertised as cargo carriers. Which is precisely what they are. They carry: up to 2 passengers; 5 bunches of bananas; 5 water carriers; sacks of rice or millet or cassava. As we descend toward a river, there will be a steady stream of boys and men pushing their bikes laden with water jugs up the hill. Nearing a market, there will be a steady stream of people pushing any variety of stuff. And on the day the truck arrives to pick up bananas for transport to Kampala - well, look out. Hundreds of bicycles piled high with bananas. Its an awesome sight. And a reminder of how hard people work for so little.

We ask a lot of questions of our guides. Costs of things and how people live. If at first they wondered why, I think they now understand we are fascinated to see how this rural economy works. No infrastructure, no electricity, no running water, limited transportation, no distribution network, no irrigation system - all the things we take for granted. Here tremendous human capital goes into filling all those gaps. When we make comparisons we realize not just how fortunate we are, but how Adam Smith's world works.

At 5:00 we arrive at the Buhoma Community Rest Camp. It's a delightful place with a variety of bandas (basic cottages - basic in the sense of a cottage with a couple of bunks and maybe a chair), and one giant tent on a raised platform looking across the valley to the forest on the other side. The camp is a really neat set-up, with a personal connection for us. It is one of only two associated with the Uganda National Parks that is run by the community, for the community. All of the profits are plowed back into the camp: in the last year they have introduced showers and, based on the money from our booking, built the tent platform. Another banda is in the works. It employs local people who learn tourism skills. It is managed by the community council, the chairman of which is none other than Alfred - one of our guides. He and Johnnie are both clearly popular in Alfred's community; everyone greets them. And getting Alfred talking about their plans for the camp, the community, the local school (one impressed visitor is sponsoring a $20,000 five-room addition to the 360-child school so that older children can complete grades 8 and 9 without having to leave the community) is fun - he is very passionate about it - ideas galore, words tumbling out, eyes alight. We are glad to be staying here!

Until, that is, THE ATTACK OF THE SAFARI ANTS!!! Returning from dinner, in the dark with only our headlamps to light the way, we see from a lantern on the porch that there are insects all over. We lean over to see what kind of bugs we have. Too late we realize it is a teeming mass of fire ants and we are being swarmed. They are on our arms and climbing into our hair - these little suckers are fast! We are standing there trying to wipe them off while more are climbing on, since we are still in the midst of the swarm. Run! We tear back up the hill, arms flailing, me yelling. I'm scraping at my arms trying to shake them off, but they don't shake - you need to pick them off and squish them one by one. They have climbed my legs, under my pants, and 10,000 of them are biting my legs. Without a second's thought, I whip off my pants and hold them aloft with 2 fingers, but they climb off the pants onto my arms. Hurl the pants! So here I stand, half naked, mumbling, yelling and starting to shake. In a few minutes, we have picked most of them off and are regaining enough calm to think about "what now"?

Brent tries to shake the little so-and-sos off my pants and to get me to put my pants back on. No way -- I am NOT putting those back on. How can we go for help with me undressed? he gently enquires. I don't care!! Up the stairs she marches. We find someone who knows what to do -- they have chemicals for this situation! They head down with spray cans in hand and we shakily head for Dan and Merrilee's tent to wait it out. So far, no one has seemed distressed that I am undressed -- which is good cause no way am I getting into those pants!

I am also quite determined that I am not going back to our banda. While people chat, I am considering options -- bunk down on Merrilee and Dan's porch; sleep in the Land Cruiser, or drive to Kampala and fly home. When the staff return saying the ants are all gone, I find that nice to know but really nothing to do with me. However, I am eventually persuaded to "just come see". Sure enough, there is not a moving body. They've all been exterminated and swept away. I am not entirely convinced, and when I open my backpack to see about 30 milling about, that's just about it. Brent calmly sprays my bags and bugs together. I still feel very shaky and am certain I will not sleep a wink. We climb into bed with me insisting that the first bite and we're outta here. Within 230 seconds, we are asleep.

This was not as bad as our leech experience in Australia, but it was getting up there. And it is not a contest I want to continue.

O/N Buhoma Community Rest Camp. Bandas (cottages) $US10 per person

Tuesday, January 16, 2007
Gorilla Tracking in Bwindi

We are here to see the Mountain Gorillas. There are 700 in the world, about 1/2 here and the other half just across the borders in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The gorillas have been made famous by the movie "Gorillas in the Mist" and for those who want to see them in their natural habitat it's a significant endeavour. Permits are hard to get because there are only 24 issued for each day; they cost $US375 per person (soon to rise to $US500 pp) and its a strenuous climb to track them.

Everyone hires porters. We do this because it is a way of providing community employment, so we must set aside machismo thoughts of self-sufficiency. And be darned if it isn't kind of fun. Someone else carries our water and rain gear and food. They help us up the steep bits, literally pushing and pulling and doing whatever it takes to haul us up this forest slope. Some people take two porters for extra oomph. The porters are all good-natured and we form quite a jovial bunch the first while. We settle into it as the climb steepens. While steep and strenuous, it is only 300 metres vertical (1400->1700) and I hour up, so we are all (8 in our group, plus 9 porters, 1 guide and 3 rifle-toting guards) make it easily. At this point, we are going to traverse the hills. Trackers have gone ahead in the early morning and are in radio contact. Following their lead, within another 40 minutes we have reached our "H" family of gorillas. (The two other groups have gone to other areas to track the "M" and "R" families.) We have been lucky -- tracking can take 0.5 - 8.5 hours; 1.5 hours seems just right.

The gorillas are huge -- they grow to 6 feet and 450 pounds. Fortunately they are vegetarians! Still, it is no sacrifice to keep a 20-foot distance. For the most part, they stay in the trees, nibbling away on shoots and leaves. For the strictly enforced one hour, we observe a mom with tiny baby on her chest, a youngster comfortably holed up in a grassy alcove, another adult female; a young male (Mariah); and the silverback (only the old males have a silver swathe across their back). We use sign language (with each other, not with the gorillas) or talk in whispers; when a gorilla clambers from the tree down to the ground for a bit, the adrenaline pumps. In the silence and our small numbers, this is an unforgettable moment. The steamy jungle forest, the huge primates. This was the centrepiece of our Africa trip this time -- it has been worth it.

On our return, we are pretty pumped. We did 300m vertical in one hour and survived; maybe we'll do Kilimanjaro next!)

As if our day hasn't been full enough (!), in the late afternoon we do a community walk with - yes, yet another - guide. We visit a banana gin, and learn about the process of mashing bananas, collecting the juice and then, after
2 days, drinking as juice
4 days, with sorghum added as a natural yeast, 7% banana wine which tastes truly vile
5 days, distill the wine to moonshine (40% alcohol)

The smell of the moonshine is enough to knock you over, but the ingenious process of a wood fire boiling the concoction and makeshift pipes running stream water through the pot for cooling/condensation in the middle of nowhere is pretty impressive. When it comes to getting alcohol, it would appear humans will go to great lengths! Actually, we have seen very few Ugandans drink alcohol; it does not seem to be the national challenge it is in so many countries.

We also visit a witchdoctor who demonstrates various herbs for stomach cramps, headaches, childbirth, constipation and a variety of ailments. The neat thing is that he worked hand-in-hand with the local clinic -- he the medical team consult with each other about their patients. He is an impressive-looking character with his wizened face, grey beard, large hat, fur cape, and bare feet. In response to a question about an ailment, he wanders into his herb garden to pick the appropriate plant; Dan likened it to a pharmacist walking directly to the appropriate shelf in her pharmacy. The doctor unfortunately had no advice for Brent, whose finger has now turned purple and swollen.

For some reason, the witchdoctor speaks French and it was a surreal experience to use our broken French to communicate with this decked-out dude in the jungles of Uganda. When I saw him later in the village in trousers and shirt, it was sort of disappointing to see a rather average-looking guy. Another myth shattered.

Our final stop was the Pygmy village. This is both hopeful and sad. The pygmies were forest dwellers (i.e. hunter-gatherers). When the park was created, they were relocated, but to an area with no hunter/gatherer potential. They had to adapt to become an agrarian society. A sympathetic foreigner who visited the area thought this a shame, and paid to develop a makeshift area where they could hold performances and see some of their crafts. A noble idea, to be sure. But I think it inevitable that in short order this will become a purely commercial, perhaps self-defeating exercise. But in the meantime, we have been fortunate to see the dancing, music, stories and crafts of this vanishing group.

O/N Buhoma Community Rest Camp

Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Birding in Bwindi

So, here I sit, finally. The others left this morning for their bird walk and I am taking "A Day Off". Somewhat telling that I think of it in these terms. Although I enjoy birding in moderation and the places this takes us, we have had no down time and I am pooped. So now here I sit on my porch, absent the safari ants, looking over at the gorilla hills, watching the sun come over the horizon, drinking my umpteenth cup of tea and reflecting on our week to date. It has been a phenomenal time, made all the better by our knowledgeable guides Johnny and Alfred, and by our interesting and easy-going travelling companions Merrilee and Dan. In looking at my voluminous notes, it appears there has been a lot that caught my attention.

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Later in the day, our birding group arrives home. They have so far seen about 200 new birds, so they are pretty satisfied. Today on their walk they met several villagers traversing on forest trails the 11 km between the two villages. A long way to walk for a visit -- and then return.

This is the first time we have been in a town with Internet so we have sent off quick messages, but neither it nor we are ready for a long report. I just started writing, there has been no time to work on the Web pages and so far we haven't stayed anywhere with electricity to juice up the computer. A few more weeks of this and I will begin to remember what life pre-Internet was like.

Thurs/Fri, January 18/19, 2007
65 km Bwindi National Park => Ruhija and stay 1 day

Until today, we have had great weather. During the day up to 27 degrees, cooler evenings. Today it poured off and on all day. I have been fighting a losing battle with a cold, so decided to stay "home" while the others did a birding walk. Our home is the most basic yet, but it's got four solid walls and fireplace, which smokes rather badly at night. We have climbed to 2400 metres, though, so need it for evening warmth.

We have acquired a cook for these 2 days who works miracles over 2 portable charcoal-burning baskets. Stews, vegetables, even spaghetti.

We saw no cars yesterday, so really are alone on top of the world. That is, except for the 2 British cyclists in the pup tent in the yard. These are the first we have seen and they are remarkable. They've got 2 months to cover much the same territory we have/will. They are cheerful, friendly, strong and wiry. I like cycling, but these conditions are uninviting even to me. Dirt, rutted roads. High hills. Little traffic, but that which exists makes a cyclist dive for the ditch. (A few days back, we saw a local cyclist sprawled dead on the road. Scary stuff.) Accommodation is sparse and basic -- although they tell us the guest houses in the towns are just fine -- clean, bed, table, chair. I expect never to check them on this!

The birders return weary, but having explored a swamp and in addition to several birds, did a 7 1/2 hour steep hike and encountered gorillas in the mist! These ones are habituated only enough for research, so the gang had to snap a couple of photos and more on. But what a rush!

Saturday, January 20, 2007
travel to Lake Mburo

A long travel day, thorough jungle forests and then into incredibly fertile land, heavily terraced and supporting lots of people. Eventually we reached savanna terrain, having dropped from the cool misty 2400 metre altitude to the Ugandan plateau at around 1000 metres.

Our big excitement today came from an unexpected quarter. The birders spotted a bird in some trees in grazing land. Of course, we all piled out, got the binoculars on the special bird as well as several others, taking lots of pictures in the process and completely ignoring the herd of longhorn cattle in the process. Or rather, they did. I of course took a snap. Largely for something to do.

As we returned to the Land Cruiser, a farmer came running out of the adjoining field, yelling, thrashing his arms, waving a pole. He was clearly very agitated about something. I thought he feared we had broken his fence or were cattle rustlers or something. We white folks quickly clambered into the Land Cruiser and sat meekly, hoping to be invisible, while Alfred and Johnny carried on an animated conversation. Johnny go his stick to even things out, voices were raised, a small crowd gathered. They didn't look happy. We were baffled, but sure knew something was wrong.

Happily, the voices morphed from loud anger to more measured debate, and eventually a few chuckles. Johnny dragged out bird books and binoculars, showing how his crazy passengers are avid birders. The locals had a hard time believing it but were eventually convinced as Johnny explained, while miming what birders do. More laughter, handshakes and waves as we drove off.

A few minutes later, Johnny explained what had happened. The farmer was unhappy that we had been taking pictures of his cattle and had to be convinced that we were instead taking pictures of birds -- goody as the locals might think that sounds. My birding partners feigned indignation. How could anyone think they were interested in cattle, where there are glorious birds involved. Who would take a picture of cattle when you can take a picture of birds, they joked, in relief. I put my camera quietly away.

Tonight we are staying in a permanent tent site. We are told animals wander through so are relived to be oh a 3 foot platform unlike Merrilee and Dan who are on ground level. They are very brave. We hope to see them tomorrow.

Sunday, January 21, 2007
Exploring Lake Mburo

Breakfast at the open air restaurant overlooking the Lake, a long game drive (zebra, topi, impala, etc.) and a 2 hour boat ride in the afternoon, followed by dinner and beer at the same lakeside eatery. Life doesn't get any better than this, even if it includes goat stew!

Monday, January 22, 2007
Travelling from Uganda to Bukoda, Tanzania

This, our final day in Uganda, began with our early game drive -- my favourite of all things to do. We followed the swampy track past all the now-familiar birds and mammals.

Soon we were on a paved highway which took us to the Tanzanian border, a soulless border crossing as are so many of these areas. It looks a bit intimidating, largely because it is tacky, dirty and unfamiliar, full of authority-figures.

After 1 1/2 hours of standing around and getting visa stamps and waiting and answering questions we were able to move on. It took awhile, but no bribes (that I know of) -- just patience. (Although one border guard politely asked me why I had taken a picture of him without his consent. I assured him I had not, but instead had been taking a photo of a bicycle laden with water jugs. To prove myself, I showed him the picture on my digital display. Uh, oh, there's the bicycle in the foreground and the guard in the background, as he himself points out. I of course immediately offered to delete it -- not because he had a big rifle but because he was so polite. Then we motored.

In the 70 kilometres we travelled today in Tanzania, we noticed some subtle differences. The houses are slightly more precise, decorative, prosperous. Bicycles are still widely used, but so too are large handcarts. The women's clothing is equally colourful, but of a different style. In Uganda we saw only 2 women riding on bicycles in 2 weeks; in Tanzania it is not uncommon. And perhaps because tourism is more prevalent and we are not a novelty, kids and adults wave back to us far less. Dan will have his work cut out for him here.

The guest house where we are having dinner before our overnight ferry is the first upscale place we have been to since our opening 2 nights on the Nile. High on the hill overlooking the harbour, large landscaped garden, brand new home with giant living room, large bedrooms, running water, electricity, flush toilets. At $US40 per night, it's tempting to stay. However, tomorrow Phase II of our travel begins. Can't miss that!

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