Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Rwanda and Uganda trip

A lot has happened since my last post.
Kathy ran and successfully completed the Boston Marathon so she has her medal and very happy about that.  It was quite an ordeal being very hot (record high temperature in Boston on the day of the marathon) and she suffered pretty badly from heat exhaustion and (suspected) hyponatremia.  Actually ended up in the emergency room the night after the marathon.  A story unto itself but all is well that ends well...

Just days after we got back from Boson, I was off to East Africa on a familiarization trip with The Far Horizons, based in Kampala Uganda. Great people - really enjoyed working with them and traveling with a small group of other agents and tour operators from Mexico, the USA, Switzerland, Germany, South Africa and Kenya.  

Why Uganda and Rwanda?  Rwanda stirs up lots of questions about genocide and internecine strife, while Uganda is still suffering from the damage done to its image by the despot Idi Amin.  The country was also unfairly the victim of more recent bad publicity surrounding Charles Koni - who has not been in Uganda for many many years.  

Well, the answer is that both Rwanda and Uganda have moved on from those years.  Uganda and Rwanda are very stable and safe countries to travel in; there is a high level of visible security in the urban areas (police and military) and even in the remote rural areas there are regular and on-going military patrols. This was clearly to be seen in the Volcanoes National Park area of Rwanda, and also at Bwindi in Uganda.  Kampala itself is to be avoided simply because it is messy and dirty with bad traffic congestion, but no real reason to stay there: first night could be at The Boma Guesthouse in Entebbe and then move on from there to either Murchison Falls or the western part of the country.  Kigali is clean, modern and actually quite an inviting place to spend a day or two, I would certainly recommend that clients visit the Genocide Museum, very impactful. 

Here is a brief summary of my familiarization trip with The Far Horizons. Also here is the link to Part 1 (of 2) of my Uganda and Rwanda trip report; Part 2 being written.

There are also links to Flickr where most of the pics have been uploaded with captions, in 4 categories. 
Among the highlights were our stay at Murchison Falls NP and in Queen Elizabeth National Park, particularly the Kasinga Channel boat trip - awesome with lots of birds and plenty of other stuff as well (elephant, buffalo, hippo, crocs etc.). Excellent game drive in the Ishasha region as well although we missed out on the tree-climbing lions (our trip was too short). They are there; visitors should just spend a bit more time than we did!

Of course the primary reason for going to Uganda is the abundance of apes and monkeys: we had some superb chimp sightings in Budongo Forest Reserve, which made up for the Kibale Forest chimp trek which turned out to be rather unsatisfactory with the chimps mostly way up in the trees and moving around.

The gorilla trek in Uganda was good if somewhat tricky: very steep slope, not for everybody! Can't do it without good walking boots. We got very close to the gorillas but photography was difficult: they kept turning their backs on us or dodging behind the vegetation - inadvertently one assumes. I did not have the right photo equipment for a gorilla trek. My 200-400 zoom lens was too much glass and too heavy; I could barely pick it up towards the end. The ideal lens would be a 70-200mm 2.8: will have to get one of those before the next time! Or maybe a 100-400mm zoom.

The gorilla trek on the Rwanda side (Volcanoes NP) was easier although not by much - quite a long walk with some pretty rough spots towards the end, close to where the gorillas were. This time the gorilla family was in a wide open area and I would have gotten some great shots if the weather played along. That didn't happen: it started to pour just minutes before we got to the gorillas and never let up, in fact it got worse. I took a couple of quick shots and then packed my camera and lens away; I did not want to risk potential serious damage to the camera and/or lenses - just too much water around. I am still finding damp money in my wallet.

We did several other fun/interesting activities including a mongoose trek, a long hike through Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, a couple of cultural excursions, and spent one night each at some fine lodges. A few of them have their limitations, might not appeal to everybody - but what they may lack in luxury they make up for in location. Without exception, we bumped into consistently friendly people everywhere.

In summary I would say the best reasons to visit Uganda and Rwanda are the apes and monkeys with chimps and gorillas at the top of the list; scenic beauty; and then wildlife (mammals, reptiles, birds etc). The people and cultural experiences also rate very highly in my book - some of my most memorable moments were all about connecting with people while running or on activities.

For anyone with more than a passing interest in birds and birding, both Uganda and Rwanda are loaded with spectacular and in many cases endemic or near-endemic species, and notably the rare and exotic Shoebill.

Here is a link to some of my photographs: