Equatorial celebrations in Uganda

Uganda >> 25 Jul – 16 Aug >> 2,499 km

Waiting for Max and Alina (Malina) to arrive was almost unbearable, we were so super excited. Jens gave up 12 hours early and celebrated a little one-man pre-party the night before, enthusiastically anticipating everything we’d be doing together over the next two-and-a-half weeks. Meeting up at Leopard Camp was hopefully auspicious as wild animals appear high on our list of activities. Along with lively evenings, that have been few and far between since leaving Leanne and Winnie in Zambia, and exotic Africa fever for Malina’s first time in the southern hemisphere. We also have two birthdays to celebrate!

Noch keine deutsche Version: wir geben Bescheid, wenn es soweit ist.

From the outset, the animals didn’t disappoint too much at all – we heard zebras and waterbuck tearing the grass around our camp the first night and saw the striped beauties the next morning – this is one of only two places in Uganda where you can see them… Good start!
First stop: chimp tracking in Kalinzu Forest. The camp was crawling with baboons and Colobus monkeys and we became optimistic for our 6am trek next morning. Sure enough, after 15 minutes of humid huffing and puffing along the red soil path, up the first small hill, through the bushy undergrowth, our guide, Franklin, asked us to stop and listen. She wasn’t mistaken: 30 seconds later there was a deafening screech and a series of “ooh, ooh, oohs” like you heard from Cheeta in the Tarzan films. Alina and I turned to look at each other, both wide-eyed and open-jawed. I may even have grabbed her arm: in fear or excitement or both. The pattern of the sounds was expected, but certainly not this decibel level! Just ahead of us in the grey dawn we see the lolloping shape of our first chimpanzee: squat and long-armed but standing about hip height.

Calls bounced to and fro as we scrambled further up the hill trying to follow him, but he quickly shook us off his trail. We stopped at the top to crane our necks skyward, straining to pick out the primate silhouettes in the canopy of umbrella tress. These aren’t the pretty house plants we have at home, these are huge jungle trees over 10 metres tall. And that’s where the chimps lunge and lurch, from branch to branch, arms and legs stretched forwards and backwards, landing nimbly on the target and swinging for a second before coming to rest.

While gazing up until our necks ached, Alina’s and Jens’s ankles and legs began to itch. Looking down to the ground, the pair of them had come to a stop in a red, safari ant autobahn and now literally had ants in their pants! Stripping off was the only solution!

As if that wasn’t enough excitement before breakfast, after our permitted one hour with the chimps, on a circular route back to the camp, we thought the trucks on the road were lumbering by rather loudly. How disorientating being in the forest, we hadn’t realised the road was already so close? Then drops of water fell from the trees around us and the puddles rippled with movement. An earthquake not lorries!

Best to click on the photos and view them in larger format!

After breakfast we backtracked south and cross country to end up at the Ishasha sector of the Queen Elizabeth National Park: the area legendary for its tree-climbing lions! We even hire a guide for the next day to increase our chances of finding them. As we’re setting up camp we hear the cracking of breaking branches and the rustling of betrampled grass.. “Elephants!” Jens and I declare independently of each other, before we even see any – true safari specialists already! Lo and behold, across the narrow, winding river are 6 large elephants grazing their way towards the water’s edge. Another first for Malina. What an incredible day!
We’re glad Malina chose to hire a car with space for all of us to sit: it’s great being in the same vehicle on safari and at $150 entrance fee for Bruce, as a foreign car, we wouldn’t have done half of what we did. Despite the efforts of our guide, there were no lions to be seen in the trees. Nor on the ground. The lack of big cats was made up for in huge numbers of Ugandan kob (a new antelope variety for us), mud-bathing hyena within spitting distance and the whole range of regular park-goers: warthogs, marabou storks, baboons, another close elephant crossing ahead of us and hippos grunting away on the Congolese border, just 2 hops across the river. The hilltop viewpoint offered the savannah and acacia “Out of Africa” scenery we had hope Malina would get to see. They soaked it all up like sponges. What a wonderful day!

Later in the holiday we arrive at Murchison Falls NP, billed to us by a family friend as the best park in Uganda. I think we have to concur. We spent the day in absolute awe at the beautiful, hilly countryside, palms swaying in the breeze, gazing on many families of elephants, literally hundreds of giraffes wherever you looked, along with the usual companions of warthogs, buffalo, kob, Mr Tumnus-cute-horned dik-diks and some newcomers: Jackson’s hartebeest. The giraffes entranced us all the most, followed by the congenial elephants and we have a lifetime of memories of green, lush countryside, in such contrast to the yellowy-brown straw-like ground cover in Queen Elizabeth NP.

At our designated “time to turn back” point, directly on the Nile River, Alina announced so unexpectedly and calmly, that we all jumped out of our skins, “Lion!” What?! Jens hit the brakes and we stopped instantly. The prettiest of young lionesses was sitting upright at the edge of some long grass, golden fur gleaming in the bright sunshine. She was so close we initially hesitated to open the windows. Slightly less in fear of her jumping in, more afraid the noise would disturb her. But she seemed quite content and continued to sniff the air imperiously and bask in the warmth before settling down further into the green. Just then an open-roofed minibus of tourists arrived, cooing loudly, sending the lioness shooting off into the undergrowth, never to be seen again. By this time we’re a little out on our time schedule and we’re suddenly on a “rally-safari.” Still under the park speed limit, the sun’s rays lengthening by the minute, the SatNav predicts arriving at the gate shortly before it closes at 7pm. We still have time to stop for breathtaking scenes and the giraffes and elephants remain too enticing to ignore. After flirting with such moments a few times, however, we agreed it would be better to only stop for lions, the elusive shoebill, which unfortunately remained true to its reputation, and anything new. But then the inevitable happened: “Guinea Foul ALARM!!!” – they strike again, come shooting out from where they’d been hiding, ambushing us completely and stopping only a few metres in front of our car with mad panic in their eyes, willing to face death if we don’t hit the brakes in time! In every country in Africa we’ve experienced this craziness time and again – there seem to be a few vital brain cells missing in these little creatures’ heads, but it always brings on a short adrenaline shock in our bodies followed by great laughter! Sandra and Tom will remember it well from Namibia, too.

 

Huge black clouds were brewing overhead, the horizon standing out clearly and the sky darkened to menacing. We flew past the herds of elephants, waved goodbye to the sentinel giraffes, crossed the tsetse fly forest before they could wake themselves enough to give us sleeping sickness, before the first streaks of lightning turned the sky momentarily lilac and the first drops of rain hit the earth. Within seconds it was pelting down and within minutes Jens had splashed us through some puddles to arrive at the seemingly abandoned gate at 18.58. Talk about German punctuality! The solitary gateman came out in his ankle-length, hooded poncho, wellies and rifle and opened up with a smile and a wave. What an amazing day!

We didn’t stop the animal hunting, visiting another part of QENP on Jens’s birthday. Breakfast in a birthday hat accompanied by the usual song. Crossing the equator, I think we knew from the start we were unlikely to be lucky with lions, as we pimped the Toyota Surf into a Party-Safari-Mobil, a ribbon of Happy Birthday the inside length of the car, Jens swamped under balloons and some reggae (Damien Marley: soundtrack of our Uganda tour) entertaining us on the sound system. The park rangers weren’t at all stern and they, along with any tour guides we met, all chortled with laughter at our get-up and wished Jens all the best. The day began well with rumours of 2 male lions close to the gate: off we sped. Two or three cars stopped together were a good sign, but we saw… nothing at all. And so it continued throughout the morning. We broke the animal-free monotony at a viewpoint over a saltmine in a crater lake, tinged with pink flamingos, with a no-expense-spared bottle of almost cool Freixenet cava, discovered in a local supermarket, with a birthday cake from another across the road, topped with a gaudy, light-turquoise icing hard enough to break your teeth: probably the only way to keep the cake fresh-ish on the warm, African shelves. We kept our eyes peeled for the lions into the early afternoon before leaving for an upmarket lodge, where Jens wanted to share a special sundowner and dinner with us on his big day. As we left the park, I looked to the left and realised I hadn’t needed to go hunting at all, my (Leo the) Lion was sitting right next to me all the time!

Alina’s birthday 10 days later was much more sensible, with no great designs on lions at all. In another beautiful lodge on the Nile River, one of the nicest of the whole Africa trip, we dedicatedly celebrated into her birthday with too many various drinks, Malawi ‘tea’, fireworks at midnight and lots of other nonsense round the campfire, until an unheard of 2.30am. The dark clouds and threat of rain did not bode well for her day. If there are two things she can’t stand, especially on her birthday, it’s sitting in the car all day, and rain. But she dutifully got out of bed at the aroma of freshly-brewed coffee and grinned on command as she donned her birthday cap and didn’t grimace too much when the trumpets were blown. A bottle of bubbly with the luxurious birthday brunch was a suitable tonic for the hangovers around the table as the sun burnt the clouds away. We perked up enough to take a boat tour on the Nile, fortunately with a skipper, and another bottle of bubbly. We didn’t let her win at croquet or badminton though, despite it being her birthday and the pink cake in the afternoon was just as bad as Jens’s! What great celebrations!

The Ugandans rank among the friendliest of the whole trip: witty, intelligent, interested and informative; they added the human touch to our animal escapades, except perhaps for our annoying guide at Sipi Falls, who insisted on calling me “Grandmother” in all seriousness. TWICE!!

 

And then we arrived in the east and the land of the Karamajong. This is the first encounter, for all of us, with traditional pastoralists, who have barely arrived in the 19th century, save their mobile phones. They amble jauntily along the roadside, wooden stools in one hand, their multi-funtional sticks, which might be called dolas resting on the shoulders like a yok, arms bent backwards over them, and often a colourful Cat in the Hat Dr Seuss style hat on his head. The very traditional also pierce long feathers in their lobes, sport tattoos on their arms and adorn their faces with scarifications. A tartan cloth in muted tones is wrapped around their loins while the girls often wear kilt-like pleated skirts. Is this the origin of Scottish attire?! The shepherds seem to start their career at the age of about 6 and they drive the cattle far from their grass-roofed, clay hut villages, fortified with rickety fencing.

A local guide later gives us a demonstration, along with a cowtail-haired fly swatter. Joseph would still be tending his cattle if he hadn’t had a child and discovered the financial opportunities offered by working in tourism – much to our benefit: his comic talent would be totally wasted on the cows.
Modernisation is coming to the country in patches. Malina stop at one rural petrol station with two state of the art-looking pumps and ask for a full tank. The attendant comes and starts winding the pump by hand! After five, slow turns, 1 litre has been pumped. “OK, we’ll just take 10 litres please!” Later we see a public toilet on one of the main highways. An otherwise unheard of facility, beautifully signed, “Nature Call Centre!” But it’s all for nought as the kamikaze bus driver we’d been following, parks pointedly on the other side of the road and all the men pile out to one side and pee into the bushes!

It’s in Uganda where we buy our first Rolex. Not the time-telling variety, the edible one! A fresh omelette wrapped in an often greasy chapati, giving you rolled eggs – Rolex – get it?! Jens and I also sampled some bean stew with rice and gritty spinach at one dingy, dirty, fish-reeking restaurant. It was actually really tasty and without consequences. Max, on the other hand, went on hunger strike for that meal.
And it’s in Uganda where we perfect our smiles. It’s not enough here to smile, lips closed, no teeth showing. It doesn’t count and the people don’t smile back. But if you grin, from ear to ear, all your front teeth showing as much as possible, just short of an open-mouthed laugh, everyone smiles and waves back wholeheartedly. In fact, the toddlers are so enthusiastic in their waving, they wiggle their whole bodies, hands, arms, legs and bums. SO cute! What a country and a great distraction from our Ethiopian routing worries!

Thanks to Malina for selected photos, marked, and the team effort on the blog – And of course for helping making Uganda so special, while creating an excellent diversion from our continued travel worries.

 

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