Thursday, 21 February 2013

Ugandan Discussions

The officials on the border gave us a pretty easy ride into Uganda (each border seems to have got easier as we’ve headed further south) and didn’t even bother to look at the car, so we were able to make our way to Jinja the same day.  It’s the first major town past the border, but we were particularly excited to go there as it’s the source of the White Nile.  Having followed the Nile right from where it empties into the sea, along through Egypt and Sudan, seen the confluence of the Niles at Khartoum and then followed the Blue Nile into Ethiopia, it was good to get to the southernmost point of the other brand as well.  The only key bit of the river we haven’t made it to is the White Nile stretch between Uganda and Sudan – we’ll have to see how South Sudan pans out before we can make it there.

The country looked pretty similar to the tropical west of Kenya, but there were a few key differences – enough bicycles to give Cambridge a run for its money, central/west African style clothes for the ladies with big puffy sleeves and, suddenly, LOADS of female backpackers.  I don’t think we saw a male muzungu for the first three hours we were there.  Apparently there are lots of volunteer programmes in Uganda, and maybe girls are just nicer.

We stayed at a beautiful campsite at the confusingly named Bujugali Falls, which aren’t falls at all since a major hyrdroelectric dam has been built.  The falls and rapids have now moved further upriver and it was there we headed for some white water rafting.  (For any parents reading, it was very, very safe I promise!).  It was my first experience so I was pretty scared beforehand, but as soon as we started I loved it – probably because the water was lovely and warm.  Given we’ve driven so many miles along the Nile and sailed down it a couple of times it was good to finally be in it, right at the source.

Campsite at Bujagali Falls

We picked up some useful tips for our journey ahead from the manager of the campsite, who turned out to be an ex-overland truck driver – best roads, best campsites, best restaurants in Cape Town, how to get through certain borders (give the border guards dirty magazines), where to find the best deserted beaches...  Then, we (ie James) did a couple of pretty tough days of driving to get us across to Kampala to get mountain gorilla permits and then out to the fabulously named Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.  Having enjoyed pretty nice tar roads most of the way, the last stretch into Bwindi was a bit scary – a rough road with some steep drop offs onto farmland and then into incredibly think jungle as we entered the park.  There had also obviously been some rain as shortly before we reached the park HQ we found a car with several vicars stuck in the mud.  The Beast hauled them out pretty easily, so we hope they got back to the main road before dark.

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Maybe our good deed was rewarded, as we had the most amazing mountain gorilla tracking experience the next day.  There are about 10 habituated gorilla families in Bwindi  (the others are in Rwanda and the DRC) and you get assigned to visit one of them.  The rangers know where they saw the gorillas the previous day but they can be pretty far away or hard to find, so we had heard that people could be trekking for up to 5 or 6 hours in search of them.  Looking at the mountains covered in thick rainforest we weren’t exactly surprised.  Fortunately, the Bitukura family who we had permits to visit turned out to be hanging out about an hour away from park HQ so we had a sweaty but fairly short trek to get there.  A couple of trackers had gone ahead and were in radio contact with our ranger, who suddenly led us off the track into thick bush, cutting a path through with a machete where necessary.  A few minutes later we were brought to a stop and had to put our sticks down and get our cameras out.  And then there they were!

The first three we saw were a couple of juveniles and one infant playing pretty boisterously.  

You’re supposed to stay at least 7 or 8m away in case you give them some horrible disease, but one of them broke off to come and have a good look at us.  He came right up to me so I tried to look down and not make eye contact as we’d been told – although I reckon I probably could have taken him.  

That definitely wasn’t the case with the massive silverbacks who gradually emerged from the trees.  They were pretty intimidating but seemed to be in a pretty good mood and didn’t even mind the little ones coming and jumping on them a bit.  

This chap is known as The Judge - what you can't tell from the photo is that he was constantly letting rip with massive farts...

We were only allowed to spend an hour there but it really did feel special (there are only about 800 mountain gorillas in the world), although it was sad you couldn’t go and play with them as the kids looked like they were having a lot of fun.

As we left the park the heavens opened and a huge rainstorm started so we were pretty relieved that we had found the gorilla family so rapidly.  This was the first real rain of our trip so it was a bit of a shock.  Having been used to perfect/scorching sunshine most of the way, we got a bit miserable when we turned up at lovely Lake Bunyoni and couldn’t really go out as it rained all the time.  We decided to head for the border instead and had a spectacular drive through volcanoes and past mountain lakes into Rwanda.

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