Uganda Meander

March 25, 2014 by darren

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Uganda, the Pearl of Africa, has 10 national parks, 17% of the world’s biodiversity, 54% of the world’s Mountain Gorillas, and 11% of the world’s mammal species.  More than 50% of Lake Victoria, the second largest lake in the world, is in Uganda.  Bird watching in Uganda is an African destination with over 1,200 species recorded which is 33% of the world’s birds.

My sister, Joan, from Boca Raton, FL, and I were lucky enough to visit Uganda from February 5 – 21, 2014.  The primary purpose of our trip was to go gorilla trekking, an opportunity missed when we traveled to Uganda 4 years ago.  But before we went to see the gorillas, we had many other adventures while visiting five of the national parks including Murchison Falls, Queen Elizabeth, Kibale, Bwindi, and Lake Mburo.

On our first day, a Ugandan priest we had met on a previous visit picked us up and took us to St. Augustine College to meet a young woman that I am sponsoring.  She has three more years of secondary school. We brought a large suitcase of school supplies, clothing, and sundries for her and the school.  We met the vice head master and had a brief tour of the school.  It was lovely to meet “my” student.

The next day we had a wonderful visit to a Wildlife Education Center and saw most of the animals we were going to see in the wild on our safaris over the next several days.  This made it easier to identify the animals and birds from a distance.

On Sunday we attended Mass at a local Catholic Church.  Our taxi driver came with us.  The whole congregation participated in the singing which was lovely.  Later we went to a Uganda Museum with interesting displays of the history of Uganda.  A woman played several traditional musical instruments.  We also visited the Kasubi tombs where four kings are buried.  The wives and descendants of the kings still live there and take care of the grounds.

We were joined by a couple from Germany and a woman from the U.S. who is working in Swaziland so our safari group was five which was a nice size.  We traveled in a Land Cruiser that rattled along over the very bad and dusty roads.  Even the roads that were paved had large potholes.  During the 10 days of our safari, we had two flat tires.

Our first encounter with animals was to walk around in a rhino sanctuary where there are 14 white rhinos.  Because of poaching, there are no longer any rhinos in the wild in Uganda.  Two of the rhinos came from Disney World.  One mated with a rhino from Kenya; the offspring is named Obama.  We were able to walk close to a group of seven; they are huge and we were careful to allow them their space.

By the second day, we had seen the big 5.  We saw two leopards resting in a tree and another on the ground; four lions playing around after eating; many African elephants wandering around; Cape buffalo on the ground and in the water; and the rhinos in the sanctuary.  In addition we saw eland, impala, Uganda kob, topi, bushbuck, hippopotamus, Jackson’s hartebeest, six species of monkeys, baboons, oribi, Rothchild’s giraffe, jackal, hyena, warthogs, and Akole cattle which have very large horns.  Over the ten days, we identified about 150 species of birds including bee eaters, kingfishers, storks, eagles, geese, herons, wagtails, weavers, vultures, buzzards, hornbills, flycatchers, pelicans, and egrets.

We drove through small towns and villages where clothing and some beautiful vegetables and fruits and other items were displayed.  Outside the villages small vegetable stands were along the road.  Charcoal is used for cooking in the villages; many large bags of charcoal were for sale along the roads.  Major forms of transportation are bicycles and motorcycles.  Often 3 or 4 people were squeezed onto motorcycles.  Great burdens are transported this way by men.  Women usually walk with bundles of sticks or containers of fruit or vegetables or clothing on their heads.   Many people have to go great distances for water.  They use large yellow plastic containers and walk or ride bicycles or motorcycles to a central spigot.  It was common to see 20 or more containers at a pump waiting to be filled.

I was pleased to see so many schools throughout the areas we visited; in many parts of the world, girls have limited opportunity for education.  The children were dressed in school uniforms as they walked to school.  A number of them were barefoot and our guide said it is because they have no shoes.

We took a boat ride on the Nile to Murchison Falls.  We were dropped off at a trail and then hiked about an hour to reach the top of the Falls where we had beautiful views of the area.  We then took a ferry (which didn’t look seaworthy) across the river near hippos and then went on a game drive.

One morning we had a forest walk to see chimpanzees.  We saw about 20 of them: moms with babies and large males.  They were high in the trees eating fruit.  They were happy to see us as indicated by dropping seeds and urinating on us!  Another day we went on a 3 hour swamp walk and saw some beautiful birds and women working in fields breaking up the soil with hoes prior to planting beans and tobacco.

On our way to the next lodge in Queen Elizabeth National Park, a big, old, bull elephant with one tusk was in the road and did not want us to pass.  He spread his ears and came toward us so we backed up.  He kept coming and we backed up some more.  Finally we were far enough away that he turned around and challenged a car that was behind him.  That car also backed off.  Finally the elephant went into the bush.  Our driver told us to hang on tight, he was going fast—and he did.  We didn’t see that elephant again but the driver was very familiar with him.

The gorillas we visited live in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, one of the five national parks we visited.  More than half the world’s population of mountain gorillas, over 340, live in this forest.  There are nine habituated groups; we visited the Habiyanja group which has 18 members of which we were able to see 14.  The two mothers and their babies hid from us.  It took us three hours to reach the group.  Trackers were ahead of us locating the family; they communicated with our guide by walkie-talkie.  The gorillas were moving around eating.  Some youngsters were playing in the bushes.  As the gorillas moved, we followed them.  We were able to spend a little over an hour watching and taking photos.  For the most part, they just ignored us.

We also has a Batwa (pygmy) cultural experience.  We were greeted by the head man and were welcomed with two dances.  We then went to look in several of their homes—small tentlike structures made of sticks and leaves. We tried out a bow and arrow; Joan hit our target (a small wooden antelope).  My first arrow went over and the second one went under the target so I would have been hungry that night!

We visited a 112 bed hospital which has a large community outreach.  We met the medical director whose specialty is public health.  The hospital was founded in 2003 by an American doctor.  Maternal and infant mortality are high in this part of the world with births at home attended by traditional birth assistants.  Increasing numbers of pregnant moms are coming to the hospital for birth.  Since most live at a distance, they are encouraged to come two to three weeks before their due dates to ensure that the baby will be born in the hospital.  There are 105 babies born in the hospital each month and they insert 1000 IUDs per month. The hospital recently started a nursing school and admitted 14 students of which only six are women.  Interestingly, the students all have I-pads and will be taking online classes taught by American teachers.

It was a wonderful safari and exceeded my expectations.  We saw many species of animals and birds, had lovely accommodations, interesting boat rides among the hippos, and good food.  Menus included Ugandan, Indian, British, and Chinese dishes.  This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

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