So, yes. Despite an extensive list of commitments, I managed to put together a video of our time in East Africa (way back in May to June timeframe). This time it involved less computer programming, since I could reuse my tool from the last video to choose songs that matched the video length. Score! Hope you enjoy the video!
Boy, we sure are busy relaxing here in Luang Prabang, Laos! No real documentation thus far as we've just been decompressing and wandering around. Tomorrow we'll be heading out to a local waterfall, visiting a night market, and trying (for the third time) to eat at a pizza joint that's quite highly reviewed. We'll have some photos to share on that front! Thus far we've really loving Laos -- it's a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of Vietnam. Things are really chilled out here! It's wonderful!
So, yes. Despite an extensive list of commitments, I managed to put together a video of our time in East Africa (way back in May to June timeframe). This time it involved less computer programming, since I could reuse my tool from the last video to choose songs that matched the video length. Score! Hope you enjoy the video!
Well, it’s that time again -- relocation! After spending a relaxing couple of weeks in Nairobi we’re moving onward to Asia. Although we haven’t been entirely positive about the city, we’ve had a lovely time here because of some great people: our Airbnb host Hameed, Al (a university-era buddy of mine and fellow Aussie exchange-taker), and Al’s partner Jazzmin.
First, I’d like to mention the “Fire Fighting” sign we found in the building we’re staying in. No judgment here guys, but if it were up to me, I’d probably leave “Fire Fighting” set to ON. Maybe it’s just me.
On Friday, we all went out for a night on the town. I cut some serious rugs. I’ve realized that I’m generally a fan of empty clubs playing good music. So much room to demonstrate my moves without bumping into anybody. Drinks whenever you want them. Why do people look for clubs with other people in them, anyway?! The same night, we encountered an unfortunate arrangement in which guys on the street were hawking puppies. Just wandering around at two in the morning trying to sell puppies to clubgoers. Mildly distressing, to say the least. But outside of that, we had a blast checking out the nightlife here in Nairobi.
Last night Sandra and I went over to Al & Jazz’s place for a board game night. We played a version of Carcasonne that I had painstakingly constructed out of bristol board a couple of evenings ago. Why would I create such a thing? Let’s just say that the availability of board games any more obscure than Monopoly is non-existent. It went over really well! We followed it up with a six player game of Settlers of Catan, from which Sandra emerged victorious on her very first attempt at the game! Throughout the games, we also gorged ourselves on some chocolate chip cookies that Sandra had made. Delicious! It’s actually near impossible to obtain chocolate chips here, so Sandra improvised by chopping up a Nestle bar. It worked a treat!
Today we picked up our Indian visas. It’s a good thing the process was so painless! We showed up at the agreed-upon time and received the agreed-upon documents. Rarely do things seem to run so efficiently when travelling aboard, so we are counting ourselves very lucky.
After grabbing the visas, we wandered over to Steers for a last hurrah with Sandra’s ice cream dream. A butterscotch sundae for both of us. Of which I’m only allowed to eat half of mine, and must donate the remainder to Sandra. These are the rules.
On the walk home, I tried to capture a bit of the madness that is Nairobi traffic. Pictured is a roundabout. Notice the brake lights and lack of motion blur: nothing is moving here. We walked about five kilometres away from town, and the entire walk was accompanied by a static line of cars. Every couple of minutes it seemed one or two would shift forward a foot or two. And that was about it. I’m quite sure I could handle a commute like this exactly once. After that, I’d be either walking, cycling, or moving my place of residence. It’s crazy.
Now to tonight: our last dinner in Africa! Our Airbnb host Hameed kindly treated us to Indian food. It was very tasty and an incredible send-off for us as we head to India tomorrow. It’s going to be a long flight with a couple of connections and lengthy layovers -- we look forward to our safe arrival!
What a fantastic day! It’s the first day in quite a while that Sandra and I have actually worked up the courage to go out and really *do* something! Actually, it’s more about finding the cheapest things we can do to keep ourselves entertained. But this certainly fit the bill!
To start off, the first picture you see is actually from our hike to Themi Waterfall near Arusha, Tanzania. We just loaded that in today, so it’s a total red herring. Enjoy the picture of a forest. It’s completely unrelated to all of the others. Sorry.
Both of our destinations (the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and the Giraffe Centre) are within about 6km of each other. They’re both near the Nairobi National Park on the west side.
The first stop was the elephant orphanage at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Although the tour gave us a heap of information, Sandra and I found it very difficult to pay attention with all of the ridiculously cute baby elephants running around! I didn’t realize elephants came this small. You could have told me these guys were born five minutes ago and I would have believed you, but apparently the youngest elephant pictured is about ten months old. And the oldest ones are less than three years old, so these guys go through a serious growth spurt around the one year mark!
The elephants at the wildlife trust are all rescues. They are generally found by rangers alone as babies, having lost their parents to poachers (or rarely, to natural causes). Some of them had fallen into wells and their parents were forced to abandon them. All kinds of sad stories. But the elephants are brought here and rehabilitated. After three years of age they’re transferred to another park for several years before they are eventually released back into the wild. The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust have released over two hundred elephants back into the wild, so it’s a pretty amazing thing they’re doing!
The elephants all seemed to have a blast hanging out with the crowd and being bottle fed. At times a whole bunch of them would roll around on the ground like they were having a big elephant breakdance party. Highly entertaining. One of the babies stepped on my foot. It didn’t hurt at all: that’s how manly I am. Also, they’re very muddy and petting them frequently causes your hands to also be muddy. Care must be taken.
After reluctantly departing the elephants, it was time for the Giraffe Centre!
It certainly seemed like there was bit less of an educational program involved in the Giraffe Centre. You arrive and are thrown directly at the giraffes to start feeding them little snack pellets. Not that we’re complaining, because just hanging out with them is the highlight. The giraffes at this particular location are all Rothschild’s Giraffes, which are one of the three subspecies of giraffes found in Kenya.
The big money shot at the Giraffe Centre is obviously placing a food pellet in your mouth and thereby requiring a giraffe to lick you all over to obtain the treat. We both gave it a shot! I suppose it’s a bit of a dirty trick -- trading snack pellets for kisses. But we all know I’m not above that.
If you wander into the central hut, you can take a look at a massive giraffe tibia, mandible, and even a warthog skull (pictured). There are some leopard tortoises on-site, and a little nature walk trail where you can scope out some different plants and trees native to Kenya.
And that was about it for the day! We met a super-nice Canadian named Chelsea who’s just headed back to Canada after teaching in Tanzania. She was on the same cancelled flight as Benji, a South African guy who was also great to chat with. We sweet-talked their driver into bringing us back to downtown Nairobi after finishing up with the attractions. And what does one do once one finds oneself in downtown Nairobi? Why, visit Steers for ice cream, of course! Sandra wouldn’t have it any other way.
Our plans include a night of dancing on Friday and a board game party Sunday! Monday we pick up our visas to India and Tuesday we leave to Chennai! It’s almost scary to be leaving a city we’ve gotten so used to, but the show must go on!
We had a grand plan in place. Originally, our next flight on this trip was to Kathmandu, Nepal on June 5th. With all of the recent troubles Nepal has had, we decided it was probably better for us to stay out of the country until things settle down a bit. So we came up with an alternative -- India! We were sort of thinking we’d go there anyway, so with this approach we’d just fly straight there. Except as Canadians, we’d need visas.
But that’s not a problem! We’d just head to Nairobi within a week or so of the flight and get everything worked out there, since there’s an Indian High Commission downtown. We calculated out the days required to obtain the visa (five days), and gave ourselves some buffer room -- and that’s how we decided when to return to Nairobi!
We were ready to head in to apply on our first morning. We knew we had to fill out and print some online forms and get some pictures done, but that was easy to do before the place closed. Upon closer inspection of the website, however, we discovered that they only accept visa applications between 9:30 and 11:30 in the morning. Sure, they have opening hours way outside of that, but you can’t apply for a visa at those times. No worries, we still had a buffer day, so we get everything ready to head in the next morning.
The next morning, I do another check of the website. After reading more closely (again), I discover that foreign nationals obtaining visas can take “at least” five days. No maximum. Great. Well, we decide to give it a shot anyway.
The process at the High Commission was actually pretty quick. We didn’t wait too long before seeing an officer, and he was very nice. As we completed the process, he was about to give me an estimate of the day we’d have our visa back. Friday, June 5th, of course. That’s the five days, yes? The officer says: “You do know that Monday is a holiday here, right?”. Nope. Didn’t know that. So the five business days we had given are only four. And that ends in a weekend, so another two days disappear. New delivery date is the 8th. Ugh. So now we fly to Chennai, India on June 9th! It’s all ready to go for those of you worried about us flying into Kathmandu. After reading a bunch of articles and trying to determine whether or not it’s safe (and reading pleas from friends and families not to go), we felt it was probably best to give things time to sort themselves out there. Even if Susan Sarandon says otherwise.
We’ve got a great arrangement here in Nairobi. We found a wonderful Airbnb that’s luxuriously large and well-equipped. We’re within walking distance of the downtown area. And most importantly, we’ve managed to meet up with Al and Jazzmin -- our friends who are currently living in Nairobi! Last night we went out for some food and dancing, and today for a movie and more eats. They’ve been really awesome about carting us around and spending time with us during our stay. And to top it all off, we took our first Uber ride ever today to get us home to our place and it was fantastic! Way cheaper than taking a taxi and even more convenient! This will definitely be added into our transportation toolkit.
On the positive side of things, there are some attractions here to keep us occupied. A giant national park right outside the city, some animal sanctuaries and other parks. We’ll actually take pictures at some point -- we promise. We’re not entirely enamoured with Nairobi (... at all), but having some friends around and things to do definitely makes the wait easier. Sandra’s slightly crestfallen that her birthday will take place here, but hopefully we can put something memorable together. In the worst case scenario, Nairobi has multiple Steers locations so we can gorge ourselves on those caramel sundaes we discovered in South Africa once again! Or twice again.
We're sorry we didn't have much to say about Arusha. Or Tanzania, for that matter. The thing of it is, we realized we had spent a whole bunch of money doing the safari stuff in Uganda and in order to even up with our budget we were forced to lay low for a while. We're still in that "laying low" process, but we're slowly digging out way out!
Regardless of the financial situation, we would have to give Arusha a thumbs down.
Our first three nights were spent at the Clouds View Hotel. This place was pricey, but it seemed like one of the nicer options in Arusha. They had a reasonable restaurant on-site where we would enjoy some dinners and our included breakfasts. When we were at the hotel, we managed to get out twice to go for big runs along the main road. Boy oh boy, was that ever interesting.
Unlike what we'd experienced thus far in Uganda and Rwanda, the locals in Tanzania are accomplished starers. It seemed like the entire town had nothing better to do than to fix their collective gaze upon the two white people running along the road. Friendly smiles? Um... sometimes. Mostly just staring. Lots of men staring at Sandra. I'm right beside her. They don't care. I can feel them turning around to keep looking once we pass them. Sometimes I turn my head around while running to check, and yes, they're still staring at us. It's awkward and frustrating.
Now add to that the endless cries of "Mzungu! Mzungu!". This effectively means "White person!". Children that appeared young enough to speak only a few words knew this word. It must be in the primary school curriculum: day one. People yell it to get your attention. Some just want a wave. But it gets exhausting. After a few days we stopped responding to "Mzungu!" calls and instead focused our attention on people who just said "Helloooo!". Sometimes kids would say "Hello!", and when you'd respond in kind they'd immediately follow up with "Give me money!". No thanks. I've gotta give credit, though. We had at least one guy get pretty creative and drop this bomb line: "Hello White Human!". Uhh, hi. Thereafter, we were told by our Tanzanian host that an appropriate response to cries of "Mzungu!" was "Moafrika!", or "African!".
After three nights at the hotel we decided we wanted to switch into something on the cheaper side to try to make back our missing budget even quicker. We found an Airbnb and made the swap for our last three nights in Tanzania. We only moved a couple of kilometres down the road to a suburb called Mianzini. There we met with Tizia and Martin, a German/Tanzanian couple who were living in the area. They had two cool dogs named Takwa and Bella, so we had a great time with them. The two of them suggested we might go for a hike to the Themi River Waterfall. With Martin as our guide, we set out on what we were told was "about an hour and a half" hike. Six and a half hours later, we returned with very sore feet.
It was refreshing to get out of the city and see some of the countryside surrounding Arusha. This was a cheap option that allowed us some nice views and exercise, so we jumped at the chance. The images taken on that little trip will be covered by a future video, as almost all of the images we captured were on the GoPro. The lowlight of the trip was when we got to the actual river fed by the waterfall. Sure, the river was great. But Martin, our guide, had forgotten that the last time he'd visited it was the dry season so the river was just a little trickle through the rocks. It was now almost waist deep at points. Neither Sandra nor myself were prepared for this. Thankfully, a guide that accompanied us to the waterfall offered to carry us across the deep portions of the river. At first we thought it'd just be one little portion to cross. Nope. About six crossings later we made it to the waterfall. This poor guy had to piggyback us both across, one at a time. We were shamed, but our desire to avoid sopping wet socks for the remainder of the hike back overwhelmed our pride.
Another amusing portion of our Mianzini stay was the makeshift church erected about 50m away from our place. When we arrived at the Airbnb, the church was in full swing. It had been going all morning, and would go until dark. When I say "going", what I mean is that the church leader would emphatically yell at his congregation. All day. Into an amplified microphone connected to a powerful PA system. This was some serious stuff. At one point during our stay, curiosity got the best of us and we wandered over to take a peek inside the church. We were expecting throngs of locals packed into this tarp-covered building. I mean, why else would you need a powerful sound system but to project your message to a vast audience? Upon entering the church, of course, we discovered an audience of approximately eight people. We sat down to get the full experience, and were in due course bombarded with the full wall of sound. The leader could easily have spoken without a microphone and been heard just fine throughout the room. But somehow it was deemed necessary to amplify the proceedings such that they could be heard throughout the village. All day. Oh, and this didn't just happen on Sundays. Every. Single. Day. It's church every day of the week in Mianzini!
We did find a lovely burger joint called Alpha Burger that we managed to visit twice in three days, so that was nice. And we learned that the Tanzanian equivalent to poutine appears to be Chipsi Mayai, or "Chips Eggs", which is sort of a french fry omelette. Well not sort of, it IS a french fry omelette. Tasty.
So that was basically it for Tanzania as far as we were concerned. In summary, Arusha seems like a great place to visit if you've got a nice safari set up to take you to the tourist highlights (Serengeti, Mt. Kilimanjaro, Ngorongoro Crater). But if you're trying to travel on a budget... well... good luck!
We've safely arrived in Nairobi where we'll be residing for the next nine nights. We came in on the bus this evening, and once again, the traffic astounds me. I've really never seen gridlock like this before. It took us about an hour and a half to drive five kilometres into the city centre. Anyway, our plan now is to obtain an Indian visa for our upcoming time in Asia, so hopefully we can get that organized. Other than that, we're going to continue to lay low and get our budget back in line! We're also preparing a little post on what we packed for this year-long trip if that's of any interest to you whatsoever. Let's hope so. If not, there are at least a couple of interesting sights in the city here that don't require a lot of money so we'll definitely be checking those out and reporting back!
Wish us luck!
P.S. Apologies that the photos have been somewhat lacking during this stage. We've been mainly hanging around in cities and towns and not seeing anything overly spectacular. Hopefully once we make the swap to Asia, we can hop back on the photo bandwagon.
Day 0: Relaxing in Pretoria, South Africa and Departure
Alright everybody, it’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for -- an UPDATE! As mentioned previously, Internet access has been scarce and very slow, but we’re now settled for a couple of days here in Entebbe, Uganda so we have time to clear up the backlog and have a chat about what we’ve been up to. To give you an idea of what’s been going on, we flew into Nairobi, Kenya and almost immediately embarked on a ten day safari throughout Uganda and Rwanda that finished as of this morning. We’re going to give a rundown of the day-by-day activities and adventure for you... here goes nothin’.
To start off with, I’ve included some shots around our Airbnb in Pretoria. As we mentioned before, we took a bit of time off to rest and equalize the budget. We stayed with a lovely woman named Stephanie, and her place had incredible views over the Moot suburb of Pretoria. I asked if there was a Moot Point in town. Sorry. Stephanie is a breeder of Japanese Chins. Shown are only a small subset of them. We picked favourites (mine was Whisky and Sandra’s was Daisy), and were sad to leave.
We ate incredible pizza (Toni’s Pizza - wow!) and fancy burgers at some neat joints in town. We attended a rugby game. Get this: the team name? The Blue Bulls. Seriously. Don’t say that one too quickly or people will wonder. “Hooray for Blue Bulls!” As a sidenote, sponsorship is huge here. The teams were actually “Vodacom Blue Bulls” and “Emirates Lions”. They’re written like that everywhere, so you’re never allowed to forget the sponsors. Not a fan.
Alas, we have much ground to cover! On we go!
Day 1: Arrival in Nairobi, Kenya
Nairobi is a bit of a shock to the senses! Arrival into the airport was fine, and we knew we wanted to get a cab into the downtown area to our hotel for the night. Thinking I might get ripped off if I just ask a taxi outside the airport how much it would cost to get downtown, I instead choose to find a travel agency inside the airport to get a general idea of what I should expect to pay. Some guys are sitting around in the office when I saunter in to request a ballpark figure on how much it’d be to get us downtown. After a pause, one estimates somewhere in the region of 2500 to 3000 KES. That’s pretty pricey in my mind, but I guess that’s the going rate. Then his buddy says to me, “What if I offered to take you downtown for 2500?”. “... OK”. Not sure if my scam avoidance techniques pulled me right into a backup scam, but this guy calls his cab buddy up and stands outside with us while we wait to get to our hotel. He seemed nice enough and was happy to chat with us about where we were from and how great Kenya is.
We got picked up by the taxi and started heading into the downtown area. Before long, we were at a dead stop. The traffic is horrific. We were basically just stopped on the highway. Once we progressed further toward the city, we realized that there was a police officer directing traffic. In a roundabout. He was stopping certain lanes from entering the roundabout to, I suppose, try to help traffic keep moving? Isn’t this defeating the purpose of the roundabout? They work on their own...
Trying to get to the hotel itself was a nightmare. He knew where it was and pointed it out to us. The streets are absolutely crawling with people milling about, and there are all manner of vehicles competing for space. As we get up right beside our hotel, Sandra and I prepare for him to stop by the side of the road so we can grab our bags and head inside. “No!”, he says. “Don’t get out of the car!”. Somewhat confused, we sit and he begins driving away from our hotel.
“Why can’t we get out?”
“Because we can’t open the trunk if we’re not parked.”
“These guards will fine me."
“Uh, OK. Where can we park?”
The process of getting inside our hotel from sitting in the cab right in front of it took about 20 minutes. The cabbie drove around the block. He pulled a three point turn to try the other side of the road. He asked the guards if he could stop. Nope. He turned around again and drove around the block again, asking again and being denied again to stop. He pulled into a lane behind the hotel and reversed down it. He asked another guard who actually allowed us to get out of the car. We made it.
We found the city to be about as busy as any city we’ve seen. Just throngs of people everywhere on the streets. We were the only white people for miles. I think everybody should have this experience at least once in their lives -- the feeling of being the only one around who looks like you and getting stared at. Well, there were two of us but you get the point.
The hotel was a bit of a disaster. We were paying about 50 CAD to stay in the Diamond Hotel (sounds great!). Toilet seat? MIA. Shower? Your choice of freezing cold or scaling hot. Towels? One. Night club adjacent playing Bob Marley - Is This Love at 4am? Check. We were unimpressed.
We managed to find a small restaurant for dinner and paid about 8 CAD for the two of us to eat. But then we went grocery shopping and the tangerines and pears were all a dollar each. Don’t they grow fruit here? Why is it so expensive?!
By the way, we learned some Swahili in the cab ride today. What else do you do when you’re sitting in traffic? We asked about a lot of Lion King words after learning that “Thank you” is “Asante”. “Asante sana” is “Thank you very much”. “Simba” is “Lion”. “Rafiki” is “Friend”. “Kwaheri” is “Goodbye”. “Karibu” is “Welcome”. Using this knowledge, we translated our first sign in the grocery store: “Asante, karibu vana”. "Thanks, welcome... again?" Well, close enough.
Tomorrow morning we rock the ten hour bus ride to Kampala, Uganda.
Day 2: Nairobi, Kenya to Entebbe, Uganda
Now this is a bus ride. In the early morning hours Sandra and I lugged our bags to the area where the bus departs from. The website for booking this bus doesn’t even give you this address -- I had to write a separate email to know where to go. There’s nothing resembling a bus terminal, just a random street.
We waited around in front of the ticket office trying to make sure we didn’t miss the bus. Buses kept pulling up, but ours was later and later. As we waited, a seemingly drunk woman approached Sandra and repeatedly told her that she was so lucky to have such thin hair. Then she would slap Sandra in the chest. Then she would say how she didn’t like her hair, and how nice Sandra’s was. Slap in the chest again. A big hearty one. Lots of half-hugs like drunk people do. We became a bit of a spectacle as the folks around us watched us awkwardly trying to deal with this crazy woman. Before leaving, she made me memorize her phone number. I’ve since forgotten it -- sorry Susan.
At long last the bus arrived (forty five minutes late), but was about 500m away down on another street. We wandered down with our bags and got on. We were expecting a pretty sweet bus, since we paid for the First Class seats. These are better than the VIP seats, and obviously WAY better than the rest of the seats. Disappointment. The bus was pretty old and tattered. At least we had a nice front window view. Oh, and where’s the toilet? What do you mean “There isn’t one”? This is a ten hour bus ride, right?
So much for drinking any of the water and yogurt we had purchased for the ride. We were both nervous about having to pee, so we settled in.
The views at least were beautiful just outside Nairobi. Gorgeous panoramas over the rift valley. A nice start! Before long, the bus driver started up his music. Quietly at first, of course. Let’s be respectful. Sandra was in the very front seat, so she had the luxury of resting her feet on the upgraded subwoofer installed directly in front of her. Bonus!
It didn’t take long before I became skeptical of the estimated duration for the trip. I have an offline maps app on my phone, and it definitely wasn’t estimating our arrival into Kampala at 5pm, which is what we’d expected with a 7am departure. And this didn’t include any stops, whether at the border, for lunch, or maybe (crazy idea) for going to the bathroom!
Suffice it to say, the bus ride was a slog. By the time we arrived in Kampala, it was 10pm. So that 10 hour bus ride was effectively a 15 hour bus ride. Nice time estimates, folks! Total number of useful stops, where we could get out to pee? Three. One ten minute break, one stop at the border, and one lunch stop for twenty minutes. Gross. However, we had an exponentially larger number of stops to drop people off. It seems the locals don’t have to get dropped off at an actual bus stop, and the bus also carries cargo which it delivers to random locations. So you get to stop all the time to let one person off in the middle of a small town. Wee!
The border was funny, in that we’ve noticed that women don’t really appear to be checked by the metal detector wands. This is what we call a security issue. All of the men get checked and ladies just get waved through. Don’t tell this fact to the bad guys.
One thing I noticed as we entered Uganda is that Ugandans appear to love billiards. All along the street there were pool tables with little sheet metal tents built over them. And bunches of people just hangin’ out outside and playing pool. Strange, but cool!
We were (very thankfully) met by our guide upon arrival in Kampala. We were actually spending the night south of Kampala in Entebbe, so we had another thirty minute drive to get there. By the time we reached our cabin, it was about 11pm. Long day!
We will have a lot to say about our guide in the upcoming days. As we don’t yet want to specifically identify him (psst - now you know he was a male!), we shall just refer to him as Y. Once we got into his 4x4 (Toyota Landcruiser) for the transfer to Entebbe, two things struck us. The first was that this vehicle looked like a mid-eighties model. No bells and whistles here (except the tape player, obviously), but that’s fine. As long as it works, right? The second was that there was a water bottle sitting where my feet were going to go. I passed it to him, thinking he’d probably want it somewhere else. He cranked open his window (manually, of course), and defenestrated it directly into the parking lot. Uncool.
Before signing on the dotted line for this safari, we had asked to make some changes to the itinerary. It was ten days completely in Uganda, but since we were getting an East Africa Tourist Visa, we had access to Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda on the same visa. We inquired with our guide Y about whether it would be possible to hop into Rwanda and check some stuff out there. He says sure, we’ll be about 35km from the border at one point and there are some genocide memorial sites you can visit. Sounds good. On the drive to Entebbe, Y mentions that if we still want to go to Rwanda, he needs to know five days in advance so he can organize things. Deal!
Our accommodations were pretty cool. The place was called UWEC (Uganda Wildlife Education Centre), and it’s a sanctuary for animals rescued from attempted poaching, pet trade, etc. It’s kind of like a zoo, except you stay inside of it and the animals are all rescues. We fell asleep to the sound of screaming chimpanzees, which sounds negative but is intended to sound positive. Sandra showered at night, while I opted for the refreshing morning shower. Foreshadowing.
Day 3: Entebbe to Murchison Falls National Park
Mmm, good morning world! After a long bus ride yesterday, let’s have a refreshing morning shower to start the day off right! Power outage. No water pressure. No shower for Ian. But hey, at least there’s a torrential downpour of rain happening outside, so that kind of counts?
Let’s grab breakfast! We pack up and head into the 4x4. We drive to UWEC’s restaurant, but of course it’s closed. Power outage there too. Off we go to the mall for breakfast at Cafe Java’s.
Before long, the issue of the remaining balance on the safari is brought up by Y. We’ve already paid about 95% of the total cost before even showing up, but sure, we can pay the rest up front. So how much is remaining on the bill? Y and I have very different interpretations. For weeks, we’ve been going back and forth about this on Facebook. His math is whack. He claims he’s losing 6% on the total from his bank. He mentions he’s losing 18% from “taxes”. I get varying numbers each time I ask him what he thinks I have left to pay. In my mind, it’s 150 CAD. In his, it’s anywhere from 500 to 1000. These numbers are very different. I tell him it would be easiest if we could pay with a credit card, because we’ve been sending Western Union transfers and it costs a lot for each one. They’re also limited to a maximum dollar value, so I have to send them repeatedly to pay the entire bill. It stinks. He says Uganda is not a credit-based place. Nobody really accepts credit cards, and if they do, they’ll put a 25% surcharge on the bill. I’m skeptical. I ask to pay the breakfast bill with credit card. “Sure!”. The bill comes and I pay it. He inspects the receipt and asks the server where the surcharge is (because there isn’t one). She’s confused about what he means. I am right! I am feeling vindication! But we are also getting a sinking feeling that there may be some BS issues to be faced in the future...
A couple of hours into the drive and Sandra and I are a bit on edge. Y drives a bit like a cocaine fiend. Granted, it appears that many drivers here are on the pushy side, but we’re getting dirty looks from the people being driven off the road by our vehicle. Want to pass a motorcycle? Honk at them until they pull onto the shoulder. Thin road with oncoming traffic? Flash your high beams repeatedly to tell them to get the heck out of the way. Not getting the message? Start signalling onto their side of the road while flashing high beams to indicate that you mean business! Sandra will refuse to sit in the front seat for the remainder of the trip. It’s too hard on her heart, and it’s no cakewalk for me either. The day is full of winces, cringes, and muttered curse words.
Before long, I hear a strange sound coming from the front left wheel. It seems related to our speed, as if something is stuck in the tire. I bring it up to Y. “Oh, this vehicle has a shorter driveshaft than the stock vehicle, so that’s what you’re hearing.” No, that’s not what I’m hearing. Sandra jumps on board and says she’s noticed it also. Eventually we convince him to pull over and take a look. We hop out and inspect the wheel. All of the wheel bolts are on the verge of falling out. The sound we’ve been hearing is the wheel rocking back and forth on the loose bolts. The bolt holes have been reamed open such that tightening the bolts won’t help anything. Y looks around and locates a gas station a hundred metres back. We turn around and return to the gas station. By the time we look again, one of the bolts has been completely sheared off. I am glad we noticed.
Thankfully, this gas station was a bit like a pit crew. Four or five mechanics descended on the vehicle to help us out. That being said, it still took about an hour and a half to get back on the road, but it’s not like we had to book days in advance! One person went searching around the town to find replacement bolts that would work as ours were completely mangled. Another dealt with the brake calipers. Another dealt with the jacks. Another started mounting a new rim into one of our spare tires that we’d use as a replacement. It was a sight to behold! Not a good sign that we are having a breakdown a few hours into our first day on safari. Not good at all.
As a result of the delay, we arrived at our first destination (Murchison Falls National Park) in the night. This is a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because we got to spot some new nocturnal animals we hadn’t seen yet. Civets, porcupines (shown in photo), owls, night jars, moles. Lots of fun stuff. But of course, this also means we’re arriving late at night so we don’t get a lot of time to chill out. Oh well.
An interesting factoid about Uganda is that none of the national parks/game reserves are fenced. At all. The nice part of this is that it lets the animals do whatever they want. That seems good. But it also means they can do whatever they want. So when you arrive at your camp in Murchison Falls, technically you could find anything in there. In practice, it’s usually just warthogs and hippos. Yes, hippos. Do they kill more people than any other animal in Africa? Yes, yes they do. And they’re going to be hanging around our camp? Well, maybe. Good thing the bathroom is inside our hut.
Game drives and boat rides tomorrow! It’ll feel like an actual safari!
Day 4: Murchison Falls Game Drive & River Cruise
Our accommodation has prepared a packed lunch for us. We have to be down at the ferry dock at 7am. We’re supposed to take our vehicle across the river for the game drive. At about 6:45am, we’re getting ready to head out and Sandra notices a problem. That tire we got replaced yesterday? Flat. Very, very flat. African Savanna flat. Should we be the first ones to notice this, fifteen minutes before we have to be at the ferry? Probably not.
Y gets his jack out to put on the spare. We started with two spares, and now on the second day we have no spares left. Y begins to try the jack. The jack does not work. Two more guides come over to help. With the use of their two jacks, the tire is changed by 7am. We rush down to the ferry and are gleeful to see that it has not yet departed. We’re alright.
On the other side of the river, our first real game drive begins! Hartebeest, cape buffalo, Ugandan kob, and tiny oribis. The oribi is small enough on its own, but when it has a tiny baby with it... well gee. That little shaver’d barely come up to your calf. That calf pun was unintentional, but I’m sticking with it.
At one junction, we had a fellow vehicle flash their lights at us. This wasn’t typical Ugandan aggro-driving, this was a sign! “Lions that way!”. Off we went. Now, we’d seen some lions in Kruger and it was pretty nifty, but they were about 30m away and just hangin’ out under a bush. Difficult to really see. As we drove along here in Murchison, we noticed a small cluster of cars. Before long, we were jumping off the track to get ourselves right up beside this group of lions. It was amazing: two females and two cubs. About 10m away from our vehicle. We sat happily and observed them. Eventually, one of the vans (yes, as in minivan) sitting near us decides it’s time to go. He starts to accelerate away and THUNK: his right front wheel drops into a giant hole. This hole is deep enough that his wheel is now spinning freely. He is driving a minivan, and it’s not going anywhere. The lions are 10m away.
The driver/guide has a good idea. After ten seconds of thought, he opens the door and gets out of his van. I lied about it being a good idea. The lions react to the sound of the door closing and immediately whip up from their resting position. They have that intense look in their eyes like the hunt has just started. Our guide commences waving and yelling at this guy: “Get the @#$% back in your car! Now! What the @#$% are you doing?”. The van driver realizes perhaps his good idea was not so good and promptly re-enters the vehicle. Phew. So now it’s a question of how to extricate a minivan from a ditch with lion supervision.
Y has a plan. We pull up behind the van with our (useless) spare tire pointed
at his rear hatch. We slowly begin to reverse. It’s my job to call out when we’re getting close so we can slow down, but there’s the subtlety that there are exposed bolts from our missing spare time that are about to touch the back of the van at approximately the same time as the squishy tire we want to impact with. I am trying to explain this as the reversing continues, but no course adjustment occurs. Luckily, by the time we make contact the tire seems to be taking the majority of the force but I’m still a bit nervous about these bolts that we have sitting millimetres from the van’s rear windscreen. Oh well. On the count of three, we reverse ram the van as he tries to speed off. After a great deal of thrown mud and spinning wheels, the plan succeeds! Sure, there were lots of plastic cracking sounds -- those kinds of sounds you know can’t easily be reversed. Milk into black coffee sounds. But nobody got eaten by a lion, so score one point for the automobile team.
Time was beginning to get on at this point. We had to get back across the river to start a river cruise. We began making our way back to the entrance. About halfway back, Sandra noticed something funny with the dashboard. None of the lights were on. We coasted to a dead stop. In the middle of Murchison Falls National Park, an unfenced lion menagerie, we had broken down. Turn the key in the ignition and hear the starter go. But don’t expect that engine to turn over -- no way no how! Pictured is me trying to turn the key while Y tries to hook a disconnected wire to various points under the hood. “There’s a wire loose here but I don’t know where it’s supposed to go.” Needless to say, the technique did not pay dividends. After trying various options, making a few phone calls, checking for lions and generally just lamenting our situation a large, new, professional game drive vehicle approaches along the road. We will leave this vehicle in the park and it will be dealt with later. We transfer everything over and hitch a ride back across the river to start the cruise.
Now: the cruise was supposed to take us to the foot of Murchison Falls. Then we would alight from the boat and hike up to the top of the falls to be met by our guide who would promptly return us home by vehicle. But we no longer have a vehicle, so the hike is out. Ugh. Second breakdown today. Third breakdown in two days.
The boat cruise itself was very pleasant. We saw tons of hippos at distances much closer than we had previously. Same went for crocodiles. There were some nice views of the falls, but you can’t get too close in the river because the current is very strong. These are, as we all know, the MOST POWERFUL falls in the world. This seems a dubious claim, but it’s related to the volume of water going through a relatively small area. Power! Also pictured is the “natural foam” created by the falls. There’s such force in the water that it creates a dense foam that floats very long distances down the river. We were assured it’s not due to any kind of pollution or anything -- just the POWER!
In the evening, we returned back to our camp. We had a nice rest in the room in preparation for dinner. As the time approached to head out, Ian noticed an interesting sound. A munching sound. A sound like ripping huge chunks of grass from the ground. Before investigating, Ian calls Sandra over to the door expecting to open it and be greeted by a small family of warthogs such as we’d seen earlier in the day around camp. With smiles on their faces and flashlights in hand they opened the cabin door.
They were greeted by a pinky-purple flesh wall. Lumpy and wrinkled. Standing 6ft away from their front door was an absolutely massive hippopotamus mowing the lawn. They immediately closed the door and looked wide-eyed and slack-jawed at each other. Much swearing ensued. Ian was scared. They wanted to go for dinner, but this beast could chomp them in two without even having to move! They eventually (and very carefully) tiptoed around the cottage to escape to the main lodge for dinner. No death by hippo.
That was intense.
Day 5: To Fort Portal
Sandra had a rough night. Poopy pants. Too much poop and not solid poop. Sorry if that’s too graphic, but these are the problems facing us. She didn’t sleep well.
The car was worked on overnight. It starts now but sounds terrible. Like a little wing nut is flying around in the engine. Not what engines should sound like, as far as my limited experience goes. A substitute Landcruiser has been driven to the front gate of the park, so we’re to drive ours out there and meet them for the swap. Then we will continue on our merry way! Sounds easy, right?
We were looking forward to heading out to see the top of Murchison Falls, since we’d missed it the day before due to the hike being cancelled. As we’re about to depart to the front gate, guide Y tells us that he heard that the road was impassable due to “the rain and elephants” so he doesn’t think we should go. I implore him to check the road out just to make sure, and if it gets bad we can always turn around. “The road is very narrow, so it can be difficult to turn around if you run into trouble and if we break down there’s no cell signal so nobody can help us.” With some trepidation, I politely request that we go for it. If we break down, though, I’ll feel like a total jerk.
Luckily, we have no real problems whatsoever. I am now more angry with guide Y because I feel like once again we’ve been BSed. Maybe he wanted to return the car ASAP or something... but he could just say that. The road is fine. No elephants have stopped us.
Upon arriving at the falls Sandra requires a bathroom. She has a movement I feel worthy of a picture. It will not be posted on the blog, but special friends will be given full access.
The falls are much more intense from the top because you can get so much closer. Very loud and, yes, powerful. I took an HDR photograph (let me experiment, geez!), and I apologize for it. Those of you familiar with HDR will recognize it instantaneously and hate me for even attempting it. I apologize, but I had to try.
After the falls we headed to the front gate for the car swap. It took much longer than it should have switching between them. Thankfully, the cars looked effectively identical. There were some curious issues with our “new car”, though. The front passenger window (that’s me) could roll down but required simultaneous hand pulling on the window itself along with the cranking to get it back up again. Sometimes I required Sandra’s assistance to make that work properly. But hey, at least the engine sounded reasonable. Back on track at last!
We spent the rest of the day driving to Fort Portal. The scenery really started to pick up, with massive tea fields in the hills surrounding the city. The two of us also got really into waving at the locals -- kids especially. You get lots of big smiles and yells. Happy ones, we think? It’s amazing, too: as you drive along the roads of Uganda it seems you can’t turn a corner without seeing people. People wandering along the roads carrying firewood and water. People cycling with massive loads of green bananas or charcoal or metal doors. Everything under the sun. Women with heavily laden bags atop their heads carefully marching in single file.
Guide Y’s driving is as ludicrous as ever. We entered some muddy sections of road that were quite slippery and narrow. We had motorcycles coming toward us driving in one half of the established wheel tracks. But as we approached them, instead of slowing down we would flash high beams at them manically with the expectation that they would continue along in the ditch while we remained on the established track. We encountered one fellow who was unable to get off in time, so we slid to a halt just inches from him. Some angry hand gestures and vocalizations ensued. We sped away, only to encounter an identical situation not 200m down the road. This time we didn’t stop in time and the front cage of the Landcruiser actually whacked some poor motorcyclist fellow’s sack of potatoes and spilled them onto the ground. Did the guide stop to investigate? Nah, we continue. He should have moved! We’re starting to feel really awkward; as if the white people have demanded to proceed along the roads in such a manner. Not fun. Our heart conditions are worsening.
The houses are almost all similar here in Uganda. They line the roadways in 3, 4, or 5 door complexes. There will be a business in the front, and a home in the back. Or a party in the back. But these places are effectively one houses and one room stores. And not big rooms. Jail-cell sized rooms. But everybody’s got them and it seems to be quite a norm.
For dinner Sandra tried Kashera: sort of a porridge/oatmeal drink. It was big and very filling! We also wandered into a gift shop while awaiting dinner preparations and found a whole bunch of African drums made with traditional animal skins. The largest of the drums cost about 15 CAD and was the size of a washing machine. If we weren’t travelling for a year, you bet I’d buy a whole drum orchestra -- they were unbelievably cheap!
Our hotel has a bar called the Parrot Bar containing two African Grey Parrots. They are supposed to be some of the most intelligent animals. We fall asleep to them squawking periodically. Nothing we can’t handle.
Day 6: To Queen Elizabeth National Park
Sandra’s doody problems came back with a vengeance. Another poor night of sleep. It seems to be working out of her system now, though, so this is good news.
This morning we started in the direction of Bigodi for a swamp walk. We were to see some crater lakes and have a village visit also. About twenty minutes out of town, guide Y notices that when we stop, a lot of steam seems to be emanating from the hood of the vehicle. He hops out and takes a look. He reveals that during the night he checked out the car (well, that’s a start) and found that the radiator was very low on fluids. He added some. But he now realizes that he forgot to put the radiator cap back on and the vehicle is overheating fiercely. We drive back into town to retrieve the radiator cap and continue on our way.
As we progress, the smell in the car starts to get worse. Like burning plastic or oil. Guide Y pulls over again to take a look and notices that the rad is leaking quite heavily. An exasperated Sandra and I take a break to buy some suckers at a local convenience store and hand them out to happy, waving children. This is entertaining and rewarding, unlike our broken-down vehicle.
The plan now is to continue ahead and find a place to get the radiator leak fixed, then continue toward Queen Elizabeth National Park: our final destination. But as we try to reach a place to have it fixed, the car breaks down completely and will not start again. Sandra and I bust out more candies to give to the village children. They are entertained, but we are not particularly.
New plan: Y has a friend Fred close by. Fred will bring us his car. We will use it for the day while the 4x4 gets fixed, and then return the car and swap back to the 4x4 to continue onward to the park. Should work, right? OK. Fred arrives within an hour or so. We demonstrate the brokenness of the car for him, and then drive off in his sedan. So now we’re on the same crappy roads we’ve always been on, but rocking a sedan. Our third vehicle in four days.
We get to the swamp walk and have a great time. Our guide Alex is very knowledgeable. He points out many monkeys (Red Colobus, Black and White Colobus, Grey Cheeked Mangabees), and also the Blue Taraco which is what the area is famous for. I didn’t get a particularly good picture so you don’t get to see that. Google it you lazy sod! Cool bird.
Alex also pointed out papyrus to us. They look like ... fireworks? Brown centres with big needly explosions around them. Like a giant dandelion when it’s releasing its seeds. They don’t use the papyrus here for paper as the Egyptians did, but they do use it for baskets. Sandra uses it as a wig.
No time for village visits or crater lakes now: we head back to the small town to swap back into our 4x4. It kind of starts, so that’s good. But black smoke spews from the exhaust and that seems bad. Y seems convinced that it’ll get us to Queen Elizabeth, so in we get after swapping back out of Fred’s sedan. We managed to get a stone’s throw down the road before the 4x4 died again. New plan! Take Fred’s car all the way to Queen Elizabeth. We’ll do the game drives in... uhh... something? No matter! After another long delay, we put our luggage and day packs into the sedan to go forth.
We made it to the park. Good.
Sandra realizes it’s now the 5-day mark to let Y know that we definitely want to go to Rwanda. I also mention that we are expecting some kind of compensation for the fact that we’ve wasted so much time on the trip. Then he drops a bomb: because of all of his car issues he won’t be able to finish the trip with the money we’ve paid him. He’s asking for MORE than the full price of the trip to continue. After much back and forth bickering (over an hour), we decide that I will overpay for the trip but that it will be effectively a loan. He will repay the overpayment after the trip. I’m not happy with having to trust him to pay me back at some arbitrary future date, but it seems the trip won’t go on otherwise. He promises that if we pay him the agreed-upon amount, he can finish the trip, get us to Rwanda, and do it all in a 4x4. Deal.
We had dinner at a restaurant within sight of our cabin, but we were driven there because, again, the whole park is unfenced so lions or leopards could be around. We are so adventurous!
As we depart the restaurant, guide Y shows us a vehicle he’s thinking of renting for the game drive in the morning as he’s not comfortable driving a sedan around in the park. Good thinking. The sedan also has darkly tinted rear windows: not ideal for wildlife viewing. But this is some kind of Subaru Forrester or something. It’s not four wheel drive. And unlike the extendable roof we’ve been using in the Landcruisers that allows us both to stand and peek out the top, this only has a sunroof. So the front passenger can technically stand on the seat to look out over the top of the vehicle. Not exactly what we’re hoping for. We say, “We’d definitely prefer something else.”
As we attempt to sleep, there’s a party going on outside somewhere. In a national park. It’s a crazy bunch of teachers we come to discover. They’re partying for a good long while, and keepin’ it nice and loud for the surrounding wildlife. Above the din, I hear something that sounds like a person walking through heavy grass just outside our window. I wait a minute. The sound doesn’t change it volume. Somebody’s still walking, but apparently getting nowhere. Eventually I throw back the curtains to see what’s the matter. Why has such a clatter arisen? It’s another hippo. Not as big this time, but definitely a big hippo just jammin’ on the grass outside our window. This time we don’t need to leave for dinner, so it’s much more entertaining. I’m getting used to these fellas.
Day 7: Queen Elizabeth Game Drive & Kazinga Channel Boat Cruise
Alright, it’s game drive time! We awoke at an ungodly hour in anticipation. We were to depart well before sunrise in order to drive just over an hour to arrive at the game park when the sun was to rise. Beautiful! Alas, what mythical vehicle has our guide pulled from the ether? It’s... it’s... the same car we said we definitely didn’t want last night! The SUV with a sunroof! Boo! Hiss! We cannot complain: there is nothing else, we’re told! It’s now our fourth vehicle in five days.
Only minutes from the camp we spot an adult male lion just laying on the road. It’s still dark, so he’s illuminated only by our headlights. Again, we have passed through no fences or barriers to see this lion. He’s just right near the camp. With the people in it.
While we waited to enter the park, I snapped a shot of a tree filled to the brim with yellow-backed weaver birds and their nests. The males build the nests as best and as fancy as they can. The females then come along to inspect them, and hooks up with the dude with the best pad. However the females, if unimpressed, will proceed to tear down the male’s nest in order to show him how terrible his construction prowess is. Tough love.
The game drive itself was fairly unremarkable. We had a pleasant stop at a salt lake -- one which has been in use for hundreds of years and has been at the centre of many conflicts. Locals will create many little ponds within the lake, overtop of which a very thin crust of salt will form. They scrape away this top layer and Bob’s your uncle, it’s salt time!
We also spotted the crowned crane. This is the bird that’s in the centre of the Ugandan flag! So that was quite a treat in my mind.
On the way back to camp we stopped into a fishing village to check out the scene. There were a bunch of cool cat kids who wanted a group photo. I was happy to oblige. They look like a band I’d like to listen to. Oh, and by the way, there’s a kid in the background there with a tire. You know that old-timey image of kids with sticks pushing wheels around as a game? It’s still a thing here, and it’s pretty popular! In the same village I grabbed a shot of a marabou stork. They’re one of the uglier species you could imagine. Huge scavenger birds that love the remains of fish. Blech. But they’re charming in their own way.
We squeezed in a nap before the afternoon activity: another boat cruise in the area. On the drive to drop us off at the cruise, guide Y mentions that he was trying to get our very first 4x4 back but that the person who was bringing it to us crashed it on the way here. So we likely won’t have a 4x4 for the rest of the trip. He says he got pictures of it on WhatsApp. I ask to see the photos, and he mumbles something about how he has no network connection. Of course, that shouldn’t matter if he’s already received the message... the BS meter registers another event. At this point we’ve had enough. I say that this is completely unacceptable. We’ve now paid extra for a promised 4x4 and are being told it’s no longer possible. As nice a guy as Fred is, we don’t really want to drive around in his sedan for the rest of our trip.
We hop on the boat with all of these issues unresolved. “We’ll talk about it when you’re back.” The boat ride along the Kazinga channel is excellent. We get even closer to hippos than before. Baby hippos? Got ‘em. Big flocks of birds flying directly at our boat? Yep. More cape buffalo, but all close up. Fish eagles. Swimming monitor lizards. Big yawning hippo jaws. And elephants! What more could one ask for?
Heading out with us toward Lake Edward were both Ugandan and Congan fishermen. We’re right on the border at that lake, so both countries make use of the fish resources. We’re a little worried that the catch may be unsustainable, but that doesn’t seem to concern the locals. From what we gather, the men head out in the afternoon, fish all night, and return in the morning with the haul. Many die when they accidentally float over a submerged hippo and have their boats overturned. About one a month in a medium-sized village are killed by crocodiles. Many can’t swim, so if their boat is capsized for whatever reason they don’t stand much of a chance. It’s a tough life.
We relaxed in the afternoon and listened to it rain like stink throughout the entire night. Six straight hours of howling wind and torrential rainfall! Some serious weather patterns here in Uganda.
Day 8: Kyumbara Chimpanzee Tracking & Ishasha Tree Climbing Lions
The rain kindly ceased as we awoke at 6am -- right on cue! We departed camp in Fred’s trusty sedan. Destination: Kyumbara Gorge, home of the chimpanzees!
The gorge itself is about 10km long and is home to about 25 chimps. Apparently your chances to spot chimpanzees in the wild are slightly higher in Kibale National Park, but we were making a go of it here because that’s where we managed to secure permits. The remainder of our group was filled up by three Belgian nurses here on an exchange. Instead of hiking directly from the main reception area in the park, we were asked to drive along the rim of the gorge a distance to where the hiking would commence. The Belgians were in posession of a four wheel drive van, and we were making an attempt with ye olde sedan.
It started off alright. The road seemed reasonable. But last night’s rain had taken a toll and created some interesting conditions. The mud was of a consistency such that it entered into the grooves of the tire and didn’t exit. The cars started to slip. I naively thought that it was the mud itself that was slippery, but in actuality it was the fact that our wheels were entirely coated in mud also, so the only friction you were working with was mud-on-mud. The image of the Belgians leading the charge shows them partially in a ditch at a 45 degree angle. By some miracle of physics they were actually continuing to move forward quite a distance in this arrangement. We followed in their wheelsteps and duly drifted in the general direction of forward. Eventually we got far enough that our tracking guide (this is a new and different guide than our safari guide!) decided it was probably time to walk.
AK-47s are popular here. That’s a famous Russian-designed gun for those of you who don’t play enough videogames. As Canadians, we’re not overly comfortable with guns being so ubiquitous. Armed guards standing in front of ATMs. Grocery stores. Regardless, it’s a bit disconcerting to be following a guy whose rifle seems to be, at times, pointed directly in the vicinity of your skull. Be careful with that thing! But these chimps can be dangerous, so I suppose it’s good to have a little protection on our side. Actually, I believe the rifle is in case of elephants. From what I’ve heard of apes, just the action of banging on the rifle stock is enough to scare them off. But hey, nice to have the thing around anyway I suppose.
About an hour into the trek, our guide was discussing with us how difficult it can be to track the chimps. You don’t try to track the chimps themselves, he said, you track the fruiting patterns of the trees. You look for their food supply and hope they’re near it. He said sometimes, if they’re not making any noise, you can walk right by them and not even notice. They’re stealthy like that. And as he said this, we all looked up and saw a pair of eyes peering at us from only a couple of meters away at eye level. A chimp in a little nest watching us. Success!
After our first spotting, we turned a corner and the party was definitely in full swing. We were standing only feet away from a chimp just relaxing on the ground. Scratchin’. Huggin’ himself. Whatever. Didn’t seem to really mind us in the least! Look, there’s another in a tree! Look, there’s one on the trail up ahead! Not long after the initial encounter, chimp calls started reverberating through the forest surrounding us. Did you chimps are the loudest animals? We read this recently. Could just be a bald-faced lie, but it sure sounded true to us. These guys were just screaming all around us! Two girls from team Belgium were getting really worked up and kind of freaking out. These chimps can be fairly intimidating!
One chimp in particular, Madgie, was getting quite close to us and getting a bit worked up. Our tracking guide was giving us lots of instructions: “Stop!”, “Speed up!”, “Go faster!”, “Don’t run!”. Needless to say, this was confusing for me. “Stay on the trail!”, “Move to the side of the trail!”. Which one am I trying to do?! Madgie started making a bit of a racket and running around us. The guide said, “Now Madgie is charging us. Just stand in a group together. Don’t run.” Madgie ran right by our group and then stopped on the other side and started yanking on a vine. Before long, Madgie turned around and returned directly toward us. We lumped together as best we could, right before Madgie arrived and promptly delivered a massive chimp-slap to Sandra just above her knee! Madgie immediately bounded away down the trail, pausing only to bash both hind legs against a tree stump to make a loud, intimidating noise and demonstrate that strength! Sandra was fine. I couldn’t stop laughing. Was it caught on video, you ask? Why yes, in fact it was! Unfortunately the act of turning sideways to avoid a full-frontal assault meant the chimp hand contacting Sandra leg was out of frame. I wanted to try the sequence again as a separate take, but neither of the involved parties were interested.
Out of the 25 chimps in the park, we spotted about 15. We felt incredibly lucky, given that the gorge itself is 10km long. If we’d have turned left instead of right, we might never have seen them! After about twenty minutes of them hanging out on the ground, most had retreated up into the trees. No more great photo ops. Again, we felt so lucky that they’d happened to be on the ground when we found them. Up close and personal!
After the chimp tracking we drove back into town with a new plan. Guide Y had worked a deal to have a four wheel drive van delivered. Just like that one we watched get irretrievably stuck beside the lions days ago. We switch into this vehicle (our fifth in six days). It’s our new baby. Fred arrives via taxi to take his baby home. Somehow we miss it. It didn’t break down once.
Next up is Ishaha, where we hope to spot the tree climbing lions! Apparently this is the one place in the world where this occurs. A certain group of lions climb up into the trees, just like leopards do. Not much else to say about it except that we found them! Again, we felt very lucky! Because it’s all unfenced and in the wild, you’re really not guaranteed to see anything. But we got ‘em! A male and female in the same tree just lazing about. Looks comfy.
On the way out of the park Sandra couldn’t help but try on the Ugandan Kob horns. She’s looking devilishly good.
Onward we progressed to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park for mountain gorilla tracking!
Day 9: Gorilla Tracking in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
We were really on a high after the chimp tracking. Sandra’s was more adrenaline-based given her altercation with Madgie. Mine was more anticipation-based as I wondered how her inevitable encounter with a silverback would end.
Tour groups are limited to eight people, and time is strictly limited to one hour with the gorillas. Only one tour group sees a given family on a given day. Three families were available on the date of our tracking, and we were given the Mbare group: the first habituated group of mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable! The habituation process is not a short one. People have to go and spend all day with the gorillas for over two years to make sure they’re OK with humans being in their vicinity. That’s quite a time investment! But it’s worth it. We’re told that fully 1/3 of all of Rwanda’s GDP comes from mountain gorilla tracking in the Virunga region. Whoa.
Bwindi is located solely in Uganda. It has about 400 gorillas as of the latest census. The Virunga region also has mountain gorillas. It’s the only other area in the world that’s home to these characters. The 480 gorillas there are shared between Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. About 80 of those gorillas are generally inside Uganda’s borders, so Uganda has over half of all the mountain gorillas in the world. We’re told that you can’t see these gorillas in zoos, either. Only lowland gorillas, and not these hardy mountain types! This is your one and only option!
Sidenote: Bwindi translates to something kind of like the word “darkness” because of the heavy foliage and mists in the area. It’s not really considered impenetrable, but that was kind of the closest term as far as the translator was concerned. Plus it sounds totally awesome. We penetrated the impenetrable.
Anyhow, we had six people in our tour group. As a bonus, two of them were Canadians from Calgary! We had really nice chats with them as the day progressed, and it made us miss the politeness of home.
About one and a half hours into the trek, we met up with the advance team who wake up much earlier than us to find the gorillas each day. We were close! After rounding a corner, we were met with a mother and her ultra-cute baby. The one hour timer had started. By the time it stopped I’d taken just under 300 photographs. So much awesome.
Initially our group was standing huddled in the centre of the troupe. The mother and baby to our left, two mothers grooming each other ahead, and the silverback hiding in the woods in the distance. I was a bit concerned that we’d just be standing in one spot for the entire hour, but before long we were asked if we wanted to get closer to the silverback male. A resounding yes!
The silverbacks are so called because as they age they acquire... a silver back. There’s generally just the one dominant male in a group with many females. This guy was quite a character. He didn’t make a ton of noise while we were around (I was hoping for a stand-up chest beating), but the sounds he DID make were intimidating enough. Just the most minor grunt seemed to echo through the woods. Its tone was two octaves lower than my brain can even operate. And we were right next to this guy, just feet away! I had no idea we’d be able to get so close to them! Again we were thrilled with our luck and good fortune to get so close to these amazing, serene creatures. They were a lot less active than the chimps we saw yesterday. Just relaxin’ and eatin’ those leaves, baby!
It was a challenge to leave once the hour had elapsed. These guys just transfix you! Sandra grabbed a great shot of me with the silverback and a little juvenile looking on in the background.
On the way up, our guide had spoken of the importance of locating the gorillas as soon as possible. If you don’t see them by the early afternoon, there’s about a 90% chance of rain. Always. Right on cue, the rain opened up in sheets as we were only minutes from home. How utterly convenient! We signed the guestbook when we came back and noticed that one group had returned before us. One had not. The tracking can take anywhere from 2 hours to 8 hours. We don’t know their fate, but our experience would have been far less pleasant had we been observing these gorillas and then marching home in the kind of rain that was coming down upon our return. Our poor luck with guide and transport is being counteracted by our good fortune in activities!
We rest in the afternoon and tend to our laundry. Unfortunately the permanent state of damp and cold in Bwindi means that nothing dries properly. Not to worry.
Day 10: Lake Bunyonyi
The main event is now complete! Chimp tracking and gorilla tracking were both wildly successful! As far as we know, it’s now time to head down into Rwanda. Except apparently our trusty guide Y has booked us at Lake Bunyonyi. This wasn’t included in the itinerary we discussed when we sent him the final payment. This is ominous.
The lake itself was pretty nice. We were met by a motorboat on the shore and brought out to the island upon which our guest house resided. Pleasant sunset views and a candlelight dinner. And an outdoor shower overlooking the lake! We used the time to relax, nap, and read books.
Tomorrow we cross the border.
Day 11: Entry to Kigali, Rwanda and Ntarama
We had a nice breakfast of crepes and potato chapatti. There’s lots of chapatti here in Uganda for reasons unknown to us. Isn’t it Indian food? We caught the motorboat back to the mainland in anticipation of commencing our onward trip to Rwanda. But perhaps, as one might expect at this point, there’s a catch. Guide Y tells us that we have to pay extra for Rwanda. For a whole host of reasons, this is quite a surprise to us. We’d informed him five days in advance. We’re not extending the trip at all: it’s still the same length. He argues that he has to pay additional insurance and fuel to cross the border. Then why didn’t you tell us this weeks ago when we brought up Rwanda as an option? And why did you also not bring it up a couple of days ago when you promised that with the final payment you would finish the trip in a 4x4? We are furious, but don’t have a lot of options. As with the last overpayment, we negotiate to have this “final final” amount as part of the nebulous refund we may or may not receive in the distant future. We are in shock at the organizational nightmare that is guide Y. The communications nightmare that is guide Y. These problems are not getting better. And each time we have these discussions/debates, they literally last for hours. Back and forth, back and forth. Us trying to determine why we were told important information. Him complaining that the cars keep breaking down and he’s spent all the money. On and on it goes.
But we cross the border into Rwanda. We do it with our East African Tourist Visas with which we have infinite travel powers. We proceed to sit around and wait for an hour for the vehicle to pass through, but it happens. We are enroute to Kigali.
Warning: the following deals with highly disturbing content.
For better or worse, some of the most popular tourist attractions in Rwanda are memorials and sites related to the genocide of 1994. We were no exception to the rule, and our first stop was a location called Ntarama church about a half hour drive south of Kigali. In case you’re not familiar with the genocide, it revolved around a power struggle between two “classes” of people residing in Rwanda: the Hutu and the Tutsi. These classes did not originally exist, but were (fairly arbitrarily) put in place by colonialists. Hutus occupied greater than 80 percent of the population, with Tutsis around 15. As time passed, the class system became a wedge for politicians and tensions between the groups began to rise. Many Tutsis fled the country in fear of persecution. Murders were becoming more and more prevalent. In April of 1994, the president’s plane was shot down while returning to Rwanda and this event triggered the commencement of an all-out genocide against the remaining Tutsi population. In a period of just over three months, trained Hutu militias killed an estimated one million people. Exact numbers will be impossible to calculate, because in many cases entirely families and communities were wiped out. This is a murder of 10,000 people every day.
At Ntarama church, the site that we visited, somewhere in the area of 10,000 people were killed in the span of a few days. Two shelves about 2m by 4m are filled with human skulls. Another two shelves are filled with other human bones. The clothing from the murdered hangs from the walls and the ceiling. There are several holes blasted in the walls of the church where grenades were thrown inside. Many Tutsis hid in churches when the genocide began, but an unfortunate number of religious leaders sided with the killers and either did nothing to stop them or, in some cases, actively assisted in the murder of their own congregations. In one case, a priest bulldozed his own church burying his own parishioners alive inside.
At Ntarama, the murders were brutal. Most of the killings throughout the genocide were committed by machetes, farm implements, and other blunt objects or basic tools. Many were also shot. Those who ran to escape in the bushes were chased by hunting dogs.
In one particular building behind the church, the “genocidaires” (as they came to be called) smashed infants against a brick wall until they were dead. The bloodstains are still visible. In another adjacent building, many Tutsis had managed to lock themselves in with the goal of hiding. Grenades were used to open up a hole in the wall, through which mattresses covered with kerosene were thrown to burn those hiding inside. After that, the killers collapsed one of the walls inward to bury any remaining survivors alive. A burnt mattress is still visible on the ground to this day.
We had a female guide on the tour. She kept her composure very well and treated everything quite matter-of-factly. When asked if she had any personal experience with the genocide, she paused and bit her lip. “Yes, my father was killed by our neighbours.” She was ten years old and had her father buried alive.
With so many people dead after the conflict, the local dogs began to eat the corpses littering the streets and fields. They were all killed as they had developed a taste for human flesh. Many bodies were left in the place of their murder for years with nobody willing to return to the sites of massacre.
Although Rwandans as a whole have done a remarkable job of recovering, the psychological damage done by atrocities like this is unimaginable. The power of these people to forgive some of the horrific acts perpetrated by and within their own communities is staggering. Many of the perpetrators are still living amongst the victims of this tragedy that happened just over twenty years ago. It’s incredible.
Before heading back to our hotel for the night, we stopped by the Hotel de Milles Collines (the hotel of a thousand hills). This hotel is also known as the Hotel Rwanda -- it was the basis for the film. The proprietor of the hotel risked his life to protect innocent people from being murdered during the genocide. We went inside a took a picture looking out from the rear of the hotel. At the time, it was the largest and most prestigious hotel in Kigali. The actual film was shot in a completely different-looking hotel in South Africa, but it was still quite powerful to walk through the doors of the building.
Although our time in Rwanda won’t be cheery, it’s definitely informative and eye-opening.
Day 12: Kigali and the Genocide Memorial Museum
Our hotel in Kigali kind of sucked. The Hilltop Hotel. Wouldn’t recommend it. Toilet seat? Nah. We’re realizing this is kind of common here in East Africa. Not sure why! The shower was nice in that the water was super hot. Except that the bath didn’t seem to be caulked properly, so after the two of us had showered a large puddle began to grow and grow from the base of the bathroom wall into our room. It extended almost all the way to the door. Has nobody noticed this yet?!
The window in our bathroom also looked suspicious. A little spatial awareness made it obvious that the window in the bathroom faced... into a hallway outside. From inside the bathroom, it wasn’t a mirror, but just kind of a hazy glass. I left the room and went out into the hallway, asking Sandra to turn on the light in the bathroom once I was outside. Yes, folks: this is a one-way mirror into the shower of our bathroom. Again, anybody notice this? We mentioned it to reception. Probably not a good idea to have this kind of setup in your hotel.
Before leaving Rwanda, we had the Genocide Memorial Museum on our list. Although we’d been standing in the church at Ntarama and heard a short history of the genocide, we wanted to learn a bit more about the underlying causes.
Warning: the following deals with highly disturbing content.
Adjacent to the museum is a mass grave for those killed in the genocide. At this point, 250,000 people are buried there. The numbers are constantly increasing as new bodies and mass graves are discovered around the country.
The museum gave us a lot of background about the genocide, but the whole thing still seems so needless and insane. Many argue that the UN didn’t take the impending danger seriously enough and failed to mount an appropriate response.
The displays at the museum reiterated the savageness of the attacks. Couples chained together and buried alive. Husbands killing their wives. Women being raped by known HIV-infected males in front of loved ones. The brutality is mind-boggling. A tour through the museum ends with information about many other genocides that have occurred throughout history: Namibia, Armenia, Cambodia, and others. Many are heartbreaking in that the relevant countries still take no responsibility for them or deny that they took place at all.
After finishing up at the museum, it was time for a (very) long drive back to Entebbe for the completion of our journey. We would finish up at UWEC -- the same place where we spent our very first night in Uganda! On the drive back, we crossed back over the equator. That’s kind of fun, right? But other than that, it was just a long long long drive. We arrived safely in Entebbe (that’s the important part!) and had our last dinner with guide Y. He dropped us off and we said our goodbyes. This chapter has finally come to a close. Now we’ll see if that refund ever arrives...
Day 13: Uganda Wildlife Education Centre
This time at UWEC we actually had a couple of hours to tour around! Unlike our last time here at the start of the trip, we had all morning to take a peek around the exhibits. We had breakfast in the restaurant where we got to watch camels rolling around in the sands on the shores of Lake Victoria -- the largest lake in Africa! They ended up wandering back up the hill to the children’s play area next to the restaurant, so we got to snap some photos!
We visited with the chimps, which are decidedly not as entertaining when they’re out of slapping range. However, we did watch a couple of them “fishing” using a big stick to try to grab fruit that had dropped into the moat surrounding their island. It’s amazing to watch these animals come up with solutions like this!
Leopards, rhinos, lions, baby elephants, a serval... it’s all here! The big five in one short walk. But now that we’ve seen these things in the wild, it’s so much less satisfying to just saunter up and peek over the fence at them. Again, though, UWEC only deals with rescued animals so it seems like a pretty legit place.
We’ve now arranged a flight to Tanzania for the 19th. Thus, we have two days to chill out and try to slowly get back on budget. That’s going to take quite a while after this safari!
I had just one more thing I wanted to mention, and that’s the use of the phrase “You’re welcome” here in Uganda. They use it quite literally, as in “You’re welcome to be here right now”. As a result, conversations seem incredibly inverted. You walk into the reception at the guest house, and the first thing the staff say to you is “You’re welcome!”. “... Thank you!”, I respond. Wait, isn’t that backwards?
Now it’s time to try to upload this tome of an entry. Here goes nothin’!