By Jofie Lamprecht
As I descended through the clouds to land in Nairobi, I finally understood why Ernest Hemingway called his famous book The Green Hills of Africa. The swelling and shifting cumulonimbus clouds floated over these green hills about which so much is written and romanticized by those who coined and made the word “safari” famous. For me, this was just a layover on the way to a destination referred to by Winston Churchill as the “Pearl of Africa”, the old stomping grounds of Idi Amin.
Fast forward a week. I was overlooking the spectacular vista of the eight Virunga Volcanoes – one glowingly active, the highest volcano towering 15,000 feet on the horizon. A fire was crackling in the hearth to keep out the cold at 7,000 feet, and soothe a sore body after the previous day’s trek – a whole day with the incredible gorillas. It was one of those ‘bucket-list’ items many have on their list and, sadly, few ever realize.
Jim and I have known each other since 2004. With six Namibian safaris, both hunting and photographic, Tanzania and now Uganda. Jim has had the privilege of hunting all of the Big Five, and six of the Dangerous Seven. His excuse for not shooting a crocodile was that “my house is full – and I am NOT moving.” He has fulfilled his African hunting aspirations, and at 69 is still in love with the continent, and wants to explore more of it.
I arrived in Entebbe – the original capital of Uganda – at 22:00 on the first night, sans check-in luggage. The lights of the plentiful bars lit the streets, the presidential palace illuminating the night sky, overpowering and unnecessary. I was happy to see Jim at our guesthouse for a nightcap before the safari started in earnest the following day.
The morning light brought the sound of beautiful birdlife. Birds a-plenty with common names that I knew, but not the specific sub-species. After a hearty and very healthy breakfast we made our way to the airport to fly to our destination.
Our accommodations were high up on the hill with a spectacular view sweeping over the plains and the seemingly endless Lake Victoria below.
“Any hippo or crocs in Lake Victoria?” I asked our driver.
“Yes… there are a few crocs, but if they are seen they are saved and taken to the zoo!” This was not the answer I wa expecting. With my vehement distaste for zoos, I was not impressed that these animals were incarcerated for the rest of their lives just for being where they naturally belong.
A scheduled flight took us over a very rural and agricultural Uganda to Kasese. Jim and I were both surprised to see that all we flew over was agricultural land – small plots cut into the red Ugandan soil with a multitude of different crops growing in the fertile soil, subsistence agriculture supplying most of the food for the population. Forty-two million people inhabit this country, a third the size of my native Namibia. The country is 241,038 km² (150,000 miles2). (Three times smaller than Texas.) On a firm grass landing strip we were met by our driver and guide, Mali.
There are two types of roads in Uganda – bad and worse. The asphalt version has giant potholes in it, and speeding is next to impossible. And then you hit the speed bumps, just to slow you down a little more. Scheduled flights are both affordable and strongly recommended to save you from the worst of these roads.
We spent our first night on the edge of an extinct volcanic crater lake at the foot of the Rwenzori Mountains. I loved the quaint and very different lodge, and understood why it was built where it was, and the vision that the owners had when building it, with the mist, the sun, the clouds, and the view. A real treat was their homemade goats-cheese and locally sourced honey. In the afternoon, we explored the nearby village.
In Uganda one has to pre-book permits to see both chimpanzees and gorillas – and there are two options – trekking and habituation. Trekking simply means a hike in, have about an hour with the primates, and then the hike out. Habituation is a much more intense hike in, finding the primates and spending several hours with them, watching them interact, feed and just being the primates they are.
For both chimpanzees and gorillas we opted for the habituation experience, and bought permits for both trips.
In the black pre-dawn we followed the lights of the Cruiser as we bounced our way down the road to Kibale Forest National Park. The rural subsistence farming world of Uganda was slowly lit with a soft light of the early sun.
Civilization would suddenly stop, and one was immediately plunged into pristine wilderness.
The road improved, and there was evidence of elephant and other animals. In the eerie pre-dawn, the forest looked dark and mystical, waiting to share its secrets with us – but only after some trekking on foot.
We met our armed park ranger for the day, a cheerful Jennifer, an old AK-47 slung over her shoulder as we started our trek into the forest. She occasionally used the weapon as a walking stick, barrel down. With the smells of the wet soil, the drops of water constant like rain, it was like no place I had ever been, a place where fairy tales are set – with trees displaced by forest elephant. Vibrant, colorful butterflies of every variety were everywhere. Unseen birds were vocal in the canopy through which rays of sunshine streamed.
The trees were enormous. At a particularly big tree with a yellow trunk, figs rained down from above – our first chimp sighting. We spent some time looking straight up, catching glimpses of them as they moved about picking fruit.
With stiff necks, we followed Jennifer in a different direction and found a large troop of chimps in low trees. Our habituation started in earnest – as did the photography. It was a thrilling experience to spend time with these interesting animals, especially when the dominant male made a brief appearance by climbing down the tree and walking among us.
The swiftly flowing brown flood waters of the Ishasha River gurgled by our tented camp set on its banks. Topi and Ugandan kob were plentiful. We saw seven magnificent small tree-climbing lions with distended bellies, snoozing in a fig tree,. The bird life was incredible – something I truly enjoy.
The river ran red with clay, high on the banks, swollen, its tributaries adding to its girth. Several pods of hippo were submerged in the shallow water.
In the distance, bordering the Congo, lay the daunting snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains with summits reaching 17,000 feet.
On leaving the Ishasha River area we encountered several elephant bulls. It was interesting to see both forest and savannah, in the same herd, interacting and living together – the forest elephant with their smaller physique, straight, almost translucent ivory and smaller heads, and the savannah with their gigantic bodies, curved ivory and massive heads. The transition area for this subspecies, is in the savannah plains of Uganda, and seeing this was one of the highlights of my trip.
“I survived the road up to the clouds”, is what the T-shirt should say. The road up the mountain passes was rough. Very, very rough. Cut into the side of the mountains down to the bedrock, the road was hard and bumpy. When it rained, red soil slid down the side of the steep embankments, making them slippery. We climbed from 4000 feet to over 7000, with sheer drops that looked twice as high as they really were, and there were no guard rails.
Our final lodge for this trip was literally in the clouds. A place of peace and tranquility. A place meant for recovery from the physical challenges of gorilla trekking.
On a misty morning we were given our briefing in the southern end of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and introduced to our police and military armed escort, guide, trackers and porters. April is the rainy season in Uganda, with ground slick underfoot and many streams to cross. Physically it was challenging with the up-and-down, slip and slide, high altitude and the crossing of streams – all of this exertion to see some of the 850 highland gorillas that remain in the wild.
After three hours of the forest’s slow torture, we climbed a hill covered in foot-grabbing vines, rounded a bush and there was a juvenile gorilla, reclining on a branch looking at me, as if bored, waiting for our appearance. The walk forgotten, camera gear was spread out and covered under rain ponchos, and the photo session began.
I had no idea we could get so close. Being six feet from a 450lb silverback, with its head the size of a colossal cannon ball, is intimidating, I don’t care who you are!
I inched forward, expecting to be attacked at any second. The trekking team was ready, and I settled in to get my shots. Completely habituated, we were able to move as freely as the vines let us around these amazing animals. After an hour a mother with a newborn moved towards the silverback from thick cover. The different interactions were amazing – the tenderness when the baby came close to the massive figure of the dominant male; the reaction of the female when she disapproved of her man’s actions, swinging backhanded at the male, not hitting him, but resulting in him throwing his hands up in the air and falling theatrically on his back. There was another female with a snare-damaged hand.
Plan your trip to Uganda. It is worth the terrible roads and speed bumps, and the multiple police searches at the airport. The lodges and people are incredible, the food fantastic and the scenery truly amazing. The wildlife that coexists in the islands of remaining sanctuary is absolutely worth the trip. These animals exist, squeezed by human over-population into the last areas of this enchanted impenetrable forest.
And this wildlife will not exist if it has no value, so your trip will help keep these wild places wild.
A trip of a lifetime for me. I cannot wait to return.
Namibian-born Jofie is a licensed PH in both plains-game and dangerous-game hunting in Namibia, proud to uphold the traditions of ethical and fair-chase hunting, loving to walk Namibia’s varied terrain, from desert to high mountains to sub-tropical environments. He works hard to get his hunters close to the game, enjoys sharing his country’s wildlife and unique
environment with visitors, and has a special place in his heart for the children who come on safari. Jofie is based in Namibia’s capital city, Windhoek.