Gorillas in our Midst

A flying trip to visit a friend in Uganda afforded me the golden opportunity to head down to the south to spend some time with the elusive mountain gorillas of the Bwindi Impenetrable Rainforest. We returned to Kampala via a spot of R&R at Lake Bunyonyi.

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

The Road to Bwindi

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on February 6, 2012

Robert said the drive down to Bwindi from Kampala would take about eleven hours. He was spot on to the minute.

Rather than trusting the public transport we had booked a driver. There is one bus every other day from Kampala to Butogota, leaving the traveller to manage the remaining 17km to Buhoma, the gateway to the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, on their own. The buses we saw on the roads failed to fill us with confidence; the weekend of my arrival one had crashed, killing several of its passengers. Robert and his Toyota Landcruiser arrived at Laura’s house at 6.30am.

We chuntered out of Kampala – it must have taken ninety minutes before we were clear of the traffic-clogged streets and bustling markets. Thereafter the road ran straight south-west, rising and falling over the corrugated terrain. On top of the ridges brick-red termite mounds clustered close to the road’s margins. Down in the valleys were patches of marsh choked with papyrus and haunted by egrets. Stalls stood at the roadside displaying brightly-painted basketware or neat pyramids of sweet potatoes and tomatoes.

We stopped for the obligatory photo opportunity at the Equator - two concrete hoops set at a slant either side of the road. We had a comfort break at the tomato-red Aid Child Café for a chai (4000 shillings each – fairly expensive, but profits from the café go to help children suffering the effects of AIDS). In the attached craft shop I made a note of prices for comparison at a later date.

We headed off again. After Musaka the termite mounds died away. There were a couple of police roadblocks, but otherwise the open road was the domain of packed coaches, lorries belching black fumes and motorbikes, gaily-dressed women sitting side-saddle behind the driver. The road margins were busy with locals walking or pushing cycles laden with cassava root.

At one point we drew to a halt to view a flock of sixteen grey crowned cranes as they pecked at the grass. These majestic birds are the national symbol of Uganda – one even appears on the Ugandan flag. Soon afterwards we paused again to have a look at an open patch of water down to our left. According to Robert this lake did not even exist three months previously, a testament to the amount of rain that had fallen recently. Scanning the lake with binoculars we were able to spot several examples of birdlife among the drowned trees and half-submerged tussocks of grass. We saw grey herons, white egrets, brown open-beaked storks, even a marsh harrier.

Having been impressed with the birdlife I was then promised bigger game. Laura cautioned to keep my eyes open to the left of the road as we passed Lake Mburo National Park in case we saw any zebras. I scolded her for getting my hopes up… then asked for Robert to stop the car because I had seen some! There was a herd of a half-dozen or so zebras placidly grazing as I crept up to photograph them.

Back on board we reached the bustling Mbarara, capital of the Ankole. We had been seeing the characteristic Ankole cattle at the side of the road for some time. These cows are blessed with mighty lyre-shaped horns which seemed to get bigger and bigger as we neared Mbarara. The most impressive were easily the length of a man’s leg.

Everyone stops at the Agip Motel in Mbarara for lunch and use of the toilets. We were no exception. They sometimes have a full buffet on for 20,000 shillings, but not on that day. Instead I paid 10,000 Ush for a toasted sandwich of ground beef and carrot and onion in soy sauce which was very tasty. I accompanied this with a 2,000 Ush bottle of Stoney Tangawizi, a local ginger ale (made by Coca-Cola unfortunately).

The road from Mbarara through Ntungamo and on to Rukungiri was the best yet. It even had road markings! After Rukungiri, however, all bets were off. The remaining two-and-a-half hours to Buhoma would be on dirt tracks.

I was thankful for the Landcruiser’s four-wheel drive as we jolted up slopes, around plunging ravines and over pre-fab bridges, the waters swirling brown beneath us. Then, suddenly, the wildness of the terrain would be supplanted by bucolic scenes of gentle hills, green meadows and black-and-white cows at pasture. It could almost have been a snapshot of the English countryside, were it not for the fact that the fields were speckled with red termite mounds. We made our way up to Kihihi, and then south – Kanyantorogo, Butogota. Tea plantations appeared at the side of the road beyond the houses. And then on into the little township of Buhoma. Souvenir stalls and the gateways of lodges lined the had-packed red earth that served as a road. And off to the left stood the forbidding deep green wall of the Bwindi Impenetrable Rainforest.

Walking with Gorillas

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on February 2, 2012

The rustling in the undergrowth grew louder. And then, from behind a tree, a fully grown male silverback gorilla sauntered into view. Without glancing at us he knuckled away.

Breathlessly I took stock of our surroundings. We had emerged out of the damp forest canopy where the air was heavy with the smell of decomposing leaf matter and into a large sloping meadow. As my eyes accustomed to the daylight I could see, among the stomach-high ferns and brush, other black shapes. The trackers had done their work well. We had found the Habinyanja family of mountain gorillas.

Of the three ‘habituated’ gorilla groups around Buhoma the Habinyanja have been known to roam the furthest. That morning as we checked in at the Bwindi National Park headquarters we had been informed that finding this group meant either a stiff three hour hike down into the Munyaga valley, up the steep hillsides that presented themselves across the other side of the river, and then down the far slope. Or we could cheat – an hour drive east along twisting roads to a trailhead and then a shorter trek into the rainforest from there. We took the latter option.

At the trailhead the villagers gathered around, regarding us with some curiosity. The folk out here in the hills were noticeably poorer than those I had passed along the main roads, the houses unpainted, the children clad in brown sacking. I pulled on my pack and we set off towards where the trackers had located the gorillas. There were twelve of us in total. Our party was comprised of seven tourists (two Americans, two Germans and two other young Brits as well as myself), our Uganda Wildlife Authority ranger, David, two armed guards, and a couple of porters that had been hired at Buhoma. From the village the trail led up to a ridge overlooking the village’s tea and millet fields. A lone tree was hung with the spherical nests of weaver birds. And ahead stood a sudden dark wall, the abrupt start of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Brightly coloured butterflies fluttered around the forest eaves.for contrast.

Once inside the forest the footing was treacherous. We were hacking through the undergrowth, sidling between trunks and stepping over roots and brush. And all this while negotiating slippery slopes. We conversed in subdued whispers only, aware that we were intruding into an ancient ecosystem. After only about forty-five minutes of walking we came upon our two trackers. David gave us last minute instructions. Here we would leave our packs and sticks. I also took the opportunity to divest myself of my rain coat. The armed guards and porters would also remain here. The gorillas were not far. Remember: make no sudden movements, and never approach to within seven metres of a gorilla.

The thing is, I don’t think anyone had ever told the gorillas about the seven metres rule. Sat down amidst the scrub, eating placidly at the freshest stalks, they were sometimes surprisingly hard to spot despite their size. We would stumble upon them by chance. On one occasion I was at most two-and-a-half metres away from one of the adult females. I think the fairest thing to say was that these mighty mountain dwellers tolerated our presence. They would put up with us, but only for so long. When we reached their tolerance levels they would rise up and amble off. Otherwise they were very docile. They sat there chomping on leaves and bamboo, scratching and grunting and – all too infrequently - turning to appraise us with their big brown eyes, liquid eyes the colour of melted chocolate. There was intelligence in their gazes. It actually made me feel rather sad and humble that after everything we humans had ever done to the mountain gorillas they were still prepared to accept me into their world as a guest.

We had an hour with the gorillas. Slowly and steadily we began to move into the meadow to see more of the family. We saw the one-eyed alpha female, Kisho. The blackback (an adult male but submissive to the silverback) Maraya kept his distance. Stepping back into the forest eaves we found one of the juveniles – Hamusini I think - napping. Emerging again we saw a beautiful sight. One of the females was hunkered down, while her baby clambered over our head. Like a wizened hairy pixie the baby sat boldly on her shoulder and stared in puzzlement at us. No other moment of the entire experience felt quite so much like I had stepped into a staged show of animatronic models.

Turning to my right I made eye-contact with Makara, the silverback. It was interesting to see how the silverbacks differed from the other gorillas, even the other adult male. His head had the high domed shape we know from King Kong rather than the low rounded profile of the others. And of course he had that icing-sugar dusting across his broad shoulders and down his back. Being top dog in an individual family brings on these characteristics. He wasn’t doing much to protect his harem it must be said. Previously he had shambled away from us at every opportunity. Now he squatted on the other side of a tree, keeping a watch on our activities through the bamboo. Abruptly he rose and grunted an instruction. One by one the other gorillas also pulled themselves to their feet and followed him as he shouldered his way through the underbrush and up into the trees. Our hour was up.

I cannot express how humbled and privileged I felt to spend time in the world of these magnificent creatures. In fact I feel bad even using the word ‘creatures’ – these were beautiful beings with their own clearly defined personalities. There was more intelligence and humanity in their gazes than one could find in those of many politicians and bankers. This was their world, and they were a species on the edge. The Habinyanja family group comprises eighteen individuals. To put it into context, I had spent the morning with 2.5% of all the mountain gorillas that still exist in the world. Despite mankind’s hunting and poaching, despite our destruction of the environment they need to survive, these gorillas were still prepared to allow me to walk amongst them, if only for an hour.

Driving back from the trailhead I began to see in my surroundings the threats to these incredible creatures. Deforestation – whether for logging or for opening more space for tea plantations – was the main one. I just hope that the efforts of the conservationists to make the people that live alongside the gorillas realise that they are worth more alive and free than dead or in a cage are successful.

How to Walk with Gorillas in Uganda

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on February 2, 2012

There are only around 720 mountain gorillas left in the world. These are clustered in just three countries – Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Of these, around half the total amount live in Uganda, either in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park or in the more southerly Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.

In each of these parks (and in Rwanda’s Parc National des Volcans) there are a certain number of ‘habituated’ groups of gorillas. This means that these gorillas have gradually become accustomed to human presence. These are the only groups that can be visited safely (for both humans and apes). There are seven habituated groups in Uganda. The Nyakagezi group lives in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park along the Rwandan border. The other six live in the larger Bwindi Impenetrable National Park: the Mubare, Rushegura and Habinyabnja groups around Buhoma in the north-west, the Nkuringo in the south-west, the Shongi around Rushaga in the south, and the Bitakura around Ruhija in the east. Three more groups are promised to be ‘habituated’ in 2012. Under the stewardship rules established by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) eight permits are available for visiting each group per day – meaning that at most 56 people (rising to 80 this year) can track gorillas on a given day. Although there are rumours that the UWA will start selling unsold permits on the day in question to walk-ins, I would not bank on this. These places are remote and there is no guarantee that any permits will be available on any given day. It makes much more sense, especially if pushed for time, to purchase a gorilla permit in advance.

Permits are expensive - $500 each. I should point out that money from these permits goes straight into the coffers of the UWA and is used to conserve the gorillas, the parks they live in, and the entire national park system across Uganda. Added to this is the cost of getting to the relevant area, and accommodation near by. The cost can put people off. On the day I trekked from Buhoma, in what is meant to be one of the peak seasons (December), there were only parties going out to look for two of the three local habituated groups – and my party had only seven people in it rather than the allowed eight. You can theoretically buy a permit in advance from the UWA (www.ugandawildlife.org). I tried this from out of country and it was tricky; I never even received a reply to my email. If you have plenty of time in Kampala you can go direct to their headquarters on Kiira Road. Otherwise it makes sense to do what I did and book via a tour company in Kampala. Many of the permits are bought up upon release by these companies and by high-end hotels anyway. I booked with Pearl of Africa Tours and Travel (http://www.pearlofafricatours.com/). A private five day itinerary including transport from Kampala to Buhoma with an informative and helpful driver / guide, two nights’ accommodation in Buhoma, a gorilla permit, transport onwards to Lake Bunyonyi, two nights’ accommodation at Nature’s Prime Island, and then transport back to Kampala cost me $1,460.

There are rules around gorilla trekking. Children under the age of 15 are not allowed. You must not approach to within seven metres of the gorillas. If you are suffering from an infectious disease such as a cold or diarrhoea you are not allowed to take part; genetically gorillas are so similar to humans that any transmissible disease could depopulate them at one swoop. If you own up before you commence your walk you will be given a refund; if you do not and it is discovered you will be sent back and forfeit your payment. You are also advised to prepare adequately for the trip with waterproofs, sturdy footwear, long trousers and gloves (to deal with the scrub). Because trekkers will be off the beaten track forcing their way up and down slippery and often steep slopes a walking pole is recommended. If you do not have one you can hire one at park headquarters for $5. It only costs $10 to keep. The one I hired was rather nicely carved with gorillas and so upon my return I paid the extra $5 to keep it. (I then had the trouble of working out how to get it home!).

My biggest concern was my camera. I went with a little point-and-click digital camera, fully expecting to be completely outclassed by folks with snazzy SLR models with different lenses – particularly as flash photography is not permitted. In actual fact I shouldn’t have worried. I was delighted with the images I took – the gorillas were helpfully out in the open and content to sit still for photos when I approached.
Pearl of Africa Tours & Travel
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Uganda, Africa

Sleeping in the Jungle

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on February 2, 2012

There are a number of high-end lodges in Buhoma to cater for those undertaking gorilla tracking. The Buhoma Community Rest Camp (http://www.buhomacommunity.com/) is not one of them. This is the budget end of the market. However, having stayed here once I am not sure I would be willing to pay more to stay anywhere else should I return. The Buhoma Community Rest Camp was more than adequate for my needs.

The camp is located just inside the National Park boundaries. The wooden main building comprises the restaurant / bar. An open verandah provided our first glimpse of the fabled Bwindi Impenetrable Rain Forest – a sheer escarpment facing us, thick with dark green foliage, skeins of mist drifting across the view. The cacophony of birdsong, frog croaks and crickets greeted us. Batteries could be recharged here (figuratively and literally). There were always flasks of hot water alongside tea bags and coffee granules. Soft drinks and beers could be bought at the bar (2000USh for a soft drink, 4000 for a beer). Food was also served here. Breakfast was fresh fruit, juice, toast and jam or marmalade, cooked eggs and unlimited tea or coffee. Dinners were three course affairs by lamplight – soup, roast chicken or fried fish with rice and veg, and banana fritter with custard or pineapple in syrup.

The accommodation was stepped down the valley below the main building. I should point out that if you do not like roughing it, or if you do not like being quite so exposed to nature this is not the place for you. (Then again, I’m not sure Bwindi at all is the place for you). Accommodation was in the form of bandas (self-contained huts) or tents, all with appropriate names – bushbaby, monkey, squirrel. I was in porcupine. This was an expanse of wooden decking on top of which a big green safari tent had been pitched. A corrugated iron roof was suspended overhead. The front flaps lead out onto a verandah equipped with table and chairs looking out once more to the forested hillside across the valley. The back flaps led out to a private bathroom. It was little more than a concrete shell with a toilet, sink and shower (which I never got warmer than tepid). But it was open to nature at the top – other visitors to my bathroom included a long-legged bush cricket and a massive spider as big as the palm of my hand (thankfully the former scuttled off and the latter showed no inclination to move from under the eaves). Inside the tent was electric light and two single beds, each with mosquito netting. Tucked away in there I didn’t get bitten once. But again nature was all around. On our last night my friend Laura, who was in the neighbouring hut was kept awake by something dancing on her tin roof – owls she thinks. She awoke to find a decapitated mouse left in a bucket outside her front door. I was woken by a very curious noise, as though a woman was repeatedly stubbing her toe not far from my tent and crying "Ow-ah!" In fact after a couple of occurrences I recalled that the hut off to my left was inhabited by a couple and was worried that I was actually overhearing an amorous encounter! The noise, however, then changed to a low grunt which built into a shrill yowl, followed by – once again – the "Ow-ah!" noise. When I attempted a passable imitation for the restaurant staff they told me it had been a bush cat.

The staff all come from the local community. The camp is a local enterprise by the Buhoma Community Development Association. It exists to employ local villagers and feed profits back into the community. If you don’t mind being occasionally reminded that you are in the wild, at the edges of a jungle, then I would recommend staying here whether you are on a budget or not.

Full board costs $80 for a single, or $100 for two sharing. Bed only is $60; it is probably a better bargain to go all-inclusive as breakfast is $10, a packed lunch $10, and a hot lunch or dinner $15.
Buhoma Community Rest Camp
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Buhoma, Uganda
+256 (772) 384965

It's Like a Jungle Out There

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on February 6, 2012

There are few names more evocative of the wild jungles of central Africa than that of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The alien-sounding ‘Bwindi’ conjures up Africa (it literally means ‘Dark Place’); the epithet ‘impenetrable’ presents a challenge. A challenge that I was keen to take up.

The Bwindi Rainforest is a remnant of a great swath of jungle that once cloaked central Africa. At its heart the forest is some 25,000 years old. It straddles the Albertine Rift, one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, covers some 331 km2 and varies in height from bottom to top by some 1500m. It is most famous for its population of 340 mountain gorillas – about half the entire planet’s population lives wild and free within the forest. However, other inhabitants include chimpanzees, baboons and eight other types of monkey, thirty-odd forest elephants, and six different species of antelopes, adding up to around 120 species of mammals in total. There are also around 350 different bird species and 220 butterfly, many being endemic to the area. There are over 1000 different species of flowering plants. Given the range and variety of natural life present, as well as the primeval nature of the forest, it is easy to understand why Bwindi has been declared not only a National Park by the Ugandan authorities, but also a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

The park’s headquarters is up in the north-west at Buhoma. Even here, just outside the borders of the park plenty of wildlife can be seen – brilliant butterflies, bright golden weaver birds, hopping black and white wagtails and iridescent sunbirds. And if you can’t see them, you can certainly hear them all around. Even the local population of gorillas can often be found foraging outside the park boundaries.

My greatest exposure to the diversity of Bwindi’s wildlife came on the day I left. Woken by the yowling of a forest cat I met up with Laura who had been disturbed during the night by owls hunting from her banda’s roof. Our guide, Robert, arrived to drive us from Buhoma down to Lake Bunyonyi. The route taken skirted the northern fringes of the forest for some ninety kilometres, the road ploughing through the forest mid-way to Ruhija in an area known as ‘the Neck’. He popped the roof on the Landcruiser and passed back his copy of Stevenson & Fanshawe’s Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa (should you hire a guide and they do not have a copy of this book I would be extremely dubious!). Then we were off.

The road was in many places little more than an earthen track as the boughs of the forest closed over our heads. It hair-pinned as it climbed ever higher and higher towards Ruhija, from where we would have incredible cloud-scraping over the valleys and hillsides far below us. In many places the track devolved into deep patches of clay-red mud, rutted and ridged like the surrounding topography. The Landcruiser pitched and strained as Laura and I were tossed around like peas in a whistle. My seatbelt popped off several times, and once I was sure I was going to be hurled out my open window. This gave the journey a feel of real excitement. More exciting though was the wildlife we were fortunate enough to spot. Or, rather, that Robert was skilful enough to spot; despite keeping his eyes on the road he was always the first person to spot a new and intriguing creature for us to stop and investigate.

Before we had even entered the forest we had halted to investigate a mob of 35 grey crowned cranes in a field, a couple even pogoing with wings outspread in a mating dance for our entertainment. Once among the trees we saw cuckoos, brightly-coloured cinnamon-chested bee-eaters and even a couple of pin-tailed wydahs (small black and white fellows with berry-red bills and quite preposterously long ribbon-like tails streaming out behind them – an adult male has a body-length of 12cm, but has a 20cm long tail). After this avian appetiser we entered the realm of the primates. Red-tailed monkeys, with long dangling tails the same colour as the road, scampered up into the trees as we turned corners, and scruffy-looking L’Hoest’s monkeys judged us critically from under their white monobrows. Best of all though were the charismatic black and white colobus monkeys, leaping seemingly impossible distances from treetop to treetop, flying almost, their long tails tipped with white furry tufts streaming back behind them. I was so impressed by Robert’s quick eyes I felt like challenging him to spot a chameleon. I’m sad I didn’t – because he did then go on to spot a chameleon creeping across the road. He was a real beauty, jade green, around a foot long (larger than I thought they grew), swivel-eyed with three rhinoceros horns thrusting forwards. The little chap didn’t seem disturbed at being picked up – he even continued his stately progress up my arm, allowing me to see his feet in action, with two toes reaching forward and two back to grip whatever surface he found himself on. We carried him across the road and put him down into the vegetation.

We didn’t see any of the forest elephants that live down in the forest’s south-east, but we saw warning signs about them. We had tarried too long goggling at the wildlife however, and just as we neared the park’s exit gate a storm blew up. Well, it is a rain forest. The rain thundered down, turning what had been an enjoyable expedition along a muddy, pot-holed single-lane track skirting a hundred-metre sheer drop into a very nerve-wracking expedition along a muddy, pot-holed single-lane track skirting a hundred-metre sheer drop! I was ridiculously happy when we finally hit level ground and the first tarmac we had seen in 48 hours! But in the mean time, even without plunging deep into the heart of this primeval afromontane rainforest, I had been able to see the sort of wildlife that I had never been able to previously.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

Buhoma, Uganda

Lake Bunyonyi

Relaxing at the Place of Many Little Birds

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on February 6, 2012

Lake Bunyonyi, right down on the Rwandan border in Uganda’s south-west corner, has become renowned in recent years as a relaxing spot for a chill-out. Its prime attractions are the spattering of islands dotted along its squiggly wishbone-shaped length, many of which provide low-key accommodation options, and its abundant birdlife. The name ‘Bunyonyi’ even translates as ‘Place of Many Little Birds’. From the jetties at the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it lakeside village of Rutinda motorboats carry visitors across to the island resorts.

Much is made in the guidebooks of Bunyonyi being a ‘magical’ spot and of the beauty of its surroundings. I would not go that far. It is a nice place to de-stress away from the crowds; that is its prime attraction in my eyes. But, yes, there is something atmospheric and redolent of the Africa of old in watching the local villagers propelling their dug-out canoes through the glass-smooth water and pearly early-morning mist while the hilltops all around are hidden in glowing clouds. The valley-sides (the lake is essentially a flooded valley system, explaining its meandering and many-branched shape) are terraced for cultivation and dotted with churches. This is a populated area.

The depth of Lake Bunyonyi is estimated at around 900m, making it the second deepest lake in Africa. Mind you, the depth of the lake is also estimated at around 40m; this makes it nowhere near one of the deepest lakes in Africa. I think the latter estimate is much more likely. It does not have much in the way of fish-life – the entire population died out for unknown reasons in the ‘50s. Now it supports just one species of reintroduced fish, as well as freshwater crayfish. Both of these often end up on the plates of visitors staying at the lake. The crayfish in particular should be sought out. The lake is certified free of bilharzias, meaning that it is safe to swim in its waters. Living up to its name, however, many little birds do live in the vicinity. There is a constant twittering and tweeting during the day; the dawn chorus I found woke me up more surely than any alarm clock. I had no trouble at all spotting weavers, mouse-birds, pied kingfishers, a sunbird or two, coucals, black ibis, cormorants, black kites and cranes.

The best way to see the culture of the lake is to go on a boat tour around some of the twenty-nine islands. We hired this from our resort on Nature’s Prime Island, and it cost 120,000 Ush. Setting off at 9 AM it was still overcast with the threat of light showers, but the sun came out and before ,long I was slapping on suncream. The lofty Mount Muhabura jabbed up in the distance, marking the borders with Rwanda and the Congo. We headed first to Itumbira Island, home of Byoona Amagara resort. It had a bit of a hippyish vibe, with children running around and open-fronted ‘geodomes’ to stay in. We continued around the largest island, Bwama, home to the church and primary and secondary schools for the local children. One of these schools used to be a leper hospital, founded in 1931 by a Scottish doctor by the name of Leonard Sharp who had come here ten years earlier. He ended up staying until his death in the 1960s. The home he built out here for his family still remains – Njuyeera Island is now known most often as Sharp’s Island. I found this island quite mournful. Walking up through the gardens I couldn’t help but notice small plaques at the feet of trees planted to commemorate the deaths of various members of the Sharp family. Inside the echoing white house there was an interesting exhibition about the Sharps, including reminiscences by his children, who seemed to have lived a semi-idyllic Swallows and Amazons existence, paddling around the lake.

From here we motored out to an island with a more morbid history – Akampene, or ‘Punishment Island’. Historically, should a local unmarried female show signs of pregnancy she was brought out here and left to die. However, any man who wanted could come and rescue them to be his wife – a useful resource for those without enough cows to pay the usual bride-price to her father. It was a tiny islet, a flat pancake quite unlike the other dome-topped and woody islands we had toured. Its only vegetation was its fringing reed beds and a solitary bare-branched tree where one lonely cormorant perched.

At night the skies above were clear and dusted with an eternity of stars. A few lights shone out from the hillsides. The pink-pinking of frogs provided a replacement for the birdsong. But I think dawn would have to be my favourite time at Bunyonyi, particularly on market days in Rutinda (Monday and Friday). Dugout canoes would appear from the shores around the lake and skim silently over the silver water, the ghostly mist streaming in their wake. Above, the clouds spilled down over the valley’s lip. Thinking back... maybe it was magical after all...
Lake Bunyonyi
Near Rwanda Border
Kisoro, Uganda

Islands in the Sky (well, 2,000m anyway)

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on February 6, 2012

Nature’s Prime Island is the nearest island to the jetties at Rutinda. It took barely three minutes to scoot across in their motorboat to the resort where we were to stay two nights.

From the boat dock a path leads uphill to the reception building at Nature’s Prime, a combination restaurant / bar / lounge, with open walls looking down over the lawns and shrubbery. This allows the tinkle of birdsong to reach you at all times. Without moving from one of the comfily cushioned cane settees we were able to see darting golden weaver birds, a couple of black ibis perching in a tree, a glittering emerald sunbird or two, long-tailed brown mousebirds huddling together into a shivering fluffy ball against the unseasonal chill, and a black kite keeping an eye on everything. The lawns, oddly enough, were patrolled by about a dozen rabbits.

From the reception paths spider-web out around the island to a series of secluded cabins, all wooden. They generally have verandahs looking out across the lake, making them great places to observe the dawn from. Inside they are very safari-chic with wooden plank walls, leopard-print bedspreads and great twists of mosquito netting to cover the beds. Certainly ours had an ensuite – a (long drop) toilet and a shower room. With actual hot water! The one word of caution I would make is that they tend to be reached by sets of stairs, so be careful in the dark or in wet conditions.

I thought December was meant to be one of the main tourist seasons in Uganda. However, Laura and I were the only guests staying at Nature’s Prime. This gave the complex a bit of a surreal, almost eerie feel. It reminded me slightly of the resort in I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. For just the two of us the place was quite heavily over-staffed – our numbers did increase on the afternoon of the second day however, when a Tucan Travel overlanding group joined us for lunch, a laze and then dinner.

The food was really good here. We were genrally given a couple of options to choose between – though they were happier if you we could order a couple of hours in advance so they knew what ingredients to get from the market. Upon arrival we were treated so some of the local crayfish, cooked up into a sort of bhuna. Our first dinner was at a table pulled up to the reception building’s central fire-pit – cauliflower soup, steak with chips, carrots, green beans and ‘gravy sauce, followed by pancake and orange. Breakfasts were fruit juice, toast and jam, eggs and fruit. On the second day lunch for me was spaghetti neapolitana, with pineapple for dessert. Drinks were extra. They had beer, spirits and soft drinks. I would recommend their rather wonderful passionfruit juice however!

The last night we had company: the Tucan Travel tour group. The staff put on a full cooked buffet and invited some of the local school children (we were told, cryptically, that ‘some are orphans, some are not orphans’) to dance for us. It was part of Nature’s Prime’s links with the local community.

Full board in a wooden cabin costs $60 per person; bed and breakfast only costs $40 each. There are also cheaper safari tents that can be hired. Only our drinks were extra – for the pair of us this added up to 44,500 Ush for two days. We also paid 120,000 Ush for a motorboat tour of the lake. But generally we came here to relax away from the stresses of jobs and cities. We were content to be lazy and just chat or read.

I thought I would share with you one final story however – the Tale of the Mysterious Soap-Eating Monster of Lake Bunyonyi. When we woke up after our first night we could not find our little cake of soap in the bathroom. We had definitely opened a packet up the evening before, but we rationalised that it must have fallen between the floor slats. We therefore opened a second bar, which we used as late as bed time. Yet when we got up the next morning, yet again we found our soap missing.

When I went for breakfast I mentioned this to Brian and Justice. "Ah yes", they nodded. "The creature will have taken it".

"I’m sorry – what creature?" And so they told me a story.

Apparently there is a creature that swims over from the mainland and steals things like forks and matches. But it particularly loves soap. It takes all its trophies back to its cave. It is the same size as a rabbit, but without the ears, and with a long rat-like tail. They didn’t know what it was called. From discussing with Robert later we have come to the conclusion that we may have been burgled by a giant pouched rat; these creatures are a foot long and weigh a kilogram.
Nature's Prime Island
Lake Bunyonyi
Kabale, Uganda

Back to Kampala: Haggling & Hold-Ups

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on February 6, 2012

Any journey in Uganda is entertaining. And even though the road back to Kampala from Lake Bunyonyi was surfaced and even though the bulk of the journey, from Ntungamo onwards, was retracing the route we had followed on our way south, it still had plenty to show.

Robert, our driver, asked permission to make a couple of stops en route. He wished to go shopping. It seems that fresh produce is dramatically cheaper down in Kigezi than it is up in Kampala. He had already bought a sack of ‘Irish’ (the local name for the one variety of potatoes that can be found in Uganda) and he wished to pick up some stems of matoke. These green cooking bananas were sold still attached to their curving boughs. A typical purchase would be good four feet long, with dozens of bananas hanging off. We got used to seeing these lashed to car roofs or hanging from bicycles, boda-bodas or truck wing mirrors. My map of Kigezi had shown the road from Kabale to Rutobo markd with the warning ‘annoying vegetable sellers’. However, when Laura realised that the veg on sale by the roadside here was around a third of what she would pay in Kampala she was eager to get in on the action too. Obviously prices were higher for her than they would have been for Robert on his own – this is the ‘muzungu price’. Robert helped to haggle the prices down as low as he could though. At Ndeja we bought – in addition to Robert’s matoke – pineapples, avocados, passion fruits and a couple of hands of small eating bananas. Laura also bought a waragi bottle filled with local honey. We stopped again near Masaka to buy some red sweet potatoes. Other stalls we passed sold tomatoes, wicker chairs or fresh catfish. It seems the best way of transporting fish home is to tie it to the radiator grill of ones vehicle so the breeze can keep it cool!

We stopped at the Agip Motel in Mbarara again. I’m glad we did not set off a minute earlier than we actually did, for cresting a rise we found a lorry flipped over with one of its trailers lying across the entire width of the road. It blocked the way on a bridge crossing a marshy valley, thereby stopping any traffic from getting past. Sacks of grain, destined for Rwanda, had spilled across the tarmac like sand. When we reached it there were only a couple of cars ahead of us on one of the main roads in Uganda. Had we set off a minute earlier from Mbarara the truck might have flipped over on top of us!

Needless to say, this caused a right farrago as the traffic backed up in both directions. A carnival atmosphere built up, with people seeming to accept that this was part and parcel of everyday life in Uganda. Vehicles emptied as their drivers and passengers got out to take toilet breaks at the road side, engage in conversation, and wander up to have a good old look at the situation. They inevitably returned stuffing handfuls of grain into their pockets!

Once the obstruction was cleared we made good time back to Kampala. We even stopped a couple of times, once at the Equator for a toilet break, and once at Katonga to look at a roadside billboard showing Ugandan president Yoweri Musaveni and his good friend Colonel Muammar Gaddafi (who was, by this time, deceased). Our speed dropped shortly when we reached the outskirts of Kampala. Traffic crawled past the shanties, and stalls. However, even here I could see wildlife – for the first time I could see dozens of ungainly marabou storks perched on roof tops or stalking through piles of refuse. I had not seen any of them during my first weekend in Kampala. Now there was no way to miss them. Ironically for birds whose feathers were the epitome of 1930s luxury it has to be admitted that marabou storks are criminally ugly garbage-chomping scavengers!


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