Human herds bypass Uganda

By Tom Carter

On safari in less-travelled nation

The safari van is bumping along a dusty dirt track through the high savannah when driver and game guide Geoffrey Mutuma brings it to a sudden halt. “Something is wrong,” he says, intently scanning the surrounding countryside of high grass and acacia trees. It is a glorious African morning, and in every direction we see wildlife: wart hogs, buffalo, waterbuck, an elephant lumbering in the distance, and in front of the van, at least 100 kobs – small antlered antelopes that resemble impalas – standing shoulder to shoulder, all looking off in the same direction.

“The kobs are alerting on something. There,” he says, pointing. “Spots. A leopard.” Sure enough, 50 yards away, slinking around the backside of a large anthill, is a female leopard – her face a fearful symmetry – looking at us looking at her.
We hold our breath, astonished and grateful to be observing the African wild, predator and prey, as they have lived for tens of thousands of years.

After a brief few moments, the leopard, cover blown, scowls at the van and slips off into the bush. Having been to zoos and seen African animals, I didn’t expect seeing them in the wild to be such a heart-stopping, wondrous experience. Earlier in the day, a large bull elephant stomped at our van – and blew its trunk, – telling us we had gotten too close. Hippos wander around on land and at lake’s edge, snorting. Large monitor lizards sun on rocks, and young lions laze in the shade, swatting flies as the sun slides higher over the African plain.

“It was so incredible. That elephant was so close, and we were obviously in his environment,” says Judy Clark of Port McNeil, British Columbia. “It was surreal, like going back to where it all started. It was Paradise.”

Spotting lions, elephants, warthogs, hyenas, fish eagles and hippopotamuses is common in this park in western Uganda, but leopards are rare, and our group from Washington and Canada is thrilled – and thankful to Geoffrey – to have seen a leopard on the hunt.

We return to the cushy Mweya Safari Lodge, perched above Lake Edward, and Martin Okot, our other guide, is visibly pleased. Checking the large chalkboard that lists which safari group has seen what and where, next to the leopard box the board says, “Maybe tomorrow.”

“Geoffrey has good eyes. We were lucky, the only ones to see a leopard today,” Okot says with some pride at having bested the British and Australian guides.

Okot, 27, is chief guide, butterfly and bird expert for Great Lakes Safaris, one of the few African-owned-and-operated safari companies in Uganda. He has spent most of his life studying Ugandan wildlife, and he has a particular fascination with Uganda’s birds.

As one of the nation’s foremost birding experts, he is rarely without his bird book, binoculars and tape recorder, which he uses to record and identify the calls of birds during rare sightings.

“Uganda is an equatorial country really unique in its bird and animal wealth,” Okot says over a lunch of cold Nile beer, freshly fried tilapia and fries. “Uganda has deep forests, volcanoes, snow-capped mountain ranges along the Equator, open savannas, and there is a bit of desert in the North. I love showing Uganda to visitors.”

While a wart hog and hippopotamus grunt nearby just out of sight in the bush, Okot turns to his love of Ugandan birds, saying more than 1,000 species of birds can be found in Uganda.

“We have more bird species per square kilometre than any other country in Africa,” he says. That morning, he showed us a southern red bishop; a great blue turaco; several African fish eagles; a pin-tailed whydah; a crested guinea fowl; a crested eagle; a pied kingfisher; a malachite kingfisher; several species of bee eater; a dozen trees full of orange weavers and their softball-size, basketlike nests; and, of course, the ubiquitous cattle egret, picking insects off the back of the wild African buffalo.

Uganda has a half-dozen game parks. We came to Queen Elizabeth, the country’s most popular and most accessible park, because it offers the possibility of seeing the widest variety of African wildlife – 95 mammal species – in the shortest period of time. Ten primate species and 20 predators are found in Queen Elizabeth.

Among the other parks, Murchison Falls features giraffes, and many consider the Royal Mile, a stretch of road in the Budongo Forest Reserve, to be the best bird-watching spot in Uganda. Many tourists travel from around the world to see Uganda’s gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable.

Reaching the gorilla habitat can require a five- or six-hour trek, but we met an older Jewish couple from New York and three college women from the University of Georgia who were undaunted by the walk and had come to Uganda specifically to view primates in the wild. Bwindi also has an astonishing array of birds, including 23 of the 24 Albertine Rift endemics.

We all had come to Uganda, rather than Kenya or South Africa, for safari because it is less expensive and less travelled than the well-beaten safari tracks in other parts of Africa.

“Kruger, in South Africa, is like a petting zoo, tons of tourists and cars, like Yellowstone,” says Cynthia McMahon, a World Bank official and veteran of several safaris. “Here you get the sense it is really wild. The elephant [we saw] was upset.” Uganda also is considerably safer, with little of the street crime that is rampant in other parts of Africa.

“The people of Uganda are very hospitable, and when looking at city safety, our clients are very free in Kampala as compared to Nairobi or Johannesburg,” says Okot, whose view is echoed by numerous Western expatriates living in Uganda. Mrs. Clark, who is travelling with her best friend, Sherry Groenendyk, agrees.

“We were hit on all the time,” Mrs. Clark says, “but I was never afraid. The men were always very polite when we told them, ‘No.'” Most safari tourists to Queen Elizabeth stay at the Mweya Lodge, built on a high point overlooking the area where the Kazinga Channel enters Lake Edward. It has a pool and several restaurants with food in the $5 to $7 range. Safaris that include Mweya Lodge start at about $250 a day, including meals.

We choose cheaper digs and stay 50 yards down the road at the Institute of Ecology Hostel, sleeping under mosquito nets. Our three-day safari costs $350 per person, including transportation to and from Kampala, two nights’ lodging and some Ugandan-style meals. It can be done even cheaper if you are willing to camp.

On the second day, we hike into the Kyambura Gorge in hopes of seeing chimpanzees and a half-dozen other primate species. A red-tailed monkey and a family of black-and-white colobus monkeys show up, the chimpanzees have crossed the raging river and cannot be reached.

Even considering all the beauty of the primates, large mammals and carnivores, Uganda is a bird-watcher’s paradise.

“Uganda is arguably the most attractive country in Africa to bird-watchers, not only because of the unusually high number of species recorded within its borders, but because it offers easy access to bird-rich habitats that are difficult to reach elsewhere,” according to Bradt’s Travel Guide to Uganda.

“Any forest in Uganda will be rewarding for birds: even a relatively tame botanical garden in Entebbe [near the airport] will throw up several interesting species.”

Uganda Safaris

Okot says Uganda is a serious birding destination. “I have seen over 400 species here. President Carter on a short walk in Entebbe on the Heritage Trail added 30 birds to his life list in just a couple of hours of birding,” he says.

Okot has a difficult time picking his “most exciting birding experience” but says that seeing three shoebills together in Murchison Falls comes close. As shoebills are rare and usually solitary birds, seeing three together during mating season was a treat. On another day in Queen Elizabeth, he saw two Verreaux’s eagle-owls, and later in the Maramagambo section, he saw a melanistic (dark) morph and an African paradise flycatcher.

“One trip of two or three weeks of intensive birding can give you a chance to identify hundreds of species. The extraordinary wildlife is also available, hence the country caters to everyone, depending on their time schedule,” Okot says.

“A total of 547 confirmed and 15 unconfirmed bird species (including 54 raptors) have been recorded in Queen Elizabeth, one of the highest totals in the world, and a truly remarkable figure for a reserve that is relatively small by African standards,” the Bradt Travel Guide says.

Mrs. Clark, who works at Nimmo Bay, a five-star fly-fishing resort in Canada’s Pacific wilds, says she would recommend Uganda to her well-heeled fishing clients as well as to budget travellers.
“Uganda is not real touristy,” she says. “It hasn’t caught up with the rest of the world, but the people here are so incredible. Sherry and her husband are talking about moving here. I felt safe everywhere. I’d recommend Uganda to anyone.”

The Washington Times
The team travelled with Great Lakes Safaris
Published on: Saturday, 23rd November, 2002