Trip Report By Jack Whetstone
The Pearl of Africa Part One: The Birding Safari
A year ago I was home from what I thought would be my lifetime visit to Africa. Beorn and I had plans to go to Australia this winter so I began researching that trip. All that changed mid-summer when the Hortons proposed this trip. It would be the same group that went to Panama in ’94, Jim and Karen, LeAnne, Beorn and me plus Burt Jones. And the price was right.
That’s how I found myself at 09:40 on a Sunday morning in the airport in Entebbe, Uganda, the last of the group to arrive. When I cleared Customs the crew was there with Herbert Byaruhanga, our guide for the next 3 weeks plus. Herbert is the director of BirdUganda Safaris (BUS) and founder and director of the Ugandan Guides Club. When he’s not leading tours he trains site guides in birding for Ugandan Wildlife Authority. We climbed into the Land Cruiser for the hour-long ride to Kampala and our 1st 2 nights lodgings at Lindsay Cottages. This Land Cruiser is a ’95, built like LCs from the 70s with extended cabin space that carried 8 of us and occasionally 9 over a wide assortment of road conditions and never went into 4wd.
Day two; after breakfast and adding another guide, Paddy Muramura who manages the web site for BUS and is an outstanding photographer, we headed out to Mabamba Swamp to look for the Shoebill. An hour’s drive, partly through the outskirts of Kampala got us to a Papyrus swamp, another hour south to the lake-level (Lake Victoria) swamp. We went out in the swamp in large wood canoes and found our Shoebill (we saw a second later at Murchison Falls). Shoebills look like a cross between a pelican and a stork. They feed on lungfish mostly in Papyrus swamps and only in Uganda are they readily found. Their rarity and oddity puts them in the running for “bird of the trip” (BOTT). This is the bird one goes to Uganda to see.
The next day we had a long drive north through Kampala and countryside with villages to Murchison Falls National Park. We had numerous stops for new birds like Ross’ Turaco and Lizard Buzzard (very like our Gray Hawk in habits and dress) before lunch in Masindi and then on to the park. A dark forest walk with furtive glimpses of dark forest birds. I did see Pulvel’s Iliadopsis (one of the better bird names I think) but one of those plain gray birds. Some birds require knowing calls and songs, and Herbert not only knows them but can reproduce most. This is a useful talent I’ve noticed especially with birds that get their fashion ideas from Empidonax flycatchers. After a ferry ride across the Nile we arrived at Paraa Safari Lodge, our home for the next few days. Paraa Safari seems to have regained its former glory. It was neglected during the tourism catastrophes of the ’70s but seems up to speed now. We were here 3 nights and had 2 days of game drives, a Nile boat trip and a visit to the top of the falls. This primarily savanna and woodlands park is full of Ugandan Kob, Cape Buffalo, Elephant and other wildlife. Lake Albert frames the western edge and the Victoria Nile plunges over the falls and bisects the park.
From Murchison we drove south stopping at a roadside borrow ditch pond for some shorebirds where Beorn found 3 Painted Snipe tucked up under the brush. Rarely seen and subtly beautiful, they were another candidate for “BOTT”. We headed up the Lake Albert escarpment avoiding marching soldiers then stopped for an hour in the Budongo Forest for a walk with crombecs, The next 2 nights were in Masindi in a colonial-era hotel with birding the Budongo Forest along the Royal Mile. The Dwarf Kingfisher was a highlight here as was the monkey chatter when the Crowned Eagle flew over. In the afternoon Herbert and Paddy, Karen and I really worked to find the Chocolate-backed Kingfisher while the others rested in the truck. Then everyone else came up the road and got it easily.
We seemed to always do our long drive days on Sunday. This meant that in every village and town we passed through people were dressed in their Sunday best. The drive from Masindi to Fort Portal is over some pretty rough roads and it took most of the day to arrive at our next 2 nights lodging, Ndali Lodge. Perched on a narrow spur between 2 crater lakes the cabins are more like what we experienced in South Africa, self-contained and thatched. This was the Kibale Forest and our mission here was Chimpanzee tracking. The following morning we left early for the Chimp tracking station, got our guide and drove to our site. We were lucky this morning and our guide hadn’t finished her introduction when a Chimp called only a short distance up the trail. We were with the Chimps within a few minutes and stayed with them our allotted hour while the other parties straggled up to our location (they’d been dropped off at 2 other points up to a kilometer away).
The next leg of the trip was to the Semliki Forest National Park which entailed a long descent down the northwestern corner of the Rwenzori Mountains. The Semliki area is a piece of the vast Ituri Region in the Congo. By luck of the survey (The Semliki River was chosen as the boundary) Uganda has this otherwise Congo-only habitat. We birded a trail through tall forest where our porter was text messaging on his cell phone, visited the “woman” hot springs then drove to the night’s lodgings at Semliki Lodge. Under normal conditions this might have been an hour but truck traffic going through to the south end of Lake Albert during the previous rainy season had turned the road into a very low speed slalom course, driving from one crater to the next. Because a normally 1 hour trip now took twice that we opted to bird the drier habitat around the lodge the following day rather than return to the forest. Semliki Lodge gives new meaning to “tent cabin”. Definitely the luxury end of camping.
Ascending the pass to Fort Portal we marveled at the farmsteads clinging to hillsides cleared of vegetation save local crops. Often as steep as 45d with sweet potato and banana patches just below the road edge how does anyone tend them? We also marveled at things hauled on bicycles. We’d seen huge bunches of bananas but here in the city there were large loads of firewood balanced precariously and our favorite, a wooden twin bed frame being pedaled across town from the carpentry shop to someone’s home by delivery bike.
Our host at Ndali, Aubrey told us the story of Gerald Portal’s statue. Portal was the British representative during “the Scramble”and evidently did a good job because the town recently erected a larger-than-life bronze of Sir Gerald, rifle in arms, sword in belt at the main round-a-bout. The sword evidently was broken off fairly early leaving the hilt projecting prominently below the waist and looking every bit as if it were Sir Gerald’s own. Still there, go see for yourself.
At the end of the day we wandered through the big market. Beorn got iron spear points from the blacksmith I got a picture of open bags of various beans. The following morning we birded the rich Kibale Forest and after lunch, and a visit to the Tooro king’s palace, drove south on pavement for a change to Queen Elizabeth National Park. How many tourists get out and take goofy pictures at the Equator, we did.
Our time in QE was similar to the time in Murchison. We stayed at the beautiful Mweya Lodge with its Warthog lawnmowers, Banded Mongoose troop, and Hippo just off the veranda. We had a game drive early then a river cruise the first day, game drive again early followed by a trip to the gorge and the bat cave that netted us our first Narina Trogon. Trogons are always one of my target birds and we’d missed this one in South Africa, another candidate for BOTT. In the evening we saw the phenomenon of the Lake Flies when trillions of them swarmed in the lights and cleared the diners from the veranda in 5 minutes or less.
Then it was Sunday again and time to move. Not far out the gate we found 2 lion cubs with mom and a few klicks more and there was a leopard in the road ahead. We only had to go 150 kilometers and with birding stops and rough road it took most of the day to get to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and our tent cabins in Buhoma. This area has 4 Gorilla families that have been acclimatized to human presence. Three of these groups form the eco-tourism economic engine that drives the little town. Tomorrow we would go after the “M” group.
It quickly became apparent that tracking gorillas wasn’t going to be the “walk in the park” that chimp tracking had been. The guide book said to hire porters to help with the climb and we did and we needed them. The trail was very steep, damp, and covered with tangles of roots and branches and would have been very difficult without the steadying hand of my porter and occasional push from the porter below. It took us 2 hours to climb the 2 kilometers to the ridge top where our family was feeding (one of the other tracking groups was already back to Buhoma 20 minutes before we reached our group) but suddenly we were among them, Gorillas in our midst. We spent our hour at surprisingly close range to our family of ten with its “silver-back” and 2 infants. Jim even got brushed by a gorilla as it passed him. The trip down wasn’t as hard as we’d feared probably because we were so “juiced” by our experience. Sore knees and feet but a lifetime experience.
The following day we birded the Buhoma trails for Albertine Rift specialties and got caught out in the rain for the first and only time. The next morning we were off again for the Ruhija high country. This was billed as our most rustic accommodation. We were housed at research facility that reminded me of being in Yecora, Sonora. Rustic but adequate and the chef Moses who came up specifically to cook for us made it almost idyllic. Idyllic for non-acrophobics that is. The Bwindi highlands are of volcanic origin with rich soils, dense forest and endemic fauna, but the steepest slopes imaginable. The rock seems like talc and must erode at a phenomenal rate. The angle of repose must be close to 90d! I consider myself lucky to have seen it before it all erodes away. The big adventure for this site was an 8k hike down to a mountain swamp to look for African Green Broadbill. (Rare and pretty enough to qualify as BOTT). Only Karen, Beorn and I joined Herbert, Paddy and our rangers for the all-day hike. The others were willing to forgo the pleasure. Almost immediately Beorn found a Narina Trogon but the real target bird this day was the Bar-tailed Trogon and about mid-point in our long descent they posed nicely for us. Both African Trogons in a single day! BOTT What goes down must climb back up but before we started the climb Alex from the research Station carried down a hot lunch complete with crockery and cutlery, on his head.
We left Ruhija the following afternoon as the rain began falling and drove down from the forest into the land of cultivation. White Horse Lodge on the green with its Fruit Bat roost in Kabale was our first night. Like the National Park Lodges this lodge was built during the tourism boom that followed independence and survived the debacles of the ’70s. The following morning we had a leisurely start, a visit to the cultural museum and a relaxed drive to Mbarara where we checked in to the Agyp Motel, explored town and relaxed. We left early the next morning for a last game drive in Lake Mburo National Park to see Impala and Zebra. After a picnic in the savanna it was back on the highway headed for Kampala. As we entered the city a bull came trotting down the main road apparently making good his escape from the nearby stockyards. We were struck by the nonchalance of the pedestrians as the bull passed. In the US this would have made the national news, here it seemed an everyday event. We checked in to Lindsay Cottages for our last night and shared dinner with Herbert’s charming family. A perfect wrap-up for our incredible trip.