November 2003: Uganda will always be one of my most special trips. Even though it was my 2nd time to Africa, after Egypt, it was my 1st time to Sub-Sahara Africa, and it was really when I first realized just how special Africa is and I fell in love with the continent. Not only did I enjoy traveling in Uganda, which back in 2003 lacked any significant number of tourists, I stayed with a few Ugandan guys that were my age and became good friends with them Instead of feeling like a tourist, it felt like I was staying with good friends as their guest. I met the Ugandan guys through another American teacher I worked with when I was teaching English in South Korea. The other American teacher lived in Uganda when he was stationed there in the Peace Corps and the Ugandan guys, I stayed with were his friends. For two weeks while I was in Uganda, my Ugandan friends showed me around the country, I tracked wild Mountain gorillas, camped in Queen Elizabeth Reserve, where I saw my first lion and climbed the Rwenzori Mountains-the fabled Mountains of the Moon. This is the story of my trip.

About Uganda

My route across Uganda

Uganda, a small country surrounded by Africa’s largest freshwater lakes and a few rough neighbors such as the DRC and South Sudan, has one of the highest population densities in Africa. Despite its large population, there are some incredible nature reserves and opportunities to experience Africa’s wilderness and wildlife at its finest, such as Mountain Gorillas and the Rwenzori Mountains. Uganda has a rich African history and was part of the Buganda Kingdom and the people speak Luganda. Uganda was also a British colony and as a result, the people like in neighboring Kenya, speak English too. Uganda is famous for being ruled by one of Africa’s most notorious dictators, Idi Amin, who ruled the country with an iron fist from 1971-1979. Idi Amin was overthrown by General Museveni in 1979 and Museveni has ruled Uganda ever since as one of the world’s longest ruling presidents. During my time in Uganda, a war raged in the north and occasionally I would see reports on the news of villagers being brutally slaughtered by the cult leader, Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in the north along the South Sudan border. One of my Ugandan friends even claimed to come from a village in the north that was razed to the ground by the LRA.  

Being Shown Around by My Ugandan Friends

My friends Simon, Frank and Henry were all friends with my co-worker who taught English with me in South Korea, and he know them from his time in Uganda in the Peace Corps. I stayed in Martin’s house and Simon and Frank also stayed in the house with us. These guys did a great job of showing me the country and bringing me into their friendship circles all middle-class Ugandans and some that were in Parliament so that I could get to know Ugandans at a personal level and not just as a tourist. They took me around the country and introduced me to their families, brought me as guest to traditional weddings with Ugandan dancing and singing, to bars, restaurants and they even got mean interview for a pilot job at the airport with one of the owners of a local Ugandan bush plane airline.  I was told for insurance reasons, I needed 50 more hours of pilot time and then they would hire me. My Ugandan friends were a lot of fun and we had a blast together.

At a Ugandan wedding with Frank, Simon and Martin

Me visiting Martin’s family. 

Maribou stork as common as pigeons in the streets of Entebbe and kampala. These huge grim reaper looking scavenging storks were everywhere.

Tracking Mountain Gorilas at Bwindi National Park

There are only approx. 800 Mountain gorillas, the largest of the gorilla species, left in the wild and almost 400 of them live in the mountain forests of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, which straddles the DRC border. The remaining populations of wild mountain gorillas are found in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Uganda/DRC and Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda/DRC. The conservation of these gorillas despite poaching, civil war, deforestation, widespread poverty of the people living in the area and rebel activity is really a miracle. One reason for the conservation success is eco-tourism, which has provided the government and local communities jobs and revenue needed to protect the gorillas and provide more incentive to keep them alive than dead. Eco-tourism started in the mid 90 in Bwindi but took a huge hit when in the late 90s a group of rebels in DRC that were involved in the genocide in Rwanda crossed the border from DRC into Bwindi and took a group of tourists and their guides captive, raping and murdering some of them with machetes. The incident scared away tourists from Bwindi for years to come and even when I visited in 2003, the reserve was still reeling from the effects of the attack and tourism was still in the process of rebounding. In order to prevent a repeat of the attack, there are lots of armed rangers in the reserve and all tourists tracking gorillas are also accompanied by armed rangers.

To visit the reserve, I had to obtain a permit that was 250USD. I wired my money to the Uganda Wildlife Authority and was emailed a permit. Getting to the reserve was not easy and involved traveling all day through the mountains on muddy, rough roads. I rented a 4 by 4 vehicle and my friend Frank drove the vehicle. Together we drove to Bwindi visiting villages along the way. In Bwindi we stayed the night in one of the bungalows at the park headquarters located in the mountain rainforest, where on occasion mountain gorillas visit. The park headquarters would be the base from where we tracked the gorillas, the next morning.

Bad road to Bwindi

Uganda Village Life

Uganda Village Life

Village market

To find the location of the gorilla families, a group of trackers would keep constant tabs on the location and radio the location to rangers. The only problem was that gorillas are constantly moving and sometimes even at night, so the location is always subject to change. We were told that the walk would be rough, sometimes we would be bush whacking it outside of trails and we could be hiking anywhere from 30 minutes to 8 hours to track the gorillas. In some cases, the gorillas are not found at all. There are multiple families inside the park and not all are visited by tourists. Only the gorillas that have become habituated, a process where the regular presence of scientists and rangers help wild gorillas to develop somewhat of a comfort level with humans. The gorillas are still wild even if habituated and prone towards doing things that wild gorillas would do, which includes perceiving a human as a threat and reacting accordingly, so the rangers provide a strict series of guidelines to follow in the event the gorillas are found. To avoid overstressing a particular family of gorillas, rangers rotate the visits between several groups.

The next morning when I tracked the gorillas we drove to another part of the park and began our trek through farmland in deforested areas. Gorillas sometimes leave the park and eat plants in deforested areas of the park, but they almost always return to the forest to sleep. I hiked for approx. 2-3 hours, half of which was in the rainforest before I heard a rustling from the treetops and the ranger motioned for everyone to crouch down and wait because the gorillas were now above us and descending from the trees to the ground near where we were crouched. Next thing I knew, I was surrounded by a family of Mountain Gorilla, just 5-10 feet away. it was a dream come true and one of the moments in life that seem to surreal to be actually happening. It was a childhood fantasy that was playing out before my eyes and just in case I forgot it was real, I would be reminded of the reality of the moment by the foul body odors of the gorillas, the flies that followed them around and jumped from them to us and the reality of knowing that only a few feet away from me was the enormous Silverback, the dominant male that weighed approx. 400-500lbs and likely possessed the strength of 6 men. The Silverback was always on guard for the slightest behavior or movement that may be perceived as a threat to his family and his enormous arms and shoulders and fangs that he nonchalantly showed when strategically yawning were all part of his threat display to alert our group that he was the one in charge. The silverback would beat his chest Donkey Kong style and sometimes stare at me. I would avert his gaze to show that I am submitting to him. It was incredible tome that he allowed us to be among his family with a small baby gorilla rolling around and even approaching me to within a foot before its mother grabbed it and pulled the baby back towards it.

We were restricted to spending only 30 minutes with the gorillas before we had to depart, and 30 minutes was enough anyways. It was definitely an experience I will never forget.

Ranger leading us through the forest to track Mountain Gorilas

Hiking through the farmland to get into Bwindi Forest to track mountain Gorilas

Armed Ranger escoring my gorila trek

Male Silverback

Silverback

Female gorila

Baby

Me posing with a gorila

Silverback Gorila

Queen Elizabeth National Park

From Bwindi we drove to Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda’s answer to the Serengeti in Kenya. Queen Elizabeth located along Lake Edwards protects savannah and forest and is home to Elephants, lions, hippos and Chimpanzees. The wildlife was decimated during the cil war, but populations have rebounded since then,

I camped in a tent near one of the lakes and woke up in the morning to the sight of hippos and buffalo grazing just outside of my tent. I would very quietly and very calmly wait for them to leave. Queen Elizabeth was where I saw my first elephant and lion on a safari drive. A male lion walked right in front of us and sadly my photos didn’t turn out. Queen Elizabeth was amazing and devoid of tourists. I drove around seldomly ever seeing another car. This was very typical of my trip in Uganda thus far.

Grasslands of Queen Elizabeth

my friend Frank and I at the restaraunt patio/Queen Elizabeth NP overlooking the lakes

A hyena in Queen Elizabeth

A Waterbuck in Queen Elizabeth

My tent

Hippo outside my tent grazing

Red buck

Stork

Rwenzori Mountains “Mountains of the Moon”

It was from Queen Elizabeth that I had my first glimpse of the rain shrouded Rwenzori Mountains. The huge mountains in the distance on the northern edge of Queen Elizabeth were constantly drenched in deep purple storm clouds and I could hear the distant rumbling of thunder. These mountains were my next destination and the ominous sight of storm clouds lingering over them was not very inviting.

The Greeks, Romans and all civilizations since have been searching for the true source of the Nile. In these searches, the Rwenzori Mountains were believed to be the source due to their height and massive snowcapped glaciers that local tribes called Mountains of the Moon because they were white. Congo explorer Stanley and Speke observed the mountains in the late 1800’s and determined that the mountains were largely overlooked by Europeans because they were constantly obscured by rain clouds. Not much has changed in this regard.

The Rwenzori Mountains straddle the border between Uganda and the DRC. The mountains, rainforests, and high alpine swamps, and glaciers are protected by a national park. The mountains are completely wild and seldomly visited by anyone and to enter I needed a permit from the Ugandan Wildlife Authority. From there my Ugandan friend drove me to the park headquarters where he dropped me off to do the trek. From there, I was assigned a group of armed rangers (like in Bwindi occasionally dangerous DRC rebels cross over into the Uganda side), porters and a cook, and we began the long and grueling trek into the mountains.

Me and my trekking team before the hike

The Rwenzori Mountains are wildlife rich but they were hard to spot. In the rainforest, I occasionally observed blue monkeys in the distance and from the sleeping hutsI could hear rock hyrax calling each other but aside from that I didn’t see anything else.

The trails were not maintained lacked any infrastructure and were steep, and muddy. It started raining almost immedietely and the rain poured ceasing only briefly during day and night. I rarely took any photos on the trek because the hiking conditions were so rough and difficult. We crossed rivers and were constantly in a state of wetness. I prepared for the trek by bringing military style hiking boots and raon gear but I was still drenched and my feet wet.

 

Jungles at the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains

Massive jungle sloped mountain we climbed in the rain and mud straight up a steep path flowing with rain water

Crossing rivers on the trek

Crossing rivers on the trek

Thick jungle

Biggest worm I have ever seen that was much larger than my foot

My first hut where I slept

The trek was pure torture, and it was lonely. it was one of those challenging times in my travels where I felt completely alone and pushed to my limits. I trekked almost 12 hours per day with no rest and although i was accompanied by a team dedicated to helping me, they didn’t speak a lot of English and it was difficult communicating with them. I trekked almost all day, every day in grueling conditions for 3 days and barely had anyone to speak to and the solitude of doing so took its toll on me after a while. I slept in my own room, while my team slept in their own hut. The sleeping hut was rustic, cold and grim. The wind and rain whipped and pounded the corrugated roof all night.

Inside the cooking hut

High alpine swamps

Once I climbed to about 11,000′, I reached a series of high alpine swamps with giant groundswell plants and other endemic plants found nowhere else. For the next day, we slogged through waist high mud through bogs in freezing rain. There were no boardwalks, and I used a long stick to brace myself in the mud and to try and evaluate the depth of mud before each step. This art of the hike was extremely challenging. We ended up staying in a high-altitude sleeping hut and for a short period of time, the clouds cleared, and I was able to see some of the snow-clad peaks looming above me before they disappeared again in the rain.

High elevation bogs I had to walk through

I ended up trekking for 2nights/3 days in the Rwenzori Mountains. I could have trekked for another few days, but the scenery would have been the same and the conditions unchanged, so I decided to end the trek after 3 days and return to Entebbe to stay with my friends and travel to Kenya sooner than expected.

Mt Stanley

I traveled by public transportation back to Entebbe, having one bad encounter on the crowded bus when in a rainstorm with zero visibility, the driver crashed into something large, which everyone thought was a human. The whole bus exited in horror expecting the worst. Instead of a human, it was the mangled wreckage of a dead cow. Everyone returned to the bus, and we set off to Entebbe, where I spent a few more days with my Ugandan friends before setting off via public bus to Mombasa, Kenya.

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