Recently in Uganda & Rwanda Category

Arriving in Uganda and Driving to Kisoro

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Full house in business class on the BA flight to Entebbe.  Very good flight attendants, average food, and a decent night's sleep in the older 767 Club World seats.  So no big complaints, really.

Lamb Chops Fruit, Tea, and a Fruit Smoothie

On arrival we purchased visas for $50 USD each and were then relieved to find our bags on the carousel.  I was concerned they wouldn't do well transiting all those airports with us.  We had a bit of a snafu with our airport pickup, but we eventually got things sorted out, losing about an hour in the process.  For anyone arriving in Entebbe, there are loads of banks and cell phone shops after exiting baggage claim.

Following all these flights, we had a quite long drive to our first destination of Kisoro, Uganda.  It's about 500km and with the road conditions this was about 9 hours driving.  Ugandans are apparently quite good at cramming many people into their cars:

Full House

Two points that somewhat surprised us about Uganda initially.  (1) the main roads are in worse condition than Madagascar's.  Never thought such a thing was possible!  (2) the landscape is more stunning than we could have ever thought.  Coming out from the clouds on British Airways we were immediately taken aback by just how GREEN the land was.  Then as we started passing food stalls on the road, we realized the farms are producing a huge variety of fresh produce (everything you can imagine from pineapple to avocados to sorghum).  We'll attempt to capture these points in photos further down the road...

We made the obligatory stop en route at the Equator.  We also passed through the Equator precisely a year ago while in the Galapagos, so we're vets at that.

OMG

For lunch we stopped in Mbarara at City Top Restaurant.  I found a tip somewhere online about this Indian restaurant run by some brothers from Tamil Nadu (my family's 'hood).  Definitely recommended as a change of pace from eating at tourist hotels.  Below is what parothas (very good) and "meat roast" (turns out to be lamb gravy--my mom's is better) shakes out to.

City Top Restaurant

After lunch and many more hours, the road eventually brought us to Kisoro where we stayed at the Traveller's Rest Hotel.  Maybe a tad pricey for some at $120 USD for full board, but we loved our stay here and I can't imagine a better place in this town.  It's managed by a Dutchman and watched over be a friendly brother/sister pair of Rottweilers.  All three of them were great to spend time with.

Traveler's Rest Hotel

Nice, clean, and big room (this is the Mutanda room we stayed in).  And there's even scalding hot, solar-heated showers if you fancy.

Mutanda Room

The food was phenomenal.  The menu below might seem silly for a a small village in southwest Uganda, but consider that it's all made with very local and fresh ingredients and it was simply delicious.  Plus breakfasts feature honey made from the local bees.

Traveler's Rest Dinner Menu

So after a night's rest, the following day would be what we really came on this trip for.  Mountain Gorillas...

Nkuringo Mountain Gorillas Teaser

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Adorable Nkuringo Infant

While the photography was frustrating, the first day's gorilla tracking of the Nkuringo group in Uganda was a great success.  We even got a few keeper photographs.  Most importantly, it was just an unbelievable and memorable experience overall.  We've had some thrilling wildlife sightings the past couple years, but seeing a few of these 700 remaining beauties in their natural habitat easily takes the cake.

We're posting this from Musanze, Rwanda (formerly called Rugengeri), whereabouts today we'll spend another hour with a different group of mountain gorillas.  And it's also where the internet bandwidth is limited and thus photo uploading slow.  So this is regrettably all we will provide for now!  We'll be at the Sheraton Kampala in two days and I hear they have one of the fastest connections in East Africa.  If so, I'll be putting it to the test...

So please do check back soon!  We hope to make it worthwhile for the majority of you who don't care for airplane food photos...

Tracking the Nkuringo Mountain Gorillas

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Email and RSS subscribers will likely need to click over to klugusamy.com to view the below photos--sorry 'bout that.

We had breakfast at the dark hour of 5:30am and were in the Land Cruiser at 6:00am for the bumpy 1.5 hour drive up to Nkuringo from Kisoro.  At 7:30am we were at the Uganda Wildlife Authority's little "headquarters".  The main gorilla tracking operation in Uganda is in Buhoma, so this little outstation very much reflected that it's an outstation.

No matter, we soon found out we were the lone tourists for the day.  Nice!  (more on this lack of traffic at the bottom*)  Lillie and I each hired a porter (~10 USD) to carry our packs and we set off with our guide, the porters, and two guys with guns.  Funny that we never even wondered why these guys had guns, at the time.  Gun = African walking stick, some say.  In reality, they are to scare off angry elephants or buffalos that might be encountered along the way.

To get to the mountain gorillas at Nkuringo, it's a quite steep initial downhill climb.  Fortunately for Lillie, the Ugandan Porters feel very much so obliged to your safety throughout the trek.  Godfrey carried her backpack but also held her hand on any steep, slippery sections of the non-trail.  From there, it depends on where the gorillas are hanging out.  We've heard that it can get quite strenuous getting to this group, but we were fortunate.  Less than an hour, and we had arrived.

Just before you get to the gorillas, you meet up with the trackers and are required to drop your packs and take only what you need on your body (no food or water allowed).  This is to ensure no gorillas go running away with your lunch box (amongst other things).  Then we proceeded with two park rangers to spend an hour with these mountain gorillas.  There are 19 members of this group--including six month old twins!

Instead of the usual long scroll through inline photos, I'm giving an embedded slideshow a whirl below.  You'll need Flash, but otherwise please leave a comment if you have any troubles viewing.

 

It was still early in the morning and most of the group were just getting up and eating breakfast.  We stayed in pretty much the same position for the hour while the entire group went about their business immediately surrounding us.  Seven meters is the official line on the distance you keep.  In reality, the mountain gorillas are unaware of this rule. 

As mentioned previously, taking photos was pretty tricky.  You're in a dense jungle with low light and there is always a blade of grass or leaf in the way of your shot.  On some of the photos above you'll see what looks like lots of brown dust on the lens--those are actually dense clusters of flies.

An hour passes pretty fast.  Time flies when you're having fun, I guess.  It was hot and horribly humid (for us) on the steep climb back up.  We charged up at a very speedy pace and were back to the station in an hour.  The rangers complimented us for being "very strong".  We would have stopped for more breaks had we known that was the impression we gave.  Less than three hours roundtrip, in the end.  But that's very much a "your miles may vary" situation.

We drove back to Kisoro to eat the packed lunch we didn't get a chance to eat while tracking.  We got the "you're already back?" from everyone at Traveler's Rest Hotel.  Speaking of which, they make a very nice packed lunch for this occasion.  We sat in their garden watching the birds and Rottweilers play before retiring to our room for a nap.

Happy to say it was a tremendous experience, and worth all the money and travel required.  And it was great knowing we would give it another go in Rwanda in two days...


*Some commentary on Nkuringo.  From what we gather, this outstation is being horribly mismanaged.  There are eight permits per day available and six of the permits are allocated to Clouds Mountain Resort--a $900/night lodge nearby.  The existence of this lodge is insane.  I can't imagine anyone paying that kind of money to stay at a lodge that requires a quite bumpy road of more than three hours from Kabale to reach.  Plus, I can't imagine people paying that much money being interested in enduring what is a very strenuous trek to reach to the gorillas.

To these points, it seems nobody is staying at this lodge.  Thus partly explaining why there were only the two of us tracking the group that day.  On the flip side, I'd say this is an excellent opportunity for some travelers to take advantage of.  It was quite a luxury having the gorillas all to ourselves!  On a sad note, I think USAID was involved with funding some of this madness.  I'll do some research on that another day.

Birding on Lake Mutanda

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Email and RSS subscribers will need to click over to klugusamy.com to view the below photos--sorry 'bout that.

Baker (our fantastic driver) hooked us up with Gerald, a Kisoro resident who knows his birds.  We paid him about $40 USD for 5+ hours of hiking and birding around Lake Mutanda.  This turned out to be a really great little side trip that wasn't on our itinerary.

Lake Mutanda

We hopped out of the car and started the walk down towards the lake.  Lots of birds along the way.  Below is a selection with IDs in the captions (please post a comment if you spot any we've misidentified - certainly possible).  One bummer is that we somehow only saw Crested Cranes from a long distance on two occasions.  We went into the trip thinking we'd be tripping all over these guys.  (They are Uganda's bald eagle)

 

We also met here the Kisoro Parrots.  These were young kids yelling "How are you!" (notice the exclamation point and not question mark) and "Give me money!"  To that one, Gerald told me to respond right back with "Give me money!".  This only seemed to cause confusion, however.

We were a bit off the beaten path here, so these kids aren't seeing a whole lot of Muzungu (foreigners) and we were thus a big novelty.  Our group of three often swelled to ten or more when a troop of kids would start following.  We've got a pretty strict 'no photos of people' policy, but since these kiddos were begging to have their photos taken, we were happy to oblige. 

 

Another fun part of this side trip was riding a dug out canoe across the lake.  We paid about $5 to a local guy for a pleasant 45 minute paddle.  Even while in the middle of the lake we could hear the Kisoro Parrots yelling our direction.  Here's the chariot we cruised in:

Canoein'

Back in the car around 2:30pm, we headed back into Kisoro for a late lunch.  We gave some local food a whirl--goat (me), scrawny chicken (Lillie), with rice, matoke and ugali.  Not too shabby and only about $3.

This is the goat variety.  It was goaty.

After lunch, we made the less than two hour drive across the border down to Musanze, Rwanda.  This would be the jumping off point for our next gorilla tracking outing...

(This post is mostly about travel particulars, so likely quite boring to those not planning such a trip.  Just fair warning...)

Crossing borders by land in Africa is always a potential treasure trove of stories.  (Our highlight being an immigration official in Kasika, Namibia not being there, and having to be rounded up from the bar to come down and stamp our passports.)

This wasn't terribly exciting, but the ridiculous amount of paperwork and bureaucracy is always amusing.  We first went to a little shed with a Ugandan police officer who took down our information.  We told him our professions were "marketing" and "HR".  He didn't seem to believe that these were real jobs, but he didn't press us.  He then gave us a tiny piece of scrap paper with his initials on it to take to Immigration. 

At Ugandan Immigration we filled out our departure cards, turned in our previously acquired scraps of paper, and quickly had our exit stamps in our passport.

While Baker was handling all the paperwork to bring the car into Rwanda, we walked over to Rwanda to get our entry stamp there.  A little tip if you're making this walk: don't take a shortcut in the grass.  Stick to the road.  The Rwandan police politely summoned us to explain that the grass is not to be used for border crossing.  Lesson learned.  Americans get a free Visa on arrival in Rwanda, so we filled out our arrival cards and were quickly good to go.

As mentioned before, our driver handled all the paperwork for the car at the border.  But here are some details on that to give you an idea of the costs involved.  You need a Cart D'Entree that cost us 15,000 Rwandan Francs.  And you'll also need to buy some car insurance which set us back 10,040 Rwandan Francs.  So about $45 USD.

Money in Rwanda is sorta odd.  ATMs there don't accept foreign cards, so with Baker's assistance we did some ForEx at the border for some Rwandan Francs to last us a day.  We probably lost like $5 due to a shoddy rate, but it worked for the given situation.

The first things we noticed as we started driving in Rwanda: (1) they drive on the "right" side, (2) they have very nicely paved roads, (3) their roads are very narrow, (4) there are ditches next to the road/no sidewalks for people, and (5) the roads seem even narrower due to the hordes of people walking six abreast on them.  Baker did not seem to appreciate Rwanda giving pedestrians the right of the road.  His speed was also quite curbed from Uganda.

We elected to stay in Musanze, which is less than 30-minutes from the Parc de Volcans headquarters that is the morning meeting place for gorilla tracking in Rwanda.  There are many options closer to the park headquarters, but for $65 USD we got a brand new, clean room with a decent enough wifi connection and DSTV at the Virunga Hotel.  I painlessly booked directly with them via email.

The downsides to staying here were that street noise late at night can be a bit loud, and we also learned that since they don't really cater to gorilla tourists, their concept of a packed lunch was quite poor, but the wifi was really great!  Plus the view from the room wasn't too shabby:

View from Virunga Hotel

One quirk about the room: can anybody explain if it's possible to shower in a shower without a shower curtain and not drench the rest of the bathroom?

Wet Bathroom

We went for dinner at the Tourist Rest Hotel where we found a buffet.  It reminded me of the Vegas Vacation line: "Best buck forty-nine boofet in town."  However this buffet was closer to $2.99.

There was a menu laying on the table and Lillie for some crazy reason made the assumption that just because something was on the menu that they actually served said item.  She asked for some chocolate crepes for dessert.  After much consultation amongst the staff, they agreed they could make it.  Twenty five minutes later (after a trip to the store?) they brought out the crepes.

Can't imagine there are too many culinary gems in Musanze, so this place was definitely fine.  And the staff very nice.

We obviously would have had a more peaceful and tranquil experience staying outside of town and nearer the park.  But we found it to be a nice little change of pace staying in town.  Also the price was attractive to us. 

Tracking the Group 13 Mountain Gorillas

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Email and RSS subscribers will need to click over to klugusamy.com to view the below photos--sorry 'bout that.

After a 6am breakfast at the Virunga Hotel, we headed over to Parc des Volcans headquarters in Kinigi, the meeting place for gorilla tracking.  The facilities at this place were exactly the opposite of Nkuringo's.  This was also the first time on this portion of the trip we encountered hordes of tourists.  It was a full house for gorilla tracking here with lots of tour groups present.  We were blown away by all these folks doing 60 and 90-day overland tours through Africa.

This time we'd have a full group of eight tourists, and we'd be tracking Group 13.  Groups are assigned a bit randomly on the day of, so you have little control, but this turned out to be a great group.  There are 28 gorillas in the once more accurately named Group 13.

(Coincidentally, on a later flight this trip we watched Natalie Portman and Jack Hannah track Group 13 in Saving a Species.)

After the initial orientation with our guides we hopped back into the car for a short 20-minute drive on a horrendous road to get to our starting point.  We walked a whopping one hour through very muddy farm fields until we were told we'd arrived.  Just like in Uganda, you drop your packs and only take what you need on your body (though a small camera bag is apparently acceptable).

We hopped over a five-foot stone buffalo wall and within a few minutes of bushwhacking had met the silverback.  Whereas with Nkuringo we basically stood in one place and watched all the gorillas surround us for the hour, here we were constantly moving as everyone in the group was very active.  Lots of scrambling through freshly bushwhacked trails to keep up.

One of the most amazing sights was the silverback climbing fifteen feet in the air to sit in some trees that then collapsed to the ground under his weight.  We sat watching him up there, listening to the cracking limbs, and waiting expectantly for the tumble.  The silverback wasn't fazed by the fall one bit, though.  It's dense enough rainforest that his fall was slowed by vines, bamboo, and other trees.  It was often hard to decide where to look as we were completely surrounded - both high and low - by this family of gorillas. 

Also memorable was a little guy who was just hamming it up for us.  He'd do a somersault, thump on his chest a la King Kong, and repeat.  Occasionally he'd also engage in some roundhouse kicks while playing with another infant.  Precious stuff.

Some of the better photos from the outing:

 

We were very glad to have seen the mountain gorillas twice and in two different locations.  They were completely different experiences.  This is obviously an expensive proposition, but definitely recommended if you can make it happen.  Also regarding bush-whacking: there was some ridiculous stinging nettle here, so covering up and wearing gloves can be a very good idea.  It's not like the stinging nettle we have here in Washington, either.  These leaves are as big as your open hand.

Once again, we were done in three hours.  This worked out nicely as we were driving back up to Uganda to Lake Bunyonyi afterwards.  As we were driving out on that horrendous road, a five year old boy ran along side the Land Cruiser for a few minutes (that's how slow we were driving) while waving and singing: "Bye bye Muzungu!  Bye bye Muzungu..." over and over and over...

I Left My Glasses at Lake Bunyonyi

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As much as I had gots to get them, I did not (if you're not hip to the reference).  These specs I left behind were a solid twelve years old and no doubt still fashionable, so it was a little sad to have accidentally left them behind.  Oh well, I just got back from Costco where I ordered some hopefully equally stylish glasses.

Anyway, after leaving the gorillas behind in Rwanda we made the three plus hour drive to Lake Bunyonyi in Uganda.  For the most part, it was mission accomplished on this leg of the trip.  We just had to make the drvie back up to Kampala/Entebbe for our flight out.

Border formalities were more of the same as previously.  The only bummer being that Uganda only does single-entry visas, thus we had to drop another $50 USD each to reenter Uganda.  (The Ugandan immigration guy told me we could get multi-entry visas from the Embassy before arrival, but they cost more than $200.  Not cost-efficient for our needs.)

There's Lake Bunyonyi in the distance en route:

We spent the night at Bunyonyi Overland Resort--at about $35 USD for the night it's very good value.  The rooms are rather tired (albeit clean), but the property is just outstanding.  The gardening is really first class.  This is a pathway along the lakeshore:

The food in the restaurant and service were also top class.  I had fresh crayfish from the lake while Lillie had a Hawaiian pizza (with a chapati serving as the crust).  I was initially critical of the Hawaiian pizza selection, but the pineapple we ate every morning in Uganda was always amazing and Lillie's logic quickly made sense.

Really nothing else to report here other than that this is a nice place to stopover, and to be on the lookout for my glasses if you pass through Cottage #5.  Otherwise, the most exciting thing we did here was lay in the putting green-like grass:

The Road to Lake Mburo National Park

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We bounced out of Lake Bunyonyi at 8am to start the five hour drive up to Kampala, where we'd spend our final night in Uganda.

On the way, we made a detour onto the road that leads to Lake Mburo National Park.  The idea was to catch a glimpse of some Burchell's Zebra and Eland.  Technically, you shouldn't be driving on this road unless you plan on continuing all the way to pay the park entrance fee.  So in theory, we were breaking the law here.  The upside is that we caught a glimpse of both of these guys, albeit from a pretty decent distance.

This photo is really horrible, but it at least shows both the zebra and the eland:

This was a nice little bonus treat as we'd never seen either of these guys before.  Also along this road, we got ice grilled by a water buck:

We stopped for lunch around Masaka where we ate a "rolex"--it's a rolled up chapati with an omelet inside.  Variations of this are a very popular street food in Uganda.  Very tasty.

Soon enough, after fighting the rather terrible city traffic, we were in Kampala checking in at the Sheraton for our final night...

Back to Kampala and Out of Uganda

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We used 4K Starwood points to stay at the Sheraton Kampala (excellent value, although it now costs 7K+).  We were booked into their lowest category "Classic" room, but thanks to SPG Gold status were upgraded to a "Superior" room on an upper SPG floor.  SPG Gold is pretty easy to acquire one way or another, and these little upgrades definitely keep us loyal. 

I was pumped about the free wireless internet available here, but then was less pumped to find it running at 4 kbp/s.  A nice room on the 9th floor, though it looked a bit neater at check-in:

Sheraton Kampala Room

At the same time, this hotel is a bit ridiculous with all the NGO peeps running around fighting poverty and such.  We mingled with them at dinner, where a Korean trio with a scantly clad female member sang slow jams like Desperado, and I mistakenly ordered a Mexicana Pizza.  (The first and only time I felt ill from food on this trip...an obviously stupid decision.)

We had grand plans of cleaning some clothes in Kampala.  With our time constraints this turned into a dead end.  The Sheraton wanted $10 for a single pair of pants, so that was a no go.  However, this Kwik Wash place could be a great asset for others.  We crossed our fingers we'd be able to figure out something at our next destination.

At 6:30am we started the 30+ minute drive (with no traffic) to the Entebbe airport for our 9am BA flight back to Heathrow.  Here we said farewell to Baker.  Great guy that we would recommend without any reservations (more on this later).

Lillie and Baker

At EBB, business class passengers get access to the Karibuni lounge after security.  I had very low expectations for this place and was blown away.  Big (and clean) leather couches everywhere, computers with a reasonable internet connection, and delicious samosas that we ate too many of for 8am:

Samosas!

The BA flight was just another BA flight, which is typically a good thing for us.  The only downside being the Club World seats on the 767s they send to EBB are in really dire condition.  Though there really aren't too many glamorous options otherwise, so no big deal.  (Had we paid full price, I might not be saying that.)

Just for the sake of completeness, our BA brunch (which wasn't all that amazing):

Salad of roast tomato and peppers topped with garlic and anchovy  Grilled tilapia with lemon garlic butter Marinated grilled chicken served on pesto risotto


Notes regarding the planning of the gorilla tracking portion of the trip:  I started by creating an itinerary that would allow us to track gorillas on both sides of the border.  This was shaped by various trip reports online, the Bradt guide, and the BA flight schedules since they only fly 3x per week.  All of this to achieve a nice balance in comfort with cost

My attempt to save some money had me booking things a bit a la carte.  I wanted to have total transparency into how much everything costs--I'm not a fan of the convenience that a single package price provides.  I arranged all our accommodations directly with the hotels via email.  For a car hire with driver and gorilla permits, I exchanged emails with different tour organizers from this Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO) list.

In the end, I settled on Crystal Safaris because they answered emails promptly and were a simple $100/day for Land Cruiser and driver for five days, plus actual cost of permits.  We were responsible for paying for petrol along the way--this came out to $186.75.  We prepaid for the car and permits in advance via wire.

Considering the quality of Baker, I am supremely satisfied with the value received.  He was smart, punctual, anticipated any needs, funny, and spoke perfect English.  We are very picky people, and we would recommend Baker to everyone we know.