Marc and Gini’s Excellent Adventure: Rwanda and Uganda

Mountain Gorillas and So Much More

Mr. Lucky and female (?), Hirwa Group, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda 1/20/18

Mr. Lucky and female (?), Hirwa Group, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda 1/20/18

Days 1 & 2: NYC to Kigali, Rwanda — 1/17-18/18

My husband, Marc, wanted to see the mountain gorillas, and no way was he going to Africa without me. We spent months planning a two-week visit to Rwanda and Uganda with the wonderful Anna Murungi at Africa Adventure Safaris and were thrilled when we learned that Kenneth Muhindi—a former gorilla tracker, head guide and park ranger at a number of national parks—would be our driver and guide.

Our flights went smoothly despite a windstorm in Amsterdam that grounded many planes, KLM plied us with food and free drink, our bags arrived with us, and Kenneth was at the airport to greet us and deliver us to our hotel. He took excellent, excellent care of us during the entire trip.

(Tip: Click on the HD button in the lower right corner of video frames and move the cursor out of the frame for best video viewing.)

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Day 3: Kigali to Kinigi, Rwanda
Kigali Genocide Memorial
Mountain Gorilla View Lodge — 1/19/18

The Kigali Serena is posh, one of many high-end hotels meant to serve the tourists, travelers and international convention trade Rwanda is working to attract. All around us at breakfast on the patio overlooking the pool, people looked smartly dressed for a day of business meetings. But people do dress smartly in Rwanda. Americans could learn from them.

Our first destination on our only half-day in Kigali was, of course, the Genocide Memorial marking the slaughter of Tutsis and any Hutus, Batwa or anyone else who tried to help them between April 6 and July 18, 1994. More than 800,000 people died. Mass graves are everywhere in Rwanda. Kenneth pointed out a number during our travels, and four more have been discovered near the Memorial since we returned home.

The government keeps awareness of the tragedy front and center and has taken a number of steps to prevent it from happening again. Today, for example, the people of Rwanda are not supposed to identify themselves by tribe. They are all Rwandan, and on the last Saturday of every month, everyone turns out, including President Paul Kagame, for a half day of community work called Umaganda.

Not coincidentally, Rwanda takes pride in its cleanliness and was one of the first countries to ban single-use plastic bags in 2008. It also has really good cell-phone service. We bought MTN SIM cards at the airport on our arrival and had reception pretty much everywhere we went.

After our visit to the Memorial, Kenneth treated us to lunch at a local restaurant on a hill overlooking part of the city—Rwanda is rightly known as The Land of 1,000 Hills—where a monkey scampered along the top of a courtyard wall as we ate at outdoor tables. Then Kenneth took us to a crafts market at my request, where Marc and I paid way too much for our purchases: two fabric hearts that zip open into totes for my sisters back home and a wrap I made good use of during our stay. What can we say: we stink at bargaining. But talking and joking with the shop owners was a blast.

Then it was off to Mountain Gorilla View Lodge in Kinigi, near Volcanoes National Park, in our solid, comfy Toyota Land Cruiser, with Kenneth doing all the driving. The steering wheel was on the right, good for driving on the left, as in Uganda. But in Rwanda people drive on the right, and the roller-coaster roads are dizzying. Kenneth never batted an eye. Marc sat up front with him, partly out of respect for cultural norms and partly so Marc could hear better. I got the back seat all to myself—perfect for sightseeing and game-viewing out both windows.

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Day 4: First Gorilla Trek
Visit to 
Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village — 1/20/18

First Gorilla Trek, Volcanoes National Park

Gorilla trekking is strictly regulated in Rwanda and Uganda. Each habituated gorilla family—the subset of gorilla families that have learned to tolerate humans—is visited once a day for one hour by one group of no more than eight trekkers. Trekkers from all over the world with permits to trek on a particular day (they sell out far in advance) assemble at around 7:00 a.m. at park headquarters and get assigned to different trekking groups.

We hit the jackpot when we got Kenneth as our guide. Everywhere we went, everyone knew and respected him, and he was able to use his influence on this day, for example, to get us assigned to the trekking group that looked like it would have the easiest hike to an easy-going gorilla family—which we did. My mantras soon became “Kenneth is always right” and “If Kenneth suggests something, just say ‘Yes.'” He was the best.

The mountain in the photos below is Mount Sabyinyo, one of  eight volcanoes that make up the Virunga Mountain Chain. Sabyinyo is thought to be the oldest. The name means “old man’s teeth.” Two volcanoes are still active. Six, including Sabyinyo, are not.

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A Visit to the Hirwa Family

Silverback Mr. Lucky walking past trekkers to check on his kids, Hirwa Group, Volcanoes National Park

Silverback Mr. Lucky walking past trekkers to check on his kids, Hirwa Group, Volcanoes National Park

Our trekking group consisted of Marc and me from America (we started out saying we were from New York City and quickly learned that many Rwandans and Ugandans don’t know where that is); Lauren and Darren from the Cayman Islands; four members of the Alzaidi family from United Arab Emirates and their Rwandan host; our guides Dr. D and Jerome; our porters, including Marc’s porter, Joseph, and my wonderful porter, Emmy; and our rangers, who don’t usually pose for photos and whose names we didn’t get, who are there to protect the gorillas and us from whatever outside threats might arise.

Dr. D and Jerome gave us a quick tutorial on gorilla behavior and trekking etiquette as soon as we entered the forest: Drop your walking sticks when we get near the family—the sticks remind them of spears. Move quietly. Speak softly. No flash photos. Don’t stare them in the eye, which can be seen as aggression. A low rumbling in the throat means everything is cool, and Dr. D and Jerome began making that sound as we approached the family. Short chuffs and barks, breaking off branches and pounding the ground signal irritation, a cue to back off, crouch and lower your head in submission. Don’t approach within 15 feet, though the gorillas can approach you if they want.

They did, a few times. Moments after we located the family, as Marc and I stood gazing at the silverback, Mr. Lucky,  a female came up the path behind us and walked right between us, brushing our pant legs. Later, Mr. Lucky brushed past Lauren and Darren on his way to check on his kids. Thrilling.

At another point, the flash on Marc’s camera fired accidentally. As he fumbled to switch it off, he glanced up and saw a young gorilla coming directly toward him. The gorilla stopped a few feet away, made an irritated swatting gesture with an arm as if to say, “Get that camera out of my face,” and then turned and walked off.

Marc didn’t capture the moment in photos or video and stood there wondering, “Did that really happen?” Now he has evidence, if not proof. It turns out that a young gorilla, possibly the same one, did something similar but more pointed to another member of our group, Sultan Alzaidi, while Sultan was videotaping with a pretty big camera. Maybe this gorilla really doesn’t like cameras? We stumbled on Sultan’s video just a few days ago. Watch it here.

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Après Trek

Our hour with the Hirwa family got extended when some of the members left the park boundaries the same time we did to come out into the fields and snack on Eucalyptus tree pulp. I sat to watch and got lucky when a female went to work on a tree a few feet away: biting off a hunk of bark with her powerful canines, tossing it aside, scraping the pulp with her teeth and moving on to the next tree. The gorillas damaged quite a few trees very quickly. Kenneth said the farmers get compensated.

These incursions are becoming more common at park borders. A new census puts the total number of mountain gorillas in Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo at more than 1,000, and they’re coming down into farmlands more often as the population grows. More on that soon.

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Marc's Trekking Certificate; Gini received one, too. Volcanoes National Park headquarters, Kinigi

Marc’s Trekking Certificate; Gini received one, too. Volcanoes National Park headquarters, Kinigi

Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village

The Cultural Village was created in 2004 to provide livelihood and income for people living near Volcanoes National Park, reduce poaching and exploitation of the park’s other resources, and promote and preserve traditional Rwandan cultures. The older man in the hat who demonstrates his archery skills and sings and dances with the drummers in the videos below is a member of the Twa, or Batwa, tribe, a Pygmy people who were the first inhabitants of Rwanda and Uganda. He is a former poacher who has shot more animals with his bow and arrow than he can count—bushmeat, not gorillas—but he doesn’t hunt anymore. More on the Twa when we cross into Uganda.

Notice the women sitting outside the hut making baskets in the background of the second photo below. Our small group of visitors—three couples—observed and were invited to give it a try. We’d already tried shooting the bow and arrow. Forget it. But this, I thought, I could do. I sat down on a stool with the women—joining their women’s circle, which is always a special thing—watched closely as the woman in the photo patiently demonstrated how to stitch, and tried my hand. I did pretty well until my last stitch, when I didn’t grab enough reed and stuck myself with the needle. But my teacher nodded her approval, and I felt proud. It was hard, and labor-intensive, and made me appreciate what goes into making every basket offered for sale in a way I couldn’t  have  any other way.

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Mountain Gorilla View Lodge

On our way from our cottage to the main pavilion for a glass of wine at the end of an eventful day, Marc and I stopped to enjoy a performance by a wonderful young dance troupe that performed on the grounds every afternoon.  We were the only audience on this day and enjoyed the dancing so much that the dancers finally pulled us into it.

The weather is chilly and damp at Mountain Gorilla View Lodge — elevation above 8,000 feet. Every evening a young staff member came with a pan of hot coals to get our fire going, and every night when we returned to our cottage after dinner, staffers had slipped hot water bottles under our blankets to warm the bed.


Day 5: Climb to Karisoke, Dian Fossey’s
Research Station and Grave Site — 

We all know who Dian Fossey is, right? Sigourney Weaver played her in the film version of Fossey’s autobiography, Gorillas in the Mist. She was a complicated person to say the least, but she is almost universally credited with making the world aware that mountain gorillas are gentle creatures who need protection from poachers. Through her efforts and those of others, protections were stepped up and gorilla trekking was born.

Fossey lived and worked on and off at her Karisoke Research Station, about 9,700 feet up Mount Karisimbi, from 1967 until she was murdered in her cabin in 1985. The murder remains unsolved. She is buried there among some of the gorillas who were murdered before her, including her favorite, Digit. Marc and I signed on to make the climb, starting with a walk through the village of Bisate at the base of the mountain, elevation around 8,500 feet, and climbing pretty steeply from there.

The kids in the photos below spent the night in that makeshift shelter protecting crops from raiding animals—possibly including gorillas. National Geographic did a story about gorillas coming down into farmlands that includes a photo taken in this same village. Read the story here.

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 Gini Bails, Marc Prevails

Gini gives up on climb, heads back down with her porter, who took this shot at foot of the mountain, border to Volcanoes NP

Gini gives up on climb, heads back down with her porter, who took this shot at foot of the mountain, border to Volcanoes NP

The climb proved too much for me. I could have made it, but it would have taken too long with too many stops for me to catch my breath. So my porter and I turned back while Marc continued on with the rangers and his guide, Francis. Afterward, they admitted they were impressed Marc made it all the way—one hour almost straight up the mountain and another 30 minutes from there to Karisoke. Marc was pleased, too. He now says it was the most physically demanding thing he has ever done. And this was during the short dry season, meaning no knee-deep mud.

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Day 6: From Rwanda into Uganda
Visit to Karisoke Research Center
Drive to Lake Bunyonyi — 1/22/18

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From Rwanda into Uganda

Rwanda and Uganda are both hilly in the border region of the Virunga Mountains—home to Volcanoes National Park on the Rwanda side of the border and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park on the Uganda side—and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park a little farther north. Driving switches to the left side of the road in Uganda, better suited to a car with a right-side steering wheel, but outside the larger towns, many if not most roads in Uganda are unpaved. Cell-phone service isn’t as good either. Very spotty.

A few more comparisons as we leave Rwanda. Rwanda is the fourth-smallest and second-most densely populated country in Africa (after the island nation of Mauritius). Everywhere you go, you see people walking the roads. Anywhere you stop, people appear. Uganda has almost four times as many people (44.1 v. 12.5 million), but it’s also about nine times the size (93 v. 10.1 millions square miles). And, as African nations go, it’s still not that big.

The population of both countries is extremely young: median age 19 in Rwanda, under 16 in Uganda, where just under half the population is age 14 or younger. Factors: AIDS, the Genocide, and cultural, religious and government attitudes toward birth control. Population growth is slowing in Rwanda, where the government supports family planning. It’s accelerating in Uganda, where women have almost no reproductive rights. Homosexuality is also illegal in Uganda.

Both countries are headed by authoritarian leaders whom you might call democratically elected presidents for life: Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, 73, who deposed President Milton Obote in 1985; and Rwandan President Paul Kagame, 60, who led the forces that stopped the Genocide of 1994. Both have eliminated presidential term limits, and President Museveni just scrapped the age limit, too. It was 75. He’ll be 77 when his current term is up. Since our return, Museveni has also pushed through a tax on internet messaging (Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter) to discourage “gossip.”

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The vast majority of people in Rwanda and Uganda live in rural areas, with little or no access to clean water, making their living through farming and herding, subsisting almost entirely on what they produce or make and sell.

The Twa, or Batwa, of Rwanda and Uganda are the poorest of the poor. A hunter-gatherer Pygmy tribe who call themselves “The People of the Forest,” they lived in harmony with nature and gorillas for perhaps half a million years before pressures from other tribes, colonialism, agriculture and development brought an end to their traditional way of life. They didn’t farm like the Hutus or keep cattle like the Tutsi and lost everything when they were pushed out of the forests when the National Parks were created. There are a number of projects now set up to try to help them, but they still suffer terribly. Read more here.

Some people don’t mind having their pictures taken; many people do. The proper protocol is to ask permission and offer a small payment to those who consent.

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Our first encounter with baboons, which turn out to be everywhere.

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BirdNest Resort, Lake Bunyonyi

BirdNest was the first resort on Lake Bunyonyi. Frank Kalimuzo, born nearby, opened the hotel in 1965. Idi Amin is said to have stayed there. Amin had Kalimuzo killed in 1972. The family closed the hotel but retained ownership. It was later renovated and reopened by Belgian investors.

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Day 7: Visit to Punishment Island, Lake Bunyonyi
Drive to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

Morning Canoe Ride, Visit to Punishment Island

Punishment Island, little more than a hummock out in the vast lake, is where unmarried women who became pregnant were taken and left with no food, no water, no shelter and no way to survive or escape (no one knew how to swim) unless a man who couldn’t afford the price of a virgin bride, or maybe had impregnated the woman and still wanted her, canoed out to retrieve her. This went on until the 1950s. We were told that one woman who survived is  still alive. Her name is Mauda Kyitaragabirwe. Read her story and see a video interview with her here.

And what happened to the men who impregnated these women? Nothing.

Now, somebody has had the bright idea of building a bar on this island and turning it into a party spot, but the locals  aren’t having it. A dock goes up; they take it down.

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Lake Bunyonyi to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

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Winston Churchill dubbed Uganda “The Pearl of Africa” after visiting in 1907. He saw more of this vast, varied, beautiful country than we did, but he didn’t see this southwestern-most part, which belonged to Congo at the time. How unfortunate for him.

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That’s a wasp nest in the photo below. They’re pretty common in Bwindi—a more unsettling thought since news broke that a female American tourist, age 65, was stung to death by wasps when a nest was somehow knocked to the ground during a gorilla trek in Bwindi on Thursday, May 24. I was stung by a wasp, too—but just one, and not in Bwindi. More on that later.

The monkeys are Colobus monkeys. Interesting fact about them: They don’t have thumbs.

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The boy below was waiting at roadside for travelers to come by so he could show his chameleon and earn some money. Children do not beg in Rwanda or Uganda, but they do try to make money however they can. More on that later.

The chameleon is called a rhinoceros chameleon for obvious reasons. You can hear Kenneth explain in the video that it is restricted to these altitudes. He spoke  seriously with the boy about taking proper care of it and putting it back in a tree at night where he could easily retrieve it the next morning—they really do move that slowly.

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Kenneth took special pleasure in showing us the view in the fifth photo below. “This is an anatomy quiz,” he teased. “Look out there. What do you see?” Marc and I looked, exchanged a glance. Umm. “It’s a heart!” Kenneth said. “That is the Heart of Uganda.”

A heart! Of course!

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Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp 
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

We chose to stay at Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp in part because of an amazing video we saw of a gorilla family coming right into the camp and interacting very closely with one visitor while another filmed the encounter. See that extraordinary video here. Of course, we were hoping gorillas would come through camp during our stay, too. They didn’t. But a few days after we returned home, Kenneth sent us pictures of a gorilla family crossing the grounds of another lodge just down the road.

You’ve heard the term “glamping”? It means “glamorous camping.” That’s Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp. The cottages are technically tents but they’re luxurious. They’re also few in number, meaning guests are few in number, too. It’s all very quiet and elegant.  The service is personal and impeccable. We felt very spoiled.

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Day 8: Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Second Gorilla Trek, Birding Walk — 1/24/18

Marc’s Second Gorilla Trek

The popular short description of the difference between gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda: Volcanoes is a higher elevation but the trekking isn’t as steep. Bwindi isn’t as high but the trekking is steeper. I don’t know how true that is. The starting altitudes weren’t that different: about 7,800 feet at Volcanoes National Park headquarters versus about 7,500 feet at Bwindi. Every trek is also its own adventure, and there’s never any knowing how adventurous it will turn out to be. It costs a lot less in Uganda than in Rwanda, though: $600 versus $1,500 per person per day.

I wasn’t doing well with climbing at altitude. (I realize now I should have allowed more time to adjust before our treks.) So rather than slow down an entire group for our second trek and not knowing how difficult it would be, I took a pass and went on a bird walk while Marc made the trek. Thanks to Kenneth, again, Marc was assigned to the group that looked like it would have the easiest trek, and they did have a relatively easy one. But it still had its moments. See the last video in this series.

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Gini’s Birding Walk

My guide, James, had a laser eye and knew everything about everything—birds, trees, flowers, plants… I saw some lovely birds but didn’t have the skills or camera to get photos quickly at distance through branches and brush. But it was a beautiful walk just the same.

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Marc returns from Second Trek

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Marc's second Trekking Certificate, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

Marc’s second Trekking Certificate, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

Day 9: Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
to Queen Elizabeth National Park — 1/25/18

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Birds and Wildlife en Route to Mweya Safari Lodge
Queen Elizabeth National Park

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Everyone wants to see Queen Elizabeth National Park’s famous tree-climbing lions—or any lions. During the last hour or so of an impromptu game drive on our way to Mweya Safari Lodge, we saw a tail or two hanging from the branches of distant candelabra trees and the tawny heads and backs of a couple of lions resting or moving far off in the brush. Then Kenneth, our amazing guide and a former park ranger, said, “Let me try one more place”—a watering hole he knew about. He drove like crazy to beat what looked like an approaching cloudburst that could have stranded us in mud, pulled into a clearing and there they were: some 9 lions, adult females and cubs, lolling in the tall grass not 20 feet from our Land Cruiser. And then they got up and ambled off.

The sad coda to this encounter: Since our visit, a pride of about 9 lions has been poisoned by villagers very close to where we saw these lions. Kenneth agrees that they could have been the same ones. Read about the problem here.

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Hippos, lions and topis, oh my! All in one afternoon. As Kenneth drove the long road down Mweya Peninsula to our lodge, I leaned forward to ask, “Do you think we might see—” and at that exact moment, out my left-side window, I saw the huge head of an elephant emerging from the brush. Startled, as I was, the elephant took a step back. We pulled up, stopped, waited and watched as a small family group crossed from the Kazinga Channel side of the peninsula into the brush. Question answered: Yes, we’d see elephants, too. (More and better elephant-crossing video coming up.)

Lucky sighting of elephants crossing road, Mweya Peninsula, Queen Elizabeth NP

Lucky sighting of elephants crossing road, Mweya Peninsula, Queen Elizabeth NP

Mweya Safari Lodge, Queen Elizabeth National Park

Lakes Victoria, Edward, Albert, George. Queen Elizabeth National Park. Can you tell Britain once ruled Uganda? Mweya Peninsula is part of Queen Elizabeth National Park. Mweya Safari Lodge is said to be the oldest lodge in it. How old exactly is unclear, but it certainly had the look and feel of a grand old colonial lodge in the main building.

Note the warning sign about wild animals in the photo below. It’s no joke. Not long after we returned home, a leopard snatched and ate the three-year-old son of a female park ranger on the lodge grounds.

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Day 10: Queen Elizabeth National Park
Morning Game Drive, Afternoon Boat Ride
on Kazinga Channel — 1/26/18

Morning Game Drive

Early morning coffee before game drive, Mweya Safari Lodge, Queen Elizabeth NP

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Lake Bunyampaka Overlook

We stopped for lunch at a restaurant and craft market overlooking Lake Bunyampaka, a crater lake and salt pan. Those gridded areas around the shore of the lake are plots where people harvest salt, often in blazing sun, the women with babies on their backs.

Looking through binoculars, we could also see white pelicans and a few pink flamingos out in the center of the lake.

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Elephants Again!

On the way back to the lodge after lunch, we got delayed at the gate at the base of Mweya Peninsula when Kenneth couldn’t find a paper he needed to show before we could pass. We had gone in and out twice already, the guards knew who we were, but it didn’t matter. So Marc and I sat in the car for a while as a tourist van cleared around us and Kenneth dealt with the guards, who finally allowed us to proceed.

And thank goodness for the delay! About halfway along the peninsula, we rounded a bend and saw the van that had passed us stopped in the road. Elephants were crossing again, this time toward the channel, and more of them than the day before. If we hadn’t been held up at the gate, we would have missed them. Kenneth found the missing paper the next day.


In the first video below, you’ll hear Kenneth say, as a particular female elephant crosses the road, “You see this one without tusks? The big one without tusks.” Yes, we see her. What about her?

No tusks, that’s what. In Uganda, and other African countries, tusklessness is becoming more common among female elephants, basically due to poaching. Elephants are killed for their ivory. If they don’t have tusks, they don’t get killed. They live to reproduce and pass on their tusklessness, which seems to be a sex-linked trait that manifests almost exclusively in females.  Read more here, and be sure to read to the end of the story if you need convincing of how remarkable these creatures are.

Afternoon Break at Mweya Safari Lodge

Walking across the grounds from the main lodge to our room after our morning game drive, Marc spotted a small sign next to an entrance to a passageway that said something like “Pool This Way.” I didn’t think it looked too promising, but Marc insisted we check it out. Are we glad we did.

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Boat Ride, Game Viewing, Kazinga Channel

A van full of tourists was ahead of us as we pulled into the parking area for the boat ride. Kenneth, our wonderful guide, did a quick end-run around it and zipped into a parking spot closer to the boarding ramp so we could beat the crush. Standing next to me at the head of the ramp, looking down at our tour boat, Hippo, Kenneth said, “Lower level, front left.” He said it softly and only once. Check.

Two women were already aboard—lower level, front left. Marc suggested upper level, but “Kenneth is always right,” so we joined the two women, whom it turned out we had met earlier and whose guide had also advised them. Lower level, front left put you right down on the water, facing the shore, as close to the wildlife as you could get without jumping in for a swim.

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Click on any image to launch slide show.

Day 11: Queen Elizabeth National Park
to Kibale Forest National Park — 1/27/18

Morning Game Drive, Queen Elizabeth National Park

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We stopped for lunch again at Lake Bunyampaka overlook, where, this time, Marc and I browsed the market for patchwork bib aprons to bring home as gifts while Kenneth shopped for a new shirt. We ended up at a stall just visible at the right edge of the third photo below. Comparing aprons, I asked Marc to slip one on and model it. Getting into the spirit of things and wanting to make a sale, the woman who owned the shop had her two tall, strapping sons put aprons on, too. Then she put one on, bib covering her face, and held the ties out wide. “Comedian,” one of her sons noted dryly, and things got funnier and friendlier from there. We talked about how men don’t cook in Uganda—Kenneth had said if his wife ever saw him preparing a meal, she would know he wanted a divorce—unless they work as chefs, one of the sons explained. Then it’s OK. Of course, Marc and I bought three aprons, and, of course, we paid too much—and had a heck of a lot of fun doing it. We took no photos. That would have ruined it—one of many moments not captured in photos that we will never forget.

Queen’s PavilionCrossing the Equator

On our way from Queen Elizabeth National Park to Kibale Forest National Park, we stopped at the Queen’s Pavilion and nearby concession to take in the view and enjoy a cold drink—okay, a lukewarm drink. Accounts of when and why the pavilion was built vary. According to Bradt Guide, which Kenneth uses, it was built in 1958 “to receive the British Queen Mother and Omukada Rukidi III of Toro.” It’s located at the north end of Queen Elizabeth National Park with views of crater lakes, the Albertine Rift Valley and the Rwenzori Mountains that mark the southwestern border with Democratic Republic of Congo. A bronze plaque a few steps away commemorates the route traveled by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip when they visited in 1954. The equator is about a half mile north. There’s nothing there except a weathered marker: no shops, no stands, no commercial anything—just the marker. And baboons.

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Banana Land

That’s how I’ll always think of a certain section of country we drove through during this leg of our journey — as Banana Land. Instead of looping around northeast and then southeast on the main, paved road to Crater Safari Lodge on the east side of Nyinabulitwa Crater Lake, Kenneth turned off farther south onto an unpaved local road that ran northeast through the crater lake district, winding up, down and around lakes and hillsides and through the hearts of plantations and villages we otherwise wouldn’t have gotten to see.

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Crater Safari Lodge, Lake Nyinabulitwa
near Kibale Forest National Park

Crater Safari Lodge is an eco-lodge powered by solar. No bright lights anywhere. No hum of a generator disturbing the exquisite silence. No TV, phone or Wi-fi in the rooms. You bring your devices up to the main pavilion, plug them in in a tiny room off the dining area and leave them there until they’re charged. There was no cold white wine the afternoon of our arrival, but there was later that night — ice, too, made from bottled water, of course.

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Day 12: Kibale Forest National Park
Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary — 1/28/18

Chimpanzee Tracking, Kibale Forest National Park

Instead of being accompanied by a guide and a ranger during our chimpanzee-tracking walk in Kibale Forest National Park, our guide, Moses, carried the gun. The forest is home to chimps, various species of monkeys and other animals including giant forest hogs, buffalo and leopards that a gun comes in handy for scaring off if necessary, not shooting.

We didn’t see any hogs, buffalo or leopards. We didn’t see many chimps, either. Moses was great, and we caught glimpses of chimps high in the treetops and, once briefly, a screeching group on the ground. But our success was severely hampered by one woman in a group of three friends from Spain who just. Would. Not. Stop. Talking! And even singing!

But Marc and I got lucky anyway. Peering way, way up in the canopy with binoculars at one point, he saw something he didn’t know what to make of and pointed it out to me: a furry something stretched out on a high branch with what looked like a furry arm and furry, long-fingered hand hanging down. We brought Moses over to take a look, but by then it was gone.

Back at the park office, we noticed a big billboard on the porch featuring drawings of various forest inhabitants. I wandered over to take a look, walked around to the back side, and there it was. “Marc, I think this is what we saw.” He thinks so too. We’re pretty sure it was a potto. See more photos here. Interesting fact about this species: It doesn’t have an index finger.

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Swamp Walk, Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary

What a beautiful walk this was: just the two of us and our extremely knowledgeable guide, Owen. We didn’t see the great blue turaco, the swamp’s most famous bird resident, but we did see red colobus monkeys, and I caught a glimpse of a black stork. As a former Peace Corps Volunteer, Marc was also pleased to learn that another Peace Corps person named Mark Noonan is credited with coming up with the idea of creating the Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary, formerly known as Magombe Swamp, and developing it as tourist draw to support local communities. Read more here.

The delightful figurines shown below are made by village boys out of clay from termite mounds. They’re quite good. But there’s a push-pull between the boys and their parents and other adults in the community, who want the boys going to school and, when not in school, helping with farming and chores, not making and trying to sell figurines.

We came upon the display below during our walk. No one was tending it. Owen said he and others have tried to convince the boys to sell the figurines in the office craft shop, but the boys refuse. Too stubborn and proud. We were tempted to select a few and leave money on the table, but that would have offended Owen, so we just took photos instead.

Later, as we crossed a pasture, a stick of a boy in a tattered, brown t-shirt ten sizes too big ran barefoot and barelegged across our path so flat-out hard, elbows and knees pumping, that he didn’t even glance our way. Chasing a stray cow? Some time later, he appeared behind us on the path circling the swamp, calling to us with carved figurines in his hands and such a look of hope and desperation on his face. Selling, not begging. Asking us to buy.

Owen told us later that when we saw the boy running across the field, he knew what was coming next. But Owen was stern with him—soft-spoken but firm—and sent him away. The boy hesitated only long enough to give Owen an angry look—furious, frustrated, crushed. Marc and I will never forget it. But he went without argument. He couldn’t contradict Owen, and neither could we.

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We walked around the periphery of the swamp until we came to a boardwalk that cut across it—a narrow, wobbly, meandering, loose- and missing-slatted boardwalk constructed over an old hippopotamus trail that rocked as we walked it and sometimes demanded we stop to regain our balance and coordinate our steps to keep from being pitched off. It felt endless, and it was beautiful.

Once safely across, we resumed walking the periphery, and then Owen stopped again. “We are going into the swamp now,” he said. He wanted to show us a special place. We had to pick our way along a faint, overgrown path, but Owen knew the way. And it was magical: a shallow, shimmering pool in the heart of the swamp, in the middle of the dry season, with a tree limb hanging low over the water. I ran my hand along it: smooth, as if from wear. I imagined a leopard or other big cat lounging on that branch. If I were a big cat, that’s where I’d hang out.

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Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary Office

Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary Office

It was a short drive back to Crater Safari Lodge, with more baboon sightings along the way.

Boy, did we do a lot of walking on this day. It was great being able to relax back at our cottage before a second, romantic, candlelit dinner in the main pavilion of Crater Safari Lodge. Our table was situated  under a hanging light fixture. At one point, I felt something drop into my hair. I brushed at it and got badly stung. Yeeow! That hurt! But only for about 15 seconds. I felt the sting course up the palm of my hand and then dissipate. Lesson learned: if you feel anything drop onto your head in Uganda, do not brush at it with your bare hand.

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Day 13: Kibale to Kampala — 1/29/18

Sunrise, Crater Safari Lodge, Lake Nyinabulitwa near Kibale Forest National Park

Sunrise, Crater Safari Lodge, Lake Nyinabulitwa near Kibale Forest National Park

Back to the Big City

We started early and drove almost across Uganda west to east—with Kenneth doing all the driving—to make it to Kampala before dark because I had read that you didn’t want to be on this heavily trafficked road at night. We had one close-enough shave to scare an F-bomb out of my mouth—the only expletive Marc or I uttered during the entire trip, I think, out of respect for the countries we were visiting and for our guide. Thanks only to Kenneth’s lightning-quick reaction, we weren’t hurt.

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Le Petit Village, Kampala

You cannot believe the traffic in Kampala, and there are almost no traffic lights or signs, so it’s every vehicle for itself. We inched our way around one roundabout that Kenneth said can take an hour to circle in peak traffic. It took him a while to find our hotel, Le Petit Village; he’d never been to it before and the directions he’d been given were faulty. But he persevered, calling repeatedly for better directions, and delivered us safely, as always.

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Day 14: Kampala to Entebbe
Uganda Conservation Education Centre
Protea Hotel — 1/30/18

We could have toured Kampala for a good part of our last day in country—our flight wasn’t until late at night—and I’m a little sorry now that we didn’t. Clearly, there was a lot to see. But we were so unused to urban settings by then that we just wanted to get out and head down toward the airport in Entebbe, a quieter area, paying visits to the Uganda Wildlife Conservation Education Centre (aka Entebbe Zoo) and  Lake Victoria along the way.

Morning in Kampala

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Uganda Conservation Education Centre (Entebbe Zoo)

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Protea Hotel

Marc wanted to relax along the shores of Lake Victoria for a while before we left, and, once again, Kenneth delivered. After trying one hotel that he knew had a manicured lakefront but now allowed entry to registered guests only, he took us to the Protea Hotel, where we were able to sit and relax unbothered before heading to the airport for our flight home.

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 Entebbe to Amsterdam to JFK – 1/30-31/18

Kenneth took us to the airport, of course, and made sure we knew to keep a sharp eye on our luggage and not accept help from any porters, theft being more of a problem in Uganda than it is in Rwanda: someone had broken into the car he was driving and stolen his binoculars and guidebooks, among other things, just before we arrived.

We said our goodbyes in the airport parking lot, but not really goodbye. “In Uganda,” Kenneth said, “we say, ‘Until next time.'”

We’ve stayed in touch since our return. I hope we always will.

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When we told a friend before our trip that we’d be flying through Amsterdam, she said, “Oh, I love the Schiphol Airport.” Now we know why. We saw almost none of it during our outward-bound layover, but we had plenty of time to explore on our way home. It’s modern, clean, efficient, comfortable. And the clock in the main concourse is a work of art.

Marc napping in boarding area for flight to JFK, with the wrap Gini bought on our first full day in Rwanda—called a kikoy in Uganda—keeping him warm, Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam

The End!

This entry was posted in Amazing Animals, Beautiful Birds, Environment, Photography & Images, Rare Encounters, Travels, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Marc and Gini’s Excellent Adventure: Rwanda and Uganda

  1. You should have bought the robes!! Linda


  2. Tidbits says:

    this is such an adorable collection of pictures.. excellent post.. that’s what I love about blogging community.. opens up so many doors !!


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