Entebbe to Budongo Forest
Well, we promised to catch up with you in Murchison Falls but that feels like a lifetime ago as we’ve been having far too much of good a time to sit and stare at a computer screen! Our apologies for such a whimsical approach to our blogging and hope you’ll forgive us when you read about what we’ve been up to ;o)
We arrived in Entebbe after a rather delayed Fly540 flight fromNairobi. It was only a one hour flight, so still feeling fresh and energised from landing on “new turf” we emerged from the tiny airport and headed to our little guest house for the evening, Sunset Motel.
We discovered early on that Uganda suffers from patchy phone signal and regular power cuts – forewarned is forearmed! However, Entebbeis very chilled out and relaxed, nobody paid us any special attention and we didn’t hear the chorus of “wazungu” (meaning foreigner), for days! Our motel was quaint and all meals (except breakfast) were a choice of chicken, beef or fish. When I asked how the chicken was prepared I was told “it’s chicken”. I decided to try a different tack and asked about the fish. “It’s fish” was the reply, fair enough, I’m not sure what I was thinking requiring more information really so we tried the chicken for dinner, the fish for lunch the next day then opted to eat out after that for all remaining meals at the delightful Gately Inn! On our first morning breakfast was rather light as, due to power cuts, the toaster didn’t work! So, after a hearty banana and what we think was coffee, we headed straight off in our taxi for Mabamba Swamp.
Mabamba is one of the best locations for viewing the rather famous Shoebill (a peculiar stork) and we were both very excited at the prospect. It is a RAMSAR site and run by the local community who have a number of canoes that they paddle Shoebill-seeking guests in for a couple of hours. It’s a beautiful area and very relaxing as soon as you turn off the main channel and start being serenely rowed through the waterways searching for your quarry and enjoying everything else along the way. We did indeed manage to see 2 Shoebill but both of them were in flight. Adam pulled off a fine balancing act in the canoe and took the image below, while I enjoyed the sighting firmly rooted to my wooden plank!
After our morning endeavours we headed back into Entebbe, picked up our Gorilla Tracking permits (woohoo!) and had a couple of meetings with potential ground handlers (you see it IS work!).
Although we were off to Kampala on our second day, it is only a one hour drive from Entebbe, so we enjoyed an early morning walk around the Botanical Gardens, beautiful bordered by Lake Victoria and a brief visit to Entebbe Wildlife Centre to check out the views we could have had of the Shoebill (see left). The journey toKampalawas quick and uneventful and we had a relaxing evening with our friend and her daughters eating take-out pizza! This is also the very wonderful friend that has very kindly lent us her car for the entire month of our Uganda adventure!
Early the next day we set off north on our grand tour of Uganda. First stop -Murchison Falls National Park. It took us a couple of hours more than planned due to me misreading the map! However, it was a pretty journey and soon passed as we pulled into Red Chilli Rest Camp on the south bank of the Nile just as the sun was setting. Red Chilli is a very chilled out place with a backpacker feel to it; we had a little banda with twin beds and shared facilities with others. The service was excellent and the guys and gals there are seriously cool cookies. The food was good and although the showers were cold water only, it was so hot outside that I couldn’t imagine anyone being crazy enough to need a hot one. After 4 years of living on this continent, we haven’t experienced heat like it – it was HOT!
We used our first morning to take the little ferry across the Nile and explore the plains and delta north of the Nile. We were blown away by the amount of game here and just hadn’t expected to see so much. There were Oribi (pictured below), Giraffe, Jackson’s Hartebeest, Elephant, Ugandan Kob, Warthog, Northern Carmine Bee-eater (pictured below), Patas Monkey, Buffalo, Waterbuck, Hippo, Crocs, Baboon and Banded Mongoose – it was beautiful and all viewed in a golden morning light. We spent a long time driving around the circuit as there are few tracks and limited options if you wish to stick to new ground and not double back, but it was worth it. You drive along the edge of Lake Albert for a while and then complete the loop through the savannah at the end.
We decided to skip lunch and headed back on the mid-afternoon ferry. Whilst waiting for the ferry I was cocooned in our delightfully air conditioned car watching Adam walking along the river bank birding. Then, very excitedly, he came dashing back to the car telling me I had to come and see this bird. Intrigued, I followed and he’d found a lone Egyptian Plover sitting next to the jetty. For those of you in my camp that are marginally ignorant of such sightings – this is a MEGA bird! After 15 minutes, a delighted Adam returned to the car having captured the images below.
The next morning, we were up and out for a boat ride downriver to the Delta, hoping once again for views of the Shoebill. Again we had fleeting and distant views of 3 Shoebill but the trip was fab. We spent time with our cameras, the sunrise over the Nile and hundreds of African Skimmers. We got up close and personal to crocs and hippo, herons, egrets and spent some time on Lake Albert itself watching the locals and pelicans compete for the best fish against the back drop of the Congolese Blue Mountains. In the afternoon we packed some cold Tuskers in the car and headed up to the top of the falls themselves. They are very narrow at the top but truly impressive and incredibly powerful. We found a nice secluded spot (which was not difficult), cracked open the beers and sat back taking it all in. Perfect.
Around 7am, we were ready to board our vessel for another cruise, this time upstream from the Paraa Ferry crossing towards the mighty MurchisonFalls. “Emma” (a strange abbreviation of Emmanuel!) was once again our pilot and navigator and as we cruised along the northern side of the river, we were knee-deep in good birds, plenty of crocs and hippos. One of our targets was the high cliff face that holds a breeding colony of Red-throated Bee-eater, a stunning bird that we were keen to get good views of. Upon arrival to the cliff, a fine Peregrine Falcon flew into view, perhaps fancying his chances of taking out a bee-eater for breakfast? He didn’t stay around for long though and we were soon surrounded by over 50 bee-eaters, all in stunning plumage that shone brightly in the morning light. The only downside to the encounter was that we were under the birds rather than next to them, which caused havoc with taking images. I resulted in getting flight shots while Vicki lay back in the boat and waited for them to come closer and lower. Another vessel came along just as they were getting comfortable with us there and they got the jitters before flying off, so we decided to motor off from the grassy bank and continue upstream. Another target species for the day was Pel’s Fishing Owl, a huge and stunning chestnut-brown owl that I had seen in the Okavango Delta but was still desperate to see in East Africa. Despite three pairs of eyes fixed to the trees along the well-wooded river line, we couldn’t locate the bird and continued to the falls which, by now, were in earshot. Turning our last bend, we were faced with a mighty wall of water pouring through the narrow passage that is the main falls. Images didn’t seem to do this amazing sight any justice so after a “record shot” we kicked back and enjoyed the scene, until a flock of Rock Pratincole came into view. These are among the most sought-after birds along fast-flowing rivers in sub-SaharanAfrica and although we saw them distantly from the top of the falls, I was keen to get some close-up views and images. We were in luck as Emma negotiated some tricky waters and boulders to get us up close to some small flocks, resulting in the image below. With the temperature rapidly rising in the humid steam bath at the bottom of the falls, it was time to open up the motor and head back to base, pausing briefly for Northern Carmine Bee-eaters and a few kingfishers along the way.
We took a short drive to Nile Safari Lodge where we carried out an inspection after a sumptuous lunch overlooking the Nile, before saying our farewells to the mighty river and heading south towards the pristine forest of Kaniyo Pabidi. Along the way, we stopped to photograph a well-hidden colony of Red-throated Bee-eater, this time at eye-level. The birds were a little alarmed by our car at first but as we kept our distance, they soon regained the confidence to fly back to their holes and feed the young that were noisily begging inside. It was interesting to watch how one of the adult birds played the role of “lookout” as the others flew in to feed their young and we managed to get some pleasing shots that were better than those from the morning. Soon after, we reached the beautiful forest and entered the site of Budongo Eco-lodge, where we quickly checked in, had great hot showers before taking dinner at the main facility then heading to the large comfortable bed for a great night’s sleep.
Today was first chance to encounter our closest relatives, Chimpanzees! Budongo Eco-lodge provides two options for meeting Chimps; the first and most affordable is the Chimp Tracking, where the lodge guides walk with you through the forest for a one-hour encounter. We chose to go with the second option, Chimp Habituation which is a bit more expensive but offers the prospect of anything up to seven hours with the Chimps, once they have been located. Our guide was Robert who has been tracking Chimps at Budongo for three years and not only was he was an excellent guide but he a really nice guy too. 45 minutes into our walk, we heard several groups of Chimps making a racket deep in the forest but we found it difficult to gauge exactly where they were calling from and in which direction they were heading. Unlike most other primates, Chimps tendto cover a great deal of ground in a day in their search for food and water, and they can also move very fast, as we found out. Trekking through the forest is made simpler than it should be by the configuration of the trails which have been cut in a grid system. Every 200m or so, you reach a crossroads and must then take the shortest route towards where you are hearing the Chimps. All well and good until your guide tells you they are in the middle of the forest block, surrounded by the grid, meaning some serious bush-bashing in order to get close to them! We made our way through the forest, off track, keeping a watchful eye on the multitude of vines, climbers, branches and obstacles ahead while also checking the ground for tripping hazards, holes and most importantly, to me anyway, the beautiful yet lethal Gaboon Vipers that lurk on the forest floor! Finally, we caught sight of the Chimps moving along the ground, just 5m in front of us. The thick vegetation had concealed them until we were almost on top of them. We counted three, four, six … more and more were walking ahead of us then quickly disappearing into the woody gloom. We tried our best to keep up but we had lost sight of them until Robert pointed out two males sat in the tree just above us.
“They come here to feed” he said, “and these trees are not shaded by the tall forest so get they receive lots of sunlight. That’s why they are always the first to bear fruit.” The multitude of droppings, looking like piles of refried beans, that we navigated were testimony to the high-fibre content of the Msisi fruit they were feasting on. The serenity of the scene was punctuated by a ferocious scream, just a few metres a head of us. It was two males showing off to a female that was in oestrus and, by the sound of it, very ready to mate, and these two battlers were howling, beating their chests, and vigorously shaking the trees around us. I’m not afraid to say that it was more than a little intimidating! Eventually, they calmed down and peace resumed on the forest floor. Robert was expert at guiding us along small trails and slowly we began to find more Chimps feeding in the trees above, allowing us the chance to photograph these beautiful animals. We also came across two mature males that were very placid and allowed a close approach although they were reticent to face the cameras. A mother and her youngster fed together in a fruiting tree and Vicki was able to get some lovely images of the young Chimp misbehaving and learning the ropes of how to be a tree-swinging primate. After two and a half hours and several hundred images later, we decided to give the Chimps a break and headed away from the group so we could enjoy some lunch of our own without distracting the animals with the smell of our food. Around us, numerous noisy spats broke out between boisterous animals then quickly died down again. After lunch we headed off in search of the animals again, hoping to find them a little more relaxed and inclined to resting or grooming on the forest floor. Somehow we managed to get lost and then we lost the Chimps. Ultimately, we decided that it would be best to head back to the lodge for a well-earned rest, lots of liquids and a much-needed shower. An advisory note to anyone spending a day in the forest, take lots of water with you, preferably 2 litres each. Although we drank lots before setting out, and both took two ½ litre bottles with us, it was not nearly enough to keep us comfortable. We had a relaxing evening with dinner and some drinks before retiring to the very comfortable beds once again.
After breakfast, we were greeted by John who was to be our bird guide for the morning. By his own admission, John was not the best birder on the block but what he lacked in knowledge he more than made up for with enthusiasm and we thoroughly enjoyed his company. He was able to show us some new birds including Puvel’s Illadopsis (pictured below) this is the only place inEast Africait is found), Dusky Long-tailed Cuckoo (pictured left) and Yellow Longbill while we found some neat birds too including a stunning male Narina Trogon, Grey-headed Sunbird and Grey-throated Tit-flycatcher. A family party of Blue Duiker (a forest antelope species) were the mammal highlights. Back to base for lunch and a relaxing afternoon and evening followed.
My early morning bird-walk was very enjoyable and I was especially taken with a feeding party of greenbuls feasting on a fruiting bush. These are among the most dowdy of all bird families I’ve encountered but I was fortunate enough to enjoy one of the smartest members of the family, the Honeyguide Greenbul. While it is not a brightly-coloured species, it looks very smart with “designer” tones of grey and brown set off with a bright white eye and white outer tail feathers that aid with identification as it flits through the forest and no doubt where it gets its name (honeyguides also show white in the outer tail). After breakfast, I took just a short a walk behind the lodge and was rewarded with some smart birds but best of all, a close view of a Chequered Elephant-shrew, or Sengi, but it was too dark on the forest floor for any photos.
After lunch, we passed through the main gate of the Murchison Falls National Park and headed to Masindi, where we stayed for a night before birding the “Royal Mile”, one of the top birding destinations in all of Africa!
Budongo Forest Reserve to Queen Elizabeth National Park
The Royal Mile (pictured below) didn’t disappoint. It’s a beautiful patch of forest and coming here at the best time of year (June to August) would be something else again. The ultimate highlight was a couple of Ituri Batis, which for the non-birders amongst us is a tiny black and white bird measuring 9cm head to tail, which Adam spotted about 100ft up in the forest canopy, unbelievable! Other, more accessible, highlights were African Dwarf Kingfisher (pictured below), Green-backed Twinspot, White-thighed Hornbill (pictured below left), Blue-throated Roller and hundreds if not thousands of stunning butterflies.
From there it was on to Fort Portal where we were winging it a bit and using it as a base to explore the relatively nearby Semliki National Park the next morning. Having nothing to go on but the advice of Mr Philip Briggs (of Bradt Guides) we checked out several hotels and decided on the Rwenzori Travellers Inn, mainly due to the need to reign in the budget a little. I have to say this gentleman’s advise has been nothing but gold to date but I would argue the case with this property. There is nothing “smart” about it and I find it very hard to believe it would be anyone’s “popular choice”, while the strategically placed mirrors would explain the staff’s surprise at us wanting the room for a whole night! However, it did serve a purpose and surprisingly we actually slept well (sadly too well to enjoy the room’s additional facilities) and saved money! Pier’s Restaurant is a winner and does indeed serve a great pizza and COLD beer!
We were up at the crack of dawn and very excited about seeing some of Semliki Forest. The road from Fort Portal out to Semliki is undergoing a massive overhaul and makes the journey very quick, so we found ourselves a little time for car maintenance while waiting for the Park’s office to open at 8am.
After debating with the delightful UWA park staff for 10 minutes that we really didn’t want to walk the same trail through the park as birdwatchers for $200 but rather nature lovers for $100, we set off with our ranger called Justice who was brilliant. This place is a little gem, the forest is beautiful and full of great trails from which you can explore. In the first five minutes we had seen Red-tailed Monkey, Guereza Colobus and the beautiful Dent’s Mona Monkey (this one very rare and, to be honest, neither of us had actually heard of it!). The birds were calling everywhere and after spending 5 minutes by a little swamp we managed to get great views of White-spotted Flufftail (even I got quite excited about this one!) and shortly after a Red-billed Dwarf Hornbill, Red-tailed Greenbul, Grant’s Bluebill and Western Nicator, among others. We spent about 5 hours walking through the forest and saw many birds, and only two other people, it was bliss.
From here we drove back throughFort Portal and on to Ndali Lodge perched high on the rim of Nyinambuga Crater Lake (below) and overlooking Mwamba Crater Lake to the south-west. The view takes your breath away and you have it from wherever you stand, dine or relax and even, to my delight, from the exquisite bath tub! Ndali is owned and run by a lovely Brit called Aubrey. The land was bought by his grandfather back in the 1950’s, the lodge built post-Amin by his father in the early 1990’s and after his father passed away in the late 1990’s Aubrey packed his bags and left the bright city lights of Edinburgh to continue running Ndali. Together with his lovely wife, Claire, they have a wonderful life and home and a great property for you to spend some time in. The neighbours are Aubrey’s cousin, Lou, and her partner, Glen – both of whom are great company. Lou established and still runs a fair trade and organic vanilla farm which is a supplier to Waitrose and Tesco in the UK, and Ben & Jerry’s in the USA, while Glen spends his time designing and custom-making furniture – not bad, eh?!
We intended to walk all over the lakes and explore the area, however, 2 nights passed in a flash and all we seemed to have done is enjoy walks in the garden, swimming in the pool and lie-ins! Such is the effect of Ndali Lodge on one’s soul and mind. Perfectly calming and wonderful.
Feeling fully restored (it’s tough this travelling/working business you know!) we made our way to Kibale National Park where we were trying our luck with the Chimps again. We stayed at Primate Lodge which was previously run by UWA and hence is at the gate (Kanyanchu) from where you need to meet for Chimp tracking. The initial check in was all rather strange with staff not at all confident to greet guests, however, as soon as you’re checked in, the staff are delightful and simply want to ensure you enjoy your stay. We had a cottage, as opposed to a tent, but both are lovely options and all face a wall of pristine forest from which you can view birds and monkeys.
We decided to spend the morning driving up and down the main road and photographing monkeys and birds and bought our Chimp tracking permits for that afternoon. The main road is one if the few locations where you can walk without an official guide and there is lots to be seen! We found Black Bee-eater (pictured below left), Yellow-spotted Barbet and Cassin’s Flycather (pictured below right) along a river and spent time photographing Olive Baboon, Red-tailed Monkey (pictured below right) and Grey-cheeked Mangabey (pictured below left).
Then themoment had come – another bite at the cherry with Chimp Tracking! There was only 4 of us in the group along with our UWA ranger, so we set off without delay. We drove to the other side of the forest and had only been walking for 20 minutes when we heard them. Unfortunately it was about the same time that it started pouring down with rain. Undeterred, our pace quickened and after another 10 minutes we found three high up in a tree. We settled down and waited for them to eat their fill, return to the ground and move on. Well, minutes passed, we were surprised by the arrival of a fourth and expected others to join them, but that was it. We sat in the rain staring up at 4 Chimp bottoms and feeling a little disappointed. We’d seen so many photo’s of Chimps up close and couldn’t help but have high expectations of our encounter. There is no denying that we were very lucky to find them in the first place and so quickly…but still… Our ranger kept trying to reassure us that if the rain stopped and the sun shone they would come down. It was now a wet waiting game.
However, after half an hour or so the rain did stop and the sun shone, but the chimps seemed quite happy 100ft up! Feeling more disheartened by the minute, we heard movement and low and behold they were coming down. I can’t describe the feeling as we quickly got ready for the race through the forest to keep up with them as they moved but as soon as they hit the ground they sat down and chilled out, we couldn’t believe it! We were then treated to an hour of leisurely walking alongside 4 Chimps, watching them rest, show off and feed on figs (all at eye level) giving us some great photo opportunities. There was a moment when we followed 2 of them onwards only to discover a third one following us on the track! We stopped and moved off a little to let it pass us, I dropped to my knees for better photos just to the left of Adam as moments later it decided to charge! Adam was directly in it’s path and all I could hear was the ranger saying “he’s only charging, just keep very still, you can take photo’s but keep still”, a chimp charging (directly at Adam) is quite intimidating and the urge to take pictures was overwhelming, coupled with the instinct to stay very still. Luckily, it passed without incident but it was just awesome, a moment that neither of us will ever forget.
We reluctantly left all four of them happily feeding on figs and floated our way out of the forest, not even realising the pace we were keeping until sweat started dripping off us! Back at Primate Lodge, we celebrated with hot showers, cold beers and photo previews. The next morning we took a guided forest walk on a quest for the Green-breasted Pitta (a small, very colourful and rare bird). It’s not the best time of year to try looking for it as it goes deep into the undergrowth and the best chance you have of seeing it is when it’s nicely displaying out in the open to attract a female (around June/July). Sadly we didn’t see it, but we had another good stomp through the forest and managed to get a few good bird pics. Later, we headed off to Chimp’s Nest, another camp on the edge of Kibale NP just north of Bigodi, and on the way there were treated to an amazing encounter with a family of L’Hoest’s Monkey (pictured left and below), the most scarce and difficult to see monkey in the Kibale area and also, in our opinion, the most beautiful.
Chimp’s Nest does overlook the forest but you are in the middle of “people” surrounded by shamba (managed plots) and barking dogs. They have a mixture of cottages and tree houses and we had one of the former. They are quite small with a veranda facing the forest and attached but external open air bathrooms, including the toilet. Needless to say if it’s pouring down with rain anything but a brief visit to the loo may be wet and uncomfortable! While we were there the dining room was undergoing extensive renovation and by all accounts the tree house and cottages will follow suit. It’s run by a very pleasant Dutch guy but the service from the staff needs a bit more polish to say the least.
Anyway, we used this as a base to explore Bigodi Swamp (pictured left) and take a small night walk in the forest fringe. The swamp is great and run as a very worthy community project, they have a small viewing platform on the circuit and a somewhat rickety boardwalk! We saw lots of great birds and had fabulous views of a Great Blue Turaco from above on the platform. We also saw Red-tailed Monkey and Grey-cheeked Mangabey. However, the highlights of the walk came near the end when Adam found and photographed the elusive Red-tailed Bristlebill (pictured below right) and the very rarely seen White-collared Oliveback (pictured below left), a MEGA-bird! Adam was on another planet with excitement and must have taken over 100 shots of this bird! I have to say it was pretty and although usually very difficult to see, this one particular individual was feasting on buds and didn’t pay us any attention at all and two memory cards later we left very happy customers!
After our second night at Chimp’s Nest we headed off early and back to the edge of Bigodi Swamp to try and catch a glimpse of the, so far elusive, Shining Blue Kingfisher. Now, I’m all for this one, at some point I seem to have developed a thing for kingfishers (I’m sure my sister will be rather distressed to hear me say that!). Anyway we strolled past these three little streams and couldn’t see it, we strolled back the other way…couldn’t see it. I had seen it here on our first day whizzing down a stream but Adam had missed it – bit of a sore point. So we strolled back again, still not there, realising this may take some time, I got the coffee out and just as I’d poured I looked up at Adam and could see that he’d got it. I dashed back for another look and there it was, on Adam’s fifth passing it had flown in for him. Many thanks to you Shining Blue!
So another “lifer” in the bag for Ads and off we set to Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP). Now, we’d been told about a new road that was being built connecting Kibale to a town near to the north of QENP which should be a lot quicker than going via Fort Portal and actually takes you through the middle of where both parks – apparently – join. The only trouble is nobody could tell us if it was finished or not and there are three bridges which needed to be fixed for it to be viable. So after more than a little debating, we decided to just go for it, and I’m so glad we did. It was beautiful and although the road wasn’t far off done, there were a couple of patches where going above 5km/hr was pushing it, but the majority of it was just fine. The scenery was amazing and we only saw two other vehicles the whole journey. Now it was around this point that I must confess a rather blonde moment. I was happily driving along with Adam scanning constantly for birds when he shouted “stop!”, so braking hard we came to a halt and Adam sat there looking perplexed. It turns out he thought he saw a bird flying away which, according to the bird book, he really shouldn’t have seen. So, in the hope that it might just stay in the area or fly around again we decided to have a coffee stop and hope for the best. I’d poured the coffee when Adam said “here, quick, I can see it, it IS, quick”, so getting rather caught up in Adam’s excitement I dashed over and raised my binoculars to get a better look but I had momentarily forgotten that I was still holding my very full cup of coffee! You’ve guessed it, I somehow used both my hands to raise my bins and poured the entire lot straight down myself, priceless! Both of us were in hysterics! Anyway, the birds (there were now 2) that caused such a debacle were a pair of Thick-billed Cuckoo (pictured below) which, according to the bird book, has only been recorded once inUganda! Adam played their call and we had them flying over us for about 5 minutes and Adam managed to get a few images. He was on a total high and once back in the car promptly chose Elvis to serenade us onwards with “Viva Las Vegas”! He felt like he’d won the jackpot!
We emerged at Rwimi, still playing the Elvis CD and having a good ole sing-song. The road in to QENP was fairly uneventful and we reached Mweya Safari Lodge in time for a late lunch.
There’s much more to follow in our next instalment including our search for tree-climbing Lions of Ishahsha and our ultimate Uganda quest, to see the Mountain Gorillas of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Stay tuned.