Sunday, 27 January 2013

Crater Lakes

To the North of the Katwe road is an area of the QE national park known as the crater lakes.  There is a road that you can take which heads up the slope to give amazing views of the park, the Kazinga channel and the two Lakes, Edward and George.

The road (exceedingly rough) leads up to various extinct volcanic craters, which either have lakes or areas of rain forest in them.

There aren't many animals around, but the scenery is just breathtaking.  We even got some views up to the Rwenzori mountains, which seemed to have a near permanent covering of clouds.  The roads are often just bare rock, so a 4wd is absolutely essential.  The levante seemed to cope quite well, but after our little adventure in Murchison, we were both pretty glad to make it down to the Equator gate visitor centre.

It doesn't look like many people come up here - we certainly didn't see any other vehicles, or even signs that vehicles had been up the track.  The little visitor centre at the end of the track sold us some nice cold Krest lemon juice, it was blistering hot.  Who'd have thought it would be warm on the Equator?

Lions at last

The best place for viewing savanah animals in QE national park is in the far North East corner of the park near the village of Kisenyi which is a village on the shore of Lake George north of the Kazinga channel and not the village of Kisenyi on the shore of Lake Edward to the south of the channel .  You can reach this part of the park by exiting the park and using the road that links the town of Katwe with the main road.  This road is wide gravel and pretty good.

This is about a 45 minute drive away from Mweya, but you can stay in the park and use the park's own road network which takes about half an hour longer.

The area to the west of the main road is more acacia forest, whereas the area to the east is more grassland.  The wildlife changes as you move from one to the other, Elephants at one end and lions at the other.

It took 3 game drives before we eventually came across a small pride of lions, 3 adult females and 5 cubs.  They had just made a kill and were happily munching on the corpse of a young kob.  The kob's mother was
standing nearby looking anxiously in the direction of the lions - but she didn't seem to want to abandon her baby.

As we sat and watched them, a couple of other safari vehicles turned up and drove off the road and right up beside the feeding lions.  You are not allowed to drive off the tracks, but it seems standard practice by the local drivers/guides to ensure their customers get good photos.  This kind of spoilt the viewing for us, and presumably disturbed the animals as well.  However we don't blame the guides, it is up to the customers to keep them on the straight and narrow, and not to reward poor behaviour.

Luckily we came across the the lions again the next day and got to enjoy them undisturbed by other vehicles for over an hour.

Initially we only spotted a large female, but after watching her for a while we notice some movement in a large cactus tree nearby.  This turned out to be 3 small cubs who soon climbed down out of the tree and wandered over to meet their mother.  The cubs all had various cuts and wounds, so it looks like they had had a run in with something nasty over night.

The mother looked quite relaxed though and greeted her cubs in an affectionate way, as we sat on the roof of the levante enjoying the late afternoon light.

Safari, so good

We found the wildlife in QE NP easily matches the other parks we have visited in Africa.  Perhaps not for volume of animals but certainly for variety.

In our short time there we spotted hippos, elephants, lions, ugandan kob, monitor lizards, water buck, banded mongoose, buffalo amongst many others.  The bird life is outstanding and the insects deafening.

At night we had hippos wandering through the campsite and feasting on the grass round the tent and every morning we were entertained by the battling warthogs.

On our second morning this happened-

Which was quite exciting.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda

Shortly after crossing the equator, we took a right turning off the main road and headed for the Mweya peninsula. This is where the park headquarters for the Queen Elizabeth National Park is situated, and where we hoped to camp for a few days.

The peninsula is a headland sitting high above Lake Edward to the West and the Kazinga Channel to the South and East.  The channel connects Lake Edward to Lake George and is a haven for wildlife.  The park itself is huge, but there is little in the way of infrastructure.  At Mweya there is a luxury lodge, a hostel, a campsite, a petrol station, the visitors centre and a small village.

At the park gate we paid $210 park fees for our 3 night stay and were told to pay for our camping at the centre.  When you pay your park fees you get a receipt which is your pass to get through the various security gates, so don't lose it.

We visited the centre, and they told us to go and set up our tent and pay them when the campsite attendant was on duty.  We bumped down the road, past the petrol station to where we had been told the campsite was located.  No tents were seen, but there was a group of young back packers sunbathing on what looked like an old airstrip.  We stopped and asked one of them if they knew where the campsite was, and she replied that we had reached it.

Karen did not look impressed - I think she had an idea of somewhere with high fences to keep the animals out and some nicely mown grass to put up the tent and maybe a nice ablutions block with hot showers.  But unfortunately this was what we had.

After getting the tent set up, on one of the few bits of ground level enough, another vehicle arrived and Dutch couple started to also set up camp.  This calmed Karen's nerves a little.  She also quickly got used to the resident warthogs, marabou storks and waterbuck which all wandered around a few yards away.

There are toilets and showers on the campsite, very basic and only cold water.  But very clean and looked after by a very friendly lady.  There is also a banda/shelter for cooking in and sheltering from the thunderstorms that blow through every afternoon.

Uganda, we need to talk about speed bumps

Uganda loves speed bumps.  Its as if they cannot get enough of the pot holes on the murram roads, that when there is a lovely piece of flat tarmac then it seems to be obligatory to stick a million speed bumps on it.

I assume this is to slow down the mental minibus drivers (it doesn't, they just swerve off the road to miss them).  But when your average speed is already only about 20mph and your undercarriage is already completely wrecked, a 3 foot high speed bump is NOT REQUIRED.

It would be so much better if the speed bumps were removed and the materials then put into the pot holes.  Problem solved.

The Equator

Great to add this photo to this one

Namibia 2007

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Tyre problems

Leaving the Primate Lodge, we were presented with our bar bill - pretty reasonable for a few beers, glasses of wine and softies.  I then asked for the bill for all the food we had eaten, to be informed that the $120us we had paid for 3 nights in the tree house, also included full board.  Even a packed lunch to take away with us.

This seems incredibly good value for money and I can only assume that the lodge had made a mistake.  I pointed this out to them, but they insisted that I owed nothing more.

An hour up the road took us into Fort Portal - a pretty little colonial town, with a bustling main street.  We needed fuel, so pulled into a petrol station.  As we did so, a scruffy man tapped on the window and said, "muzungu - your tyre is flat, your tyre is flat". Suspecting some kind of scam, I got out for a look only to find the tyre was looking a bit on the flat side.

The scruffy man just happened to one of the tyre repair guys with a business right by the filling station - had he just stuck something in the tyre?  we'll never know.  However he soon had the tyre off and filled 3 holes, before a much more menacing guy came over to demand some money.  After I gave him some he demanded some more "for the labour" so I gave him another small note.  All in all about $10 to fix the puncture - were we scammed?

We shopped in Fort Portal at the Andrews supermarket on the main street, plenty of stuff for eating in there and reasonably cheap.  But the best buy was from a small boy outside in the street who was selling bags of freshly shelled peas at 10p a go.

Bigodi swamp

We had been recommended to visit the Bigodi swamp, which is an area of wetland looked after by a local group.  This small area was being protected from being drained and turned into farmland, but would have to pay for itself in the long run.

We had a great young guide, called James, who walked us round the path on the edge of the swamp pointing  out various interesting birds and plants.  He was also excellent at spotting primates, including the rare red colobus monkey.

The walk was a lovely relaxing stroll in comparison to the madness of the forest earlier, and helped calm us down enormously.  There is a small visitor centre at the the swamp where the local ladies sell some handicrafts to help with funding of the local community.  They gave Karen a round of applause when she told them how beautiful the baskets were.

A chat with the chairman of the Ugandan Tourist Authority

Back at the lodge, after another tasty lunch, we were approached by a young man who was interested in hearing about our visit to the chimps.

As we chatted and showed him some fairly gruesome video, he told us he was the owner of the Kibale Primate Lodge and also of 2 other lodges and a safari tour company.  He is now also the chairman of the Ugandan Tourist Authority.  Not bad going for a 38 year old.  He said it was all down to his "Scottish" mother who had adopted him and 45 other young boys whose parents didn't have the money for school fees.

We discussed the things we thought were great about Uganda - the scenery, wildlife, friendly people etc and the things we thought were terrible- the roads and the sign posts.

He agreed that something really needs to be done about the roads and would be meeting with the Ugandan govt to discuss such problems.  We hope he has some luck!

Chimps, chimps, lovely chimps

Our first day of chimp trekking actually started really well - we spotted 3 on our walk from the tree-house to the restaurant for breakfast.  As we were alone at the this point, and not really sure what to do we stood rooted to the spot with terror.

We were booked on an afternoon trek so we sat around the lodge reading, writing the diary and watching red tailed and black and white colobus monkeys playing in the trees.

We then spend 5 fruitless hours wandering around the forest in the vain hope of spotting a chimp.  All gone I'm afraid.  So we begged to be allowed onto a morning trek the next day.

Jump forward a day......

Charles, our guide, took us off into the forest at first light, heading for one of the enormous fig trees that the chimps adore.  This time we were lucky, and Charles spotted a group of chimps high in the canopy just getting out of their night-time nests.

We spent a few delightful minutes watching the chimps slowly wake up, have their morning pee (on our heads) eating a few figs and generally being cute and adorable.


Well to put it simply all hell broke loose.

Charles spotted the chimp group's alpha male (Mageze) high above us in the trees, and as we stood there he came down to the ground to check us out.  After a couple of fake charges his attention was suddenly taken by something back up in the canopy.

A few seconds later he was up the tree and a smaller male chimp came flying out of it and landed with a crash at our feet.  We initially thought "what a silly monkey, falling out a tree" before Charles started shouting "they are going to kill it, they are going to kill it"

As we watched with horror, the small chimp was then set upon by Mageze and his two lieutenants Ssebo and Flop.  The next hour was simply an orgy of violence as the unfortunate chimp was dragged screaming through the forest, beaten with sticks, jumped on and at times eaten alive.  Charles kept taking us in close, and it was clear the chimps were going to ignore us as they had a much more pressing engagement.

The three large males took it in turns to torture the younger male, as Charles tried to explain what was going on.  We were constantly surrounded by other members of the group many of whom were screaming and crashing through the trees and undergrowth.  He reckoned the youngster was from another chimp family and had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time.  And the excessive display of violence was as much a display of strength to others within their own group as it was an attack on others.

At times it was too hard to watch, the terrified cries of the youngster were piercing and heart rending.  It was most difficult when the larger chimps started to bite lumps of flesh from the little one's arms and legs and then sit casually munching on the flesh.

In the beginning it was terrifying to be amongst the violence, but after only a few minutes we realised we were perfectly safe.  Charles kept assuring us that even if a chimp charged at us we wouldn't be touched, no-one in Kibale has ever been hurt by a habituated chimp.  It then became increasingly surreal, the sort of thing you might see on a nature documentary.

At times the beating stopped, as the big males drew breath and kept a watchful eye on the other chimps around them.  Then it would start again, usually with the small chimp being dragged by an arm or leg through the undergrowth and being battered off trees and logs.  The aggressors even used a small sapling dragging it down onto the smaller animal, much like a guilotine; over and over again.  It got to the stage where we just hoped it would die and the punishment might end.

What did end, of course, was our allotted time with the group.  And as we left the little chimp was still alive and screaming at the top of its lungs.  We heard later that it eventually died in the traditional way that chimps are killed, the alpha male bites its testicles off and the poor creature bleeds to death.

Our trekking group was pretty sombre as we exited the forest and headed for our transport back to the visitor centre.  Charles was highly excited - he'd only seen this behaviour twice before in his 18 years as a forest guide.  He tried his best to calm us down and to lighten the mood by talking about his wife and children, but to be honest we were fairly traumatised.

The tree house at Kibale Primate Lodge

We were covered in orange road dust when we arrived at Kibale Primate Lodge.  And pretty tired.

But in typical African lodge style we were presented with a hot towel and a cool drink on arrival.  It was as we were checking in that I broke the news to Karen that we weren't staying in the lodge itself, but in their little tree house way out in the forest.

The lodge is situated deep in the Kibale rain forest and is adjacent to the the main visitor centre where chimp and primate treks are organised.  It has a thatched bar/restaurant/lounge and the rooms are either safari tents or cottages in the surrounding woods.  Except one, which is the tree house 15 minutes down a path beside the swamp.

The lodge manager, George, explained to us that we could only take a minimum of stuff with us to the tree house because of its size, that we would need to be there before dark because of the risk of meeting elephants and that we would need to be escorted to the tree house to make sure we didn't wander off into the forest never to return.

He arranged for us to shower in one of the safari tents, as the shower block for the tree house had been knocked down by an elephant and we sat down for a hurried dinner.

Kibale tree house
Our two guides then guided us through the dark forest (we were far too late to beat the sunset) and helped us settle in.  There is a paraffin lamp for light, two bunk beds, two little chairs, a table and a red plastic bucket for any ablutions.  Luckily the red plastic bucket has a lid.

Inside the tree house

The thing that strikes you the most is the noise of forest- monkeys whooping, frogs croaking, insects chirruping and lots of rustling.  The tree house has mosquito nets and the windows have screens, but we gave it a liberal spray of doom just to make sure.  We also chased away the large spider and I removed the cockroach from Karen's bed.

We tried to settle, but it was just too disturbing with all the noise, especially when a mouse ran across my pillow and something dropped from the ceiling onto Karen before scuttling off.  The mouse then spent the rest of night chewing at things in my rucksack.

It looks idyllic, but the reality is of course a little different.  That said, how often can you say you slept in a tree house in the African rain forest?

Being a vegetarian in Africa

Karen likes to eat vegetarian food when we are not cooking for ourselves.  Not entirely sure why, but I guess this makes her a "restaurant vegetarian".

This did not seem to be a problem in the more "budget" areas of our travels - but in the more upmarket lodges this caused a few issues.  3 times at Kibale lodge we asked for a vegetarian option for her, and 3 times she was served the same as everyone else ie meat, potatoes and 2 veg.

In the main the veggie options we did discover were usually very tasty and well cooked, whereas the carnivore options were often over salted and over done,

The lodges appear to service a more traditional market of rich european/american whereas the cheaper places are serving the back packer end of the tourist trade, which by its very nature has a greater proportion of vegetarians.  So its simple economics to cater to your market, but could certainly be improved upon.

Incidentally try the rice and beans  - vv tasty.

Murchison to Kibale - too far to drive in one day

As we left the Red Chilli, one of the bartenders told us that he "would miss us for the rest of his life".  Which, although it was just a joke, kind of sums the place up.

The bar/food tab that we had rung up was very reasonable, and I would heartily recommend the place to anyone visiting the area.

Even the small mouse that had joined me in the shower came back to see us just before we left.

Murchison Falls National Park entrance gate

We ate a quick breakfast at the park gate, and headed off on the long road through Masindi, Hoima, Kyenjojo and Fort Portal to the Kibale Forest.  This is a long road, with the only bits of tarmac being in the towns.  The roads are rough murram, and in many places had been worn away by the heavy rains.  We seemed to bounce from one pot hole to another, and the ruts seemed at times to engulf our wee car.

We passed through dozens of little scruffy villages, each with an enormous school filled with brightly uniformed children.  Each school has a different coloured t-shirt for their uniform, each more colourful than the last.  This helps with avoiding them, as the roads are very busy with pedestrians, and at each school there are hundreds of kids by the road.

We stopped in Masindi for petrol (about a £ per litre), cold water, snacky food and to change some money at the Stanbic bank.

The Stanbic branch has a fairly secure car park, with armed guard and you are given a metal detector test before entering the building.  There was a long queue when we got in, but we didn't wait too long.  Changed some dollars (should have taken sterling as there is a much better rate) only needing a passport to complete the transaction.  We didn't try to use an ATM.

Getting through Hoima was a little tricky, a total lack of road signs didn't help.  We eventually stopped and asked a group of boda boda drivers(motor bike taxi) for the right way.   Hoima seems a bit scruffy and hectic, but most people who do this journey stop here overnight.  We however carried on down the road.

The total length of this journey is about 350km, and we drove for over ten hours- which gives a very low average speed. Even so the driving is great fun if you don't mind being rattled around a bit.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

A short cruise on the Nile

Freshly brewed coffee, french toast and crispy bacon- breakfast Red Chilli style.

We crossed the Paraa ferry again, this time on foot to collect the car left on the other side late last night.  All seemed fine - no croc bite marks or hippo dents.

When we tried to get it on the ferry however, we were asked to pay again, "but we paid yesterday" we replied.  But apparently the tickets are only valid for 1 day, so if you don't use your return portion it is pay all over again.  I suppose it serves us right for getting so stupidly stuck.

We joined the afternoon UWA cruise to the Murchison Falls.  In blisteringly hot sunshine - but thankfully they were selling cold Nile Special beers.

The cruise goes up river passing cliffs of bee eaters, floating rafts of hippos, the occasional basking croc and quite a few elephants drinking at the water's edge.  The birdlife is spectacular and our guide did his best to answer the questions from the couple in front of us who had a printed checklist of the birds of Uganda which they were trying to fill in.  We found it much better just to watch the birds without the pressing urge to actually identify the little blighters.

You don't get very close to the falls on the boat, the gorge narrows and the boat cannot fit.  An option is to get off the boat and walk up, as long as you have a guide to drive you back home again.  It seemed too hot for this option to be much fun, but those who have been say it is spectacular.

Our adventurous spirit has been dampened slightly by yesterday's fun.

Back at the camp we ate dinner in front of a developing thunderstorm which slowly headed our way.  We retired early to our banda, which was lucky as the storm hit and blew horizontal rain through the bar and tossed the furniture around.  The lightning was breaking constantly and the ground outside quickly flooded the tents.  This went on for about 2 hours, leaving a few of our fellow campers a bit traumatised.


After six hours of being stuck in the Nile swamp, the temperatures started to drop a little.  I climbed out along the bonnet of the car and stretched my legs.

I have to admit that spending the night out in the park did not appeal too much, but at least we should be pretty safe.  We still had loads of water, plenty of food.  It would just be uncomfortable and a bit daunting with all the wildlife around.

As I was just about to get back into the car I caught the noise of an approaching engine.  At last, I thought, the grader come to rescue us.

What astounded us was not that it a grader came round the corner but a battered, old, dark blue VW golf.  Driven by Fred Ssekiwoko, with two young Belgian Friends.  After introducing ourselves we politely asked if they had a tow rope - no, came the reply and we started a discussion about what to do.

Fred seemed happy to go wandering about in the water, something I had been very careful not to do, and after a while reckoned he could probably get our car to work if we could get two wheels on the same side touching the ground.  He took our jack and our collapsible tyre wedge and started to lift the car out of the water on the back right side.  This had the effect of putting both left wheels onto the ground tripoding the car on those 2 and the jack.  He then instructed me to drive the car backwards off the jack while everyone else pushed.

A crunch, a crash, a squealing of dodgy 4wd and suddenly the Levante was back on dry land.  Simple.  Why hadn't we thought of this?

Well, probably because I am a crappy driver, and Fred turns out to be the best driver "in the woooorld".

We now have a bit of a dilemma - it is starting to get dark, we cannot turn the vehicles around as there is no space to do so and the ferry back across the Nile stops at 6.30 so come what may we are stuck on the wrong side of the river.  Fred and the boys are also late for getting back out the park, so I ask him which is the quickest way out.  "Don't know, I've never been here before"  !!!!

We head forward along the track - Fred suggesting a suitable route through our lovely pool.  We get through without any real trouble, and stop to wait for the Golf.  Fred also negotiates the pool fine and we headed off into the unknown.  The track got steadily worse, and the pools got deeper and wider.  At each one we stopped and Fred waded around in the water finding the shallowest route.  At some points we had to drive into the bushes to stay out of the deepest water, including at one point driving up a 4 ft high vertical banking and through an acacia bush.  The Golf grounded out here, but with a bit of man (and woman) handling we forced it up and over.

Eventually the roads improved and we could start heading back to Paraa.  We parted company with Fred, Lucas and Jurgen as they headed North to the park gate.

We headed into the most almighty thunderstorm, with the darkness falling and animals wandering all over the place.  Not exactly a recipe for speed.  We then took a wrong turning and finally came to rest at the exit gate  by the Paraa Safari Lodge.  Karen suggested we see if they have a room for the night, but instead I called the Red Chilli and they said someone would bring a boat over the river to ferry us back.

We abandoned the Levante in the car park an hour later when the good ship "Shoebill"arrived with Peter at the helm accompanied by 2 armed guards.  Crossing the Nile in the dark with the sounds of hippos ring out around us was a spectacular end to a trying day.  On the other side a land rover was waiting to take us back to our rest camp.  $20 to Peter and the boys and we were home.

Getting ready for bed a hippo came to graze at our door.  As I brushed my teeth, he chomped on grass three feet away.

Africa is a truly magical place, it kicks you in the butt and then rewards you back in more ways than you can count.

The grader that didn't save us.

Oh my, we're stuck in a swamp

Our second day in Murchison Falls NP started off well enough.  We got the early ferry across the river - 7.00am.  There were a few other safari vehicles behind us in the queue, but we were waved through the security gate first and headed off into the savanna.

We had a breakfast on the roof of the car, watching a family of elephants walking through the long fresh grass.  At a junction in the road, we headed down the Buligi track - not worrying too much that all the safari vehicles were heading the other way.  We passed a few workman busy on road repair duty, but the track soon deteriorated into a very rough and rutted path.  We had been following some other vehicles tracks, but these soon disappeared- where to we'll never know.

The driving was pretty difficult, but I was feeling confident enough with the car as it seemed to be coping fine with the ruts and puddles.

Until of course one puddle turned out to be a lot deeper than expected and the car ground to a dramatic and noisy halt.  No need panic though, I mean this is only a lion infested swamp after all.  Getting out of the car is not that easy, as there is foot deep water all around.  Having a quick look into the water reveals the leeches swimming around, and plenty of insects.  Mmmm, don't fancy wading around in that too much.

Karen exited her door out the window and along the bonnet onto a dry bit of road - I managed to find a drier bit and followed her out the driver's door.  A quick inspection of the vehicle showed that it was well grounded, with the right front and rear left wheels off the ground.

Its about time I admitted that I'm not much of an off roader - so I don't know of many ways out of this kind of situation.  It's also not the kind of place to go wandering off looking for help.

We could hear hippos in the river nearby, we knew that there were lions in the area, we spotted a 6 foot monitor lizard, there were leeches in the water and plenty biting insects.

This was at about 10 in morning and it was a bit hazy so luckily it wasn't too hot.  I tried pulling a few acacia branches out of the undergrowth, without going to far from the safety of the vehicle, and sticking them under the front wheels.  No effect.  We then gathered some stones and gravel from the road, scraping with our hands in the absence of any useful implements.  Again we put these under the wheels, but again this was pretty useless.  There just wasn't enough loose stuff around.

While we did this the clouds began to clear and the day got warmer and warmer, eventually forcing us back into the vehicle with the heat of the sun. We used our maps to improvise a windscreen shade and discussed what to do.  We knew that it would be best to stay with the car - plenty water, food and it seemed likely someone would come along the track.  After all there had been quite few vehicles at the ferry.

We checked the mobile phone - but no reception.  So I risked a walk along the track for about 50 yards to see if this would improve.  Hey hey - we got 1 bar.  So I dug out the phone numbers for the vehicle hire company - no connection. I then tried the Red Chilli rest camp, again no connection.  Obviously I was doing something wrong.  A hunch made me try a simple mobile number for the Red Chilli hostel in Kampala, without using any of the international dialing codes.  Someone answered - a young Irishman, who listened to our tale of woe and said he'd get in touch with our rest camp and someone would get back in touch.

About an hour later a text came in to say that the rest camp had informed the park authorities and that a grader would come at some point and rescue us.  The text also told us that others in the park were also stuck.

Time passed.......

Temperatures rose.....

At 2.45 after being stuck for nearly 5 hours, I sent a polite text back asking if we had been forgotten about. No no, came the reply, someone is on their way.

We sat back and relaxed again.  A troop of baboons, passed by - the alpha male spotted us, panicked slightly and had sex with the nearest available female. Three quick thrusts seemed enough in the afternoon heat. Vultures circled, and hippos bellowed in the river.

At 3.45 we were most certainly unrelaxed.  The heat in the car was unbearable but we had noticed that the water level in our pool had dropped by a couple of inches.  We decided to see if we could bale it out.  Half an our later we were incredibly hot and sweaty and our pool was just as deep.  Probably being fed by the Nile which was all of a few yards away.

What to do now?  At this point we are almost resigned to stay the night in the park - how scary is that going to be?