Wednesday, August 23, 2017

48 Hours on Safari in Uganda

By Nattabi Ruth Lugose Basoma, director, Engo Tours

Let's say you're crazy as a hog on ice and let's say you want to do a 48 hour safari in the wilds of Uganda, but I repeat myself. Who am I to try and stop your craziness? Instead let me enable it. Here's a plan that will take you up-country in East Africa's most dramatically beautiful nation, get you up close and personal with its amazing animals and extraordinary landscape, and get you back to the 1.6 million city of Kampala in 48 hours. Yes, For reals. But it will cost you bigtime. Still, what better way to spend your hard-earned semolians?

Ready? Here we go. You land at Entebbe at mid-day. You have already booked a whirlybird flight on FlyKea, Kampala's premier helicopter company (they also fly small planes). In about 40 minutes you're in Fort Portal nestled in the Rwenzori Mountains, the famed Mountains of the Moon, first written about by Diogenes who visited them. A private hire car zips you out to Kibale Forest where you do an hour or two of chimpanzee tracking. You then go back to Fort Portal and grab a quick lunch at The Dutchess -- great pizza and libations. You return to the nearby copter and off you go to Queen Elizabeth Park, about 30 minutes south. 

To get there, you fly over some of the most beautiful landscape in Africa. Below you great gangs of elephants, cape buffalo, kob and waterbucks (two types of antelope), lions and hyenas range over the savannah. You cruise low over the Great Rift Valley, the place it all began for humanity, the Source Perrier of humankind. 30 minutes later, FlyKea drops you near Mweya Lodge at QENP. Wave goodbye; they'll be back to get you tomorrow. Check in, leave your bags in your room and walk down to the boat landing at Kazinga Channel. You've got just enough time for the glorious sunset cruise. Follow the cruise with a late night dinner, a soak and a massage. Then get to bed, cause you need to be up way much early in the morning.

It's still dark as you crawl out from under your mosquito net at Mweya Lodge, grab your packed breakfast from the front desk, and make your way to the helicopter. Up you go, heading southwest for Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, one of the oldest virgin forests on earth and home to some of the planet's last mountain gorillas (about 800 remain, most are in Uganda with the rest in the DRC and Rwanda). You've got an early morning meet and greet with the gorilla family, 18 of the most laid back, charming primates you've ever encountered. Hope you got a good night's rest, because after the two hour drive you've got a 5 hour round trip jungle hike to meet your distant relatives. The good news is it's totally worth it (It will cost you $600 per for your permit, which allows you a one hour audience with the lovely beasts.) It's one of life's great experiences, and that's no hyperbole.

Ninety minutes later, you touch down in Buhoma, the gateway to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. After a brief orientation talk and some pointers on gorilla etiquette (don't get closer than 3 meters, easy on the direct eye contact, don't mess with the babies or you'll be going home in a ziploc baggie) you clamber into a Land Cruiser for the two hour drive to the 7500 foot elevation where the hike begins. You will meet up with porters at the trailhead and each member of your party will hire one, cause you're not that crazy; for $15, they will not only carry your expensive crap from Nikon and Northface, they will push you, pull you and otherwise save your ass from falling all over the place. You'll also be accompanied by armed guards -- to protect you from the other kind of guerillas.

And now in you go, warily slipping, sliding and stumbling (and being caught by your porter) toward the best meeting you will ever have. It is a monochrome world you move through: green, green and green. Then, when the walks seems like it will never end, there in the distance are several black furry blobs, the Deadheads of the rainforest, just chillin', munching leaves, patiently awaiting your arrival and the clicking of your cameras (there are two thousand three hundred photos of mountain gorillas on Flickr. Why not just have the experience without hiding behind your camera?)

You slowly approach, the gorillas could not be less interested in you. Except the babies. They're very interested and on several occasions over the next hour the guides will have you back up because the friendly, clownish youngsters are just too interested in their strange, hairless visitors. The hour goes too quickly, of course, but what an hour it is. The babies keep things entertaining while the interactions between the adult males and females bring an air of dramatic tension to the proceedings, and the occasional grunts and soft growls of the silverback leave no question as to who's really at the top of the food chain here.

On your way back to the SUV, as you huff and puff your way toward civilization, notice the profusion of amazing butterflies, the other primates and the fantastic birds -- more species in Uganda than in all of North America. Once back in Buhoma, find your guide who will take you on a village walk and introduce you to the Batwa pigmy group that used to live in the forest but now must reside at its edge as "conservation refugees." The Batwa are one of the oldest societies on earth. Hunter/gatherers by tradition, they've been booted from their forest home and now struggle to survive as farmers.

After meeting the Batwa, and buying A LOT of their crafts, return to your helicopter. In a couple hours you are on the ground in Entebbe. You catch a meal at Goretti's great pizza restaurant on the beach at Lake Victoria, then head to the airport. By about 4pm you are ensconced in your Emirates 747, on your way to Dubai and then home.

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