Uganda Trip Recap

Trip Start Oct 24, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Uganda  , Central Region,
Saturday, January 26, 2013

One of the perks of our new jobs was a two-week break between the first and second semesters. We'd looked at going to Uganda for our week off in November, but had decided it may be too rainy at that time and shelved it for a later date. I'd done all that research though, and Uganda kept running through my mind as we considered getaway locations for January and February. Eventually I was able to convince Konrad, and in early November we bought our tickets. When we were home over Thanksgiving, we got a guidebook, and shortly thereafter, I set to reading it cover to cover in order to get an idea of what things we might enjoy doing. As it turned out, Uganda had a lot more to offer than what we could cover in a mere two weeks; I suppose that's the reason it's nicknamed "The Pearl of Africa." 

Throughout December, and especially during the first three weeks of January, I spent countless hours researching, developing, and honing our itinerary until it was as close to perfect as I could make it. While it required a lot of effort and got to the point where Konrad said "I don't want to talk about Uganda anymore!", once again all the work proved its worth: I felt extremely prepared and once we were on the ground there, everything was more or less effortless because we just had to follow the plan that had been laid out. 

We absolutely loved Uganda: the people were among the loveliest we've met during our travels, the landscape was diverse and beautiful, and there was such a variety of things to do there that it felt like we really got to do a lot of different, unique, and exciting things. It seems like it's an up-and-coming tourist destination in that it seems like the vast majority of people who visit do so with a tour company or guide. That's not really our style, but we were quite seriously considering going with a guide and driver for the duration of the trip since that's what essentially everyone does. After much debate, we decided to just go it alone instead -- and it turned out to be the best decision we could have made (a little more about that below). 

Here's a short recap of how we spent our time in Uganda; more detailed entries will follow at a later date when I've invented a way to generate more hours in a day and finally finish all of the older trips I've got to update.

Saturday, January 26th - Kampala:
We arrived in Uganda on Saturday a little after 4:00 in the morning and had a cab take us the relatively short distance from the international airport in Entebbe to Kampala, the country's capital. After catching up on the sleep we'd missed on the plane, we didn't actually accomplish too much in the city, unfortunately. We had to run around town trying to make advance payments for different accommodation we'd booked, then got trapped in a mall trying to sort out a SIM card for the trip and buying supplies and souvenirs. 

We did manage to relax in the early evening at a bar and simultaneously watch a few different football games with the locals before heading to dinner, but all in all, the day was kind of a "prep" day, used to get the final details taken care of and procuring anything we might need for the other legs of our journey.

Sunday, January 27th - Jinja:
We were collected from our hotel early on Sunday morning and driven an hour and a half west to Jinja, the town situated at the source of the Nile River. We spent an incredible day whitewater rafting in one of the most unique places to do so in the world. The Nile is very deep, which makes it a very safe place to raft difficult rapids (the majority of the ones we hit were Class 5), and it's also very, very warm, which means you don't have to wear wetsuits or worry about getting tossed out of the raft. 

I ended up swimming a bit more than I'd anticipated (i.e.: I got washed out 50% of the time), but had a fabulous time and would highly recommend it to anyone going to Uganda. I mean, how often do you get to say you went whitewater rafting on the Nile? We spent the night camping along its banks as well, gearing up for the next day's road trip.

Monday, January 28th and Tuesday, January 29th - Murchison Falls National Park:
Monday marked our first real day on the open road, and our first true exposure to the roads and traffic of Uganda. We'd spent a long time debating whether or not to self-drive or hire a driver for the bulk of the trip. Normally we'd be all for renting our own car, but the information floating around out there about the roads and drivers in the country had us a bit worried. In the end, we opted to strike out on our own, and it proved to be a fantastic decision. We were able to dictate our own schedule, had the flexibility to adapt and adjust the itinerary as we wanted, and were able to drive at a more leisurely pace, which afforded us more enjoyment of the countryside and villages we drove through. 

We did, however, have to get accustomed to the roads, many of which were extremely rough -- as we quickly found out during our alleged five-hour drive, which actually took us eight hours. We weren't technically finished yet, either: we still needed to get from the park entrance to the ferry, and then to our campsite. Along the way, we stopped frequently to appreciate the wildlife in the park, gazing at various birds and antelope, as well as a herd of elephants. 

More animals were in store for us the next day as we did our own morning game drive, and then took a boat safari to the base of the park's namesake: Murchison Falls. The boat safari in particular treated us to up close and personal views of some animals we hadn't seen much of before, namely scores of hippos and loads of crocodiles.

Wednesday, January 30th and Thursday, January 31st - Murchison Falls National Park and Budongo Forest:
On Wednesday, we drove to the top of the falls, then hiked down and around them, enjoying the close-up views and the feel of the spray on our faces. From there we drove from the savanna part of the national park to the forest and whiled away the rest of the afternoon relaxing in the peace and quiet. 

Nearly the whole of the next day was spent with the chimpanzees that live in Budongo Forest. The two of us had two guides who helped us locate the chimps, and then the four of us "hung around" with the group of up to 80 for the next eight hours. As you may imagine, it was an unforgettable and amazing experience -- and well worth the price of admission.

Friday, February 1st and Saturday February 2nd - Fort Portal:
After getting the most of our time in Murchison Falls National Park, we drove south and west to a mountain town called Fort Portal. Again, we had a difficult drive on a very, very bad road; it took us seven hours to make the journey. By the time we got there, we were drained and all we wanted to do was sit on the back patio of our hotel room, gaze at the mountains (er, rather attempt to through the clouds), and catch up on some reading.

We were more energetic the next day, choosing to drive a bit outside of the city to a series of crater lakes and do some hiking with some adorable village children.  The scenery was stunning, the sun was shining, and the children were all seeking sweets from the Mzungos.

Sunday, February 3rd and Monday, February 4th - Ruhija (Bwindi National Park):
Another long and bumpy drive (and one of the worst stretches of road we would encounter) awaited us on Sunday as we made our way to the southwest corner of the country. We drove through Queen Elizabeth National Park on our way, spotting some elephants and birds en route, and then began the ascent that would take us up to our campsite perched at 2,430 meters (nearly 8,000 feet). The scenery was splendid, even if it was a bit cloudy, and we were treated to yet another part of Uganda's diverse landscape (amazing how cold it can be on the Equator!).

On Monday, we had our chance to rub elbows (not literally, unfortunately) with 12 of the world's remaining 703 mountain gorillas -- and before you go making any jokes, it was in the sunshine, not in the mist.... A group of eight of us, plus one guide, one ranger, and one porter, trekked through seriously steep and slippery mountain terrain to locate the famed creatures. Once we found them, we had exactly one hour to appreciate all that they had to offer us, then we had to turn around and make the treacherous hike back to the park entrance. This too was an experience we feel lucky to have had, but wow - an hour goes by in a flash! The full day with the chimps certainly spoiled us and made us wish we could have done something similar with the gorillas (alas, they don't offer any such thing). 

Tuesday, February 5th-Friday, February 8th - Lake Bunyonyi:
On Tuesday, we began our descent, pausing for the next four days at 1,950 meters (about 6,500 feet) on the shores of sparkling Lake Bunyonyi. The lake is not only at a high altitude, but also is quite deep. The blue waters sparkle amidst dozens (more?) green hills and mountains. It was quite honestly one of the most beautiful places I have ever been in my life -- which made me even happier that we'd booked ourselves in for four nights of nothing but lazing, reading, bird watching, and star gazing from our geodome's porch. 

Saturday, February 9th - Entebbe:
Our time at Lake Bunyonyi came to an end early on Saturday morning when we crawled back into the car and drove eight and a half exhausting hours west to Entebbe. As we made our way, the weather shifted from fog as thick as pea soup to steamy sunshine, the road alternated between stunning blacktop and pot-hole-filled mediocrity, and the scenery evolved from tea-covered mountains to farmland. It was a long drive, but gave us one more opportunity to pass through the villages and get a glimpse of Ugandan life before returning the car and settling in for a few hours of sleep before our early morning flight back to Istanbul.

The only thing I wish we could change about the trip would be to have more than two weeks to explore and enjoy Uganda. Both the country and the continent have found a big space in our hearts and we both are keen to go back -- sooner than later, preferably!  :)
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