Planned and actual route
Kisoro, Mgahinga (Gorilla) National Park, Queen Elisabeth National Park, Fort Portal and crater Lakes, Murchinson’s Falls National Park, Jinja, Sipi Falls, Tororo (border crossing to Kenya).
The big question for us was; are we going to include Kidepo Valley National Park, a park in the far North of Uganda? This is the area were the Lord's Resistance Army in the Northern Region fought for many years against the government. Untill five years ago only one tour operator that visited that part of the country, mainly due to bad tourist infrastructure and the many landmines in the region. Nowadays you can visit it yourself and there is okay-ish accommodation along the way. However it takes one full day to drive there and two full days to reach the border with Kenya. After much discussion we decided to only visit Murchinson’s Falls National Park as the park fees for a NP is very high and driving time too long.
Kisoro, Mgahinga (Gorilla) National Park, Lake Bunyoni, Queen Elisabeth National Park, Fort Portal and crater Lakes, Murchinson’s Falls National Park, Sisiyi Falls, Tororo (border crossing to Kenya)
The Republic of Uganda is a landlocked country in East Africa and lies within the great lakes region. Since the beginning 1894 the area was ruled as a protectorate by the British, who established administrative law across the territory. Uganda gained independence from Britain on 9 October 1962. The period since then has been marked by intermittent conflicts, including a lengthy civil war against the Lord's Resistance Army in the Northern Region, which has caused hundreds of thousands of casualties and, most likely, displaced more than a million people.
Uganda has a long history of violence ever since their independence. The first post-independence election, held in 1962, was won by an alliance between the Uganda People's Congress and Kabaka Yekka. Together they formed the first government with Milton Obote as executive prime minister, with the Buganda Kabaka (King) Edward Muteesa II holding the largely ceremonial position of president. However Obote wanted more power than ‘just being’ prime minister and in 1966 a power struggle followed between the Obote-led government and King Muteesa II. Obote suspended the constitution and removed the ceremonial president and vice-president. And in 1967, a new constitution proclaimed Uganda as a republic and abolished all the traditional kingdoms. Obote was declared the first president of the Republic of Uganda. But in 1971 one of his generals, Idi Amin, seized control of the country by military coupe. He ruled Uganda as dictator with the support of the military for the next eight years. He carried out mass killings within the country to maintain his rule. An estimated 80,000-500,000 Ugandans lost their lives during his regime. Five years ago our guide told us that people fled into the National Parks, poaching animals for food to survive. Amin’s biggest mistake!?; was to invade Tanzania to attack Ugandan exiles in 1979, This unsuccessful invasion ended his reign after Tanzania successfully invaded Uganda aided by the same Ugandan exiles. Still today Uganda is recovering from the Idi Amin period if you look at the wildlife in Uganda. Slowly National Parks are recovering, placing Uganda on the tourist map as a safari destination in East Africa. After the Amin period from 1979 till 1986 Uganda had six different presidents (all men only a very short time in power). Even Obote became president again after wining the 1980 election, only to be deposed again in 1985 by, yet again, another general, Tito Okello, who only ruled only for six months until he was deposed. This occurred after the Ugandan Bush War instigated by the National Resistance Army under the leadership of Yoweri Museveni and by various rebel groups. During the bush war, the army carried out mass killings of non-combatants. Museveni has been president since his forces toppled the previous regime in January 1986. He also restricted all political parties and in his non-party "Movement" system political parties continued to exist, but they could operate only a headquarters office. They were not allowed to open branches, hold rallies, or field candidates directly (although electoral candidates could belong to political parties). However a constitutional referendum cancelled this nineteen-year ban on multi-party politics in July 2005. In that same year Museveni had made changes to the constitution, which enabled him to become ‘president for life’ banning the limit for the number of terms. He, allegedly, paid off each member of parliament US$2,000 who supported this measure, using public funds to pay them. Every five years elections are held, but since Museveni is in power, every election is tainted by accusation of widespread fraud, voting irregularities, the repeated arrest of opposition politicians, and a climate of voter intimidation. Nowadays indicators of a plan for succession by the president's son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, have increased tensions in the political landscape of Uganda. And who knows what will happen during the next elections, to be held in 2021.
Border crossing near Kisoro and Mgahinga National Park
After we left the Rwandan chips factory, we headed for the border post with Uganda five kilometres outside Kisoro. Knowing it is not the largest border post between Rwanda and Uganda, we had not expected it to be a one-stop border post…and we were partially right. We had to clear the car on the Rwandan side at their customs office and signed the car out at police post, which took about three minutes in total! A bit in doubt, we continued to the Ugandan border already telling ourselves that we do not care that we are not stamped out ourselves…however once at the Ugandan side, there is indeed a Rwandan immigration exit and an Ugandan immigration entry office. Since we already had our East African visa, we were done in 1 minute, after standing in line for 10 minutes. Next was getting the carnet de passage stamped for the car at the Ugandan Revenue Authority. It was clear they had done this many times before, as also here everything went smooth…except that we had to pay the taxes in Ugandan shilling (again contrary to what we had read that it had to be paid in US$)… The size of the border post is so small that there is no bank, but a ‘regulated’ (?) black market. The officers of the Revenue office told us to change with one of the guys in an yellow jackets… Knowing the exchange rate would be lousy, we tried to change only €20 and tried to push him in a 5% profit against the day rate… he wanted 10% since it was a small bill… this was really too much for us and we tried it with $50. Surprisingly he only took a 3% profit on the day rate!? (clearly, this is still Africa :-)). With all stamps collected, we continued our trip -on the left side of the road- towards Kisoro to go to an ATM and buy a new sim-card. We had read that the campsite near the entrance gate of the Mgahinga (Gorilla) National Park, would be an hours drive from Kisoro. Although it is not the best road in to the mountains, we could not believe that the 15 kilometres would take almost an hour. And, indeed, we arrived at the campsite a small half hour after leaving Kisoro.
Mgahinga National park - Sabinyo Gorge and Golden Monkey tracking
Mgahinga National park is the smallest park in Uganda (only 33 square kilometres) and it borders the Park The Volcanoes in Rwanda and Virungu National Park in Congo. The Rwenzori mountain range is where the actual borders are. Next to Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya it is one of the few mountains in Africa capped with snow. It is the only park in Uganda were you can see gorilla’s and golden monkeys’ and the park has a nice slogan: ‘ The only park in Uganda where Gold meets Silver’.
The next day, we hiked into the gorge to enjoy the birdlife and hopefully come across a golden monkey. With the permits to the park being valid for 24 hours, we had hoped to start early afternoon, to enable us to do the golden monkey tracking the next morning. To our disappointment, ALL hikes start early morning, meaning two activities, take two (full) days, hence twice the park fees.
The walk into the gorge is a relatively easy walk up to the gorge. In the gorge it gets more steep and slippery. As our main goal was to see the birdlife, we slowly ascended towards the gorge stopping almost every five metres to watch another sunbirds, waxbills, babblers, etc. Just before our lunch break in the gorge, we were treated with one of the larger and more beautiful birds that make the park special; the Rwenzori Turaco.
Wanting to keep it easy to ensure Judith her knee would not spoil the fun, we did not continue into the gorge itself, which turned out to be a smart choice, because within 500 metres descending back down, her knee started to act up and the rest of the walk was unfortunately painful and made her decide that a golden monkey trekking the next day is not possible.
The next morning Wilfred had to find his way to the shower in pitch dark for his early start of the golden monkey trekking. The previous day the water was boiling hot, so he had asked them to make the water colder than the morning before. Unfortunately it was again way to hot. After adding about eight beer bottles of cold water, he decided to have coffee first. Just in time for the trekking, he announced himself at the office and an ‘African’ fifteen minutes later they headed off. The hike was about one hour to the area where the golden monkeys spend their days. The hike was steeper than the day before and it was a good decision that Judith decided to relax.
Only five minutes into the area, Wilfred spotted the first golden monkey…very high in the tree and difficult to photograph. Walking a bit further, we also met the trackers who told us where the monkeys were having breakfast. So we found ourselves in the middle of the group with much more and better photo opportunities. After about spending one hour with the golden monkeys it was unfortunately time to go back.
Lake Bunyonyi to Murchinson Falls National Park
Wilfred came back to the campsite late morning with the idea to have a small lunch, but as it started drizzling, we headed out to our next destination: Amasiko Homestay and Campsite at Lake Bunyonyi. This campsite is located on the tip of a high peninsula in the lake and the views around are breathtaking. The next morning, we had an early start, expecting tough road towards the Ishasha sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park. After about forty kilometres we turned into the unpaved road and it is much better than we expected (luckily some things do change in five years). About ten kilometres further, the Maps.me route planner steered us up a very steep hill (and in our eyes the wrong direction). Halfway the steep hill, it became clear that we did not have enough momentum to get to the top. Back at the bottom of the hill, we switched to the Garmin to find out if this indeed was the best road. Track4Africa, however, did not know the road at all!? A though decision to make…we decided to follow our gut and follow the ‘easy road’ straight ahead instead of going up that hill. We were clearly heading in the direction of the road that both Maps.me and Tracks4Africa indicated as the road to Ishasha, but the road was getting worse before we got to promising road works at a T-junction. Again following our gut, we turned right as it seems most people have done. After about a kilometer, the road gets much worse and smaller and smaller…there was no where to turn…so carefully we continued the ‘almost car-wide’ track until we reached the main road.
On our way to the gate of Ishasha sector in Queen Elizabeth NP we noticed military guarding a black SUV and it turned out to be the Minister of Tourism. The lady at the gate mentioned that he had not seen that much wildlife during his visit. As we heard the same from other tourists we skipped this park and just drove the 60 kilometres transit road to the North part of the NP. Just next to this NP is a small forest reserve where you can do a chimpanzee trekking and we turned in that direction…but after 10 kilometres or so we got really fed up with the extremely poor road conditions (and the heavy rain that did not make it any better). Later at the lodge where we had lunch the manger said that it is the worst road of Uganda.
Skipping the chimp trekking in this area, we headed in the direction of Fort Portal. After an hour we reached the dirt road towards the crater lakes. It was supposed to be a poor road, but shortly after the village, the road is as smooth as a dirt road can be. It winds very nicely through the hills and around the craters. Having read that Crater lodge overlooks one of the many crater lakes in the region, and serves very nice lunches, we went there for lunch. Following our gps, we turned into the road that circles the lake, but due to watching the scenery, we missed the small exit towards the lodge. As turning was not easy on a ridge, we circled the full lake… Although possible, it did mean switching on 4x4 and being on the motor track again, like we drove on the Congo-Nile trail. After a nice lunch, we decided to check out the lodge ‘Chimps nest’ we stayed at 5 years ago and ask if they would allow for camping. The road through/to the Kibale park had improved a lot, which we cannot say of the road to the lodge. To our surprise, we found the entrance to the lodge in despair. In hind side, we should not have driven there…so, still looking for a place to stay, we headed to Kluges Guest Farm, just outside Fort Portal. As we got to the farm, it started raining and we decided to use one of their tents. A surprisingly smart choice as it turned out; when we got to the car after diner, our left back tire was flat…
Waking up early, we started with changing the tire. Next we went to Fort Portal to have the tire repaired. After taking out a nine cm spike with a six mm diameter we really wandered where we had picked that up… After checking for more leaks, five more small punctures were found. After also those were fixed, again others were found! Finally a powder solution mixed with water was put into the tire. After that, the guy found a big cut and told us he: the tyre is beyond repair. Glad we had agreed on a fixed price, we told the guy to put the tire on the back and drove off towards the Kontiki Hotel in Hoima.
Although we were not looking forward to stay there again (there is still not much in Hoima), we were actually surprised this place had expanded and offered a nice camping place next to the bar and restaurant. Sharing the whole complex with three other guests, we had some drinks with them after dinner and turned in early.
The next morning we left for Murchison Falls National Park. We arrived at noon and drove the 65 kilometres forest road slowly to be just in time for the ferry across the Nile at two o’clock. During the afternoon game drive, a lot of memories come back and we wanted to sleep at the camping of the lodge we stayed before. It had a really nice view over the Nile, unfortunately poor ablutions and with it a water problem.
The next morning we visited the Murchison Falls and took the noon ferry into the main game viewing park to have lunch at one of the luxury lodges before our late afternoon game drive. After a very nice lunch and meeting the friendly staff at Pakuba lodge, we decided to ask them if we could camp at their parking (overlooking Lake Albert J). To our pleasant surprise this was no problem and we could even use the facilities of one of their rooms. We ended up staying with there for two nights enjoying nice food after each game drive (Is this ‘Glamping 2.0’?). Given the price we had to pay to get our ‘foreign registered’ car into any national park in Uganda we had to make a choice which N.P. to visit. Five years ago, we truly enjoyed Murchison and we did not get disappointed this time either. Our aim was to find the Shoebill stork once more and make at least one decent picture (last time, it was very hard to see what we had made a picture off…). The first evening, (we think) we captured one flying (although it might actually be a pelican) and the next morning, we found four of them, even one that was just across the channel from where the track ran.
On our third afternoon game drive, we came across several herds of giraffe ranging from 10 to about 30 of them. But the most exiting thing we saw on our way back to the lodge close to the road Wilfred spotted a lioness that was choking a waterbuck right next to the road. When we went back the next morning, a pride of seven lions was still feasting on it.
The last night, we had drinks after diner with one of the tour guides and he explained that there is an alternative (good tar road) to the eastern border instead of driving via Kampala…and he was right. After a short game drive, we exited the park (after a 120km drive through the park to the east gate) and turned onto the tar road towards Mbale, close to our next destination Sisiyi Falls campsite. After a quite night, we left for the Tororo border, ready to break another record. It was almost one-stop border. We cleared the car in five minutes and headed for Kenia, where we got our stamps and got the car cleared for entry. All in all 41 minutes and no additional costs for the car…we were pleased. Not only the fastest crossing, but also the cheapest on our trip so far J