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Week 13: Uganda: From Lake Bunyoni to Murchison Falls

GO BOKKE!!! And a shout out to Aardvark for hitting it’s 100,000km milestone during week 13…and for Team Aardvark as we crossed the equator for the first time this trip! And all those events pale in comparison to coming face to face with the mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest…this week was truly one for (our) history books! First our normal stats: • Total days travelled: 92 • Total distance travelled from Cape Town: 13,877km o We are now 3 months into our adventure, and so far have used 2,475litres petrol, 8kg gas, Aardvark had 3 x oil&filter services, and we’ve learned to buy beer by the crate 😊 • Total borders crossed: 8 (and this week we can add: 1xEquator crossing!) And then the Aardvark stats for Week 13: • Best drink: Hot chocolate with a dash of the local “Bond7 Whiskey”! We had this on the deck of the Rushaga Gorilla Lodge, overlooking the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, after we came back from our gorilla trekking session…it started raining, and the mist was creeping over the forest…perfect for our hot drink and an afternoon nap! • Best food: At Kluges Guest Farm just outside of Fort Portal, we had the tastiest, creamiest, most perfectly ripened, massive (read normal Ugandan size) avocado – pit-removed and filled with French vinaigrette and finely chopped shallots, on a bed of marinated cabbage and radish…it was so good we had it two nights in a row! (oh and the description is from Irene – I’m still a bit of a food novice so would’ve only said it was a lovely avo salad 😊). Oh and our first braai broodjies in months (and our first braai in 16 days of Zambian boerewors and porkchops from Rwanda)…made on a massive fire, in the rain whilst standing under an umbrella…njamnjamnjam! • Best view: GORILLAS IN THE MIST! No need to say anything else! Day 86 saw us swapping the shores of Lake Bunyonyi for Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. And again on paper it looked like a pleasant short driving day, after we quickly stopped to buy Ugandan SIM cards and replenish our dwindling food supplies. But alas…a testing day was unknowingly ahead of us! Firstly we set off on the wrong road, incorrectly driving to the Bwindi Head Quarters in the northern part of the park. Because we only booked our gorilla trekking permits four days before (usually these are booked out months in advance), we weren’t sure at which entrance gate our trekking would start and couldn’t get hold of “agent Seith” that booked it...So we thought, quite naively and incorrectly, that all the gorilla treks started at the HQ the next morning – not true. So a tip for future gorilla trekkers – there are at least 4 gates from where the trekking start, and it depends on your permit which gate you need to be at. And the 2 gates at the south can’t be reached via the gates at the east or the north (where the HQ is) as there are no roads connecting them through the park, and as such you have to drive all the way back to Lake Bunyonyi and take a roundabout route through the mountains to get from the one side of the park to the other! Anyway, halfway to the HQ we eventually managed to get hold of Seith, we told us that we need to collect the permits at his establishment called Bwindi Backpackers Lodge, which is close to the southern (and most western) gate. Not knowing the conditions of the road ahead, we promptly turned around back to Lake Bunyonyi and resumed our trip to the southern part of Bwindi. With perfect foresight, as we were zigzagging up-and-down the various dirt mountain roads, we continued to remark on the seemingly short-sightedness of the locals calving out the sides of the hills for rocks and sand (presumably for construction), and even mentioned a couple of times that all of this bodes very badly for the future of the roads…And lo-and-behold, as we were about 10km away from the Backpackers (this was after passing the Rushaga gate and all the other lodges on the way there) which was almost at the most south western gate Nkuringo, there were two massive mudslides that have basically turned the road impassible (and you know that as a Mzungo you are going to be taken for a ride, as there were at least 20 strong guys standing next to the first muddy stretch with their spades and big smiles, knowing that you are going to get stuck, and will need to enlist their help to get through…at a highly inflated price of course!) So as you can guess, the mud was deep enough for us to get properly stuck on our first try (Aardvark is a bit heavy, and weighs close to 3tons with a full water tank and fuel tanks…), and the industrious local rescue team had to assist us through. 45min, loads of mud and less a bit of cash later, we arrived at the Bwindi Backpackers…only to realise that Seith was not entirely truthful…he firstly conveniently forgot to mention the almost impassable roads (even though the road’s condition was like that for the last 4 days and there were even an emergency UWA meeting to discuss the impact on tourists and move gate permits around), the permits were already at the Rushaga gate and not at the Backpackers…oh and it wasn’t a Backpackers with camping anymore but now a lodge under construction, but charging exorbitant rates! So you could imagine our complete humour failure at this point…and as the clouds were reading themselves for the second massive rain session for the day, we decided to turn Aardvark around, go through the mud again and rather sleep right next to the gate at the Rushaga Gorilla Camp. So for the second time in a day we were standing in front of the knee deep, treacherous mud. And this time there was a massive truck, fully loaded with bricks, stuck in the middle of the mud…Two local guides, also in their Landcruiser (but theirs was empty 😊) then proceeded to fight their way past the mud and truck to the other side, and were very happy to give us a helping hand (aka giving us a pull) through the mud holes…but this was only after we got stuck again as we tried to pass the truck on the side, Aardvark slid on the slippery mud and ended up with a wall of mud in front of its right front wheel…whilst this time the local “rescue squad” was slightly drunk (maybe from the proceeds of our earlier recovery fee?), getting raucous and the raindrops was starting to fall softly. So yes, we were super grateful for the assistance and pull out of the mud – and in the process Aardvark (and us) got our first real baptism of mud!! The Rushaga Gorilla Camp was like a haven in the rain, and we decided to spoil ourselves and get a room to get out of the rain a bit, get rid of the mud, and try and dry our washing on the balcony (very classy, yes I know!) – sometimes a bit of luxury is necessary after a testing day…especially as we weren’t in top form yet for the next day’s gorilla trekking…I had a very interesting rash over my back courtesy of a fresh-water-lake bug, and Irene had 2 blue knees after she fell out of Aardvark when she was trying to close the door in the rain and she slipped…we were quite a sight the next morning with our socks pulled over our pants/skipants (to keep the fire ants out), compared to all the Europeans who just flew in to do the trekking and were dressed in the right gear and gaiters as per the book! Anyway, Thursday 31 October broke with mist over the forest, and no rain predicted for the morning – perfect for our trekking session. At the briefing we requested to please visit the closest family (aka easy trek), which was in hindsight the best possible choice as the guys on the long trek only returned after 8 hours in the rain forest, and only catching glimpses of their gorilla family as they were chasing after them in the rain down a muddy mountain slope! Whereas our group had a lovely hour hike up one of the hills through the rain forest, whereafter our guide informed us that we should put our hiking sticks down, and slowly proceed through the bush as the big silverback was about 20meters in front of us! And what an experience…with big daddy sitting on the ground a couple of meters in front of us, eating away in total oblivion with the rest of the world, one of the females of the family high up in a tree above us, and 3 younger ones (2 of them babies of 2.5years old), playing their hearts out all around us…I daresay that I recognized the playful naughtiness of some little boys that I know quite well, in their actions 😊 Just standing there in the middle of the rainforest, with greenery as far as the eye can see, mist still rolling over the far away mountains, a little bit of soft rain falling, and the only sounds those of the insects, soft rain, and gorillas eating and playing…it was magical. And perfect. And a definite highlight of our trip thus far! Afterwards we retired again to the Rushaga Gorilla Camp, with perfect timing…as we got back to our room the heavens opened up again and it rained buckets for the next 3 hours…whilst we were having a lovely warm afternoon nap! The next day (day 88) we left the rainforest to go north to Queen Elizabeth National Park. I really wanted to see a tree climbing lion, and as such our plan was to drive to the southern part of the QENP at Ishaha, where the fig trees that are favored by the lions, are. As we were making our way back towards Lake Bunyonyi again, we initially followed our Tracks4Africa GPS (which agreed on the shortest/best route with GoogleMaps), and set off on yet another muddy road…but having learnt our lesson about muddy roads in the mountain during the rainy season, we thought to play it safe and rather drive on the tar all the way to the northern part of QENP, and rather venture from there back south again after we could converse with the locals a bit more on the road conditions. And what a good decision that turned out to be! One of the guides at the Engrini Lodge & Campsite (where we camped for 2 nights), told us that due to the excessive rain, the roads to and through Ishasha was so bad, that there were trucks on their way to the Congo that has been stuck in the mud for a couple of weeks already…and that was the through route that we were originally planning to take! So it all works out in the end…even though we didn’t get a change to go searching for a tree climbing lion, we might get lucky and see them at the Ngorogoro Crater in Tanzania later on in the trip. Saturday was devoted entirely to the Rugby World Cup Final…with Irene even getting the locals to watch and cheer with us! And as the rains were coming down outside the bar of the Engrini Lodge, we were cheering our little hearts out…and feeling very sorry for ourselves for not being back home to celebrate with the rest of South Africa – Bokke, you made us proud to be South African this week! Day 90 started early with a 6h30am game drive through QENP. And as a consolation prize we got to see two lionesses chasing away a couple of hyenas from their kill of the previous night…with a lazy buffalo watching the show! We also had one of the famous Ugandan Rolexes for breakfast whilst overlooking a salt lake / farm in the middle of the park…quite an interesting experience! (A rolex is a fresh chapatti, with an omelet rolled inside, served everywhere in small road food stalls through the country). Afterwards we continued north to Fort Portal, and unbeknownst to us crossed the equator on the way there…we only realized it that afternoon when we looked at our map in detail, hence the reason of no photographic evidence on Instagram😊 We’ll make sure to take a couple of extra pictures next time we cross it!! We spent the next 2 nights at Kluges Guest Farm just outside of Fort Portal, and took a bit of time to get some admin done in the relatively sizable town. Aardvark had a service, we got passport pictures taken, bought some random bits and bobs (like a tube of silicon and new fake plakkies)…and then treated ourselves to a bowl of grilled grasshoppers…apparently a local delicacy! Irene thoroughly enjoyed it – me, not so much 😊 On Day 92 we again head further north towards the Murchison Falls via Lake Albert. The Chinese are also heavily investing into Ugandan infrastructure (a trend that we’ve seen in most of the other countries that we’ve passed through as well), with new roads being built as far as we are going. This makes for some slow moving at times, and after yet again a wrong turn or two courtesy of Madam (our T4A GPS), we arrived at the Murchison Treehouse Lodge & Campsite very late in the afternoon. We were the only people at the campsite (it is really low season in Uganda, and nothing new for us to be the only people at a campsite anymore), but luckily the staff was super attentive and quickly made us our own bonfire, provided a charcoal oven, and placed little paraffin lanterns all around Aardvark as night set in…again a magical setup in the middle of the forest close to the river. At the moment the Nile is flowing in full force, and we are looking forward to exploring the river, the waterfalls, and the national park a bit more in the coming days! As an aside, and courtesy of Stan W, author of the SlowDonkey blog that we peruse for a treasure trove of information, below is a quick summary of the differently named parts of the Nile River: “As it flows out of Lake Victoria it is known as the Victoria Nile. Further downstream it empties into Lake Albert and here it is the Albert Nile. On leaving Lake Albert it is the White Nile which then joins the Blue Nile in Khartoum, Sudan to become the Nile. The Blue Nile arises in the highlands of Ethiopia. Here endeth the lesson.” I’m writing this week’s blog overlooking the Nile, listening the sound of hippos in the distance, and again just being so thankful for all the beauty that we’ve experienced over the past week… Murchison Falls, depending on the update of the rainfall and road conditions further north, might just be our turning point in Uganda before we are going to turn back down toward Jinja on Lake Victoria…so who knows, maybe I’ll be writing this blog next week from Kenya 😊 Till then. J

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