When I was a younger man, the name of Uganda was evocative of the dangers and thrills of Africa, the superlative wildlife, the psychopathic dictator Idi Amin, the raid on Entebbe and the multiple civil wars. Then something rather odd happened. President Museveni came to power in 1985, and the country disappeared from the news of the world. Attractions in Uganda (other than, of course Gorilla Trekking), now this is a question raised by all when visiting Uganda.
The Indian community, unceremoniously booted out by Amin, has returned and is investing in a big way. Oil has even been discovered in the Lake Albert basin, lots of it, and will transform Ugandan society in the years to come. One can only hope for the better.
But I came to Uganda for something rather more old-fashioned and serene: exploring the country's wildlife and lodges and, in particular, trekking for gorillas.
We overnighted at the Emin Pasha Hotel in Kampala, a recently renovated colonial residence. It was hot, the Nile beers were cold, and we enjoyed the company of the beau monde of Kampala, this being the regular Friday band night and the Emin Pasha, the place to be. A word of caution, if you want an early night's sleep, don't go to the Emin Pasha on Friday!
2. Lake Mburo National Park
It is quite a long drive to the National Park of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest; a good 12 hours drive over pretty rough roads. We broke up the trip by staying overnight at Mihingo Lodge in Lake Mburo National Park, a very relaxing détente. But the real purpose of the trip was gorillas, and we were on the road soon enough again.
3. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
Bwindi is tucked in the southwest corner of Uganda, abutting the Parc des Volcans in Rwanda of Dian Fossey fame. The vegetation of the forest is, as the park name states, impenetrable but driving there was almost as tough. We drove through on a Sunday, passing through many villages with all the villagers dressed in their finest. Sitting on top of our Land Rover, I had a bird's eye view of village life, and I could not help wondering how similar this picture must have been to English village life 150 years ago. No real new technology to be seen, the men and their ladies making conversation with children all milling around playing with wooden toys and farm animals.
Arriving at Clouds Mountain Lodge was the perfect antidote after many hours of bone-jarring driving. The lodge itself is reminiscent of a 1930's mountain or highland shooting lodge. Stone and brick on the exterior, relaxed, understated luxury on the inside. The ambience shouted to you to sit down and ease yourself on a sofa sipping your gin and tonic. This luxury was to be all the more appreciated because the real hard business of trekking was the next day.
4. Uganda Gorilla Trek
An early, misty start meant that we were in the Rangers office at 7.30. An explanatory talk of gorilla behaviour, human behaviour, vegetation and the trek was followed by the allocation of porters. I chose not to take a porter, but I would recommend it for most people. The trek, descent and ascent, was more arduous than I had anticipated. The sides of the valley are steep, and you have to place your every step carefully. Your path is hacked out of the thick foliage by the ranger with a very sharp panga. Looking around on the descent reminded me of the many Vietnam war movies I had seen of American planes going down and being lost in the thick verdant canopy.
We were lucky only to have to trek two and a half hours before we saw our prize, a troop of gorillas about 18 strong led by the alpha primate, Safari. In fact, Safari wasn't doing very much at all! Stretched out, legs akimbo on the forest floor being preened by six adoring females. One can only dream.
The thought which struck me after observing them at very close quarters (2-3 metres away) was the gentility of their behaviour. Make no bones about it; these were big apes who could break a human in half, but their whole manner was peaceful, content, and at ease with themselves. Several of the children and babies stumbled over Safari, who gently and lovingly helped them along.
All was in order in this community. Safari was the boss, and everyone respected his position and their own in the natural pecking order. Humans could learn or relearn much from their behaviour.
Unfortunately, you are only allowed 1 hour with them in order to minimise your interference, and this was strictly respected.
The hard and dirty slog up the valley was rewarded by the powerful showers of your bathrooms and the crisp white sheets of your beds, warmed by a hot water bottle. A strong cup of tea and a tot of whisky were the accompaniment prior to conking out for a few hours. I left Clouds with some regret. The magnificence of the prize of seeing these virile but gracious creatures coupled with the views from the terrace of the mountains of the Parc des Volcans. God has made perhaps something more beautiful than this, but I haven't yet seen it.
5. Kidepo Valley National Park
Fast forward somewhat, and three days later, after a 2-hour flight from Simliki Lodge at the bottom of Lake Albert and flying over the Murchison Falls, we arrived at the top northeast corner of Uganda, in the remote Kidepo Valley National Park and home of Apoka Safari lodge. The open space and Savannah were a direct contrast to the forest of Bwindi. The lodge itself was relaxed east African bush style with the viewing deck and probably the best bush swimming pool I have ever been to (hewed out of the rock) overlooking several watering holes.
The game experience was interesting. Because it is so far from anywhere, the park did not suffer as much and was not poached out during the multitudinous wars and conflicts of Uganda. There is big 4 (no rhino, but they will be reintroduced soon) with huge herds of buffalo and elephant but also, several species I have never seen before. Rothschild Giraffe and Jackson Hartebeest prominent among them.
One of the unexpected treats of the stay over was a visit to the local village. Normally, I am not a great enthusiast of community encounters. I find them generally contrived, commercial and of no real benefit except for some instant gratification to the tourist who thinks he is "communing" with real Africa. This experience was different. Kidepo Valley touches Sudan and is so remote that there has been generally very little interference from the rest of Uganda, never mind the developed world. Consequently, the village itself could have looked as it had done 200 years ago. No real modern equipment anywhere. The villagers seemed generally enthusiastic to meet you (and touch you) and did not have their hands out asking for cash. There were a few trinkets for sale, but it was not the purpose of our visit. We muzungus all felt that we were just touching a daily instalment of their lives which they cared to share with us.
All good things end, but generally speaking, Apoka is an excellent safari lodge. If you are looking for exclusivity, remoteness, an abundance of game and general relaxation, you could not ask for more.
I have now been back in Cape Town two weeks, yet Uganda remains firmly implanted in my mind. There is something about it: its history perhaps or its visual beauty and lushness which draws me. I will be back.