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Journey to Uganda and Rwanda: Part 1

An extraordinary safari visits rare mountain gorillas
and sees how two nations are rising above their turbulent pasts

By Alan Fox

Vacations Magazine: Journey to Uganda and Rwanda: Part 1
Karen Fox
Only a fool tests the depth of the water with both feet. -- African proverb

I am writing from Kenya Airways Flight 412, near the equator, in East Africa.

I left Houston three days ago with my wife and another couple. We spent the first night over the Atlantic and the last two in Nairobi, getting right-side-up after 30 hours of travel. In a short while, we will land in Entebbe, Uganda, the starting point for our SITA World Tours safari.

We are here to explore Uganda and Rwanda, two countries that are off the beaten path, even for those who go on safari. This is my first time traveling with SITA, a deluxe tour operator with 75 years of experience in escorted travel. My company, Vacations To Go, has represented them for years, and returning guests rate them highly.

Not only did SITA have exactly the trip I was looking for in this region, but they offer a wide assortment of safaris throughout Africa and an extensive array of tours to Australia and New Zealand, Asia, India, South America and more.

After a two-year hiatus, it is good to be back on the continent. My earlier safaris to Tanzania and Botswana were among the highlights of all my travels to date.

Each of those countries is known for peace and stability, with friendly people who are generally open to outsiders. Their sprawling game reserves are breathtakingly beautiful, with comfortable lodges and tented camps. A vacation in Tanzania or Botswana can be a life-changing event.

On this trip, I have pushed a little closer to the edge of my comfort zone, quite literally, and I want to cover that up front.

To the north, Uganda is bordered by Sudan, where ethnic tensions remain high following genocidal massacres in Darfur. To the east, beyond Kenya, there is Somalia, a wasteland ruled by warlords and pirates.

And to the west, Uganda and Rwanda are bordered by the most violent country on the planet -- the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo). Since 1998, more than 3 million people have died in wars and civil wars in this country, some of which were triggered by a militia of murderers who fled Rwanda 16 years ago. They still operate in the northeast area of the DR Congo, a lingering threat to the stability of all three countries.

Even our host countries of Uganda and Rwanda -- which have made enormous strides in recent years -- are remembered internationally for war and atrocities almost beyond the imagination.

My first memory of Uganda was during the reign of Idi Amin, a cold-blooded dictator who had hundreds of thousands of his own people killed, destroyed his country's economy and invaded Tanzania before being driven from power, in 1979.

To the south, Rwanda was the site of one of the worst genocides in all of recorded history. In 100 days beginning April 6, 1994, an estimated 800,000 children, women and men were shot, hacked or clubbed to death by bands of government-sponsored death squads and civilians.

But today, both Uganda and Rwanda are very different, and their current governments are marching in the right direction. I have heard intriguing things about their parks and game reserves from people in the travel industry who have visited. Both countries are hungry for Western tourists, and tourist dollars can only add to their stability. I am here to find out how they treat their visitors, and how they compare to the great safari countries of Africa.

Our expedition will travel entirely by land, visiting several national parks and game reserves. We hope to find creatures great and small that we have never before encountered -- including chimpanzees and rare, tree-climbing lions.

But our main goals are to visit with endangered mountain gorillas that exist nowhere else on Earth, and to make our own meager contribution to their survival. Some say it is the most poignant and memorable wildlife experience of them all, and sadly it is one that simply cannot wait.

Mountain gorillas are categorized as "critically endangered," and 700 of these magnificent animals are all that remain. It will take a herculean effort to restrain the militants, poachers and habitat-destroying farmers in the area and allow the species to see the 22nd century.

Toward the end of our trip, we will spend two days tracking these gorillas in the Virunga Conservation Area shared by Rwanda and the DR Congo, a nearly impenetrable rain forest dominated by eight volcanoes, one of which has just erupted. We won't know until we arrive how the falling ash and lava flows have affected the gorillas, chimpanzees and other animals of Virunga, or how they might affect our itinerary.

We also don't know whether we might be able to squeeze in a visit to nearby Lake Kivu, which I am anxious to see because of its status as one of only three "exploding" lakes in the world. The lake covers more than 1,000 square miles and is up to 1,575 feet deep, and it contains extraordinarily high levels of dissolved methane and carbon dioxide. Scientists believe that sufficient volcanic interaction with the bottom of the lake would spark a methane explosion, spawning a tsunami and releasing suffocating gases.

According to Wikipedia, "Analysis of Lake Kivu's geological history indicates sporadic massive biological extinction on millennial timescales." Another reminder that when it comes to vacationing in this part of Africa, timing is everything.

And so this trip begins -- after years of anticipation and delays -- with one eye on the volcano and another on the neighboring countries. It is the beginning of a great adventure, but I can't help wondering if I am about to test the water with both feet.

Below us now, Uganda stretches like a waking lion, and we will give her our attention and respect. We are here to admire her beauty and to learn whatever she would share. The green hills of Entebbe rise up to meet us; I will check in from the bush.

Trip Post No. 1: From Entebbe to Ndali

"In any country there must be people who have to die. They are the sacrifices any nation has to make to achieve law and order." -- His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular, 1976 (title Amin gave himself)

In the summer of 1976, an Air France flight en route to Paris from Athens was hijacked. Uganda's homicidal dictator, Idi Amin, invited the hijackers to Entebbe, where they were given safe haven and other terrorists were allowed to join them.

During a tense standoff, non-Jews were allowed to leave the airport terminal and the country, while 85 Jewish travelers and 20 others who refused to abandon them remained behind. The hijackers demanded the release of prisoners held in five countries and threatened to kill their hostages otherwise.

On the seventh day, under the cover of darkness, a plane glided down the runway unannounced and Israeli commandos shot their way into the terminal and freed the hostages, with casualties.

Amin believed Kenya had aided the rescue effort. He rounded up several hundred Kenyans living in Uganda and executed them, along with a hostage that had been taken to a local hospital prior to the raid.

Public opinion throughout much of the world turned against Amin, and though he clung to power with increasing brutality for three more years, he was eventually driven into exile.

We landed three days ago at the Entebbe airport, where we were met and driven by that original terminal, still standing but now adjacent to the headquarters for the United Nations' peacekeeping operations in Somalia, Sudan and the DR Congo. It is fitting that Amin's terrorist sanctuary is now home to the world's efforts to combat terror in Africa.

We left the airport for Kampala, the capital city with a population of 1.2 million, driving on potholed roads lined by tiny shops and houses. Every vehicle we saw -- trucks, vans, cars, scooters and bicycles -- appeared to be loaded to maximum occupancy, times two. Midsized cars with 10 passengers, vans with more than 20, even trucks with their cargo holds filled with freight had people hanging on at the top, for dear life.

Our driver dodged the ruts that he could and slowed down for the others, constantly swerving to pass bicycles and slow-moving vehicles. Up and back, left and right, we lurched in our seats, what one Tanzanian guide on an earlier safari had called "an African massage."

We spent our first night in Uganda at the Kampala Serena Hotel, a surprisingly luxurious, five-star property with a gracious and accommodating staff. The hotel has multiple restaurants and lounges, a full-service spa and two large, palm-lined swimming pools. With an early wake-up call and long drive ahead of us, we dined at the hotel's gourmet restaurant, The Pearl of Africa, where the food and service were exceptional.

The next morning, we met our driver/guide for Uganda, Steffie, left the manicured grounds of the hotel and were quickly engulfed by a sea of humanity. The road was packed with cars, taxis, scooters, bicycles and throngs of people.

The main highway exiting Kampala to the west is two lanes wide but is frequently missing even a hint of pavement. Every few miles we passed a village with small shops and businesses, homes about the size of a two-car garage and a vegetable stand, all hugging the main road as if it gave life itself to the countryside.

There is red soil in this area, and almost every structure we passed was made of red bricks. Dust kicked up by the traffic hung in the air and covered everything and everyone near the road.

Despite recent economic growth and progress under the current president, Uganda remains one of the world's poorest countries. Motorized vehicles of any type are financially out of reach for the vast majority of Ugandans, so many ride bicycles or walk. Even in the countryside, where villages may be miles apart, the roads are always lined with walkers, frequently balancing produce or firewood or jugs of water on their heads.

We drove west nearly the entire width of the country, which took about even hours, including a stop for lunch. Steffie interpreted what we saw and patiently answered our questions, and we absorbed as much as we could.

There were forests of eucalyptus or pine and occasional fields of papyrus. Most people here are subsistence farmers, and much of the land we passed was carved into small patches of plantains or bananas, with a couple of goats or chickens on the loose.

White people (bazungu) are still rare in Uganda, especially in the countryside. Extended Toyota Land Cruisers (the vehicle of choice for safari operators throughout Africa) are just as rare, and the combination drew curious stares wherever we went. In the villages, almost everyone would try to peer into our vehicle and when meeting our eyes, smile and wave. We smiled and waved back, flattered by the attention but embarrassed to be riding in comfort amid such poverty.

This is something you must come to grips with anywhere in Africa, the enormous gap between the haves and have-nots. It is always on display, and the vastness of the need is always felt. For the poorest of the poor, there seems to be no way up, and no way out. I could not help thinking that, but for a lucky birth, one of these villages might be mine.

In the late afternoon, we arrived at the Ndali Lodge, which sits on the rim of a volcanic crater, overlooking a lake nearly 400 feet deep. There are eight thatched-roof bungalows, a comfortable gathering room, a dining room, swimming pool and two shaded patios, high above the lake.

We were met in the parking area by the gregarious English owner, Aubrey Price, and staff carrying cool, moist towels and refreshing fruit drinks. Escorted to our bungalow, we were delighted to find it spacious and inviting, with two canopied double beds (complete with mosquito nets) and a covered front porch looking out at the Rwenzori Mountains, also known as the "Mountains of the Moon," on the border with the DR Congo.

Aubrey inherited the lodge from his father, who in turn got the land from his father. When Amin came to power, he seized this land, along with land and businesses owned by other immigrants, and expelled entrepreneurial Asians and Europeans from the country. Seized land became nonproductive, and the businesses folded, a disastrous blow to the country's economy.

When the current president, Yoweri Museveni, took over in 1986, he invited anyone who could prove they had had their property confiscated to return and reclaim it. Aubrey's grandfather did just that, and Aubrey's father built the lodge.

Over the years, Aubrey and his family have become a major, positive force in the local community with their benevolent activities directed particularly at local schoolchildren. You can read more about those efforts on their Web site.

One of the most endearing features of Ndali -- at least for people like me -- is its lack of electricity. There are solar-powered lights in the bungalows that last long enough for you to shower and get in bed in the evening (as long as the day is sunny), but the main lodge and dining hall are lighted only with candles after dark. It's perfect mood lighting in which to enjoy tasty British dishes and Aubrey's tales of witch doctors and life in the Ugandan outback.

The first two days of our trip have been a cultural exploration, fascinating and invaluable in trying to understand where Uganda has been and where she is headed. Age-old memories of Idi Amin are being replaced by the images of smiling children and a country still climbing from the wreckage Amin left behind.

I'll sign off now from the back veranda of the Ndali Lodge, where we are enjoying the warm breeze of an African evening and shimmering moonlight on the crater lake below. With luck, I will dream of tree-climbing lions and gorillas, for tomorrow our safari gets under way.

To view photos or a slideshow from this leg of my journey, please click here.

Vacations Magazine: Journey to Uganda and Rwanda: Part 1
Alan Fox

Trip Post No. 2: From Kibale to Ishasha

After two and one half hours of chimpanzee tracking in Uganda's Kibale National Park, home to 1,200 chimpanzees and 12 other species of primates, we had seen exactly two red-tailed monkeys, from a distance of about 100 yards.

Our group of six and our tracker, Gerald, were moving along a narrow trail under a thick canopy of leaves, past colossal trees towering up to 180 feet in the air. For the most part we could not see the tops of the tallest trees through the canopy, but occasionally we could get close to a trunk and look straight up and glimpse a tree of Jack-and-the-Beanstalk proportions.

None of us had said so, but I knew we were all beginning to fear our half-day trek would be over before we found a chimpanzee, when suddenly there was a shriek unlike anything I have heard, in the distance.

"Listen, he is calling to others and they are not responding," said Gerald. "Maybe he is separated from the group. Follow me."

We left the path and barreled headlong into scrub trees and branches, doubling our pace in the direction of the sound we had heard. Within a few minutes we found them, one male and one female chimpanzee, high in a tree.

Gerald called another tracker on his radio, and after a while a group the size of ours appeared and took up a position on the other side of the tree. For 30 minutes or so, we watched two big, dark balls of fur moving about, obscured by the branches, as they munched leaves and dropped twigs on our heads.

The foliage was so thick on the ground that we could no longer see the other group, but we did hear them once, when one of the chimps relieved himself in their general direction. (Note to self: Avoid sightseeing from directly below a great ape.)

Suddenly, the male began to move lower on the branches, caught a vine and swung down to the ground with a thud, just a few feet in front of us. Male chimps sometimes exceed 5 feet in height and can reach 140 pounds, and it was only then that I realized the full extent of this chimp's size. The moment he landed, he disappeared into the bush.

Gerald called to us to follow him, and we took off in pursuit, crashing through the plants and tree limbs, tripping on vines, moving up and down the hills as fast as we possibly could, with our cameras at the ready. We must have sounded like a herd of rampaging elephants (also found in this park), and I felt certain we were not about to sneak up on a leopard.

Then, without warning, our mischievous friend simply stopped and sat down. He was a fit-looking adult male with just a bit of gray creeping into his beard.

We came no closer than 20 feet as he posed graciously without the slightest interest in any of the humans there assembled. His brilliant facial expressions implied that he was either contemplating the mysteries of the universe or preparing to be beamed to the mother ship.

After a few minutes he scampered up the nearest tree and was gone for good, but not before providing a heart-pounding and satisfying climax to our first game park visit.

The next day we left Ndali Lodge and drove south to Queen Elizabeth National Park, the country's most-visited game reserve, with terrain that ranges from dry savanna to green, rolling hills to dense forests. We made our way to the Kazinga Channel, a 22-mile-long natural waterway linking Uganda's Lake Edward and Lake George, and climbed aboard a boat for what would turn out to be nonstop game viewing by water. Hippos, elephants, Nile crocodiles, Cape buffalo, kingfishers, African fish eagles and many more species presented themselves in a two-hour tour.

We headed south again, to the most remote region of the park and our next overnight destination, Ishasha Wilderness Camp. The camp consists of 10 large tents tucked into the trees along a river, tables for outdoor dining, a covered sitting area and a much appreciated recharging tent for batteries of all sorts.

There is a sink with running water and a portable toilet in each tent, but the only flushing toilets are communal, a short walk down the path from the tents. As with other tented camps we have visited, there are no walls or fences keeping animals out, so we are not allowed to leave our tents unescorted after dark.

Last night, we had the camp to ourselves, chatting with friendly camp proprietors Karen and Dave by the fireside and dining al fresco by the river. This afternoon, an Italian film crew arrived and took over the rest of the camp. They are here to film Ishasha's famous tree-climbing lions, but neither they nor we could find lions today.

Under Idi Amin, the park system nearly collapsed in Uganda. Soldiers and their friends entered the parks to kill game to sell, and corrupt game wardens were easily bribed to allow it. The animal populations plummeted and rhinos were wiped out completely, slaughtered for their horns, which were shipped to the Middle East and Asia to be carved into knife handles or ground into aphrodisiacs.

In recent years, most animal populations have recovered, and there has been an effort to re-establish rhinos in Uganda. Last year, the first rhino birth in this country in 27 years occurred at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary. Amazingly, the mother is one of two white rhinos that arrived in Uganda in 2006 as a donation from Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando, part of the first-ever relocation of rhinos from the U.S. to Africa.

On our game drives today, we saw herds of elephants and Cape buffalo and a variety of antelope, including Ugandan kob, topi and waterbucks. Other sightings included a family of crowned cranes (Uganda's national bird), sacred ibis, warthogs, vultures and a black forest cobra at least 6 feet in length. Meanwhile, marching by or through camp, there were elephants, a hippo, a troop of black-and-white colobus monkeys and a red-tailed monkey.

Tonight, in the woods by the river at Ishasha Wilderness Camp, the only light I can see is coming from the screen of my computer. Outside these thin sheets of canvas, the night is alive with screeching, crunching, grunting and splashing noises, and every so often something bounces off the top of the tent.

Down the path at the communal toilet, twin tarantulas we have nicknamed "Fluffy" are standing by to greet the members of the Italian film crew. We met Fluffy earlier in the evening and believe they are essentially harmless, as long as the mere sight doesn't kill you.

Tomorrow we leave for the land of volcanoes, but for now I am happy to be back in the bush.

To view photos or a slideshow from this leg of my journey, please click here.

Journey to Uganda and Rwanda: Part 2.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in May/June 2010.

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