Heading to Uganda
From Rwanda I headed to Uganda. While the countries are neighbors, they each have a different feel. One obvious difference is that they drive on the opposite side of the road in Uganda (Rwanda drives the same as the States, Uganda the same as the UK). They are also in a different time zone. A new driver, Sam, picked me up at my last Rwanda hotel to drive me by road. I knew the border with Uganda would be different as the two countries were having a trade dispute---at least that is how it was explained to me---but regular citizens were not allowed to cross the borders. Tourists were allowed. Out of the blue, I saw a guard near a road block and my driver stopped and explained we were going to Uganda. That guard didn't ask for verification....I guess my blonde hair was proof enough....lol. A short distance after that, my driver pulled over to the side of the road and explained how I was supposed to cross the border. He pointed at several little out buildings and told me I had to cross on foot. I would have liked to take photos, but that is prohibited. I stopped at the first little building and was waved by and I crossed into Uganda. There was no one else around. I was the only person crossing the border. It was strange and eery. The first building on the Ugandan side was a UN tent that was still in place from the previous Ebola outbreak---now it was serving as a COVID check as well. The signs pointed to a place to wash my hands and a tub of bleach water (I think??) where I was to dip my shoes. I followed the arrow and a person was there in a gown, mask and face shield and he took my temperature (across my forehead). I was waved on. On the other side was a gentleman sitting outside with a card table under a pop tent. He was asking where I was going and what my occupation was. There were two other people coming from Uganda into Rwanda---both teachers from the US coming back from a day trip. We all commented that it was odd to ask us our occupations of all things. The next stop was another gentleman under an awing of a building---or I thought it was the next stop----but was quickly told he was Uganda and I needed to go into the next building to be checked out of Rwanda first. The computers were down, so I filled out a piece of paper, passport was stamped and the same process repeated to enter once I made it back to the Uganda immigration table. I was the only person in either immigration area. Completely surreal. My driver had told me to wait by a tree on the other side. I guess they scrutinize the drivers more than the travelers---he has a different process----and after about 20 minutes we were on our way.
It quickly became clear that Uganda isn't able to...or interested in....keeping roads to the same level as Rwanda. We drove on a paved road for about 20 minutes before turning off to head to my next destination. My driver said outside the capital areas of Entebbe (where the international airport is located) and Kampala, there is typically only one main road that is paved. All of the others are in gravel or dirt, some in better condition than others. We were headed to Mt Gahinga Lodge--part of Volcanoes Safaris---known for excellent conservation and community efforts. There are two gorilla families in the Mt Gahinga area, but I was only spending one night here. One photo of the lodge is above (this is main building where you can relax and eat meals--the accommodations are all in bandas (little cottages) spread out across the property). It is a gorgeous property and you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere (in a good way....). To be truthful, it is sort of in the middle of nowhere :) Once we pulled off the main road, I had no idea how long it would take to the lodge. There were some small villages in the beginning and the road, while unpaved, was in pretty good condition. The scenery was beautiful as we were seeing the opposite side of the mountains from Rwanda. After probably 20 minutes or so, my driver Sam asked if I was ready for a Ugandan massage---I had heard the term Rwandan massage whenever we had to go on a dirt road. Essentially it meant are you ready to be bounced around.
Once we arrived at the lodge, I can say I was for sure ready for the real massage that was included with my stay! The lodge was beautiful and I wish I had more time to explore and take in all the lodge had to offer.
Sam said we needed to leave at 7am the next morning to continue my journey to the Biwindi Impenetrable Forest. I had heard about Biwidi---and the gorillas that live there---for at least the past 20 years. It was a place I felt like I absolutely had to see. In working with my contact in Uganda, I kept getting answers like you can't get there from that point or you have to fly and then drive something crazy like 6 hours.. Looking at a map, it looked like Biwindi was just a short distance from Rwanda. This is an example of when you should listen to the expert---the person that lives in Uganda and has actually been there. My contact did tell me that from Mt Gahinga you could drive for 2 hours and then walk for 3 to 5 hours to Biwindi. I think I was so excited to hear of a plan that I didn't really think this through perhaps as much as I should have. I said sounds good to me and booked that. So, Sam and I drove the 2 hours experiencing more of an Ugandan massage than I ever thought possible (and seeing some gorgeous scenery along the way).
We arrived at the ranger station for my "walk"---notice the quotes---I had asked Sam about the "walk" during our drive as I'm seeing how dense an impenetrable forest really is and how much elevation change there is. He said people from this area walk there to go to the market and that it should only take a fit person like me maybe 2 or 3 hours to get there. He said my contact said up to 5 because sometimes old people take that long. Spoiler alert, if old people take 5 hours , I'm ancient...lol. The rangers walk with you in case you run into wildlife and the porter brings your bag. Only the porter spoke English and as we headed out we chatted about our lives. They told me half way through we would meet two other rangers and they would take me the second half. I left confident and excited for the journey. That is until we turned off the road and began the trail which was straight down....and covered in mud. I thought, ok, I've done this and I can do this. After an hour or so downhill my legs were starting to protest. All I could think is if I've walked this far down, does it mean I have to walk back UP the other side??? Oh and where the second set of rangers were....as we obviously had to be close to the halfway point. Right??? Long story short---we were no where close to half way. When we did reach half way, I was still trying to smile, but I dreamed of what I would do to my crazy travel agent that thought this was a good idea....even if that travel agent was me. Lol. Hey, I had 2 choices, either try some great mantras and laugh and stay positive or cry like a little baby. Especially when the downhill became uphill. I'm writing this, so you know I survived, However, hiking at around 8 to 9,000 feet for 7 miles in the jungle with who knows how much elevation change is not how I plan to spend a day again anytime soon. My asthma agrees with the plan :) Around 6 hours after I began, I made it to the lodge. They all seemed a bit surprised that a sucker had decided to actually walk to the lodge. They were very kind and brought me a ton of water and fruit juice while I sat and did nothing for a long while. No photos were taken on my walk--if I stopped for a sip of water, the rangers were heading back up within in minute or two. This was not a time for photographs (plus side--I can vividly remember many parts).
I was a bit panicked that I wouldn't be able to go on my scheduled hike for mountain gorillas the next day. The gorillas are in the same forest I traversed the day before. I told my driver my concerns and asked that he please get in into the slow group. The next morning, my legs were definitely sore, but the adrenaline and excitement of seeing mountain gorillas again, allowed to put one foot in front of the other and head out. I told my driver I was even slow to walk to breakfast and could he pretty please ask for me to go in the slow group. He finally agreed. I had heard from travelers in Rwanda that they had hiked for 6 and 7 hours in Biwindi and that idea freaked me out. I didn't need to worry. I got lucky. There were only about 20 people total there to see the gorillas that day. They divided us into 2 groups (Uganda typically allows more people per group, but on this day, we were 8 and 9 people) and both groups saw their families in quick order.
This gorilla experience was quite different from the one I had in Rwanda. As I mentioned, we found the gorillas pretty easily after maybe 30 minutes of hiking---and they were pretty close to the trail. The gorillas were spread out in a jungly area. At first I only saw 3 gorillas and then as leaves would part, I could see more. I was so fortunate to see a mother and her 4 month old infant. They were bonding and it was a beautiful scene. I crouched and watched them for probably 20 minutes. I could have stayed longer, but the Silverback was ready to move. He came from further back in the jungle and approached where we were. He sort of checked us out and then posed. There is no other word for it. He laid down and put his hand on his head like a model in a painting. He moved his head from side to side, but stayed essentially that way for a few minutes (I guess to ensure we had all gotten a good photo!). From there he led the troops down to the trail and walked the way we had come (so closer to the ranger station) and the gorillas followed at their own pace. We followed then and after a bit, the Silverback cut back into the jungle. He was hungry. The gorillas all took a tree and started climbing. We heard chomping and the occasional snap of a branch as the gorillas moved about....and after the prime eating location was found, sounds of "hey, that is mine" or "I'm not sharing". Nothing violent, just establishing the order of who qualified for the best food first. We were pretty deep in the jungle even though we had only walked maybe 10 minutes from the trail and the foliage was so dense there were times it was hard spot a 400 pound gorilla in a tree directly above you. Hardly any light filtered in---was a primordial kind of place. I tried to take photos, but all they were were dark blobs next to darker blobs (leaves next to the gorillas, but you'd never figure that out from the photos). The time limit is the same in Uganda---only an hour. None of us were ready to leave, but it was time. We were all a bit surprised at how close we were to the ranger station when we emerged from the forest. We had maybe a 10 minute walk on the trail. That was great for my legs that day, but I wonder if this family of gorillas were more habituated to people than the others. I think the answer has to be yes. They are comfortable hearing noises from the nearby ranger station and lodges and likely see people every day, even if a group isn't assigned to visit them that day. I'm not sure that is a terrible thing, but I wonder if this family could survive if they headed further back in the forest again. Just thinking out loud.
Since I was done with my gorilla trek by 10:30am or so, I had time to explore the area. As many of you know, I have my Masters degree in Public Heath and that is a passion of mine. When I travel, I like to see health care facilities and hear from their public health teams as what their challenges and success are for their area. This community hospital was one of the most functional regional centers I've seen. I had made an appointment and my contact showed me around the campus and highlighted many programs such as their NICU (they have 4 incubators), a hostel for pregnant women where they can stay for free until they deliver (reduces complications), a family planning center, and a team of community health workers that head out on motorbikes to local communities. This is just a short list of the amazing things they do. The data support that their efforts are making a big difference (cases of malaria are down significantly, as are water borne diseases, for example). Unraveled Travel, LLC was pleased to donate $500 to help them continue the public health efforts. They get a good portion of their budgets from donors and volunteers who come to work at the facility for weeks or months (an orthopedic surgeon and her team from Switzerland was one group there).
I also had time to visit a women's craft collaborative where all of the money spent went back into supporting the women. I had lunch at Biwindi Bar which is an initiative of Biwindi Lodge (where I was staying) which is also part of Volcanoes Safaris. The restaurant is a place where local men and women can enroll in hospitality and restaurant training. Students prepare and serve the food and for guests of Biwindi Lodge the food and drinks are all included. The restaurant is open to the public and they pay the menu prices. I had my best meal in Uganda at Biwindi Bar---it was excellent! The photos below show my lunch, the street where Biwindi Bar is located and the main dining area at the Biwindi Lodge (which is right in the forest).
My trip to Uganda was quick as the next day I was headed to Entebbe for my flight home. As I mentioned Biwindi is pretty isolated, so my journey began with a 2 drive to an airport. Airport isn't quite the word I would use---it was an airstrip cut into a field. I knew the plane would be small, but it was tiny (photo included above). There were 2 pilots and 3 people on board (one of them being me). The flight to Entebbe is about an hour and I was a little nervous, but even with some rain storms in the area, the flight was smooth (thankfully!)
Entebbe has flights to many major cities and I traveled back to the States via Amsterdam. Once we are able to travel again after the time of COVID-19, I would enjoy the opportunity to help you plan your next journey--to Africa or elsewhere. Take care and stay safe!
Tracey is the owner of Unraveled Travel and has traveled to every continent (thanks to the recent visit to Antarctica!