It is great to arrive at the border with no buses and very few trucks. We cross straight over to the Ugandan side and stop in front of the customs building. It is a one-stop shop with both countries working from the same building. First counter passports stamped out of Rwanda, next counter passports stamped into Uganda, next counter carnet stamped out of Rwanda and lastly the final counter, carnet stamped into Uganda. But here we must pay road tax, so our route is roughly calculated and we head to the bank to pay the fees and change some $US dollars into Ugandan Shillings. We are free to go, but first we encounter typical African driving behaviour. Two rows of trucks are coming towards us blocking the whole road. Once they clear there are cars still trying to come through. John’s usual “might is right” tactics forces them to squeeze to the side so we can get through. Unsurprisingly the whole episode takes 30 mins! Welcome to Uganda.
We rather expected a continuation of Rwanda and so are disappointed to see piles of rubbish and untidy villages. We are back in Africa. Anyway, we stop at the first big town to get our usual sim card. Again, a photo ID and a wait while it is registered. Early afternoon we are off again heading down a dusty dirt track to Lake Buyonyi where we can camp at the Buyonyi Overland Resort. It is a huge place with lots of rooms, an area for the large group overlanding trucks and a patch of grass beside the lake for people like us. We settle in as a rain storm comes through and later when it clears sit outside and enjoy the view followed by a quiet night.
We have the whole day here just to potter around. John puts in our little boat and we take a jaunt. Lots of dugout canoes and even a few playful otters to spy. We get back just before the rain starts again. Oh, golly I hope it does not rain tomorrow. We are being picked up to go to the Bwindi National Park to hopefully find some gorillas. (Note the cost of permits here are less than half what they are in Rwanda!) Once the rain clears, we wander through the scruffy village. The kids are going home from school and practise their English on us. There are a few huts with tourist stuff, a tiny bakery, a little pub, and numerous tiny shops. We wander down to the port. By this time, we have a tagalong guide trying to sell us a boat trip, but he is happy to just chat.
An early night ready for our early start. Of course, we keep waking up way too early, but finally we are off at 5.30am, in the pitch black, with our driver. The first hour is on good seal and once the sun comes through the views are magic. The final hour is mainly up a goat track through villages and miles of crops. By 8am we arrive and are surprised by how many tourist vehicles and of course tourists are here. The local women do a song and dance routine while our permits are checked. Then a briefing before we are put into groups of 8. Remember this is the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and we want to track mountain gorillas. The 2 significant words here are impenetrable and mountain. Everyone else in our group hire porters foe the trek at $US20 each but John is too tight. The trackers that are out ahead of us ring to tell us our family of gorillas we are tracking have decided to head up the mountain. So, we must leave the track and a new one is slashed that takes us straight down the gully, then straight up the mountain. It is very steep and very slippery. The tail end guard with the gun drags me up so I do not slip over. I am pooped by the time we find our family. First, we spy the huge male silverback, and further along a baby playing on a tree. Down below is a Mum and bub. Our group moves quietly around so we can see them all. It is very steep and covered with vines, but the guides slash branches so we can see. Annoyingly it starts to rain and the gorillas hunker down under the trees. We hunker down and watch. I must be only a few metres away from them. Magic. Our time is up and so we get a new trail slashed back down the slippery hill, and up again of course. John hauls me up the slippery slope this time. We stop for a quick snack before traipsing back out of the jungle. It is 2pm when we finally get out. We have been in there for 5 hours. Then it is back into our tour van for the long drive back to GR2. The rain has not eased off and the road has become a slippery slivery mess making it slow going. We are glad to see our truck by early evening.
The next morning, we head off after doing another load of washing. Our hiking clothes are very sweaty and muddy. We head back over our dirt track to Kabale, and from there continue north on the excellent main road. The scenery does not disappoint. It really is stunning, with swathes of crops and huge mountains. Our guide told us the best (and possibly the cheapest) place to go Chimp trekking is at the Kalinzu Forest, so we head there. We can camp at the headquarters just off the main road. It is nothing flash, but we enjoy watching a troop of noisy argumentative baboons jump all over our truck, and play beside us. We cannot open windows very far or they will get in. In the evening a little Church service starts in an adjacent building. The singing is amazing and goes for over 2 hours.
Just before breakfast John pops over to the office to check about chimp trekking. There is a large group of people there already and will depart soon. We hurriedly finish breakfast and get ready. Over the next few hours, we find the chimps, then watch them for an hour before the hike back. We spy quite a few other primates – red tailed moneys, black & white Colobus, blue monkeys and even a spider monkey. Our group get on so well we invite them back to our truck for coffee.
Time to move on, through mountains with dozens of volcanic craters, and down the escarpment into the flat savannahs that make up the Queen Elizabeth NP. The main road cuts right through the centre, so we can drive that for free. We can also drive out to the Kyambura Gorge to look out over the huge slash in the ground. Later we stop is at the Kazingura Channel that connects Lake Edward & Lake George. There are boat trips down the channel to see hippos, crocs and elephants, so we stop, but the cost of the boat trip is increased exponentially by having to pay park entry fees. We have seen soooo many hippos & elephants we give it a miss. Instead, we head down another open/free road to a few villages beside the lake. Not too much wildlife to spy – some antelope, buffalo and at the waters edge, lots of hippos. We do not have to return the same way, but can continue in a big loop passing a lake where the locals mine salt, then huge areas of cattle grazing before we find a spot for the night at Simba Safari Lodge. It is nothing to write home about, but it has a lovely new pool which we enjoy.
No rush to head off the next day. We catch up with lots of washing and relax by the pool while it dries. Then it is back to the main road to the sprawling town of Kasese where we turn and head towards the gorgeous Rwenzori Mountains. There is an old copper mine up here to explore, but our plans are thwarted. There is a barrier, and they will not let any tourists past! Oh well. Next plan. We drive on to yet more Crater Lakes and find the lovely Mwamba Kelele Lodge and school, where we can camp. It is right on the rim of a crater lake. Even though it is Saturday the older kids are in class until 4pm. Then they roll out the drums and have a singing & dancing rehearsal for the next 2 hours. Such a joy to watch their enthusiasm.
The next morning the rain is torrential, so we simply sit and wait it out. By 11am we head off. Our track we came in on is now rather muddy, so we need to engage 4x4. Phew! Glad to be back on the tarseal and heading north to Fort Portal. The magic scenery continues as we continue to Hoima. It is Sunday, so all the ladies are decked out in their finery. We stop for the night in the lovely grounds of the Cultural Lodge. Annoyingly there is loud music, but torrential rain in the early hours of the morning put an end to the noise. In the morning everywhere is wet and soggy, but at least our road is sealed. We continue along a now flat landscape to our next destination – The Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, only stopping at the town of Masindi to try some local fast food –“ rolex” (a chapatti with omelette – very tasty) The last section into the Sanctuary is muddy. Once there we settle into the lovely grassy camping compound and later head to the office for our trek with the rhinos. Fortunately, they supply gumboots, as the trek is through some very swampy landscape, and yes, we do find 8 rhinos and watch them for about an hour from a short distance away. Really, they do not do much, only meander along munching grass. Well, no trek was needed because when we wake in the morning 4 rhinos are sleeping beside our fenced compound. Then a Mum & bub wander along. We spy another 2 as we drive back out. What a bonus.
Now its time to head north to Murchison Falls National Park, so lots of driving today. We pass lots of villages and stop at a bigger one for fruit. Much later we cross the Nile River near the Karuma Falls and then turn and head through the National Park. Again, it is a main road so it is free, but once we reach the park office it is time to pay. As in Tanzania you pay per 24hrs so we must pay for the 2 of us, the truck, and a camp site. The main road is practically brand new and excellent. We slowly drive through spying antelopes, buffalo, wart hogs, giraffes, and elephants. After crossing the huge Nile River, we drive to the top of the falls to explore the lookouts and marvel at the power of these falls. Then we camp at the very small Top of the Falls camp area with views of the rapids.
The next morning, we head back to the Nile for our boat trip. Over 3 hours cruising slowly beside the banks of the Nile spotting hippos, huge Nile crocs, water bucks, baboons, and lots of birds. And then the piece de resistance - the amazing Murchison Falls. Just stupendous. Finally, a fast ride back to port. We still have a few hours before we must be out of the park so we slowly drive through the most popular game area again. Much later we exit the park and head south to Masindi (again) where John has found that we camp at the Masindi Hotel. What a find! It is a gorgeous heritage hotel built in 1923 by the Railway company. We are given a free tour. It was built as a transport hub between the Nile and the railway so goods could be transported to the Congo and Sudan. Much later it was where Katherine Hepburn & Humphrey Bogart stayed while filming the African Queen, and later still it hosted Earnest Hemmingway after his plane crash. Again, there is torrential rain in the night. The wet season is now in full swing, but we still plan to head to Kipedo National Park in the northern part of the country.
Lots of driving today as we head north to Gulu. There is hardly any traffic so its pretty smooth sailing. At the big town of Gulu we find a no plate at a wreckers, an ATM for cash, diesel and finally the best supermarket we have seen for ages. The afternoon brings more of the wet seasons torrential rain, but we make it to Kitgum where we camp on the grass at the lovely Acaki Lodge. In the morning a quick explore of Kitgum town before heading to the National Park, but the tarseal has ended and we are now back on dirt tracks. At least there is not much traffic so we can stay on the crown of the road. The edges are slippery. We drive for miles like this passing numerous thatched villages. This whole area is so incredibly poor. And there is nowhere to pull over for a break. Finally, we spy a school and stop. We think it is empty, but a teacher’s head pops up. While I make coffee John goes to investigate. There are 3 teachers & 94 children with no desks or chairs, they all sit on the floor.
We carry on. The mountain scenery is stunning and we are really enjoying this amazing drive, but as the day progresses the rains come again, so we are glad to reach Kipedo NP. The guard assures us the tracks are OK, so we pay our entry fees and head in. The scenery is stunning with huge sweeping plains surrounded by crazy mountains. And yes, there is wildlife. We see buffalo, hartebeest, wart hogs and short maned zebras, but it is very wet. We try a few back tracks, but they are too sticky and we must ease back out. Later we head to our camp site – a lovely open space with views over the plains. There is a huge pile of firewood so we have an awesome fire. We even have our own guard with a gun who sets up camp nearby. Not a lion in sight so he really is not needed.
Our original plan had been to stay 2 nights, but because we cannot drive on many tracks and because afternoon rains are torrential (turning all the tracks into quagmires) we decide to head off early. So, at 7am we leave camp for our long drive southeast along more crazy dirt tracks to Kaabong. The Karamoja people live in this huge barren corner of Uganda. They are traditionally farmers with cattle and we see lots of men wrapped in their blankets carrying a stick and a wooden stool, and sporting a jaunty hat. Very dapper! John has decided he wants a hat, so we stop at the marketplace in Kaabong. Everyone is in town milling around and we are now the latest attraction. The markets are brimming with people and goods (I do not take my camera with me when I wander markets – they do not like photos, or they want money for them.) John finds an old guy with hat and stool and proceeds to buy his stool. What a crowd! Then he finds the hat shop. Mission accomplished!
We continue to the town of Kotido where there is a place we can camp, but as it is only early afternoon and it doesn’t look like rain, we decide to keep driving on to the town of Moroto. After 270km we find tarseal and a bar/hotel where we can camp. It rains heavily in the night, so we are glad we have reached the tarseal!
When we head back to the main road, we discover miles and miles of roadworks. But the scenery is still great with lots of mountains in the distance. Finally on good tar we see that the way our signs point is dirt, so we choose the tar assuming it will go through (As it shows on the map!) We discover that at the town of Nakapiripirit the tar road just stops completely and around the corner is a muddy track. Not good! We head to the Police station and the friendly policeman leads us down some other back tracks to find the new road that is currently under construction. Later that day we turn off the main road and wind up the side of Mt Elgon to our next destination of Sipi Falls. We head into our lovely grassy campspot with views of the famous Lower Sipi Falls at the Sipi Falls Guesthouse just as it starts to rain. When the rain eases, we head out to explore the village and some viewpoints. Tomorrow we will tackle the hike. Peter, our guide (they are compulsory) tells me it’s not too steep and not too muddy. He lies! It is a steep muddy trek of 8km, but now we have seen all three falls! We decide to stay another night, which is just as well as a storm rolls through with torrential rain that lasts for over 2 hours. The waterfall is now running brown and we now know where every leak in our truck is located.
Just an update that has sent us into a bit of a tailspin and made us incredibly grateful for our safe travels. Not sure if it reached overseas news, but 2 tourists and their driver were murdered in Queen Elizabeth NP a few days ago. When we looked back, it was the same day we were there and on further investigation we found it was on the same back road we took. It would have happened a few hours after we passed through. God is looking after us!