This is a summary of the two stories that appeared in The New Times Newspaper mid November 2015. ( When Uganda showed off its beauty spots and Experiencing Uganda’s remote and adventure-filled treasures)
There’s absolutely no doubt that the East Africa region is a hotbed (if I can borrow words from the CNN’s annoying vocabulary) of beauty. This breathtaking beauty has for years fuelled a vibrant tourism industry that pours millions of dollars in the economies of each of the East African Community member states.
For ten days, I was part of a team of regional journalists and tour operators from all over the world who were hosted by Uganda Tourism Board and given a glimpse, of what Uganda has to offer when it comes to tourism as part of the second Pearl of Africa Tourism Expo.
The regional journalists were selected by the East Africa Tourism Platform (EATP). EATP’s vision is to turn East Africa into this vibrant and diverse single tourism destination.
In a bid to promote intra and inter-regional tourism, EATP invited journalists from each EAC country to be part of the experience so they can spread the word around and lure others East Africans to destination Uganda. Efforts like the single tourist visa, open borders and the use of national IDs are some of the milestones that EATP has lobbied for in the recent past in a bid to ease access to tourist sites for the close to 140m fellow East Africans.
My trip started with a flight from Kigali to Entebbe aboard Rwandair, one of the key sponsors of the Pearl of Africa Tourism Expo. As I sat on the plane trying to suppress weird thoughts about plane crashes and what was expected of me as someone sitting by the emergency exit, I had no idea what awaited me and the rest of the team for the trip.
After checking into our hotel rooms and getting some rest for the day, we all met for a cocktail at Sheraton Kampala where we were briefed about the trips we were to embark on soon. We were also split into two groups. I was initially supposed to be part of the group that was to visit Mountain Gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable forest but I opted for the trip that would take me to Kidepo Valley National Park which is the only park in Uganda with cheetahs.
Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary
On the road our first stop was at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary a 7000 hectare private facility that was set up to oversee the reintroduction of Rhinoceros, a highly endangered species, back into the national parks of Uganda through a breeding and release programme. These huge beasts that can weigh up to three tonnes were finished off by poachers by 1983.
The first six rhinos were introduced during 2005 from Kenya and others were brought in from USA. Before we could go and see them, we each had to sign a document that basically spells out the fact that these are wild animals and something could go wrong. Then our guide reminded us that a white rhino can run up to 45km per hour when charging at what it considers an enemy.
It was interesting to learn that one of the rhinos born at the sanctuary is named Obama because its father is Kenyan while the mother is from USA. I wonder if Barrack Obama knows he has a namesake in Nakasongola. Because of how lucrative the trade in rhino horns is, the rhinos are guarded 24/7 by armed rangers and there is an electric fence around the sanctuary.
After having lunch at Amuka Safari Lodge, we drove to the oldest hotels in Uganda, Masindi Hotel for our overnight stay. The hotel was built in 1923 by the now defunct East Africa Railways and Harbours Company and is a historical gem in its own right.
Kaniyo – Pabidi Ecotourism site
After an early breakfast we set off for the Budongo Eco lodge, also known as the Kaniyo Pabidi Ecotourism site that is located in the heart of Budongo Forest Reserve in Murchison Falls National Park. We went into the rain forest for chimp tracking covering over 4 kilometers and breaking a sweat while at it. This place has some of the best tour guides I encountered although it was not so funny when they talked about the big snakes they sometimes find in the forest and tales of falling in ditches.
The forest has over 600 chimpanzees and lots of hard wood trees including one Mahogany tree estimated to be over 600 years and the oldest in the region. Do not ask me how the years were counted. Chimpanzees are our closest relatives with whom we share 98.4% DNA. Apart from the legendary mountain gorillas, Uganda hosts 17 other primate species making it a prime destination for primate lovers.
Murchison Falls National Park
The main attraction in this park is none other than the breathtaking sight of the Nile River forcing its way through a narrow gorge only seven metres wide and then tumbles down 43 meters. I am talking about Murchison Falls, also known as Kabalega by the more Pan-African leaning folks like yours truly.
We later enjoyed a boat ride upstream to see the falls from below while catching glimpses of the lazy hippopotami and their Jacuzzi antics as well the famous Nile crocodile. We saw one that was about four meters and I remember the goose bumps forming on my arms as imagined what things would be like if I found myself in a one on-one situation with this massive reptile.
Murchison Falls National Park is the largest national park in Uganda measuring approximately 3,840 square kms and boasts of over 76 species of mammals and 450 bird species. During the two days we were there we got to see a pride of lions, herds of elephants, buffaloes, antelopes, giraffes, warthogs and lots of birds. We spent our nights at Pakuba Lodge where you would think giraffes were also part of the staff thanks to the frequent sightings of the gentle tall animals.
Kidepo Valley National Park
After two days, we were driven to Pakuba Airfield where we boarded a chartered flight (Aerolink) to Kidepo Airfield in Kidepo Valley National Park located in the North Eastern tip of Uganda in the Karamoja region with the South Sudan and Kenya borders close by. Here we stayed at the luxurious Apoka Safari Lodge where each one had a whole canvas-walled cottage to themselves.
The cottages do not have TVs and internet access only happened briefly near the main reception area that has wifi that we could only use if the generator was switched on and we were nearby. I guess the message was clear, relax and enjoy the jungle.
The cottages allow you to sit on the patio and gaze at the beautiful landscape and watch animals like warthogs, buffaloes and antelopes grazing freely in front of you. At night the cottages seem farther than usual with every sound evoking wild thoughts of a lion, leopard or cheetah roaming close by in search of a quick bite. And by the way each cottage has an outdoor stone bathtub!
Kidepo Valley is rich with wildlife with arguably the largest herds of buffaloes and hundreds of bird species for the bird lovers. The famed tree climbing lions could be seen perched on top of rocks in typical I-am-the-king-of-the-jungle manner on the rocky throne. The only depressing bit was the old Landcruisers that kept breaking down in the middle of the park. Not cool if you ask me.
On our last night in Apoka we enjoyed some tasty nyama choma washed down with some drinks around a fire place.
Jinja town and its adventures
Uganda’s tourism circuit is incomplete with a trip to Jinja town. Here you not only have the Source of the Nile but also a rich range of options for those who love adrenaline-filled adventure excursions. We had to choose between quad-biking, white water rafting and bungee jumping.
I settled for quad-biking and I had so much fun riding around wet-dirt tracks while waving to curious children along the way. There is a reason why we were given helmets as some of our colleagues fell off the their bikes. Quad-biking is certainly something I will be doing again and again.
At the bungee jumping site, I opted to settle for a cold drink instead of jumping into the Nile with a rope tied to my legs. You can call me a coward all you want but I don’t really care. I just feel like my vital organs would abandon me during such a jump. You know like the way your computer or phone hangs as you use it.
As if to cool down from a week of adventure we spent the following day inspecting some of the finest hotels in Uganda, with breakfast at Speke Resort Munyonyo and a late lunch at picturesque Lake Victoria Serena before retiring to a Ugandan cultural gala at Ndere Centre.
Cultural night at Ndere Centre
The event at Ndere centre was aimed at showcasing the cultural diversity of Uganda a country with over 56 different ethnic groups. We were thus welcomed by a medley of dances from the Banyarwanda, Karamojong and Baganda communities all dancing to the captivating Kirundi drums. A journalist colleague from Burundi could not hide his joy for long so he put his Nikon camera aside and joined in the drumming.
Ndere troupe entertained us for the whole night with energetic performances of dances from all the corners of Uganda including the famous Intore dance from Rwanda. The troupe leader, Stephen Rwangyezi made it a point to introduce each dance with a brief but quite hilarious history of the dance, instruments and ethnic group known for a given dance.
The dances were briefly interrupted to allow us enjoy a sumptuous meal of local food as the drinks continued to flow. For a country where every 80kms introduces you to a new language, the night was never really enough. Likewise a mere blog post cannot be enough to exhaust Uganda’s beautiful story. You have to visit the country for yourself.