A Rwenzori Ramble

A Rwenzori Ramble

A Rwenzori Ramble                                                                                         

Uganda April 2018

Summary

Saturday 28th          Depart London

Sunday 29th              Arrive Nairobi and onward flight to Entebbe                                                               

Tuesday 1st May       Fly to Kahihi and drive to The Ndali Lodge

Wednesday 2nd        Chimp tracking Kibale Forest & Bird watching Bigodi Wetland

Thursday 3rd            Morning drive to Kyambura Gorge Lodge and afternoon game drive in Queen Elizabeth National Park

Friday 4th                   Morning Chimp tracking in Kyambura Gorge and afternoon boat ride on Kazinga Channel

Saturday 5th              Ishasha Forest game drive then transfer to Buhoma and Bwindi Lodge

Sunday 6th                 Walk to falls – birding in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

Monday 7th                Bird watching in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

Tuesday 8th               Drive to Kasese airstrip, flight to Entebbe then on to Nairobi

Wednesday 9th         Nairobi – London

 

Friday 27th – Sunday 29th                                                                                                                                                                                                   LHR 1755 KQ101 2J   Arrive NRB 0430                                                                                                    

‘You’re late,’ ‘No I’m not,’ ‘Laura said you’d be here at 4,’ Sally told me.

Since I’d orchestrated a hire car drop off, a Southern Rail journey – perhaps the most miraculous, lunch with Laura, an internet booked gym session then the tube to Charing Cross, I was a little affronted. Heyho it wasn’t finished yet, we had the Circle Line to navigate – destination the Barbican for Stravinski’s Right of Spring and followed by Rackmaninof.

The intelligent audience of nice looking people appeared to hear Stravinski as I might hear Hey Jude by The Beatles, I couldn’t translate. Rackmaninof was more approachable so when the pianists started shaking their shaggy heads and raising their hands above the keyboard I was with them.

As with Little Red Fox in Siem Reap for domestic adventures so it was with the Sky Team Lounge at T4 for the African adventure upon which I was about to embark “A Ramble in The Rwenzori”. I had been to see gorillas in Virunga last year (land of a thousand lakes – or was it hills – blog).

The supply of champagne was a touch on the parsimonious side and of course I got there too early but seat 2J wasn’t exactly slumming it. Willy Wonker and The Chocolate Factory was a moral tale with a gruesome ending for the revolting children or should have been except that Rohl Dahl and the directors took the soft option of having the horrible children and their ghastly parents resurrected. Of course Willy (not the wonker) wins because he’s modest, principled, polite and above all cute. The food was shit but better with Moses on the Embrauer to Entebbe and they had more champagne.

0655 KQ410 2A – ENT 0815, The Boma

The Boma in Entebbe

I have a dread fear of queues and forgot my hat. East African airports have lovely air-bridges but they don’t use them so when we had to squeeze on an airport bus all men are created equal and being last off the plane because I forgot my hat, meant the front of the queue for immigration. Oh God my yellow fever certificate – back of queue. ‘E-visas this line,’ front of queue, the immigration officer walks away – back of queue. It didn’t take long and my bag was off first.

The faded salmon pink Boma Birding Boutique as it should be known, was not too perfect and generally lovely.

There’s a lot of people in Uganda and even more birds. I haven’t really been trying but they keep sitting and singing in front of me. Hornbills, weaver-birds (little vandals shredding leaves). Bulbuls, thrushes and finchy things I didn’t spot for long enough to identify. Ibis stabbed at the lawn, pied crows called raucously, black carrion kites soared. And then there was the Botanical Gardens beside the sea, well Lake Victoria but as good as. Egrets, cormorants, darters, pied kingfishers hunted along the waterline and rubbish birds or Maribou Storks scavenged in the park (adjutants in Cambodia).

Sweet Heart Coffee in the Victoria Mall – it reminded me of my early Cambodian assignations with Catrina on our escapes to Phnom Penh. I had a double latte, perfect timing as my legs felt like lead. It even has a gym – it will be part of the cultural experience to try it out.

Monday 30th

I’m not going at 7am! They haven’t bothered to find out where I am so I stamped my feet and spat the trolley out with the pram. Actually it’s mainly because I like Entebbe and wouldn’t mind staying longer.

Hadada Ibis on the shores of Lake Victoria

An alarm bird, Fred told me is the local name for the weavers, penetrated my Valium induced coma briefly then I fell asleep again until my phone started ringing from somewhere under the bed sheets. I fumbled my way into consciousness slightly resentful of waking up until I realized I’d been asleep for ten hours and should feel good so I did.

It was bugging me. It sounded a bit like a hornbill, that sort of size but the beak was too small. It looked like a thickset magpie but according to my book, which is pretty thick, there aren’t any. I’d seen it eat fruit so the beak wasn’t a raptor’s, a coucal? nearly, an Eastern-grey Plantain Eater. The other species that had been bugging me was the brilliant crimson chested Black-headed Gonolek but it’s about the shape not the colour.

Prior to sweet heart coffee I’d noticed a gym. Two nights with little sleep, a nine hour alcohol fuelled flight/s then a long stroll round Entebbe meant it didn’t appeal yesterday but today was different.

Cameron was a UN helicopter pilot working in Southern Sudan and staying at the Boma. He drops food parcels on people’s heads if the isn’t planned well. There’s some big UN aircraft on the apron at the airport. He’d worked in PNG so lunch went quick such that I was late for Fred my bicycle guide.

Right said Fred – I had to get that in, ‘we’re going to cycle to the reptile farm, visit a homestay, the local town center, the ferry then back to the guesthouse.’ Fred’s 22, studying accountancy, works freelance for Bike2go and has no money as he kept, I’m sure truthfully reminding me. He’s lean, good looking and doesn’t smell much.

Fred told me about the church and the Chams – Muslims. He didn’t tell me about the government, which told me more though others later in the adventure did. His life, he’d split up from his girlfriend but had a ‘target’ in site. Dating, sex, marriage all ok but not to be gay.

Simon showed us round the SNCC a snake farm. It wasn’t a farm but a conservation project. Simon cared for his snakes and animals. He gave the tortoises calcium shots to help them repair their shells. As usual the snakes are an easy scapegoat and get beaten to death if caught unless the conservation message has got through, are still alive and somebody can be bothered to bring them to the conservation center. ‘The first bite they don’t inject venom, so its only when they keep getting abused that people get poisoned’ said Simon.

Tortoise with damaged shell at SNCC (+ me)

The SNCC abutted the massive marsh I’d seen from the air. Simon told me it was inhabited by otters, duiker, snakes, etc but now could be reclaimed. Like the Botanic Gardens, where I could see the chunks that had been munched out for development.

Lake Victoria is vast. Arguably the largest lake in the world, of course the Americans claim that Lake Superior is bigger but Fred thinks they didn’t measure it properly.

Actually it wasn’t Fred. ‘Do you mind if I answer the question?’ A polite bystander enquired, compare that to Cambodia where a conversation is common property. ‘Where is Lake Victoria?’ I asked, which seemed like a stupid question as Entebbe is surrounded by it. He pointed in the direction of some storks (black open-bill) and pelicans to where a speedboat was heading out on the nine hour journey to Tanzania.

Chameleon on Fred’s arm

Tuesday 1st May   ENT 1245 – Kahihi 1435, Ndali Lodge

Whisky in the tea hadn’t been a good idea, nice at the time but the next morning not so good as I contemplated the idea of getting up. ‘Was breakfast nice?’ Not very, I thought but said ‘alright thanks,’ which resulted in an awkward silence. Bugger the rain, I said to myself and got on a boda-boda back to the gym in Victoria Mall under an innovative umbrella that was positioned such that the motorbike taxi didn’t turn over at 40km.

The baby out with the bathwater had worked. George or Simon dropped me off at the airport. I wandered vaguely in the direction of where I thought the airplanes should be and met a lady who took me to meet a menacing security guard who sniffed my bag.

Simon flying us to Kahihi

Next stop a less menacing security man who wasn’t worried about my shoes, watch or belt. The lady said goodbye and George or Simon took me to a little bus, which sped across the Tarmac to my own Cessna Caravan where I met Simon and George who were going to fly the three of us to Kahihi.

It was a stunning flight. At 5000ft we flew under the clouds and dodged the weather systems I could see on the radar in front of me. Lake Victoria to the left and guess what Lake George ahead. A few buffets, a right turn for the final approach, a bumpy landing on the grass strip then we taxied to the little hut where I was laboriously but politely registered. Reassuringly a Volcano Safari’s Landrover was parked with Francis my driver and guide waiting. He appeared a clone of Robert the Rwandan guide last year. At least Francis knew his birds.

The landing strip at Kahihi

‘Why’s Ndali special?’ I asked Robert, I mean Francis. Special its jaw dropping! Aubrey and his clan own a thousand acres around a crater lake with views from the lodge to villages lining the rim and the lush mat of indigenous trees gripping the soil together on the steep hillsides. Looming above us to the West were The Rwenzori or Mountains of the Moon rising to over 5000m. So called because the early colonialists thought they were tall enough to touch the moon.

Ndali Lodge

About my own age the couple on the table at lunch had been in Uganda for thirty years and had a farm also a house in Kilkenny. They’d come to Ndali to talk with Aubrey the owner about growing vanilla. ‘Who was he?’ I asked Simon the GM. ‘Dr Ian he has a hospital.’ Later I learnt he was Ian Black a Ugandan citizen, newspaper columnist and former Mayor of Kampala.

At breakfast that morning I’d met a lady who’s husband protects a national park in the DRC the size of Wales (they’re always the size of Wales), home to 47 giraffe at risk from Sudanese poachers who shoot them for their tails to be used as flywhisks. They also prevent the poaching of 1300 elephants.

Crater lake to the East

‘Three hours to walk round the lake,’ said Francis but Simon (maybe George) and I took one hour.

My own plane, my own lodge – there’s no one else staying here, a candelabra with flickering candles on the table, William the barman and Grace the waitress. An overload of experience which is more than I can process tonight.

Holub’s Golden Weaver – seen walking around the crater lakes

Wednesday 2nd Chimp tracking in Kibale Forest & bird watching in the Bigodi Wetland

I eyeballed two species of monkey today. First Totti who wasn’t giving anything away and stared back with distant black eyes, then a Red Colobus looking at me from a branch above. Human like but at the same time unsettlingly alien. Endemic to Uganda they like rotten fruit, which ferments in their stomachs. They get drunk and pick a fight with the chimpanzees who eat them. The chimps were the main attraction but more on them in a minute.

Crater lake to the West

The clocks are about an hour out in Uganda, great because I’m still writing this outside at 7pm when the equator is just a 100km to the South. It does mean that the wakeup tea was delivered in pitch darkness and breakfast taken with the East door open to let in the light. My table was positioned to watch the sunrise but it was late this morning and Francis and I were on the road before the sun was up.

Subsistence agriculture shapes a diverse landscape. A patchwork of small fields surrounded by useful trees and shrubs. It’s not quite as intense as Rwanda but most contours are farmed. Cambodia the land where the bong thoms* roam is increasingly agri-industrialised leading to endless horizons of uniformity. The pockets of subsistence farming left are picturesque but it wasn’t a one sided story. There were ring barked trees and the intensity of agriculture and diversity of landscape could only happen because of the soils fertility.

*kindly described as influential politicians and business people

Kibale Forest; mysterious, magical and full of fantastic life. An African-grey Parrot flew in front of the Landrover. We stopped to watch Olive Baboons. There’s thirteen species of primate marooned in this enclave of biodiversity previously connected with the great jungles of The Congo.

We had to walk. Francis told me it was a short distance but three hours later we were still going. Bosco our guide who identified birds from calls I didn’t even hear (assuming he wasn’t making it up) and another couple from Chile. The first sign of a chimpanzee was a mound of poo, ‘they’ve got diarrhea.’ ‘It’s a Scaly-breasted Eradopsis,’ Bosco said. ‘Is it painful?’ Finally black bundles in the treetops then a crash as one descended and ran along the path where I was standing. Totti the alpha male 55 kg of muscle chasing Tifu, his ‘target’.

Totti, the alpha male

We followed fast behind attempting to snatch a photo on the run, ‘keep going until they sit,’ said Bosco so we ran until Totti sat. The violence and drama temporarily dispelled as he sat in quiet contemplation while I anthropomorphized, looking in his black eyes and wondering what he was thinking about. Gorilla like he lay stretched out and scratched his balls (photo below).

Nelson in The Bigodi Wetlands also knew what he was talking about. Within 500m we had ten new species of birds. Bigodi was swamp forest surrounded by maize, tobacco, coffee and cabbages. ‘Does eco-tourism make a difference?’ I meant that with the intensity of the surrounding agriculture does it help to relieve pressure on the small reserve. He said it did. It’s all green but on our left Bigodi and an incredible array of shape and form and on the other a monochromatic uniformity.

The Bigodi wetlands

So many birds but the monkeys were lacking save for some shaking branches. We followed a track into the swamp to see trees festooned with Red Colobus, closely followed by a Grey-cheeked Mangabe. There were Black and White Colobus in the trees at the edge of the farmland, plus the Olive Baboon, Red-tailed Monkey and Chimpanzees we’d seen earlier meant six species of primate today. FYI colobus means missing which makes sense as colobus monkeys only have four fingers with no opposing thumb.

African Open-bill Stork & Black & White Colobus

Thursday 3rd am Transfer to Kyambura Gorge Lodge. pm game drive in Queen Elizabeth National Park

I didn’t think I’d slept well but surfaced from a full-on dream as Nelson knocked with morning tea. Not cold but nice under the covers, I watched the mountains turn a dusty pink. Suzu was lying by my bed, she’d been there all night. A friendly, rangy hound, her sister was outside.

Sleep assumes an even more important role than normal on a holiday like this because of the difference between being able to ride on the wonder of what you see or just being overwhelmed.

Queen Elizabeth National Park from my banda at Kyambura Lodge

It was downhill all the way as we descended from Ndale back past Kahihi and the strip where we’d landed all those hours ago, crossed the equator, we’re now in the Southern Hemisphere, and entered the Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP). I thought Francis was joking when he said hippo but sure enough in a wallow beside the road a muddy mound with two eyes stared back. We spotted Kob antelope in the distance, the Ugandan national animal.

Statistics; its 2000 km2 though seemed bigger when we were driving to Bwindi. There are 2000 hippos that weigh up to three tonnes, 140 lions (out of only 400 in the country), leopards, hyenas, chimps, 400 species of birds, etc. and the lodge. I have to pinch myself, first the West and now the East side of the Great African Rift Valley.

My banda is called Brutus and looks out over half of Africa. Et tu Brute, probably a knife in the back from the dance troupe stamping a war dance in reception (a sort of African version of morris dancing) but OTT after the drive.

 Elephant below the lodge                      

It’s becoming a spoilt boys obsession to avoid being over pampered or overfed. ‘You only want that?’ like I’d committed a cardinal sin at breakfast when I only ate muesli. My new butler – yes get that, at The Kyambura Lodge wants me to eat and drink so that she’s got something to do. Instead its becoming a mission to avoid Peace – is there something profound here, that’s her name! So looking right and left I furtively closed the door to my banda, and took a small path so I could run undetected.

It seems right is right in Africa, usually I go left but this time right up the hill past a lot of children shouting mzunga, that’s me. Near the top I looked down to two crater lakes and gratifyingly my track connected with the road we’d come on so it was a circular run and right was right.

My banda

Friday 4th am Chimp tracking in Kyambura Gorge. pm Kazinga Channel wildlife from boat

The QENP a vast grassy expanse roamed by elephant bisected and by a slash through the middle bursting with life, The Kyambura Gorge is as unexpected as its magical. One of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

The Kyambura Gorge

Lazarus or Edward led us with the obligatory gun down a muddy path that descended to a fast flowing brown river. The canopy now high above us enclosed a prime-evil world of snorting hippos and screaming chimps.

The foliage was so thick that we meandered beneath the canopy between tree trunks and hanging vines waiting for our eyes to become accustomed to the gloom.

A few minutes later we saw our first black bundles. The dominant male ran down the tree like it was an airport travelator. He beat the buttress of the trunk like a jungle drum, barred his teeth and screamed violently.

Another male in a distant part of the forest screamed back. Dominance asserted our male lay on the floor, crossed his legs and contemplated the sky.

This time I could see the colour of his eyes, brown in an expressionless face. ‘Do they show emotion?’ I asked Edward. ‘Yes, anger, excitement, pleasure.’

The big male was part of a group that hung around this part of the forest where fruiting fig trees grew. A primates paradise that other chimpanzee groups would like but human encroachment had cut them off resulting in an isolated gene pool. ‘We want to open a genetic corridor with fig trees up and down the gorge connecting the populations.’

  Left and above the Kyambura Gorge Troup

I hadn’t slept well for worrying about unraveling relationships then ‘Good morning, good morning,’ Peace was singing as she bought my morning tea. ‘Oh shut up.’

A Mexican family were staying at the lodge, they’re tour operators, went to Pure in 2017, had an appointment with Smiling Albino and I recognized the two sisters.

Francis’s Landrover, technically mine for the week had broken down, so I went with the Mexicans to the Kazinga Channel. A forty kilometer stretch of water connecting Lake George with Lake Albert, surrounded by the Queen Elizabeth National Park (you’d never know the British had something to do with it).

The restaurant terrace at the lodge

The countryside was dominated by candelabra cactus, invasive aliens that were being knocked down at one site by a CAT. The elephants do it for fun.

The metal tourist boat was a bit of a let down after all the personal pampering but the bird life was prolific. James this time, helped me to identify twenty seven species but it wasn’t just the birds …..

Hippo and Water Buffalo (with Oxpeckers) in the Kazinga Channel

The Yellow-billed Oxpickers were busy stabbing ticks on the back of submerged water buffalo. Massive swirls appeared beside the boat followed by the great grey bulk of hippos, showing off their impressive dental kit and beady, angry eyes.

Residents of the Kazinga Channel, Elephant & African Fish Eagle

A small group of elephant scratched against a Mopani tree and a crocodile tossed a thrashing tilapia in its jaws then swallowed it whole. Warthogs knelt down to graze ‘because they’ve got weak necks,’ James said. Pied Kingfishers were perched on every vantage point and flying into holes in muddy cliffs along the shoreline. They dig to escape the monitor lizards, or it could be the monitor lizards dig holes to catch the Pied Kingfishers. On cue the culprit appeared, a meter long lizard.

At the confluence of the channel and the lake a sandy beach was crowded with plovers, geese, gulls, cormorants, pelicans, Ibis and a dainty hippo grabbing a quick graze before sinking into the support of the soothing water.

A park boundary defined fishing village, allowed because it was there before the park was gazetted, lined a low ridge. My gaze moved to where three young men stood washing themselves in the water. I looked again and saw they were naked, washing each other and er well endowed. ‘Hmm’ I thought, Central Africa’s not totally un-homoerotic.

Young hippo and water birds along the channel

Saturday 5th Ishasha Forest game drive and transfer to Buhoma and Bwindi Lodge

The pastel colours of the park changed. The gorgeous surreal suggestion became reality as I contentedly gazed from the comfort of my large bed sipping Peace’s tea (it was a teabag not proper tea!).

The Ishasha Forest (there were some more trees)

Driving South for five and a half hours, most of it through the QENP. A vast expanse of empty space with few people, bordered by Lake Edward and the Virunga Mountains, beyond the mysterious and brooding Congo. ‘If Mr Praveen (the owner of Volcano Safaris) opens a lodge I’ll go there,’ I told Francis. Meanwhile UK tourists to the DRC Virunga Park were being kidnapped and ebola’s broken out, I later learnt.

It’s a bird watchers paradise, nearly 400 species in the QENP alone. I’ll list the birds and animals I’ve seen in an appendix to the blog. Vervet monkeys peered out from the undergrowth. The trees were festooned with Black & White Colobus and Olive Baboons roamed the roads.

Hammerkops are undistinguished birds with bad hair. They make up for it by building enormous nests. It’s an obsession.

The tree-climbing lions of Ishasha were out to lunch. They certainly weren’t on any of the horizontal fig tree branches, their usual daytime hangout, that we searched for across the plains in our long wheel based Landrover. We had a picnic beside the Ishasha River joined by snorting hippos then set off for Bwindi, narrowly avoiding mating Kobs. ‘I don’t need Kob porn,’ I told Francis so we left the grassland tracks for the main – dirt – road. And returned to world of humans separated from that of animals by a two meter deep trench.

In the rising mist Bwindi lives up to its name and looks impenetrable. I’m in Bob’s bungalow, that’s the name of the room, looking across the valley at a wall of green as the forest climbs the steep hillside broken only by the trunks of the tallest trees. Gorillas were here this morning. I’ll put out a glass of Sauvingnon in the hope they return. The colobus were content with fermenting fruit and picking fights with the chimps.

Sunday 6th Walk to falls – birding in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

The breakfast room at the lodge butts out over lawns carved from the forest at the edge of the national park. The staff seemed particularly excited about something then Adolf beckoned me to follow with a conspiratorial smile. A family of gorillas were having breakfast, eating the vegetation in a clearing below the lodge. Transfixed and awestruck I stayed until a park ranger appeared shoeing me away – I didn’t have a $600 pass.

Tropical rainforest with a thirty-meter high canopy, towering giants clad in shrouds of moss and lichen, shafts of sunlight illuminating the delicate fronds of ferns. We followed the lively Munyanga Stream upstream. The lit translation is the grabber. It washes away and grabs the crops along its banks as it flows down to a river.

The source is a spring thirty kilometers up the valley but still inside the park, hence the clarity of the water.

Villagers strolled up and down the path but still we needed two armed guards, no doubt in case of racist elephants. O’Max my guide tried to sell me hiking and tour arrangement in Uganda when I told him I ran a tour company, which has a serious appeal, excepting the gay issue.

The impenetrable forest

The Munyanga Stream

An enchanted path loops below the lodge, down to the river where a trickle of crystal clear water flowed. A bronze coloured duiker (Black Throated) didn’t hear me long enough for me to catch a glimpse. I seem to keep finding naked Africans, men, that is and well endowed. I suppose its because in general the women are large and the men small so they need a large cock to bridge the gap.

‘Pick’ said Fred so Anus and Dorythea decimated a tea bush plucking the top two leaves and central bud as Fred kept reminding Adolf and I, though I don’t suppose Adolf needed reminding as being a butler, mine I later found out, he’d heard it before. The bits of bush were tossed into a basket with large holes so consequently fell out. At a small hut Fred told Anus to use his pestle and grind the leaves to a mush. ‘Fire’ said Fred so Dorythea heated the mush until it was dry. ‘Sieve’ said Fred so Anus sieved it until something approaching tea was collected. Green tea is steamed and not fired. ‘Drink’ said Fred, sorry I mean would you like a cup of tea? ‘Yes please, black,’ it seemed appropriate and was very good.

Adolf made me wake up tea the next morning, ‘where’s the milk?’ ‘Innit,’ said Adolf. It was African tea, ginger, bay leaves, cinnamon and milk, which after I’d got over the surprise was delicious.

Monday 7th Bird watching in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest – day 2

We walked to the border of the park and the DRC, twenty-six kilometers. ‘It’s a long walk,’ said Francis but he hadn’t mentioned 26k. ‘Hmm,’ I thought as he introduced me to Nicholas.

The forest trail is a local highway but we had to have the obligatory two guards and AK47’s. The obligatory two guards realising we were walking to the other side of the park bailed out and had to be replaced.

Flycatcher (above) and sunbird right

Francis had oversold me to Nicholas who thought I was a hard-core fanatic and let loose with his twitching tendencies. Little brown jobs silhouetted in the gloom is not really my kind of bird watching. ‘Its an immature Black Bee Eater,’ said Nicholas as he pointed with his green light saber. ‘The only thing we can agree on is its black and barely indistinguishable from the leaf it’s sitting on,’ I thought.

It started to rain ending any pretensions of bird watching for me, ‘its only another hour,’ said Nicholas. ‘Another hour to what?’ ‘Till we get there,’ ‘what happens then?’ ‘We come back.’ The logic inescapable, the appeal not great but we’d come this far.

The end of the trail was a suspension bridge over the River Ivy. It was like walking on ice unexpectedly so my feet disappeared from under me and slid over the side, luckily I managed to grab onto the bridge. On the other side of the river a grassy valley and a lot of birds having a break from the impenetrable forest.

The biodiversity is phenomenal, apart from the headline species; gorillas, chimps, elephants, colobus monkeys, there’s thirty odd species of endemic birds, some critically endangered of which I saw three. Forty species of endemic butterfly and maybe mammals, Nicholas wasn’t sure. An ancient island cut off from the once vast and still pretty big forests that extended across central Africa and covered all of Congo.

My barely functioning legs felt like lumps of lead as I limped out of the park entrance and made straight to the Bwindi Bar. A couple of Nile Specials and humanity returned.

Four dusky slate blue warblers sat under a yellow flower fluffing up their feathers and preening. Bulbuls hoovered up insects as they rose from the sodden vegetation and the dense forest disappeared as cloud advanced up the valley. Dusk was giving way to night as I wandered my weary way to dinner.

It all started with Rackmaninof & Stravinski, it’s not quite finished yet, where will it end ……….., read on.

Tuesday 8th & Wednesday 9th return Transfer to Kasese 0945 – ENT 1125. ENT 1720 – NRB 1830 KQ415 2A, The Lazizi Premiere      NRB 0920 – LHR 1615 KQ100 2A                                                           

Boarding our Caravan at Kasese with Noemi, the Mexican tour operator

I had a dream, which meant I slept well. Unusually I could remember a little bit, about going into a suspended animation and just as I was about to wake up Adolf woke me with his African tea. It was still black at 6 but a glimmer of light penetrated a quarter of an hour later and by 6.45 I could see the valley.

The weaver-birds are bit like the hammerkops in that they’re obsessed with their nests and fly backwards and forwards carrying tails of grass adding to its construction.

The light was sparkling in the damp from yesterday’s rain, the valley bottom filled with mist and now sunshine bathing the hills on either side. I didn’t want to go. Even Francis and I had become buddies.

The Cessna Caravan landed shortly after we arrived at the Kahihi airstrip and we squeezed in with some Americans, flying back the journey we’d driven down. Over the Ishasha Forest, the plains of the QENP, the Kazinga Channel with the Kyambura Gorge in the distance. Even over the London Bridge imported for the Queen when she opened the Park. Lake George on one side and the Rwenzori on the other as we took off for Entebbe. A full hours flight despite my thinking it couldn’t be much more than a three hour drive. I would have been enjoyable except I needed a piss – badly by the time we got there.

I found a taxi at Entebbe who over-charged me but not badly after we’d bargained a bit, got to the Boma. I had three hours so got changed picked up a boda-boda, went to the Victoria Mall gym for an hour. Had a chilled lunch and spotted yet another species of bird. ‘We’re vegan would you like our garlic bread?’ ‘Of course you are,’ I thought. An American mother and son – or toy boy (I don’t think she was that interesting) asked. I bought a book on mammals at Entebbe airport and watched an enormous Emirates 777 take off.

Totally unnecessary but rather fun, I was the only one at the front of the plane with a glass of champagne safely installed beside my seat. It was like the good old days on the way to Frankfurt when I managed to get in five little bottles of Piper Heidsick before touch down.

It was fitting that the Crowne Plaza at Nairobi Airport was horrible on the last night. I had a burger without the bun, in a bland eating space watching a screen repeat the benefits of the bland hotel. The contrast with exciting lodges on the edge of the wild was absolute.

Work invaded; Tigers pissed off Christian, who knows if we’ve got the JPA school on a BeTreed trip. What Buntha and the rest of the Chheangs are doing is questionable, Manus sent me a nasty message and Own is ill.

And one more species, we’d seen the Crested Crane on the way to Bwindi and a Wooly-necked stork on the way back. A magical place set in a magical country.

Appendix 1. Bird List

Boma

  1. Hadada Ibis
  2. Ring-necked Dove
  3. Eastern Grey Plantain Eater
  4. Common Bulbul
  5. African Thrush
  6. Red-chested Sunbird
  7. Black-headed Gonolek
  8. Black-headed Weaver
  9. Ruppells Long-tailed Starling
  10. White-browed Robin Chat

Entebbe

  1. Great White Pelican
  2. African Open-billed Stork
  3. Cattle Egret
  4. Little Egret
  5. Maribou Stork
  6. Pied Kingfisher
  7. Black Kite
  8. Pied Crow

Kasese

  1. Black-headed Heron
  2. Grey-backed Fiscal
  3. Laughing Dove

Ndali

  1. Pink-backed Heron
  2. Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater
  3. Common Waxbill
  4. Grey-headed Sparrow
  5. Ross’s Turaco
  6. Great-blue Turaco
  7. Crowned Hornbill
  8. Pied Wagtail
  9. Red-billed Firefinch
  10. African Harrier Hawk
  11. Holub’s Golden Weaver

Kibale Forest

  1. Grey Parrot

Bigodi Wetlands

  1. Black and White Casqued Hornbill
  2. Copper Sunbird
  3. Splendid Starling
  4. Purple-headed Starling
  5. Woodland Kingfisher
  6. African Pygmy Kingfisher
  7. Pin-tailed Whydah
  8. Black and White Mannikin
  9. African Blue Flycatcher
  10. Black and White Shrike Flycatcher
  11. Bocages Bush-shrike
  12. Red-headed Malimbe
  13. Speckled Tinkerbird
  14. Yellow White-eye
  15. White-chinned Prinia
  16. Little Greenbul
  17. Western Nicator
  18. Southern-red Bishop
  19. Tambourine Dove

On route to QENP

  1. Lizard Buzzard
  2. Red-eyed Dove
  3. Yellow-billed Kite
  4. Long-crested Eagle
  5. Speckled Mousebird

Kyambura

  1. African White-backed Vulture
  2. Vieilott’s Weaver
  3. Yellow-fronted Canary
  4. Bronze Sunbird
  5. Northern-black Flycatcher
  6. White-headed Saw-wing
  7. Common Scimitar-bill
  8. Yellow-chested Sunbird
  9. White-browed Coucal
  10. Lesser-striped Swallow

The Gorge

  1. Grey-headed Kingfisher
  2. Common Buzzard
  3. Ring-necked Francolin

Kazinga Channel

  1. Egyptian / Nile Goose
  2. Yellow-billed Stork
  3. Grey Heron
  4. Spar-winged Lapwing
  5. Hammerkop
  6. White-winged Tern
  7. Yellow-billed Oxpicker
  8. Black-winged Stilt
  9. Common Greenshank
  10. African Skimmer
  11. Water Thick-knee
  12. Sacred Ibis
  13. African Fish-eagle
  14. Palm-nut Vulture
  15. Black Crake
  16. African Jacana
  17. Yelloueenw-backed Weaver
  18. Red-throated Bee-eater
  19. African-wattled Lapwing
  20. Great-white Egret
  21. Red Cormorant
  22. Great Cormorant
  23. Gull-billed Tern
  24. Lesser Black-backed Gull
  25. Grey-headed Gull

QENP

  1. Helmeted Frankolin
  2. Red-necked Spur Fowl
  3. Fork-tailed Drongo
  4. Arrow-mapped Babbler
  5. Yellow-throated Long Claw
  6. Blue-naped Mousebird
  7. Fan-tailed Widow Bird
  8. Grey Kestrel
  9. African Green Pigeon
  10. Sooty Chat
  11. Red-rumped Swallow
  12. Martial Eagle
  13. Bateleur
  14. Madagascar Bee-eater
  15. Flappet Lark
  16. White Stork
  17. Rufous-necked Lark
  18. African Fire-finch
  19. Grassland Pippit
  20. Common Sandpiper
  21. African Grey Hornbill
  22. Black & White Cuckoo

Around Bwindi

  1. Auger Buzzard
  2. Grey Crowned Crane
  3. Wooly-necked Stork

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

  1. Short-tailed Warble (an endemic species and critically endangered not see but heard)
  2. Mountain Wagtail
  3. Blue-headed Sunbird (endemic)
  4. White-tailed Crested Flycatcher
  5. Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird
  6. African Blue Flycatcher
  7. Tiny Sunbird
  8. African Paradise Flycatcher
  9. Northern Double Collared Sunbird
  10. Grey-headed Sunbird
  11. Olive Sunbird
  12. Bar-tailed Trogon
  13. Elliot’s Woodpecker
  14. Brown-capped Weaver
  15. Black-crowned Waxbill
  16. Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird
  17. Grey-throated Barbet
  18. Mountain Illadopsis
  19. White-tailed Ant Thrush
  20. Equitorial Akalat
  21. Red-faced Warbler (endemic)
  22. Olive-green Caneroptera
  23. Red-tailed Bulbul
  24. Dusky-blue Flycatcher

Appendix 2. Mammal List

Kibali Forest

  1. Common Chimpanzee (and Kyambura Gorge)
  2. Central African Red Colobus
  3. Olive Baboon (and throughout trip)
  4. Grey-cheeked Mangabe
  5. Vervet Monkey (and Bwindi)
  6. Red-tailed Monkey (and throughout trip)

Bigodi Wetland

  1. Black & White Colobus (and Bwindi)

QENP

  1. Ugandan Kob
  2. Bush Elephant (also Kazinga Channel)

Kazinga Channel

  1. Common Warthog (and Ishasha Forest)
  2. Common Hippopotamus (and QENP)
  3. Cape Buffalo

Bwindi

  1. L’Hoest’s Monkey
  2. Mountain Gorilla
  3. Black-fronted Duiker

 

 

 

A Family Get Together

A Family Get Together

An Audience with a Northern Buff Cheeked Crested Gibbon

Etiquette is important in the ape world, or are they monkeys? It all depends on how long the arms are – long, so apes like us, which makes us relatives and our meeting a family call.

We invited the Northern …. Lets say NBCCG’s to visit us in Siem Reap and in days gone by when the North of Cambodia was covered in forest, they would have obliged and swung their way across the country, the slight issue of the Mekong River aside. The patches of trees left are barely enough to sustain a soaring stork so we were on our way via said Mekong to The Terres Rouge Lodge in Banlung.

Male Northern Buff Cheeked Crested Gibbon (NBCCG)

We being Jady & I accompanied by Naven from Conservation International and driven by Dy. He’s nearly one of the family now as he’s courting a Chheang, Sreymom, who excepting me pretty much run ICE. It’s a straight forward seven hour journey heading East towards Vietnam on new roads. The orgy of logging is desperate but that’s Cambodia for you.

We opened the car doors to delicious cool and colonial charm of The Terres Rouge Lodge beside Banlung Lake.

Jammy from Red Parrot tours was waiting at his restaurant The Green Carrot. It might have been the other way round. A true entrepreneur he was advertising the unique selling point of his company, which was apparently a free toilet. He’d made a laminate sheet with an explicit cartoon of a man doing his business under a double decker bus.

The Terres Rouge Lodge in the old Governors building

There was an adventure to be planned over the red wine and fish oops beer and chicken, a boat up the Sesan River and a trek to a waterfall, an indigenous cemetery then a motorbike ride to the edge of our cousins territory.

The morning light over the lake was a delight as we drank our Khmer coffee and waited for Naven. A smooth red earth road headed North as it descended into the Sesan floodplain and Kchang village where Sresh our boatman and guide for the day’s adventure was waiting for us.

We brushed aside some confusion as to what we were doing, with what and who and boarded Sresh’s narrow wooden long tail. A step up from the usual Sesan river craft as we sat on a dry mat not in the customary half inch of sludge.

Blurred blue hills fringed the horizon as we sped upstream past clumps of stilted houses nestling under shade trees. Ferry’s traversed the river while the inevitable sound of chainsaws reverberated across the water.

The Sesan River

Our boatman was emerging as Sresh our guide. Clad in not much more than rags hanging off his skinny frame, we found that he’d taught himself rudimentary English when he answered our questions in a gentle toned timbre.

Note; The day’s adventure was an adjunct to our appointment with the cousins as they were busy entertaining Lucky Carrot guests today.

Ferry across The Sesan

Sresh strode ahead in Wellington boots and ripped tracksuit bottoms. Jady and Naven reminisced on the biodiversity workshops they’d attended, while I hobbled behind on a dodgy hip. A cashew nut grove, a cow field then into the open dry deciduous forest with a picture post card view of a village spied through the trees. Bright green paddy fields surrounded thatched roof huts.

We wound our way up a rocky path and spotted a lump of dried turd. ‘Hmm?’ Said Jady, and ‘take a photo,’ ‘a new species?’ Perhaps a serow we mused. ‘Another photo,’ Jady pointed to an orchid implanted on a tree trunk. Our route descended into a riparian forest of bamboo. Sresh hacked at a stem and fashioned a cup, which he gave to me. I was a little crestfallen when the others got one too.

Sresh (below) and an orchid (above)

A beautiful walk beside a stream to where a waterfall fell out of the forest a level above. Cascades of spume enshrined the rock face and fell into an oval pool. We needed no invitation to plunge into the cool clear water. Draping ourselves over the warm black rocks, contentedly munching ham and baguettes while staring at the hypnotic diamond droplets of exploding water.

Back on board Sresh’s long tail our next stop was a gloomy tribal graveyard shaded by tall trees. Huts adorned with brightly painted 2D ships for the journey ahead or the one past. A man with shades and woman with boobs stood guard to keep an eye on an electric fan in case it got hot. Empty beer cans, you can get 50 Riel for the aluminum and mummified rice, which lasts forever.

Koh Peap Waterfall (above) and village cemetery (right)

The English speaking guides (that didn’t) including the handsome Noi were waiting for us at Veunsai to take us to the CI Station. Jady and I would have probably preferred to go back to The Banlung Lodge but we had an appointment to keep so we duly sat aside the beaten up old bikes, dangled our legs as there were no foot rests and squeezed the driver in my case Noi, with my thighs.

An earthmover had cleared the way and bulldozed the trees a year before which meant the road was deeply rutted and bereft of shade but interesting enough. At ITub Village we turned off to cross a marsh leaving us wading through the wetland to rejoin our bikes before the forest. Chamkar or slash and burn agriculture aside the trees became taller and our route easier under the canopy.

A crude wooden bridge crossed the river beside the station and on the other side a fenced compound of tall timbered buildings where we’d stay the night. A pleasant evening with Jady and cold beer, chatting with Noi the handsome (did I say that before) English speaking guide who tried but didn’t. There was a fan in my room until 9 when the generator was turned off but rain had cooled the evening and it felt good to be in the middle of the forest sipping whisky and listening to In The Psychiatrists Chair in the dark.

Conservation International Station at Veun Sai Siem Pang

6 hours later I was fumbling in the dark to find my phone and a light. I stumbled to the deserted kitchen shack and managed to light the gas for a cup of tea. Growled at Naven coz no one was awake then hobbled off through the mud in the pitch black following a ranger who seemed unaware I was there.

Note that although priority No 1 was to meet the family we’d also hope that the process of getting there would be up to the Albino standard, it wasn’t.

Grumpy by default at 5am in the morning I blundered on behind. So what if I got lost, well that would be their fault! Jady hung back to make sure I didn’t and as the predawn glow penetrated the trees my mood lifted with the mist.

Dawn at the edge of the forest

We’d agreed that the NBCCG’s would call leading us to their front door but damp from the night’s rain they were taking longer over their toilet than usual. We set off into the forest anyway in the hope of meeting at a favorite breakfast spot. Pockets of idyll remain and this was one of them. Like a priest in a cathedral our Gibbon conducted the service from his pulpit 10 meters above.

Sarah, a phd researcher and Naven referred to him as JII, which meant he’d built Angkor Wat. We could just make his buff cheeks (this is an objective statement). A little further and the female was spotted followed by 3 juveniles. Our breakfast was waiting on a crude table beside the trees though we’d have killed for a cup of coffee.

Breakfast at the edge of the forest

I said goodbye to Noi regretting he wasn’t my motorbike driver for the journey our through the swamps to Veunsai. The Sesan Ferry where the ferryman knocked a motorbike into the river and Dy on the other side for the drive to Banlung. One night and a big adventure felt like a lifetime as I hobbled around the spread out streets of the town.

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