Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Lake Mburo National Park - Day 1

I've been trying to go to Mihingo Lodge at Lake Mburo National Park for many months.  Each time a good weekend crops up, either the lodge is fully booked or it ends up not being a good weekend to travel.  Finally everything aligned, and I set out with three friends for a long weekend this past Saturday.

The drive from Kampala was quite good, all things considered, probably because we left at 7:30 on a weekend morning.  We made it to the Equator in less than 90 minutes, less than half the time it took us the last time I went.  After a quick muffin and coffee stop (we'd all been there before and didn't need to play tourist), we pressed onward.  From there on it was my first time driving this far from Kampala.  The rolling hills and endless green are absolutely breathtaking, the papyrus swamps alternating with herds of grazing Ankole cattle, small towns, and acre upon acre of farmland.  We sped through Masaka and continued onward, reaching the turnoff to the park by 11:30.  Almost from the moment we started down the access road we were on safari, meeting herds of zebra, impala, waterbuck, topi, warthogs, baboons, and vervet monkeys.  These would be the mainstay of our safari, with a few fun surprises.

Lake Mburo is Uganda's smallest national park, comprising 260 square kilometers and five lakes in what is best described as undulating terrain.  It alternates between woodlands, savannah, and scrubland, seemingly within a few hundred meters of one another.  It supports one male lion, 10-80 leopards (depending on who you ask), some hyena, and a few other assorted small predators.  Spoiler alert: we saw none of these.

We reached the Nshara Gate and went to register and pay the park fees, encountering the first of many lovely Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) rangers/employees of the weekend.  Frankly, I've not met a single UWA-affiliated individual yet who was not passionate about his/her job, conservation, and the flora and fauna of this beautiful country.  We then continued on with our leisurely game drive, ambling toward the lodge.  Mihingo is located just outside the park on an escarpment with phenomenal views of the park.  We exited the park again (a fun quirk - you must go through to get there) and drove up the access road.  We were greeted in the parking area by several staff who whisked our bags away and led us up the hill to the dining area.  The view from the top of the escarpment is breathtaking, and you can watch tiny but identifiable animals at the visible waterholes.  An infinity pool lies just below the dining area, its vista having become the typical Mihingo landscape (and selling point!).

We settled down for a lovely meal (all of the meals were wonderful - I enjoyed every dish, and the selection was impressive).  I loved the many salads and veggies!  One of the managers talked through the lodge with us (solar hot water and electricity, meal times, the lay of the land, activities), and we planned out our stay over lunch.  We elected to split for the afternoon, one person going horseback riding and the rest of us going for a game drive.  We'd meet back up for a night safari followed by dinner.

We walked to our rooms (spacious canvas tents on permanent platforms, with attached bathrooms and covered with thatch).  The rooms are each very private and dotted along the property, involving either many many steps or a slight trek to reach them.  I was sharing with a friend, and our room was the farthest away, involving the fewest steps but a quarter mile or so walk through the forest to reach.  The route was well marked with a paved footpath or you could use the access road.  Our room, next to another friends', overlooked a private salt lick, which was in constant use the whole time we were there.  Impala favored it during the day, and they tolerated our comings and goings quite well.

At 3:00 we met up again, and I took the wheel for the afternoon game drive.  Armed with a map and a sense of adventure, we headed out on what we thought would be a leisurely route.  And it was, right up until we lost the track.  It just sort of disappeared.  There were occasional tire tracks leading in one direction or the next, but each time we tried to recover the track, we ended up at a dead end. 

It was growing later and later, and retracing our path had resulted in nothing tangible.  We ended up at one point in a community on the edge of the park (not marked on the map), but nobody was around to ask for help.  We hadn't seen a single vehicle or person the entire time.  Up until the point where we got lost, game had been sporadic.  Now, it was plentiful.  Zebras, impalas, warthogs, elands, topi, monkeys, baboons, waterbuck, the occasional bushbuck - they were everywhere.  And we were too frustrated to take it in.  At one point I saw the largest fish eagle I've ever seen sitting on the ground, and I reached for my camera to document it.  My friend in the passenger seat, growing increasingly anxious, stilled my hand.  While the three of us - very good friends indeed - all stayed calm and kept a sense of humor, there was growing tension.  We finally came to another dead end at what appeared to be a house and a barn.  We all sat silent for a moment wondering what to do.

A man came out of the barn, wearing casual clothes, and greeted us.  He smiled and spoke English, and we told him we were lost and needed to get back to Mihingo.  He looked at us with almost pity and said, "oh, you will not reach there from here."  We all looked at each other, and I said, "but, we came from there.  We just need to get back."  I think he sensed our worry, as he said he'd direct us back to the track.  He went back to change, and we all sat quietly wondering whether this was a good idea.  Our question was answered, though, when he returned wearing a UWA ranger uniform and carrying the requisite rifle.  We all breathed a sigh of relief.

He got into the backseat, introduced himself, pointed us in the right direction, and regaled us with tales of his life as a ranger.  Benson was exactly what we needed at that moment - calm, personable, knowledgeable, and incredibly generous with his time.  We apologized for driving off track; he waved the apology aside and told us we were not the first to end up at his outpost lost, and we wouldn't be the last.  He acknowledged that the signage in this part of the park was lacking.

Benson guided us back to the main track; we were only about 1/2 a kilometer away but likely wouldn't have found it on our own.  We kept asking if he wanted us to drop him off so he wouldn't have to walk so far back, but he waved it off.  I think he was enjoying the company.  He stayed with us until we reached the junction of another track, and there we said our goodbyes.  Just before he left us, Benson calmly pointed out a hippo walking across the road in front of us.  Absolutely nowhere near a waterway, two full hours before dark.  by the time we came close it ran into the woods, but I wish I'd had my camera ready earlier.

We tipped Benson and took some photos with him to document the moment for a social media project and then headed back to the lodge.  When we reached the gate leading out of the park, my friend made a point of telling the UWA ranger on duty that we loved Benson.  He looked at us like we were slightly crazy and said, deadpan, "You love Benson?"  And when we explained, he started laughing, but his initial reaction was priceless.  His colleague, sitting in the ranger shack, was doubled over laughing.  She too thought we were a decent amusement.

After returning to the lodge, we ate homemade potato chips and indulged in sundowners before heading off on our night drive.  We had elected to go in the lodge's open Land Rover, which seemed an even better decision in light of the past few hours.

Imagine our amusement when we arrived back at the gate and picked up our UWA ranger, the same man we'd told about Benson about an hour before.  He introduced himself as Lawrence, hooked the spotlight to the car's spare battery, and we were off.

We had high hopes for leopard sightings, but it was not to be.  The three groups the night before who had done night drives had each seen one, and the groups the next night would too, but I have terrible leopard luck.  In all my many safaris I've only ever seen two - one on the ground in Namibia's Etosha National Park, running away from us in daylight, and one far away in a tree in Sri Lanka's Yala National Park.

We did see lots of impala, zebra, bushbucks, Topi, warthogs, and waterbuck.  The only nocturnal animal we saw was a hare, though we saw several of them.  On our way back, the Land Rover got a flat tire.  This is not the only time this has happened to me on a night drive, but it can be a little disconcerting.  The lodge sent out a car to get us, and it only delayed us about 10 minutes.  We headed back for a late dinner (delicious!) and went to bed.  I didn't sleep well - the first night in a new place, lots of unusual sounds, and a lot of light through the open screens was a rough combination, but it was wonderful to listen to the sounds of the bush at night.

The first zebras of the weekend!


Impalas with babies!

Defassa waterbuck

buffalo and egrets!

sloppy eater

Impala at our tent's salt lick

Our private veranda

View from the veranda

Ankole cattle, illegally grazing

GIANT horns

The backside of the surprise hippo

Waterbuck and impala

A common sight...

Hooking the spotlight to the battery

Zebras on the night drive

1 comment:

Lydia Durant said...

Looks and sounds amazing-- cant wait to see you & hear more in person!!!