Friday, March 27, 2015

2014 EAWE: Queen Elizabeth National Park Days 2-4

We had three nights in QENP to enjoy the lovely Mweya hospitality and find some awesome animals. I was hoping for a predator bonanza, but the lions and leopards had other ideas. We did see a few lions, but it was the other animals who made it a fun experience.

Saturday morning we woke up for an early morning game drive, excited to see all kinds of awesome things. It wasn't a very fruitful morning, sadly. I only took about six photos all morning, which is an indicator. The salt lakes were pretty; we saw some nice birds and antelope; but everybody else was sleeping. We headed back to the lodge for breakfast and a nap before the afternoon's boat ride.

The boat launch is quite close to Mweya, and we were able to get there early enough to snag good seats, which ired a group of Italian tourists to no end. They demanded we get up and let them sit where we had chosen. Seriously. Luckily some Brits came along and made up for their attitudes. We set off on a slow cruise along the Kazinga channel. Lots of birds, lots of hippos. A few interesting encounters. My favorite was the buffalo and hippo snuggle fest as seen in photos before. I mean, how incredibly cute was that?

We were also charged by a hippo who thundered through the water and then surfaced at our boat and made some movements to keep going but finally turned around. It happened very quickly, and I only got a photo at the tail end when he was out of the water a bit. A bit scary for a moment.

There's a fishing village in the park where the community interacts responsibly with the wildlife (and vice versa), and so they have not been evicted. It was lovely to watch the men preparing to head out for an evening of fishing as elephants grazed the hillside and meandered to the channel below. We turned and motored back to the launch and reached the lodge just as the sun was beginning to set. It was gorgeous. Or it would have been had the Italian tourists from earlier not driven up and started yelling insults at us as we took photographs. Seriously. Again. Time for dinner and bed.

Another early morning drive on Sunday with very few sightings, though we did see our first lion of the trip. A lovely male reclining a decent distance from the road, presumably watching over his pride we believed to be on the other side of the ridge. We drove to the other side to look but found nothing. There were lots and lots and lots of nervous antelope about, not to mention bones, but no other predators in sight. We stopped at a souvenir market and found a few cute things before heading back to the lodge. I took a much-needed nap while Mom and D read or sat outside.

After lunch and before the afternoon game drive, Mom and I were sitting outside the bar area reading and checking email when we saw a mongoose run across the terrace. Mom and D had seen a few mongooses running through the lobby earlier, but this was my first sighting. And then more came. Moms and babies, lone mongooses, mongooses with radio collars, and more. Some were digging, some were foraging, some were almost running over our feet. I was in heaven. It was amazing. So, of course, I did the natural thing and followed them. I followed them to a gathering point on the side of the lodge and just watched them for about thirty minutes. There were dozens of them, of all sizes. There were a few tiny tiny babies and some adolescents and several with radio collars. I took photos and videos and listened to them squeak and just watched them. Absolutely fascinating. Absolutely a highlight of QENP.

Our afternoon game drive was a search for leopards that was futile. We saw a couple of ellies and a few antelope, but it was mostly a slow day for animals. So a final dinner for Mweya and a good night's sleep.

We left a little later that morning and planned to drive straight through to Kampala and arrive early afternoon and have time to do laundry and rest before heading to Tanzania the next day. But things didn't go as planned. First, Abdul got a tip about a lion in a tree. We headed off in hot pursuit. Sure enough, Luna the lion was up in a euphorbia tree. She did not look comfortable. First of all, she was very pregnant, which made lying down in a tree difficult. Second, the tree was not the most suitable for climbing - no flat branches. Third, there were lots of people watching her. We watched her for a bit and then headed off, enjoying herds of waterbuck and troops of baboons as we exited the park.

We were making great time and were about 50km out of Mbarara, the approximate halfway point to Kampala when all of a sudden, as we were going up a hill and around a corner, I see the rear passenger tire go flying off the truck and behind us. Abdul did a masterful job controlling the car and stopping safely on the side of the road. We got out to assess the damage. The tire was completely intact, no tears or punctures, but the rim was a bit bent. I stayed with the car while the others went in search of the lug nuts. This was farming country, and a few of the locals came down to offer help. A couple young women found a few lug nuts, and before long we had the complete set. Abdul said he had checked the tire before setting off in the am and thought somebody might have tampered with it when we stopped for a bathroom break. From the way the lug nuts had flown - not sheared - off, they had clearly been loosened.

Just then a car full of good samaritans stopped and offered assistance. It took about an hour and lots of effort, but they were able to help Abdul get the tire back on and tightened. The truck was okay for getting back to Kampala, but the whole tire and axle would need a lot of work later on. I was very pleasantly surprised by the gentlemen who gave an hour of their time - and sweat - to help us. They tried to decline the money we offered them but finally took it with a thanks and a smile. We did get a few others stopping and asking us for money who hadn't helped, but they were easily brushed off.

We got back on the road - a bit slower and still in a bit of shock - and limped back to Kampala. We made decent time, considering, but we still arrived several hours after we had expected. That meant a furious bout of laundry (using several of my neighbors' machines that they kindly let us use), a quick dinner, repacking, and then sleep for our VERY early wakeup call the next morning. If 1:30 is really the next morning.

Stay tuned for our horrendous travel day story to follow, but with redeeming animal encounters and photos and stories after that.

Buffalo/hippo snuggles!


Can I help you?

The tail end (pun intended) of the hippo charge

Elephants near the fishing village

Ready for a night of fishing

Right before the nasty Italians showed up to insult us

Pretty Mr. Lion.

Sleepy Mr. Lion


Running across the terrace

Note the radio collar on the one at the top right and the squee baby trying to nurse in the middle

Some of the many, many mongooses in this band

Pretty elly

A very pregnant and uncomfortable Luna the lion in a euphorbia tree

She just couldn't get comfortable

Gorgeous waterbuck

Riding with mama

A main road running through the park

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

2014 EAWE: Batwa Pygmies and Queen Elizabeth National Park Day 1

All right, time to stop being lazy. Here is the much-delayed continuation of my epic East African Wildlife Extravaganza when my mom visited Uganda in August 2014.

After our amazing gorilla trek on Thursday, the plan was to go on a tour of the local Batwa pygmy village. Mom, D, and I - once we convinced ourselves to stand upright again - decided that another two hour 'walk' up and down hills in the rain wasn't in the cards. No problem, our guide told us, some of the community will come up to the visitor's center to dance and tell you about their traditions. So we decided on that.

The Batwa people, traditionally hunters and gatherers, lived in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest until 1992 when it became a national park. Their eviction was then and remains controversial, but they've adapted to a more agrarian way of life and integrated with other local communities., among other organizations, allows tourists to learn more about the Batwa and their cultural heritage. Think what you will about tribal tourism, but I remember watching National Geographic documentaries as a child about Batwa and other pygmy tribes in central Africa and being fascinated. I was happy to donate to the local school to meet some of the villagers and learn a bit. We were treated to a lively dance show, with children from all over the area joining in to hang out with the muzungu. The local matriarch is 94 and still going strong; after she danced quite energetically for us she proudly told us she lived the first half of her life in the forest and the second half outside and helps keep tradition alive among the new generations. After a quick discussion about traditional medicine and fire-starting techniques, we bought some beautiful baskets and presented a donation of both money and school supplies for the community. A lovely way to spend the afternoon.

After a tasty dinner by the fire recounting stories of the day (growing more exaggerated as we recalled the day's adventures) we retired to bed. Mom and I lay awake for a while marveling that we saw the gorillas and noticing all the new muscle groups who were making their presence known. My legs and feet were obviously tired, but then my arms started hurting from the exertions with the walking stick pushing and pulling myself up and down the mountain. Bruises started to appear within hours, badges of honor.

I slept well, thankfully, and woke the next morning ready for safari! After a hearty breakfast we bid farewell to Bwindi and were treated to amazing views of the rainforest and the clouds and mist. Gorillas in the mist for sure.

We had a several hour drive north to Queen Elizabeth National Park. The first part was on the outskirts of Bwindi so we kept our eyes open for forest elephants and antelope and gorillas. We saw a couple duiker but no big mammals, sadly. The next leg was through mainly rural areas on marginal roads, and we all tuned out a bit. Then the road improved and the towns got bigger, and soon we crossed into Queen Elizabeth National Park!

The southern sector of QENP, the Ishasha sector, is famous for tree-climbing lions. Most of the lions favor fig trees, which are abundant in this area and afford good views of the plains. We circled the main lion trees for an hour so with nary a sighting and then drove down to a gazebo to have lunch. The gazebo overlooked the Ishasha river (if I remember correctly) and feeds into Lake Edward a bit farther north. There was an active school of hippos hanging out, and between us we were the only ones in the area. Two hippos had a mouth fight, the most protracted one I've ever seen, which greatly entertained us. As we were wrapping up lunch our guide pointed that the far bank of the river (and far is a relative term; it was within an easy stone's throw, as you can see in the photos) was Congo. So close yet so far!

We headed back out for another look at the lion trees but finally had to give up and head north. There's a main road running through the park, and we had a lot of ground to cover, so it wasn't a relaxing game drive. Eventually we crossed the Kazinga Channel via bridge, which separates Lakes Edward and George. Soon after that we turned off into the approach to Mweya Lodge. D was eager to see elephants, but Abdul cautioned that we might not be lucky given the area and time of day. We stopped for a few antelope and monkeys, but no big game. We were almost at Mweya when we saw flashes of grey through the trees. And there they were! A small but lovely herd of elephants headed to the river to drink. We marveled for a while and then drove on, encountering a lovely hippo out of the water headed for his nightly foraging.

Mweya is a gorgeous lodge in a spectacular setting overlooking the Kazinga Channel. We checked in, oriented ourselves, relaxed on the terrace with drinks, and then enjoyed a tasty buffet dinner before bed. The next morning we'd head out on our first early morning game drive, of many to come!

Cows on the road leading out of Bwindi

Gorillas in the mist!

Bwindi on the left, farms on the right


Uganda kob

Amazing fighting hippos

Those trees are in DRC

And back to regular life


Baby elly :-)


Hungry hungry hippo

Gorgeous elly