Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Nairobi to Mombasa by Rail

White sandy beaches were on the brain, we wanted some sand in between our toes, smell the ocean and indulge in some fresh seafood, so Mombasa seemed to fit the bill.  Sure we could easily fly there but we opted for a more adventurous journey, to take the train from Nairobi to Mombasa operated by Rift Valley Railways (RVR) and often referred to as "The Lunatic Express".  The rail line has a lot of history and being that Kevin has an affection for train travel and had done this train journey in 1989 he was eager to do it again.  I had never been on a train so we were excited about our choice.

The rail line began construction in 1896 and was intended to connect the interiors of Uganda and Kenya to the coastal city of Mombasa.  The tracks, locomotives as well as a lot of skilled and unskilled labor to build the railway came from India.  Many Indians remained in Kenya and Uganda after the completion of the railway line largely contributing to the Indian communities in those countries today.  The building of the line took its share of lives as the working and living conditions were poor and many succumbed to diseases resulting in death.  Probably the most famous incident occurred in Tsavo in 1898 when two "man eating lions" stalked and killed approximately 130 workers.  The entire project to build the railway seemed to be such an enormous undertaking and at such a great cost that skeptics who doubted its economic worth endearingly starting referring to it as The Lunatic Express.  The entire project was completed in 1929 and is said to have opened up East Africa to the rest of the world.

Our journey began in Entebbe where we boarded a plane bound for Nairobi.  We arrived in Nairobi early in the morning and the train was only scheduled to leave the station at 7pm, so we had an entire day to explore Nairobi.  Our first stop was Giraffe Manor to have a  moment with the Rothschild Giraffe.  I love giraffes and ever since I had seen Giraffe Manor on a television program years earlier, I had wanted to visit.  To see those big black eyes with long luscious lashes so close was amazing and I didn't leave without getting my "kiss".  We continued our exploration of Nairobi with a visit to the Karen Blixen Museum.  Karen Blixen (1885–1962) is best known as the author of Out of Africa.  The museum is full of history and is definitely worth a visit.  By this time we were hungry for some lunch and relaxed for a couple of hours at the Talisman before making our way to the Nairobi Railway Station.

Getting to the station was an adventure in itself as we fought our way through the taxi park full of matatus, buses and people. A brick building came into sight, we had reached the Nairobi Railway Station. We entered the building and received our tickets for the journey.  With a little over an hour to wait in the station before the train was due to leave, we sat and watched the hustle bustle of it all.  Other passengers were arriving as well as vendors sending merchandise to the numerous towns en route.  We received the call to board the train and with great excitement we found our cabin.  Although the fan didn't work, no water came out of the water tap and the lights flickered, I was pleased with the beds as the bedding was clean and crisp.  There was a small closet for our personal belongings and clothes, a mirror and our bags conveniently fit underneath the bottom bunk bed.  I was equally impressed that on the stroke of 7, the train's whistle blew and we started to move away from the station.  As we watched from our window the lights of Nairobi grew further and further away.  In the hallway outside our cabin we could hear a large bell clanging, the dinner bell.  We left our cabin with all our valuables as the cabins do not lock from outside and headed for the dining car.  We were sat at a table for four and soon, two others joined us.  As we got to know each other the servers came around for drink orders and to serve food from huge dishes.  The scariest part was the soup course, the waitress carried a large pot of steaming hot soup and as the car lurched back and forth she balanced herself and the pot and didn't spill a drop.  The food was average, we were served chicken stew with rice and potatoes followed by fresh fruit.  As we sat in the dining car I wondered what the atmosphere and service was like back in its day knowing the reputation of white glove service with fine silverware.  After dinner we returned to our cabin settled into our beds and were lulled to sleep by the gentle swaying of the train.  Periodically through the night I woke, sometimes as the train was slowing down to stop at villages along the tracks to unload and load passengers and goods and other times as it was hurling down the mountains feeling almost like a runaway train. I found the train to be a comfortable place to sleep.

At first light we were awake and peering out the window as it was the first opportunity to see the countryside since the first part of the journey was in the dark.  We passed small villages, roadside markets and watched children running towards the track as fast as they could to wave at the passing train.  Once again a bell could be heard in the hallway which indicated that breakfast was ready in the dining cart.  Juice, coffee, tea, fruit, eggs and toast were served as we gazed out the window fascinated by everything that we saw.  When we returned to our cabin after breakfast our bedding has been removed and the top bunk folded up leaving us a bench seat to sit on for the remainder of the trip.  The train was due to arrive at the Mombasa station at 10am but having read numerous reports of poor time keeping we really weren't sure when we would get there.

We travelled through fields and villages, under bridges and over rivers. At one point the train was running parallel to the highway next to it.  Eventually we got our first glimpse of the light blue waters that we were yearning for, the Indian Ocean.  This was an indication that we were not far from Mombasa.  Palm trees began to dot the landscape and the smell of the sea was in the air.  The train crossed the Nyali Bridge that connects the island of Mombasa to the mainland.  The settlements and markets were getting more concentrated and closer to the tracks.

At almost precisely 10am, the train pulled into the Mombasa station.  Impeccable timing, especially considering the number of stops that were made through the night.  We collected our personal belongings and disembarked the train having had a memorable and pleasant experience.  Now the only thing on our minds was where the beach and a cold cocktail was.  It was time to enjoy the coast for a couple of weeks before taking the train back to Nairobi for the trip home.

The train approaching Nairobi on the return journey
In the first week of March 2012 it was announced by Rift Valley Railways that they would be investing 23 million dollars to rehabilitate dilapidated sections of the main line from Kampala to Mombasa.  The project is due to start in July of 2012 and we are excited to see the changes that it brings.  Maybe one day we'll have the opportunity to simply board a train in Kampala bound for the ocean.


If you're planning to take the train, there are a couple of things I recommend taking with you:

  • Drinking water
  • A wash cloth for freshening up
  • Toilet paper in case they run out
  • Snacks in the event that you really aren't wowed by the food
  • A sense of adventure
Also note that there is no shower's on the train only toilets.  Do a little exploration of the toilet facilities as there are squat ones as well as conventional toilets.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Ishasha Wilderness Camp - A New Look

Since 2005 the Ishasha Wilderness Camp has held a reputation as an exclusive tented camp in a remote setting offering comfort, friendly service and first-rate food.  Over the last six months the camp has transformed itself with an impressive new look that pampers the safari soul.

The camp is set on the banks of the Ntungwe River in the southern Ishasha sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park.  We leave our safari vehicle in the parking lot and follow a footpath under the cool shade of large trees, cross a wooden bridge and enter a large open air lounge and dining area.  The thatch roof structure is designed with three open sides, providing a full view out over the Ntungwe River and the surrounding area.  Large inviting sofas surround rustic tree trunk coffee tables and hanging from the ceiling at various heights are gourds of all different shapes and sizes that illuminate the area during the evening.  The dining area consists of one large slab table and a number of smaller tables catering for both large groups and intimate dining.  There is a fully stocked bar offering spirits, cold beer, sodas, coffee and tea all available throughout the day. A central charging station for guests is provided with universal adapters for your electronics.

A few steps away and down from the main dining/lounge area there is a terrace beside the river’s edge where large umbrellas provide shade during the day.  The terrace is a great place to sit to watch the elephants come down to the river for a drink and sometimes you’ll be lucky to see them cooling off and playing in the river.  This section of river is also home to a resident hippo “Henry” who likes to make his appearances when you least expect them, popping up grunting and puffing, leaving you scanning the river waiting for his next performance.

Along the river’s edge are 10 large tented rooms.  They have been constructed with rustic eucalyptus poles to provide a rigid structure and finished with canvas walls and netting which allows for plenty of light and fresh air. Outside the front of the tent there’s a covered area with two comfortable chairs and a table providing a private place to relax and enjoy the view.  Unlike most conventional tents, there is no zipper to deal with as you enter through a full sized door. Inside the d├ęcor displays African simplicity at its best and does not detract from the views and the feeling of being in the wilderness.  The king size bed is the center piece with a mosquito net suspended above.  There are side tables with lamps either side of the bed and two carved chests at the foot.  A writing table sits off to one side and has a beautiful view of the river.  The tent ceiling is draped with white cotton providing a lavish colonial feel.   There are full length curtains on all sides that can be drawn for complete privacy. The tents come equipped with flashlights and a safe.

The ensuite bathroom is as generous with space as the bedroom. There is a sink area, a shower with a large rain shower head a toilet and plenty of counter space to spread out your personal belongings. Cold water is always available and hot bush showers
are provided

upon request and take 10 minutes or less to arrive.

As the sun starts to slip away for the day we make our way to the riverside terrace to enjoy a sundowner while sitting around the fire.  Listening to the fire crackle and snap, the gentle babble of the Ntungwe River and the occasional noise from Henry, we reminisce about our adventures.  In the middle of a conversation the sound of drums resonates through the camp, this is the call to dinner.  We make our way to our table for two set outside on the grass.  We sit down to dinner under a ceiling of stars.  The waiter arrives at our table to introduce us to the night’s menu.  Dinner is a four course meal starting with bajias, followed by cumin and pumpkin soup.  The main course is a pork chop drizzled with hollandaise sauce served with potatoes and a medley of vegetables.  Just when we thought we couldn’t eat another morsel of food, a date pudding was put before us.  The food was delicious.  After dinner we are drawn back to the fire for a nightcap before retiring to our tents for the night.

Self admitted I am not a morning person; however the arranged wakeup call was so nice.  A voice in the darkness broke our sleep with a friendly “good morning” from one of the staff who left a tray of hot coffee and biscuits on the table outside.  After sipping on the coffee and slowly waking up, we left the camp for a game drive.

Ishasha is renowned for its most famous residents the tree climbing lions, however there is much more to Ishasha than the lions.  A short drive from camp is a Ugandan Kob breeding ground.  We stop and scan the area and spotted a hyena skulking through the grass creating a stir amongst the Kob.  What a treat! Ishasha is made up of riverine forests and grasslands scattered with Acacia and Fig trees and is home to the only Topi found in QENP as well as many other savannah animals. The Ishasha River to the west forms the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo and is where you will find hippos.   There was no shortage of game on our morning drive and our hunger for breakfast was calling us back to the camp.  We were welcomed back and served a fully cooked breakfast to order along with juice, tea, coffee, fruit and cereal.  The homemade bread made for great toast with various spreads available.

After breakfast we sat under the shade of an umbrella next to the river on the lower terrace and watched the river flow by on its way to Lake Edward.  While relaxing we were alerted by one of the staff that the elephants had arrived.  To our joy, across the river was a herd of elephants drinking.  This made for quite an exciting spectacle.  After several hours of enjoying the serenity, it was lunchtime.  We were served a plate of cold meats accompanied by a potato, chickpea and olive salad with freshly baked bread rolls.  Once again the food doesn’t disappoint and to top it off we even squeezed in a chocolate brownie for dessert.

We decide to go for a late afternoon drive to the Lake Edward Flats, an area renowned for numerous species of birds including the shoebill.  It is not a long drive to reach this wide open space with wetlands on the far side and Lake Edward beyond.  There are different species of birds everywhere along with the occasional warthog and a large herd of buffalo. Several buffalo were enjoying the wallows of mud that are spread out across the flats and surprisingly are not eager to move as we approach, giving us a great opportunity for viewing and photographing them.  The beauty of this place really started to come through as the sun started to set in the sky casting beautiful light across the flats.  The area was so magical it was with great reluctance that we had to leave arriving back to camp just before dark.  Again we enjoyed a great evening of fire, conversation, good food and service on the Ntungwe River.  If you do visit this wonderful camp take time to look for Henry the hippo and visit the beautiful Lake Edward Flats and you never know you may even bump in to a leopard!

Given the remoteness of the Isahasa Wilderness Camp they are fully equipped with solar power providing lighting throughout the camp, along the walkways and within the tents.  The lodge also implements a number of other eco practices besides lighting such as new low water volume flushing toilets and ceramic refillable soap, shampoo and conditioner containers in the bathrooms. The camp is very conscious of their environment and does their best to make as little impact on it as possible.

Upon signing the guest book I came across a visitors comment that I felt summed up the Ishasha Wilderness Camp perfectly “This is one of the best real Africa camps in Uganda”.

Let it be known that on our way out of the Ishasha sector we drove the southern circuit in search of tree climbing lions and were delighted to find two lionesses with swollen bellies full of food lounging in a giant fig tree.  What an end to a brilliant stay at Ishasha Wilderness Camp!

Booking Information 
Exclusive Camps and Lodges (G&C Tours Ltd)
Ph: +256 414 321 479
Mobile: +256 772 721 155

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Bujagali Memories

In late 2011 the headwaters of the Nile River were flooded in preparation for the launch of the Bugagali Dam.  The area has become the reservoir for the new dam which began operation in February 2012.  This past weekend we had our first opportunity to see the headwater region since the flooding.  The water has risen several metres taking with it a number of rapids that used to be a part of The Nile including the famous grade 5 rapids Bujagali Falls.  At the moment things look slightly awkward as the rising water has engulfed the area.  Trees that once grew from the islands are now merely tree tops slowly succumbing to their new environment.  The immense sound of the water crashing can no longer be heard making the area very peaceful.  The reservoir now known as Lake Bujagali has the potential to become a hotspot for birding and sport fishing.  Looking down the river the Bujagali Dam can be seen in the background along with transmission towers and cables that disappear into the horizon to help supply the nation with much needed electricity.  Although Bujagali Falls no longer exists we recalled the good times we've had and will cherish for years to come.

Our first encounter with the mighty Bujagali Falls was in 2002 on a raft.  It was the first time either of us had been rafting and we obviously weren't meant to stay in that raft for long!  As we manoeuvred through Bujagali our raft bounced around before being lifted high into the air and overturning, leaving us swimming through the rapids looking for the fastest way to get back into the raft.


At the time we didn't realize that camping next to Bujagali Falls and falling asleep to the roar of the cascading water would be a limited time offer.  This was the first place that we ever camped in Uganda so obviously the place holds special memories.  We will never forget waking up to the calls of the African Fish Eagle, the cool crisp air and the mist over the river.

Lastly, how can we forget those daredevils that would delight tourists by "rafting" the falls clutching onto the handle of a 20 litre plastic jerry can.  Anxious spectators wondering if this was safe would contribute money and then watch as the skill full swimmers would throw themselves to the mercy of the river.  Jumping into the water and then plunging over the falls, disappearing underwater and then popping up slightly downstream.  Proud of their feat the daredevils would come running back with  toothless grins, I suppose there was the odd encounter with a rock, but they never bothered to mention that and were eager to do it again.

That wasn't the only entertainment at Bujagali Falls.  Every morning people from the surrounding villages would come in droves to watch kayakers and rafts full of people traverse through the feisty water erupting in cheers when they were successful and watching with slight terror when rafts would flip. For many, this appeared to be a highlight of their day.

Bujagail Falls, thanks for the memories!!

Please note that although you can no longer raft Bujagali Falls, the opportunity to experience Grade 5 rafting on The Nile is still possible below the Bujagali Dam.  We're only wondering if this means we have to pluck up the courage to raft The Nile again.