Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Horseback Safari in Uganda

Riding through the savannah with zebra in the background
As an intrepid bush lover and safari enthusiast, the idea of experiencing my passion on horseback was extremely intriguing.  Mihingo Lodge is the only place in Uganda that offers horseback safaris in a national park so that is where this first time experience took place.

My husband and I are inexperienced riders and were unsure of how our backsides would fare on a long ride, so we started with a one hour safari in the late afternoon.  The stables are a short distance from Mihingo Lodge where we were spending a couple of nights.  When we arrived at the stables for our safari we were met by Joseph the stable manager.  Joseph showed us around the stables and he introduced us to all of the horses and ponies.   The stables and facilities were clean, organized and had a number of spacious paddocks for the horses to graze.

One of the horses in the stables

After we were acquainted with the facilities it was time to visit the tack room and get ready for our ride.  Trail saddles, stirrups, chaps and helmets are all provided for your guided safari. Riders should wear long pants, a strong pair of shoes and most importantly bring your sense of adventure.  All geared up we were ready to meet our horses.  I was riding Summersong and Kevin had his trusty steed Vallas.  Joseph gave us a few pointers and instruction about riding our horses and we were all set.

Inside the tack room

Ready for the safari

We left the stables and began our safari riding through the savannah.  I had been told that game and wildlife is extremely relaxed around horses allowing riders to get very close to them but some things need to be experienced to be fully understood.   Not only did we get very close to animals but what surprised me the most was their calmness.  We were able to maintain a normal volume of conversation and they didn’t flinch or seem bothered.  Our guides Joseph and Charles were very knowledgeable about the wildlife and their habitat. As we rode through the bush and grassland we came across many species including warthogs, zebra, eland, dwarf mongoose, impala and bush buck as well as various birds. Horseback safaris are not ideal for photography as your hands are needed on the reins and the constant movement is not conducive for photos.  Small manageable point and shoot cameras are ideal.  The whole experience is very relaxing and personal.  While sitting on your horse you can enjoy the scenery and make mental memories.

Feeling confident after our first ride, we decided to go for a longer one in the morning.  This time we left the stables at 7:30am for a 4 hour ride that took us outside the park towards Lake Kacheera.  Animals were plentiful and the landscape and scenery was beautiful.  For those that have never been on a horseback safari it is a special experience.  Without the confines of a vehicle and a rumbling engine you can take in every sound and every movement.  The horses at Mihingo were relaxed and calm so there was never any fear of being taken on a sudden gallop.  Having no previous experience, I never felt worried or stressed.

After the rides, Mihingo lodge was a stunning place to have a swim in the infinity pool overlooking a waterhole, have a full body massage, enjoy gourmet food and take in a bit of Mihingo magic.  We thoroughly enjoyed our first horseback safari and didn’t suffer from any aches, pains or sore backsides.  We left only with plenty of memories and smiles on our faces.  It was definitely an adventure that we will never forget.
To enjoy a Mihingo horseback safari, no previous experience with horses is necessary.  They are fully equipped for adults and children and offer rides starting from 30 minutes to several hours as well as overnight trips, bush breakfasts and picnic lunches.

For Information & Bookings 
+256-752 410 509

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Night Drive - Lake Mburo NP

It was the night of the supermoon and we had scheduled a night drive in Lake Mburo National Park.  Unknowingly, we were in for a super night!

We picked up our Uganda Wildlife Authority guide Lawrence just before sunset.  He had a large spotlight with him which wired directly to our car battery.  Lawrence decided to perch himself on the roof of the Land Rover so that he had a good vantage point.  We were all set and started driving towards the Research Track.  By this time the sun had set and darkness was setting in.  From inside the Land Rover we watched as Lawrence moved the spotlight quickly from left to right looking for animals.  It was Kevin that heard Lawrence say "leopard, stop!"  I was driving.  I quickly pressed on the brakes and started looking around "where?"  A male leopard was in front of us and just off of the road to the right.  We turned off the engine and watched as he walked through the grass towards a thicket.  For over 30 minutes we watched the leopard as he slowly made his way from thicket to thicket, pausing at each one to look around and survey his surroundings.  Eventually he walked off into the darkness leaving us with adrenaline pumped bodies and big grins.  Fantastic!!  This sighting was enough for me, I was so happy to have had such a good spotting of a leopard that I was prepared to head back to Mihingo lodge where we were staying and revel in our night drive experience.

As we drove back, we saw buffalo, zebras, a white tailed mongoose and a genet cat. We were not far from the  lodge when Lawrence asked us to turn onto a small track to look for hyena as he knew of the general location they hang around at night.  Close to the road, we saw a figure dart away from an anthill and into the thick bushes nearby.  We shone our lights and could see two eyes staring back at us.  As we crept the vehicle closer to the bush, we realized it was a leopard!!  Another one!  How exciting was this?!  Another male, this time never leaving the protection and cover of the bush.  We admired his beauty, his large golden eyes resembling giant glass marbles, his long whiskers and rosette patterned coat.  After about 30 minutes we decided to leave him and let him get back to his leopard business.  As we drove back to Mihingo, we giggled at our fortune of seeing two separate leopards on one night drive.

If you are visiting Lake Mburo National Park, I can highly recommend this exciting activity. Although there is no guarantee of seeing leopard, a guided night drive gives you the chance to experience the animals in their habitat at night as well as giving you an opportunity to spot nocturnal species.  For us, it was a super night!

Friday, July 5, 2013

Gorilla Trekking in Bwindi Impentrable Forest

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is a UNESCO world heritage site that  lies in Southwestern Uganda.  It is 331 square kilometers (128 sq mi) of jungle that is accessible only by foot and is home to the critically endangered mountain gorillas.  A very good friend of mine was planning a visit to Uganda with her husband, so what better time to plan a trek through the jungle in search of these rare primates with her. This would be the ultimate girls day out!!

Our journey to the gorillas began from the Mweya peninsula in Queen Elizabeth National Park where we were bush camping with our husbands.  Full of excitement  we scurried around our camp packing up, organizing our things and getting a few last minute photography tips from Kevin, my husband and avid wildlife photographer who we would soon part ways with. The guys were spending the next couple of nights in Ishasha (the southern sector of Queen Elizabeth NP) while the girls would carry on to Bwindi.  Once our camp was packed up, we jumped into the 4x4’s and headed south.  When we arrived at the park gate to Ishasha, we pulled off the road, said goodbye and climbed back into our vehicle and were off like a shot.  We couldn’t wait to be sitting at our lodge in Bwindi Forest but this would take a little longer than we anticipated.  As we drove through small villages we passed dozens of people immaculately dressed walking home after Easter Sunday church services.  We rounded a bend in the road and came across a truck that had tipped over and completely blocked the road.  PANIC!!!  Was this going to prevent us from getting to Bwindi?  Was there another route?  After some discussion we decided to return to the nearest village and attempt to find someone who could give us directions and advice on another route.  Just as we arrived in the village, we spotted a tourist vehicle approaching, so out the window my arm went to flag him down.  We explained the blocked road ahead and asked if he knew of an alternative route.  With a confident “yes” he ordered us to “follow him”.  A huge sense of relief washed over us.  Yes!!  We WOULD get there.  Now as the driver of our vehicle, all I could focus on was keeping the green safari vehicle we were following in my eye sight.  The driver knew the road well and therefore kept a swift pace,  much faster than I normally drive, but I had to be sure not to lose him.  As we followed we enjoyed what we considered to be a much more scenic route on a better road.  By late afternoon we were driving through the entrance to Bwindi Impenetrable Park.

A truck blocking the road en route to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

We checked into Buhoma Lodge, ordered a well deserved cold beer and sat on the verandah of our tree house room.  We stared at the forest and watched the mist constantly changing shape, floating over the peaks of the mountain and hanging in the valleys.  Somewhere inside of that forest were the mountain gorillas that we came to see.  It all seemed so real now.  Tomorrow we would trek deep into the African jungle and come face to face with mountain gorillas.

Moments before my alarm went off, I woke up.  It was still dark.  I switched on a light and soon we were both buzzing around the room getting ready for the day.  It seemed that even the birds were excited for us their cheery songs getting louder and louder as daylight emerged.  Once we were layered with clothes and ready for any kind of weather, we sat down for breakfast and a hot cup of coffee.  We ate because we knew we needed the energy but our stomachs were more occupied doing flips of excitement rather than thinking about food.  Nevertheless, we ate.  After breakfast we chose a walking stick for the trek provided by our lodge and made our way over to the briefing.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority gave us a warm welcome and shared information about the gorillas and the guidelines for trekking.  We broke into smaller groups based on the group that we were trekking and met our fellow trekkers as well as our guide, Ruth.  We would be trekking the Habinyanja group.  We both chose to take a porter and got acquainted.  There are many advantages to a porter besides the obvious of carrying your backpack.  Foremostly it provides employment for people from the surrounding villages but beyond that they make great trekking companions.  My porter Caleb was a wealth of knowledge and he constantly reminded me to drink water.  When the going got tough he provided a helping hand and the occasional push up hills and when I seemed to need it the most, he made me laugh with his witty sense of humour and his jokes.

Our starting point was a 20 minute drive away from the briefing centre.  Once we arrived at the base of the trail, I parked the car and we got ourselves ready.  Backpack, check.  Water, check.  Camera, check.  Walking stick, check.  Rain jacket, check.  Sense of adventure, check.  We began our ascent through farmland.

Starting our ascent

Villagers were tilling their fields, young children came from every direction to wave and say hello and older children had artwork spread out along the path in hopes of making a sale.  Bananas, matooke, cassava, beans, children, men, women, goats, chickens, pigs, we passed them all.  After an hour or so of nothing but uphill trekking, we entered the jungle.

Children from one of the villages we passed

Surrounded by dense forest we followed a trail that led us through a never ending series of hills.  The going was somewhat tough and we could feel slight effects of elevation but this didn’t stop us.  We made short stops as we needed them, drank lots of water, and kept moving at a steady pace.  By midday, our guide informed us that we could be in for a long day as the trackers who had been out since the morning, still had not yet found the exact location of the Habinyanja group.  Just as we were bracing ourselves for the long day, we were told that the group had changed direction and were now heading towards us, we were very close.  We fueled up with a quick dried fruit snack, some more water and left our packs on the trail to traverse the thick vegetation of the forest floor to get close to the gorillas.

Our guides

Off the trail the vegetation was thick, the ground uneven and much more difficult to maneuver through.  The guides were clearing a way for us to get closer to the gorillas.  We could hear them making noise in the valley floor but we couldn’t see them.  The first gorillas we saw were a mother and a juvenile.  They looked at us casually as everyone in our group stood and watched them in amazement.  Beautiful.  Big.  Hairy.  Then we noticed two young gorillas swinging, playing and chasing each other in a nearby tree.  We watched them for several minutes as they entertained us with their antics.  Their ability to move up, down and around the tree with speed and accuracy was fascinating.  They carried on with their fun and games like we weren’t even there.  The guides continued to clear away a makeshift path for us to get closer to more members of the Habinyanja group.  Eventually we all gathered in a small opening in the forest that the guides had cleared for us, sat on the ground and immersed ourselves in the company of the gorillas.  The Silverback was laying down in the forest not far away however the most we could see of him was his silver hair shimmering in the sunlight between the branches.  We could hear him making noises and could clearly smell his flatulence.  Juveniles played in the trees around us, females sat munching on leaves and one of the new mothers was letting her young baby move around on the ground close to her after it was finished suckling from her breast.  The baby was so small and so very cute!  Their feet and hands were amazing to see, their digits and fingerprints seemed almost human.  The gorillas drew me in, their large chestnut colored eyes, relaxed personalities and gentle movements made me want to sit there and watch them forever.  At the end of the hour, it was extremely hard to leave the gorillas.  With great reluctance we followed our guide back to the main trail where we had left our backpacks.

The foot of an adult gorilla

The foot of a baby gorilla

Back on the main trail we sat down on the ground, ate a sandwich and discussed how wonderful it was to spend time with the Habinyanya.  After some food and a brief rest, we began to walk back to where we left our car.  This took several hours of traversing through the forest in the opposite direction from our way in.  When we reached the car we were tired.  It had been a long day but a good one.  We drove back to the UWA headquarters and were presented with certificates for trekking and then back to our lodge.  We were looking forward to a hot shower.

The view from the edge of the forest

That evening over dinner we shared a bottle of wine and talked about what an awesome day we had.  On one hand we were tired and on the other so full of adrenaline and excitement that we knew it would be hard to fall asleep.  Trekking the gorillas is such an incredible experience, one that can be shared but never replicated as every encounter is different.  As I lay in my bed that night  I thought about the Habinyanja and wondered what they were doing.  Where were they sleeping? What had they done for the rest of the day?  It was an experience that will stay with me forever.  When I think back to that day, I remember every detail and cherish it not only for myself but that I was able to share it with such a good friend.  It is a bond that we will share for the rest of our lives.  Simply incredible!

Gorillas from the Habinyanja group