Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Trip to Uganda
I spent 19 days in Uganda in November looking for birds. This is a brief description of the trip for those who might be interested in visiting Uganda.
Uganda is a great place to visit if you are a nature lover. I visited six national parks while I was there and several other nature areas also. It was an adventure of a life time. I tallied about 420 different bird species, 5 chimpanzees, one Puff Adder, and many monkeys, antelope, elephants, giraffes, hipos, Cape Buffalo, dragon flies, butter flies, but very few mosquitos. November is part of the 2nd rainy season of the year which begins in October. It did rain about every day while I was there but only for about one or two hours. While it is raining, that is a great time to drive to the nearest bar and have a Nile Special if there is a bar handy. Much of the time there is not. It is best therefore to take a couple along to enjoy during the lunch break. Uganda has excellent beer, but hands down Nile Special was my favorite.
My trip was arranged through Birduganda.com. They handled everything. My itinerary was custom designed to my specification with some suggestions from Herbert the director of Birduganda. I was presented with two options for accommodations--luxury and utilitarian. I chose the latter. To my surprise utilitarian was not all that utilitarian. At QE national park I ate my meals at the lodge where Queen Elizabeth stayed in 1954. It is first class. However, I did have my room down the road about 300 yards at a very nice hostel that was suitable for my needs.
My birding guide was Robert Byarugaba who lives in Buhoma. He is a top notch guide. You can find him on the internet at firstname.lastname@example.org. Telephone is 256-782-029-054. My driver was Gordon Gongo. He lives in Kampala and is on the internet at email@example.com. I suppose that a very adventurist person might attempt driving in Uganda himself. But the roads are not what one might be accustomed to and road signs are not something one generally sees in Uganda. Gordon also makes a really great beef stew, one of the best meals I had while in Uganda and great vegetable soup also. Uganda is not a large country and most of the interesting places are in the west and southwest. But the roads are in many places rutted dirt and I do not think we averaged more than 20 mph, so distances seem at least three times longer than in the US.
The money situation in Uganda is somewhat interesting. The currency is the Uganda shilling which exchanges at about 1900 to the dollar at this writing. A beer costs about 3000 shillings at the better establishments. But that is not what is interesting. What is is that national park entrance fees are for foreigners are in dollars not shillings. They average is about $30 a day but does vary by park, so when you arrive at Entebbe do not covert all of your currency into shillings. You will need a substantial amount of U S dollars also. Another interesting situation is that one is not allowed to walk any trails in a national park unless one has either a local park guide or an armed guard. A tip is expected for these functionaries at the end of the trip. A guard might expect 10,000 shillings. A local guide who is knowledgeable maybe 20,000 shillings for a full day. The guards carry AK47s but I am suspicious that they may not carry any ammunition.
Of the total time I was in Uganda, there was only one day which was a disappointment. That was the trip to Kaniyo Pabidi which is part of Budongo Forest Reserve. Birding there was extremely disappointing with only one new species seen. We did see a Chimpanzee there however and Robert also saw two Blue Duikers, an extremely small antelope of the forest. I missed both. There are several species that are supposed to be easy to see there but we had no luck at all attempting to call them in. My personal recommendation is to spend ones time at more productive locations such as Murchison Falls just north of Budongo. The Royal Mile at Budongo is an exceptional birding site and should not be missed.
One of the national parks that I visited is Semliki. It is somewhat off of the beaten path and receives only about 2000 visitors a year. That is somewhat unfortunate because it is one of the more interesting national parks and encompusses an environment not encountered elsewhere in Uganda--very tropical. One of the highlights of the Semliki trip was seeing a Puff Adder close up. It was brought to our attention by the commotion that the birds were making. Robert showed it to me and I thought it was a log lying on the ground. Then the log began to move--very slowly. Puff Adders are not fast snakes. The snake we did not see at Semliki but which is supposed to be common there is the Black Momba.
The other place worth some note is Mabamba Swamp on Lake Victoria a couple of hours from Entebbe. This is the home to the Shoebill and many other water and swamp birds. The Shoebill is one of the prize birds of a Uganda bird trip. Uganda is the only easy place to see this bird, easy being a relative term. There are two places in Uganda where it is usually seen--Mabamba and Murchison Falls NP. We saw four Shoebills there and many other birds besides.