Category Archives: Uganda

Inspired by Sport Relief? These sporty adventures are sure to get you out of your armchair.

Sport Relief anticipates that thousands of people across the UK will swim, cycle or run this weekend in order to raise money for worldwide projects including those in the UK and Africa.

Over the last few months we have witnessed incredible sporting feats from a number of high profile celebrity figures from Davina McCall’s extraordinary ‘Beyond Breaking Point’ (pictured),  to Alan Shearer and Robbie Savage’s ‘Battle of the Backsides’.  Every year the  challenges seem to get more extreme, making for great entertainment and ultimately exaggerating that feeling within us, “If they can do that, then I can do something for charity too.”

If this year’s Sport Relief has sown that seed in you then maybe one of the following African sporty adventures might just fit the bill? Maybe you have run or are about to run the London Marathon,  and fancy the Big Five Marathon next year? Or perhaps you have conquered Snowdon and are ready for another peak.

Or perhaps Sport Relief has simply awoken a curiosity in you about Africa and its communities. We are passionate about the community and conservation projects that we directly support via The Real Africa Trust  and are delighted that many of our clients choose to spend a morning or afternoon visiting one of the projects while on safari. It adds a completely different and thoroughly enriching dimension to your trip to Africa – the school visit in the Masai Mara, where we are funding the building of a new classroom, is especially popular with families.
If any of our projects are of interest to you, then do give us a call or check out our Real Africa Trust page on the website.

We hope you feel inspired by the following suggestions for experiencing Africa is a more sporty way!

Run Africa

South Africa has many competitive running events including one of the most highly rated, the Big Five Marathon which takes place in the dry and cool month of June. The 88km course winds through classic Big Five savannah country in the private Entabeni Game Reserve west of Kruger National Park.

Climb Africa

Tackle Africa’s highest peak, and the world’s highest walkable mountain following the scenic extended Machame Route to the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. One day climbs also available at Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru.

Bike Africa

Mountain bike amidst the animals in Kenya’s dramatic Hell’s Gate National Park, combining a thrilling ride with a gorge walk. Or get out of the 4×4 and see Lake Manyara’s shimmering scape in Tanzania from the saddle.

Hike Africa

Hike the forested slopes of Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park or Uganda’s Impenetrable National Park in search of endangered mountain gorillas.

Paddle Africa

See Botswana’s game from a different perspective by taking to a canoe on the tranquil waters of the Selinda Spillway. Five day guided canoe safaris combine bush camping with exploration of truly remote and beautiful areas.

You can find out more about Real Africa’s challenges at our website.

You can find out more about Sport Relief here.

By Sara White

 

How many elephants are left in Africa?

“Our window of opportunity to tackle the growing illegal ivory trade is closing. If we do not stem the tide, future generations will condemn our unwillingness to act.”

If we want to save the elephant (and that’s where we are, we’re not helping or protecting, we’re trying to save) we need to know how many there are left. We need to study where the main populations are and whether they can reach each other or are isolated. We need to know whether they live within the safer environment of a National Park or reserve, or live in places where they are more vulnerable to poaching and encroachment on their environment. Current population estimates are between 400,000 and 650,000, but are based generally on guestimates. 35,000 were killed in 2012. 75% of all forest elephants have been killed in the last 10 years. This is our last chance.

Of course, after many years of conservation and study, we do have a fairly good grasp of some of these issues, especially in those countries where animals conservation has been a key issue.  Its estimated ( or at least hoped in a couple of cases) that elephants now live in 35 African countries. Originally they were recorded in 46. One problem is that in 20 of the 35, total elephant populations are down to less than 1,000 individuals, in some countries spread out over vast areas. Some for the countries just don’t have a viable population to survive. Its doubtful whether elephants can survive in Western Africa and the population of Congo has been all but wiped out during the civil war.

Its equally depressing if you look at the areas they live in. They now exist in approximately 15% of the area they used to cover. Population growth has led to the exploitation of land they used to feed on, either to create farms or to graze with domestic animals. Buildings, fences and roads have been put across traditional migration routes, in some places making them impassable. Forests have been cleared for their timber. Elephants are seen as a nuisance, pushing down trees, trampling fields and eating crops, yet they, like the indigenous human populations, they are simply trying to survive.

A vital step in trying to help the elephant is to do a comprehensive survey of the elephant population.  This will allow protection resources to be concentrated on areas with viable populations, and conservation to help areas where the elephant is on the brink. And help has come from Paul Allen, one of the Microsoft founders. He’s agreed to fund just such a survey to be undertaken during the dry season of 2014. Three small planes and 2 helicopters will fly a grid pattern over thirteen of the remaining countries with elephant populations, allowing a real insight into how the populations are fairing.

Indeed the Americans are currently leading the way in the fight to help the elephant. The Clinton Foundation is funding a partnership to Save the elephant, targeting “stop the killing, stop the trafficking, stop the demand.” On 14th November President Clinton announced that the stockpile of illegal ivory confiscated in the United States was to be destroyed. On live TV, broadcast to the nation, it will all be crushed. Its hoped that such a public display against the ivory trade will spur other nations into taking action.

A conference on Ivory poaching has just finished in Botswana. It was agreed to  bring in harsh new measures against the trade, including making poaching and ivory trafficking a more serious crime that qualified for Interational Crime prevention agency assistance. Among the African countries who signed, there was also China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand. This is where the demand comes from and this is where thr problem must be tackled. Its a start but nothing more. Last week an ivory haul was seized in Xiamen in China. 6 tonnes. 3,188 tusks. The African elephant cannot take much more.

As Botswana President Ian Khama stated, “Our window of opportunity to tackle the growing illegal ivory trade is closing. If we do not stem the tide, future generations will condemn our unwillingness to act. Now is the time for Africa and Asia to join forces.” Add the US and Europe to that, and there may be a glimmer of hope.

Does he have a future?

Where to see gorillas in Africa: Rwanda vs. Uganda

For those who have already been on safari across East or Southern Africa and are looking to return to Africa then perhaps Uganda or Rwanda could be just the thing. Africa is such a huge continent with so many different countries to visit and so many different things to do, it can be very hard to narrow it down. Uganda and Rwanda are not the first places to spring to mind but they are actually both fabulous places to visit with stunning scenery, warm welcoming people and incredible wildlife. They are to be found inland in central eastern Africa to the west of Kenya and Tanzania respectively. Uganda is the larger of the two and it shares its southern border with the enormous Lake Victoria whilst Rwanda is much smaller and tiny in comparison to most African nations.

Scenery

The scenery in this part of the world is stunning. This area is known as the Great Lakes area and it is full of lakes and rivers that stem from the volcanic mountain range than runs across Uganda and Rwanda. It is here that the majestic river Nile starts its journey across Africa and en route it squeezes in dramatic fashion through a narrow cleft before pouring out at the stunning Murchison Falls. Uganda is very green and lush due to high rainfall and a warm equatorial climate all year round. Much of it is farmed but it also boasts stunning natural beauty everywhere you go. Much of it is protected national park including the Queen Elizabeth National Park and Bwindi National Park.

Rwanda is much more mountainous with high mountain peaks in the west and more traditional African savannah to the east where it borders Tanzania. Rwanda has three important National Parks; Volcanoes, Akagera and Nyungwe. The naturally occurring rainforest in Rwanda is protected in the parks which is important as a lot of Rwanda’s naturally fertile land is taken up with coffee plantations and subsistence farming. The most famous of the national parks is the Volcanoes which is home to an estimated one third of the remaining worldwide mountain gorilla population.Rwanda’s mountainous scenery forms part of the Great Rift Valley which runs through East  Africa and creates some of its most impressive scenery. In this part of Rwanda you can find the Virunga volcano range which includes the highest peak of Mount Karisimbiat 14,787 feet.  Some of the volcanoes in the area are still active and attract volcano fans and scientists alike.

Wildlife

Tourism is a vital source of income to both Uganda and Rwanda and both countries have shared a troubled past. But now they are both well on the way to recovery and have opened up their doors to visitors. In fact this part of the world is one of the friendliest and warmest you can come across. Most of the tourism income in both countries comes from visiting the unique wildlife in this part of the world. Rwanda along with Uganda is one of the only two countries in the world where visitors can see the endangered mountain gorillas. Gorilla tracking permit prices are high in order to keep numbers down and the money from the permits and the national parks goes back into the local villages in order to feed them and also educate them on the importance of the wildlife.  The best place to visit the endangered mountain gorilla is the Bwindi National Park in Uganda. This remaining population of around 335 gorillas is home to nearly half of all known mountain gorillas. Gorilla trekking is not for the faint hearted as the terrain here is very challenging with miles of deep forest and steep uphill hiking. It can take up to 5 hours of solid hiking to find a gorilla group and then of course you have to hike your way home again. Visiting the gorillas is very strictly monitored and numbers are kept down and even when you do see the gorillas you are only allowed a maximum of one hour with them so as not to disturb them.

You can also visit mountain gorillas in Rwanda in the beautiful Volcanoes National Park where permits and visits are run along similar lines to those in Uganda. In fact many people combine the two. But there are also other primates in this area that are worth visiting such as the famous chimpanzee colonies. You can visit Kibale National Park to visit them – again you must obtain a permit first and travel with an organised group and time is limited to an hour in order not to disturb them.
If you are looking for more typically African game then you can enjoy a safari in Uganda in the Queen Elizabeth National Park where you can enjoy spotting the Big Five whilst on safari including lions, leopards, elephant and buffalo. This national park is a very large reserve, in between Lake George and Lake Edwards and as such offers the unusual chance to go on safari by boat! The Kazinga Channel connects the two lakes and is home to lots of hippos.

Lily in Uganda – Meeting the Gorillas

Our intrepid explorer Lily is in Uganda trekking through the rainforest to see the rare Mountain Gorillas.

I thought I would start today’s blog post with some information about Mountain Gorillas.  Did you know that gorillas share 98% of their genetic composition with humans? I think it is this close connection that makes us humans so fascinated by gorillas.

Gorilla Information

There are currently about 800 mountain gorillas left in Africa of which 480 are in the Virunga Volcanoes region which straddles Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC. Of these 480 gorillas about half live in Bwindi National Park.  There are roughly 36 family groups and 14 solitary silverbacks distributed across four different protected areas. However the gorilla watching programmes are quite limited because of  the natural movement of these gorilla families. For example the. Mgahinga National Park group of gorillas in Uganda to the south of here often move around and cross over the borders into the DRC and Rwanda. The unstable politics of the DRC mean that their gorilla groups are not always accessible for security reasons. There are currently six habituated family groups in Uganda available for daily viewing.

 

Usually the males are about twice the size of the females and can grow up to 6 ft tall and weigh between 350 – 500 pounds. New born babies weighing about 6lb only so that is a lot of growth! They are exteremly strong, with long arms (stretching to 7 feet) and very muscular.  The males are referred to as silverbacks because as they mature the hair on their back turns somewhat silver, hence the name.  The strength of the males is ten times stronger compared to the strongest human athlete! The other members of a gorilla family are females, immature males known as ‘blackbacks’, juveniles and youngsters. Mountain Gorillas possess longer plus darker hair compared to their lowland counterparts because they stay in colder climates and higher altitudes.  Their life span is thought to be between 25 and 30 years.  They mainly live on the ground although occasionally climb trees that can support them – the young gorillas regularly play in trees. Mountain Gorillas are vegetarians and eat large quantities of flowers, leaves, fruit, roots, bamboo and shoots in season.  The adults can consume up to 75 pounds each day.

 

We begin our trek

 

Bearing in mind that the gorilla trek costs quite a lot of money I do think it is vital that anyone going on a trek is well prepared and ready to make the most of this once in a lifetime experience!

 

We set off up the wide track with our rear guard armed scout (just in case of forest elephant encounters) and Gad told us that the Bitakura gorilla family had been sighted in the deep valley below but were on the move.  I had my small Panasonic camera round my neck and that was all – blissful not having to carry anything! We turned off the track, walking carefully as there were roots which caused one or two ‘trips’ on a steep downhill route through fairly open forest and as we walked I noted some pine trees (despite being almost on the Equator!) and elephant droppings!  Underfoot was dry in contrast to the uphill slog which awaited us! Sunlight filtered through the trees and we were all very excited and filled with anticipation of the imminent gorilla sighting… However then word came through by walkie-talkie from the trackers that the gorillas were headed up the other side of the valley, in the opposite direction to us! We reached the valley floor, crossed a stream and boggy area and started the ascent up the other side which plunged us into a different landscape altogether.  Tropical rainforest with all its attendant thick undergrowth meant that we had to cute a path through with a machete. We spent a lot of time sweating, panting, crawling and clambering up slippy paths with steep drop offs.  The Impenetrable Forest is aptly named – it really is a riot of green where things grow on top of other things in layers of ferns, mosses, creepers and lichens. As the valley side got steeper and steeper my porter came into his own, carrying my rucksack and helping me up with the odd ‘push’ if he noticed my foot slipped even a tiny millimeter! At first, I was a little cross as I wasn’t used to being aided but as time went on and the route became increasingly difficult and we were grabbing any available branches/roots/ferns, his assistance was much appreciated! Sweat dripped into my eyes and mouth and I wondered if we would ever reach the top.  I fixed my eyes on a chink of daylight far above through the tall forest trees.  As the chink got bigger and brighter, I knew we were heading closer to the top! Then suddenly, almost before we had realised it, we burst out from the forest into an area which was almost montane in first appearance. There were giant ferns and small shrubs and it was at last flat! In fact we were all so relieved to be walking on level ground that it took a few minutes for us to realise that we had company!!

 

My First Gorilla!

 

As I looked into the vegetation I saw something black and it dawned on me I was looking at my first ever gorilla. It seemed incredibly that we had managed to arrive right on top of the Bitakura gorilla family who were enjoying a jolly good ‘feed’ on the surrounding vegetation. They were very unconcerned at our presence which I was pleased to note and I was happy to feel that we weren’t encroaching on their normal daily routine.  Across the track from us was a silverback who gave me a withering look of total disinterest!  The Bitakura family consists of 4 silverbacks, 2 blackbacks, 3 females, 1 juvenile and 2 infants.  I think that we saw most of the family although it was hard to say as they kept appearing from different directions including three of them who had been up in the trees. One young gorilla gave wonderful child-like display of rolling on the soft forest ground then running off of hide behind a tree… or so it seemed to us. We made very little eye contact as we had been told not to and the gorillas certainly seemed to ignore our presence at all times.  We were able to wander around keeping our distance and I actually moved down the track away from the silverbacks whilst filming. Then I had a great moment of luck when the two silverbacks came out of the ferns and loped down the track towards me.  I kept on filming walking quickly backwards and suddenly felt myself being steered to one side (by a ranger) as I’d been about to walk into a tree.  They told me to keep filming (which I did!) and I got some interesting footage at close range.  It was an incredible moment for me and one I will be able to treasure forever.

 

The rangers were very strict that we should not get closer than 3 metres. Although it appeared that some of our group didn’t understand this too well!!  It is important to give the gorillas their space or they may take it as a threat when approaching too close.  Gad and his team of rangers and porter were very sensitive to our needs and helped us make the most of the experience, showing us where to stand for best views, photos and movie footage.     

 

My main surprise about the gorillas particularly the silverbacks is that they aren’t as tall as I was expecting – although this could be something to do with the fact that I recently viewed the Hollywood movie King Kong! It is said that looking into the eyes of a mountain gorilla is a life changing experience but personally I found the whole experience life changing! From the very first moments starting with the drive up into the mountains from Lake Victoria to Bwindi, staying in the idyllic location of Mountain Springs, rising at dawn, the stunning but lumpy drive to the Ruhija area, the meeting with the fantastic rangers and porters and even the obligatory ‘man with the gun’ in case of forest elephant encounters. Not forgetting the tough trek up hill and down dale to eventually come face to face with these very rare primates, a silverback mountain gorilla and his family. The moments that really stand out for me was my silverback filming encounter and thanks to my camera zoom a close up view of a young gorilla carefully scrutinising a leaf with the delicate touch of his four fingers which were so human like.   

 

After our allotted hour with the gorillas, we then sat down by the edge of the forest and had a snack and some water before setting off up the track by the edge of the forest. I think we were all very relieved that we didn’t have to return by the same demanding downhill/uphill route.  We walked for about 30 minutes along the high track then over cleared land where potatoes and other crops were planted.  A Land Rover was waiting to take us back to the Ranger Post with a short 20 minute drive.

 

Back at the headquarters we were given our certificates as proof of having done the trek – these are included as part of the gorilla trek package. We also treated ourselves to some T-shirts “I tracked the Gorillas in Bwindi!” and some carved gorillas too.

 

Back to the Lodge

 

We finally left this incredible place and headed back to the Buhoma area and Mahogany Springs Lodge.  We had a great sighting of 3 black and white colobus monkeys leaping between trees by the roadside as well as the constant stream of locals walking down the road. We arrived back at the lodge by 3pm all tired but euphoric after our gorilla encounter. The lodge was lovely and comfortable and I just wish I had had more time to enjoy relaxing there and even take the scenic walk to the nearby waterfall. However I can’t complain as I had just had one of the most  unforgettable days of my life with the Bitakura gorilla family in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park.  

 Posted by Lily

Lily in Uganda – Arriving in Bwindi

Our erstwhile globetrotter Lily has been off on her travels again. This time she is visiting Uganda to go on a gorilla trek. We will be following her travels and her trips for the next few weeks as she explores this beautiful country and meets these amazing animals.

 

 

Day 3 (continued) Mahogany Springs Lodge

 

 

We arrived at Mahogany Springs Lodge around 7pm and we were very warmly welcomed by the staff to this very attractive lodge which is set on the side of a valley in lush scenery and magnificent trees.  We were given a delicious cold fruit juice and cold damp flannels to wipe the dust away and revive ourselves before our welcome talk given by David. We were told all about the lodge, the rooms, the food and what to expect on the gorilla trek.  The rooms here are very attractive large rooms with a spacious en suite bathroom and a balcony/sitting area overlooking the opposite side of the valley.   We also had a most welcome and tasty supper.  I was able to send a blog post from my room as Wifi is available with a fast connection which seemed amazing in such a remote location!

 

 

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park

 

 

Let me give you some background to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park.  It is very aptly described as a vast, misty, mountainous jungle and one of the most biologically diverse places in the world.  The park lies along the Uganda-DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) border in the Kabale and Rukungiri districts which are in south western Uganda, on the edge of the Western Rift Valley.  Covering an area of 321 square kilometres, Bwindi is a tiny island of equatorial primeval rainforest, surrounded by a sea of banana and tea plantations.  It was first protected by changing its status to a forest reserve in 1932, and it finally reached National Park status in 1991.

 

 

The forest has had a number of names in the past including Bwindi and Kayonza.  In the local language Bwindi means ‘place of darkness’ and the name refers to the region’s thick vegetation which is also reflected in the park name of Impenetrable Forest.  What is most striking is the steepness of the valley sides and even the huge trees in the forest seem completely dwarfed with the valley sides. Although it can be difficult to spot much wildlife through the mass of huge trees festooned with vines and creepers, the forest is home to over 120 species of mammals, 360 species of birds, 310 types of butterflies and 1,000 different plants.  It is suggested that if one suffers from noise irritation, then a pair of ear plugs is handy for the gorilla trek as the rainforest can be spectacularly noisy!

 

 

Gorilla Trekking Information

 

We had been divided into two groups for the gorilla trek and Joseph, the manager, gave us a talk about what to do, what to wear and what to expect from the experience. 

Myself, Heinz, Ewa and Yolanda were to be part of the group visiting the BITAKURA habituated gorilla group in the high altitude Ruhija area, south east of the park with poor transport links.  This was mainly because our permits had been applied for only very recently (just over a week ago) which means that the closer, more accessible gorilla family groups already had their full quota of visitors.  This is important to note when arranging visits for clients and the sooner the permits are applied for, the more likely it is that the clients will be able to get permits for gorilla groups within a more accessible area.   Usually only 8 permits issued per day for each family group and the Buhoma area has most family groups and most tourist accommodation.

 

 

The Dian Fossey project (of Gorillas in the Mist fame) was the original source of gorilla trekking as she was the first human to make close and friendly contact with gorilla groups. The scientists at her establishment continued this as they studied the groups and gradually more and more people wanted to join in. This then led to small groups only with permits being allowed to visit the gorillas who were habituated in their natural setting. Now it is possible that visitors can get to observe the family groups from only a few metres away. It is to be noted that the development of gorilla tourism is proceeding with great caution in order to avert dangers of the gorillas catching human diseases. No one with a communicable disease (e.g. flu/diarrhoea) is allowed to enter the National Park or take the trek to encounter the gorillas.

Although some argue that it is detrimental and risky to the gorillas the sad truth is that without tourism like this the gorillas probably wouldn’t have survived this long. The one thing that can guarantee their survival by making them worth more alive than dead – to both governments and local people alike.  

 

 

Day 4 – Gorilla Trekking


 

We all wake up at 4.45am and eat breakfast at 5.15am.  We are then given our packed lunch boxes and some stout walking sticks before leaving the lodge with Joseph, the Manager, in a 4 x 4 vehicle around 6am. We then picked up another couple from Buhoma Lodge nearby and set off on the 2hour 15 minute journey (50 kilometres) to the Ruhija sector. These rural roads are pretty rough and we bounce along as we climb ever higher into the mountains. To make up for this the scenery is truly spectacular with heavily wooded deep valley sides and impressive views. Here even banana plantations are 2000 metres above sea level.  The Ugandan people really do make the most of every piece of land, cultivating and growing crops wherever possible.  There are only a few tourist accommodations in this far flung area with only the Bitakura family group of gorillas to visit.  We finally arrived at the entrance headquarters  where our passports and permits were checked at around 8.30am. We were greeted by Gad, the ranger in charge, who gave us the safety briefing and suggested we might like to hire a porter for $15 to carry to carry our rucksacks for us.  As we were all carrying 2 litres of water each as insisted upon by the lodge and a packed lunch plus camera equipment, I elected to have a porter. Some of the others didn’t but I think they lived to regret this decision – for me, it was one of the best I’d ever made! Also the money is very much needed by the local people who work as porters do I didn’t begrudge a penny of it.

 

 

Recommended Gear for Gorilla Trekking

 

 

Tough boots with good ankle support are seriously important.  Having watched two of the group struggling in trainers, I was very glad I had invested in Brasher boots. 

A stout stick (provided by Mahogany Springs) was jolly useful for support going down very steep valley track then used for hauling up the other side which was very slippy and ‘impenetrable’! Gators – these I bought for $25 USD from Mahogany Springs the night before as the manager recommended a pair but Gad said on this particular day they wouldn’t be necessary.  I tucked my trousers into my thick hiking socks instead.  Safari ants are the critters who get up your trouser legs and create uncomfortable havoc so gators or tucking long trousers into thick socks combined with high ankle support boots are a deterrent but not always a guarantee to avoiding this hazard.Another useful item is a pair of thin impermeable gloves (like light gardening gloves) as protection against stinging nettles/thorns etc. This is because when pulling yourself up the steep hillside amongst thick rainforest vegetation, you have to grab whatever is to ‘hand’ and because this has to be done quickly, its not possible to scrutinise to closely what you are grabbing hold of, hence I found it very useful to have the hand protection.  Antihistamine cream in case of bites/stings which can quickly swell up and make for problems.  Gorillas are immune to stinging nettle so often choose this sort of foliage as a place to rest. Sun tan cream even though in rain forest conditions if you do get the sun this close to the Equator it is very strong. Some money for souvenirs (post trek) as this is a once in a lifetime trip and most people want to purchase a reminder such as a t-shirt or a carved gorilla. There are stall by the park exit and the money does help the local economy massively.

 

 

 

Posted by Lily