Monthly Archives: August 2016
“For magnificence, for variety of form and colour, for profusion of brilliant life… Uganda is truly the pearl of Africa.” – My African Journey, Winston Churchill, 1908
More than a century after he penned the line, Winston Churchill’s oft-quoted quip about Uganda still stands. Located at the point where the East African savannah meets the Central African rainforest, the country is one of the most bio-diverse in the world, and within its comparatively diminutive frame lie the continent’s highest mountain range, its largest lake, and the source of the world’s longest river.
For much of its (at times turbulent) history, however, Uganda has struggled to escape the shadow of its noisy neighbours, the safari powerhouses of Kenya and Tanzania. But times are changing. Nationwide peace has reigned for well over a decade, the government has started investing properly in roads, hotels and other tourist facilities, and visitors are at last waking up to its compelling mix of spectacular scenery, incredible wildlife and warm and welcoming people. Here are just some of the reasons why you should be one of them…
1. TO TRACK CHIMPANZEES IN KIBALE
A beautiful swathe of thick equatorial rainforest, Kibale National Park boasts the highest concentration of primates in all of Africa. Its thirteen species include black-and-white colobus monkeys and impish grey-cheeked mangabeys but everyone is here for the chimpanzees. On a day-long Chimpanzee Habituation Experience, you’ll follow a troop of whooping and hollering chimps as they swing through the forest, gathering in the treetops to play, doze or feast on figs.
When the midday heat burns through the upper canopy, the chimps descend, sliding down vines and striding right past you. If such an extraordinarily close encounter doesn’t give you goosebumps, the sound of the males messaging each other will: they drum on the buttress roots of giant fig trees with such force that the ground around you shakes.
Where to stay Primate Lodge Kibale is set slap bang in the middle of the park, just a few minutes from the start of the tracking trailhead. Swish refurbished cottages look out into a wall of forest, and there’s a tree house for the intrepid.
2. TO RAFT THE NILE
The unassuming colonial-era town of Jinja is East Africa’s adventure capital, its smorgasbord of watersports growing out of the unique opportunity to raft at the source of the Nile. The surge of tumultuous white water that runs 20 kilometres downriver from Lake Victoria rivals the Lower Zambezi, and is a heart-thumping ride over rapids bearing names such as Hair of the Dog and Bad Place.
Where to stay Occupying an island in the middle of the Nile, Wildwaters Lodge is spectacularly sandwiched between two sets of deafening rapids, with lovely wooden cottages and a natural riverside swimming pool.
3. TO MEET THE KARAMOJONG
Rubbing shoulders with Kenya and South Sudan in the far northeast of the country, the disparate Karamoja region sees only a few visitors bound for the remote wilderness of Kidepo Valley National Park. Yet the area is home to one of Uganda’s most intriguing peoples: the Karamojong, a historically fierce tribe of cattle-raiding pastoralists. Visits to a Karamojong manyatta explore their traditional homesteads – beehive huts encircled by a protective wall of spiky brushwood – and usually feature cultural dancing, or “high jumping”, which is similar in style to the more famous Masaai just across the border.
Where to stay Apoka Safari Lodge in Kidepo can arrange visits to nearby Karamojong villages. Check your government’s travel advice before booking, as some areas of northeast Uganda are subject to travel warnings.
4. TO SWIM IN A CRATER LAKE
There are dozens of volcanic crater lakes in and around the Ndali-Kasenda region of western Uganda, but shimmering Kyaninga is the jewel. Fringed with forest and crisscrossed by gliding hornbills, the lake is a mesmerising granite blue. It’s semi active, so although 225 metres deep in parts, the water hovers around a pleasant 21 degrees. Add in the fact that it’s one of East Africa’s few lakes that are free from bilharzia and you have the perfect place for a spot of wild swimming.
Where to stay The gorgeous thatched cottages at Kyaninga Lodge are staggered along a ridge overlooking the lake. The huge rooms all have stunning views, and the range of local activities include an early morning Crater Walk and time spent with village elders at a nearby farm.
One of the greatest joys of travel is the unpredictability of exploring somewhere new. But however different our travels might be, we’ve all been struck by a number of universal thoughts along the way.
So whether you’ve grappled with getting up at sunrise or been through the various stages of recognising your own ineptness in another language, you’ll have most likely experienced something along these lines…
1. THE FLIGHT WAS DEFINITELY TODAY, RIGHT?
You checked – multiple times – yet still face a moment of abject panic when you arrive at the airport bugged by the unsettling feeling that you’ve mixed the dates up. You know you should have confirmed it one final time. A firm pat on the back if you got the date right; credit card at the ready if you got it wrong.
2. WHY HASN’T TELEPORTATION BEEN INVENTED YET?
Twelve hours squashed into an aerodynamic tin can ingesting stale air is no one’s ideal start to a trip. But unless a cargo freighter across the Atlantic sounds like a viable alternative, we don’t yet have many other choices.
3. SPEAKING ANOTHER LANGUAGE? EASY!
Just say it with the right accent and you’re off. Dos cervethaas por favoorrr.
4. MAYBE I’LL JUST SMILE AND NOD…
Ordering beer was one thing, but you now realise you should have kept up with Duolingo for longer than those four enthusiastic days. You just keeping smiling and nodding – actual words are completely overrated.
5. 4AM IS BEAUTIFUL – I SHOULD BE AWAKE AT THIS TIME MORE OFTEN!
While the cheap flights which forced you to check in before even the airport cleaner arrived weren’t the best introduction to the beauty of 4am, getting up at dawn to see sights like the Bolivian salt flats is enough to convince you of the benefits of those early mornings. You’ll definitely apply this to life back home…
6. DORM WITH 17 OTHER PEOPLE? NO PROBLEM: I SLEEP LIKE A LOG.
At some point you’ve definitely been lured into the big budget dorm – you’re the master of snoozing away nights on airport floors after all. But hostels play by distinct rules; all’s well and good until the inevitable nose-trumpeter gets going or the even less charming noises of an amorous couple become the backdrop to yet another sleepless night.
7. A 14-HOUR BUS JOURNEY WILL BE A BREEZE.
Reclining overnight bus seats always seem overrated – or at least until the next morning when you wake moulded into the shape of the 30-square-centimetre space that was your “bed”. The day spent unintentionally giving your best John Wayne impression just adds insult to injury.
8. SHOULD I HAVE EATEN THAT?
You love street food and the feeling of embracing local flavours as you dive into that delicious, seaming bowl of, well, whatever is floating around in there. But there’s always that nagging question at the back of your head about whether you’ve just committed a momentous travelling faux pas.
South Dakota, one of the USA’s Great Plains states, holds an annual buffalo roundup in Custer State Park. Last week was the 51st event and we were lucky enough to be in the area. Here’s the lowdown…
WHAT IS A BUFFALO ROUNDUP, EXACTLY?
First, the roundup is a practical business – it’s undertaken by people on horses (wranglers) to assess the size and health of the herd – but it’s also one of the best days out you can have on the Great Plains.
The vibe is about as South Dakota as it gets, all state pride and local flavour: Miss South Dakota beaming for pictures from atop her horse; long lines for buns stuffed with pulled buffalo (optional baked beans and nachos on the side); the smell of horses and manure spiking the air; and wranglers in chaps strutting about, bow-legged from a lifetime in the saddle.
WHAT’S THE HISTORY OF THE ROUNDUP?
The roundup is also a deep insight into the country’s past. The story of these enormous beasts is one of America’s most epic. They roamed the Plains in their tens of millions before the arrival of European settlers and Native American life revolved around them.
Through the 1800s, the bison were shot for their hides and meat; for sport (including ‘hunts’ involving potshots from the comfort of trains); to make space for cattle and farming; and, shamefully, to deny Native Americans their main food source. Come the end of the century, bison numbers had dwindled to just 700 or so.
So while it was an unforgettable occasion, full of the kind of ‘authentic’ experience every tourist craves, I watched the majestic running of the animals with sadness too. The thunder of their hooves could once rival that of the vast skies above.
WAIT, BISON? WHERE ARE THE BUFFALO?
It isn’t actually abuffalo roundup. It’s a bison roundup. The settlers misnamed them because of their likeness to the buffalo that roam Asia and Africa, and the tag stuck. But they’re bison.
And, in case you’re wondering, bison are also very different to cattle. The far more docile cattle were introduced by Europeans, and need a lot of care. Bison are indigenous and uncooperative, so for the rest of the year, the herd are left mostly to their own devices – they know how to take care of themselves.
Most bison herds in the USA – including the roundup’s – now have a bit of cattle in them. For ‘pure’ bison you have to go down the road to neighbouring Wind Cave National Park. The herd there has never been interbred (though only scientists can discern any difference).
WHO DOES THE ROUNDING UP?
Well, there’s octogenarian Bob Lantis, who has worked every roundup for the past 45 years – and swears he’ll be there next year too. Plus, there’s Miss South Dakota, who isn’t just there to look pretty either.
The rest of the wranglers are either park rangers or volunteers. The latter are screened to make sure they’re good enough at riding – but then lots of people in South Dakota are good at riding horses, rodeo is the official state sport, after all.
SO AS A MEMBER OF THE PUBLIC, WHAT DO YOU ACTUALLY EXPERIENCE OF THE ROUNDUP ITSELF?
The bison have already been preliminarily gathered together – loosely – before the big day, then the roundup itself takes place over a distance of about a mile, through various fields, with crowds gathered on low hills around its course.
Since you watch from a slight remove, the whip-cracks and whoops of the wranglers and the pummelling of the bison’s hooves carry to you on the wind rather than assault your senses.
But then you come to the roundup – which is free – as much for the atmosphere as for the herding itself, which takes about half an hour. And for a state with just 800,000 people, it’s a hell of an atmosphere. The figures aren’t in for this year but 2015, the fiftieth anniversary, saw 25,000 guests.
In any case, you really don’t want to get too close. This year there was one calf that had been born later than the other young, just three weeks before the roundup. During the action one of the wranglers got too close to it and its mother chased the horse away. It did make me wonder, with a little thrill, if the American bison has ever truly been conquered.