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A Reflection on our tour to Uganda

A group of six of us visited Uganda between 31 January and 12 February 2014.  We did not expect much from an African country which had been tormented for years by an oppressive government and civil war.  But, Uganda exceeded our widest expectations and surprised us all in terms of the abundance of wildlife, quality of habitats, varied and beautiful landscape, friendliness of people, excellent accommodation, and finally, wonderful and varied food. 

Where do I begin?

Altogether, we recorded 366 species of birds, which is a staggering amount for a 13-day tour.   Of those, an amazing 13 species were dazzling sunbirds, 11 species of slick and elegant bee-eaters, seven species of colourful kingfishers and 34 species of raptors.  All simply mind blowing!  And, although they were all fascinating to watch, it was their sheer numbers that blew us away. 

One of the amazing highlights was our encounter with the African Skimmers. A flock of about 400 was roosting on the bank of the Nile and, as we approached them by the boat, all of them took to the air. They flew close to the water in perfect harmony, graciously entwined and with inconceivable speed. We were almost in touching distance with them as they flew around us. They then turned back and settled again on the bank, which they shared with a herd of Buffalos, terns, storks, herons and waders. Magic!

Another memorable sighting was a flock of about 200 Grey Crowned Cranes.   They waded in the water of a small temporary wetland scooping prey and spread out as far as we could see.  Considering that population of Grey Crowned Cranes decreased by 80% in Uganda in recent years, we were pretty privileged to come across such numbers.  Seeing so many of them was an experience in itself, but in addition, they were wading amongst lilac water lilies and in the company of other waterbirds with a background of afternoon sun light, which created a myriad of colours and a surreal atmosphere.  The sun light cast lovely shadows and reflections and left an ever lasting memory of this splendid scene.

A Great Blue Turaco is one of the most beautiful birds but not easily encountered.  We saw nine of them in one place, frantically foraging on the top of palms.  It was great to see these spectacularly colourful birds so close and for a prolonged period.   The African Fish Eagle is perhaps one of these birds of prey that one never ceases to get bored with, and on this trip we saw them in great numbers on several occasions at the edge of the water, on the bank, perching on trees or flying by.  The most rewarding and a breath-taking view though was on our boat trip in the Kazinga Channel, when one bird suddenly caught a Tilapia fish in front of us and carried it in its claws along the boat for us to admire.  Sadly, none of us had a camera ready to record the moment! 

But, undoubtedly the star bird of the trip was the Shoebill. The unmistakable, prehistoric-looking shoebill is one of the most impressive birds to be found in Africa. Its total population is estimated at 5,000-8,000 individuals and although it can be found in several countries in tropical Africa (from the Democratic Republic of Congo in the west, through Zambia, Rwanda and Uganda in the interior of Africa, to Sudan, Ethiopia and Tanzania in the east), it is notoriously difficult to see, because the birds occupy extensive, inaccessible papyrus grass and reed swamps and also, apart from the breeding season, they lead a solitary existence.   Uganda is the only country where population is stable and the birds can be easily seen.  So, the anticipation and excitement were incomparable, because we left the sightseeing of Shoebills to our last day of the tour.    The Mbamba Swamp on Lake Victoria hosts several pairs of these birds and, in two small fishing canoes, we embarked on a mission to find these birds early in the morning.  We did not need to move far, when a Shoebill was spotted, foraging in an open swamp. We anchored just several metres away from it and soaked in this unique encounter.  The bird stood there elegant, motionless and almost out of the place.  Its movements were so rare that it almost looked like slow motion.  On a few occasions, the bird stretched its neck and looked as if it would grab a fish at any time, but then seconds later, it retreated to its original position again and stood there motionless, testing our patience.  It was definitely one of the most exhilarating wildlife encounters one could experience!  No wonder, the Shoebill was voted the best bird of the trip!

What made this trip so exceptional was that not only birds, but other wildlife were equally exceptional and exciting to observe.  Altogether 40 mammals, five reptiles, at least 20 species of insects and 65 species of plants were recorded on the trip.  The game was plentiful and easy to photograph, and although Uganda is not a stronghold for big cats, there was one species that we were particularly keen to see.    The southern part of the Queen Victoria National Park is famed for hosting Lions which have a rather peculiar habit of lounging on top of the trees.  It is not easy to see them, so we considered ourselves very lucky to encounter a female Lion looking at us from a tree.  The Lion was just a few metres away from our vehicle and after a few posing looks, it jumped off the tree and walked away into the bushes.  Although a brief encounter, it was definitely one of the most memorable sightings of a Lion for the majority of us! 

Three boat trips were an undisputed bonus for the trip, because they allowed us to see some of the mammals and waterbirds at close proximity.  One of those mammals was the Hippopotamus.   These massive mammals with an astonishing weight of up to 2 tonnes, spend most of the day semi-submerged in water and we saw a staggering number of their intimidating eyes poking above the water.  Their size, therefore, can only be appreciated when they come out of the water but, unfortunately, this happens usually at night, when they do most of their grazing.   On this trip, we had the privilege to see them ashore both at night and day.   But, a “Wow” moment came when a little baby appeared by the side of a wary mother on the river bank.  Massive Crocodiles lazing on the bank, Nile Monitor lizards scoffing their prey, a herd of the African Elephants with the youngsters foraging on the edge of the water bank and staggering numbers of African Buffaloes being attended by oxpeckers were just a few memorable mammal moments on these boat rides.

One of Uganda’s greatest assets is its high diversity of primates.  Although, seeing them was not our priority, we encountered 11 species altogether.

But, the epitome of the trip was undoubtedly tracking the Mountain Gorillas.  The walk through rainforest to an elevation of about 2000m, on a narrow steep path and often off the path, was an adventure in itself. We spent an hour with a group of 10 gorillas led by a silverback. Once we found them, we were virtually surrounded by them and observed them from a distance of just a few metres. The gorillas were totally oblivious to our presence and foraged happily on the ground and on trees, giving us quick glances from time to time. Being so close to one of the most threatened mammas in the world and being able to observe their casual behaviour in their natural habitat was a priceless experience.  No wonder, it was voted the best wildlife event of the trip.

The overall success of this tour was not only amazing wildlife that we saw and the varied and beautiful landscape that we drove through, but an incredible hospitality of Ugandans.  Their smiles, particularly from children, and waving hands as we drove through villages and towns, accompanied us all the way.  The greatest surprise was finding a cosy water bottle in our beds on return to our chalets after dinner in Bwindi, where temperatures dropped considerably at night!  I also have to mention Johnny, our local guide, whose enthusiasm and knowledge of wildlife was next to none and his organization skills superb.  Johnny’s own safari vehicle was one of the best and most suitable modes of transport that Scotnature has ever used.  As one of the participants said: “It will take a lot of beating to do a better trip than that”. 


For more pictures from Uganda please look in the Gallery at Birds of Uganda and Wildlife of Uganda, or Tour Details or trip report.


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Green-headed Sunbird

Red-throated Bee-eater

African Skimmer in Uganda

Grey Crowned Crane

Great Blue Turaco

Shoebill

Boat trip on Mabamba swamp in Uganda

Tree climbing Lion in Uganda

Hippo with a baby

Nile Monitor

Mountain Gorilla

Difassa Waterbuck

Uganda Kob