Fred, as always, has planned our trip with care. He, Elizabeth and Chris make up the usual foursome. Emmy Gongo is once more going to drive for us. We are comfortable in each other's company and generally get on well together. As mentioned earlier, the driving distances will not be excessive on this trip, basically a large circle around the south-west of Uganda, all around Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and the Rwenzori Mountains. Birds will be the focus, but we should also get a chance to see what wildlife there is, particularly in Queen Elizabeth National Park and then later at Lake Mburo. Of course, Emmy looks for birds more intently than I have the patience for, but you can shout and get him to move on if you really want to.
Speeding out of Entebbe on the new expressway, who could but be hopeful of a pleasant trip in good company. I've used my phone as a camera much more on this trip – a conscious effort right from the start to try and capture some of the sights and scenery of the country as we travel from place to place. I'm not big on “local colour” or “cultural” excursions, but it is time to show how the people of rural Uganda live and work.
Our first stop is a beautiful lodge on the edge of Kibale forest and the facilities and service are superb. The first few days are always a bit frantic. There are birds, birds and more birds at this stage because every species is a new one for the trip and there's so much to absorb as we move from location to location. Then, the forest is full of monkeys and baboons. Monkeys are nice, but I'm no lover of baboons. They always seem a little loud, brash and aggressive to me and the ones on the road through Kibale Forest are no exception. They are instantly aware that we have bananas in the vehicle and you can see them taking an interest whenever they are nearby. So much interest is shown that, at one point, Fred has to fend one of them off the wing mirror with his hat while Emmy starts the engine to get us out of what could have been a very tricky situation.
As an aside, I don't eat bananas at home – or much fresh fruit for that matter unless I grow it myself or forage for it – but the small bananas we buy at the roadside here are wonderful. They have a strong sweet flavour that you just can't duplicate with slow ripening on a boat from the Caribbean. I do also eat some of the local staples and will admit to a liking for Matoke – Plantain or vegetable banana at least has a flavour that corn meal or cassava somehow lacks.
The birds of Kibale Forest are a delight and after just three days we are well into triple figures on our nightly check-list. I'm taking fewer photos than usual, but I am supplementing the main camera with a few more shots as we travel along using my phone. I've decided to add a little more local colour and scenery to the selection this time and when I can remember I do get the phone out of my pocket and snap a few random scenes.
We are also delighted to see the seldom visible summits of the mighty Rwenzori with their permanent – but ever shrinking – glaciers on their peaks. I've always wanted to see them, conjuring as they do romantic imagery of King Solomon's Mines and the legendary Mountains of the Moon. The fact that they are such a geological oddity only adds to their mystique. Here, in the heart of the Albertine rift, with rift valley lakes to the north and south and explosion craters all around the south and east, are a range of mountains towering to over 5000m, uplifted in a series of massive convulsions by forces almost beyond imagining. They are sheer, rugged, weathered by tropical rain and home to unique plants and animals of all types.
We are also ready for our move to the Semliki Forest on the other side of these mighty mountains, bringing us even closer to the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Forest Birding – Semuliki
Even Fred hates forest birding – as he will readily admit if you should ask – but still we find ourselves on the winding road down the pass towards Bundibugyo and the Semuliki Forest. We take a great detour over the high pass that was once the main road but is now almost never used, finding a few birds on our way and enjoying magnificent scenery and epic views across the Semliki River to the Congo and Lake Albert. The almost sheer sides of the foothills of the Rwenzori are magnificent and daunting at the same time. The road is so overgrown that cattle have been allowed to graze on the grass growing where once the traffic passed. A couple of places are showing the impact of a lack of maintenance, but we manage without too much difficulty.
Inevitably, as we descend, the temperature increases and so does the humidity. Semliki really is tropical rainforest, one of the last bastions of the vast equatorial jungle that flows in unbroken green from the Atlantic Ocean to the Albertine Rift. This, of course, is why we are here. We're looking for bird species lost in location and time. Remnant species that are found nowhere else to the east can be found here and we're going to try and see them. We did a similar thing in Kakamega Forest – about 300km to the east in the far west of Kenya and indeed a couple of the bird species are the same in both places.
Accommodations are scant and all we have at our disposal are the very basic Uganda Wildlife Authority Bandas for the next two nights. This is a place far from the beaten tourist track, only hardened birdwatchers need visit here and can apparently seem oblivious to their surroundings. It's a dump! The accommodation – such as it is – consists of a concrete roundhouse for two, with a tin roof, a tiny window, two lightbulbs, two beds and a small bathroom / shower with cold water only. There are working mozzie nets and they will be needed. Apparently, the only fridge is broken, so beer's off the menu for a couple of days. We had to do the shopping for them in Fort Portal or there'd have been nothing to eat either. My last visit to this hole in the bottom of the world wasn't a pleasant experience and I can't say that things have improved to any agree in the intervening six years.
Our full day of looking for birds is a draining experience, although not without a fair few rare species as a reward. There is rain in the morning that does nothing to lower the humidity or temperature for the rest of the day but does add mud to the list of delights. The forest is tall, ancient Ironwood trees and others that climb to a canopy 100ft or more above our heads. The paths are narrow and enclosed on all sides by deep and damp undergrowth in which the birds that we seek skulk and hide. They call often but show themselves rarely and then it's too dark to take a photo in the hopeless light. We came to see Hornbills and do indeed manage to get good views of four or five different species, mostly flying away from us into the distance.
As we did on our first visit to the area, we walk out along the boardwalks to visit the hot springs. They smell as bad as any other hot spring, but there are a couple of wading birds to be seen and we are fortunate enough to get a view of the rather rare De Brazza's Monkeys in some trees on the edge of the swamp. It has to be said, if you want to see primates then Uganda is possibly the best place in the Old World to do so.
The afternoon walk is deep into the ancient forest. The ground is so uneven that you use energy simply trying to stay on your feet. Fortunately, Chris and I manage to do so and our guides are patient with our slow pace. Ironically Fred manages to avoid the afternoon walk, leaving the two of us to find what we can between us.
The verdict on Semliki? Well, if you are an ardent birder who simply must see the hornbills and other Albertine species then take a day-trip on the now pretty good road from Fort Portal. You can still get 4 or 5 hours in the forest and be back in relative civilization in time for dinner. Take a packed lunch and beer with you though! If you just want to visit one of the most out-of-the-way places on the planet then I'd say forget it. If for no other reason than it truly is forgettable.
For me, it brought me dangerously close to the depression zone. The oppressive weather and limited outlook of the place just brings you down. I do begin to wonder if I'm a bit bipolar – see, self-analysis is easy. Once we're back on the road again, I'll swing back to being my more usual self – that is if the happy one is the usual one!
Unlike the posted colonial officers at the turn of the century, I don't really have the choices they did. I can't go native and I don't have a revolver! I can easily see why they may have chosen one of the two options available though.