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Peace, Love, and Adventure

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Sunset over the Kazinga Channel, Western Rift Valley, Uganda

This past weekend, I went on my ideal mini-vacation—a 3-day excursion to Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP) in the Western Rift Valley of Uganda along the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). I booked the trip a few weeks ago, as I knew my time here was winding down and a safari was at the top of my list of things to do this summer! I was able to see the Big 5 on safari in Zimbabwe and South Africa in 2015, but I had yet to see a male lion in person. This topped my list of “things to do,” and I got so much more out of this trip than I anticipated.

 

Day 0:

I booked the safari through the Red Chilli Hideaway Hostel (which is actually more like a hotel), located on the south side of Kampala bordering Lake Victoria. As the safari was leaving at 6:30 am the following morning, they offered me a free room for Friday night! Because our internet died in the office, Diana was gracious enough to let me leave a few hours early so I could enjoy the pool at Red Chilli and get some sun. They also served delicious pizza by the pool, which I enjoyed, of course.

 

Day 1:

The next morning started before dawn at 6:30 am as we set off southeast from Kampala on the Masaka highway toward the DRC. I slept all the way to the Equator (about 2 hours). We stopped here to take pictures, as the rest of our tour group (4 Belgian girls and a German dad and daughter) had never been to the Equator! As this was my 5th time crossing the Equator (!) I took the chance to grab coffee instead. We then continued on, passing through Masaka (where I had visited with my office for the UN OHCHR conference a few weeks before), the turn off for Lake Mburo (good memories from last month here!), Mbarara (the second largest city in Uganda), and finally to QENP.

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The town center of Mbarara

 

 

The drive was sooooo long…9 hours to be exact. The road past Mbarara was full of potholes, so the driving went even slower here.

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Typical potholes past Mbarara

Fortunately, I was able to sit in the front for the entire trip with our driver/guide Noor, so I was able to take in all of the views from my open window on the passenger side.

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Fruit stand along the way
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Famous Ankole cattle of western Uganda

We passed the most gorgeous tea plantations that covered the hills and plains of the Western Rift Valley like a blanket of green in the Bushenyi District. We were actually able to walk through one on the third day when passing back through, but here are some pictures of what these fields look like.

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Tea production is becoming a huge part of the Ugandan economy. Indians introduced tea to Uganda in the 19th century, yet production almost stopped in the 1970s as war devastated the country and the ruthless dictator Idi Amin expelled all Asians from the country, confiscating much of their property in the process. Tea production picked back up when stability returned in the 1980s. While many of the larger estates are currently owned by foreign Indian companies, there is a big effort to ensure local ownership and to support Ugandan producers, particularly small farmers. It is estimated Uganda is currently producing tea at a rate of 10% of its potential capacity, so there is a lot of room for expansion. Sadly, global climate change may halt Uganda’s ability to produce tea as soon as 2050 if it continues at the current pace.

 

Before arriving at our accommodations at the Queen Elizabeth Bush Lodge, we stopped by the salt mining lake at the village of Katwe.

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Salt mine at Katwe

The salt lake was formed by a volcanic eruption about 10,000 years ago, and the mining activity employs hundreds of local workers. Each day, the workers “break” the salt crystals that have formed at the top of each pool, and eventually they collect the crystals from the bottom of the lake. They then wash them and grind them into smaller crystals for consumption. Katwe exports about 70% of the salt produced to other countries in East Africa.

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Selling salt at Katwe

 

 

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Crystals forming at the top of the pool
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Salt workers working in the lake. They only work 2 days a week because the work is so strenuous. Also, this is the second time I’ve seen a Ugandan wearing a confederate flag. My first thought was confusion, but my second thought was that American rednecks need to stop donating clothing that somehow makes it way over here. I’m sure this guy has no clue what this symbol means…it’s sad.

After Katwe, we continued on to the bush lodge. For the first night, I had booked a standard tent, being the budget-minded traveling law student that I am. For the second night, they did not have any available tents, so I was “forced” to upgrade to a banda…but I wasn’t complaining!

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My tent for night #1!

We had a 4-course dinner under the stars at the dining area of the camp overlooking the Kazinga Channel, which connects Lake George to Lake Edward. I heard hippos and warthogs outside my tent as I fell asleep that first night…I was so exhausted I didn’t wake up once!

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4-course dining at Queen Elizabeth Bush Lodge, overlooking the Kazinga Channel

 

Day 2:

I woke up at 5:30am, had breakfast at the dining area at 6am, and was on the truck with Noor for our game drive by 6:30am. The sunrise over the savannah was so beautiful as we made our way toward the areas where our guide knew we could spot the Big 5 (except rhinos, which sadly aren’t in this park).

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Cheesy, but I feel like sunrises and sunsets are everyday miracles, and I will never get tired of them!

I spotted everything I wanted to see…

Elephants…

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An elephant walking across the savannah…I wish I could post video on WordPress…it was an amazing sight to watch!

Buffalo…

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This bush buck…they are known to be loners and only are spotted with other bush buck when mating…

 

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Uganda kob..

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This gorgeous leopard…it was amazing to see her so close…

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…and my male lion. But…I will never look at lions the same way now. Our lion had just finished hunting this buffalo, and was panting heavily with his eyes halfway closed. However, the way he chose to start eating his buffalo left a LOT of questions in all of our minds as we looked down at him from the safari truck. WHY did he eat the buffalo THAT WAY? It was truly so gross. (Warning: if you’re about to eat anything, you may want to skip this picture). I have to say…this ruined The Lion King a little bit for me.

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Sick to my stomach every time I look at this picture… ewww!

After our game drive, we continued our journey with a 2 hour drive around the famous crater lakes. These lakes, like Lake Katwe, were formed by volcanic activity several thousand years ago. We didn’t see any game here, but the views were breathtaking still.

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The lakes reminded me so much of what I saw in Bolivia last summer, which makes me wonder if the volcanic activity occurred when South America and Africa were still joined as one continent.

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As we drove around the lakes deep in the bush, our truck was swarmed by infamous tsetse flies! These are known for carrying the dreaded African Sleeping Sickness, but according to Noor this disease no longer exists. (“If it did, I’d be dead by now because I’ve been bitten so many times,” he said.) I was bitten twice (it felt like a small bee sting), so hopefully he’s right!

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Tsetse fly

After the crater lakes drive, we had all gotten our appetite back a bit post-lion encounter, so we stopped for lunch at the restaurant in the park. I ate my vegetables and rice while looking out over the buffaloes and elephants drinking their water in the Kazinga Channel.

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Lunch view…watching the elephants and buffalo drink from the Kazinga Channel

In the later afternoon, we took a 2 hour boat cruise along the Kazinga Channel and into the mouth of Lake Edward, which runs along the DRC border. Our boat spotted a crocodile, elephants, buffalo, impala, water buck, and what was probably close to 100 hippos (not exaggerating!) Our boat even hit a hippo, which I was not happy about. 😦 He seemed to be ok though.

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Crocodiles and impala…coexisting, for now

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My favorite part of the boat cruise was when we sailed into the mouth of Lake Edward and saw about 30 of the local village men leaving in their canoes for a night of fishing.

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Because they live on national park land, these men must earn their livelihood solely from fishing and cannot farm the land. They fish at night and then barter their fish for food in the market during the day to feed their families. Each boat contained two fishermen, and they rowed out into the lake past swarms of hippos. They are so dedicated and brave, and I felt almost embarrassed watching them from my comfortable tourist position on the boat. Our guide informed us that 30% of the park fees we paid go to support schools and infrastructure in their village. Yet to see their dedication, work ethic, and bravery in person was truly humbling and inspiring.

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Sailing into Lake Edward at night fall to provide for their families

 

After the boat ride, we made our way back to the bush camp, where I moved into my banda for the night!

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I was in the Warthog banda…I ❤ pumbas!

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My personal outdoor shower! For hot water, they manually fill the bucket with heated water

 

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Sunset over Kazinga Channel from my front porch

Hippo, warthogs, hyenas, and even elephants and lions are regularly spotted in and around the camp. For this reason, I had to have a personal escort between the dining area and my banda after dark, as the bandas are further removed from the center of the camp than the tent area.

After dinner, I sat on my porch in complete darkness and silence, looking at the thousands of stars in the sky and listening to all the animals enjoying their nightlife around the Kazinga Channel just below. I felt safe, as an armed guard with a flashlight was stationed next to my banda for the night, and could assist me if I needed to leave for any reason (but again, I couldn’t help but feel humbled at the dedication and bravery of his profession, and I was so grateful for him!) I heard elephants and lions twice respectively, and listened to the constant sounds of the birds, warthogs, hippos, and insects as I slept like a baby for the second night in a row. (Or as Noor says, “I slept like a baby, without the crying!”)

 

Day 3:

The next morning began just as the previous one had—5:30am wake up, 6am breakfast, and 6:30am departure. This time, we loaded the truck and headed back toward Kampala, stopping at the Kalinzu rainforest along the way for a morning of chimpanzee trekking. We hiked through the dense forest for about half an hour before locating the chimpanzees stationed in the tall trees above. The forest was so thick and beautiful, and it reminded me so much of the beautiful time I spent hiking alone in Monteverde, Costa Rica back in January.

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Following my guide Robert through the rainforest

Once we located the chimps, we stopped and watched for about an hour. I camped out on the rainforest floor and just took it all in. While it was fun to watch the chimps, to me it was even more fun to listen to them talk to each other. Sadly, it was hard to get any good pictures of them, but I will post some videos of the sights (and especially the sounds!) to my Instagram soon!

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I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine
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Me, watching chimps in the rainforest…no make up, wild hair, pure happiness
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Wild figs in Kalinzu forest

After spending a few hours in the rainforest, we briefly visited the Ankole Tea Estate before hopping back on our safari truck and making the long journey back to Kampala. We stopped in Mbarara and Masaka again, as well as at a local roadside produce stand where I bought fresh mangoes for 1000 UGX (about 30 cents USD).

 

Once I finally made it home, I was so tired, so dirty, but oh so satisfied from the beauty and magic of the Western Rift Valley. While I was fortunate to take in all of this beauty on holiday, I am moved to recognize the economic challenges that so many local people there face. I am so grateful for their hospitality—the number of times children and adults alike waved at our safari truck is innumerable. I was especially humbled to stay in such a luxurious place knowing that the villages around me had none of this. I’ve been having a lot of thoughts lately about economic opportunity and disparity in Africa, which I’ll write about soon. But I’m forever changed in a positive way by how the people welcomed me and our group into their home for a few very special days.

ELEPHANTS

 

 

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Misadventures at Lake Mburo

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As much as I love Kampala, it didn’t take long before I was ready to get outside the city and get my nature connection going. In just two nights of camping at Lake Mburo last weekend, I managed to accidentally get lost in the bush for an hour with 3 children from a local village, pass out from dehydration, and have the best time with a group of new friends from Kampala—it was truly a “wild” time!

 

My special connection to camping in Africa started a year and a half ago when I took a spur-of-the-moment trip to Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa during Christmas 2015. I had just gotten out of a long-term relationship, and was starting to feel like I didn’t want to work in finance forever either after 3 years. So, instead of going home to Mississippi/Alabama for the holidays as usual, I decided to go on a mind-clearing, soul-searching trip by myself to…Africa!! Granted, I had never camped before in my life, and had never been anywhere besides Europe and Mexico at this point, but I figured, why not!?

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This trip truly changed my life, and I credit my 10 days in the wild with giving me the perspective I needed to set some decisions in motion and fully live out this “quarter-life crisis” thing. I also made some amazing friends who continue to be very dear to me. As cheesy as it sounds, I feel like I found part of myself sleeping under the stars and amongst the wildlife in southern Africa that Christmas.

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So, when I had the opportunity to travel to Lake Mburo in western Uganda and camp for three days last weekend with some new friends I had made over the last few weeks, my unequivocal answer was yes! The Mihingo Lodge was hosting its annual marathon/half-marathon/10k/5k/mountain bike race to raise funds for conservation, so my new American friend Carissa and I immediately started looking up tent and sleeping bag rentals and transportation to the park. We were soon joined in the planning by our new British friends Nick and Shaun, as well as Carissa’s school friend Charles (whom I had also met in the airport the night I arrived!).

 

After almost getting ripped off by a guy from Facebook who wanted to charge us a 30 USD “delivery fee” for renting his camping equipment, Carissa and I decided just to buy our own equipment from the local store Game (it’s a Ugandan chain store owned by Wal-Mart, and it sells just about everything). Friday was Hero’s Day in Uganda, and as all offices were closed, we were able to set off that morning with a ride we had found (also on Facebook…there’s a “Kampala Ex Pats” page). I rode to our meeting point loaded down on the boda with my tent, 2 sleeping bags, and backpack…it was quite the sight.

 

We arrived at Lake Mburo that afternoon after crossing the Equator (!), and Carissa and I pitched our tent near our friends.

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Camp Masters!

The delicious camp meals were served from a “kitchen” tent, and we all enjoyed some pasta and drinks before turning in. The bathroom situation was pretty much non-existent—the toilets were holes it the ground surrounded on 3 sides by a screen, and the “showers” were buckets hanging from trees that never seemed to have water. However, this was all part of the fun!! There is freedom in being dirty!

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The next morning, it was time to race. Even though I used to run all the time and finished a marathon just before my last Africa trip, I barely do anymore, so I signed up for the 5k with Shaun, Charles, and tons of children from local villages (lol). The rest of our camping group decided to do the 10k with the rest of the adults, so I was at least happy to have some fellow underachievers in Shaun and Charles. 🙂

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Who’s up for a 5k fun run?!

At around 8am, we set off. Shaun and Charles quickly left me in the dust (lol), but I had a new running buddy—this little kid from a local village. He didn’t speak English (they speak luyankole in this part of western Uganda) so he couldn’t tell me his name, so I called him “Little Dude.” After running along beside me for the first half-mile, Little Dude dropped back to within 5-10 feet of me for the rest of the race.

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I should have known something was up when it was just me and Little Dude (LD) on the trail. In one of my worst blonde moments ever to date, I thought the blue arrows were for the 5k and the green arrows were for the half-marathon. In reality, it was reversed. As I followed the blue arrows, Little Dude followed me, and before too long it was just me, him, some zebras, and the occasional mountain biker.

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LOST?!

This didn’t feel right. “Are we going the right way?” I asked LD. He just grinned at me blankly. After 40 minutes, I knew we should have finished the 5k, and we were officially lost. Ironically, LD and I came across two more local children who didn’t speak English and had also gotten lost on the trail. They too started walking along with me, pointing at the zebras as we passed. (I had given up running at this point!)

 

“You’ve got an entourage, don’t you?!” said an older British man, as he whizzed past me and my 3 new friends on his mountain bike.

 

“Haha, I guess so. Actually, we’re lost. Can you tell me how to get back to the campsite?” I asked.

 

“Sorry, don’t know!” he said, as he left us in the dust.

 

“What a jerk!” I thought. We were at the 1-hour mark, and while I wasn’t worried yet, I knew the kids would need water soon. LD was lagging behind, so I offered him a piggyback ride.

 

Fortunately, a nice British lady soon passed us on her mountain bike, offered us water and told us the general direction back to camp. We were about 8 kms away at this point! “I’ll send help for you guys from up ahead,” she said as she continued along her trail ride. As we started walking back toward the general direction of camp, a lodge worker soon approached us in a Land Rover…we were rescued!! We shared some good laughs about it in the truck on the way back to camp.

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The 2 other local kids Little Dude and I came across…at least we can laugh about this now, right?!

 

LD and I ended up crossing the finish line at about 1 hour and 30 minutes…my worst 5k time ever!

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Looking and feeling rough

 

After relaxing for a bit back at the camp, Shaun, Charles, my new British friend Becky, and I decided to ride around and see more of the park in Becky’s vehicle. After loading up and getting about 10 yards down the dirt road, we had a flat. Shaun and I watched as Charles and Becky expertly started putting the spare on. All of the sudden, my head started spinning and my vision blurred.

 

“I’ve never felt like this before,” I said, as I leaned against Shaun’s shoulder. While this sounds quite romantic, that’s the last thing it was. The next thing I knew, I was sitting on the ground with Becky holding my hand, Shaun holding a cold bottle of water against my neck, and Charles looking into my eyes (he’s a trained paramedic!) I felt like I was waking up from a nap, but apparently I had fainted. I have never passed out before in my life, and it was a weird sensation!! I drank lots of water and some electrolyte tablets for the rest of the day, and felt completely fine afterward. Moral of the story—don’t forget to drink water after getting lost in the African bush for an hour!

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Shaun and I re-enacting the earlier events of the day at Lake Mburo…again, at least we can laugh about it now, right?!

After these near-death experiences, the rest of the weekend was drama-free (thank goodness). We took a boat safari around Lake Mburo later that afternoon, and spotted several hippo, birds, eagles, and warthogs!

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Hard to see, but there are some hippos and an eagle in this picture!

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Back at the camp, we enjoyed a second beautiful sunset before pulling out our flashlights and playing games before going to sleep.

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The next morning, we had one last campsite meal, and I enjoyed the “bush coffee” they brew in a huge pot over the  campfire while taking down our tent and packing up. Becky was kind enough to give Carissa and me a ride back to the big city of Kampala (“the big K” as I’ve started to call it), as our previous ride had already left a day early.

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We crossed the Equator again!

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You’d think after all the craziness, I’d give up camping for a while…but I am actually going again this coming weekend in Jinja! All I need to do is pay more attention to where I am going, and drink more water. ❤

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Some zebras and crested cranes–the national bird of Uganda!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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