Uganda is known as the ‘Pearl of Africa’ and is a fantastic place to visit to see wildlife. The Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary is located in Nakasongola around 170km from Uganda’s capital Kampala and it takes around 3.5 hours to reach it on the Gulu highway. It’s possible to stop to admire the Nile en route (the source of the Nile is in Jinja, around 70km from Kampala) and meet a few baboons by the roadside – carefully and from a distance.
We visited Ziwa on our way to the Murchison Falls National Park. The park itself is the largest in Uganda and four of the so-called Big Five game animals can be found there. All except rhinoceros.
The southern white rhino population of Uganda used to be vast but they were poached virtually to extinction, the rhino horn sadly being considered to be a rare and valuable medicine in other countries. Six rhinos were reintroduced to Ziwa between 2001 and 2006 and they have managed to breed in the intervening time so that there are now over 30 rhinos.
There are a number of differences between black rhinos and white rhinos. The most obvious is in the shape of their mouths. There isn’t really any difference in their colourings or markings, all rhinos are grey, but it is thought that the name ‘white’ might have derived from the Afrikaans term ‘weidt’, which means ‘wide’, a reference to the rhino’s mouth, which is flat and broad in shape, compared with the black rhino, which has a hooked lip. White rhino also have a longer front horn. White rhino tend to feed on grass whereas their black counterparts eat bushes and leaves. And white rhino are generally thought to be less aggressive and inquisitive than black, which was good to know as we those were the ones we would be tracking.
When visiting Ziwa you wouldn’t know you are in a sanctuary – at 70 square kilometres the area of the land that the rhinos can roam through is vast. It is nothing like a zoo or even a safari park, it feels like savannah wilderness.
What was very lovely was being able to do a walking safari. In Queen Elizabeth National Park we weren’t even allowed to walk from our bedroom tent to the main lodge at the camp, without being accompanied by a gun-bearing ranger just in case any of the local lions were feeling peckish.
We travelled out to where the rhinos were located and were given a safety briefing. We were to walk together in small groups and stay downwind from the rhino. Rhinos have a great sense of smell but appalling eyesight. They can move very quickly if they want to. If they charge, you are advised to run away in a zig-zag pattern and try to climb a tree if possible. This was consistent with the briefing when on a walking safari in Chitwan, Nepal (although we weren’t lucky in seeing any rhino on that trip). Looking around the area, there didn’t seem to be too many trees that would be robust enough to support us in the event of us encountering a grumpy rhino, so we made sure we followed our guide’s instructions at all times.
Safari At The Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary
Walking through the bush we spotted signs of other creatures living in the area.
We found a discarded snake skin in the grass, although the snake itself was nowhere to be found. Most snakes in Uganda slither off when they feel the vibration of visitors’ footsteps, the exception being the lazy puff adder, which often suns itself on footpaths and can be quite aggressive. It is responsible for most snake bites in the region. For this reason when we went walking we wore sturdy walking boots and long trousers.
We also came across some Uganda Kob who were frolicking in the grassland. We would see these lovely creatures, a type of antelope, bouncing through the grassland throughout our Uganda trip.
As continued our walk we noticed our guide signalling to a ranger a few hundred metres away. The ranger beckoned us over. We carefully circled a small copse and to our delight saw a mother and her child, quietly grazing together. We managed to get within a few metres of these marvellous – and enormous – creatures.
The rangers keep watch on the rhinos 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They are constantly in touch with each other via mobile phone and radio links and they monitor the rhinos in order to protect them from poachers. There used to be a system whereby the rhinos were given radio tracking collars so that they could be monitored remotely, but sadly poachers managed to hack into them with devastating consequences. For this reason, humans are assigned to watch them, which provides much needed protection.
We continued the walk through the grassland and came across another rhino, a male, snoozing in the shade of a tree. He was totally unperturbed by us.
It is possible to stay overnight at Ziwa and enjoy other activities such as a canoe safari or night-time walks but we had to leave in order to reach Murchison Falls before nightfall.
Even though our visit was just a couple of hours, the trip to the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, walking through the savannah to get so close to these magnificent endangered creatures, was absolutely excellent and an ideal stopping point on the way to Murchison Falls.
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….And Why It’s Often Okay to Go Off-Menu When Travelling
Many years ago we were excitedly choosing all sorts of delicacies at the breakfast buffet at our hotel in Yerevan, Armenia, when another guest glanced at our plates, shrivelled their noses in a very patronising manner and exclaimed, “Ugh! Salad? For breakfast?” It’s widely considered to be most important meal of the day but so many people seem to be set in their ways when it comes to eating a hearty breakfast. So much that hotels all over the world seem to offer pretty much the same fare. Western visitors are often offered fried food such as bacon, sausage and eggs with bread-based accompaniments and Eastern visitors are usually offered rice or noodle dishes. All these dishes are generally familiar to the tourist and often don’t reflect the traditional breakfasts of the country they are visiting. Here are some of the world’s best breakfasts.
Maybe it’s because people don’t feel so adventurous first thing in the morning, and that’s fair enough, but they may be missing out. Thing is, we’re British and can have bacon and eggs any time we like. (Although, to be honest, we haven’t cooked a fry-up for years as it’s quite a lot of effort.) We’d much rather eat a typical breakfast using local ingredients from the country that we are visiting.
It’s quite common for hotels to ask their guests to pre-order breakfast. It makes sense, they know what they need to order in beforehand and this can help minimise food waste. There is usually a form with tick boxes and you can choose from a variety of typical breakfast offerings. But if you do want to eat like a local, we’ve learned that many hotel restaurants are happy to cook you a regional breakfast. We’ve discovered that very often it’s absolutely okay to go off menu.
It all started in Uganda when we breakfasted at a lodge with a local guide. We were eating standard fare but our curiosity was piqued when something entirely different was brought out for him. On asking, we learned that it was a rolex – a chapati with a layer of omelette on top, then rolled into a spiral cylinder, perfect for munching on. So the next day we asked the lodge staff if it would be possible for us to have a rolex for brekkie and they were happy to oblige. It’s great – tasty and filling – a good start to the day.
In Nepal we were given a standard pre-order form to complete (eggs, bacon, sausage, toast…) to pre-order breakfast for the following morning. We politely asked whether it was possible to have a local breakfast instead. We didn’t specify any dish – just asked for local food. They were delighted. The following morning we were served a marsala omelette accompanied by a joyous curry and roti with home-made yoghurt. It was delicious.
One of the world’s best breakfasts is gallo pinto from Costa Rica. It’s so popular it is often eaten for lunch and dinner as well. Which is just as well because it tastes great and is also really healthy. It comprises rice and beans and is usually accompanied by a fried egg at breakfast. Other accompaniments to start the morning include sausage, fried potatoes and some salad.
A dosa for breakfast in South India is an absolute joy. This is a pancake traditionally made from rice and dal (lentils) which are ground to form a batter and then fermented. The batter is cooked on a hot plate to form a large pancake and served with chutney – coriander, coconut and tomato are particularly popular.
In Vietnam breakfast usually took a buffet form but often there were chefs on-hand to cook some food to order. We were always offered Pho – a tangle of noodles, freshly cooked and served in a yummy broth, topped with meat and vegetables. You pick up a side plate and add herbs, chilli, limes and other delicious items so that you can create your own personalised taste sensation. The liquid of the broth also ensured that we were thoroughly hydrated for the day ahead.
Japan also offers some of the world’s best breakfasts. A Japanese brekkie often comprises grilled fish, vegetables and pickles, maybe with tofu, dumpling and an omelette.
These are accompanied with a bowl of rice, into which you could crack a raw egg mixed with shoyu (soy sauce) – the egg sort of cooks in the heat of the rice – or that famous smelly fermented soybean concoction, natto, maybe with some sliced negi (similar to spring onion). Just grab a slice of nori (dried seaweed), place it over the rice, then using a pincer movement with your chopsticks grab a portion of rice with the nori. Scrumptious. (It’s worth noting that if you are at a breakfast buffet in Japan the eggs on offer may well be raw – be careful when cracking them.)
World’s Best Breakfasts – Back At Home
And, of course, whenever we are staying away from home in the UK, we’ll always have an honest-to-goodness fry-up. Sausage, bacon, egg (usually fried, poached or scrambled), black pudding, mushroom, tomato, beans and sometime a hash brown are the usual components.
We recently discovered that the best possible place for a full English breakfast that we’ve ever eaten is actually in our home town. While many top breakfast establishments boast locally sourced food (which is, of course, delicious), The Gourmet Food Kitchen in Fargo Village, Coventry go one step further and actually cure their own bacon and make their own sausages and black pudding. And that’s just the start: The hash brown (never the most fabulous component of breakfasts) is a home-made bubble and squeak, a glorious blend of fried potato and cabbage. The beans have never seen a tin – they are home-made baked beans in a rich tomato sauce. Chef Tony even makes his own rich, tangy and utterly delicious brown sauce to accompany the feast.
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Gorillas in the Mist… And Pouring Rain
Although it has its fair share of excellent safari locations where you can see the so-called Big Five game animals, Uganda is also well known as a top destination to see primates. We had the opportunity to track chimpanzees in Kibale and mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable in the south-west region of the country. Gorilla trekking in Uganda is one of the country’s top attractions.
The mountain gorillas are critically endangered – there are only about 900 left in the wild and they can be found in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Uganda and Rwanda offer a limited number of gorilla tracking permits each day. We chose to travel in the low season when it is more likely to be rainy, because the cost of the permits is reduced significantly during certain months of the year. It’s worth booking the permits in advance. They are really expensive, even out of season, but the money goes directly towards the conservation of these marvellous creatures. And it is really a once in a lifetime experience.
The Ugandan conservation programme has ensured that half of the gorilla population has been habituated – wild, but comfortable in the presence of humans – and the other half remain completely wild. This is a good strategy. The conservationists’ greatest fear is that the gorillas, which share about 98% DNA with humans, could catch a human disease for which they have no immunity. You are requested not to track the gorillas if you have a cold. Following the start of the pandemic, the area was closed off for a while, Covid presenting risks both from the disease but also an increase in illegal poaching activities, but it has now opened up with extra precautions in place that trekkers need to adhere to in order to protect these magnificent creatures.
Gorilla Trekking In Uganda – The Briefing
The trip starts with a briefing at headquarters. Then you are allocated to a gorilla group – a maximum of eight people join each trek. It can take any time between 30 minutes and 6 hours to reach the gorillas – some parties have returned after nightfall in the past. Additionally, we were tracking at altitude, around 2300m above sea level, which enough to knock the breath out of you going up some of the steeper slopes! We were assigned the Bitakura group in the Ruhija area. One member of our party had mobility issues and was carried on a sedan by a team of four porters (who rotated shift with an additional four porters at regular intervals) who did an amazing job and ensured that she had full access to the gorillas. Our guide called it “the helicopter”. This system can be used if any trekker becomes unwell during their hike.
You wouldn’t have known it was the rainy season for most of our trip – virtually every day was bright and sunny and it had rained for a maximum of 15 minutes on just a couple of the days throughout our trip. Of course, on the day we really wanted it to stay dry the rain absolutely chucked it down. That’s why we packed good walking boots and raincoats.
We were advised to borrow walking sticks and also to employ porters to accompany us on the trek. This was a really good idea. Not only do they carry your backpack (you are advised to take three litres of water and a box lunch because you just don’t know how long it will take to reach the gorillas and you will need the energy) they will also hold your hand to steady you if things get slippery and push/pull you over obstacles if necessary. Importantly, they are local people who can earn a decent living from tourists, so hiring a porter also contributes directly to the community. The porters are available at the starting location and will be allocated if you ask for one.
Gorilla Trekking In Uganda – The Trek
The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA – apparently pronounced Oo-er!) have an excellent system in place which ensures that you have practically 100% chance of seeing the gorillas: each morning two trackers head out into the forest to find the troop based on their location the previous day. They then radio to the guide, who will lead the tourists via the best route to see the gorillas. The trackers do an amazing job – they spend all day with the gorillas, even after the tourists have left, so that they know where to trace them to on the following day. We were advised that they would appreciate a personal tip as most tourists don’t recognise the brilliant job they do and we were delighted to do this.
There’s a reason the region is named “Bwindi Impenetrable”. We trekked along a main path – up and down some very steep, muddy and slippery slopes, for a couple of hours. Then our guide indicated that he was close to the trackers. The rangers/trackers cut through the forest with machetes and we followed a newly made path, through dense forest to where the gorillas were located.
We were soaked through to the skin, muddied, shattered and utterly bedraggled. But nothing beats the sight of wild gorillas just a few metres away from you.
We saw one of the group’s silverbacks…
…some younger males…
…and a mother and child.
It’s difficult to find the words to describe how magical it was just being in their presence. The rules say that you are allowed one hour with these amazing creatures. It flew by. Then there was the slippery, steep trek back to base. It was a tough climb but we made it without difficulty. Gorilla trekking in Uganda was one of the most amazing things we have done. We were exhausted but elated.
The gorillas were feeling a bit sleepy too.
At the Elizabeth National Park we managed to purchase some Gorilla Coffee. Made from arabica beans it is grown, processed and roasted in Uganda, and is delicious. It has a lovely aroma – it smells of sweet, buttery caramel and has a smooth taste with just a touch of distinctive coffee bitterness. Even better, some of the profits from its sales go towards conservation efforts to help the marvellous mountain gorillas.
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Uganda is one of the best places in the world to view wildlife. From the Murchison Falls park, through Kibale, the Queen Elizabeth Park, and into Bwindi Impenetrable, where the extremely endangered mountain gorillas reside, there are opportunities to get really close to all sorts of amazing wildlife all over the country. While it’s very possible to encounter all the ‘big five’ game animals Uganda is also a noted location for encounters with primates – our closest relatives. Chimpanzee trekking in Uganda is possible in Kibale. The opportunity to spend time in the forest following the local chimpanzees is a marvellous experience. You need a permit to enter the park, receive a briefing and are split into small groups. Each group comprises six people who are accompanied by two guides.
It’s really important not to visit if you are feeling unwell. We share about 98% of our DNA with these amazing primates so passing on a virus or disease could wipe out the population. There are a number of rules to abide by to ensure the safety and welfare of both the chimps and the humans while tracking: these include staying with the guide, keeping your distance from the chimps (unless they decide to walk past you) and – our favourite – don’t imitate the chimps’ vocal sounds – you don’t know what you might be saying!
The groups are also able to track the chimps through the park, following the guides’ instructions and in order to keep both the chimps and the visitors safe.
One chimp decided that he was going for a walk and just strolled by. The rangers said that you are lucky to get within 10 metres of a chimp. This chimp passed by within 10 centimetres. He was, of course, totally nonchalant as he walked on.
OTHER ACTIVITIES AFTER CHIMPANZEE TREKKING IN UGANDA
While in Kibale, it’s also possible to visit the local communities. The Bigodi community offer the chance to see how the local people live and work. We visited various craftspeople, including a brewer who made his own banana beer, weavers, a local shaman and a coffee maker .
The local coffee maker makes a very fine brew. The coffee berries have been dried in the sun…
… they are then pounded to remove the husks
It’s a fine art to blow away the husks from the beans.
Then it’s time to light the fire and roast the beans .
They are cooled off before grinding.
The final step is to brew with water for a damn fine cup of coffee.
From bean to cup in half an hour. Cheers!