As published in AA Traveller Magazine. Click on page to enlarge and read.
1. The birdlife.
I was so focussed on gorillas that I never gave any thought to the bird life.
We saw enormous Maribou Storks hovering over Nairobi , impressive African Eagle on the Nile, the dainty Masked Weaver, all types of Kingfishers and the multi coloured Superb Starling, to name just a few. East Africa is a birders feast. A dedicated birdlife post is presently under construction.
2. The African Sausage Tree.
The fruits sway in the breeze and at first I thought they were light weight seed pods. Then I was given one which after lugging around for a few days, I dumped. They are solid and very heavy, and as you will soon understand, I decided I had no use for it at all.
The uncooked sausage like fruit will cause painful blisters to the mouth if eaten, and green fruits are allegedly poisonous. It is commonly used as part of traditional beer making and aids the fermentation process. When crushed the pulp is a remedy not only for ulcers, but for syphillis as well. Good to know.
3. Modern Masaai man.
They danced, they jumped high into the air, and they took us on a tour of their village and huts. They made a fire by rubbing hardwood and sandpaper wood together, and told tall tales of hunting and killing a lion as part of a rite of passage into adulthood.
Then they asked if we had any questions. “What is the beaded pouch around your waist for?”
Expecting the answer to be a knife, lucky charm or some useful tool required for herding cows, dodging giraffe or evading lions, I was utterly delighted that the answer was so proudly given as “for my cell phone”
I am not an adventurous eater, but I really enjoyed Jackfruit. I was having my hair braided in Jinja, it was way past lunchtime and the guestimated one hour was turning into three. Rosie, the lady who was doing my hair offered me some and it would have been rude to refuse. After 3 hours of weaving plaits into my hair and talking non stop, we were best friends.
The Jackfruit is about the size of a watermelon and is high in starch and fibre. The skin is rough and nubbly, but the fruit inside is a yellowy butternut colour. The only way I can describe the taste is like a blend of banana and mango. Very filling and totally delicious. Later that day I had it cooked like a French fry, a totally different taste but just as good.
5. Ankole Cattle
We were told by our guides not to photograph these unusual animals under any circumstances. Initially we understood it to be illegal, as we had been told the same about certain bridges, military men and specific buildings. Apparently it is legal, but the herdsmen or owners of these beasts have been known to charge tourists up to US500 for a picture and can become aggressive if thwarted. We were dying to take some photos but did want to risk trouble in a country that spawned Idi Amin.
Arriving in Queen Elizabeth National Park we were clicking feverishly after being told that we had permission to photograph this herd. These cattle make regular cows and bulls look like Cinderellas ugly, boring sisters. They come in all shapes sizes, colours and patterns, and the size of the horns varies. Placid and friendly, they came right to our chalet to eat a small tree and then ambled off unconcerned by 4 camera wielding tourists, clicking and shrieking in their midst.
6. Boda boda or motorbikes
A very popular form of transport, these generally 80 cc Boxer motorcycles amazed me. The do not travel very fast, no helmets are worn, and they carry anything. We saw 5 people on one bike, 2 men and a ladder, a wheelbarrow, crates of eggs and anything else you would think impossible to transport by motorcycle. Legislation has been brought in making the wearing of crash helmets compulsory, but the Minister decreed that she would allow a 2 year phasing in period, as the law had been met with very little compliance. The average speed is probably about 40km per hour, but in the cities the traffic congestion makes it a much faster way of getting from A to B. In the rural areas the main form is transport is a boda boda or a bicycle. What I loved was the pride of ownership. Riders waiting for a fare would either be preening, laughing or polishing handlebars. Many of the Boxers had the tanks decorated in brightly coloured, fringed fabric. I really regret not making time to do a tour of Kampala on a Boda Boda, I was told it was well worth it and quite safe, and helmets are provided!
7. Names and signs
Initially disappointed that almost all signage was in English rather than Swahili, I soon became fascinated by the never ending names on almost every building we saw.
Not limited to the cities, even the smallest villages and tiniest clusters of dwellings on the side of the road boasted quirky, creative signs. Often citing European or American cities somewhere in the name, many signs were a mishmash of delusions of grandeur, African humour or descriptive promises. Capturing signs on camera could be a trip in itself when travelling in Kenya and Uganda.
8. Countdown Traffic lights
Entering Nairobi I was very taken with the traffic lights. As the light changes colour, so a countdown from 90 seconds begins.
I am sure this prevents frustration, jumping lights and aids the order in the crazy traffic. You can use it to your advantage by knowing if you have time to jump out of your car to buy something from the side of the road, make a cell phone call, or retrieve something from the boot. I think it is a brilliant idea. Sorry, never got around to getting a photo of one.
1. Pack extra batteries as there is so much to photograph.
Kenya is littered with giraffe and other wildlife and Uganda has more shades of green that I have ever encountered. Access to electricity is not a sure thing, and in some places the power supply can be rather hit and miss.(For South Africans, read ESKOM!)
Photo opportunities are everywhere, even through the window of the bus. Be warned if you sit at the back your photos might all have “Emergency Exit” on them. Silly me!
2. Take Guide Books.
Chances are you will not be able to buy one once you are on the truck. No time and limited access to shops.
I found a great one for a mere ZAR200 at Bargain Books before the trip and it was so good that we decided if we saw anything and it was not in the guide book, it did not really exist! It certainly added value to the tour.
Wildlife of East Africa | A Photographic Guide by Dave Richards. First Edition 2013. Published by Struik Nature. It has information on climate, geographical regions, mammals, birds, snakes, plants and trees.
On returning home I bought the Bradt Guide to Uganda, Philip Brigs & Andrew Roberts. 7th Edition June 2013. ZAR 378 and
DK Eyewitness Travel: Kenya, 2013. ZAR 350. Both guides have comprehensive information on all aspects of the respective countries.
All 3 guides are highly recommended, so you can also know what could, eat, sting, bite, poison, stampede or impale you.
3. Figure out the currency before the trip.
If like me you are not so good with number and doing sums in your head, it is worth getting the conversion clear before you depart.
Kenyan shillings come in denominations of 50,100,200, 500 and 1000.
The exchange rate to South African Rands is 1 Kenyan Shilling = 0,12c, or 1 South African Rand = 8 Kenyan Shillings.
Then you go to Uganda and the banknotes come in denominations of 5 000, 10 000, 20 000 and 50 000 Ugandan shillings.
The exchange rate to South African Rands is 1 Ugandan Shilling = 0,0043c, or 1 South African Rand = 235 Ugandan Shillings.
Prices are also quoted in US dollars. None of the above are quick and easy sums to do in your head. Going from 1 Rand = 8 shillings to 1 rand = 235 shillings is also confusing. By the time I had done the sum in my confused head and was ready to barter, the traders had packed up and gone home.
So, figure out a quick and easy multiplication or division that will give you an idea of the value, and have it off pat before you try to bargain. Dont do what I did and hold the money out and ask “what colour would you like?”
4. Take gloves for the gorilla trek. We had the hiking boots, waterproof jackets, long pants and light backpacks but the most useful item were the gardening gloves given to us by friendly strangers in our camp at Lake Bunyoni. In some parts you need to pull yourself up and the only vegetation is a very prickly nettle. So easy to grab hold of with gardening gloves. Coming down after seeing the gorillas the gloves came in handy again, when too tired to walk without falling off the path, we ended by sitting down and sliding and slipping in the mud to the bottom. Gloved hands are great for steering to avoid trees, rocks people and small animals.
5. Allow for extra days before and after the tour.
The 14 day tour starts in Nairobi, and the 7 day tour begins in Kampala. Both these cities offer numerous attractions and require a day or 2 to explore. We arrived back in Nairobi at 4pm and were flying out at 4pm the following day. We thought this would give us plenty of time to do a little site seeing and shopping. Wrong! We did not understand East African traffic. We were advised to leave for the airport at 11am to drive just 15km to the airport. Nairobi has a population of 4 million and I think they all drive cars, all day.
In Kampala the traffic is even more insane even though the population is only pegged at 1.65 million. We hit the the outer limits of the city late on a Saturday afternoon, and arrived at our hotel at 10:30 at night. It took close to 4 hours negotiating insane traffic.
The pace of the Nomad Masai Mara and Gorilla Trek tour is hectic with loads of activities and sights packed in to the 14 days. This means that every day starts at anything from 4:40 am on the actual day you trek to the gorillas, to 5 or 6 am on regular days. Expect to be happy but wiped out by the end of it. A few days of sleeping a little later and just relaxing before returning to normal life and “post holiday depression” is a good idea if funds allow for it. ( I could not even afford a park bench as I can’t resist buying silly tourist trinkets, paid US 20 to have my hair braided and generally overspent as I never quite managed to master the Ugandan hundred million shillings for a cooldrink thing)
Talk to your new family on the truck and get to know them from day 1. Unless you are truly a terrible person you will end the tour with new friends, and hopefully offers of a bed if you are ever in the area, in a variety of foreign locations.
Talk to the locals, from shopkeepers and hotel staff to street vendors and the drivers of your game vehicles. Friendliness is greatly rewarded and everyone has a story, fairytale or entertaining load of nonsense , all which add to your overall experience.
We never got a sensible answer to our questions about this sign, however we were told that you should obey it as if you don’t you will be late, or miss work, and that is bad for the economy.
On Tuesday 11th February 2014 I trekked for 6 hours and spent an hour with a gorilla family in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. Thank you, Nomad Tours for making this possible. You have no idea how proud I am of myself.
In one of my pre trip posts I expressed my over the top concerns for possible “wildest Afrika like ” things that could happen to me. 9 concerns of a drama queen
In response to that post I have to confess to the following.
1. I did not get lost in Nairobi, but I almost missed my flight to this hyperactive city.
My mind does not process flying times. It locks onto the departure time without considering the fact that prior to take- off, I need to check in and board the plane. I also just love airports and could spend all day wandering around, shopping and of course finding the smoking lounges. This is where I usually emerge from and hear the dreaded announcement “this is the final call for passenger Brown”. Hearing this I then generally blush profusely and start to run.
However, this time, I never even heard the announcement, and was looking at a delightful collection of shoes before wandering to the boarding gate, thinking “oh, no queue, good for me, I am early”
Then a really nasty and mean official informed me that the gate had closed 3 minutes ago and my bags were being taking off the plane.
I went cold, then hot, and fought the urge to cry. Fortunately Liz, my travelling ninja friend went into assertive mode and told the official to stop being ridiculous. A few firm comments later and we were ungraciously told to get on an empty bus to be taken to the plane. The bus did not move until I asked the driver to please drive, which he did rather grudgingly.
We then collapsed into a heap of nervous giggles, shaking, crying and laughing, and vowing to be first in the boarding queue for all future flights. ( Proudly, we achieved this on both return flights)
2. No animals had me for lunch, but I could have been pudding twice.
We are in a private game viewing vehicle about to cross a really narrow road over a river when we spot lions. Wide eyed, we leap up, cameras clicking frantically.(after I found my reading glasses so I can adjust my camera settings) Then we spot the kill on the waters edge. A half eaten water buffalo. The driver, in an attempt to afford us a better view, starts to drive up the steep embankment, but stops half way up.
Click, click go the cameras, “go higher up, go further back, go to the top” we shout as we all clamour for the best view, the money shot.
And then we are rolling backwards, downhill and not quite in line with the really thin road over the water. And the lions are only a few meters away. Looking at us thinking… hmmm pudding.
By some miracle, the wheels stay on the road by millimeters, the vehicle behind us stops our path as we collide with its bull bar and our vehicle restarts with a roar and we fly up and over the river, the embankment and in stunned silence continue on our game drive.
Almost pudding encounter number two was when we were in the forest with the gorillas. We were standing up against dense foliage, marvelling at this gorilla family who were a mere 8 meters away from us.
They had seemed quite content for us to silently photograph and observe their antics, when a protective mom decided she was not happy with this.
With a mighty fang baring scream she charged us.
We had been briefed and told to freeze if such a thing happened. We all froze except for Maciek, the dentist / photographer, who I swear lept over my head. To their credit, the tracker, ranger and guide acted instantly, pushing us behind them and waving pangas, rifles and sticks while shouting loudly, shielded us from being possible pudding.
The female gorilla came to a halt a meter away from us and sat down. She eyed us for a few seconds before turning around to check on her little one and wandering back to the rest of her group. We all started breathing, videoing and photographing again. Thrilled, petrified and secretly delighted by the experience.
3. The water never made me sick, but I did not read the instructions on my anti malaria tablets.
It is the morning of day 1. We will be meeting Marilyn our truck, Norman and Servius our guides, and our other travel companions.
We have strict instructions to be ready at 7.40am. Efficiently, we got organised the night before. By 7 am we are washed and dressed and about to head off for breakfast. Being responsible, we take our various tablets required to survive our mature years, and add our anti malaria tablets to the cocktail.
Off we go to the dining room, excited for the adventure that is about to begin.
Then Liz, who is never ill, says to me. “I think I might be feeling a bit funny”
I sympathise and carry on shovelling eggs, french toast, unknown yellow things and pineapple chunks onto my plate. I kindly bring her some black coffee and a piece of toast.
I start eating and my stomach does a little quiver.
I ignore it, but it persists.
I convince myself that it is nothing more than sympathy pain. After all, Liz and I have been friends for 26 years, a perfectly normal reaction to a best friend’s nausea.
Then I can’t swallow and I start to sweat.
By now, Liz is the palest “mzungu” in the dining room. We get up and start walking briskly back to our room to get our bags.
Room checked, heavy bags in hand, backpacks strapped on, feeling pale but brave we walk out the door.
I drop my bags and run
I am impressed by my aim, as from the entrance to the bathroom my last few meals fly out my mouth, and make it into the white porcelain.
It is noisy, it is colourful, it is extremely unpleasant.
For 10 minutes, all I can do is groan and try not to move, shivering in a pathetic heap on the floor.
I think I even regurgitated meals I ate in South Africa.
Finally, I feel human, and relieved, shaky, and smelling slightly chunderish, I emerge into the African sun to meet my fellow travellers.
A great start indeed.
TIP: Never, ever, ever take anti malaria medication on an empty stomach.