Uganda Conservation Foundation

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

A One Horse Town Without A Horse

The last time I visited Kisoro was 1994.  A time when Rwanda was in the aftermath of genocide, Bwindi really was considered the 'impenetrable forest' and Kisoro really was a one horse town without a horse.  As a result the only feasible place to track the gorillas was Jomba, 10 km across the DR Congo border, or Zaire as it was known then. 

As we could not take the trucks into Zaire we were left with no alternative but to hike the 10 kms to the parks office and base camp.  With an absolute minimum of two nights away from the truck and not much on the other side it also meant taking everything we would need with us. Tents, sleep gear, food & cooking equipment all had to be carried the 10kms. 

It was not until 1997 free primary education was available in Uganda so it was not hard to find enough young boys to help carry the gear.  In fact as soon as an overland truck pulled into town they were there en masse and had even formed their own little mafia that imposed a roster system to ensure everyone got a fair chance of earning some money and that the tourists paid the going price. I am happy to say that many of the leaders of that little mafia are now successful businessmen in the tourism industry.

One porter for every client was needed to carry all the food and equipment.  Most clients then hired their own porter to carry their personal bag. Regardless of what you advised there was always someone who hired the smallest, cutest boy, who would predictably and very quickly complain of fatigue from the weight of his burden and the client would end up carrying the bag themselves. Of course that did not stop him tagging along the whole way expecting to still get paid. He was cute after all !!

As a result of the genocide in Rwanda thousands of people had fled into Zaire and it was not far into the hike that the makeshift refugee camps began to appear.  The image of a group mzungu tourists walking through refugee camps for the soul purpose of going to track the gorillas, at the cost of what was even then considered a lot of money, may seem to some to some reckless, uncaring and even dangerous, but you had to be there. 

With an average group of 15 clients and two porters per client we were already a sight to behold and with each km we walked more and more kids joined the procession.  People laughed, pointed and waved, and the word 'jambo' would echo in our ears for most of the journey.  It was like the circus was coming through town, only to be repeated again a few days later in the opposite direction. 

On that last trip to Jomba a very concerned welcoming committee awaited our return at the border, apparently our truck had been broken into the night before. In 1994 there were no ipods, ipads or androids and we were still playing cassettes on the truck stereo, so as I knew all my clients had their cameras and passports with them and that their money was in the safe, I was not too concerned. A few things had been stolen, a pair of sunglasses, a couple of walkman cassette players but nothing that would greatly affect anyone's further travels. 

As is still today in many African countries, soda's and beers come in refillable glass bottles and without empties it was very hard to buy full bottles. One of the prized beers on the overland circuit was a beer called Primus, only available to us in Rwanda and Zaire.  Primus bottles are big, 720 ml as compared to the average 500 ml bottle in the rest of East Africa and so the bottles were useless to us anywhere else.  But still we would carry one or two crates of empties up and down East & Southern Africa waiting for the opportunity to use them. I had refilled our bottles just before heading off to Joma but on inspection, they too were gone. 

In the interest of deterring future similar crimes and assisting my clients with their insurance claims, I headed off to the police station to report the stolen items. The police seemed disinterested, the drudgery of paperwork all too much, that was until I mentioned the Primus and then everything changed. Suddenly they were all paying attention and they were up and ready to search for the culprits. "The thieves have stolen the Primus and we know how to find them !"  They cried. "How?" I asked. "We will search for the people who are very drunk !" Fair enough !!

We left Kisoro early the next morning so I never did find out whether the police were successful in finding the thieves.  Nor did I find out whether their intention was to catch and arrest them or help them get rid of the evidence! :-)                  

Monday, 23 June 2014

Day 7: Lake Bunyonyi to Lake Mutanda via Kisoro


Fantastic drive from Lake Bunyonyi to Kisoro, great road, great scenery and good tunes playing.  Although it is only about 70 kms from Kabale to Kisoro I was advised it would take 2 hours - make that 2½ in a beetle as the road winds up and down the many hills in the area and I had absolutely no interest in over testing my brakes.


On arrival in Kisoro I made straight for the office of Gorilla Org where I met the district manager Sam Nsingwire.  Sam has worked in conservation since 1997, having previously worked for Care International, IUCN, Ministry of Environment and since 2006, Gorilla Org. 

Gorilla Org is a British registered NGO and I have known the Executive Director, Jillian Miller for a number of years.   Although a relatively small organisation with limited funds, Gorilla Org makes a worthwhile contribution to the conservation of mountain gorillas. Much of the pressure on conservation comes from the dense population surrounding the national parks. 

The average woman in Uganda bears 6.1 children, in Kisoro it is closer to 7. Add on to that a population growth of about 3.2 - 3.5% and the socio economic pressure on national parks becomes even greater.  It is estimated that 98% of people living in the Kisoro district use wood fuel with electricity being either limited or prohibitive because of cost.  And where is the best place to find fuel ?  In the forest.   

Another pressure is that of crop raiding. Whilst this is not necessarily done by the gorillas themselves, they can be vulnerable to traps set to catch the offenders.  Buffalo are prevalent in Mgahinga NP and are some of the worst offenders, with other being monkeys and baboons.  Gorilla Org are currently undergoing the completion of a 'Buffalo Wall', a rock wall 1 mtr wide x 1 ½ mtrs high that will hopefully minimise the raids on the crops of the local people who live along the boundary of the park. 

Before Mgahinga and Bwindi were declared national parks, they were gazetted as forest reserves and as such people were allowed into the protected areas to gather basic needs such as wood fuel, water, grass, snakes, mushrooms and bush meat.  The Batwa, or local pygmy and the oldest inhabitants of the area  actually lived inside the parks as hunters and gatherers. But the declaration of 'national park', changed all that and the Batwa were forced off their ancestral home.  Looked down upon by the farming population and having no land or source of income they were left subject to exploitation.

Gorilla Org works hand in hand with local organisations to try and improve the lives of not just the Batwa, but also other residents in the area by developing community conservation programmes, teaching organic farming, bee keeping, tree planting and educating children in sustainable conservation. 

Leaving Sam I headed off to find another resident of Kisoro, Sheba, a man I knew only by phone but had worked closely with for a number of years.  Along with Sam I found Joe and Angelo, two of the crew who work for Absolute Africa.  The photo had to be taken, the Absolute truck with the Absolute beetle !!  A quick coke followed by a short call and it was time to hit the road again. 

I had initially intended to spend the night at Mgahinga NP with Volcanoes Safaris as I wanted the chance to track the golden monkeys and check out the Batwa Trail, but more and more people kept warning me about the volcanic rock road and how even for a 4WD the 10 km journey was over 1½ hours each way.  Even if I had made it there I would not have had time to include the activities - oh well, will have to make more time next time.

I made my apologies to Volcanoes and opted instead to head for Lake Mutanda to spend the night at the newly refurbished and re-opened, Mutanda Lake Resort owned by other friends who also own Matoke Tours.  Sheba gave me directions on how to get there and warned me that the 17kms would take me at least 1 hour.  He was right but at least it was headed in the direction of my next stop.  

Leaving Kisoro the road to the resort is also the main road to Nkuringo and for the first couple of kms as it winds out of Kisoro town it is literally the road from hell.  It took me over 20 mins to negotiate less than 2 kms of volcanic rock that was supposed to be road. Calling all members of the tourism industry in Uganda - private and public sector - surely something can be done.  It's the road to a major tracking destination in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest NP. Seriously, I am sure those 2kms put another 10 years on Percy's age.  In those 20 mins he went from being a classic car to a vintage car !!

Once we were over the volcanic rock, the road certainly did not get that much better, but it did get more fun.  Apart from one small stretch of road works where the workmen very kindley helped me remove any large boulders that were in my way, the rest of the road surface was a fine dust, over a foot deep in places.  The result was like driving on the beach and Percy and I were both covered in dust by the time we reached our destination.  I was glad I had not had to drive that section in the rain. 

I had been pre-warned about the access road down to the resort and advised to leave Percy 'up top'. The advice was right, the road down was steep and definitely 4WD.  We might have made it down but it would certainly have been a problem getting back up.  What I had not been warned was that parking 'up top' would actually mean leaving him on the side of the road.  

With the help of a member of staff from the lodge we removed the picnic box from the back of Percy and secured it on the front seat.  Grabbing the rest of my valuables and bag we then made our way down to reception.  The road was steep and rocking and I was glad there was someone to help with the carrying. 

No sooner had I reached my room than the thunder began and the race was on to shower and get to the main restaurant before the downpour began.  As I showered nagging thoughts started entering my head - had I locked the driver's door ? Had I closed and locked the sun roof ? But it was too late to head back up the hill. 


I made it to the restaurant with about 30 secs to spare before the downpour began.  An open fire, cold 'Club', hot meal, generator power and internet awaited me.  Also awaiting me was a FIFA World Cup match between Australia and Holland and as it turned out I was the only Australian surrounded by Dutchies.  I decided to keep my origins quiet just in case.

Before leaving Percy I had taken photos of all the dust he was still covered in.  As I downloaded the photos of the day I could see quite clearly that although the sun roof had slid shut, probably from bouncing on the road, it was not locked.  The storm continued and there was little I could do but hope that no-one else would notice. With the roof rack on top it would not be easy to get anything out of the car without unlocking the doors with a wire, still I fell asleep with a feeling of apprehension.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Day 6: Lake Bunyonyi & Edrisa.Org

I have not been to Lake Bunyonyi in over 20 years and much has changed in that time.  BunyonyiOverland Resort was probably the only accommodation available back then and now the place was teeming with choices of accommodation, activities and crafts. 

I spent the morning and part of the afternoon catching up with posts, e-mails, photos and videos, finally having reliable internet access was too greater draw not to take advantage of.  I managed to briefly catch up with Ivan Batuma, the owner of BunyonyiOverland Resort, who had generously supported our expedition by giving me two night's accommodation. It therefore came as a very pleasant surprise when he also gave me US$ 100 for Uganda Conservation Foundation. Thank you Ivan, your support is greatly appreciated. 


I could not however come all this way and not go for a boat trip on the lake itself.  Used to be that the only choice was a dugout canoe, but now the choices were many including jet skies.  I opted for the tinnie with the outboard motor. 

Lake Bunyonyi is the deepest lake in Uganda and the second deepest lake in Africa, it is 25 kms long and 7 kms wide and is free from crocs, hippos and bilharzia.  Within the lake are 29 islands including Bushara and Punishment Island where unmarried girls who got pregnant were sent to die. We did not get far into the lake but it was a relaxing hour enjoying the scenery. 


Buynonyi Overland Resort actively promotes Edirisa a UK registered NGO working to promote Uganda crafts in the local area by providing free training workshops and coordinating product quality, design, distribution and sales.  Edirisa also offers a number of excursions in the area ranging from a few hours to a few days and incorporating canoeing, hiking and cultural visits.  Well worth checking them out if you are the active type and want to spend a few days here.

Day 5: Lake Mburo NP to Lake Bunyonyi


On an early morning game drive out of Lake Mburo NP we came across impala, zebra, and warthog, as well as a few water buffalo who were not going to be intimidated by the little purple beetle.  I am told that a herd of buffalo will usually avoid confrontation and just get out of the way and the ones to watch out for were the lone males, still I was not going to take the chance, the road was theirs and we would wait.  This also seemed to be the attitude of the little bird we also came across later, that I am still yet to identify. 

Quick check out at the parks office, a few more kms of dirt track and we were once again back on tarmac and subject to police stops. 

10:30 Igongo Cultural Centre

We stopped briefly at Igongo Cultural Centre as I had heard good things about it and wanted to check the place out.  I also wanted a short call and a chance to try the internet again.  Well 2 out of 3 aren't bad !!

Located 12 km before Mbarara the centre is comprised of a museum including a cultural centre, a traditional restaurant, crafts store, bar & hotel, as well as the biggest concrete Akoli cow I have ever seen. If you need a short break from a long journey it's a good choice. 

A few kms more and we reached Mbarara. Although my tank was okay it was a good opportunity to fill up with fuel.  Fuel however was not the only thing I got, advise was the second - from a young fuel attendant who was trying to tell me how to drive Percy - I politely gave him some advise too.  

The road from Masaka to Mbarara is in great condition, single lane each way, but with sufficient passing lanes on the hills.  Exit Mbarara and all that changes drastically.   Considering this is one of the main roads in the country the section between Mbarara and Ntungamo must be the worst section of tarmac road in the entire country, with in many cases not even enough tarmac for one car and pothole after pothole.  Percy and I are quite used to dancing the 'Pothole Shuffle' but by Ntungamo we both needed a break.  

 Coke stop / short call No 2 and another try at the internet.  I am happy to say that I finally achieved 3 out of 3.


Leaving Ntungamo everything changed again, there was obviously work still being done on the road, but suddenly we hit the super highway, perfect tarmac, two lanes each way !! Signs along the road indicated that it was being funded by the European Union, and while I appreciate their efforts I could not help but wonder why, of all the places in Uganda, this particular part needed such an amazing road ? Was it because it also led to Rwanda and the DR Congo ?? Surely the stretch between Jinja and Kampala was much more deserving or was international politics dictating what was more important ??  I would love for you to see it but unfortunately I had to also learn Go-Pro Lesson No. 3:  Remember to check the battery !!  

The super highway ended just before Kabale (which was also about the time I learnt Lesson No. 3) and it was back to potholes, broken tarmac and road works for the duration of the town.  Just outside Kabale is the turnoff to Lake Bunyonyi  and Bunyonyi Overland Resort, our destination for the next 2 nights.  


Hot shower and cold beer awaited !!

Friday, 20 June 2014

Day 4: Lake Mburo NP & Mihingo CCDF

Lake Mburo NP is only 370sq kms and the smallest of Uganda's savannah parks, but what a great little park it is.  If you are looking for the 'big 5' then you won't find them here, but if you are really lucky you may see 3 out of 5.  Leopards and buffalo can often be seen and apparently in 2008 one lone lion suddenly appeared at the park and decided not to leave.  No one has a clue where he came from but he has been occasionally spotted on a night game drive.

Apart from 3 of the big 5 Lake Mburo also has crocs, hippos, zebra, Defassa waterbuck, hyena, topi, bushbuck and an abundance of impala.  350 different species of birds can be found in the park including Malachite Kingfisher, Pied Kingfisher, Hammerkops, herons, and the African Fish Eagle. 

And the absence of major predators make this the ideal park for boat trips as well as walking, horse riding & biking safaris. With all the different activities to do it is easy to spend a few days here and its relatively close proximity to Kampala make it a great weekend getaway.


I woke early in the morning to the sounds of wildlife and in particularly hyenas calling.  I decided to spend the morning around Mihingo Lodge, enjoy the environment and catch up on my posts. Unfortunately the internet connection was not available but I did manage to get some of the 7,000 plus pictures sorted. 

 Mihingo Lodge is situated just outside the park on a hill overlooking a waterhole.  The owners certainly put a lot of time and thought into the design of the lodge, particularly as it is built on mostly rock.  The rooms or tents are all in their own secluded little area.  The basis of the room is a very large safari tent mounted on a wooden platform with a large wooden balcony.  

The bathroom is the only solid structure and this is built into and in some cases inclusive of the natural rock.  The structure is at least 50% flyscreen but privacy is not a problem as the dense foliage surrounding each room ensures seclusion. Not being one to take a magazine or book to the toilet, I did particularly like the 'loo with a view', it made the whole experience of going to the toilet that much more enjoyable.  

At some point in the morning Iddy, the manager of Mihingo wandered up from below the pool carrying a rock python. Apparently it has decided that behind the pool pump was a nice place to have a snooze, Iddy on the other hand disagreed and after a period of struggle she eventually won the argument.  And I thought getting a 40kg dog out of the back of a beetle was a big thing !! Iddy, with the help of some staff took the python to the other side of the hill and released it.  


It was time for Percy and I to go back down the hill and head for the lake itself - a boat ride was booked for 16:00.  Two hours was plenty of time but I needed to check in with the parks office first.  We spotted a bit of game on the way there but not much which is reasonable to expect at that time of the day. All clear with the parks office we headed to the lake and parked up next to the big boys. 

The boat trip itself is about 1½ hours duration with departures every two hours.  Our guide and boat driver Moses, has worked for the UWA for 14 years, most of them being in Lake Mburo NP.  Now my eyes are not great by any means but he had the ability to spot just about anything including a baby bird falling in the water - definitely a credit to the UWA. We saw quite a few hippos, a Defassa Waterbuck, a bushbuck, a baby croc and a variety of birds.  

Heading back from the boat ride we saw quite a bit more game as it was now quite a bit cooler, unfortunately though, as i found out later, I had not turned the Go-pro on properly.  Rule No. 2:  make sure the Gopro is on and taking photos before you mount it to the roof rack - you can always delete the close-ups of your face and hands later. 


Back at the lodge ready for a hot shower and a cold 'Club' but I could not decide which to have first - problem solved - be ambidextrous and have both at once !! 

 Mihingo CCDF  

That evening I got the chance to talk to Iddy about Mihingo Conservation & Community Development Foundation(MCCDF).  In 2008 the owners of the lodge established MCCDF as a separate entity, with the aim to improve the living conditions of the surrounding communities and improve conservation efforts on the eastern side of Lake Mburo NP where the lodge is located. 

Having grown up in Uganda and with a passion for wildlife and conservation it is not surprising to find out that Iddy studied Ecology & Conservation in the UK.  In 2001 she joined MCCDF to lead the projects on the ground and it is through this that she also became involved in the day to day running of the lodge.
The primary focus of MCCDF is the Mihingo Leopard and Hyena Conservation Project (MLHCP).  The aim of MLHCP is to conserve all predators in and around Lake Mburo NP education and compensating farmers.

Lake Mburo NP is located in a very densely populated and extensively pastoral area of an its establishment in 1983 was marred by a forceful displacement of pastoral families without appropriate compensation or collaboration.  Initially the total area of the park was over 647 km² but in 1987 more than 60% of the park was de-gazetted to offer some redress to the evicted families and worsening relationships between Park authorities and adjacent communities.  

Wild animals do not know boundaries and it is common to see zebra, water buffalo and antelope grazing outside the park in traditional grazing areas for livestock.  It is therefore reasonable to expect that the predators of these animals will also follow and that on occasion livestock will also be attacked by hyena or leopard.  The main reaction of farmers in the area is to then poison the carcass resulting in the death of the predator species as well as many non-target species such as jennet cats, civit, serval, honey badger, banded mongoose and vultures. 

MCCDF addresses this problem by compensating affected farmers. Through the project farmers are informed about the compensation scheme and report livestock killed by predators. Iddy or another member of staff will go to confirm whether the livestock was killed by a predator. If this is verified the farmer is compensated and the carcass is confiscated to prevent it from being poisoned at a later stage. The farmers benefit through compensation and support the project and it prevents predators from being killed. MCCDF staff also advise farmers how to protect their livestock from predator attacks to reduce the human wildlife conflict.  
Generally the local population is very positive about the project as this is the only support they get when facing problems with wildlife. The project has had a very positive effect on the leopard and especially the hyena population. One of the success stories since the project started is a female leopard which has twice managed to raise two cubs around Mihingo Lodge. I am sure without compensated dozens of her kills this female would have been poisoned. Generally the hyena population is growing and without the compensation scheme the numbers would have further declined. 

Through MCCDF Iddy has also recently written a proposal to introduce Rothschild Giraffe into the park, a very ambitious project it would first seem but one that is being seriously considered by the Uganda Wildlife Authority- I do hope your dream is fulfilled . 
Although MCCDF is an separate entity to the lodge the majority of its funding is actually directly from the lodge, so if you do stay at Mihingo take the time to talk to Iddy about MCCDF and if you like what you hear make a contribution, every penny helps.