Finding rift valley pearls

Finding rift valley pearls

The pearl of Africa. Travellers in Uganda are reminded of this on every t-shirt, coaster and Crowned Crane fridge magnet in curios shops. Winston Churchill most likely did not know this will become the tourism industry’s choice slogan when he penned it in his My African Journey. But it is equally possible that neither locals nor visitors know exactly why the great British Bulldog likened this country to a natural gemstone. We drove from Lake Albert in the north along the Albertine rift down to Bwindi in the south to find out and discover more about this so-called pearl.

Coaxing Baloo up the escarpment along Lake Albert we passed Pete Pearson’s roadside monument where it is easy to imagine the big game hunter of old overlooking the plains below where massive elephant herds still roamed far and wide. As we headed south, we passed a variety of landscapes. The savannah woodlands gave way to populated hills of banana plantations before we passed through the Kibale National Park. Known as the primate capital of the world, this evergreen rainforest is home to 13 species of primates – the highest density in Africa. Emerging from the forest, we passed countless tea plantations for which the cold high-altitude conditions are ideal.

In Fort Portal we stocked up at Andrew & Brothers, an old family-owned little supermarket that values friendliness and decent prices. Fort Portal overlooks the magnificent Ruwenzori Mountain range famous for its multi-day hikes and rugged beauty. Its snow-capped peak, Mount Stanley, is third in line for Africa’s highest point. We stayed at Kluge’s Guest Farm where we sampled a great combination of German cuisine and local delights. Here shy black-and-white colobus monkeys joined us in camp and African Blue Flycatchers foraged nimbly around the trees with their cute flicking tails.

Moving south we reached the Queen Elizabeth National Park. Straddling the equator and including parts of both Lakes George and Edward, it is known for its tree-climbing lions. Upon hearing that we wanted to camp inside the park, the gate officer laughed and simply shook her head at us crazy muzungus. Don’t we know there is nothing at the wild campsites? ‘That’s why we want to go there’ is apparently not a sensible reply either. Either way, off we went on our merry way to explore.

Despite numerous negative reports from others about the park and its low game numbers, we experienced it as a beautiful park with magnificent landscapes and animals. We were lucky enough to catch fleeting glimpses of two families of giant forest hogs – a surprise for us as these rare hogs are usually restricted to dense forests as their name implies. We saw lions on five occasions, including subadults sleeping in a massive euphorbia tree and a male lying directly underneath a game viewer, either seeking shade or inspecting the impressive Cruiser underbody. The unique landscape is dominated by grasslands and euphorbia trees interspersed with large herds of Ugandan kob and buffalo. In the park we also came across another rare species in Uganda, namely self-drive overlanders – the first we encountered after a month in the country. They just happened to be fellow South Africans from the Northern Cape and seemed rather surprised to be greeted by an Afrikaans couple asking for biltong.

Camping in the park was exactly the type we love most – surrounded by no one and nothing else but the bush and its creatures. A herd of elephants browsed the fringe of the campsite, a lone buffalo bull inspected Baloo, and after a short but heavy rain downpour we lay listening to multiple prides of lions calling from all directions in the cool nighttime air. Morning was met by hippos grunting from the misty Kazinga channel and Fish Eagles proclaiming a new dawn in Africa.

Our next stop was the beautiful Lake Bunyonyi near the southern border with Rwanda. A natural high-altitude lake formed by a volcanic crater, it is exceptionally deep and the lush and terraced surrounding hills did well to relax our senses after a long day on the road. Few creatures occur naturally in the cold lake although interestingly, the invasive red swamp crayfish does well in its waters, providing food to locals after it was introduced from the US years ago.

Not far from the lake, we bumped our way along a treacherous little mountain road to our last destination in Uganda – the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. Here we had an appointment scheduled with those enigmatic woolly residents that still take refuge in this rainforest – mountain gorillas. Tracking them down is a regulated affair requiring you to plan months ahead and smash your pink piggy bank to smithereens. However, when you finally arrive at the edge of the misty dark forest and peer into its mysterious world known as one of the most biologically diverse places on earth, you sense that all the preparations were indeed worthwhile.

Mountain gorillas are the largest and rarest of the gorilla subspecies with only about 1000 remaining, half of which are found here. Tracking one of the family groups in Bwindi is not for the faint-hearted. Being less than fit after many weeks on the road, we sweated like suckling pigs in a Finnish sauna while climbing the near-vertical slopes covered in stinging nettles and dense vegetation. It is not called impenetrable without reason. After a 10 km hike (and what felt like the same vertical ascent), rangers tracking the gorillas led us to a lush green valley where the forest canopy opened and sunlight cautiously peered in. And there they were, as if the most normal thing in the world.

They say that the first time you sit with a gorilla in the wild is an intense emotional experience. Having been fortunate to also see a group in Rwanda a few years ago, I can confirm that it is indeed no different the second time. The group we encountered had about 15 members and we spent time with them while they went about their daily business. The big silverback leader sat silently over to one side, lazily stuffing his face with fresh leaves and occasionally scratching his back with those massive hands. Females and younger males browsed around, inquisitively investigating us while babies played in the ultimate jungle gym, entertaining both themselves and us. When our allowed time with the group was up, we left them behind with a mixed sense of sadness and immense joy. These endangered but utterly remarkable creatures are slowly increasing in numbers and we hope that they will always remain protected in their mountainous strongholds.

As we reminisce over our adventures in Uganda, we think of the variety of wonders we experienced. Moist rainforests, euphorbia-studded plains, broad rivers, snow-capped mountains, powerful waterfalls and massive lakes. Gorillas, shoebills, lions, rare birds, chimpanzees, forest hogs, rare fish. Considering the lesser-known other half of his quote, we couldn’t agree more with Mr Churchill: ‘For magnificence, for variety of form and colour, for profusion of brilliant life – I say Uganda is truly the pearl of Africa.” 

Some helpful trip tips:

  • Gorillas
  1. Gorilla tracking permits are expensive and need to booked a few months ahead for an exact date.
  2. Uganda’s permits are about half the price of those in Rwanda.
  3. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest NP has four different base points from where various Gorilla groups can be tracked – we departed from Rushaga.
  4. You cannot book your permits directly with UWA anymore. A tour operator must book it on your behalf and they add a handling fee. We used Kabiza Safaris (, who did not add a large fee, sent us proof of the permits in advance, and had the originals delivered to us when we stayed near Entebbe to avoid us missioning into Kampala. We highly recommend them!
  5. Tracking gorillas in Bwindi is physically tough as the mountain forests are very steep and dense. Take enough water, snacks and rain-proof gear!
  • Queen Elizabeth National Park
  1. The park has three main sectors split by national through-roads:

– Mweya (along the Kazinga channel with riverine thickets)

– Kasenyi (next to Lake George with open plains)

– Ishasha (bordering the DRC)

  1. There are public and cheap campsites in the Mweya and Ishasha sectors.
  2. Ishasha is famous for its fig tree-climbing lions, but we saw many lions in the other sectors too – some even in Euphorbia trees.
  • Campsites
  1. Fort Portal: Kluge’s Guest Farm is fantastic, clean and neat. Here you can also enjoy their great food, the host’s generous hospitality and look for colobus monkeys in the forest. (
  2. Queen Elizabeth National Park: Inside the park, we camped at the wild Mweya campsite 1 – it has an amazing view of the Kazinga channel! Just outside the park, we camped at Songbird, a beautiful place with very friendly owners. (
  3. Lake Bunyonyi: We camped at the Lake Bunyonyi Overland Resort right on the edge of the lake – a magnificent view! (
  4. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park: At the Rushaga sector there are not many camping options, so we camped at the Rushaga Gorilla Camp, a high-end lodge that also caters for overlanders. Although not cheap, it is right on the edge of the forest and their meals are worth the spoil after a long trekking day! (

    The Nile Theory

    The Nile Theory

    She went up the Nile as far as the first crocodile. Our intentions for exploring the Ugandan region along the mighty Nile River were perhaps a bit more ambitious than those of novelist Samuel Butler. After navigating the infamously chaotic traffic in Kampala, we made our way to the very source of the Nile. We are not sure why it took the Royal Geographic Society so many years of Victorian frustration to locate it – we found it in a morning via a pin on iOverlander. It was a grand moment to stand at the exact spot (or at least, at the monument) where John Speke first observed the true origin of the Nile more than 150 years ago where it flows out of Lake Victoria.

    These days the adjacent town of Jinja is a bubbling mix of Ugandan craziness and tourist traps. We stocked up with supplies here and found a deli where you can buy South African rusks and wine (that is, if your dividends paid out this year). A highlight for us was The Rolex Joint, where we sampled the tastiest and freshest Ugandan rolexes ever. Take a chapat (pancake-like flatbread), line it with a thin omelet, add yummy fillings like bacon and fresh veggies, roll it like wrap and enjoy your rolex! We don’t know why this is not a thing elsewhere, but we will definitely be making rolexes in future.

    A bit downstream, we reached The Haven. For the most part, camping in Uganda is a more spartan affair than further south. Creature comforts like electricity, functioning and hot showers, firepits, wood and washing basins are generally not part of the deal. When you arrive at The Haven, where all of these are provided along with a fantastic view over the Nile, it suddenly feels like you checked into the Ritz! Here we watched the early-morning fishermen ply their trade, adventurous (read mad) whitewater rafters take on the Grade-5 rapids and sooty Vieillot’s Black Weavers weave their nests.   

    We drove further down the river to the Murchison Falls National Park. Uganda’s largest national park straddles both sides of the river and includes the world’s most powerful waterfall. Here the Nile squeezes through a gorge only 7 meters wide to create a misty spectacle and cauldron of ridiculously powerful undercurrents, reverse eddies and rapids. Thick riverine forest line the green valley below, the calls of rare Rock Pratincole flocks echo from rocky clefts and the early-morning surface of deep bays are broken by the swirls of enormous perch. Away from the river the park is equally special. We saw Ugandan kob, Jackson’s hartebeest, oribi and Northern Ground Hornbill, and hippos grazed next to our tent at night. The oil fields in the park and along the adjacent Lake Albert pose a major threat, and we can only hope that this piece of paradise will always remain protected.

    The Nile perch is an amazing African predatory fish that is on the bucket list of many fly anglers, including ours – and where better to try than along the Nile. They have bass-like bucket mouths, thick dorsal fin spines, and highly reflective eyes adapted for night-time hunting. Unfortunately, they are also very tasty and can grow to massive sizes so they are under threat of overfishing throughout their range in Africa. Blank exploration sessions followed. If you thought the local mockery of a Muzungu tourist travelling in rural Africa is intense, try fly-casting a bunch of feathers tied to a hook among local hand-line and gillnet fishermen…

    Each of us did manage to find a Nile perch on fly in the end. One on the upper Nile at night (trying to resist the urge to scan for crocodile eyes too often) and one at the mighty falls in the wildest, most turbulent waters we have ever come across. Neither were any record breakers, but we will always remember the excitement of finally succeeding with our quest and briefly admiring these special creatures in their beautiful but very fragile habitat.

    Outside Masindi you will find the Budongo forest, where a few wild chimpanzees still remain. They are protected by the community as it is not part of a national park and we contacted a local community guide named Deo to track them (no jokes – Deo was equally surprised when he met Deo). Habitat destruction is the number one threat to chimpanzees and the fields of sugar cane we walked through next to this shrinking forest are very real examples. After a few hours searching in pouring rain and a dripping forest, we glimpsed our very first wild chimps! It was an amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience to share a few moments with these intelligent and endangered creatures. The community of adjacent farmers receive proceeds from the chimp tracking income, so there is initiative to keep protecting them.

    Ancient Egyptians believed that the human body worked in a similar way to the Nile. The Nile Theory was based on how the river Nile (or humans) had many channels that can become blocked or polluted and if they do, then that part of the river would die, along with everything and everyone depending on it for generations. When the river dies, so do the people. It is our hope that the Ugandan Nile system will remain intact for generations to give life to its host of amazing creatures and landscapes, and provide adventure to those willing to explore.

    Some helpful trip tips:

        • Jinja
        1. Avoid Kampala’s crazy traffic and take the Northern bypass to get to Jinja.
        2. Go see the source of the Nile and Speke monument from the Western bank of the river to avoid a costly boat trip.
        3. The very best Ugandan Rolexes can be found at The Rolex Joint in town – yum!
        4. There is a great Deli in town that has high quality meat, cheese, and even gelato ice cream if you want to spoil yourself.
        • Chimpanzees
        1. Avoid the expensive national park chimp hikes by tracking them in the Budongo forest using a community guide – much more affordable and not widely advertised.
        2. Stay at the Masindi Hotel and ask them to arrange local community chimp tracking.
        • Murchison Falls National Park
        1. The route from the South is tarred all the way and the most commonly-used. The route around the West along Lake Albert is also tarred up until the last 5km so is a good alternative.
        2. You cannot pass through the park without paying the vehicle and park fees, so time your entry and exit times and points well as UWA works on the 24-hour park principle.
        3. The most game rich area is North of the river, towards the delta.
        4. A boat or fishing trip to the falls is well worth it! 3-hour boat trips are affordable, and fishing trips less so. Wild Frontiers is the only company offering fishing trips to the falls – and their costs reflect this.
        5. If you only enter the park to fish, remember that UWA will charge you an expensive daily angling permit and park fee on top of the Wild Frontiers cost.
        6. DIY angling from the bank is still possible near the base of the falls and at the top, but the river level has risen significantly over the last 4 years, so accessibility is now very limited.
        7. Fly-fishing is best when the river is clear, with January and September being good months. It is hit-and-miss fishing in crazy turbulent water and your best bet is a 9-12 wt rod, ultra fast-sinking lines, and large GT-type or water-pushing flies.
        • Campsites
        1. Jinja: The Haven offers great views, neat ablutions, fire pits and even power points – unheard of in Uganda!
        2. Masindi: Camp at the Masindi Hotel, the oldest in Uganda with a rich history of clients and a beautiful shaded campsite.
        3. Murchison Falls: The UWA campsite on the Northern bank of the Nile is cheap, rustic and beautiful. You will likely have hippos in camp at night for company. Affordable camping options outside the park are limited – we stayed at Yebo camp.
      • Traffic police
      1. Ugandan police check points are mostly friendly and non-eventful, but be prepared for exceptions that will try and spoil your Ugandan adventure.
      2. Make sure all your paperwork is in order and never hand over an original document.
      3. Corrupt police will likely keep searching for a possible reason to ‘fine’ you, or invent a new rule of the road that you have broken if they cannot find something legitimate. Remain calm, friendly, apparently confused and very patient as this usually wears them out sooner or later. Remember, as long as they don’t have your original documents and you have done nothing wrong, you have the upper hand.

        Doing the Mburo Mabamba Mambo

        Doing the Mburo Mabamba Mambo

        Never believe a Ugandan park official when they say all roads are passable now that it is dry season. We have come to understand that dry season in equatorial Africa means it rains only once a day. In the Mburo National Park we also found out that our Max Trax are in fact very useful and not merely aesthetic add-ons while doing the cotton soil mambo in Baloo. We have learnt many things since arriving in Uganda. We entered the country via the Mutukula border post, a busy crossing not often used by tourists but very well frequented by persistent (read irritating) fixers and some officials that unfortunately personify the corrupt stereotype. The meaning of Karen Blixen’s age-old observation becomes clear at African border posts: “It helps to be willing to waste more time over a matter than (the official) does himself, only it is a difficult thing to accomplish.”

        Heading into the town of Masaka, it immediately became clear that this is a unique country. Broad-billed Rollers (something we have only seen once in South Africa) sit on power lines like feral pigeons. A thousand boda-bodas (the ubiquitous East African motorbike taxis) weave through traffic like safari ants. Exotically noisy Plantain Eaters forage among suburban trees. We recovered from the day’s admin at Villa Katwe, a little backpacker’s lodge where Joey the buffy dog happily greets everyone, we sampled fried grasshoppers (yes, they do taste like chicken) and we had the best dinner and breakfast in a very long time.

        Travelling through the beautiful Ugandan countryside is very different to what we have experienced thus far. Between the bustling little rural towns, we passed through countless banana plantations, over green hills, and through lush green landscapes. It is very densely populated, yet the general sense of natural greenery is omnipresent. We reached lake-side Kacheera, our first campsite, after getting lost along a scenic dirt road where large-horned Ankole cattle mix with zebra and Grey Crowned Cranes. Mornings were met by a cacophonic chorus of birds. Gonoleks and Grey-crowned Warblers chatted around camp, Bare-faced Go-away Birds and Brown Babblers babbled away, and Wattle-eyes foraged carefully among the trees with their Batis-like calls.

        Lake Mburo National Park was our first nature-focused destination, and we camped at the conveniently located Leopard Camp just outside. A beautiful Savannah-type park, Mburo is home to Uganda’s only impala herds, an interesting strain that has exceptionally large horns. We also saw Rothschild’s giraffes with calves, sporting their characteristically thicker white sections between the brown blocks. The park has various beautiful marshy glades, ridges, forested lake edges and many euphorbia trees that reminded us very much of the Mokgopong area in South Africa’s Limpopo province. 

        Now about that mud. We know that black cotton soil is something to avoid. But what we did not know, is that it can be very localized and it takes very little rain to make it stick to you like a border post money changer. After our lakeside lunch got drenched by a bout of unseasonal rain, we set off on what seemed to be a well-travelled path. All was well, until it was not. We did not even notice the ever-so-slight change in mud colour, and suddenly there we were, Baloo doing a muddy wheel-spinning mambo without any trace of traction. Had it not been for our good old Max Trax sand ladders, we might well have camped there. Spending the better part of the next day washing the cotton soil out, we vowed to henceforth avoid any suspiciously black mud unless it at least cracks under foot.

        Traveling north, we crossed the equator for the first time. A momentous occasion for us dampened slightly by the rather touristy village where muzungus (i.e. white travellers) frequent expensive curios shops and locals are keen to demonstrate water flowing to a drain without swirling in any direction. A bit further on is Nkima Forest Lodge where we set up camp for a few days. Nkima is located in a patch of lush indigenous forest on an isolated hill overlooking the Mabamba swamps. Here we were awed for the first time by many of Uganda’s wonderful forest-dwelling creatures. Shy red-tailed monkeys foraged in the treetops while Giant Blue Turacos and Black-and-white Casque Hornbills raucously danced between branches. African Emerald Cuckoos woke us up every morning with their ‘Hello Georgie’ calls and we were even lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a White-spotted Flufftail darting in the undergrowth next to our campsite – in birding circles this is reason alone for a victory dance!

        The Mabamba swamp is a semi-protected wetland on the fringes of Lake Victoria, literally within sight of Entebbe Airport. Unexpectedly for its proximity to civilization, it is a birding hotspot and provides suitable habitat to many wetland species. The big-ticket bird here is the Shoebill, which simply loves the many lungfish around these swamps. We headed out in a local boat with a community bird guide who did an impressive boogie-like balancing act standing on the bow while he scanned the papyrus for signs of the elusive grey giant. After our long day searching for one in Zambia’s Bangweulu, we prepared for a similar escapade. Big was our surprise therefore when, twenty minutes in, we pulled up almost right next to a hunting Shoebill! This pre-historic looking bird gave us an unforgettable show of flying, prancing on floating reeds, intense focusing and even catching breakfast. We can only hope that this fragile habitat remains protected for these magnificent creatures to flourish.

        Near the swamp we stopped by a community project called Kasanje Cycling. Coordinated by Sam Mutton, a professional-grade cycling track was built earlier this year for local kids to use. At first glance one must do a double-take of this seemingly out-of-place sports course between banana plantations and muddy roads. But considering how widely used bicycles are every day in Uganda, it is little wonder that the course was filled with children having an absolute blast doing bike tricks when we visited. Along with a crew of UK-imported and big-hearted folks, Sam is currently busy with a beautiful play park and café next to the course and has plans to create a self-sustaining centre for the community through the medium of cycling. The project is an inspiring example of how it is indeed possible to make a sustainable difference to a community.

        As we drive further through the countless villages, we pass a ragtag school marching band raising funds next to an open-air butchery. An old man with a chicken clasped under his arm does a roadside shuffle on the band’s beat. We smile. From muddy forests and swamps with rare creatures, to communities being content with a very different standard of living from what most westerners consider normal. The dance of a happy life is not one easily learnt, but we think Ugandans might just be a few steps ahead.

        Some helpful trip tips:

        • Mutukula border post
        1. Get your East African tourist visa on Uganda’s website beforehand. It takes two days to process online:
        2. Be prepared for security personnel wanting to confiscate pepper spray and drones.
        3. Officials might just want ‘a little something’ after they help you. Be friendly but firm.
        • Network
        1. MTN is the best network in Uganda.
        • Lake Mburo National Park
        1. A daily permit for you and your vehicle lasts 24 hours from when you enter, so plan your visit.
        2. A foreign vehicle permit is 50-60 USD for a pick-up/bakkie. They might try to charge more for a 4×4, but it helps to argue this point if needed.
        3. There is a beautiful and cheap UWA campsite in the park near the lake.
        4. Watch out for black soil after rain!
        • Mabamba Swamp
        1. Shoebill tracking is relatively affordable here – simply arrive at the Mabamba jetty and book a local guide, or contact Shakul from
        • Campsites
        1. Masaka: Villa Katwe provides great value for money and fantastic meals.
        2. Lake Mburo NP: Leopard Camp has a great location just outside the park.
        3. Mabamba: Nkima Forest Lodge is a friendly place in a beautiful forest.