Entebbe & Lake Victoria


August 21st - 23rd, 2016

My trip to Uganda was fairly easy and uneventful. I left Hong Kong Saturday evening on a direct flight to Doha, Qatar, where I met up with my best friend and travel buddy Lara who flew straight from New York. We spent one night in Doha before our early morning flight to Entebbe International Airport in Uganda.

Uganda has recently introduced a new online visa system which is now mandatory. You can no longer get a visa on arrival without the online visa approval. I had applied for the online visa three weeks before the trip and received the approval letter by e-mail three days later. At the Ugandan border you present the letter, your return flight ticket as well as your travel itinerary and pay a visa fee (which is 50 US Dollars for a Uganda visa or 100 Dollars for the East Africa visa which also includes Rwanda and Kenya). The process was fairly straightforward even though the lady at the immigration counter was a bit confused on how to print our the visa sticker.

About the Trip
We had booked our trip (called 'The Great Apes of Uganda and Rwanda') through National Geographic Expeditions. This was not the cheapest to travel to Uganda and Rwanda, but the trip was incredibly well organized, the itinerary was very well designed, we stayed in the most unbelievably luxurious and stunning lodges and unlike other tour operators, National Geographic trips always include world class experts on the wildlife or area you visit. In our case the expert travelling with us was Jill D. Pruetz, a professor at Iowa State and one of the world foremost primatologists, whose research focuses mainly on the Savannah chimpanzees in Senegal. She not only shared a lot of her fascinating knowledge but also her infectious enthusiasm for these great apes with us. The whole trip was going to be 11 days, starting in Entebbe, then taking us on a short flight to Western Uganda where we would make our way from North to South by land rover. We stayed two nights each in four different lodges. The last two days were going to be in Rwanda where the trip ended in Kigali. Despite the challenging logistics of a trip like this, everything went very smoothly which was largely due to our great leading guide Francis who did an amazing job.

Here is map of our trip including all the lodges and key sites we visited. (You can enlarge the map and click on each of the markers to get more information):

About Uganda
Uganda is a landlocked country in East Africa sharing borders with Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda and South Sudan. It is located in the African Great Lakes region and the equator runs through the southern part of the country. Uganda has a population of around 35 million people, of which 85% are Christian (about equally split between Catholics and Anglicans) and 12% Muslim. English is the official language in Uganda.

British Explorers searching for the source of the Nile first came to this part of Africa in the 1860's, and it became a British colony in 1894. Uganda gained its independence from Britain in 1962. Throughout its short history the country has been plagued by coups, civil war and dictators, the most famous of whom was Idi Amin, who seized power in a military coup in 1971. He lead the country as a brutal despot until 1979 during which time an estimated 300,000 Ugandans died, many as a result of organized mass killings.

The current president Yoweri Museveni has been in power since 1986. While Museveni was initially lauded as a new type of African leader, his presidency has been marred by corruption, attempts to abolish political parties, arrests and torture of political opponents and Uganda's role in the Second Congo War, in which Ugandan forces invaded and occupied parts of the neighboring DRC and were found responsible for severe human rights violations. In the North of the country a long running civil war against Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army has killed tens of thousands of Ugandans and displaced many more. Uganda held elections in 2011, which were won by Museveni with 68% of the vote. Despite the fact that the outcome of the elections was tarnished by accusations of vote rigging and fraud, the election process overall remained peaceful. In recent years Uganda has also made worldwide news because of its new and very harsh anti gay legislation (punishing homosexuality with life in prison), which was initiated and sponsored to a significant degree by evangelical extremist groups from the US.

The Ugandan economy is still largely dominated by agriculture with coffee, tea and fish being the main export products. Despite good economic growth and significant reduction in poverty rates in recent years, Uganda remains among the poorest countries in the world with over 30% of the population living on less than $1.25 per day. Tourism as well as remittances form Ugandan expats are the main sources of foreign capital inflows. Corruption remains the key problem that stifles economic growth and curbs foreign investments and aid.

Trip Report
After exiting Entebbe airport we were picked up by a driver from Volcanoes Safaris, which is the local agency working with National Geographic. The drive to the resort took about forty minutes half of which on a fairly rough dirt road. The Lake Victoria Serena Resort is an incredibly luxurious and beautiful resort built in the style of an Italian Villa and overlooking Lake Victoria. We spent the rest of the afternoon resting, taking a walk around the resort and having a drink in the club house of the golf club with views over the lake. This was kind of a bizarre scene given that we were in Uganda but the surroundings looked more like Florida.

Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary
After an early breakfast in the hotel we met the rest of our group, which consisted of 14 guests, our trip leader Francis and our primatology expert Jill. After a group briefing and introduction we got on the bus for the drive to Lake Victoria to visit of the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary. While waiting for the boat we saw these huge birds by the shore. They were Marabou Storks which are among the ugliest animals on the planet, but are very graceful in the air with their enormous three meter wingspans.

The trip to the island took about an hour on a speedboat. Ngamba is a small island on Lake Victoria, which had been turned into a sanctuary for confiscated chimpanzees. Chimps are still frequently kept as pets or as attractions for hotel guests. But this practice is illegal in Uganda, and the police confiscates any animals they find and brings them to Ngamba sanctuary where they are nurtured back to health and can live their lives in relative freedom on the densely forested island.
They currently have 49 chimps here. Since the forest on the island is not quite large enough to support them all, they are fed three times a day and we were allowed to watch the morning feeding. They all know exactly what time they have to come out of the forest to the feed zone. A big and noisy group of them was already waiting when we got there. Watching them getting fed was a hilarious scene. Most of them raised their arms like children in school to get the attention of the people throwing fruits. One even clapped his hands to make himself noticed.

They were amazingly skillful in catching the fruit out of mid-air and then carrying as many pieces as possible in their hands, between their toes and even on their backs. There was quite a bit of screaming and fighting going on whenever someone who didn't catch enough fruits tried to steal from others. The most fascinating part was watching some of the smarter ones use long dry wooden sticks to retrieve pieces of fruit that had landed on the other side of the electric fence.

We spent about an hour with the chimps and then had a lovely lunch on the island during which we observed this beautiful African Fish Eagle.

Halfway along the boat ride back to shore they briefly stopped the engines to point out to us that we were crossing the equator right here on the lake. We spent the rest of the afternoon in the resort resting and editing pictures. In the evening we had cocktails on the terrace and before dinner Jill gave us a fascinating presentation about her research on the chimps in West Africa.


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