Seeing is Believing: A Safari of Splendor in the Spirit of Uganda
“For magnificence, for variety of form and color, for profusion of brilliant life — bird, insect, reptile, beast — for vast scale — Uganda is truly “the Pearl of Africa.”
– Winston Churchill, from “My African Journey”
Embarking upon the excursion of a lifetime, my trip to Uganda caught me by surprise. As one contemplates a destination for a honeymoon, the East African country doesn’t commonly join the shortlist of regions like Hawaii or Rome for a romantic getaway. Not one to turn down an adventure, I was optimistic that there was an angle here for jet-setting honeymooners, but I questioned the appeal for the everyday bride and groom, particularly lovers of luxury. Copiously studying the detailed itinerary provided to me, I thought to myself, “this trip is no joke.”
This sentiment would be the only time I was on-point about the journey that stood before me. I consider myself a well-seasoned traveler. I have been to many places on this earth, yet nothing could have prepared me for the beauty, inspiration, and ultimately, the discoveries that lied within myself, prior to my Ugandan passage. There is simply no way to capture this experience through words or photographs. Call it a “you had to be there,” cliché, but the fact remains; Uganda’s beauty is found in the immersion of all five senses, through its culture, landscape, wildlife, cuisine, and overwhelmingly gracious spirit.
T-Minus 2 Days To Take Off
My borderline-obsessive need to be prepared for any and every possible scenario that may arise (no matter how unlikely) is now in full swing. Reviewing my packing list once more, I indulge myself for yet another run-through. Digital SLR camera? Check. Tourist visa, passport, Yellow (immunization) Card? Check. Check, Check. Excessive quantities of apparel, travel knickknacks, snacks, and enough DEET repellent to single-handedly starve an entire nation of mosquitos? Check.
This is around the time that I start to wonder if the two pieces of luggage I’ve filled are a tad… over the top. I ask my best friend whom I can count on to take my side even when I’m being totally ridiculous, but this time she doesn’t tell me what I want to hear. Maybe she’s right, but perhaps I need a second opinion from someone in the know. Technically, the domestic aircrafts within Uganda require that luggage be soft-sided (check!) and weigh no more than 33lbs, and technically, I’m within those parameters. Now it’s time to ask Andrea, my friend over at Brussels Airlines, who not only extended me the invitation to take this trip, but is also gearing up for journey herself in the coming days. “Hi Andrea! Am I totally crazy for packing two suitcases? I am trying so hard to unload into just one but I can’t seem to get out of Armageddon mode over here,” I text her with a quirky emoji, hoping she doesn’t find me insane at best, high maintenance at worst. Six hours and eleven minutes later (but who’s counting), she replies. “Haha, the only thing you need to keep in mind is that for the charter flights, they do have a weight limit. Channel that inner Jane of the jungle and go light!” And just like that, it’s back to the drawing board. Goodbye, wilderness survival kit. Goodbye, supplemental stash of Saltines.
Departure Day: NYC-Brussels-Entebbe
Is there anything better than traveling Business Class? I zip through security in the fast lane at JFK’s Terminal 1, and make my way to the Lufthansa Business Lounge for a seat and refreshment. With a cup of tea and a bite-sized strawberry cheesecake beside me, I scope out the other loungers, trying to figure out which, if any, are among the fellow travel writers joining me on this trip.
Eventually we find one another pre-flight, and we’re living the sweet Business Class life on Brussels Airlines in no time. A Kir Royale cassis champagne welcome drink upon boarding the aircraft kicks off the experience, as I settle in to my generously sized seat and personal area. A warm fleece blanket, fluffy pillow, and comprehensive amenity kit come in handy over the next seven hours. The fully horizontal lie-flat beds with integrated massage functions are very comfortable, and it’s not long before I’m ready to call it a night, but I hang on just a little longer to indulge in Brussels Airlines’ Belgian Star Chefs menu, which highlights multiple courses of fine culinary delights. When it comes to their Business Class, I guess you could say I have some serious FOMO.
Waking up in time for a light Belgian breakfast, it is almost time for our descent into Brussels, where we will make our transfer flight to Entebbe, Uganda, but not before the hospitable flight attendants distribute a fine large box of Neuhas Belgian chocolates as a parting gift for flying with Brussels Airlines. The journey to reach Uganda is surprisingly uncomplicated, with minimal layover time, and the supreme comfort of Business Class eliminates any fear I may have had surrounding jetlag. I’m feeling refreshed and like my best globetrotting self.
Day 1: Entebbe – Murchison Falls National Park
Waking up to the sound of roosters in the not so far distance is not a common experience for me in New York City. We’ve spent the night at K Hotels in Entebbe, a metropolitan area in Uganda, which provides adequate comfort prior to our domestic flight to Pakuba. My first taste of Uganda begins with its leading export: coffee. While I’m not a coffee snob, I find its fragrant-rich aroma and full-bodied flavor is pretty spectacular. A hearty breakfast appears to be a mainstay of Uganda, no doubt in part due to the active nature of its activities; a heaping dose of carbs and protein fuel the day here. Joining us this morning is Alfy Kamya of Let’s Go Travel, the tour operator that has dutifully mapped out our itinerary, making all recommendations and arrangements to ensure that we experience Uganda seamlessly to its fullest potential.
Finishing up our laidback breakfast fit for kings and queens, we head out to the airstrip, where our 11-passenger AeroLink aircraft awaits us. I dub these planes the Uber of aircraft carriers, because through the course of the week, they seem to come and go as we need them, landing on what is basically a lawn in the middle of nowhere, and making an occasional stop along the way to drop off another passenger. The bird’s eye view from the aircraft as we fly over Lake Victoria, the third largest lake in the world, is outrageous. Looking down at the tiny dotted islands and fishing villages below, it might finally be sinking in that we’re in Africa.
Touching down on the Pakuba airstrip, a 4x4 safari vehicle awaits to transport us to Paraa Safari Lodge in Murchison Falls National Park. The tiered open-air seating of the 4x4 lends well for photographs, particularly as we reach the park. Our driver and guide patiently indulges our requests for repeated stops, as the Uganda terrain figuratively takes our breath away. The sweeping panorama of the wild is so mesmerizing, at times it’s too much to even locate the shutter click on the camera, for we might miss a kiss between antelope, or a call among the buffalo. The purpose of the drive is to take us back to our lodge, but the ride is an adventure in itself, not unlike the many game drives before us. Although not concretely specified in our itinerary, we opt to get back out in the evening for an official game drive, where the silhouettes of the long necked giraffes and acacia trees stand out against the amber sunset. It’s like a wildlife calendar photo shoot in the making, which I’ve never really been able to appreciate until this very moment.
In its three-hour duration, the game drive offers bewilderment beyond the imaginable. Surrounded by miles of raw nature and exotic animals sharing the land in harmony, with every turn, there is a new species to discover. In our path, we find a small lion den family, a herd of elephants, and a parade of giraffe, sharing tender moments with one another that is conspicuously humanistic at first, until I realize it is simply a primal way of life in the animal kingdom. Overheard from our safari vehicle, a fly in the night could witness the repetition of our sentiments, “I can’t believe we are here to see such beauty.”
Day 2: Budongo Forest and Murchison Falls
It’s chimpanzee trekking day in the Budongo Forest, and in Uganda, us early risers are eager to get a jumpstart to our morning with the succulent taste of the region’s freshly grown pineapple fruit. Even the bananas here taste better than anywhere else, and while the spread afforded to us by Paraa Safari Lodge is bountiful, the locally sourced produce is of particular interest. Over breakfast, we travelers discuss our prior visits to the exotic continent. I confess that I have never actually been to Africa before, not even South Africa (dubbed by many as “gateway Africa”), and I’m not sure if that makes me a badass or a noob. Among us, we have variable degrees of experience with safaris, but we later learn that it makes little to no difference; Uganda is for everyone.
Entering the Budongo Central Forest Reserve, we are met by our park ranger guide, Evalyne, who briefs us with information for our chimpanzee trek experience. It isn’t long before we make our way into the forest, in search of not only chimpanzees, but other primates as well, including Black-and-White Colobus Monkeys, Red-Tailed Monkeys, and various bird species. The forest terrain is mostly flat to walk, but one must watch their step for uneven stones, logs in the path, and vines in the crossing. The first task is to locate the chimpanzees, and once we do, we have one hour with them to ensure they do not become accustomed to human contact. In the three hours we trek the Budongo, Evalyne’s guidance is more than just informative, it is downright amusing. Her love for, and connection with, the species of this forest, has given her the gift of interpreting their thoughts and behavior patterns. While we might hear typical monkey calls from the trees, Evalyne translates their communications with witty assertion, offering what in her opinion, the monkeys would be saying if it were in plainspoken English. At the conclusion of our trek, Evalyne invites each of us to be guests at her wedding in December, and in our enthusiasm, we imagine what this celebration that reunites us would look like.
Next on our agenda is a nature trail hike beside the Nile River at Murchison Falls. At times it is wet, but the rain showers are brief, barely worth the effort of unpacking my raincoat. The view is picture perfect, with a rainbow arched above the waterfalls to complete the scene. The only thing standing between a Disney movie and myself are the tsetse flies that tend to inhabit the humid area. Luckily, they’re not much more than a mere annoyance, and I escape any semblance of a bite by avoiding black or blue-colored clothing, as those hues are known to attract their unwanted attention.
Making our way to the bottom of the falls, a riverboat meets us at the ground, decked with bottles of water to keep us hydrated. We enjoy a boat tour in the gentle breeze of the Nile, spotting sinister looking hippopotamuses, and getting into staring contests with crocodiles (spoiler alert: the crocodiles always win), before making our way back to Paraa Safari Lodge for our barbeque feast. The skyline is filled with more bird species than I knew could possibly exist in one place, and it sheds new light on bird watching as a hobby, which before today, I’ve been inclined to think was just a peculiar interest to hold, like botany or taxidermy. Flying above them are a couple of uncharacteristic helicopters, carrying Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, along with their entourage. Missing them by just an hour, it turns out the pair and their crew had enjoyed a delectable lunch back at Paraa Safari Lodge, signaling to me that they must have good taste.
Day 3: Queen Elizabeth National Park
Another day, another game drive; they are among my favorite activities since I landed in Uganda. Murchison Falls National Park is home to all of the Big 5 game animals to see, with the exception of the rhino. Here we also see the hippo, buffalo, giraffe, antelope, and more, before we board yet another small aircraft and head to the Mweya airstrip, en route to Mweya Safari Lodge in Queen Elizabeth National Park. The experience of staying in a safari lodge within a national park is truly unique in that it is essentially lodging in the middle of the wild, removed from civilization by miles. The expanse is enormous, and its illustrious safari horizon couldn’t be farther from a day at the Bronx Zoo.
It is at Mweya that Andrea’s provision to pack light proves to be good advice. I take advantage of the lodge’s laundry services, which is both efficient and inexpensive. I do, however, stand by at least some of my packing choices. My emergency preparedness did me a solid as I channeled my inner MacGyver in the face of the ultimate safari travesty: bent prongs in my digital SLR camera memory card slot had put my photography ventures to an abrupt halt. Thanks to a little fashion tape, a SIM card pin, and a thin pencil, I was successfully able to rectify the internal mishap, and get back to snapping pictures.
Queen Elizabeth National Park was perhaps the buggiest of regions we visited, given its close proximity to Lake George, which Mweya Lodge gloriously overlooks in its line of view. Mosquito nets and room spraying keep the rooms comfortable and free of pests, while some potent DEET repellent helps just about everywhere else.
Over dinner, Dr. Ludwig Siefert of the Uganda Carnivore Program, pays us a visit in anticipation of our game drive together the next morning, where we will ride in and on top of his Land Rover using satellite devices to track lion movement. The multi-disciplinary organization devoted to the research and conservation of Uganda’s largest carnivores, monitors its predators and works to identify solutions to protect both the region’s wildlife and the people that inhabit the area. Although longwinded at times, I find Dr. Siefert’s insights into all aspects of life and the wild in Uganda fascinating, as he is a walking, talking Ask Me Anything expert. No question or topic was off limits, and it’s clear he is a treasured asset to the local tribes, animal kingdom, and safari goers, uniting us all to find common ground and understanding.
Day 4: Uganda Carnivore Program, Hamukungu, and the Kazinga Channel
Like a real life movie thriller: wildlife edition, sitting atop a Land Rover, I witness the food chain in action. Tracking a pride of lions by satellite, we get up close and personal with lion king Sankara in all his masculine mane glory. A few yards away, a rhinoceros family mourns the loss of one of their own; a carcass laid limply on the khaki grounds in defeat. Every five to seven days, a pride of lions need a meal of their own, so Sankara preyed upon a rhino deemed weak enough to spring an attack, satiating his appetite until he had been chased away by a rhino herd, leaving any remains for the hyenas to scavenge in the night. Seemingly proud and content by the success of his hunt, he gracefully finds a nook high in a tree to take a nap. From the human bystander perspective, it is inspires amazement, if not a hint of sadness for the rhino, but above all, to observe the animal kingdom in its natural habitat is beyond exhilarating.
On to the fishing village of Hamukungu, this is the first real contact I make with the local human lives and culture of the Uganda people, other than the outstanding hospitality staff back at the lodges. Children line the dirt-paved roads, excitedly greeting us in the hopes that we come bearing candy and sweets. The moment we step out of the car, small children vie for the opportunity to hold our hands as they walk us around their village, welcoming us into their everyday lives. My maternal instinct is in full swing, and I take notice to the observations of the children around me. The chipped nail polish on my finger appears to fascinate one little girl, while her older brother takes interest in my Ray-Ban aviators slipping down my nose. It is heartwarming, magical, and simply unforgettable to make such a connection with another life, but it would be naïve to not take notice of the considerable differences between life here versus back home. On the surface, a setting plagued by poverty stands before us, where many if not most children run without shoes or untethered clothes. It is important to note however, that these children are happy, and just because their lives do not resemble ours outside of a third world nation, it wouldn’t be fair to rob them of what they do have, and that is pure, unadulterated joy. Nevertheless, I am tempted to share one item I do have on hand, and that is my young daughter’s plush doll that I often bring with me on trips, so that I can send photos back home of its adventures abroad. Not wanting to stir up a riot of jealousy between dozens of children over an 8” toy, I confer with Dr. Siefert about the best manner to give it away, knowing my daughter would be delighted to share her doll with a friend in the distance. He speaks with a trusted friend in the community, and they discreetly introduce me to a mother of two boys that would very much enjoy it. Sharing even the smallest and simplest of items with a child in this beautiful country has melted my heart, but what I have given is no match for the cultural experience this small fishing village has afforded me.
After a little downtime back at the lodge, we visit the Kazinga Channel, a 32-kilometer long natural channel that links Lake Edward and Lake George. The boat ride is relaxing and breezy, and the water’s reflective surface mirroring the skies makes it hard to tell which way is up from down. A sight for sore eyes, the channel has one of the world’s largest concentrations of hippos, Nile crocodiles, buffalo, elephants, and a host of birds, from African fish eagles to storks and herons. The photographic opportunities are exquisite, but they are no match for the real thing in plain sight.
Day 5: Bwindi and Ride 4 A Woman
Hopping on board the puddle jumper plane, and on our way to the Kihihi airstrip, the flight is quicker than a yellow cab crossing midtown. I am reminded by this commute, like all my others that came before it, that getting around Uganda is more than a means to get from point A to B; it is an essential facet to the experience from both the air and on the ground. Soaring above Lake Edward so peacefully, it is a feast for the eyes that evokes wonderment. From Kihihi, the drive to Bwindi is longer, but is a spectator’s treat, rounding the precipitous cliffs, tea and coffee plantations, and local villages. On the side of the rocky unpaved roads, women walk up and down hill with tall urns balanced atop their heads, impressively without the support of their hands. Yet more evidence that it doesn’t get any more authentic than right here Uganda.
Perched above the region’s valley, and overlooking Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, the location of Silverback Lodge couldn’t be more ideal. The exquisite beauty from the unobstructed mountainous viewpoint is celebrated by the inn’s open-air veranda. Bewitched by the natural beauty that envelops it, this intimate gathering space lends as well to peaceful early morning coffee as it does a reflective nightcap among likeminded travelers.
Our first order of business in Bwindi was our greatly anticipated visit to the Ride 4 A Woman organization. At the home of the endangered mountain gorilla in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, is a large surrounding community of local people in a village called Buhoma. The women of this community form the cornerstone of their families with raising children, working the land, tending to their animals, and performing many other daily tasks that make them the backbone of their tribe. Busy trying to make ends meet, these women are largely without opportunity to learn new skills, develop a career, or earn money. Identifying a need to introduce empowerment into their lives, Ride 4 A Woman was formed in 2009, touching an entire community by fostering them with independence, empowerment, hope, and support. The organization began by renting bicycles to tourists with the hope of generating money to start a job-training program for women of the community. It has since expanded to providing skills training in areas of sewing, basket weaving, and crafts, in addition to providing access to clean water, microloans, and education for personal health and safety. At Ride 4 A Woman, we make close connections with the inspiring women that make the program the culturally immersive experience it is. We are invited to take a spot in a basket weaving circle and learn to make local crafts alongside the local women; in doing so, our cultural differences become blurred. With an emphasis on teach-or-be-taught, the program celebrates the idea that everyone brings something to the table, and travelers are always welcome to find their place here. The artisan crafts rise to a whole new meaning, as just steps from their display we witness the magic in the making. Although our itinerary has us down for a day trip at Ride 4 A Woman, I not so secretly find myself wishing I had the opportunity to stay a night in one of the organization’s eight on-site guest rooms, as part of the Bwindi Community Home Stay.
Day 6: Gorilla Trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
The pinnacle point of my Ugandan journey is here, both literally and figuratively speaking. The draw for most travelers that set ground in Uganda is the opportunity to come face-to-face with the mountain gorillas in their natural habitat in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. Only in Uganda and its neighbors, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (which in the case of the latter, it is strongly advisable that one not visit this region), is it possible to witness such wildlife. The mountain gorilla’s survival is dependent on a suitable habitat, and their existence is now endangered, with fewer than 1,000 left to roam the earth.
Well rested from the evening prior, and eager to meet my new friends of the wild, I came prepared. Decked out in water-resistant pants, high knit socks andgaiters, waterproof mountain boots, gardening gloves, a walking stick, water bottles and a lunch lovingly prepared by the Silverback Lodge, I have been waiting all week for this moment. The Ugandan Wildlife Authority runs a pretty tight ship, and upon arrival to the base of the park, unbeknownst to us, experienced park rangers size us up, determining our path up the mountain, which is categorized by its difficulty. The forest is occupied by five separate families of gorillas, whose proximal whereabouts are tracked by foot hours prior to our hike, as to ensure we eventually find them. The mountain gorilla is free to roam about in their natural habitat, which happens to be rather massive, and without the preliminary tracking, we could potentially find ourselves in the forest for upwards of nine hours before we make an encounter.
Placed into a hiking group of eight on a moderately difficult trail, just before we make our ascent, we are given the option to hire a porter from the local village, who will aid us through the trek, lending a hand for stability, and hold our day pack. I quickly learn what an invaluable presence the porters are. I may not be the most athletically inclined person I know, but I’m not too tragically out of shape either. Although the trek is approachable for every physical level, it is by no means easy. An hour in, I am sweating profusely, guzzling water like my life is dependent on it, and patting myself on the back for adding that microfiber towel to my Prime cart before I left home. The climb is steep and at times slippery, and if you don’t look where you are stepping, you could find yourself taking a spill in the mud. I identify myself as the clumsy member of the group, and thankfully so do the porters trekking with us; they have saved my butt more times than I can count. I successfully navigate my way around safari ants, and through the thickets, but at one point I take a massive flop in the mud. In the middle of the hot dense forest, on the most physically grueling excursion of my life, surrounded by thousands of insects I can’t even begin to identify, and now covered waist to toe in mud, I am laughing wildly. It is not that my phobia of insects has completely taken over me and I’ve lost my mind; it’s that I unexpectedly realize that I am having the best time of my life, and I haven’t even met a gorilla yet.
Two and a half hours into our trek, a silverback gorilla family emerges. Each and every one of us is struck with awe. They really don’t have to do anything but sit and eat their bamboo shoots, and yet their graceful movements that share 98% of human DNA are nothing short of breathtaking. For conservation purposes, we spend an hour at most with the gorillas, and that time breezes by, as we stand merely feet from them. After we part ways, we find a spot to break and reflect on the experience as we devour our packed lunches, followed by another couple of hours making our way back down to the mainland. Sensations of elation, empowerment, and accomplishment overcome us, and it’s how I imagine an Olympian feels upon landing a gold medal. The rush of adrenaline is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Miraculously, we beat the rain down the mountain, with the downpour beginning just minutes after our trek has come to an end. The experience concludes with a certificate of achievement by the Uganda Wildlife Authority, with which we pose proudly in photographs.
Since I’ve returned to my every day life in old New York, the most common question about my trip that I encounter is, “Weren’t you scared being so close to the gorillas?” The funny thing is, it never occurred to me to be afraid. I felt incredibly safe in the care and expertise of the guides, rangers, and guards, and should the unexpected ever occur, they would know exactly what to do. The gorillas, while grand and potentially intimidating in their size and stature, are so strikingly beautiful and seemingly peaceful in the wild, that fear was actually quite foreign to the experience. Trekking with the gorillas worked out like a rite of passage, where I learned about my own capabilities and inner strength.
Take it from an aspiring world traveler: Uganda is a country that simply no other place on this earth can compete with. It offers a unique luxury, an unforgettable journey, and a profound sense of wonder and adventure that every newly married couple should aspire to experience together.
"Seeing Is Believing: A Safari of Splendor in the Spirit of Uganda" is a firsthand account story written by Samantha Sendor, originally appearing in the 2019 Edition of Sophisticated Weddings.