Sunday, 20 April 2014

Uganda Wildlife Extravaganza - Part 1

By Gloria Seow 

Trip Participants: Gloria Seow, Timothy Pwee, Lim Poh Bee & Gerard Francis

Africa has always been the continent that anybody who professes to be a nature lover would yearn to explore. Eschewing the trite and almost crass commercialism that is South Africa, we looked towards East Africa for our first foray. Kenya and Tanzania were obvious choices, but even they fell short of the one country that would come to encapsulate the African Experience for us, the introduction to cap all introductions - Uganda. Uganda has managed to stay just under the radar, the hidden pearl of Africa with everything to offer and almost no drawbacks at all: Big Five (Lion, Elephant, Rhino, Leopard and Buffalo), Mountain Gorillas, Chimpanzees, Chameleons, the Mountains of the Moon, Shoebill, Papyrus, Pygmies, Savannahs, Impenetrable Forests, Mountains, the Equator, the Nile, Murchisons Falls (most powerful waterfall in the world). There was only one word that went through my mind when I first learnt about Uganda's bounty - wow

And so I set out to plan the perfect three weeks vacation, and it was almost too easy when I found Crammy Wanyama and Avian Safaris. I gave him the above list...and he dutifully charted out every detail of the 22 days that would cover it all. Other agencies merely modified their existing itineraries and hoped that I would bite. Crammy made it happen. Thankfully enough, we also found the perfect companions to come with us - Lim Poh Bee and Gerard Francis. And so began our adventure which spanned 27 September to 20 October 2013, and really, we could not have asked for more.

Our journey saw us take Malaysian Airlines from SG to KL to Dubai (only SGD$500 return vs Emirates SGD$1,300), transit in Dubai for 3 hours, then onwards with Emirates to Entebbe. Funny enough, all bird tours start in Entebbe, not Kampala (Uganda's capital). And all four of us met up only on the Dubai-Entebbe the Emirates plane of course. And boy was I relieved when Crammy did show up to pick us up from the airport. After all, we all privately held visions of being ripped off by African conmen. Imagine being left high and dry in the middle of Africa, shudder. Crammy let us drop off our belongings at Entebbe Traveller's Inn. Then we requested a trip to the market, which also gave us our first birds - the Marabou Stork - framed against the blue and friendly tropical skies. Gerard immediately went birding by himself to Entebbe Botanical Gardens (the reason why Entebbe and not Kampala was the preferred entry point to the country) which was just five minutes walk from our accommodation. Poh Bee, Tim and I were not half as kiasu. After the market trip, we bumped into Gerard, and found this fruitful tree which yielded the very fascinating Double-toothed Barbet and Black-headed Gonolek.

This was the Saturday market - a pop-up affair that only took place only on Saturdays, selling everything from fresh produce to fish, clothes, household items, pots and pans, charcoal stoves, matoke (plantain banana) etc etc. Here, I was drawn to Jack-and-the-beanstalk-esque pink beans. Later on, high in the Mountains of the Moon, we did come across a highland farm that grew this stuff. Unfortunately, we never got the chance to eat it. 

 The Blue-headed Tree Agama, a half-metre long agamid that favoured the trunks of big trees. We did see two of these at the airport, on a man-made structure. I expected it to be as common as Singapore's invasive Changeable Lizards, but it was not to be. We only came across a few specimens while there, and I did look at every tree (hoping to but never spotting a chameleon). The lizard changed colours as its mood turned fiery - it started out quite brown, but within five minutes of snapping its visage, its head and tail took on attractive blue hues.

 Ross's Turaco - Crammy merely pulled up at some roadside trees on the drive to Mabamba, and out popped the Turaco, amongst many other colourful and astounding birds like the Red-cheeked Cordon-blue, the Black-and-white-casqued Hornbill, the Great Blue Turaco etc. In fact, we were overwhelmed by the sheer variety and density of avian life - we had 200+ lifers in our first five days! It was stupendous, we were in bird heaven.

After anxiously hunting the waterways of Mabamba Swamp, our guide suddenly pronounced that the Shoebill was just over there. Standing stork still, it was almost too easy to miss as it blended into the tall vegetation. This was the bird that all birders came for, the bird with the shoe bill that looks like a wooden clog, big enough to wrest the slippery lungfish from its muddy hideout. The dinosaur throwback with nictitating membrane and minimal movements. I first remember seeing this fella at the Jurong Bird Park and thinking, wow, what must it be like to see it in the wild? And here we were staring at a live specimen, just 15 m away from us. We only saw it once, all other attempts came to nought. Unfortunately, I tried enquiring if we could see or eat the lungfish...but the fisherfolk didn't catch any that day. Mabamba Wetlands is 50 km west of Entebbe, a papyrus IBA and Ramsar site. Other birds we got include the White-browed and Blue-headed Coucals, African Jacana, White-faced Whistling Duck, Yellow-billed Duck, Vieillot's Black Weaver and much more. We missed the Papyrus Gonolek. 

We came to this spot to get the Orange Weaver, one nest amongst all the other weavers' nest. One orange bird that our site guide managed to find for us. There were at least five species of weavers nesting in one tree. Had the first of many packed lunches here on the shores of the mighty Lake Victoria. 

 While lunching, this Hamerkop was sauntering back and forth. This is a common bird that even begs for scraps.

 An example of the huge portions that we were served for each meal. Matoke (tasteless and starchy plantain banana) and Posho (Ugali - corn/maize flour) with meat and veges.
 Was amused to spot the blue jewels of the Vervet Monkey. It was fairly common at the Entebbe Botanical Gardens. Sadly, we didn't see the African Grey (parrot) here, nor any chameleons, only lots of termite mounds.

 Our beloved guide Crammy Wanyama who also doubled up as our driver. Here, he turned around to show us his newly-shaved head. We had an interesting conversation of why African men keep their heads shaved every few weeks. Apparently, their hair grows out in a curly, tangled mess. Unless one has time to preen and gel everyday, everybody shaves, even the ladies and girls. For some schools, it was compulsory to shave. Throughout the trip, I only saw one drunk beggar (very uncommon sight) who happened to have hair - and it was curly but not all that tangled. In Kampala, more people grew their hair, kept braided or styled, especially the ladies. In the countryside, everybody shaves. 

 It was a bit of a cheat - we got the White Rhinoceros at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, the only Big Five that has been extirpated from Uganda during the Idi Amin days (1971 to 1979). Uganda has had 25 years to recover from the lawlessness, and much has been restored. The Ziwa site has successfully rehabilitated either 11 or 13 of these precious ones. We tracked them on foot, with only an armed guard for defence. 

Malaba Rock Agama (Agama finchi), many were out sunning themselves next to the gushing waters of Murchisons Falls. We drove many kilometres from our resort to see the falls proper. 

We cruised the mighty Nile in this tiny boat. I was slightly nervous as there were plenty of hippos around - they are reportedly the most dangerous animal in Africa - responsible for more deaths than any other. The number one incident is one's boat accidentally hitting one of these massive fellas (who like to graze just out of sight at the bottom of rivers), and the unfortunate boat being chomped in two by the angry hippo, spilling all contents including humans. Our guides claim to watch the bubbles of hippos very closely. Best birds were the Giant Kingfisher and African Skimmer. Still, I love hippos, they are always so lumbering, loveable, and peaceful. Poh Bee went one step further - she actually said 'I want to be a hippo!' We had hippos visiting us every night at camp. The very first night at Red Chilli Rest Camp, we had a hippo grazing the short grass just outside our room, before dinner. Could hear its great chomps, separated from us by just a concrete window. At night when we had to hike across the field to the toilet, I was fearful of bumping into hippos, yet they held a strange fascination. I even shone my torch to check out the bushes next to the camp restaurant, and there was a hippo standing right there, eyes reflecting my spot light. Tim had the magical experience of seeing three hippos grazing in the moonlight at Lake Mburo outside Arcadia Lodge. Tim even said that the tourists in the Ratnap surrounded a hippo to snap pictures,and the hippo hardly cared for the attention. For me, I heard the fella swish its tail violently just outside our room at Mweya Lodge - the next morning, there were hippo prints to corroborate my story. So many encounters, and all so memorable.

Was delighted to spot the Saddle-billed Stork strolling the reeds at Murchisons Falls - Uganda's largest National Park.

 Two Senegal Thick-knees at MF.

 The majestic pelage of the Guereza (Abyssinian) Black-and-White Colobus. What a luscious tail.

 Uganda's national bird - the Grey-crowned Crane.

  • At the top of Murchison Falls, the Victoria Nile forces its way through a gap in the rocks only 7 m wide, and tumbles 43 m down. It then flows westward into Lake Albert. The outlet of Lake Victoria sends around 300 cubic meters per second (11,000 ft³/s) of water over the falls, squeezed into a gorge 7 m wide, making it the most powerful waterfall in the world in terms of sheer water pressure (pressurised ejection of water with the highest force ever). The spray, as you can imagine, is fabulous.

  • The Jackson's Hartebeest (Alcelaphus buselaphus) is unmistakable with its narrow face. We only got this ungulate here in Murchisons Falls. We learnt quite a bit about the biogeography of animals - MF has giraffes but no zebras. Lake Mburo has zebras but no giraffes. We missed the lions at MF- giving us just two more chances of getting the king of beasts - in Queen Elizabeth NP and Lake Mburo - very dicey if you ask me. Imagine going to Africa and not seeing the lion, we'll be laughing stocks. We had to persuade Gerard to let off the pursuit of birds to look for the lion, luckily he didn't need much convincing. We also missed the leopard - only Crammy and the site guide saw something slinking down the tree - some of us saw it too, but not well enough to say we saw spots. Tim saw the grass move. I also had the impression that the hyena was a given. Not so, we only got a brief glimpse of it through tall grass at the Ishasha sector before it trotted off and disappeared. The confusing thing was that Crammy and others saw the Hyena lift its tail like a warthog - making him think it was a warthog we saw. Later on, I found out that hyenas walk with upright tails too when they are agitated or excited. So animals were not easy to come by, quite unlike what we see in documentaries. We learnt to be thankful for everything we got.

 African White-backed Vulture (Gyps africanus) at MF. Again, vultures were less common than we thought. Sadly, we didn't even see the Secretary Bird, something of a classic in my mind.

 Another myth dispelled, at least for Tim. He never knew that Giraffes congregated in huge herds. The biggest we saw had 23 Rothschild's Giraffes together. It was so moving to see them bounce across the plains, wild and free. According to Wikipedia, males establish social hierarchies through "necking", which are combat bouts where the neck is used as a weapon. Uganda does not have two other giraffe subspecies that are found in Kenya - Reticulated and Masai. In all, there are nine subspecies of giraffe in Africa.

Crammy's van had a pop-up roof converting it into a convenient safari vehicle anytime. Here, we had a very fulfilling game drive through lush Borassus grassland - seeing African Buffalo, African Savannah Elephant, Yellow-billed and Red-billed Oxpecker, Defassa Waterbuck, Uganda Cob, Patas Monkey and more.

 It was a magical moment when we came across the nest holes of the Red-throated Bee-eater (Merops bulocki) in the MF launch cruise safari. In most of the national parks, we always had a drive-through safari in the morning and a cruise safari in the afternoons.

A gargantuan Nile Crocodile seen during the ferry cruise at MF.

Striped Leaf-folding Frog (Afrixalus quadrivittatus) found just outside our banda when I went out to pee in the wee hours of the morning. An advantage I would say of not having ensuite bathrooms. This was the second leaf-folding frog in the trip, the first was in a small pond on the drive back from MF waterfall.

 Crammy found our very first snake - Spotted Blind Snake (Typhlops punctatus) - right across the road on the drive to Kibale NP near nightfall. It was half-dead sadly, possibly run over by several vehicles. Tim picked it up and left it at a roadside ditch.

 One of our most luxurious accommodation was at Kibale Forest Camp - a very nice-smelling spacious tent with soft beds and spotless rooms. First time that we had to zip the 'door' shut - there were no locks. The only thing I didn't like was the eco-toilet - using soil to cover up. It had a bit of a smell. Tim didn't even use it - he rather preferred to make the trek to the reception to use the real toilets. We also got used to having to charge our electronic devices at the reception - practically all the national parks' accommodation ran on generators that were not powerful enough to have in-room chargers. 

The best part of Kibale Forest Camp was the wildlife that were all around us - we got the African Wood-owl (Strix woodfordii) just outside our tent - Tim found it. Also had Thomas' Dwarf Galago (Galagoides thomasi) calling raucously outside our room - we got a blurred photo of it when it appeared in the same tree as the owl. Very exciting to have bushbabies frolicking in the trees outside. We paid US$30 to see the other bushbaby - Eastern Needle-clawed Bushbaby (Galago matschiei) in Kibale Forest. This one had a strange ascending call that was unforgettable, and moved lightening fast - I was more used to the sedate pace of the Slow Loris - the bushbaby was like a super-fast squirrel, bounding from tree to tree, only quick looks were its very bright orangey eyes. Another nightwalk hopeful that was rare (and we missed) was the Potto - the guide has only seen it twice in eight years. Apparently Kibale Forest is up to 1,590 m asl, with 325 bird species including six Albertine rift endemics - Mountain Masked Apalis (Apalis personata), Blue-headed Sunbird (Nectarinia alinae), Collared Apalis (Apalis ruwenzorii), Dusky Crimsonwing, Purple-breasted Sunbird and Red-faced Woodland-warbler (Phylloscopus laetus). We missed the Crimsonwing and Purple-breasted Sunbird. Funny enough, we got the other four endemics in Ruwenzori.

The male alpha Chimpanzee in the group that we tracked that morning in Kibale Forest. It was the only chimp found on the ground. The rest of its troop was high up in the trees. We could hear the loud calls of the chimps - they were beating the trunks and hooting away as we approached them. I even saw two of them copulate, for just a brief few seconds. The female was in oestrous - its bum was swollen (which could be seen through the bins). Tim accidentally strayed into the 'territory' of the alpha, and was scared off by his loud response and slight lurch. Kibale hosts 13 species of primates including the chimps. It has up to 1,450 chimps - representing Uganda's largest population. Other primates we saw included the Red-tail Guenon, Blue Monkey, Grey-cheeked Mangabey and

Red Colobus. Tim lost his spectacles in the forest, but luckily our guard and guide found it back.

Sadly, the next morning, we were late and missed the display of the Green-breasted Pitta. We caught many glimpses of the bird, but only very shadowy looks - not counted. 

After the morning's chimp tracking, we came back for lunch - that was when I found the Forest Night Adder (Causus lichtensteiniislithering along the pathway near our rooms. It was unhurried and had a blue forked tongue. Blue triangular head on olive body - venomous. Our second and last snake. Videod it. Was frantic in trying to get Tim to come take a look, but he didn't hear me calling out to him. Only Gerard, who happened to be passing by, got good looks. Luckily, I managed to find it again for Tim a few minutes later. But Tim only caught a glimpse as it dove straight for the bushes.

 We had a pretty frustrating morning at Semuliki's Kirumia Trail. The muddiest trail we had ever birded in - the boots were essential - all of us brought our own boots for the trip. Poh Bee was very proud of her pink Crocs. The birds were all at the canopy level of very tall trees including the Piping Hornbill and the Red-billed Dwarf Hornbill. We came to Semuliki for a stab at Guinean-Congo (Central Africa) birding, not found elsewhere in East Africa - but only managed one such endemic - Red-rumped Tinkerbird (Pogoniulus atroflavus). One good thing - we got to see the original habitat of the Oil Palm and got the Orange-cheeked Waxbill (Estrilda melpoda), a bird that is not yet on the Ugandan bird list but is known to regularly occur on the roadsides of Semuliki. Here, we made a pit stop at Semuliki Hot Springs, a bubbling sulphurous area hot enough to boil some eggs in (yes, we had hard-boiled eggs). Very pretty limestone deposits that came is shades of pink, green and of course white.

 The Dung Beetle! Was very excited to see the classic sight of the Dung Beetle rolling his piece of 'dung' - earth backwards, in the evening at MF. We saw this beetle one more time, the second sighting produced a teeny weeny thingy rolling his dung.

 The friendly kids at a roadside church in Semuliki. The little girl in front even somersaulted.
 Breakfast with a view at the Mountains of the Moon Hotel - 1.5 hours away from Semuliki. We had opted to stay here when Gerard read poor reviews of Vanilla Hotel.

 The BEST moment of my trip was finally seeing the Ruwenzori three-horned Chameleon. This is the female - it is sloughing. I love its slow deliberate movements, the way its extremities are opposable.

Poh Bee was equally delighted and even placed the chemy on her arms and hat! It is a myth that chameleons change colours easily - they only change hues according to their moods.  We got both chameleons (male and female) within the first hour of our 3D2N Ruwenzori Climb.

Ruwenzori three-horned Chameleon - male. So colourful, so amazing, so invisible. Throughout the rest of the trip, the chameleons evaded us, even though I looked in every bush.

 The view got better as we ascended the Ruwenzoris. We started the hike at around 1,500m.

 Our first picnic lunch - the porters arrived way ahead of us - trekking at a clipped pace (we plodded slowly behind). We had what Gerard claimed - the best field-cooked sphaghetti of the trip. He kept raving about it, and praised the chef to no end. We also had the first of many super sweet pineapples and even a chequered picnic mat set up under a shady tent. Talk about pampered. Eighteen people (including Crammy) served just the four of us - we had to give out as much in tips. They were porters, cooks, guides and guards with AK47 rifles. The only danger was Forest Elephants (unfortunately, we had to walk in their muddy prints, otherwise, no other signs of them).

 Gerard's bird-of-the-day - the endemic Ruwenzori Turaco. Crammy is incredible at spotting and identifying birds. We really owe all our sightings to him. On Day One of Ruwenzori, we climbed through pristine rainforest of the Kyambogho Ridge with a view of the Mubuku Valley. After the forested ridge, we arrived at the Omu'ka Kizza Rest Camp at 2,977 m with supposed views of Ruwenzori foothills and Kasese town 2,160 m below.

 Finally, on Day 2, we descended into the 'Valley of the Single Lobelia' - Gerard's fond name for it. It was a beautiful verdant mossy valley with just ONE Giant Lobelia. Sadly, and most disappointingly, we were too low down to see the other botanical giants that the Ruwenzoris are famous for - the Giant Groundsel and Giant Heather. On Day 2, the forest gave way to thick bamboo at 2,700 m. We reached 3,515 m at some point after the Giant Lobelia. We then crossed over to Lake Mahoma Camp at 3,134 m where we shuddered through the night. 

 Camping was a cold affair. The first night, I couldn't get to sleep at all. I did everything to warm up, but to no avail - I just could not get warm. From 4 layers, I put on layers 5 and 6 (Tim's big sweater). Used my tuk, gloves, silk sleeping bag, reflective aluminium mat and even slept in the foetal position. All to no avail. The temperature was around 5 to 10 degrees celsius. The tent was to blame too - it was very nice and roomy - a six-men tent that we could stand up in. But it had open mesh on 3 sides - meant more for summer camping. It rained the first night and tiny sprays could be seen in the tent. Water also gathered at the sides. The second night was better as both Poh Bee and Gerard rescued me with their chemical warmers. At least I slept a little. 

Trekking was a very muddy affair. Again our wellies were essential. We also water-proofed everything - wearing rain-proof pants, rain gear, rain hat, rain cover for our backpacks etc etc. Spent SGD$1000 on equipment alone for this trip. Our guides carried our boots which we put on whenever the mud eased off. We needed the stick to navigate down very slippery slopes. Day 3 was the worse as it rained most of the day. Poh Bee's guide was there to help push and pull her along. I carried my own day pack up, but it was really tiring. Still, it appeared that everybody enjoyed the Ruwenzori leg. Gerard even said it was one of his trip highlights as it reminded him of being a little boy camping again. To me, seeing the chameleons alone made it worth the while.

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