From The Highland Forests To Chance Encounters On The Plains Of Queen Elizabeth National Park - Discovering Uganda

Posted in Travel / The Honey Badger Diaries

From The Highland Forests To Chance Encounters On The Plains Of Queen Elizabeth National Park - Discovering Uganda

Some mornings, I wake up and pinch myself. How different my life has turned out? I woke up at five thirty this morning, and in a past life, that would be the time I’d leave home to go for my Monday, Wednesday, or Friday walk with my girlfriends. We’d been doing so for thirty years; different groups of girls and I marched through various stages of our lives. For many years, I’d have to rush home to get the children dressed for school or drop Lise off at the pool for her morning swim training.

It’s dark outside, with no golden light filtering through the knob thorn trees yet. I lolled in bed, tucking my Indian cotton sheet under my chin to ward off the autumn chill and reminisced until Butch brought my morning brew (the last of my Zambian cache) and a rusk. “It will be cold and dark in Worcester now”, I said. “Yes, you’d need your headlamp to set off on your morning walk,” he remarked. The roads we now travel a far cry from expertly tarred roads with proper pavements!

We’ve no more Woolies rusks; they’re long gone. But a ginger biscuit or lemon cream will do. It’s not Baker’s biscuits; it’s whatever we can find in a market stall.


I needed time to mull over my Gorilla experience. Savour it, regurgitate my photographs and think about the outcome or the probable future of those precious, vulnerable animals. I wonder if we’re not exploiting them into extinction in our pursuit of conservation. But as my mother said, “Money, my dear, buys the whiskey.” Money, education, perseverance and a collective will be needed to keep the primates alive and thriving for future generations and the world. “How do you stop progress?” you might ask. I have no idea.


While Rene and Yvonne, our German friends, kipped in their cosy cocoon, they are night owls and work late into the early hours editing and perfecting their popular weekly YouTube vlogs and podcast. Butch and I packed up and set off in the direction of the Queen Elizabeth National Park.

The sight of the safari vehicles parked on the verge made me smile. I have first-hand knowledge of the experience the hikers will have and hoped the gorillas would make it through the night unscathed. Surprisingly, my legs are in good form, and I could boast no painful muscles from the relentless slippery climb or tricky descent.

I soon spotted openings in the vegetation marking the start of trails used by trackers and guides, and I would lean over in my seat to see whether I might spot a troupe shaking a cluster of yellow and green bamboo stands as Butch deftly navigated the narrow, slippery clay road.

Before we knew it, we were confronted with deforestation. The road was littered with bark, logs, and planks piled along the road to be collected by bombed-out trucks churning up the mountainside. The lumber was deposited in the many sawmills and roadside hardware shops. Large swathes of mountainside had been cleared for the infamous blue gum tree, used during the early 20th century for the building of railway lines which criss cross Africa like sutured wounds.

All too soon, we noticed bottle green wavy contours were being cultivated for the very lucrative tea and coffee industry. Every conceivable inch of land is farmed. Homesteads dotted the landscape, and small villages lined the road. Majestic trees, ferns and vines made way for banana plantations and erosion.

Pickers with Vietnamese-style picking baskets strapped onto their backs brought in full loads or returned to the trees ripe for picking.

It was a public holiday, and children had free reign to enjoy the day off. Every time we stopped, a gang of exuberant boys would cluster around the truck, admiring our maps, stickers, flags and the big tyres.

On one occasion, a very observant youth noticed we were losing air in our rear wheel. Although I was sceptical, he was persistent. Sure enough, our tyre pressure monitor had not as yet picked up the problem. Fortunately, Butch was able to insert a plug, another fascination to the onlookers, and without much delay, we were on our way.

And so we tootled along. One minute, we’d be enveloped in the wet, mossy, warm embrace of the forest only to be spat out into cultivation and small village life mushrooming along the side of the road.

Carpentry, machinery workshops, second-hand tyre dealers, small groceries, a pharmacy or clinic, primary schools, a Catholic Church, and a bustling market selling all manner of goods like fresh produce, airtime, second-hand clothing, mock Crocs and fake Nikes and Bata shoes, football clobber, evening gowns, or engine parts would be strung out along the road and deep into a warren of alleys where one had to hop, skip and jump over stormwater furrows, puddles and garbage. The chances are good you’ll find whatever you’re looking for.

In unison, we called out “fresh meat.” Our eyes were trained on a butcher. We would take the plunge and buy our first side of fresh meat from one of the pavement butcheries.

We would do three tests before our purchase: 1. Smell, 2. The absence of flies or not 3. Touch—the meat must be cold, firm, and an acceptable colour. NO blue flies in sight.

After a drive-by, we spotted what we were looking for and doubled back to a butcher, much to the amusement of his clientele and neighbours who stood by arms folded while leaning against the lean-tos (very silmilar to the reaction towns ladies get when they go to the local Co-op in S.A.) We were the current topic of conversation.

Once the tests were complete and we’d given the carcass a good once over, Butch selected a shoulder of pork which the butcher hacked off with a sharp machete. We were thrilled with our purchase and couldn’t stop admiring it as we rolled it around, smiling before the butcher wrapped it in newspaper. Mission accomplished.


The landscape was so different from what we were accustomed to, and we were fascinated by every aspect of the conditions. Uganda has been severely affected by civil war, decades of bad governance, and the aftermath of Idi Amin. Although everyone is cheerful, hardworking, and industrious, the country lacks infrastructure, its roads are in disrepair, and it is probably thirty years behind developing countries in the region.

Infrequently, we would find a yield sign or a peeling school sign, but directions, distances, or speed signs were non-existent. Our Google Maps or GPS could not figure out where we were or where we had to head off to. Fortunately, we had the internet and could contact Rene, who could forward a pin drop. We turned around and caught up with them. We noticed that the butcher had sold out and closed the shop.

Farming methods are outdated, and coffee trees are old and often overgrown. Until recently, we were told, acres of trees were left to run wild and unchecked. Recently, pruning methods have been implemented, and young trees have been introduced where necessary to stimulate and encourage coffee farming.

In all spheres, many industries were still managed by hand with handmade implements, e.g., a quarry along the side of the road where workers were chopping and cracking rocks with rudimentary implements and handmade ladders—a painstakingly slow process. Piles of stone or rock were neatly piled alongside the road, ready for buyers to load onto trucks, wagons or bullock carts.

We found our friends pouring over maps and using local knowledge to guide us to our desired destination. We’ve often found that the best option is to have this conversation, no matter how complex the language barrier or confusing the gestures are. Slowly-slowly does it. It takes a lot of trust, nodding, and an application of the mind to remember the instructions and landmarks.

Grinning triumphantly while rubbing his hands in glee, Rene would say, wagging his index finginer,  “But ziss eez whot makez zee journee eggs-citing Boosh. Auch, I luff eet.” Yvonne would smile indulgently and shake her thick mane.

Districts with names my tongue can’t get around like Kayonza – Karangara, Butogota, in the Northern ward and Kanyantorogo, where longhorn cattle would plod through muddy puddles listlessly while being spurred on by herders with leather whips or thin, pliant branches from the rear.

We descended the mountains onto the flatlands of Burema, where the roads became dryer. The sun peeked through the clouds, showing washed azure skies—a sign that clouds were breaking up from recent rains.

There has been a population explosion in Kihihi–Kabuga, as gaggles of rambunctious toddlers and small pre-schoolers spill out of homes, flooding roads and sidewalks and waving frantically as we pass. No child begged for food or money—a welcome, joyous sight.

At last, after a very long and eventful day, we saw the sign for the Bullbush Rivercamp, our overnight stay. It had been raining, and the roads were flooded. Butch and Rene decided to walk the roads and measure the potholes and dongas before we passed through them. Butch is not keen on black cotton clay, warning us that we could get stuck in the mud. A thought none of us relish.

Once again, with our diff-locks engaged and in 4x4, we grind our way through the muddy waters to the lodge where the friendly yet unenthusiastic receptionist half-heartily welcomes us and, after much negotiation and sweet talking, relents and offers us a camping spot for the night. In her defence, I recall that the campsite was very wet and flooded in some places. We sloshed through the waters to the ablutions and later back to the trucks.


An animated choir of frogs throatily croaked and ribbet-ribbet-ribbeted lustily out of unison all around us, and the pregnant river rushed downstream, swirling around trees bull rushes. At the same time, a few polished stones managed to keep the tops of their heads above water. That’s where we’ll have our morning coffee, we decided.

The kitchen was closed, and the receptionist volunteered before we could ask. Our supper would be leftovers. In our respective kitchens, we decided to swat a platoon of busy mosquitoes and midges from our exposed anklets. A cuppa soup would do, Butch agreed.

After our coffees the following morning, we up-sticks and moved on to a drier, upmarket establishment a few kilometres away.

The first person I saw was a magnificent portrait of our beloved Nelson Mandela in pencil. The artist had drawn the clear, intelligent, sparkling eyes just right, and that friendly, lovely smile had me choked up. How lucky we are to call him our own.


We spent three nights in this tropical paradise, under the trees, with winding pathways through the gardens to secluded spots on the river and plains. We did a spot of birdwatching and chatted around the fire at sunset.


The bird life was prolific and whenever I could I'd click a few of our resident feathered friends. Here they are. 

As I’ve said before, one expects a tropical climate in the tropics. But it is not to be. We were there during the rainy season, and while Botswana and parts of Zambia were experiencing a dry summer, we were swimming in rainwater. Our laundry didn’t dry, the towels were musty, and our linens were always damp. I had visions of all sorts of bugs and ‘squitoes (mozzies) dive-bombing us the minute the sun set. I waded through muddy puddles in my flip-flops, hoping nothing untoward would hatch or breed under my skin.

As children, our Zulu housekeeper checked us over every other day for sand-fly eggs embedded under our skin. She warned that everything, even nylons and crimplene, had to be ironed to prevent worms from hatching in fabrics that could penetrate the skin.

One morning, the night guard came running to tell us he’d spotted a colossal puff-adder crossing the road. Fortunately, the staff were as Obtidiophobic as I was and made a short shift of the creature (they didn’t say so, but I am resting in the knowledge they did). Whenever I walked past the spot, I gave it a wide berth.

Then, one day, we went to the village to get supplies. While our diesel tanks filled, I met Maren and Mathias in their huge yellow truck, fondly referred to as Kurt—Overlanders from Germany who, like us, don’t know when this adventure will end. The European Overlanders we’ve met have the privilege of returning home every few months to catch up and celebrate with friends and family before returning to Kurt to take up their journey again.

That evening, we were a full house around the campfire and dining table. Butch and I stayed up far later than is customary to laugh and chat and improve our German. We were burning the midnight oil. Our seventh and unexpected guest was Orin.

Where we six retirees are ordinary doing what many Europeans do, Orin is an exception to every rule.

With his Scandinavian good looks, he stands out in a crowd. His blue eyes laugh with infectious good humour; he is fearless, authentic and brave. This dreadlocked human enthralled us with stories of the African bush and rave parties in the deserts of Morocco, or was it Algeria?

Born of similarly adventurous, free-spirited parents, Orin, born in Zambia but educated in Belgium, lives with his head in the clouds but his feet firmly cemented on terra firma. He believes we must “follow the sun; purpose will come!” Another one of his many mottoes is “Don’t conform; live life freely.”

At sixteen, he kicked his education into touch, did odd jobs, saved and bought his first Mercedes Overlander truck. He’s not thirty, yet he has a small fleet of trucks. He’s a swallow migrating between Uganda and spending his summers in Europe wheeling, dealing, and blasting music at mega music Rave concerts all over Europe and North Africa.

When he tires of all the noise and confusion, he returns to Uganda, where he’s seriously committed to Wildlife conservation. When we met him, he was busy tracking one of the Queen Elizabeth National Park’s pride of lions, checking on their well-being, collaring them, counting the cubs, and educating his colleagues and trackers. With the aid of a vet in the field, he can dart a lion and apply the collar.

His knowledge of tracking, bush lore, the big cats, and wildlife is encyclopaedic. We six were in awe, and Butch, Yvonne, Rene and I grabbed the invitation to join Orin on a sundowner game drive once we were in the park with both hands. But that was a gift for later and depended on his work schedule.

Once we had our laundry dry and I had done some housekeeping and written and posted a blog, we were on our way ever north. We promised to keep in touch with Maren and Mathias as they continued their journey to Tanzania. We’re hoping and holding thumbs we’ll see Orin again. He roared off in a spray of mud. His trusty old Land Cruiser keeps up the revs while the gears grind and the clutch is floored for all to hear. Our last sighting was a cloud of blue-grey smoke and explosions from his exhaust.


It was not until I spotted the heavy wooden self-built foot scooter  (voet poegie) that the penny dropped. This was the contraption someone had mentioned on numerous occasions. Had we spotted the "homemade wooden bicycles?" we were asked. No, we hadn't . A very popular mode of transport in Uganda we realised once we knew what was being referred to. This is just another example of people's ingenuity, talent, resilience and craftmanship. 


A while ago, Butch left me to my tasks going off to do his own catching up with the outside world. We’ve been out of touch with everyone for weeks. My phone sends ominous messages warning me that “this iPhone has not backed up to the Cloud for six weeks.”  I must sync 3,581 photographs. My hands are tied.

I close my laptop, pack it up, and gather all my bits and bobs to search for Wi-Fi. Tea and cake will be served at the lodge, and I won’t miss out.

On our top step, I must stop to count the rowdy arrow-marked babblers fighting for a grub on the lawn. Two Robin Chats are on the wall: a good omen, a squawking hornbill, and a Malachite kingfisher waiting patiently for a catch. I hear a Woodpecker’s rhythmic knocking on wood and an African Fish Eagle calling his mate downstream. Three tree squirrels, their tails up like antennae, are on the chase across the lawn, scampering over a dead tree stump before flying into the branches, giggling madly. We have yet to spot a crocodile or hear a hippopotamus.

All this, and it’s only elevenses on a Monday morning in May.


The road to the Queen Elizabeth National Park was a muddy mess. The going was a slow slog through potholes, puddles, small pools and a road churned to a buttery mess. The earth working heavy equipment we passed along the way was an unnecessary nuisance, causing more havoc.

The day’s drive was anxiety-driven yet exhilarating when we spotted the occasional herd of gazelle or troupe of baboons. The unfenced parks with community land bordering them often deliver an excellent sighting and serve as a teaser of what’s to come, heightening our expectations. The wet roads were a nightmare.


At last, we could see the grassy green plains of the National Park. Our first sighting was an enormous tusker, a bull elephant making his languid way across the plains after he visited the watering hole.

The park is known for its abundant wildlife, including African elephants, African buffalo, Ugandan kob, hippopotamus, topi, waterbuck, warthog, giant forest hog, Nile crocodile, leopard, spotted hyena, chimpanzee, and lion. It is home to 95 mammal species and over 600 bird species.

A couple on their honeymoon (A south African and his British wife) and their guide were killed in a “cowardly terrorist attack” at Queen Elizabeth National Park in south-west Uganda a few weeks prior to our visit. We were assured of our safety as security forces were on full alert.

We would not spend the night in the park but on the outskirts at a community campsite to suit our budget. We’d set up in no time, and just before sunset, Orin arrived in his trusty Land Cruiser to pick us up.

Sometimes, the axiom “it’s not what you know but who you know” does the trick. Into the sunset, we careened, crisscrossing the veld, tracking a pride of lions on roads inaccessible to most people (especially in a truck).

This would be an exceptional sighting as we followed the pride and a female teaching her adolescent cubs how to hunt. They soon spotted a herd of buffalo wallowing in a pool of mud. She monitored the boys with grunts, scowls, and low growls while watching them from a distance.

We soon realised that she would not hunt, no matter how tempting the fat buffalo were. This time, it was all about instruction. The cubs circled and made false lunges. The two youngsters  “leopard” crawled closer to their prey, growled and mock-charging, and even posed full of playful bravado atop a beacon in full view of their prey.

The female called them nearer in frustration at their antics and playfulness. As soon as the sun set and the blue hour set in, the buffalo upped, shook the excess mud off themselves and galloped across the plains to safety.

This, Orin told us, is what he lives for. To be a voyeur in the veld, to meld into the plains, being a silent onlooker as nature unfurls around him. We couldn’t agree more.

We had much to discuss that evening around our table as Orin and the trackers joined us for a late dinner before they set off to their bush camp somewhere remote.


The following day Butch and I set off on our bikes for our early morning cycle to Lake Katwe, where we stopped at the fishing harbour.

Over the centuries, the villagers have become so accustomed to the behaviour of the crocodiles and hippopotami that they have no fear of these animals (hippos are responsible for the most wild animal caused deaths in Africa every year.) We watch in horror as one fisherman collects water in a bucket to wash his gutted fish a mere ten meters from a bull eyeing him. No love lost there, we thought stepping back in case we were in his line of vision.

Back in the village, we made our second purchase of fresh goat’s meat from the butcher who, while wielding his machete to chop our leg of goat into blocks, had to be forcefully restrained by Butch.

I turned my back on the spectacle, not knowing what to expect. Soon children crowded around me inspecting the bike and agreed to have their photo taken. They couldn't wait to see themselves on film. The excitement soon reached other children who came running to be included. I loved every minute.

Butch managed, with difficulty, to convince the man to give the joint to us in one piece. This is not the way things are done there, he was told. Meat is stewed in water with a few vegetables and a pinch of salt, not grilled and de-boned on a barbecue.

There is no mistaking the carcass for sale. The head and trotters were left out on display on a chopping block for easy identification.

Butch de-boned the leg of goat, and once trimmed, Yvonne marinated the meat in yoghurt, black pepper and rosemary, the way her grandmother did it in Greece.

I had to swallow my pride and take back my words uttered to Rajesh, our driver in India, when I told him I do not eat “the holy goat” in solidarity with him, who does not eat the holy cow.

Our supper was delicious. The goat was accompanied by roasted aubergine, a traditional Greek potato bake and a Greek Salad with the last of Yvonne’s feta cheese.


The following day, we took ourselves off for another cycle, ignoring the dire warnings of wild animals lurking in the grasses. We only live once we said bombing our way over the crest. Only later, in the safety of our vehicles, did we spot the leopard in the candelabra tree alongside the very road we cycled nonchalantly. The animal was so well camouflaged that it took me ages to spot him with my binoculars. Jikes.

We visited the local souvenir market, where local artists displayed and sold their carvings, beadwork, and traditional clothes. Beautiful products are crafted with care using tools and knowledge told and retaught from past generations.


Orin, his assistants and trackers were on the spoor of a lion. Shortly after sunrise, he said. We didn't see them again. If you ever read this blog, Orin, be sure that we think of you often and appreciate the time you spent with us. You are remarkable, and we know you’re living your best life. You’re probably back in Europe, driving your truck to a festival in some obscure location. You are an inspiration. I hope, one day, you'll share your experiences with the world.

"if we experienced life through the eyes of a child, everything would be magical and extraordinary. Let our curiosity, adventure and wonder of life never end." Anonymous