Tag Archives | Featured

Overlanding Uganda: gorillas, chimps and a lot of bananas

Mountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is a pretty apt name for a Central African jungle that is at times so dense you can only see the head of the person a few steps in front of you. The first part of the hike was fairly easy going – a well-worn gently sloping path under giant trees took us into the forest but we soon veered off track and then it was bundu bashing time: a machete-hacking, slippery, steep, vine-scrambling adventure that had our band of eight camera-clad trekkers full of mud, sweating like cold beers and gasping for breath.

We felt the gorillas before we saw them. A piece of bark dropped on my head and I looked up to see a black blob in the tree above us – the source of the rainfall of bark, leaves and twigs showering down on us. Before I’d had a chance to get my camera out the blob lowered itself down the nearest tree trunk like a firefighter going down a pole and disappeared into the forest. The big mountain gorilla spotting moment was over in a few seconds.

Flying halfway across the African continent to equatorial Uganda, driving for 10 hours on potholed roads and battling through thickets of stinging nettles was luckily not going to amount to just a few seconds of gorilla sighting. Just ahead of us, up another bum-clenchingly steep ravine, we panted up to where the rest of the Bitukura gorilla group sat – the huge silverback, munching away nonchalantly like a serene giant Buddha, a mother and her tiny teddy-bear-like 10-month old baby with shiny button eyes, an adult female who walked through our group to get to her eating spot, thrillingly brushing past my leg as she passed and some other adults and juveniles clambering around in trees and rustling through the bushes all around us.

Mountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

This is what we’d come all this way for – to spend an hour with these creatures who share 98% of their genes with us – a group of gentle vegetarian giants whose mannerisms and features are sometimes so human like you can’t believe they’re animals. With less than a thousand mountain gorillas left on the planet, which are only found in three places (Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo), the chance to come a few metres from the apes while they go about their daily business is pretty unbeatable as far as wildlife experiences go. We clicked away, taking thousands of photos and shooting breathless videos as silverbacks walked within touching distance and the baby took a few waddling steps, transfixed, in awe and losing all sense of time before our guides almost had to physically remove us after an hour.

Tracking mountain gorillas was the highlight of a week-long overlanding camping tour with Nomad Adventure Tours through Uganda. Along with a bunch of South African travel bloggers, I bounced around in a huge truck called Marilyn for 1500 kilometres with a bunch of Poles, a few Swedes, a German and two Zimbabweans – our indefatigable driver, Servius Mahara and a master of comedic timing guide, Norman Lova.

Marilyn, our Nomad truck and trusty steed

The trip wasn’t only about gorillas, though. Uganda is a spectacularly beautiful country of wonderfully friendly people, and even though we only had a few days, we managed to squeeze a lot in. After a night in Kampala, which is safe and easy to get around, although traffic choked and dusty, we drove for a day heading south west and stayed at one of the best campsites I’ve ever been to: Lake Bunyonyi Overland Resort, on the shores of serene Lake Bunyonyi, where our tents were pitched a few metres from the water. Sunsets on the lake were those perfect African ones, where you have a cold beer in hand (the Kenyan Tusker was my choice), sit on the deck and watch the sky turn from apricot to pink to bruised purple. When we weren’t gorilla tracking in Bwindi, a two-hour drive away, we were swimming in the lake, getting felt up by an 87-year old woman in the village for suitability as African wives and visiting a local orphanage called Little Angels (where I taught a maths class to a group of the cutest kids, and had my hair braided into an extremely painful hairstyle by dozens of little hands).

Beautiful Lake Bunyonyi

From Lake Bunyonyi we had the most scenic drive of the trip, past banana plantations (I’ve never been to a country with more bananas), coffee trees and rolling hills of sparkling green tea plantations in Bushenyi, till we came to the top of a plateau and looked down at a flat savanna peppered with acacia trees: Queen Elizabeth National Park. Our two days here were spent game driving (spotting buffalo, elephants, olive baboons and Ugandan kob, which look just like impala) and tracking chimpanzees in Karinzu Forest Reserve, a short drive out of the park.

Game drive in Queen Elizabeth National Park

Chimp tracking in Karinzu Forest Reserve

While you have about a 95% chance of finding mountain gorillas when you go tracking in Bwindi, you have an 80% chance of seeing chimps in Karinzu, which means there’s a chance that you could hike for hours and not see anything. The chimpanzee permit is much lower than the mountain gorilla one ($75 as opposed to $600) so it was a gamble worth taking. The Karinzu reserve starts right next to the road, so we got dropped off by a minibus, took a few steps down the verge and were suddenly plunged into forest. No sooner had we gone a few steps before we heard the unmistakable ear-piercing shrieks of chimpanzees. They were tantalisingly close, but because they were hunting a colobus monkey, they were moving fast through the trees, and we had to trot to keep up – getting swatted by thorny vines and branches as we went bundu bashing for the second time in Central Africa. By the time we’d caught up with them, we were covered in bloody scratches and sweat patches – a real Rambo-in-the-jungle look. Chimpanzees are rather large – larger than you might think – and even more human like than mountain gorillas and our first glimpse of one, about 20 metres away from us in the dimness of the forest, looked disconcertingly human, standing on his hind legs and using a stick for scraping ants out of a nest. Unlike gorillas, chimps don’t really sit around much like perfect wildlife models – they spend most of their time up in the trees, so we did a lot of neck craning and zoom lensing. Even though you don’t get the surreal closeness that you do with the gorillas, chimp tracking was incredibly exhilarating.

A week in Uganda wasn’t long enough to see all of this amazing country, but it gave me a taste of the landscape of mist-shrouded crater lakes and 50-shades-of-green jungles. I will be back.

To give you more of a sense of the trip, check out this video made by Joseph C Lawrence.

 

 

Overlanding in Uganda to track mountain gorillas

Nomad Adventure Tours offers a six-night, seven-day camping overlanding tour of Uganda, which costs from R9450, excluding the mountain gorilla permit, which costs around $600. You can travel to Uganda independently and hire a car (or take public transport) and organise the permit yourself but it’s much easier to do an overlanding trip where all you have to do is set up your tent, bring lots of music and books for the long drives and make new friends in the truck.

Thanks to Hi-Tec and Cape Union Mart for the sponsorship of these hiking shoes and very snazzy K-Way backpacks.

4

Switzerland without the skis

When I first saw the itinerary of my trip to central Switzerland in the middle of winter I thought there was a page missing. Where was the bit where we skiied for days? I’d been to Switzerland before and all I’d done was ski and eat mountains of chocolate.

It turns out that there’s a lot more to Switzerland than sliding down mountains with bits of carbon fibre and plastic strapped to your feet. On a six-day trip we went snow shoeing through mountain forests by moonlight, sledded down mountains so fast that our eyes streamed, raced snow mobiles around like badass James Bond villains, tried out curling – a ridiculously slippery bowls-like sport played on an ice rink, strapped on helmets and slid down slopes on airboards (lilos with handles) and ate our body weight in cheese (tip: don’t go to sleep after eating fondue unless you want psychedelic nightmares).

From the lovely car-free village of Wengen we caught a train which took us through a snow blizzard where you couldn’t see where the mountains ended and the sky began and into a steep tunnel inside a mountain glacier all the way up to Jungfraujoch at 3454 metres. Feeling tipsy from the altitude, we walked inside the Ice Palace – tunnels containing ice sculptures and American white oak barrels of maturing Swiss whisky carved out of the glacier. We managed about three minutes outside to take photos of the spectacular view before our fingers froze and our teeth started to hurt – it was -20 degrees with 30 kilometre winds.

From Wengen we took a train and a cable car up to Murren, an even lovelier little village of 350 people and cabin porn wherever you look where instead of cars going down the streets you have skiers and sledders whizzing past and Christmas is not limited to the 25th of December – a month on, all the festive decorations will still strung up in the streets and perched in windows of houses. Our guided tour of Murren (led by the head of village tourism who also worked in the police force and fire brigade) consisted of going inside the village’s fire truck (and seeing its blue lights whirl) and walking down the main street of a few restaurants, bakery and postcard shops and meeting just about every Murren resident.

Above Murren is Schilthorn mountain, which has some pretty epic-looking off-piste ski runs (which no one was on that day because of planned avalanche detonations) and Piz Gloria – a revolving restaurant featured in the Bond movie On her Majesty’s Secret Service – at the top. The cable car played Bond music, there was a cardboard cut out of George Lazenby stuck outside in the arctic winds at the top of the mountain and a very cool James Bond interactive exhibition featuring such things as a simulated helicopter flight over the mountain. We ate 007 burgers and 007 pasta washed down with 007 cappuccinos in the revolving restaurant which had just about the best lunchtime views of anywhere, ever – picture endless vistas of the snow-covered Bernese alps and tiny matchbox villages in the far distance.

The last stop on the trip was Engelberg, which was founded as a monastery about 1000 years ago when a monk spotted an angel above one of the dramatic peaks that surrounds the village. You can stay in the village like we did and travel by cable car to go sledding, snow mobiling, tubing (like river tubing but on slopes) or skiing, or wear an extra pair of long johns and stay on Trubsee mountain in the igloo hotel. At a temperate 1 degree, the hotel’s not exactly cosy but it’s a pretty magical place to spend a night. There’s a restaurant with wooden fur-covered stools where you’re served fondue (a lingering smell of cheese permeates the icy passages here), a blue-lit bar where you’d probably want to drink as much hot gluhwein as you can to warm up and rooms that sleep between two and six people, each with beautiful ice carvings in the wall of different animals, furnished with sleeping bags that can keep you toasty in temperatures as low as -40 degrees. My favourite were the jacuzzis – rooms with skylights melted in the roof and bubbling hot jacuzzis. I can’t imagine anything more romantic than sitting in there at night as snow falls on you, drinking some Swiss wine.

From Trubsee we had a ride up to the top of Mount Titlis (cue juvenile humour) on the world’s first revolving aerial cable car, watching skiers make their way down treacherous-looking black runs as we headed up to what looked like the world beyond the wall in Game of Thrones. In -15 degrees we jumped up and down on Europe’s highest suspension bridge as it swayed in the whipping winds and took selfies while our fingers froze and I remembered what explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ hands looked like after his last Antarctic expedition.

When you go on a skiing trip you generally stay in one resort – and days are a wonderful routine of waking up, carbo loading, riding the cable car up and skiing all day, with breaks for hot chocolate and cheesy Alpine food. You don’t end up exploring much or seeing anywhere else other than the ski runs of the village. What I loved about this trip was how much we travelled around. We traversed the breadth of the tiny snowy country by train, travelling up and down white tree-covered mountains that looked like Christmas cards, winding around glacier-studded peaks, past chocolate-box-cute villages of steep-roof wooden cabins, tiny churches and graveyards as neat as mathematical paper and through valleys with lakes the colour of Halls blue cough lozenges.

The spectacular train rides alone would have been worth a trip to Switzerland – there aren’t many other places in the world with that kind of railroad scenery. In fact, you could easily spend a whole week riding trains and taking photos out the window, eating delicious pretzels from stalls in the stations you stop at and sleeping at charming family-run alpine hotels with fireplaces and thick hot chocolate and bircher muesli for breakfast. Or you could spend a trip just taking cable cars to the top of ridiculously beautiful mountains, or spend all day sledding through trees, high on adrenaline and cheese. Or all of the above.

 

Getting to Switzerland from South Africa

Edelweiss flies to Zurich direct from Cape Town on Tuesdays and Fridays during the winter season – October to May. Swiss Air flies direct to Zurich from Johannesburg daily.

Getting around Switzerland

Switzerland is just about the easiest country to travel around, with an amazing network of rail, funicular and cable cars – and everything runs exactly on time (as in, to the second). Because we were going to be doing a lot of moving around, we got Swiss Passes – an all-in-one ticket that allows you to travel by road, rail and waterway for the duration of your stay.

 

My trip to Switzerland was hosted by Edelweiss and Switzerland Tourism.  

7

Why Orange River rafting was my best holiday ever

I’ve been wanting to go rafting on the Orange River for years but somehow had never got round to it. At the end of last year I got a big group of friends together and we drove up to Namibia from Cape Town the day after Christmas and then ended up having the best holiday ever.

I think there’s a difference between travelling and going on holiday. When you travel you go to new places and have constant stimulation and want to try everything and see as much as possible. I usually get up early in the morning and spend the whole day walking in a city or driving around somewhere, exploring as much as I can. I’m constantly photographing and taking notes and thinking about the place I’m in, and planning the stories I’m going to write. By the end of it I feel like I could do with a holiday to relax.

Rafting on the Orange River is not travel like that. It’s a holiday in the proper sense of the word. All you have to do is get yourself up to Namibia – an easy drive from Cape Town and the most chilled border crossing ever – and then all you have to worry about after that is not capsizing and keeping your cooler box shut so that your beers stay cold. If you’re on a catered trip, your river guides cook all meals for you – all you need to bring is snacks and drinks.

After spending our first night at base camp, we packed up our canoes and began our 90-kilometre paddle down the river past desert sand dunes, craggy mountains (my favourite was the sharp peak known as the Witch’s Hat), the occasional troop of barking baboons. The concept of time became irrelevant – the rhythm of life was one of floating, paddling, swimming, drinking beer, eating lunch, drinking more beer and then setting up camp each night on the banks of the river, sleeping under a sky speckled with a mind-bogglingly-large amount of stars.

The best moments of the trip were when we jumped out of our canoes, strapped our life jackets on like nappies, held our boats together and floated downstream. When I start to feel stressed now that I’m back in the city, I take my mind back to those moments, when time seemed to stand still.

I never once thought about my real life back home, or work or the year ahead or anything else that was potentially stressful. I think it was as a result of a combination of not caring about time, going into a zen-like headspace while paddling for awhile without anyone speaking, being surrounded by my favourite kind of landscape (barren, deserty and without people), feeling connected to natural rhythms and sleeping under the stars.

If you’re not into camping or being hot (it was about 45 degrees each day we were there), or roughing it (you go to the toilet out in the desert with a stick and a brown paper bag) then this is probably not a good holiday option for you. But if you love being outside (and don’t mind a bit of sun) and being away from people and civilisation, then it can’t get better than Orange River rafting.

 

How to do an Orange River rafting trip

There are a number of operators (on both the South African and Namibian sides of the border) who offer guided trips along the river, ranging from one day to several days. I can recommend Amanzi Trails – one of the most affordable options, with friendly guides and hearty meals. Other operators include Gravity Adventures, Felix Unite and Bundi.

You can opt to self-cater but you don’t pay much more to have all your meals catered for you, and going for the catered option does mean that you don’t have to worry about a thing other than keeping your drinks cold.

 

All photos are by my talented friend Gabrielle Guy.

6