Trekking Uganda: Lions, Elephants, Hippos, & Bugs Aplenty!

Arriving back from the hospital in the pitch black of night, we jumped out of Gerard’s Matatu and were instantly engulfed in thick swarms of midges, there was only one thing we could do – turn off our head torches and pitch our tents in the black of a rural Ugandan night.

It was earlier in the expedition in South Western Uganda that one of my team fell sick, requiring a trip to a decent medical facility 2 hourrs away from our newly settled base in Queen Elizabeth National Park. Returning to camp we were greeted by the rest of the team battling a sky as thick with midges as the gruel they had struggled to get cooked in the hot and frankly rather unusual circumstances. The only way to escape the oppressive flying fog was to quickly chow, dole out necessary medicine and bolt for the sanctuary of our tents.  The next morning our planned game drives promised Lions, Elephants, Hippos and a myriad of other Wildlife of the African Savannah – a bright shining light at the end of a challenging tunnel of a day for a young and inexperienced team.

Prior to arriving in the National Park, the team had completed a few days trekking in the villages surrounding the town of Kilembe, in the hills leading into the Rwenzori Mountain Range. It was an acclimatization period, meant to help the team to “get to know” Uganda and its people. This was a  hill valley settlement around a disused Canadian copper mine, a village that slowly welcomes visitors into its daily routine. It takes time to get used to camping at Rwenzori Trekking Services, but the adjustment is welcome – you swap the nightclub soundtrack of Kampala for the sounds of children playing football next to the torrenting river; and a genuine sense of peace.

After the team’s first good sleep since arrival we were introduced to rural Uganda proper for the first time. Under the knowledgeable and skilled stewardship of Joshua and Bongo Man, our two local guides, we headed up into the hills around Kilembe for two days on the Buwata Community Trail, a brilliant concept-trekking service, based around community-owned sustainable tourism (find more info about Buwata Community Trail here). The highlight of this small but achievable trek was universally agreed to be camping at 2,300 meters (7,545 feet) in the Rwenzori Mountain village of Bunyandiko, being cooked for by local Village Mummas, and eating, while watching the equatorial sun sink behind the majestic hills on the far side of the valley.

After this two-day yomp, and a further one-day hike up to Rucocchi falls – all adding up to three days of quite intense physical effort – that the team rose early to organize supplies and head down to Queen Elizabeth National Park for some rest and relaxation in the form of two days on Safari. The first night among the beasts was anything but restful or relaxing.

As I lay in my tent I heard others suffering from the same fate that had befallen me… some of the flying tormentors had found their way in to my sanctuary, even though I had been quick and careful getting in. For half an hour the sounds around me were a mix of Hippo grunts as the lumbering beasts made their base on land for the night, and young peoples’ slaps and cries of vanquish as they set out on a tent-emptying crusade against their flying opponents. Eventually the people won and after four days of physical effort, hospital drama, and seemingly biblical assault by insects, I and the team fell into an exhausted hippo-lulled sleep.

As the sun rose on our first morning camped by the river, overlooked by one of Queen Elizabeth of England’s favorite holiday destinations (hence the name), the previous evenings’ insect ridden drama seemed a thing of the distant past. Clear blue sky was warming fast to the sound of fishermen and women heading out into the flow in search of their daily catch from the banks below our camp. Hippos, having been noisy land-lubbers for the night, were idling lackadaisically in the shallows, just out of paddle’s reach from the fishermen, only their eyes, ears, and nostrils visible above the murky brown water. Herons stalked the banks, waiting for breakfast to tempt them.

As Gerard and his Matatu pulled into camp the team swilled the last of their fire-boiled coffee and headed off into the savanna.  As the sun rose higher, we were greeted by the promised Lions, Elephants, Hippos, Buck, Eagles and the Ugandan national symbol, the Crane. It was a phenomenal wildlife experience, made all the more sweeter by the teams’ ability to manage the drama preceding the joy.  As is often the case in adventure – the rewards seem far greater when achieved through a little challenge!

Josh Bulpin

About Josh Bulpin

Josh Bulpin is a Youth Expedition Leader and occasional scribbler of words on his adventures and observations. Having recently spent a year based on a houseboat in Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Josh is now living back in London planning up-coming adventures in India and East Africa.