This was the first time in a while I needed to plan a trip, yet wasn’t exactly sure where to go. I had a couple of ideas in mind and had been asking around Zanzibar for opinions on where to renew my visa. Some said Zambia, some Rwanda, and some Kenya, anything that bordered Tanzania really. I also got a number of ideas from the G Adventures CEO’s on the ground in East Africa. All in all, I decided to go on a bit of a whim and visit Uganda with three others I knew were going around the same time I was looking to go.
Our crew got in touch with one another, sorted some last minute details (flights), and decided to hit the road, bound for a new country and new adventures. We were three Americans and one Canadian (me). My limited pre trip research presented an incredible history and a couple of interesting activity options. I was quickly getting stoked for the journey. Uganda, this could be good.
The trip was 12 days in total and Uganda has so much to offer it was hard picking what to do and see with such a limited amount of time. So here we go, what’s first? There were a couple of things we wanted to do right off the bat and figured it made the most sense to go northwest into the jungle and Murchison Falls National Park, home of the Chimpanzee. The national park is giant covering some 3,500 km square with the Blue Nile flowing a portion of its 6,650km directly through it.
The park is home to not only the Chimp, but other amazing African wildlife found in their natural habitats. We spent three days and two nights in the northwest, staying one night in Masindi for access and the other within the park at a small hostel. The hostel offered the perfect opportunity for an evening safari on the Nile and an early morning a half day tracking session within the Chimpanzee sanctuary. Chimp tracking was high up there on my list of things to do and definitely did not disappoint. It was an amazing experience to visit and learn about our closest cousins, and to do it within their home as a guest, incredible. During the three days I saw many wildlife firsts including Hippos, Water Buffalo, African Elephants, Colobus Monkeys, Water Bok, Crocodiles, countless birds, and of course the elusive Chimpanzee. It was an amazing start to an awesome trip!
From the park we decided to go up into the far reaches of northern Uganda and the town of Gulu. This was the centre strong hold of the brutally violent LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) during the late 90’s and into the early 2000’s. The LRA is something I unfortunately know little about, however I met a number of people with strong opinions as to what this organization stands for and how it is they go about their policies. The LRA is led by (from what I understand) somewhat of a fanatic, named Joseph Koney. He has been recruiting child soldiers and brutally terrorizing his fellow Ugandans, for the past decade, in the name of a revolution.
It is said that the LRA would abduct children and force them to kill their families and friends, giving them no ties back to a normal life and ensuring their devotion to the cause through fear and helplessness. I have heard many stories of children and young men being forced to work in horrible conditions, to carry out atrocities on others, and in short, to kill or be killed, all in the name of the LRA. I do not really want to say more as I am not aware of all of the facts.
Our trip to Gulu was solely to visit an Internally Displaced Persons Camp. There were a number of IDP Camps set up throughout northern Uganda during the war between the National Army and the LRA. A lot of the people living in these camps have fortunately been able to return to whatever is left of their original homes since the LRA was forced out of Uganda a few years ago. There are still a few pockets remaining and we were able to visit one camp with the help of an amazing local guide named Okello Emmanuel. Okello, who preferred Emmanuel, took us to a camp about 100km north of Gulu near the South Sudan border. The spot has turned into more of a village since the LRA was forced from the country. It honestly looked very much like a normal African farmlands village community. I think what gave away the history of the location was the ever present NGO stations and vehicles.
I have never seen so many NGO’s situated in the same place. World Vision, the UN, Save the Children, UNICEF, and many others of which I did not recognize. There were also a number of schools set up to help children lacking proper access to basic education, many of whom were affected by the war. We toured through the village and met a few people who had been living there since the troubles. I was introduced to a family supporting four orphan children plus their own two daughters and three sons. The orphan children were quite obviously malnourished and in a case of severe poverty. I can only hope that they are getting access to whatever programs the NGO’s are working to implement. However, at the time of my visit, for this particular family unit, it did not seem to be the case. Old eyes, young shoulders.
On a lighter note, from Gulu we decided to head back south towards the adventure capital of Uganda and the source of the Nile, a small town by the name of Jinja. This is considered the best White Water Rafting in Africa (up there with the Zambezi) and also is home to the only bungee tower in the country. I had never been bungee jumping before and figured this was the best time to do it. The four of us booked onto a full day rafting and only Emma and I followed this up with a super awesome bungee jump. More on that experience in a bit.
The rafting on the Nile is world class and up there with my experiences rafting in Peru, Nepal, Canada, and Ecuador. On our full day trip we hit four consecutive class five rapids followed by an awesome riverside lunch, followed by another set of four class five rapids. It was an amazing experience and we succeeded in flipping the boat once with no casualties, which was great.
Okay, 1…2…3…..bungee!! What a rush!! If you have never been bungee jumping before, I highly suggest you do it. It was incredible. I was definitely a little nervous going into the jump and asked the bungee master to give me no wait time at the edge. This of course didn’t happen. He had me shuffle to the edge then asked for me to pose for a picture. Urrrgg. I was the first to jump that afternoon and won’t lie, my heart was pounding, and it was a long way down. I really can’t stress enough how awesome of an experience it was. Flying through the air with no parachute, no hang glider, nobody there tandem beside you.
The free fall was fantastic and as the cord began to stretch I realized that I wasn’t going to miss the water, I was going right in. Whoa, again. I hit the water in a dive position and went in up to my waist. I then got hurtled out of the river by the rebound of the cord and flew another 100 feet back into the air. Arching my back I smiled to myself as the rebound came to that split second spot of complete weightlessness before gravity takes over and your body comes crashing back down to earth. This is adrenaline. This is life.
From Jinja we decided to take a more chill approach to travel through Uganda and head east to the site of its most famous waterfall, Sipi Falls. The falls sit in high hills overlooking a beautiful fertile valley floor. The hills are also home to small local coffee plantations producing some of the best coffees the African continent has to offer. We were lucky enough to hike around the area visiting three individual waterfalls and have a guided tour through the process of coffee production from start to finish. It was a great relaxing couple of days and an amazing way to finish of the trip.
The twelve day trip was everything and more that my initial research had me sub-consciously expecting. I try and never travel with expectations, but sometimes they are unavoidable (like going to Machu Pichhu, you are at least expecting to see the whole scene), in the case with Uganda, I was expecting to have an awesome time rafting the Nile and everything else was up in the air really.
Turns out I did have an awesome time rafting the Nile, and Uganda ended up being so much more than I could ever have expected. From the safari in Murchison, to the heart wrenching visit north, to the bungee and adventure of Jinja, fished off perfectly by waterfalls and coffee. Add lots of beer, crippling laughs and good friends to the mix. Travel honestly never ceases to amaze me, and I love it.
Going into a new destination with only a rough outline is definitely taking a risk, but well worth the experience in return. For those who travel, you know exactly what I mean. Meeting amazing life changing people and experiencing cultural integration at a grass roots level is something everyone needs to try at one point in their lives. Travel is the perfect fuel for creation and exploration, quite often presenting an experience that you will never forget.
I say you take a trip and just go with the flow. Talk to people, interact with those around you, work with local tour companies, learn and open your mind. Find your way as you go. These are all things that I am continually practicing while on the road and if my future trips end up like my time in Uganda than I am off to a great start. I hope you have enjoyed reading this post. For more info on Uganda, check out the G Adventures Kenya & Uganda Gorilla Adventure, the Ultimate East Africa, and/or the Uganda and Gorillas Overland. Cheers and safe travels!!