Friday 28th May
Our first ever truly "multinational" birding trip; Martin Kennewell and Ian Merrill meet up with long-time Dutch birding friend, and African mammal expert, Volkert van der Willigen in Heathrow Airport Terminal 4 departure lounge. Delighted to find out that we are the first passengers to set foot on the shiny new Kenya Airways Boeing 777, we are presented with a certificate to record the event. The aircraft smells just like a new car!
Saturday 29th May
After around eight hours in flight our descent over Kenya commences just as the sun breaks the horizon. A thin ribbon of deep orange separates the blue-black sky and rippled blanket of cloud. Piercing the pale undulating shroud is the jagged black outline of Mount Kenya, second highest peak on the Continent.
At a damp Nairobi Airport we are greeted by Cattle Egrets darting across the tarmac to chase locusts between luggage trolleys. Little Swifts swoop between 'Kenya Airways' tail-fins and from the transfer lounge we watch Superb Glossy Starlings and a distant pair of Grey Crowned Cranes; it's great to be back in Africa.
An hour after vacating Nairobi we again hear the engine tone change and our ears pop. This time our transfer flight is descending over the huge blue expanse of Lake Victoria, more an inland sea than a lake. As the altitude lessens the many islands which dot the Lake's surface become discernable, as do the huge areas of lush green marshland which bound it's margins.
It's a dull and overcast day at Entebbe Airport, pleasantly warm but not uncomfortably humid. Amongst the jostling crowd, which surrounds the departure gate, we spot a board bearing our names. The owner is a broadly smiling Jaria Kibirige, who greets us warmly. We can now put a face to the young lady who has so efficiently answered our numerous emails sent over the previous months. Jaria introduces us to her equally jovial husband, Mutebi Hassan, and we load our baggage into his Toyota Land Cruiser. This vehicle, though clearly witness to many a mile on the rough Ugandan roads, is to prove to be both a very dependable and comfortable means of transport over the next two weeks.
Mutebi and Jaria run a company called Access Uganda Tours (url: www.accessugandatours.com
, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
) and have been widely recommended by fellow birders as quite possibly the number-one ground agent for organising specialist birding trips. Their services had been booked some months previously over the internet and now we have an opportunity to see if they live up to expectations.
Vacating the airport perimeter we pass the derelict and lichen-encrusted shell of an airliner. We are informed that this is the actual Air France Airbus from which the Israelis daringly rescued 105 hostages, taken by terrorists in 1976, during the reign of the infamous Idi Amin. The scope of this rescue mission is really quite amazing, with the Israelis sending two hundred soldiers in four Hercules aircraft on the four thousand kilometre journey to a hostile nation in the heart of Africa. All but two of the hostages survived and just one Israeli soldier was killed in this historic surprise attack that was concluded in just fifty-eight minutes. Mutebi informs us that plans are afoot to turn the aircraft into a restaurant!
Thankfully the political climate has improved dramatically since the demise of Mr Amin in 1979, when he was ousted from power by a Tanzanian invasion. A democracy now operates and in spite of being very poor, Uganda is essentially a safe and stable country. It is interesting to note that at the time of our visit the British Foreign Office were advising against travel to the north of Uganda, including Murchison Falls, due to the activities of the Lords Resistance Army who occasionally launch attacks from their Sudanese strongholds. We found that in reality travel to Murchison Falls was completely safe and unregulated, although our tight itinerary did not permit such a visit.
A major setback to tourist rehabilitation came with the 1999 murder of a group of Gorilla trekkers, at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, by insurgent Rwandan rebels. A harsh crackdown and continued strong military presence in the areas affected seems, however, to have resolved the crisis. Three quarters of Uganda's tourism revenue is derived via Gorillas and it is therefore easy to see why such an operation was targeted, as a means of seriously damaging the Country's tourist assets. Prior to the attack these assets were, in fact, second only to coffee export as the County's main source of revenue.
Recent years have seen great improvements in the Country's tourist infrastructure and mammal populations appear to be building up towards pre-Amin levels in the game parks. With these factors in mind a visit to Uganda in the next few years would seem a good option for anyone who has yet to taste this country's delights, before prices are inflated to the levels of neighbouring eco-tourism reliant nations.
Travelling northwards from Entebbe we weave our way through low hills enshrouded in green vegetation. Native species have been largely removed and replaced by banana plantations plus other subsistence crops that serve to feed the obviously dense population.
In the rural areas the populous resides in ramshackle wooden huts but soon we are within the suburbs of Kampala, the nation's capital, and it's sprawl of low concrete shops and dwellings. Kampala is a typically vibrant African city, with masses of brightly clothed Ugandans thronging amongst the roadside stalls and many small markets. Closer to the heart of the city, retail units that line the thoroughfare are stocked with all manner of weird and wonderful goods. Alternately shops selling fridges, cement mixers, sofas and car bumpers display their wares, with stock piled high and spilling out onto the dusty pavements.
Although seemingly thrown together in a random, unplanned manner Kampala is a relatively clean city with much character. At it's heart are high rise office blocks and apartments on which we are amazed to discover great numbers of Marabou Storks! The unlikely residents top almost every tall building, often in considerable numbers, while dozens more spiral up on the thermals now rising into the clear blue sky.
Traffic in the city moves at a snail's pace, accompanied by a cacophony of horn-honking and a shroud of exhaust fumes. A formal traffic control system does not seem to exist and 'every man for himself' would appear to be the Highway Code at all junctions. Eventually we reach the designated bar where we are introduced to the famous Alfred Twinomujuni who we are informed is to act as our guide for the afternoon, as Mutebi has important office work to complete. We are more than happy with this arrangement. Alfred, based in Bwindi, has a reputation as Uganda's foremost bird guide. We have already secured his services for the Bwindi leg of the trip but this premature introduction is a real bonus.
Our original intention was to spend the first full day at Mabira Forest, a nature reserve around an hour's drive east of Kampala. Kenya Airways have other ideas, however, and a late change of their flight schedules has knocked half a day off our time in the Country and in particular at Mabira Forest.
Our 12.00 arrival at Mabira is hardly conducive of productive birding, as the temperature is already starting to climb. In spite of the adverse conditions we pay our fee at the headquarters and set out determined to make the most of our limited time in the relatively small area of remnant primary forest. The landscape is distinctly reminiscent of Kakamega Forest in Western Kenya, a site we had visited some thirteen years previously, with relatively dry evergreen woodland set on essentially flat terrain accessed by trails of slippery red earth.
It is a great surprise to find the tall trees and dense understorey relatively lively in birding terms and we rapidly notch up a list of good birds. African Blue-flycatcher, Speckled and Yellow-throated Tinkerbirds, Green Sunbird, Purple-throated Cuckoo-Shrike, Western Nicator and Red-tailed Bristlebill appear first. A male Black-and-white Shrike-Flycatcher is an early highlight, with a tall crest, piercing yellow eye and distinctive white patches revealed in it's wings in flight. Toro Olive Greenbul provides a dull introduction to this difficult-to-identify group and a floor-feeding Eastern Forest Robin is particularly obliging. Primates are represented by Grey-cheeked Mangebe and the attractively marked Red-tailed Monkey.
Come mid afternoon we sit out a heavy shower under umbrellas before driving a short way to the east and a pristine section of primary forest. Our birding is done from a muddy dirt track along which passes a regular succession of local people pushing bicycles laden down with ridiculously large bunches of green bananas, luggage rack buckling under their loads! It's a superb area and in rapid succession we find Little Grey, Cameroon Sombre, Red-tailed and White-throated Greenbuls, Yellow-browed Cameroptera, Grey-throated Flycatcher and White-breasted Negrofinch. Sunbirds are here in force and we see Little Green, Blue-throated Brown and the strangely warbler-like Grey Headed. Yellowbill, Sooty Flycatcher, Red-headed Malimbe and Purple-headed Glossy Starling are all the first of many seen on the trip, but Weyn's Weaver, Yellow Longbill and a lone treetop Afep Pigeon are all quality birds.
The day is rounded off in spectacular fashion by a pair of African Grey Parrots that fly over the road calling loudly, en route to their roosting site. Now very scarce birds in Eastern Africa, they display delicate powder grey bodies and bright red tails. It has been a very successful start to the trip to say the least!
As dusk descends we retrace our tracks back to Kampala. Hitting the poorly lit suburbs at rush hour we find the traffic jams grow progressively worse and it takes an age to fight our way through the gridlock of cars and to our destination for the evening, the Kampala Regency Hotel. All of our accommodation has been selected by Mutebi and payment made in advance at a flat daily rate. We have no complaints with his choice, however, as the rooms are clean and the Nile Special beer ice-cold and very welcome.
Monday 30th May
Our 07.00 departure time has been hastily agreed with Mutebi the previous evening. When we find that the sun is well up by this hour we realise that things will have to be put right for the remainder of the trip.
Clearing Kampala's limits we head rapidly south west through the cultivated lowlands and small settlements which line the road all the way to Mabamba Swamp on the north shore of Lake Victoria. The tarmac ends and we bump our way for some kilometres down a narrow dirt road to the water's edge. Papyrus swamp is becoming an increasingly rare habitat in Africa. At Mabamba, however, the distinctive wispy green tufts topping the tough three metre high stems of the Papyrus plant stretch out as far as the eye can see.
A cleared channel, not much wider than a dugout canoe, leads from the water's edge out into the swamp. At the head of the channel a dozen canoes are pulled ashore and a group of fishermen are busy sorting through the morning's catch or mending ageing nets. There is much lively banter and the tinny sound of a transistor radio playing African music adds to this atmospheric scene. The local lads proudly display small piles of Tilapia and Lungfish as we make our way to the makeshift landing stage.
A local guide, complete with a half-decent pair of binoculars, joins us. In recent years the forward-thinking Mutebi and a group of tour-guide friends have formed the Uganda Bird Guides Club. They have trained local people at various popular birding sites in how to locate and identify sought-after species, providing invaluable local assistance. This system proves to work exceptionally well in the course of our travels and Mutebi and colleagues should be commended for their approach that not only benefits visiting birders but also the local economy.
Boarding a large canoe we paddle off almost silently along the narrow channel, brushing past feathery Papyrus heads and skirting delicate mauve water lily flowers. We soon notice that our ageing craft is something less than watertight and regular bailing needs to be undertaken to maintain our buoyancy! The marsh is alive with birds. Beautiful Blue-breasted Bee-Eaters perch on nearby stems to display a deep blue gorget separating yellow throat and orangey belly. Swamp Flycatchers dart for insects from low perches and both Winding and Curruther's Cisticolas sing from exposed vantage points. Colourful yellow Slender-billed and Northern Brown-throated Weavers contrast with the greenery and overhead pass huge groups of White-winged Black Terns.
We have only just cleared the closed channel and entered more open water when a huge bird appears, flying in the distance, accompanied by a synchronised cry of "Shoebill" from all aboard. The unmistakable and unfeasibly large form of a pair of Shoebills is in view for a short time as they fly low across the Papyrus a few hundred metres away. This is certainly one of the most important target birds of the trip and we cannot believe that it has been seen with such apparent ease.
Shoebills are Papyrus specialists that require huge expanses of pristine papyrus swamp in order to survive. Confined to a small number of Central African sites, their population has been greatly reduced by the extensive draining of Papyrus swamps to free land for agricultural use. Even in it's former strongholds around Lake Victoria the Shoebill is becoming a very rare bird, making Mabamba Swamp one of the best places in the World to search for this species.
Heading in the direction to which our quarry flew we paddle round a corner to see the amazing dark-grey form of a Shoebill sitting amongst low grass close to the open water. Shutters click and video recorders whirr, as we are convinced that the bird will take to air. It looks at ease, so we approach more closely. Another load of film is exposed; surely it will fly at any minute? To our disbelief it does not fly and eventually we approach to within twenty metres of the bird, which is clearly much more concerned about the movements of Lungfish in the swamp than the canoe full of whiteys uttering hushed expletives!
Viewed close-up the Shoebill is a most bizarre bird. As large as a Marabou, it is a fairly uniform dark blue-grey in colour and sports a small crested tuft to the rear of the crown. It is not colourful plumage that sets this bird apart, however, but it's outrageously oversized bill which has evolved to deal with a diet of large Lungfish. Incredibly broad, and shaped like the upturned keel of a boat, it is tipped with a fearsome hook. Our close views reveal the bill to be coloured in a piebald mixture of dull pinks and horn-browns. So close is our vantage point, in fact, that we watch a thick grey eyelid blink across the staring yellow iris at regular intervals and note that a large fly continues to maintain a hold on the bird's forehead throughout our viewing. After half an hour we reluctantly drag ourselves away and leave the bird to hunt in peace; absolutely amazing!
The return trip provides close-up viewing of a beautiful little male African Pygmy Goose, which typically forages amongst the water lily pads, and a lone Pink-backed Pelican. Mid-morning we commence a long drive west to the next birding site, but not before visiting the fine new toilet block that Access Uganda Tours have generously funded at Mabamba. Our journey takes us first through low hills, green and fertile land which is heavily cultivated with banana plantations and small crop fields. Many ramshackle settlements line the road, made up of poorly maintained timber shacks and thatched mud huts. Poverty is clearly part of everyday life here, though the ragged-clothed and barefooted children still show us wide grins and a waved greeting as we pass.
Further west and the cultivated hills give way to a flatter and dryer landscape of low acacias and grassland, cut by long straight tarmac roads. It is 15.00 when we arrive at Kaaku Swamp, a large expanse of seasonally wet grassland and a few permanent pools, set in a wide valley bottom. It proves to be a haven for waterbirds and almost the first species we find are a pair of huge, pied Saddlebill Storks that display gaudy bills of bright red, yellow and black. Marsh Tchagra, Blue-headed Coucal and Golden-backed Weaver are all seen in the vegetated margins with Fulvous Whistling Duck, Hottentot Teal and Purple Swamp Hen preferring the wetter areas. Highlight in terms of rarity are a pair of Papyrus Canaries, a very localised Papyrus specialist that does not range far beyond Lake Victoria.
The final journey of our busy day takes us to Lake Mburo Game Reserve, a short way west of Kaaku. Here the Miambo woodland is formally protected and consequently larger mammals as well as many bird species can be found amongst the sparse acacias and dry grassland. African Moustached Warblers sing sweetly as Impala graze close to the track. Senegal Lapwing is new to the list and a strikingly patterned Greater Painted Snipe a great wading-bird bonus.
Mutebi performs a quick mechanical trick and up pops the Land Cruiser's roof to give us the perfect high-level game-viewing platform. As the light begins to fade the large mammals become more active and as we progress we come across a number of Burchell's Zebra, Warthogs, plus a single attractive Bohor Reedbuck and a fleeting Grey Duiker. After passing through the park gates we deploy MK's new toy, a huge spotlight guaranteed to dazzle any mammal or nightbird within a two-kilometre radius! Our strategy proves effective and we dazzle, identify and photograph Swamp, Black-shouldered and Slender-tailed Nightjars plus a pair of huge Verraux's Eagle Owls on the journey to the lodge.
When we finally arrive at the restaurant, tired and hungry, we find that our way in is blocked by two Hippopotamus that are grazing on the lawn. Trying to edge our way to supper and a beer we manage to offend one of the huge beasts and it proceeds to chase us a short distance across the grass! Fully fed and watered we retire to our very plush tented bandas where after a fireside chat beneath a bright full moon we settle down to sleep, serenaded by the fantastic chirring and squeaking orchestra of the African night.
Tuesday 31st May
Rising before first light we catch a pair of Black-shouldered Nightjars calling from the track close to our banda. We have arranged to meet Moses, a park ranger and very good bird guide, for an early morning walk between the HQ and restaurant area. Moses casually carries an AK47, required as a deterrent against the large number of potentially aggressive Cape Buffalo that inhabit the Park.
Red-headed, Spectacled and Compact Weavers, Buff-bellied Warbler, Green-headed Sunbird and Trilling Cisticola get us off to a good start. In the daylight we see that the restaurant, where we ate the previous evening, actually overlooks the large Lake Nakivali from whose waters the heads of many a Hippo now protrude. The lake is our next port of call, harbouring a number of sought-after species.
This-morning's boat appears to have fewer leaks than yesterday's and an outboard motor, which rapidly propels us across the calm waters. Cutting the engine, we skirt the vegetation that overhangs the secluded north west corner of the lake. Here we soon spot a large low avian form in the water, topped with a stripy head and bright red bill that weaves it's way amongst the overhanging branches. It's a female African Finfoot. Tick! We've only been in the boat for five minutes; this is far too easy! Having personally missed this species on two previous trips to Central Africa this is a particularly welcome bird, even more appreciated as it completes the 'finfoot set'.
Our attempts to tape out skulking White-winged Swamp-Warblers are somewhat less successful so we turn our attentions to the small, Papyrus-clad, island out in the centre of the lake. The White-winged Swamp-Warblers here are also uncooperative, but a taped snippet of another loud whistled call produces the desired effect when replayed. A pair of absolutely stunning Papyrus Gonoleks begin to duet as they make their way to the tops of the tallest stems that arch over the boat. These Papyrus-dwelling shrikes have black backs, bight crimson breasts and sulphur-yellow crowns set off by a subtle white wingbar and undertail. Superb.
Lone fisherman in small dugout canoes are scattered about the lake and a close approach to one allows detailed examination of an amazing catch. The fisherman wrestles with a 1.5 m long Lung Fish to display it's 'whiskered' head in all its glory; an awesome beast and clearly well beyond the scope of even the most determined Shoebill!
Back on dry land we enjoy breakfast of fresh fruit and scrambled eggs on a veranda overlooking the lake. Just metres from our table the eyes, ears and nostrils of Hippos break the water's surface and an African Fish Eagle calls from a nearby perch. The perfect morning. Well it is, other than the fact that a crafty Green Vervet Monkey raids the table and steals VW's eggs from his plate!
The journey out of Mburo is conducted with our heads above the Land Cruiser's pop-up roof, soaking in the impressive array of game that grazes amongst the low acacias. Here the gentle-faced Defassa Waterbuck are of the race lacking the white 'rump ring' found further east. Small numbers of Topi join larger gatherings of Impala and Burchell's Zebra though the odd Bushbuck seen are more solitary and always shy. VW, who has extensively studied mammal behaviour during his years spent in Africa, is a constant source of inspiration as he describes the subtleties of species interaction while it is played-out before our very eyes.
Leaving the Park's boundary we pass large herds of Watusi Cattle, the local race of domesticated bovine, with their disproportionately long and gently curved horns. A steep red dirt track takes us away from the forested valley bottom and through banana plantations to pass a small village. Young children sitting outside the crumbling mud huts wave and shout greetings, though their parents remain rather sombre and more reserved.
Back on the paved road we speed westwards to find the dry savannah giving way to a more hilly landscape where the green hillsides are again deforested and planted with various crops. We pass a huge banana market where the now familiar overloaded 'banana bikes' congregate to deposit mounds of green fruit in a dusty square. The fruit is, in turn, stacked onto high open-topped lorries that similarly strain to support their unfeasibly heavy, towering loads.
The further west we travel, the more mountainous and scenic the route becomes. Steep hillsides are terraced with banana plantations and plots of sorghum, a millet-type crop whose orange-red fruit adds a further dash of colour to the landscape. Rainfall is obviously heavier in the region and the whole landscape more green and lush. The area is also more densely populated with the shiny corrugated tin roofs of dwellings dotting the crop fields and eucalyptus plantations.
The steep winding road eventually deposits us at Kabale, a large vibrant market town set in the hills. We note that bicycle taxis seem to be the order of the day and hundreds of aging bikes with huge padded seats attached to the luggage racks convey fare-paying passengers and all manner of goods through the crowded streets. At Kabale we have arranged to rendezvous with Alfred who now rejoins us, along with extensive supplies of fresh food, for the much-anticipated journey to the Albertine Rift forests.
West of Kabale the tarmac ends and we continue our journey on a dusty red track. On the freshly tilled dark-brown soil in the valley bottom is the phenomenal sight of a flock of over 100 Grey Crowned Cranes, aptly Uganda's national bird. As the road winds through the terraced fields we marvel at the scenery and also the determination of the local people who work the fertile land in such adverse terrain. The valley sides are incredibly steep yet every last square metre, right to the very summits of the hills, has been cultivated. The land has been divided into a patchwork of small fields, each of which contains a different crop or bare tilled earth. The result is a fantastic mosaic of colour that shrouds the valley sides in the evening sunlight. It's a breathtaking sight, constantly changing as each bend is turned.
Finally, after passing a summit in the road, a series of three mysterious black pyramidal peaks are revealed overshadowing the patchwork of fields on the lower hills. They are the three northernmost mountains of the Virunga Volcano Chain, Mount Sabingo, Mount Gahinga and Mount Muhavura, the latter being at the meeting point of Uganda, Rwanda and The Democratic Republic of Congo. From our vantage point they look dark and imposing above the colourful fields, partially shrouded in mist; the epitome of 'The Dark Continent' and the enigmatic Congo Basin.
Just before dark we reach Kisoro where we check into the rather plush, colonialist 'Traveller's Rest' hotel. The establishment is run by Nigel, a very helpful and rather camp ex-pat Englishman, who ensures that we are provided with an excellent meal and a good supply of cold Bell's Lager as we plan our attack for the following morning. We even get a little taste of home when we discover a cosmopolitan Diamond-backed Moth on the illuminated wall!
Anyone with more than a passing interest in the African Continent will be familiar with The Great Rift Valley, which leaves a deep scar down the eastern flank of the landmass between Ethiopia and Malawi. Less well known is the Albertine Rift which forms a similar, if less spectacular, feature in a parallel route through Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and on into western Tanzania.
Along the line of the Albertine Rift the grating of the Earth's tectonic plates have piled a ridge of mountains which raise in excess of 2000 metres. These long-isolated forested uplands are not only home to Mountain Gorillas, but also a group of over twenty rare and often spectacular birds found nowhere else on the Planet. It is the search for these residents that will hold our attentions for the next five days.
Wednesday 1st June
A large, pre-dawn, cooked breakfast precedes the forty-minute drive to Mgahinga. The track is rocky and very rough, passing through villages and crop fields to terminate at the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park HQ. Here we are met by a large gathering of both Park staff and soldiers, though differentiating between the two groups is not easy; both are clad in khaki fatigues and most tote AK 47s, with just a small National Park logo giving away true identities. Mutebi and Alfred disappear into a large tent that seems to be the communications and administration centre. The usual bureaucratic confusion ensues, accompanied by a prolonged bout of two-way radio banter, before a gentleman with an official-looking book of permits appears, to sign off our passage into the park.
To the rear of the HQ the foothills are cloaked in secondary forest cover, behind which the huge and imposing volcanic cone of Mount Gahinga rises to an altitude of 3474 m. It's steep sides are densely forested and banks of cloud continually pass over the slopes.
It would appear that entry to the Park is not permitted before 08.00 so at the allotted hour we finally set off, accompanied by a National Park guide and seven soldiers armed with machine guns! It should be noted that the behaviour of our escort is exemplary, however, as the group quietly maintain a position around fifty metres away along the track and at no time do they adversely affect our activities; most of the time we forget they are with us.
Climbing steadily along a narrow track we soon reach the primary forest, accruing our first new birds in the process; Cinnamon Bracken Warbler, Western Green Tinkerbird, Dusky Turtle Dove, Rwenzori Hill Babbler and a pair of Malachite Sunbirds. The forest is often surprisingly open as we pass through patches of alpine-type habitat of grassland, low shrubs and many flowers. This alternates with dense bamboo and ultimately more extensive forest.
Sunbirds are well represented with regionally endemic Blue-headed, Rwenzori Double-collared and the dazzling Regal all putting in appearances, the latter two in good numbers. The more dense forest at the upper limit of our trek seems quiet at first but persistence pays off and eventually we secure our other main target at this site, the magnificent Rwenzori Turaco, a masterpiece of subtle deep blues, greens and violets. Shelley's Crimsonwing is far less cooperative and though we are shown a recently used nest, it's owner remains unseen.
Things really liven up during our descent when, hot on the heels of Ayre's Hawk-Eagle and Rwenzori Sun Squirrel, we drop on a large bird flock. Strange Weaver, Mountain Sooty Boubou, White-tailed Crested-Flycatcher, Red-faced Woodland Warbler, White-browed Crombec and Collared Apalis are added to the notebook in rapid succession. A handsome Archer's Robin-Chat is attracted to the tape and we are shown some piles of fresh Gorilla droppings on the track!
After the successes of the morning we decide to tweak the itinerary a little and set off early for Bwindi. The journey north, on the winding marram road, takes three and a half hours but every moment is a pleasure amongst the fantastic scenery and constantly changing views over patchwork-valleys and rounded hills. Our travels are regularly interrupted by photo calls and also stops to distribute pens and lollipops to tremendously grateful children who are clearly subject to extreme poverty.
It is 18.30 before we halt at a Park gate and a sign announcing that we have arrived at The Impenetrable Forest. The demarcation of the National Park could not be more stark, with cultivated hillsides abruptly giving way to tall, dense primary forest at an altitude of around 2500 m. We bump our way along the now extremely rough road for another hour, with brief stops for Black-billed Turaco, L'Hoest's Monkey and the fantastic pied Guerza Colobus, to arrive at the Ruhija 'Institute Guest House' just before dark.
Accommodation for the next couple of nights will be quite basic, with no electricity or running water, but it's fantastic to be staying within the forest. Paraffin lamps are soon lit and a fire is raging in the hearth; it's quite chilly in the evenings at the increased altitude. Ever prepared, Mutebi produces a chef who will cook for us during our stay and our man even sports a chef's hat! He sets to work slicing the huge variety of vegetables that have been procured from roadside stalls whilst in transit and by the time we have completed our daily checklist and beer, a superb meal of pasta with traditional ground nut sauce is served.
Thursday 2nd June
The toilet at the Guest House must rate in Uganda's top ten; when used with an open door it gives uninterrupted views across a vista of countless forested hills! After a breakfast of hot chapattis with bananas and marmalade we set off on foot from the Guest House on the long walk to Mubwindi Swamp.
The first section of the narrow forest trail is undulating but relatively easy going. The attractive little Rwenzori Batis, Olive-breasted Mountain and Yellow-streaked Greenbuls, Grey-breasted Cuckoo-Shrike and Dwarf Honeyguide head the day's bird list. As the descent steepens so bird numbers begin to fall, presumably a function of the concentration of maintaining ones footing! In truth the descent, apparently christened 'The Death March' by a recent 'Birdquest' tour group, is quite manageable and after a couple of hours of steady descent the path levels out in a lushly vegetated valley. We are clearly made of stronger stuff than the pampered birding aristocracy who went before!
The scene is markedly different from the dry and open forest at the start of the trail, with a dense understorey and long wisps of pale grey lichen draped over every tree limb. Yellow-eyed Black Flycatcher, Stripe-breasted Tit, Northern Double-collared Sunbird, Mountain Masked Apalis and a Curruther's Sun Squirrel all appear in a frantic few minutes. An Evergreen Forest Warbler takes some coaxing from the dense evergreen understorey, but a Cassin's Hawk Eagle is much more obliging overhead.
Further down the trail we are met by a Forest Ranger who tells us that we cannot proceed along the trail, as there is a family of Gorillas around the next bend! The fact that he has a gun goes some way to quell our enthusiasm, but the barred access is frustrating to say the least. Apparently this group are not habituated to tourists and are being studied by American scientists alone.
When we do finally get permission to move on we are immediately interrupted by a feeding flock and enjoy White-tailed Blue-Flycatcher, Fine-banded Woodpecker and a fantastic group of White-headed Wood-Hoopoes which work their way through the limbs, probing epiphytes with their curved red bills. We are still savouring the Wood-Hoopoes when a shout of Grauer's Broadbill causes panic as we all struggle to find what is possibly the target bird of the entire trip, amongst the lower canopy.
Soon the pair is pinned down and we can savour scope-filling views of this stunning little Albertine Rift endemic, a beautiful leaf-green bird with pale blue breast and a speckled-straw crown. It really is quite reminiscent of a small pitta when sitting atop the grey mossy boughs. Naturally the following moments are quite emotional and accompanied by various descriptive expletives, so much so that a Forest Ranger appears and politely requests that we make less noise because we are disturbing the Gorillas!
The Broadbills soon disappear, a Martial Eagle soars overhead and minutes later we are watching Grauer's Rush Warblers coaxed into song along the margins of the marsh. Our packed lunches are broken out but we have little time to savour the food as a pair of Lagden's Bush-Shrikes is drawn to the tape. Soon the huge yellow-breasted and grey-headed shrikes are overhead, calling loudly and staring down with fierce grey eyes.
As if this display isn't enough a shout from Alfred reveals that he has relocated the Grauer's Broadbills and that they are actually in the process of building a nest! We proceed to study these emerald stunners for the next hour as they gather wisps of lichen to construct a delicate hanging structure suspended from a low branch. MK's video camera hums away and we can't believe our good luck; we even have a backing track of Gorillas squabbling loudly in the nearby forest!
The hike back up the hill seems a doddle in light of our successes and is only interrupted by Blue Monkeys and a Handsome Francolin that dives straight into thick cover. A quick cup of tea back at the Guest House revitalises us for a walk down the trail towards Bitanwa School. Along the trail pass a stream of brightly-clothed women with baskets of goods from the local market cleverly balanced on their heads. In spite of the interruptions we are met with another rush of good birds in the form of Grauer's Warbler with it's strange buzzing song, dazzling Doherty's and Ludher's Bush-Shrikes and a tape-friendly Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo. MK's lightening-fast, cricket-honed reflexes secure a tiny, dark reptile before it burrows into the vegetation. In the hand we marvel at it's disproportionably-small and almost useless legs and feet. It is later identified as a Rwanda Five-toed Skink and another Albertine Rift endemic, no less!
By the time we return to the Guest House, Mutebi and our chef have prepared a superb dinner of boiled chicken, vegetables and rice. It is eaten outdoors on the picnic table with Stripe-breasted Tits feeding overhead. Mid way through our main course Alfred hears the call of Brown-necked Parrots and we rush to a gap in the trees to enjoy a pair of these scarce birds flying low up the valley to roost. It really has been a non-stop day and even darkness does not bring an end to the excitement.
Following a fireside beer and the checklist we drive back along the road for less than a kilometre before a Rwenzori Nightjar is located on the ground. With our nightbird luck obviously in place we try a site below the Guest House and with a little persistence tape in a tremendously obliging African Wood Owl that sits in the spotlight at eye level just twenty metres away.
Funnily enough it doesn't take us long to get to sleep.
Friday 3rd June
Our pre-dawn drive up to the 'bamboo zone' produces another couple of Rwenzori Nightjars, again finding the road to their liking. In this section of the forest, around half an hour's ride from the Guest House, bamboo dominates and grows in dense clumps. The area is favoured by Red-chested Alethes and White-starred Robins, with both being seen in numbers and often feeding on the road. Mountain Illadopsis plus Slender-billed, Stuhlmann's and Sharpe's Starlings are also recorded, though after yesterday's excitement all seems fairly tame.
Back at Ruhija the chef bids us farewell with chapattis and Spanish omelette and we make our way north and to lower altitude, on what Mutebi claims is the worst road in Uganda! In a transitional area between forest and agriculture 'finches' seem to abound and we add Yellow-bellied and Black-crowned Waxbills, Black-throated Seedeater and a pair of excuistely marked Dusky Twinspots. Leaving the bounds of the park we travel for some distance through the now-familiar scene of cultivated terraces, but this time with large expanses of low tea bushes and occasional dazzling yellow plots of sunflowers.
The Neck is the name given to an area of the Impenetrable Forest N P that forms a narrow strip of protected habitat joining the southern section, where we have spent the last few days, with Buhoma to the north. It's 13.00 before we arrive at The Neck and with the decrease in elevation it means that the temperature is beginning to climb rapidly. Buff-spotted and Elliot's Woodpeckers, Black-billed Weaver, Lesser Honeyguide and Kakamega Greenbul are all new to the trip. Another long-awaited bird to fall here is the stunning Black Bee-Eater, which chooses to carry out it's bee-eating from the highest canopy perches. It's plumage is a dazzling combination of jet-black head and back, bright scarlet throat and shining metallic-turquoise on the lower breast and rump.
Obviously on a bit of a roll with the good-lookers, a magnificent Blue-throated Roller is the next to appear. It too chooses a high perch from which to hunt and displays a bright yellow bill contrasting with deep purple underparts and a neat blue bib. Final addition of this very productive stop is an Olive Long-tailed Cuckoo, with whom patience pays off after a lengthy session of tape-luring.
Just short of the Buhoma HQ we make a stop at one of Alfred's stakeouts that consists of a small area of wetland adjoining a large stretch of pasture covering the flat valley floor. Veillot's Black Weaver, Greater Swamp Warbler and Yellow-throated Leaflove are all seen as we make our way to a tall isolated tree in which sits no less than three roosting Bat Hawks!
Moving on to the swamp we find Ross's Turaco and Dusky-blue Flycatcher, as Alfred directs the local goat-minder in a strategic reed-flattening operation. Next the minidisk is set running and we concentrate hard on the narrow gap in the dense vegetation. After a couple of fleeting dashes we finally get prolonged views of a gorgeous little male Red-chested Flufftail, whose brick-red head and chest contrasts with dark-slaty body that shows a mass of clearly-defined white streaks. From the goat herder's point of view the whole scene must have been totally bizarre; one minute he's looking after his flock and the next he's approached by a gang of whiteys who play a recording to a reedbed he's just flattened, jump for joy, hand him some money and then depart!
After a brief stop at Alfred's house, with it's famous advertising-sign bearing a painting of a Neumann's Warbler, we proceed the short distance to our accommodation which marks the start of the protected forest at Buhoma. The Bwindi View Bandas are fairly basic, but relatively clean. Again we are without running water or electricity, but we do get regular fly-pasts of Narrow-tailed Starlings with the deal! The earth toilet, though lacking the views of Ruhija, has the luxury of a white target painted around the 'hole' while the showers have an ingenious hot water system that consists of a fire beneath a large metal tank linked by hosepipe to the shower room!
Dinner is taken in the glow of a paraffin lamp, by whose light Mutebi massages liniment into VW's injured leg. A pulled muscle this close to our impending Gorilla trek causes a little lost sleep during the next few hours.
Saturday 4th June
An early breakfast then off to the forest. After signing in at the gate we pick up our escort, this time of five Forest Guards with their trusty AK 47s. The Main Trail into the primary forest is ideal for birding, being wide and almost perfectly level. The trees are the tallest we have encountered yet, supported by huge buttresses that spread the load of the high sprawling crowns.
Alfred instantly proves his worth, recognising every squeak and whistle, both avian and mammalian, using playback where necessary to tempt the shyer vocalises into view. Green Crombec, White-bellied Robin-Chat, Pink-footed Puffback and a very impressive Bar-tailed Trogon fall without a fight but it takes a great deal of persistence before a calling Western Bronze-naped Pigeon is located in the high canopy; through the telescope it's large rusty nape-patch is clearly visible.
While Chapin's Flycatcher wins accolade of dullest bird of the morning, Oriole Finch is the brightest and our male shines sulphur yellow from his treetop perch, with contrasting black head and bright red bill. Pale-breasted Illadopsis, African Shrike-Flycatcher, Equatorial Akalat, Ansorge's Greenbul and Wilcox's Honeyguide are all trip ticks in a very exciting few hours. As we explore deeper into the forest, the decreased elevation of around 1550 m can be seen to have resulted in subtly different habitat. It is a damper and more humid environment than at Ruhija, with vines and tree limbs shrouded in a coat of dark wet moss and epiphytes. Watercourses regularly cut the forest floor and these are lined by stands of tall, elegant tree ferns.
Grey Apalis, Black-faced Rufous Warbler, White-bellied Crested-Flycatcher, Cabanis's Greenbul and a couple of very confiding Blue-throated Rollers provide our entertainment post packed-lunch. During the quieter bird-less spells we are kept busy by rigorous scratching of the previous day's insect bites!
Our main target species at this site has already given us the slip earlier in the day. Our second attempt provides more frustration and abortive dashes through the thick undergrowth before the stunning little Neumann's Warbler finally decides to oblige. This Albertine Rift endemic is a real skulker, preferring damp areas with a dense understorey. Our persistence is all worthwhile, however, as the tail-less wonder, with humbug-striped head, yellow throat, green back and white belly is certainly the star of the day.
Our return trek produces a Yellow-footed Flycatcher which perches right next to the trail to display his banana-coloured feet, an Orange-crowned Robin-Chat and finally, at the eleventh-hour, the long-awaited Jameson's Antpecker. The latter is a pretty rufous-bellied bird of uncertain affinities, currently placed with the finches, and it makes a superb conclusion to a bird-packed day.
Before dinner we take a stroll along the entrance road to check out the 'tat' stalls. They display a very sorry array of souvenirs but it gives us a chance to converse with some of the friendly villagers. Here we learn from one young lad that he, like many other children, has to leave his house in the morning darkness to walk for two hours before reaching school, all in his bare feet; certainly a thought to ponder when we despair about our comparatively trivial problems in a cosy First-World environment.
Sunday 5th June
The Gorilla Day dawns.
Restricted to the uplands of Rwanda and Uganda, there are now fewer than eight hundred Mountain Gorillas remaining in the wild. In spite of this fact, and also considering that they inhabit the most densely forested and inaccessible of terrain, seeing Mountain Gorillas is surprisingly easy. It is, however, strictly by appointment only and it doesn't come cheap. Our day of Gorilla trekking has been booked five months previously and at a cost of $275 per person. This is obviously a large sum of money, but by committing it to the National Park one can feel like a small contribution to the survival of the species has been directly made.
At 08.30 the three groups of 'Gorilla trekkers' congregate at the HQ for an introductory talk. Only three groups, with a maximum of six people in each, are allowed to go trekking in any one day. We find out that we have been allocated the Mubale or 'M' family group, which has recently been feeding in the hills which tower high to the east of the HQ.
The introductory talk is excellently presented, covering conservation issues and all the important 'Gorilla Dos and Don'ts'. For example if we are caught short up the mountain we have to dig a hole and bury what we leave behind at least 18" deep so that the Gorillas don't find it again! We are also advised that if the silverback male happens to charge at us we are to stand our ground but adopt a passive stance; if we run away he'll give us a good hiding!!
We are teamed up with American bird-tour leaders Richard Webster and Rose Ann Rowlett, along with a very articulate and knowledgeable guide by the name of Paul. Striding out from the HQ and up the steep hillside trail, accompanied by the now-customary escort of armed guards, there is a real sense of excitement and anticipation; we really don't know what to expect.
Although we ascend at a rapid rate the trail is good and after just over an hour we have reached the top of the escarpment to look down on the HQ far below. At this point the terrain opens out into a wide valley, with the canopy giving way to an open area that is carpeted in dense broad-leafed greenery often standing above head height. We clamber our way through, following pre-cut trails, until Paul quietly informs us that we are actually passing close to 'H' group but that these Gorillas are allocated to other trekkers and we cannot loiter! This is obviously a very tough instruction to obey, especially when we spot the two black faces of Mountain Gorillas watching us from the dense herbage. We study them for a few seconds through binoculars before being asked to move on to our own group. It's a tremendous thrill to make our first encounter, and after just 1 ¾ hours of walking, but we can't help but be frustrated that we have to continue.
After some exchanges on the two-way radio between Paul and our advanced party of trackers, who were on the mountain some time before us, we are told that 'M' group are currently on the move and that we will need to pursue them down the steep hillside. The going gets very tough and a trail has to be manually hacked by machete through the dense shrubs and thorny undergrowth that cling to the valley side. We know we are getting very close as the Gorilla droppings on the forest floor are still steaming!
Finally we break through a wall of greenery to find two smiling trackers at the head of a sloping, sheltered glade of low vegetation. We are informed that the Gorillas are now just metres away and that we should get cameras ready and leave behind rucksacks. Following Paul we make our way down the slope and immediately two large, hairy black forms appear beside a fallen log. We are about four metres away from the Gorillas, who have their heads pushed inside a cavity in the log and are totally oblivious to our presence. Paul informs us that our allotted hour will start at this point; all trekking groups are only allowed sixty minutes with their family of Gorillas and this rule is strictly policed to keep disturbance to a minimum.
The close proximity of our viewing point, the open and sunlit location of the site and the fact that the Gorillas are totally unconcerned by our presence are all very welcome surprises. The family continue their activities as if we are not there, only occasionally glancing in our direction. As we watch, a number of different animals visit the large rotting log. Apparently they are consuming the dead wood, which has been sweetened by water and probably contains vital minerals. We marvel at their dexterity, as large black digits gently manipulate flakes of timber, or leaves, in a manner that often duplicates our own species.
There are nine members of this extended family group; the silverback male leader plus a number of females, many of whom have offspring at various stages of development. Each member of the group seems to visit the fallen log in turn and we are able to watch and film the social interaction at remarkably close quarters. There is clearly a form of hierarchy and some members of the group will step aside to allow their superiors access to the 'tasty' morsels of timber. We are told that young Gorillas will continue to suckle for four years and hence the young, who are often clinging about their mother's person, come in a variety of sizes.
The inquisitive youngsters are particularly endearing and seem to exhibit quizzical expressions as they manipulate objects and experiment with different foodstuffs. The faces of the adults are less expressive and emotional, often appearing to be fixed in a rather sad and melancholy gaze.
The last member of the group to visit the log is the silverback male, who until now has been feeding in an unobtrusive spot some distance away. It is an awesome sight to witness the foliage part and his immensely powerful form lumber into view. His silvery-white girdle can be seen to be made of very short and pale hair. He is a mature animal, around thirty-two years of age, and the hairs of the silver waistband shorten with age to emphasise the feature.
When he arrives at the log his subordinates immediately step aside. He has a brief inspection of the damp timber but seems rather disinterested; clearly an animal of his stature has better things to do than rummage in a rotten log! Soon moving on he follows the rest of his troop down the slope, with a group of mesmerised Homo sapiens not far behind.
Moving into a more shady area of low saplings we watch members of the family climb into the low trees to secure the choice young leaves. Flesh is stripped from the central spine of each leaf and placed in the mouth, again with amazing human-like dexterity, ensuring that only the tastiest morsels are consumed. The silverback is not prepared to do anything as undignified as sit in a tree. He simply grasps a large sapling and uses his huge bulk and strength to snap the tree to the ground with a splintering clack and then a crunch as his dinner hits the forest floor. Awesome!
As we stand filming, one inquisitive youngster literally walks to our feet. Touching is strictly banned for fear of passing on disease and we are instructed to take a couple of paces back from the tremendously appealing little character.
The silverback is now happily devouring his sapling at ground level. Video cameras are humming away and VW decides that the view will be better if he prunes a particular branch that is obstructing the line of sight. He reaches forward to bend the offending branch and it is this gesture that seriously offends two hundred kilos of silverback Gorilla! A short threatening charge is made at the unsuspecting VW. It only takes a split second and involves a dash of a few metres but the whole experience is heart stopping, with the feeling of power and lighten-fast movement truly amazing. Not many people can claim to have been charged by a silverback Gorilla!
All too soon our allocated hour is up and Paul politely reminds us that we must leave the group and let them feed in peace. It's a great shame to depart but we appreciate that it's for the well-being of the Gorillas and we can't say that we haven't had our money's worth! Spending an hour with these gentle and charismatic animals really is a privilege that can genuinely be described as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Packed lunches are consumed well away from the Gorilla's present range and then we set out on the long walk back down the hillside. Some very interesting conversations with our new American friends, Richard and Rose Ann, ensue as we scramble down the rocky slope. They commence with an unexpected apology for dragging our Country into the ill-conceived war with Iraq. We inform them that we don't hold them personally responsible and apologise in return for the stupidity of our Prime Minister in conceding to the wishes of their idiotic President. Having cleared the air we get on to more important issues and discover that Rose Ann has Eskimo Curlew on her list; we consider it quite an accolade even to tick off someone who has clapped eyes on such a mythical beast!
The return route takes us down a much steeper descent, through open arable land, and maintaining one's footing becomes increasingly difficult. Even the porters are slipping over and it all proves too much for VW's recently sustained injury; his leg gives way and he is half-carried for the last kilometre to the waiting vehicle.
Back at the HQ we are presented with a certificate confirming that we have spent some time with the Mubale Family, before we hastily pack our bags and hit the road at around 14.00. Alfred accompanies us, as we have concluded that an extension to his five-day contract will hopefully pay considerable list-increasing dividends in the course of the forest-birding to come. North of Bwindi the low hills are covered in vast tea plantations and a uniform green carpet of small bushes stretches into the distance. We even stop at a convenient tea factory to purchase bags of the local produce; and very tasty it turns out to be, too.
Today's plan has fallen into place perfectly. Our timely departure from Bwindi was reliant upon successfully seeing the Gorillas early in the day, something that is by no means guaranteed. Having achieved this goal we plan to spend the night in Queen Elizabeth National Park, and at around 16.00 we enter it's southern margins. Instantly we find ourselves in flat, open acacia woodland and the roof of the Land Cruiser is again popped up to allow uninterrupted viewing.
The light woodland gives way to fantastic open savannah grassland, a vast sea of pale greens and golds punctuated with dark acacias that cast long shadows in the low evening sunlight. Literally hundreds of elegant Uganda Kob gather in loose groups, ears held high and ever-alert to the threat of a potential predator. Large sandy-brown antelopes, the males have long spiralling horns that gracefully sweep backwards then rise to a point.
The marram roads are heavily cambered to cater for drainage and it would seem to be an unwritten rule that approaching drivers flash lights in acknowledgement before politely pulling over to the appropriate side. When a heavily laden mutatu refuses to obey this code Mutebi's stubborn nature prevails and we stop dead, head to head with the opposing vehicle, in the midst of the savannah. For twenty minutes the drivers argue, neither wanting to loose face in front of the large crowd of passengers, and for a moment it looks like a full-scale brawl will ensue. In a display totally out of character, it is MK who finally instigates a diplomatic appeasement package and there is a unilateral retreat to the side of the road that allows both journeys to continue; the joys of African travel!
A new mammal, savannah road-rage, and even some ticks! We add Croaking and Red-faced Cisticolas, Violet-backed Starling and Crowned Hornbill to our list as the journey progresses northwards, giving distant views of a vast Lake Edward. The wide Kazinga Channel joins Lake George with Lake Edward and here we make a brief stop at around 18.30 to tape out Lesser Swamp Warbler and admire an overhead cable supporting at least forty Pied Kingfishers lined shoulder-to-shoulder!
Queen Elizabeth National Park has been briefly vacated as we cross the Channel, but soon we re-enter via the Katungura Gate just before the 19.00 deadline. A Kurrichane Buttonquail is flushed from the road and watched briefly on the ground, but Kittlitz's plover is much more obliging. Again the mighty MK spotlight is switched on and we steadily drive through the park, illuminating anything that moves. Elephants are easy targets, but it is always a privilege to be able to study these wrinkled grey giants. Picking out nightjars is more of a challenge and only Square-tailed hangs about long enough for a positive ID.
During the next abortive nightjar-stop a large mammalian form is spied in the nearby grass. When the spotlight is turned in it's direction we are amazed to see that it is a Leopard and that it's walking straight towards us! To our total disbelief the majestic predator purposefully strides to within two metres of the vehicle, then makes a full lap of us before sitting on the track within touching distance of the door! At this range every black spot and long whisker can be savoured in a totally unexpected and completely inexplicable fifteen minutes of close-up viewing pleasure. Eventually the Leopard tires of our company and slopes off into the night, leaving five open-mouthed observers.
Following this wildlife spectacular the numerous Cape Buffalo and even the Lioness, with two cubs trotting behind, seem decidedly tame. Soon the bank of bright lights, which has been glowing in the distance for some time, materialises into the huge Mweya Safari Lodge and we enter the gated compound. A floodlit, life-size statue of an Elephant greets us outside the palatial structure of the lodge, clearly either built or completely refurbished in very recent years. The cavernous entrance lobby is liberally bedecked with marble and also sports a built-in waterfall!
Moving on to the bar we find a polished hardwood floor and fireplace bearing a Buffalo head trophy and a huge pair of crossed ivory tusks. Over a celebratory beer amongst the plush upholstery we discuss plans for the next few days with Mutebi and Alfred, delighted that we now have a bonus morning within the National Park.
The rooms are similarly luxurious and the food in the restaurant supremely prepared and presented. It is consumed on a covered veranda with a backdrop of an orange moon low to the horizon, reflected on the still waters of Lake Edward and to a soundtrack of howling Spotted Hyenas and grunting Hippos. It really has been quite a day.
Monday 6th June
After a pre-dawn coffee and bun, with a lobby-full of wealthy whiteys, we set off to find what the park has to offer to the daylight game-viewer.
It's a lengthy drive to the main game-viewing area, some of it on fast tarmac roads, but we are kept busy with constant stops for new birds. It is soon apparent that Senegal Lapwing is not uncommon and pairs are a regular feature beside the dusty track. The first of at least five Black Coucals is spotted in a roadside bush, and our first Flappet and Rufous-naped Larks are in song. The former indulges in a distinctive slow-flapping song-flight while the latter prefers to deliver it's notes from a bush-top.
An early highlight comes in the form of the normally elusive Black-rumped Buttonquail. A beautifully patterned, peach-breasted female runs across the track in a peculiar lark-like upright pose. It's rare to obtain such good views of this species on the ground, but we are also keen to see it's distinctive flight feature, and persuade Mutebi to coax it from it's chosen cover of vegetation. In flight it shows a distinctive black stripe down rump and tail, while close-by a second bird can be heard giving the distinctive booming call that seems so unlikely for a tiny gamebird.
The dry savannah grassland certainly is the place to catch up with the larks and soon we have completed the set with a singing White-tailed and a very attractive Red-capped which feeds on the track. A Pygmy Kingfisher peeks from the cover of a bush as we enter an area of shorter grassland favoured by the large groups of Uganda Kob which are obviously in the throws of their mating season. As we watch, the male Kobs check receptivity of females by sniffing urine. Lips are then curled back as the scent is passed through the Jacobson's organ, in the nose, which will confirm to the male whether or not the female is ready to mate. If the result is positive a brief pursuit and even briefer copulation follows.
The landscape is one of flat yellow-green grassland, dotted with dark lollipop-topped euphorbia tree. Vast, deep explosion craters, a legacy of the land's active volcanic history, are dotted about the Park. The crater bottoms contain the remains of saline lakes, relatively sterile in wildlife terms but the centre of a local salt extraction enterprise.
Uganda Kob greatly outnumber all other large mammals in this region of the Park but we also see good numbers of Defassa Waterbuck, Cape Buffalo and Warthog. A small flock of Collared Pratincoles fly overhead and we are delighted to flush no less than three African Crakes, a rather scarce and elusive inter-African migrant. Final surprise of the morning is a four metre long Central African Rock Python that is slowly crossing the track and easily spans it's whole width in one go!
Back at Mweya Safari Lodge we eat our huge buffet breakfast on the veranda, where by daylight the true splendour of the location can be appreciated. From our table, at which Slender-billed Weavers join us to steal tit-bits, we enjoy a stunning view out over the Kazinga Channel and the savannah plains beyond. It is hard to think of a more impressive dining location; in the morning sunlight the location is truly stunning.
Bags are loaded and we're off for the next leg of the northward journey. Well not quite. Pulling down a strategically placed track, en route to the main Park gate, we emerge at another vantage point over the Kazinga Channel. An amazing wildlife spectacle greets us on the opposite bank, viewed through a telescope erected out of the pop-up roof as a precaution against marauding Lions!
A huge herd of well over two hundred Cape Buffalo have congregated where the sloping acacia-strewn hillside meets the water's edge. An elephant or two has joined them, as have a number of Hippos, but it is a large gathering of birds that causes the most excitement. On the low ground beside the Channel rest two groups totalling around two hundred and fifty black and white birds with long orange bills. They are African Skimmers, a very localised species on the Continent and a fantastic bonus at this site. Periodically groups of birds take to the air en mass, making a fantastic spectacle as they twist and turn in black-and-white unison. Some even 'skim' the water's surface, and all with a background of massed Buffalo ranks. Unforgettable.
Leaving the park we drive for some time through lowlands, with large patches of acacia woodland still intact, and the mighty form of the Rwenzori Mountains growing ever-larger in the west. Eventually we begin to climb through the now-familiar cultivated hills, stopping only to shop for 'acacia honey' to take home and Wellington boots for our Semliki visit. We are also taught the art of eating fresh Passion Fruit, which is piled high at all the roadside stalls in this particular area.
At 15.30 we pull into the Rwenzori View Guest House, a clean and well-maintained colonial-style bungalow, located in a quiet and secluded valley on the outskirts of Fort Portal. We do not loiter to enjoy the facilities, however; there are birds to be seen! We drive east of Fort Portal, passing through more extensive tea plantations, to reach a fine stretch of primary forest at Sebitori around sixteen kilometres from the town and actually linked to Kibale Game Reserve.
New birds soon appear, in the form of Grosbeak Weaver, Joyful and Honeyguide Greenbuls, plus two rather localised species, the attractive Lowland Masked Apalis and a group of Forest Wood-Hoopoes. It's great area but the vehicles that hurtle along the good tarmac road at tremendous velocity are an added obstacle. After another concerted effort at tape luring we secure another good bird, and complete a fantastic 'cuckoo hat-trick', with Dusky Long-tailed Cuckoo. As the sun sinks low in the west Sabine's Spinetails take to the air in numbers and we make our way back to Fort Portal.
Driving in the near-darkness the dozens of people walking the unlit roads are a serious hazard, as are the many unlit bicycles that are invariably laden down, as usual, with huge loads of bananas. We dine at The Gardens Restaurant, where Mutebi's Brother Joseph joins us. He has travelled to Fort Portal by bus in order to deliver the camping equipment we will need for Semliki in a couple of days time.
Tuesday 7th June
Leaving Rwenzori View early we speed eastwards along the good dirt road that, after half an hour, delivers us to Kibale Game Reserve. The road passes through mature forest and we lessen our speed to check the occasional bird that feeds on the red dirt in the half-light. Both Red-tailed and White-tailed Ant-Thrushes hop in the open, and when they fly they reveal give-away white or orange outer tail retrices to confirm identification. A brief stop at a small, bridged stream soon produces Cassin's Grey Flycatcher, with a pair of these rather nondescript birds hunting from branches and rocks just above the water's surface.
At the Reserve HQ we pick up our guide, Godfrey, before driving to another section of the forest. Our softly-spoken tracker explains that the Reserve holds a healthy population of around seven hundred Chimpanzees in eleven separate communities.
As we walk along a wide trail in the flat, dry and relatively open forest Alfred tapes in first a pair of Brown Illidopsises and then a Rufous Flycatcher Thrush, the latter an arboreal version of the ant-thrushes seen earlier on the entrance road. We have only been in the forest for around half an hour when the wild, whooping cries of Chimpanzees are heard and we instantly set off in their direction.
Soon we have located their whereabouts and we rapidly position ourselves right amongst the group which is slowly making it's way through the forest. Animals are crashing heavily through the low canopy, with others walking across open areas of the forest floor. An immediate impression is of the surprising bulk, strength and outbursts of violent emotion displayed by these large apes, which are clearly having heated and highly vocal exchanges in the trees above our heads. Branches crack, buttress roots are beaten and loud, screaming cries echo through the forest as members of the group display their displeasure.
Godfrey tells us that a female member of the group is currently in oestrus. The alpha male will have first chance to mate with the receptive female but after a few days he will be exhausted and no longer able to defend his would-be partner. At this point the males that are next in line for a chance to mate must battle for access, and it is at this emotional stage of the proceedings that we have met with the group. Maybe it is the similarity of the Chimpanzees to a group of battling Humans that makes the scene seem so violently animated, but for me the incredible spectacle of the running battles of our closest cousins are some of the most vivid and memorable moments of our trip.
Not all of the Chimpanzees are on the warpath and we are able to watch other individuals at close quarters as they spend periods sitting quietly on the ground or harvesting fruit in the lower branches. It is at this point that the surprising differences in facial characteristics between members of the group can be appreciated and also the great repertoire of facial expressions displayed by each individual.
When the Chimpanzees take to the forest floor and rapidly set off through the trees we leave them in peace, more than happy with this unique primate experience. We spend another couple of hours trying to eke a few more bird species from the rather lifeless forest but only have Hairy-breasted Barbet, Brown-eared Woodpecker and Brown-chested Alethe to show for our efforts. Interestingly this bird-less experience seems to be a recurring feature when reading other visitor's accounts of time spent at Kibale.
After a bite of lunch we move on to the Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, about twenty minutes drive from the HQ. Here an area of Papyrus swamp and wet woodland has been protected from the agriculture, which encroaches on all sides, and we pick up a guide before setting off on foot in the heat of the afternoon. Black-capped Yellow Warbler and Walberg's Honeyguide are the highlights of a fairly slow couple of hours as we traverse the trail that follows the Sanctuary's perimeter. As the evening temperatures start to fall, however, more birds come back to life.
A Papyrus Canary puts in a surprise appearance and an outrageously bright Yellow-billed Barbet feeds in the figs overhead. A male White-collared Oliveback shows a fantastically subtle combination of soft olive-greens and pale-greys, contrasting with a black head, while a Grey-winged Robin-Chat dazzles us with fiery breast and striking white supercillium. White-winged Swamp-Warbler gives us another frustrating run-around in the Papyrus, though a wonderful little White-spotted Flufftail does exactly as required and trots around the allocated pool in response to the tape.
A Central African Red Colobus bids us farewell from a palm-top as we head back to Fort Portal, happy with our afternoon's work. The Rwenzori View provides one of the finest meals of the trip, over which we plan our impending assault on the Congo Basin.
Wednesday 8th June
Tarmac roads do not extend beyond the main thoroughfare through Fort Portal and our early morning drive, with the rising sun at our backs, soon sees us on the roughest of dirt roads. Leaving behind the lower cultivated areas we climb steeply into the hills and some superb areas of open, dry woodland. The low trees and patches of scrub are alive with early-morning bird activity, headed by White-browed Scrub Robin, Whistling, Singing and Stout Cisticolas, plus a flock of wonderfully bright Green-backed Eremomolas. Black-headed Batis, Red-shouldered Cuckoo-Shrike, Black-billed Barbet, Copper and Superb Sunbirds are all new to the trip. A pair of Yellow-bellied Hyliotas are particularly welcome, as is Cabanis's Bunting and a stunning little group of Orange-winged Pytilias, a beautifully marked green-and-orange waxbill.
Eventually the road begins to wind through more dense, tall forest, shortly after which we emerge at the top of a steep escarpment and one of the most dramatic views of the trip. The rocky plateau over which we have been driving falls steeply away to meet a flat plain several hundred metres below. The land beneath us is totally cloaked in dense lowland forest, with the flat plain stretching out into the distance, for as far as the eye can see. The dirty brown Semliki River snakes amongst the trees, at this point separating Uganda from the Democratic Republic of Congo; from our vantage point we gaze out in wonder at the awesome sight of the vast and inaccessible Congo Basin.
Our destination for the next couple of days is Semliki National Park, a reserve that protects the relatively small area of the Congolian Forest that lies within the boundaries of Uganda. After checking in at the Sempaya Gate HQ we set out on a loop around a series of adjacent trails, along with Godfrey our enthusiastic young guide. It is late morning and getting very warm at a site which brings us to the lowest elevations of the whole trip, at around 700 m. Predictably our walk through open, palm-dominated, forest brings little of avian interest, though a Blue-breasted Kingfisher sits out for all to admire.
At the furthest point in the loop the trail opens up into an area of open grassland that surrounds the hot springs, for which the Park is famed. An amazing frothing spout of scalding water pours from a raised funnel, built of lime deposits, to run into a small steaming lake in whose margins a Three-banded Plover feeds. Even more impressive is the deadly Forest Vine Snake that suddenly materialises within inches of Godfrey's hand as he reaches to pluck black peppercorns from a tangle of branches!
Birding is temporarily abandoned in the heat of mid-day and we return for a picnic of fresh avocado and salad sandwiches at the HQ. VW, our resident astronomer, continues to remind us that today is the first occasion since 1882 on which Venus will pass between Earth and the Sun. With the Sun now in a clear sky we procure a length of unexposed film to protect our eyes while searching for the black dot of the Planet against the bright disk of the Sun. This technique fails so MK performs a similar trick through his telescope. The magnified light instantly burns a hole through the film and MK narrowly avoids an optical catastrophe. Don't try this trick at home!
Our time at Semliki is very limited so the siesta is a short one and then it's back to the sweaty forest. Returning to the trail system we run into a group of Crested Guineafowl and a little further on find our first real target bird. A small group of Red-billed Dwarf Hornbills are working their way through the canopy, calling regularly as they go. Wonderful little hornbills, they display bright red bills with uniquely rufous upperparts and white-patterned coverts.
A walk out to the other main hot spring, known locally as the 'Male Spring', gives good views over the surrounding forest and we add both Piping and Pied to our hornbill collection, together with a small flock of Orange-cheeked Waxbills, a species only discovered for the first time in Uganda during the previous year. Looking back east from the springs the view is spectacular as the palm-fringed forest is backed by the escarpment that marks the start of the Rwenzori Mountains, in places rising as a vertical sandstone cliff from the forest plain on which we are standing.
The target species have started to appear but on the whole it's a frustrating afternoon and we actually hear more than we see, with a number of good birds slipping through the forest undetected except by voice. Back at the HQ Mutebi has made a sterling effort on the catering front, erecting tents on the HQ lawn and rustling up a fine vegetable stew. A walk along the road with spotlights produces more good views of African Wood Owl, but nothing else, so we send out for consolatory beers. A local lad offers to walk the five kilometres to the shop and later returns with warm bottles of Nile Special. Surprisingly it still tastes good and is consumed while gazing up at a sky of a million stars.
Thursday 9th June
The best birding site at Semliki is the long trail that cuts through the Kirumia Forest to the Semliki River. It is here where we intend to concentrate our efforts and set off early from our damp tents on a breakfast of omelettes and bread. It is a short drive to the trail, where we commence the walk with a packed lunch and Wellington boots; it can apparently get very wet and muddy.
Scaly-breasted Illadopsis is about as enthralling as the other members of this drab forest-babbler tribe and Xavier's Greenbul only marginally more exciting. Our first African Dwarf-Kingfisher, on the other hand, is a little blue-and-orange cracker and the next tick even more widely acclaimed; African Piculet is not only a new bird for us tourists, but also a tick for both Mutebi and Alfred too! The only African representative of this widespread tropical family, the miniature woodpecker has slate-grey belly, green back and a bright pink eye-ring. Celebrations all round!
More excitement soon follows. Alfred tape-lures a Yellow-throated Cuckoo and soon it is calling from the very tree under which we are standing, with a beautiful custard-yellow throat clearly visible. Amazingly this bird, too, is a tick for Mutebi! Moving on down the flat, wide trail, a very smart Fire-crested Alethe soon follows, before we have to deploy Wellington boots to traverse the wetter sections of the trail where the river frequently tops it's banks. The mud and shallow water come above ankle height for a kilometre-or-so, but we are informed that we have chanced on a particularly dry period and that water can often reach to the waist and occasionally the neck!
Mid-way through the following section of mud the next amazing bird appears, in the form of a dazzling Black-bellied Seedcracker, with bright crimson head and oversized dark bill. Minutes later a pair of Chestnut-bellied Negrofinches are discovered at a nest, closely followed by a fine group of Crested Mailibes, gaudy black-and-red forest-dwelling weavers.
Alfred is really proving his worth today and again his sharp hearing picks out a call, to which he replies with taped playback. Almost immediately a fantastic Rufous-sided Broadbill flies to a low branch where it's large dark head, pale breast and bright rufous flanks are clearly visible. It then proceeds to puff out the feathers of it's white rump before embarking on a totally bizarre display which involves manic bounces to differing positions on the chosen branch much in the manner of a manakin!
Blue-headed Crested-Flycatcher is another good find, and incredibly a third tick for Mutebi, shortly before we reach the limit of our travels at the third oxbow lake. We have walked around seven kilometres and it is another three more to the Semliki River, so after consuming our packed lunch we set off to retrace our steps back towards the road. The heat of the afternoon means much-reduced bird activity but we are still treated to some fantastic views of a number of Black-casqued Wattled Hornbills. These are massive black beasts, with the female displaying an impressive rufous crown much in the mode of an Asian hornbill species.
A calling Emerald Cuckoo, surely one of Africa's most beautiful birds, sits above our heads and finally an obliging Red-rumped Tinkerbird is found, that will respond to a whistled imitation of it's call. It has been a fantastic day of birding, exceeding all expectations at a site that can be notoriously difficult and unproductive. A large reception committee has gathered at the village in which we left the vehicle; visiting whiteys are clearly still a novelty in this part of the World!
Returning to the HQ we rapidly pack up camp and set off back up the escarpment. We pause at it's peak for a final view of the Congo Basin, the sky now taking-on an orangey glow in the last light of day. Much further west a huge electrical storm is raging over the vast forested plain and jagged bolts of white lightning bridge the gap between grey sky and dark green vegetation. It's an awesome spectacle and a great memory with which to leave The Congo.
It's a two-hour winding drive back through the hills to Fort Portal, and as we drive we see the hillsides become dotted with the glow of cooking fires that are lit beside isolated huts. Back in the town we again dine at The Gardens Restaurant, where an intermittent electricity supply gives us regularly dimming lights to accompany our final meal in Fort Portal.
Thursday 10th June
The good tarmac road, which runs north out of Fort Portal, lulls us into a false sense of security; after about forty kilometres it abruptly returns to dusty red dirt. We add Yellow-backed Weaver to the list, a species that we have presumably overlooked until now, and then get the inevitable puncture. As Mutebi changes the wheel we dish out pens and balloons to the local children who are, as usual, immensely grateful. So much so, in fact that they burst into impromptu song in our honour, again a very humbling experience in light of what we consider such an insignificant gesture.
At 10.00 we stop at a stretch of roadside Papyrus swamp for another whirl of the White-winged Swamp-Warbler tape. While us tourists are getting all frustrated after yet another abortive effort earlier in the morning, Mutebi and Alfred stay cool and this time their reassurances come to fruition. Soon the large, range-restricted Bradypterus warbler is singing from an exposed Papyrus stem, showing-off white shoulder and heavily spotted breast. The curse is finally broken and we also savour the bonus of another pristine male White-collared Oliveback that feeds beside the road.
As we near Masindi the flat agricultural outlook changes from the massed ranks of banana trees to a tedious carpet of tall sugarcane stems. Just after 13.00 we check into the Masindi Hotel, which is in the throws of a partial refurbishment. In the midst of a bite of lunch the security guard interrupts us to announce, "The rat is back"! Earlier we had been watching an unidentified rodent feed beside the car park, and now we go back to narrow it's identity to an Unstriped Grass Rat species. Truly a 'Fawlty Towers' moment!
Our birding locality for the afternoon is Budongo Forest, more specifically the area known as Busingiro. Here Vincent, our rather serious but very knowledgeable guide, joins us to bird from the wide dirt road that cuts through the tall virgin forest. A small group of Chestnut-capped Flycatchers feed in the high canopy, as does a pair of Forest Flycatchers with distinctively-barred white underparts. Chestnut-winged Starling is a new bird, as is a group of distinctive canopy-feeding Rufous-capped Eremomolas. We round off an afternoon of neck-aching action with Chocolate-backed Kingfisher, another species that surprisingly never seems to sit below the highest canopy.
Behind the Park HQ Vincent recognises a call and we spend the last of the daylight attempting to tape out a Buff-spotted Flufftail. Seeing three flufftails on one trip is clearly beyond all realms of possibility and our quarry refuses to venture beyond the dense forest understorey, however it's haunting, melancholy call is certainly one of the most memorable sounds of our trip.
Back at the Masindi Hotel, where we share an excellent buffet meal with a large sales convention, MK finds another moth that takes us back to our UK field guides; a pristine Passenger clinging to our bedroom wall.
Friday 11th June
The Royal Mile is the name given to a straight avenue cut trough the tall primary forest of Budongo. It has rained heavily in the night and our morning visit to this famous birding site, often said to be one of the finest forests in Uganda, is below a grey sky and heavily-dripping canopy leaves.
Although bird activity is initially slow it is an easy site to work, with a very wide access road and virtually flat terrain. White-thighed Hornbill appears to be a common bird and is easily picked out by it's black-banded white tail. A group of Spotted Bulbuls perform their distinctive habit of flicking-open alternate wings in the high canopy, while African Dwarf-Kingfisher and Lesser Honeyguide oblige at lower levels. Through gaps in the trees we study the swifts overhead and are soon proficient at locating the stocky, tail-less Cassin's Spinetails amongst groups of their more common Sabine's cousins.
Nahan's Francolin calls from a concealed spot in the dense understorey and frustratingly refuses to give itself up, in spite of persistent efforts with the tape recorder. Thankfully Grey Longbill, Purple Starling and Icterine Greenbul are much more obliging and we finally get a proper look at the magnificent Chocolate-backed Kingfisher when we find an individual which responds to a whistled imitation of it's call.
After consuming a hearty packed-lunch, on a butterfly-carpeted trail, we emerge from the forest to spend some time in an area of scrub and cultivation that adjoins the Park. It is now very hot and most birds are reluctant to move from the shade but we persevere and notch up Yellow-rumped Seedeater, Red-headed Quelea, Purple-banded Sunbird, Cabanis's Bunting and what is surprisingly the only African Harrier-Hawk of the trip.
We cover a couple of other nearby sites in the heat of the afternoon but find little of any avian consequence. Our travels take us past small hamlets of particularly dilapidated mud huts, many of which seem to be made up of more holes that actual mud walls. Communal gatherings of villagers invariably front the huts, with local people either peeling cassava or surrounding a tiny square of linen on which they present a selection of vegetables for sale.
Our final port of call is a return visit to the HQ at Busingiro. In the cultivated land, which adjoins the forest at this site, we locate the attractive Brown Twinspot and a fine pair of Superb Sunbirds that have a distinct preference for the purple down-pointing flowers of the banana tree. At ground level the forest is rather quiet except for Red-capped and Snowy-headed Robin-Chats. Looking upwards is somewhat more exciting as seven African Grey Parrots fly past to roost and a distant gathering of at least twenty-five Blue-throated Rollers hawk high above the canopy for unseen insects.
Back at the Masindi Hotel we dine on a chicken tikka masala which is voted straight in as best meal of the trip; there is no excuse for getting the recipe wrong, though, as the restaurant's proprietors are of Indian origin! Over a beer we debate the options for the final morning in Uganda; do we try again for Nahan's Francolin and the handful of other target birds which have eluded us so far at Budongo, or do we head out to bird on the east of Masindi with the potential to end the day beside Lake Victoria. It's a close call but the latter option wins through and we retire to bed with fingers crossed.
Saturday 12th June
Just a short distance to the east of Masindi the cultivation gives way to some excellent habitat, a mixture of savannah woodland and seasonally flooded grassland. The low acacias and lush, reedy marshes are heaving with birds, Yellow-mantled Widowbird, African Black-headed Oriole, Lesser Blue-eared Glossy Starling and Brown Babbler all being new to the trip. Prize bird of the first wetland stop is the northern humeralis race of Hartlaub's Marsh Widowbird, a species of rather restricted range.
A few kilometres further we stop beside an area of rather dense savannah woodland, where African Golden Oriole and both African and Black Cuckoos are found. Mutebi's cry from the bush sets us sprinting, and seconds later we are watching a crippling pair of White-crested Turacos which sit side-by-side in the bare top of a low acacia. These are phenomenally good-looking birds, quite possibly the highlight of this fantastic family and one of the best birds we see in all Uganda. A pure white head, with tall pointed crest, contrasts with dark-green body and a thin black line that cuts the forehead just above a bright yellow bill. Stunning.
At our next stop, in similar wooded habitat, we chance on a small feeding flock that contains four fantastic White Helmetshrikes and an immaculate pair of White-breasted Cuckooshrikes. As we crash through patches of grassland to obtain better views of the preceding species we flush a pair of birds from the ground and the whirr of deep blue and chestnut in the male reveals them to be a pair of the uncommon and nomadic Blue Quail. Naturally we flush them a second time just to savour the experience.
Our final birding session of the morning is around a more open area of dryer grassland with occasional acacias. Here we find a magnificently patterned Northern Brubru, White-headed Barbet, Northern Crombec, plus another small flock, this time with family parties of both Southern Hyliota and White-shouldered Tit. Walking through the tall grass we startle a pair of small sandy-brown antelope that bound off through the scrub. The white tail-flashes and dark pointed horns of the male identify them as Oribi, an uncommon species outside Murchison Falls N P and a great conclusion to our mammal-watching.
Continuing along the dirt road we come across an Eastern Chanting Goshawk and the final tick of what has been a monumental couple of hours, a Heuglin's Francolin, which refuses to be flushed from it's roadside resting place. One last surprise is a Dwarf Chameleon, which Mutebi miraculously produces from the acacias. These totally bizarre creatures are fascinating and we spend some time studying it's pyramid-shaped, independently-focussing eyes and curious rocking motion, not to mention it's complexion which totally changes colour in the course of our observation!
Eventually we return to the somewhat familiar sight of a tarmac road where we take 'elevenses' of roast cassava and goat meat kebabs, procured from roadside stalls, before heading south on the main road to Kampala. The uneventful drive takes us on straight, fast tarmac mainly through acacia woodland with brief pauses for Whalberg's Eagle, Bateleur and Grey Kestrel. Mutebi points out the odd place of interest, such as the town where Idi Amin grew up and once worked as a peanut seller!
Arriving at Kampala in the early afternoon we fight our way through the now-familiar traffic chaos and past Marabou-mounted tower blocks to Mutebi's office, where he confirms our flight details for tomorrow while we dine at the slowest 'fast-food' bar we have ever experienced. It all seems a bit unnecessary and we wish we'd have avoided the City altogether. By 14.30 we are skirting the north shore of an ocean-like Lake Victoria. There are beach resorts and many waterside hotel developments; without checking the salinity of the deep blue water it is impossible to differentiate from a sea. VW enlightens us with the observation, "That Lake is bigger than my Country!"
Entebbe Botanical Gardens are an extensive tract of landscaped parkland that run down to the Lake's edge. On a Saturday afternoon the lawns are very crowded, but the birds don't seem to mind the activity and large colonies of weavers nest in the thorny bushes overhanging the shallows. Amongst the large numbers of Slender-billed and Golden-backed Weavers we pick out a few Orange Weavers, while on the open water we notch up the only Little Egrets and Lesser Black-backed Gulls of the trip.
Our final hour of Ugandan birding time is spent around an area of marshland adjoining the airport. Miraculously we find a new bird, in the form of Brimstone Canary, and we know that we are left within spitting-distance of the magical five hundred trip-list total. Against his better judgement, we persuade Mutebi to park-up close to an area of muddy shoreline beside the main runway. Here we collect a good selection of common waders such as Ruddy Turnstone and Black-tailed Godwit but not without incurring the wrath of the military, as an armed soldier insists that we make a hasty departure!
The fiery orange ball of the Sun sinks over the Lake in a fitting finale to our time in this wonderful Country. Depositing us at the nearby Sophie's Motel we bid our farewells to Mutebi and Alfred, thanking them warmly for their efforts in providing what has been a fantastically successful and extremely smooth-running trip. Mutebi is an excellent organiser and host and we would not hesitate in recommending the use of Access Uganda Tours to anyone contemplating travel in Uganda. Equally we are indebted to Alfred, without whose help many a rare and sought-after bird species would have, without doubt, eluded us.
Sunday 13th June
Although our birding travels are formally over, with an early flight to Nairobi to catch, it is hard to escape the avian delights of this bird-filled Country. As we sit in the Entebbe Airport departure lounge we see massed flocks of thousands of White-winged Black Terns feeding high above Lake Victoria, while a pair of Saddlebilled Storks wander sedately over the short grass adjoining the runway. Or at least they wander until they are chased away by the bright yellow 'Bird Hazard Control' vehicle!
The short flight to Kenya provides a fantastic outlook over Mount Kilamanjaro, whose snow-capped peak protrudes through a thin bank of cloud. One last surprise comes in the form of a pair of Secretary Birds, the only ones of the whole trip, stalking the grassland just metres from the tarmac runway at Nairobi Airport! It just acts as a final example of how, as a spectacle of wildlife abundance and diversity, Africa really does take some beating.
In the last fourteen days of travel we have amassed an amazing total of 505 bird species, plus thirty-three mammals. Not only have we been remarkably successful in terms of quantity, but also quality, as amongst this number we have seen some of the most spectacular and range-restricted bird species on the Continent. Add to this the most intimate Gorilla and inspiring Chimpanzee performances plus a Leopard at our feet, and you have the recipe for the perfect trip to a country that is surely one of the Planet's premier wildlife viewing destinations.