Mom, Dad, Mike and cousin Alice, recently came to visit for a two week tour of Uganda and Rwanda. It was great to see the family and introduce them to this place that’s now become familiar to me. Two weeks of vacation wasn’t half bad either. Here’s the highlights reel – after two consecutive red-eye flights they were pretty content to take it easy in Kampala for the first day. Mike and Alice crashed in my new apartment and Mom and Dad were just up the road in a hotel. For anyone wondering, there isn’t a ton to occupy a tourist’s time in Kampala. The next morning we started out at the big Gaddafi Mosque and then ventured into the depths of downtown. I guess I wanted them to get a sense of the chaos of the city, but I might have gone a little overboard with a walk past the old taxi park (image here). But we survived and made it up to the big craft market, which mom proceeded to devastate. My haggling skills, which I’d like to think have improved in the last year, were simply no match for the mzungu family premium. Ethiopian dinner was a first for the family – dinner sans utensils was amusing.
Our first of many long drives was up to Murchinson Falls, probably the most prominent national park in Uganda. Vacation in Uganda, we came to learn, involves a lot of early morning wakeups. That said, the pre-sunrise departures were well worth it:
After two days in the park we loaded up for a long haul – all told we spent 11 hours traveling from Murchinson to Kibale NP, of which a luxurious 20 miles were paved. We stopped ever so briefly at URDT to stretch our legs and have a look around. We made it to Ndali Lodge at dusk – the lodge is beautiful and set above two of the region’s crater lakes but felt, I thought, a bit like traveling back in time to visit an old colonial estate. The following morning was chimpanzee time. I did the chimp trekking last year but didn’t have a camera with me at the time. We saw this guy in a tree for a while but learned that on the overcast mornings, such as that one, the chimps spend more time high in the trees. Eventually he did swing down out of the trees and took off – seeing these animals move through the dense forest is a pretty awesome sight.
Sunday (yes, just at the end of week one) we headed to Kamwenge. I showed off my old apartment, checked out an installed and full BOB rainwater bag, toured the market, and then joined my friend Frank and his family for dinner at their house. It was a pretty incredible experience for my family. So often there’s no good way (but plenty of bad ways) for tourists to see how people really live and this was a chance to not just see how my friend’s family lives, but actually get to know them even if only for an evening. After sharing three chickens and some rather poignant stories we headed across the street to the bar to shoot some pool, a national pastime. The following morning we were back on the road headed to Lake Bunyonyi. Booyna Amagara is a backpackers paradise on an island in the middle of this beautiful lake, and, as a plus, they also have some great thatched geodomes for a nicer campy experience. We were all ready to sit and relax for a day or two and did just that – I have to admit that if the stress of learning to play bridge was the hardest part of the day then that’s a win.
Next stop, northern Rwanda for gorilla trekking. I felt a different vibe almost immediately upon crossing the border – Rwanda is crowded, people fill the rural roads and barely bother to step aside for passing cars. The lodge bragged about a fireplace in each room and big comforters – being (moderately) cold has become a refreshing experience.
Gorillas. We first walked through terraced farm fields for maybe 45 minutes, I was feeling the altitude (I like to think). We then entered the forest and followed a series of small paths to nowhere and then proceeded to bushwhack for another 30 minutes before finding the trackers with the group. As we approached we saw one through the undergrowth, and then two more directly on the path, and then, as if on cue, this group of 14 gorillas assembled in a small clearing and posed for us for nearly an hour straight. I think I took more photos in that one hour than in my previous year in Uganda combined.
That evening we continued on to Kigali – between the size of the country and the incredible road network crossing Rwanda from north to south is probably no more than an easy five hours. The following morning we ate breakfast at the Hotel des Milles Collines, of Hotel Rwanda fame, and then managed to walk all of downtown Kigali in under an hour. Kigali is small, orderly, clean and growing. That afternoon we visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial. The memorial is very well designed and informative but I really wasn’t moved as I had expected I might be. I guess for me, especially being there for just a few days, it’s still nearly impossible to internalize that the genocide actually did take place on those streets and in my lifetime. While there are now dozens of books on Rwanda, we read A Thousand Hills and I would say it’s definitely worth reading before a visit. It’s probably a better book about Rwanda than any written on Uganda. That Saturday evening we flew back to Uganda – a 33 minute flight rather than a 12 hour drive – and spent the night in an airport hotel. The following morning it poured rain, a rarity in June, as I dropped the family at the airport and headed back to Kampala. And then I slept.
It was a blast and although not someplace they would have otherwise visited I think the family enjoyed the experience. More visitors are welcomed..