Uganda – of Gonoleks, Piapiacs and Plantain Eaters

A Kampala hotel terrace with a view of Lake Victoria.

I got onto to the Entebbe bound plane in Johannesburg, feeling like I had a run a mini marathon.
I had specifically booked a flight from to Durban to Johannesburg many hours ahead of my flight to Entebbe, just in case of things going wrong. Which was just as well. My Mango flight was delayed, then cancelled several hours later. I was put on another flight, which was also cancelled. Fellow passengers were muttering that it had been done deliberately by the company, because the flight wasn’t full. I went to the airport authorities to say that I wasn’t impressed. If I missed my flight, I would miss a whole itinerary, and I would hold them responsible for all costs. I was put on another flight pronto, and arrived at Johannesburg well in time to catch the Entebbe flight. I thought.

I collected my luggage from the Durban flight, checked in, was wished a pleasant flight etc, and made my way to security and customs. Security was also pleasant, and I then joined the queue for customs. And queued and queued. Any amount of people were waiting patiently in the queue, flying to all sorts of destinations. There were only two custom officers on duty, and it seemed that every second passenger was pulled off into separate rooms for some sort of extra security check and questioning session, by the same two officers on duty, and we didn’t move. An hour passed with this going on, and we were all getting irate. Some ladies going to the DRC were getting very stressed about possibly missing their flight. I was too. Missing a flight when you have checked in timeously, and done everything correctly, because of too few customs officers would be ridiculous.
The ladies went through, and I went through. I started walking as fast as possible towards my departure gate, when my name was called over the public address system. Damn. I started walk-running, with no idea how far away my gate was. Passenger Costello Kathryn, this is your final boarding call or words to that effect, being repeated several times, together with another person’s name. A guy was also moving in my direction, and as we got to a fork in the departures building, I asked where he was going. Nigeria, he replied, his gate was next to mine. Our names were called again, and he grabbed my hand luggage on wheels, and said: RUN! Which I did, with him close behind me with both our bags. I got the gate area as they were closing the gate, shouted my name to the flight attendants, thanked my hero profusely, grabbed my bag and ran again. The flight attendants (SAA), smiled reassuringly that I had made it, and I boarded, totally exhausted, from the run, swearing to myself that I would work on getting fit again.

Oh, the luxury of a half empty plane and sweet attendants. SAA management may leave a lot to be desired, but I have always found SAA a pleasure to fly. In this half empty plane, I spread out, put lots of pillows behind my back, swung around, and stretched my legs out over the adjacent seats. I quenched my thirst with a litre of water, snacks, a late lunch, a glass of wine, and settled down with my iPad, writing a stinker of a letter to my bankers; their standard of service was pathetic. They had lost some of my papers, and instead of phoning, and asking if they could have copies, they froze the account with my Uganda holiday funds in it.  That had nearly caused my trip to be a non-event. I had ‘made a plan’, but I was furious, and the bank with no standards lost most of my business. That done, I read my guide book to Uganda the rest of the way.

Why go to Uganda? It had never been on my ‘Go to list’. I had been partly brought up in Tanzania, and Kenya, and Idi Amin’s reign of terror had started when we were living there. We had visited friends in Jinja during this time, and I have the trip very strongly imprinted in my memory. I very clearly remember us children not being allowed out in to the garden, whose lawns stretched down to the banks of the Nile River, before our parents had done a patrol and checked that there were no bodies washed up on the bank. That had left a terrible impression, and I had never, until now, considered going back.

At least that was the status quo when a good friend phoned, and said that she was joining another friend to celebrate a family birthday. Did I hesitate? I don’t think so. I did the usual instant yes, and then wondered afterwards what I was doing. We would stay at the backpackers Red Chilli Hideaway, in Kampala, and then we’d go up to Murchison Park for a few days. Murchison as in Murchison Falls – oh yes please!

Angoli cattle.

I needed to sort out a visa, and contacted the Ugandan High Commission in Pretoria. This was my first contact with anybody from the country, and the man I corresponded with, set the tone of what was to come. Yes, they could issue my visa, but it really wasn’t necessary to go through all the rigmarole of sending my passport to them, I could just purchase it at the Entebbe Airport.

The staff at Entebbe Airport were equally friendly, customs was quick, easy and pleasant, and my visa purchase was simple. I walked out to the arrivals area, and there was the taxi that Red Chilli had sent to meet me, complete with my name on a board.
Off we went, in the direction of Kampala. Kampala is only 60km from Entebbe, but it’s generally a 3 hour trip of congested, slow moving traffic, through what seems to be a never ending open air market.

There were traders everywhere, and as night fell, all the street vendors were lit up with candles or paraffin lamps. As we neared Kampala, my driver (sorry, I can’t remember his name), asked if I needed anything before he dropped me off at Red Chilly. Did I have Uganda money or US Dollars? It was a question I was reluctant to answer. Answering it, it my opinion, was setting myself up to be robbed. So, I answered nonchalantly, I did have some dollars, but no Ugandan shillings. Oh, said he, in that case we need to stop at a money changer, so that I could get useable currency. Say what? At night, in a strange city, in Uganda? Serious? No. I thought passing up on the offer was a good option. But my driver was insistent and pulled up at small shopping centre, where a Bureau de Change was open. Armed guards stood outside. I got out of the taxi bus, heard something fall, and reached under the car for it. It turned out to be an empty water bottle, and I chucked it into the car. I went into the Bureau de Change and joined the queue. I was now tired, really tired. I wondered where my phone was, but I was at that stage of tiredness where I couldn’t have cared less about anything. I couldn’t find it in my handbag. Ag, who cares, maybe it fell out of the car with the water bottle, I’d look when I got back to the car. If I had the energy.  I got to the counter, the transaction went smoothly, and I put the money away, thanked the clerk and walked out of the office. Well, I tried to. A shout went up behind me ‘Madam!’ Who, me? Yes me. A guy came up to me. ‘Is this your phone? You left it in there.’ I thanked the man, and got into the car again. Thank-you Uganda, so far you’d made a really good impression.

Red Chilly Hideaway is more than just a lodge. There are dorms for those on a budget, and private en-suite rooms fr those who like their privacy. It was good seeing everybody, and after supper (Sushi), we went to bed.

Red Chilly Hideaway, Kampala.

We were up at dawn, sitting on a verandah with good coffee, watching birds in the garden.
We saw birds with weird names: Gonoleks, Plantain Eaters, Piapiacs and Pittas. These are just a few off Uganda’s 1000 bird species. Some are just weird. Like Shoebills, which are on the top of many birders’ ‘want to see list’. Gonoleks, with their bright red plumage and oriole like call, became a favourite immediately.

The weird and wonderful Shoebill.

What does one do in Kampala? One has lazy mornings at the pool. One goes to Lake Victoria, and has lunch at a marvelous hotel, or one enjoys the park and botanical gardens. One enjoys the local coffee shops.

One admires the disciplined soldiers on security patrol. As we were in Uganda just before the Presidential inauguration, we saw a number of platoons on duty. We also had the fright of our lives while enjoying cake and coffee at a coffee shop – an extremely low flying military jet screeched overhead, so low, that we actually ducked. Those of us that gaped slack jawed at the event, swore we could clearly see the rivets holding the plane together. The sonic boom was awesome. 

We spent a few days in Kampala, and then we were off to the Murchison Game Reserve. We stopped at the Uganda Rhino Sanctuary, ZIWA, to do a spot of Rhino Trekking.
This is basically a walk through the bush looking for the introduced rhino, with a guide. Both white and black rhino were extinct in Uganda until a few years ago, when some passionate people decided to reintroduce these iconic African animals.

A few years ago, some land was bought, and 3 white rhinos from Kenya, and 3 from…..……  guess where? Disneyland of all places, were introduced. They bred successfully, and to date (2018), a healthy population of 23 rhino are in the sanctuary. The rhinos live in different family groups, and have monitors 24/7, who live, sleep and eat with them, to stop any poaching. Should something untoward happen, the monitors, who are invisible in the bush, simply call for back up, and a well-armed security force will be at the site within minutes. Later, we were to meet a man who has in his employ, the man who shot the last of Uganda’s Black rhino, back in the Amin days. 

Years, after the deed, he found out what he had actually done, and is now a keen conservationist. Education is a vital key to preserving the natural wonders of the world, and Uganda educates its youth to protect their natural assets. We found the rhinos, spent a while a few metres from them where they lay in the shade, and having a good laugh at a youngster who got himself stuck in a fallen over sapling.

Murchison Game Reserve is awe inspiring. It’s huge. It has a rain forest with chimpanzees. It has the Nile River. It has Murchison Falls. It has hundreds of animals. Thousands actually. Buffalo. Elephant. Hippo. The biggest wickedest Nile Crocodiles you’ll ever see. It has the Uganda Kob, which is Uganda’s special version of an impala gazelle. It is bigger and heavier than the common impala. It has Rothchild’s giraffe, lots of them, and until very recently, only on one side of the Nile. A family group were captured and taken across on the ferry to the non-giraffe side and released there. Why weren’t there any on the one side? Because in the bad days, they all got shot out, like so much of Uganda’s game, and swimming across rivers, is not what giraffes do for fun. Oribi are common, as are Kongoni (aka Hartebees), and Grants Gazelles.

Above: Elephant, Olive Baboon eating a mushroom, Spotted hyena, Lion, elephants, Kob, buffalo, Nile crocodile, warthog (having a pee, just like a female dog does).

A family of Rothchild’s Giraffe were translocated to the other side of the Nile River – credit:

 It has Abyssinian Ground Hornbills, which have blue faces as opposed to the red of the more common Southern Ground Hornbills. It does not have Black Crowned Cranes, you have to go further north to see those, but it does have the amazing Shoebill, which walk in the long grass on the river banks. Lions? Yes. Leopard? Yes. We saw both species of large cats. 

Uganda has just under 1000 species of birds. A big part of its tourism industry, is birdwatching. Birdwatchers travel from all over the world to not only see the three big near endemic species: the Shoebill Stork, the Abyssinian Ground Hornbill and the Black Crowned Crane. Smaller species include two species of gonoleks, which are part of the shrike family. The black-headed gonolek, which has scarlet undersides, sounds more like oriole, than a shrike. The Eastern Grey Plantain-eaters, are a dully coloured turaco family member. Piapiacs are crows with long tails, which are often seen on animals, because they eat the ticks and other parasites. A Silver Bird is a flycatcher with a silvery grey back, and a bright rufous-orange breast.

Piapiacs on a buffalo.

Thankfully, poaching is no longer a problem. Uganda is adamant about preserving its wildlife for future generations, and so it is protected by the people of Uganda. A little bit of poaching for the pot does occur, but that is antelopes like kob, and it does not harm the population to any major extent.

The chimpanzees live in the rain forest section of the park. Well trained guides are there to make sure that you do see a chimpanzee or six, and they are in radio contact, telling each other where the chimpanzees are. I had expected semi tame chimpanzees, and had had visions of them, when seeing humans, coming down to our level, to scrounge a banana. 

Above: Top left: Our guide educating us about Chimpanzees. Bottom left: A Chimpanzee high above us. Right: A Chimpanzee drum.

It was a really pleasant surprise to find that these chimpanzees are truly wild, and tolerate humans coming into their territory, but were not interested in us. As it was, the chimpanzees were uncooperative that day, and stayed high in the tree canopy, the only bit of acknowledging of our presence, was that they threw some wild fruit at us. Their aiming wasn’t too good, so we were ok. While walking through the forest, we did hear them communicating with their ‘drums’. These drums are part of the root system of certain trees; these above ground roots are called buttresses, which, when smacked hard, produce a booming sound which can be heard for miles. They communicate all sorts of happenings through this drumming. Different sounds are produced for ‘good food here’, ‘leopard on the prowl’, ‘look out – incoming tourists’, etc. We tried drumming a la chimpanzee; it wasn’t easy, you really have to hit those buttresses hard, to make any sort of sound. Those chimpanzees were probably rolling their eyes at our efforts at copying their behaviour.

Our home for the next week was Red Chilly Rest Camp.  Accommodation is in huts scattered in an area above the river. The huts are equipped with mosquito nets, comfortable beds, and plenty of hot water. The communal space has a simple but good restaurant and a bar; you really couldn’t wish for more. Hippos wandering through the camp at night is added on for free.

The view from Red Chilli Camp.

Different types of accommodation is available in the park. The Murchison River Lodge (the locals call it MRL), where we had the actual birthday dinner, is an upmarket lodge overlooking the river.
We spent the week going on game drives, or on a boat on the Nile.

The Nile River is the longest in Africa, and until recently when a bunch of Brazilian scientists said otherwise, claiming the Amazon to be the longest, the Nile was thought to be the longest in the world. Its headwaters are near the town of Jinja, and the river starts off at a small rapid coming out of Lake Victoria. Different sections of the Nile, have different names. The section in Uganda is called the White Nile, and later that becomes the Blue Nile. The White Nile between Jinja and Lake Albert is called the Victoria Nile, and the section after Lake Albert is called the Albert Nile. Millions of litres of water make their way northwards to Egypt, and when they get to Murchison Falls they are squeezed through a narrow chute which is seven meters across at its widest part. It is spectacular.

The Murchison Falls seen from the bottom.

Ernest Hemingway’s claim to fame for having visited the area, is having crashed his plane. Twice. And survived both times, although word got out after the one crash that he had died. Imagine how many of books wouldn’t have been written if that had been true. The site where Ernest Hemingway crashed his plane the first time, is not far from the falls, and is marked with a sign.

The site of Ernest Hemingway’s crash close to the Murchison Falls.

 He was presumed dead after his plane was seen near the river, and newspapers reported the loss to the world. A few days later, he and his party surprised everyone by turning up unharmed. Hemingway, after having had his plane fixed from this first crash, took off, and crashed again, this time hurting himself and the rest of his party. Many totally outrageous and untrue stories of Hemingway’s trips to Uganda are unfortunately perpetuated by guide books, but this one about crashing the same plane twice, in the same area, is true.

The waters of the Nile River, specifically the White Nile, which has its source at Jinja in Uganda, takes 3 months to complete its 6600 odd kilometre journey to the Mediterranean Sea. 

View of the White Nile, as it flows through the Murchison Falls park.

The Blue Nile is actually a tributary, which has its source at Lake Tana in Ethiopia, and it joins the White Nile at Khartoum in Egypt, where it becomes the simpler name; The Nile.

After Murchison, we went back to Kampala, and met up with a family friend, who took us on a road trip, first to Jinja, and the source of the Nile, which was first described to the outside world by the explorer John Hanning Speke in 1862. A memorial to him stands in the park. The source itself, where the Nile starts from Lake Victoria, is not spectacular, it is little more than a few ripples on the water surface, but we were lucky enough to see a family of very large otters swim up against the current, and go up onto a nearby island.

Above: top right: those ripples are the start of the mighty Nile River. The island is where the otters were headed. Memorial to Mahatma Gandhi in the park. View of the Nile at Jinja.

What does one eat on a road trip in Uganda? Grilled chicken.
Sold by street vendors, and displayed like a fan; they are delicious – do not turn your nose up at this delicacy. Ask the vendor to source fresh chapatis (pancake type bread) to go with your meal, and a local beer or fruit juice, and you won’t want to go to restaurant on your trip.

Uganda is also home to Angoli Cattle. This breed of cattle has unbelievably huge horns, and can be seen in rural areas, often herded by young boys. I tended to get as excited seeing these magnificent animals, as I did looking at game, much to the amusement of our guide.

Nile Perch, a huge freshwater species, caught by local fishermen, is another delicacy you shouldn’t miss out on in Uganda. I don’t like ‘fishy’ fish, and I definitely do not like freshwater fish that taste muddy, so I was sceptical about the taste of Nile perch. I needn’t have worried, it was a truly delicate flavour, which I will re-order when I have the opportunity.

 It’s quite normal to see a man on a bicycle or motorbike with a huge fish strapped down behind him, with its nose and tail practically being dragged in the dust on either side of the back wheel.

Our next stop was a lodge in the Mabira Rain Forest, which is home to the Western tree hyrax, Dendrohyrax dorsalis, 100s of bird and butterfly species, and of course, indigenous trees. 

The lodge apartments are built up on poles, so you are literally looking in to the middle section of the forest. I particularly wanted to hear the scream of the Western tree hyrax, although I knew I didn’t have much chance of seeing one. The call of this hyrax species, is also weird; hearing one of these nocturnal animals would be scary, if one didn’t know what it was. Best described as a series of screams and grunts, I still think the blood curdling scream of the Southern tree hyrax found elsewhere in Africa is ‘worse’. After dinner of delicious Nile Perch, we sat in the dark on our verandah and waited.

 It didn’t take long before we heard them. They can throw their voices, so although they sounded like they were on the nearest tree, they were probably several hundred metres away. They screamed for a while, and then fell silent for the rest of the night.

Our Uganda trip was coming to an end, and our final trip was to the shores of Lake Victoria, at a public park in Kampala. The park was full of people having a great time in the beautifully maintained gardens, playing soccer, picnicing, spending family time together. For some reason, the lake had flooded, if that is the correct term, the water had jumped its shores. 

Lake Victoria was over full.

I have no idea how that happens, as the Nile River was flowing normally, but the grass nearest the water’s edge was waterlogged, and walking in that squishy grass, was a stark reminder that we were in Africa, and Africa does have nasty diseases. We had taken prophylactics for malaria, but bilharzia, a disease caused by infection with freshwater parasitic worms which penetrate human skin to enter the bloodstream and migrate to the liver, intestines and other organs, is rife in East African waters. It can only be treated after contracting it. Open sandals are not going to prevent the bilharzia larvae getting into your bloodstream, if you have any open wounds or cuts. We checked our feet properly for cuts when we got back to Red Chilly Hideaway and were glad that our bush whacking of the last week hadn’t left any sores or cuts.

My last night was spent in Entebbe, as my return flight the next day was early. The 60km drive took nearly 3 hours, even though we had left after peak traffic times. The manager at the aptly named Entebbe Airport Guesthouse insisted on waking me at 4.30 am, and serving me full breakfast before being picked up for the airport. 

The wake up call and breakfast were typical Ugandan hospitality – but I still had to have my last bit of it. At the airport, I did some last-minute gift shopping, and lost track of time. The result? A lady came in person to find me, and made sure I boarded the flight.

Uganda doesn’t feature much in glossy travel magazines – articles of great holidays there, are hard to find, but if you ever have the opportunity of going, do it!

Galavanting at the top of
Murchison Falls


By Kathryn Costello

I travel. I read. I get up to mischief. I write about what I have been up to. I also have fun writing down the stories that I told my daughter when she was little about a dolphin named Michaela. I am a tourism consultant. Owning and managing a successful guesthouse, working for tourism organizations and travelling has given me a lot of insight about what makes a tourism orientated business successful.

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