Uganda Trip Report October 2020
The Uganda Safari Company & Wildplaces Africa
Gorillas, and Chimps, and Lions, Oh My!
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Hi <<First Name>>,

To write this trip report, I’ve climbed the viewing tower at Apoka Safari Lodge and have a near 360-degree view out over Kidepo Valley National Park. The horizon is abruptly interrupted by mountains, jutting up into the sky to meet the congregating clouds. When I look down onto the property, I see and hear antelope at play: Defasso waterbuck, Ugandan kob, Jackson’s hartebeest, oribi ... and warthog and buffalo to round out the scene!
I am in awe with the uniquely Ugandan experience Johann and I have had during the past two weeks. While there are nearly 40 ethnic groups and 53 languages in this landlocked country of similar size to Great Britain, the people see themselves as Ugandan first, and are proud yet humble, generous yet protective, and so incredibly happy to see tourists coming back to explore their country (we became a bit of a WhatsApp sensation among the local guides as the first Mzungu to be seen in Uganda in months). There was a Mexican couple on honeymoon who arrived on October 1, and we arrived on October 2. While domestic tourism has definitely kept some lodges and their shell staff going, it is international tourism that fuels the flames of success for the most impactful conservation and community work being done.
Last night, at Apoka, we had dinner with Sudi Bamulesewa, the Country Director of the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) as AWF and The Uganda Safari Company (the DMC) alongside Wildplaces Africa (the lodges) have an impressive partnership. AWF carries out the initiatives of the Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA), integral to the overall experience on offer. We spoke about many things, including the new short video that AWF recently filmed from Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge to continue telling the next chapter of the Rafiki story. We also met with members of the Nkuringo Community, who work in lock-step with Clouds, which is located on the outskirts of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, and will share more about all of that below.
We hope you enjoy Brooke’s Uganda Trip Report and Johann’s photos/videos. As always, please remember that these reports are written with most factual information we can research or experience while in person, and that with ever-changing Covid coverage, requirements can change, so please continue to check for the most up to date information as you plan ahead and actually travel. This report is based upon two weeks in Uganda in mid-Oct 2020 and published on Oct 29 2020.

Johann & Brooke

PS: Please also refer to these Youtube recordings of our post-trip Uganda Q&A Webinar and an earlier one with The Uganda Safari Company and Wildplaces Africa

When we made the very last-minute decision to change flights and extend our stay in Africa (I’m more convinced than ever that it is safer and sounder here than almost anywhere!) and go from Zambia (Zambia Trip Report) to Uganda, we also almost made the most rooky mistake of not checking visa regulations until two days before arriving, as we were more consumed with Covid rules and regs. After some stressful and uncertain back and forths, we decided to just go for it and see what happened, and we were in luck as we were able to get a visa upon arrival, and it was the easiest visa we’ve ever gotten! No forms on the flights nor in the airport, just a few verbal questions, the handing over of USD $50, an inked passport page, and we were on our way.
We flew Kenya Airways from Lusaka to Nairobi to Entebbe, and can say for certain that KQ is taking ALL precautions; almost absurdly so (again, I’m sorry, but we’re creating unnecessary waste in the drive to “appear” overly hygienic, when it simply isn’t needed; some is, yes, but this get-up, no). We flew in Business Class, and for our first flight there were three empty seats; on the second flight four; on the first flight in Economy I counted 23 empty seats; on the second, as it was from about 1am-3am, I simply didn’t count, and slept instead. These were to be our only flights until heading home, as we were so early into the country that AeroLink Uganda wasn’t yet flying an easy circuit for us to take advantage of, and so we drove around with Julius, the head guide with The Uganda Safari Company, which was perfectly fine for us. Of course, there will be better, faster, more desirable transportation options available to tourists as more start traveling again (hopefully soon). That said, charter is always an option, and we were at Apoka with a large multi-gen family that did just that from Kampala.

From de-boarding to meeting our transfer driver David was no more than 30 minutes, and after a ten-minute drive we were checking into the Karibu Guest House in Entebbe (as there is still a curfew in place, there was no traffic on the roads). Another protocol in place is that spa treatments and massages are not allowed, and this is one rule that was 100% upheld at every establishment we stayed at. What we were most mystified about was reading a regulation that stated something to the effect of: “tourists will not mingle with locals and be whisked away to where they’ll stay, but kept at bay” … hum, not quite sure what to expect with that one. 

For the weekend we stayed at Latitude0 in Kampala, and that Saturday night, this well-heeled hotel was at nearly 100% occupancy since it is has become THE weekend spot for locals to get away for an overnight (with the curfew in place no one wants to leave their parties early), strut their stuff among all of the swanky spots throughout, and enjoy time with family and friends over Sunday brunch. So there we were … visitors among residents. And we went into shops, villages, markets, and never felt that we were under a watchful eye.

There is also official documentation that states: “anyone leaving Uganda must have a Covid test prior to departure” … “unless you can prove that your country of residence doesn’t require it”. The US Embassy had released a one-pager on October 7 stating just that, and Johann printed out reams of supporting documentation. And, once again, we flew internationally on Ethiopian, which doesn’t require a Covid test (and also just announced their own travel insurance program for passengers). However, on the day we were to depart, none of this seemed to matter and we had both the Uganda Tourism Board and The Uganda Safari Company making calls to various people to get us a VIP exemption, which after a stressful few hours we received and were allowed to leave. That same day, there were meetings taking place between the tourism and health ministries addressing concerns that would make travel difficult, including this one point, and so while we hope and believe that exit requirements will be made easier, for now, even with the US Embassy doc in hand, we would suggest ensuring you’re booked to get a Covid test before departing.
So, for those who do need a Covid test prior to leaving, whether because they’re going home or extending into Kenya (more on those easy and seamless connections below!), Covid tests can be carried out in Entebbe and Kampala. There is a company called Ruby that will come to your hotel to do the Covid test and turn it around in 24 hours. Lancet Laboratories also has bases here and tests are around $100 per test. As a DMC, The Uganda Safari Company, will be working with these companies to arrange tests for any of their clients who might need it.
When it comes to Covid in the country, first, the presented stats: in a country of 42.7M people, there have been 11,000 cumulative cases with 98 deaths, and there are less than 1,000 active cases (most of all of these have been in Kampala), so Uganda lists as one of the LEAST affected countries in the world. Uganda was praised by the WHO for its handling of Ebola back when that was a concern (which it’s not at all today) and the country has every necessity in place to get ahead of infectious diseases. There is a government lead coordinated response structure in place. They have been doing temperature checks on citizens since February, and yes, guests will have their temperatures taken as well before going into any national park, property, or store. You will feel like an extra in “My Big Fat Ugandan Wedding” … there really isn’t sanitizing gel, so everywhere we went we were spritzed and sprayed with a Windex-like bottle of sanitizing fluid; we finally learned to just pull our hand away after the first spritz as otherwise four or five later we were dripping in disinfectant. There are hand washing stations around, private lodges that have been turned into quarantine centers, a government-organized team of doctors responsible for testing and diagnosing if symptoms present, and various Covid-national hospitals around the country, including in Ft. Portal, where there is both a Catholic Mission Hospital and a Government Teaching Hospital, ventilators, and other necessary equipment, as well as a highly respected Aga Kahn Hospital in Entebbe.
Important to know, if you use The Uganda Safari Company as your DMC, every guest booked with them gets AMREF coverage for evacuation from any property in the itinerary to Entebbe/Kampala. That is specific to the DMC level though; if a guest is staying at a Wildplaces Africa lodge booked through another DMC, you need to see what that DMC includes.
That said, with regard to the Wildplace Africa properties, at Apoka, AAR has a medical center on the UWA grounds next to us, now staffed with a nurse for first check-up. While these additional centers will most likely never be needed, there is also a clinic in Karenga, the last village before approaching the UWA gate to Kibale (about one-hour away); a hospital in Kitgum (a four-hour drive); another hospital in Gulu specific for Covid patients. And for their other properties, regional referral hospitals are being equipped throughout the country to undertake rapid testing and, if necessary, treatment of positive patients.


When I think of waves here, I think of the ripples of the rivers and lakes (hello source of the Nile at Jinja – the adventure capital of the country - and some of the most aristocratic bodies of fresh water in Africa: Victoria, Albert, George, Edward) not to mention the roaring falls of Murchison; I think of the tall grasses swaying in the savannah, distorting the colors from green to gold; I think of the soft curves of the hard rock formations that make the mountain ranges so enticing; and I think of all the people who happily and eagerly smiled at us from the road, waving their hands in welcome.
Uganda is home to 13 national parks, four wildlife reserves, and 506 forest reserves, all with drastic diversity. The landscapes are some of the most dramatic and dreamy I’ve seen. From countless crystal-clear crater lakes to the cloud-shrouded Rwenzori Mountains of the Moon, from a tailored tapestry of fertile agriculture steps to endless wetlands and woodlands. UWA is also doing a lot to get good to be great when it comes to the national parks. For instance, in Queen Elizabeth, we saw a major project underway to remove invasive species that have been making part of the park uninhabitable for native flora and fauna, and so they are bringing it back to its original state. Similarly, UWA has been doing translocations to Kidepo Valley, and both the Rothschild giraffe and eland move went very well (10 of the former were introduced and now breeding, and the latter has already gone from 15-75)! Last year, 2019, CNN voted Kidepo Valley the second best national part in Africa, just after the Serengeti.

It seems that sometimes, not always, but sometimes, people overlook travel to Africa simply for the stillness of a savanna or the splendor of a sunset. These days, for me at least, I need even more open space, silence, and serenity than ever before, and Africa offers each in incomparable ways. It’s one of the reasons I love that Johann will always stop a guide to photograph a tree … whether there is a lion in it or not (though yes, we were fortunate to have an epic hour totally alone with a male lion up a fig tree in Ishasha, the more game-rich sector of Queen Elizabeth). I caught myself sometimes looking for a larger wow (and then checked myself when I remembered I had just trekked with a Silverback gorilla and his family, a troupe of chimps, saw some of the largest herds of antelope ever, etc. It seems both literal and metaphorical that more people are looking less for a Disney moment and more for a place to find some peace.
But since Disney is now on my mind, I also have to take a moment to point out that some of the magical scenery we all loved from “Black Panther” was filmed in Uganda, at Lake Bunyonyi; also “Sarah’s Notebook”; a collaborative production between AWF and Nickelodeon; and others, along with the Disney biographical drama “The Queen of Katwe”, the sweet true story of a young girl from the slums who went on to become a world chess Olympian.

Village life is also something to appreciate here. We stopped to speak with the men bringing bananas to market; to the boys riding their homemade wooden bikes; to enjoy the delicious smells wafting from each home: wood smoke, ground nut stew, steamed and roasted bananas (“matoke”), herbs and spices drying in the sun or crackling in the pot. I was able to try my first matoke at Elephant Plains Lodge when I asked if I could sample some local cuisine.

Completely homemade wooden bicycle in the village
Heading to the market

If you’re passionate about primates, Uganda will steal your heart. With more than 50% of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas, more than 5,000 chimpanzees (the second-largest population in the world), and more monkeys than a bunch of bananas will satiate, your overall ability to access, study, learn, and conserve primates is remarkable. Uganda is actually the only country in the world where you can both trek to see gorillas and chimps, AND, participate in a habituation process with both gorillas and chimps as well.
Gorillas and chimps share more than 97% of our human genes, and so are highly susceptible to our infections. In the current Covid time, certain regulations have changed to help protect these precious species. In the past, you could trek to within 7m of the family; now it is “officially” 10m. When you arrive at the briefing stations, you’ll be asked to wash and sanitize your hands (at Bwindi we also stepped into a sanitizing solution for our boots), and to wear a mask whenever in proximity to the primates. We read somewhere that you would be required to wear or carry two N95 or other surgical mask to wear, which wasn’t the case for us; we had them with us just in case, but in the end wore our cotton masks without issue.
Let’s start with gorillas. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and its close neighbor Mgahinga Gorilla National Park are home to more than half of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas (there are estimated to be 1063 mountain gorillas left in the world, with 463 in Bwindi, a large population in Virunga, and some in Congo). Your trekking permit in Uganda is USD $700 per day (USD $1,500 in Rwanda), and a bit more for the habituation experience. There are actually a number of travelers who stay in Rwanda and come to Uganda for their trek for this, and other, reasons. As we would always encourage two treks when possible to ensure an amazing experience after coming all this way, Uganda is an easy two-for-one for anyone where permit budget is a concern. There are four main areas of Bwindi for trekking, and there are different numbers of habituated families at each. There is an opportunity to sign up for a habituation permit where you can spend up to four hours instead of one, but that is with one of the newer families UWA is habituating, so much more wild. When asked which is easier/better, Rwanda or Uganda, there are so many factors to consider and I fully believe there isn't "one is better, one is easier" as it depends on the day, the weather, where the fruit is, what bothered them at night, etc. We also asked the guide showing us around at the UWA headquarters in Buhoma, on the northern side of the park and he fully agreed. And by the way, the visitor’s center at the headquarters is one of the BEST we’ve been to. It is where guest from Buhoma Lodge, Gorilla Forest Camp, Bwindi Lodge, and all the other accommodations in Buhoma would most likely meet for their briefing depending on what permits they are able to secure; otherwise they would drive to the second meeting place in the northern part of the park, Ruhija.
Bwindi is part of the western Rift Valley and, while very much a rainforest, has terrain that spans from bamboo forests to secretive swamps. Bwindi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the only forest in Africa to have both mountain gorillas and chimps, though the experience is definitely geared toward gorillas. While the wettest months are Mar, Apr, Sept, Oct, and Nov (driest are Dec-Feb and Jul, Aug), we were there in October and had clear dry mornings for our activities and rain in the late afternoons and overnight when we were enjoying a roaring fire, the dramatic views, and the cozy lodge. Clouds is located at 6,889 feet above the sea, so we felt right at home. We were exceptionally fortunate with our trek. We were the ONLY TWO guests, so we could go at our pace without stopping for other people to sort themselves out along the way. Our rangers saw we were fit, so we took a steep shortcut that made the hike into the forest an hour rather than between an hour or two (but there is a longer more gradual path in the same direction we walked). Then, the family we were going to visit was all of 15 minutes into the thick of the forest, and eating by a river so we could watch them from the other side totally unobstructed. Same with our hike up, we took the shortcut and didn't need to stop. All that said, everyone we have spoken with about this and have asked about it agree: every day is different depending on where the gorillas are. Some see them within an hour, some within five, some it takes the day. The terrain is going to be different depending on which direction you have to hike in. The pace is set by the slowest in the group, and as more people come back and groups fill up from just two to up to eight you might have to stop for more people. So in the end, our experience was spot on perfect and probably the best it will ever be, and everyone will be different.

As the leader of the Nkuringo mountain gorilla family in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Rafiki was the gentle giant who protected his family of 17. This iconic gorilla was killed in June when poachers who were hunting bush pig came upon the impressive silverback. His death was mourned globally, but most of all by the communities who knew him well. For them, Rafiki’s death spelled not only a significant cultural and personal loss but also a threat to their livelihoods.

And now the chimps. Kibale National Park, the “primate capital of the world” is home to the largest population of chimps, and where we did our chimp trek (USD $150 per permit for the morning or afternoon trek; more for the habituation). Here there are five communities of chimps: three fully habituated for guests to trek and two semi-habituated for guests to participate in a habituation experience (the former is an hour long experience often closer to the chimps; the latter a four-hour experience where you might not get nearly as close). Some feel the Kibale experience can be crowded as they allow for up to six guests with one ranger, but will sell up to 36 permits per morning and afternoon session, so if the families you're trekking are close to one another you could have a lot of other people around (but chimps are found in six parks throughout the country offering varied opportunities). We were again fortunate to be some of the first travelers back into Uganda as our trek was just us two with another couple, and so the four of us had the forest, and the chimps, to ourselves. Because of the location of the chimps, we were driven about 6km to a closer entry point, and from there, we walked 15 minutes until we heard them and another 15 before we saw them, and then had the same 30-minute walk out after our hour spent with them. The trail was mostly easy, and flat, with a few ups and downs, and one muddy section to navigate.
There are also about 20+ habituated chimps in the Kyambura Gorge, a very isolated location close to Queen Elizabeth, which is a fantastic chimp experience with a great walk that will be more easily accessible once Wildplaces Africa’s new property in the Kyambura Game Reserve is built. And there are habituated chimps in Murchison, which will also be one of our preferred place once the new Wildplaces Africa lodge is constructed there, giving guests greater and easier access to this experience further afield with fewer people overall.

Semliki Wildlife Reserve is also home to chimps, and here, guests at Semliki Safari Lodge have one of the most incredible opportunities to be part of something truly special. Patience, persistence, and appreciation for the subtle things; the desire to be part of research and understanding; contributing to conservation … these are all characteristics of the repeat and longer-stay Semliki guest. One of the more common complaints about Semliki is that guests didn’t know what was possible here, and wish that they had more nights booked.
Dr. Kevin Hunt from Indiana University, has spearheaded the Semliki Chimp Project in the Mugiri Forest. With a team of local researchers, they are studying the chimps in this riverine forest, which is just a stripe nestled between savanna on either side. While there are 180 chimps within the Semliki Reserve, because there is so much territory for the chimps to access, they are hard to see. The main community they are studying has 40+ chimps, and there are other communities as well. While out with John, a researcher/guide, and John, our ranger, we saw tracks and scratches from leopard, tracks and grunts from forest hog, scat from elephant and buffalo, many monkeys and beautiful birds, and then the signs of chimps: a well in the river where they get water, the fruit seeds from breakfast, scattered scat. We came across one of the camera traps that they’ve set up as well, which was knocked down by an ellie, and so we took it to repair and place elsewhere.

Unique behavior of chimps at Semliki in Uganda. Digging wells next to streams and using a wad of a chewed leaves as a sponge to suck up water... a form of tool use. These chimps also uniquely range into savannah habitat.

Do you like to monkey around? We saw countless numbers of different species across various areas, and there are more to be discovered in places we didn’t get to on this trip. A highlight for many are the Golden monkeys of Mgahinga (also home to the Blue monkey and B+W Colobus). In Murchison we saw B+W Colobus along with Red-Tailed, Blue, Vervet and Patas monkeys. The Patas is also found in Kidepo along with the similarly special de Brazza’s and Blue monkeys. Semliki is scattered with similar … monkeys of all different colors and names … but the special species is again the de Brazza’s and the Red colobus, which is only found elsewhere in Kibale along with six others you can readily see in previously named areas as well. In Queen Elizabeth we saw L’Hoest’s monkeys, and it is also home to four other monkeys, as well as the Olive baboon, which is found in eight regions throughout the country. Kibale and Bwindi are of course home to many monkeys, but in those two national parks we were more focused on chimps and gorillas (but for sure Blue monkeys are common visitors outside the rooms at Clouds!). While we didn’t get to the Rwenzori Mountains, Lake Mburo or Mount Elgon, there you’ll also find many of the species mentioned above. Mount Elgon also happens to be one of the biggest calderas in the world and offers beautiful hiking opportunities.

I kept thinking, this is a connoisseur’s country. Yes, you definitely get to see big game, and in serious amounts! But for us, it was every other experience of sitting with, habituating, searching for and sometimes delighting in only the sound of, the scratch mark of, or the fresh track of an elusive species that made the heart soar as high as the eagles in the sky.
But, for bigger game, for instance, Kidepo Valley is home to 13,000 buffalo, the largest concentration in the country, and guests at Apoka Safari Lodge can see herds as big as 2,500 in the dry season (Dec-Mar), as well as from time to time, lion hunting said buffalo, as they also do in Ishasha. Kidepo lions are also fond of climbing into the fig trees and are often seen draped in the lower branches. There are more than 1,000 elephants in Kidepo, and we saw many others in many other parks, too. And of course the team at Apoka told us about the leopard and her three cubs who were regulars last month, and the cheetah sprinting after the Kob right in front of the property just a few days ago. Of course some of the most iconic images from Apoka are of when animals come up to the edge of the pool, built right into one of the massive rock formations that you can also walk down to access the rooms, and while there were lions photographed on the rock recently, we saw several monkeys playing around during our time.

Johann is the mountain biker and talks about some of the cool places like Slickrock in Moab, Utah where you can ride on rock, and that is exactly what came to mind for me when we walked down the Kidepo kopje from the main lodge to our room ... though of course there was plenty of traction here! Once again I was wowed when we entered the expansive room, one of ten, and instantly envisioned what my time would be: using the writing desk to work while looking out at the endless savannah, reading on the couch outside on the terrace, enjoying a soak in the stone bathtub submerged into the space outside the ensuite bathroom. Just like at Semliki, the canvas walls give way to mesh so that there is lots of light and fresh air that enters, which we absolutely adore as no matter where we are, we always ask for the canvas to remain up at night .... we love hearing the calls of the wild, feeling like we're in the outdoors while still snuggled up safely in bed under a mozzie net, and waking up to the natural rays of the sun when it first appears above the horizon.
Message from George, current manager at Apoka Safari Lodge in Kidepo Valley National Park, Uganda
No matter which park we were in, we couldn’t turn a corner without seeing more Uganda Kob, however in Kidepo of the 86 mammal species here, 28 are found nowhere else in the country! The guides here were stunned to start seeing Thompson’s gazelle again, as they had been extinct here a while ago and now they are naturally returning and are up to five. They have also spotted one white-eared Kob, which is also very rare here; the biggest population and where their migration takes place, is in Boma National Park in South Sudan. It was fun to hear about all of this while on foot, walking closer to many of the herds than we have in other areas.
While Queen Elizabeth National Park is “famous”, we honestly all agree that time in the outlier areas (the Ishahsa sector in the far south and the neighboring Kyambura Game Reserve in the northeast) is better than being in the main part of the park itself. Ishasha is where, if you’re lucky, you might get to see one of the tree climbing lions, and even if not, this is where the game is much more concentrated; it felt like there were trillions of Topi! I’ve heard exceptional things about the salt flat tour closer to the north of Queen and am sorry we missed seeing what it was all about (next time); we also chose to cancel the boat excursion through the Kazinga Channel in favor of doing a drive up to see the various explosion craters on the way out of town. The other nice thing about Ishasha is that the only property in the park in this area is the Ishasha Wilderness Lodge (there are many more outside in the community) so you have more time to explore with only the other guests/vehicles from the lodge for a few hours each day. And the nice thing about the Kyambura sector is that you have lovely game, especially elephants, and the Wildplaces Africa concession and lodge within this sector, which they’re developing now, will give guests greater access to the Kyambura Gorge and chimps!
In Kidepo, you’ll read about 460 birds recorded, including 58 types of raptors and 60 endemic. Ironically, we were at Apoka on October 17, which is International Bird Count Day, and as I stayed back to write this report, Johann went on a four-hour morning drive to explore the further reaches of the park up to where there are natural hot springs and different terrain, and without stopping, between Julius our guide and Peter the ranger, they spotted 110 different bird species. Each of the ten cottages here is named for something from the region, and we were in Katurum, the name used for the Abyssinian Hornbill.
One of the biggest draws to Semliki is seeing the Shoebill and other rare forest birds that call this merging of savanna and equatorial jungle home. From the lodge, one of the highlight activities is driving to the shores of Lake Albert and taking a morning boat ride out to the marshy grasses and palm fronds that create the perfect place for Shoebills. There is a beautiful range of other birdlife here as well with more than 450 species having been counted to date!
From Clouds, one of the other activities outside of gorilla trekking that is on offer is to go into a pocket forest for deep forest birding. Also, you can walk through Bwindi from one side to the other (we did the shorter, three-hour walk, which was mostly along a well-trodden foot path), and the forest is home to 357 birds, 3 of which are endemic, along with: 163 tree species; 100 fern species; 166 mammal species; and 220 butterfly species.
In Murchison, we took a boat along the Nile, 17km from our launch point to the park’s namesake falls. Along the way, during the 2.5-hour round-trip, we spotted Goliath heron, fish eagles, rainbow colored bee-eaters, the African darter, pied king Fischer, hornbills, and other waterfowl. Queen Elizabeth is home to more than 600 bird species, but again, we skipped our time within the park and drove around to view the Katwe explosion craters from higher up vantage points. In addition to the 13 primates in Kibale, one can also work to tick off 355 types of birds.
There are so many niche offerings out there these days, and Semliki Safari Lodge especially fits many of them, as well as the more tried and true FIT itinerary. They’ve already hosted numerous writer’s workshops, and I can easily imagine an artist’s retreat for plein air painting. With a 2.8k trail on property, endless opportunities throughout Semliki Wildlife Reserve, and trekking into the forest for chimps, a walking group would find each day different (there are at least 13 walking spots guests of Apoka access in Kidepo as well, all on varying terrain).
Plus, Semliki is literally in the middle of a major rebuild! The rooms are all being expanded, modernized, spiffed, and looking lux. The rooms and decks have been enlarged, and what we really loved is that the upper portion of the tent is all mesh so you get wonderfully cooling air flow and natural light. The bathrooms are all being upgraded, and the suite that we were in had a decadent bathtub outside as well. The woods are warm and soft, with inviting sitting nooks and writing desks. Each has a magnificent view, and in time, there will be photos for you to enjoy and share.
The food at all of the lodges we stayed at was delicious, and I totally got a kick out of hearing that that Semliki lodge managers have been gathering their culinary team to watch different Master Classes conducted by chefs from around the world (I watch these myself). They’ve used their time to continually train and upskill, very necessary for a lodge where everything is made by hand … they literally have two machines in the kitchen and the rest is scratch, a bit easier with the great organic garden onsite spearheaded by Noleen, co-manager.
I also appreciate hearing when a company supports on a grass roots level. Of course all of the staff is from the local community, however, since they are so remote and staff can’t go home at the end of their day, they really can only employ a team of men, and so when shopping for provisions in Ft. Portal, they specifically patron women-owned shops. There is also a remarkable women’s initiative in the area to cut, bundle, and sell the grass uses as thatch, and so the lodge buys all of their roofing from the community-driven Grass Cutters Association.
On property, all of the furniture is handmade; Tony co-manager, made a forge onsite and taught the staff how to do metal work so that they can also make the in-room iron fixtures themselves. Together, Tony and Noleen, come with a sophisticated safari background (Tony used to work with Robin Pope Safaris and is also a Fugazi Level 3 Guide and Noleen has a history of hospitality training) so they’ve been conducting a trainee program whereby 18-23-year-old graduates join the team for a one-year program that includes cross training in four departments (maintenance, housekeeping, culinary, and service) and then either stay on as permanent staff or are able to go to other properties with real-world experience. The finesse and etiquette of the team is apparent. Sunday is a shining example of someone on the team who went from trainee - waiter - head waiter and eventually wants to be a guide.
And having Tony on property is another benefit to the guides, and to UWA, as here, UWA doesn’t have the vehicles needed to do all of the necessary work, and so Tony coordinates anti-poaching and de-snaring initiatives that they work on together. 
Tony and Nolene from Semliki Safari Lodge discussing Covid preparedness and what makes this remote wilderness so unique.
Hillary, a member of the Nkuringo Community who used to guide at Clouds and is now the official liaison for guests wanting to learn more about the projects underway, picked us up for our morning jaunt. As we walked from the main lodge down the road and to the town, we passed by the impressively sprawling organic garden onsite that provides the culinary team with fresh ingredients for the delicious dishes served up at each meal. At the main Nkuringo Community Conservation and Development Foundation (NCCDF) office in town, he explained the relationship and benefits between the community and Clouds.
Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge is owned fully by the community of Nkuringo, but designed, built and managed by Wildplaces Africa. Through a program spearheaded by the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) and the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) a tract of land was purchased from the community as a buffer zone and a private sector partner was sought to build and manage a lodge. While Nkuringo itself is about 10,000 people, when the collaboration began in 2008, 30,000 people were benefitting; today, the lodge supports around 50,000 people among 13 villages in its direct Bwindi area. Clouds, which ensures 99% of the employees are from the local communities, also gives a significant portion from all bed nights to the community account, which is managed by a Board of Directors and a representative from each village, in order to fund the different development projects that they decide are most needed. Since opening, the community has made in excess of USD $1M from Clouds, plus private donations from guests who stayed at the lodge and were moved by the work being done. We then walked around the Nkuringo village and enjoyed the home tour, meeting with the blacksmith family, the traditional healer, whom Johann said is “among the best and most entertaining I’ve ever experienced”, seeing the school's new classrooms and dormitories, and more.
The Nkuringo Gorilla group was habituated specifically for this project to garner the participation of the community in the conservation of the gorilla habitat. It is also guaranteed that UWA gives 20% of all trekking permits ($700 per permit in Uganda) back to the surrounding communities for education, health, etc. In a normal year, this equated to nearly USD $1M worth of community initiatives and projects. Historically, gorillas raided crops of the homesteads lying at the periphery of Bwindi, so one of the early initiatives was to create a buffer zone of tea plants as gorillas don’t eat these, so the ring of Camellia Sinensis both keeps the gorillas out and creates a cash crop of economic opportunity for locals. Similarly, in other areas, we saw buffer zones of cotton, which creates a natural barrier between animals and humans as, for instance, elephants don’t eat cotton so people cultivate it across from the national park boundaries and then plant their crops on the other side.
We also loved the Batwa cultural experience at Clouds, which was interesting, insightful and done respectfully, which to us the most important aspect of joining a tribe to learn about their traditional ways while living outside of their ancestral place and in a more modern environment. More on the Batwa Creation Story.

There are other opportunities to meet with tribes in Uganda, and The Uganda Safari Company has been working on itineraries that will specifically link them together, however we didn’t have the time to explore the culturally strong northern and eastern regions of the country where this is possible: you can visit with the Ik, Karamoja, Lorukul, and others. Some of these are very different as they are so remote, some feel like a less touristed Maasai visit as you can witness things like the traditional blood-letting of cows.
Batwa community close to Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge in Bwindi showcasing some of traditional culture developed over the eons that they lived in the primary forest. Today they live outside the (protected) forest, but retain many of their traditions.
Clouds and Semliki both showcase Ugandan artists throughout the properties, so guests get to see original works by Taga Nawagaba, Edison Mugalu, David Kigozi, and others. Clouds was the first property in Uganda to commission specific artists for each guest cottage and the collection is enviable. Many of the artists have since had further commissions and their work hangs in private homes and offices in New York, Mexico City, DC, London, and Brussels.
At Clouds, we stayed in one of the five double cottages - there are also two family cottages - all constructed out of local volcanic stone. I was in heaven seeing the double-sided fireplace between the cozy living room and comfy bedroom, and Enid ensured that a warm fire was at a perfect burn every evening when we retired after dinner. In the mornings, as I get up EARLY, I went back up to the main lodge to work (even though I must say I LOVE that all the Wildplaces Lodges have private writing/working desks in their rooms, which I also made use of!), and so Johann and I both enjoyed the majestic sunrise views over the Virunga volcanoes, just from different vantage points (he while still lying in bed and me while nestled into one of the numerous private sitting areas set up in the lodge for different families or groups traveling together). We then enjoyed those same views together during breakfast and lunch when we ate outside on the terrace; dinners were back inside fireside.
The team at Clouds took exceptional care of us, not just with their genuine hospitality, spot-on service, and creative cuisine, but also with getting us geared up and ready for our gorilla trek as we were fully unprepared having just come directly from Zambia. On property they have a stock of hiking boots, gators, backpacks, walking sticks, and more, so we owe them a great deal of gratitude in making our experience even better than we were planning on.

Everyone is terrified of the traffic in Kampala because the congestion makes getting around by car take an eternity; the local boda bodas can zip through the tiniest of gaps, but they are not typically used by tourists. So with that, while there were a few galleries and artists we wanted to meet, we decided to wait on that until another time when we stay somewhere else in the city center. We didn’t get the feeling that there are a lot of “must see-must do” attractions in either Entebbe or Kampala (we don’t sit in traffic anymore for fish markets, homes and tombs of royalty, or palaces-cum-dungeons), but that the joy of both cities is finding a boutique oasis to relax and reflect before and after the unbelievable experiences throughout Uganda.
We stayed a night in Entebbe at the Karibu Guest House, which is a home-cum-hotel with only eight rooms, a tucked away lawn and pool, and wonderful attention paid to the cuisine since the owner is French. This is where the Mexican couple spent their overnight as well, though we didn’t meet since we arrived so late and they departed so early … common crazy hours for an Entebbe stay because of flight logistics.

We drove past the Lake Victoria Hotel en-route to Hotel No. 5. The Lake Victoria Hotel wasn’t one we stopped at for a site as it plays a larger role with big groups … it is very large … but it’s worth noting as it was the first hotel in Entebbe, so considered classic. No. 5 is right up our ally with some exceptional art hung throughout, a small gym on property close to the pool and chaise area, and ample sitting spaces both in the main areas and with all of the rooms, which are modern and more luxurious.

We drove for 30 minutes from Entebbe en-route to Kampala and stopped at the Lake Victoria Serena Golf Resort & Spa. As Johann and I are just not personally inclined toward resort hotels, this wouldn’t be the place for us, however, we were both envious of the remarkably large swimming pool and wished we could stay to swim laps, we could easily see a golfer staying here so that they wait out their Covid test results while playing a round, there are many dining spots to choose from, and it is definitely a popular spot among locals for celebratory events as they were welcoming a wedding party, setting up for an anniversary lunch, and bringing in flowers for a birthday bash.

And then we were off again and driving through the outskirts of Kampala, as we were able to avoid the main city center to get to Latitude0, which is at the top of one of the seven hills of Kampala, in the lush and lux area with tall walls and big roofs. Latitude0 opened one year ago, in October 2019, and is our personal preferred hotel for anyone who, like us, enjoys a secluded sanctuary with covetable design and décor. Latitude0 is both a private club for locals who want to access The Works, the upstairs co-working offices, or the extensive gym and use one of the pools. It is also amazing for special occasions and private events with a media room, game room, cigar room, and more. We could spend all day walking around and taking in the art, but also enjoyed sitting in one of the three restaurants working away while sampling the varied and very delicious cuisine. This is also where we had breakfast with Lilly Ajarova, Head of the Uganda Tourism Board.

Message from Lilly Ajarova, CEO of Uganda Tourism Board, on the country’s re-opening to international visitors.
MAGICAL MARA to go with your UGANDA
There is an attraction to Kenya – its remote wonders, cultural interactions, epic animal viewing -  that is similar to the allure of Uganda, and yet the two offer such different opportunities for enjoyment that combining the two creates an amazing itinerary (read our recent Kenya Trip Report). There are of course concerns about Covid tests and timing, but those are all being worked on and will get easier and more accessible in time. There are regular air links to/from Kenya’s Maasai Mara, which connect via Entebbe to the Ugandan flying circuits that include Kidepo, Bwindi, and others. Conveniently, these bypass Nairobi by having immigration officials and clearing customs in Kisumu. For those who want to also bypass Entebbe, The Uganda Safari Company has worked with an entity that will organize an immigration official to come to Kidepo for charter flights that then go right to Kisumu. If your time in Kenya doesn’t include the Mara, Nairobi – Entebbe flights are also seamless.

Let’s be clear about what I am intending for this header … it is that Uganda will uplift your spirit and your soul! It will provide a peaceful place to both explore externally the wonders it holds – why we travel to begin with – and to explore internally one’s state of mind and heart – why we travel to begin with! With so few tourists now, the sightings and trekkings are truly once-in-a-lifetimes, even for those who have been traversing Africa for lifetimes! We were completely bowled over by the humanity, spirit, friendliness, and generosity of Ugandans, along with the rich variety of wild life and wild lands. So make a plan to travel today, and enjoy the Pearl of Africa in all its glory … it will be one of the rarest gems of a trip ever!

Mountain biking Uganda-style :) 
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