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Hix Does Uganda (Part I) - All But A Shoebill

Discussion in 'Uganda' started by Hix, 27 Jul 2013.

  1. Hix

    Hix Wildlife Enthusiast and Lover of Islands Premium Member

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    Preamble
    It has been suggested that I start a blog about my upcoming visit to Uganda, including all the preparation leading up to it. So here it is:

    Background
    In 1980 the seminal BBC series Life on Earth was broadcast in Australia, and ever since I saw Attenborough interacting with the Mountain Gorillas I have wanted to see them in the wild myself. After visiting Zimbabwe in 1985 I made plans to visit Rwanda, but I was distracted by Zoo Keeper conferences in the States. And then Rwanda had their bloody civil war during the 1990s, and my priorities went elsewhere.

    Last year I caught up with a friend I had worked with a Taronga and he had just returned from seeing the chimps at Gombe Stream (again), and I remembered my plans with the gorillas. I had commitments in Niue and Tokelau last year, but was determined to go this year. So when I returned from Tokelau I started doing some research, and that meant buying a few books and looking at maps and websites. And doing lots of reading.

    By January I had decided to see the gorillas in Uganda instead of Rwanda, for a few reasons:
    • There is more to see in Uganda – it is larger and has more National Parks, a greater variety of habitats and greater opportunities for wildlife viewing.
    • They have shoebills
    • They speak English in Uganda, and French in Rwanda. I’m sure English is widely spoken and understood in Rwanda, but French is the main language (apart from their own languages).
    • Uganda appears to have a well- established tourism industry.

    So I settled on Uganda. I also planned to visit a few national parks in Tanzania afterwards and climb Kilimanjaro. And if money held out, visit a couple of places in Kenya too. Or Gabon – after seeing the series “Africa” I wanted to see surfing hippos! So I started researching those countries as well.

    Over the last 40 or so years I have read about many places in Africa, many of them National Parks, and I wanted to visit them all. In Kenya there’s Tsavo, Amboseli, Masai Mara, Lakes Bogoria, Turkana, Nakuru and Rudolf, Treetops, Aberdares and Lewa Downs. Tanzania has Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Lake Manyara, Lake Natron, Tarangire, Selous, Ruaha, Mahale Mountains and Kilimanjaro. Uganda had the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and the Rwenzori Ranges.

    But then I discovered that all three countries are very expensive and I realised that I could not do them all. I had to prioritise, and my #1 priority was Mountain Gorillas; #2 was Shoebills. Uganda therefore was a fait accompli, but with any luck I will return to do Kenya and Tanzania some time in the future.

    In February I was able to get some leave booked in for the end of August and beginning of September. The plan was to fly over around the 20th August and come back around the 10th September. When I went to Zimbabwe in 1985 I just flew over, organised accommodation when I arrived, rented a car and drove around. But Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, and up until then Britain had done a great job with building roads – excellent roads linked all the cities. Uganda, on the other hand, gained independence in 1962 and my research indicated that the roads are not very good and that vehicle breakdowns are commonplace. Also (according to the Australian Government’s Smart Traveller website) there is risk in some areas from bandits, and they suggest avoiding areas bordering the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly known as Zaire) in case the Congolese army wanders over the border. They specifically say don’t go to the National Parks in Western Uganda – but that’s where all the good parks are!

    So I decided it would be best to join a safari. Having a guide who knows his way around, had mechanical experience to repair breakdowns, and the knowledge to recognise and avoid potentially dangerous situations (that is human-posed danger as opposed to dangerous animals) would ultimately be a safer solution.

    :p

    Hix

    http://www.churchillsafaris.com/
    http://www.smarttraveller.gov.au/
     
  2. Hix

    Hix Wildlife Enthusiast and Lover of Islands Premium Member

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    Choosing a Tour Company
    In February I started making enquiries via email from some safari companies. The first quote was $6000 for eight days. This was waaaay over my budget. Especially as my airline tickets were going to cost another $3000. Other companies were cheaper, but still around $4500 – $5000 for 14 days. The reason safaris were so expensive was that I was travelling alone, which meant I foot the bill for everything – not just my accommodation and food, but the hire of the vehicle, hire of the guide/driver, fuel, food, park entry fees etc.

    I generally travel alone for a number of reasons, the main reason being most people I know don’t want to go to places I want to go, and those few that do like the sound of my destinations can’t go when I’m going for one reason or another. However, when I travel alone I can spend as much time as I want watching an animal, or looking for a species that is determined to remain unseen. If I'm with a group I may have to visit a cathedral or do something else the group wants to do that wastes half a day when I could be in the bush or at a zoo. So a long time ago I stopped asking people if they wanted to join me on my holiday.

    But, if I had a group the price per person of the safari would come down with each extra person in the group, as the fixed prices – vehicle hire, guide hire, fuel etc – is shared amongst the group. So with mixed feelings I started asking friends and workmates if anyone was interested in a Ugandan safari; several were interested (and very jealous), but none could make it; I resigned myself to the fact I would be travelling alone, and paying through the nose.

    Choosing a safari company was time-consuming: I would email a few with what I wanted, a few days later they would email back an itinerary and quote, I would email back questions, a few days later they would email back responses. There are a lot of tour companies in Uganda, and it was recommended I choose one from the list of those registered with the Association of Ugandan Tour Operators (AUTO), so I chose from the list they have on their website. Several of the companies never answered my emails. Others had websites with contradictory information or lots of spelling errors, and I generally avoided those. Some emails I received also had contradictory information, and when making further enquiries I was either given an answer that didn’t make sense or given the runaround.

    Eventually, at the end of May, I chose upon Churchill Safaris. They had been fairly prompt with their replies, seemed to know what they were doing and were also very helpful. It was they who suggested I might join one of their other group tours to keep my costs down (something no other company had suggested). I had to think about this for quite a time – mainly for the reasons I mentioned before about being with a group of people. And with strangers, they might only be interested in seeing the big things (elephants, lions, zebras, giraffes, gorillas, chimps etc.) and not care about birds, reptiles, ratels, servals, colobus, pottos etc. But the savings by being in a group outweighed other concerns, and I was running out of time, so I agreed to join a group.

    There was a bit of confusion over which group I was to join. Churchill contacted a group that were happy to have me along, but their tour departed on the 12th September, and I have to be back in Sydney by the 16th, so that fell through. I was hoping to arrive in Uganda around the 20th of August, but there was no available tours then, so I agreed to a safari departing on the 30th. Churchill contacted the group and asked if they would mind me joining their group. The email I got back said:

    “The ladies are agreeing to be joined but they are requesting that just in case you a smoker, they would not like it to happen inside the car.”

    I’m not a smoker, so that wouldn’t be an issue. However, the phrase ‘the ladies’ suggested an all-female group. My first name – Hickson – is unusual, and doesn’t necessarily indicate my gender. It was possible that Churchill erroneously thought I was female. While the idea of being the only male travelling around with a group of women is appealing to most guys, I knew that if I didn’t say something immediately, karma would ensure I was stuck with a bunch of girls in their twenties and I’d be forced to listen to One Direction on the car stereo for two weeks. So I replied that I was a non-smoker, but that the ladies should know up front that I’m a 50 year old bloke. To my relief I was told “I have passed it on to the ladies today and they were relieved …” With that resolved, I phoned Churchill and gave them my credit card details, which I’m sure made them happy after the several months of discussions we’d been having.

    :p

    Hix

    Association Of Uganda Tour Operators
     
  3. snowleopard

    snowleopard Well-Known Member Premium Member

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    This is like a step-by-step guide on how to dream about, book and eventually venture out on safari in an African nation, and I'm ecstatic to read further updates so that I can live vicariously through your travels. I love the "journey threads" that pop up from time to time on ZooChat, as instead of visiting 40-50 zoos in a single summer like I have done in the past (and written extensively about) it is nice to have a different perspective to analyze. I look forward to further editions on this blog and I appreciate the effort that is put forth on this endeavor. Well done mate, you've already got me hooked!
     
  4. boof

    boof Well-Known Member

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    G'day hix,
    I'm looking forward to reading this blog. Happy trails.
     
  5. Hix

    Hix Wildlife Enthusiast and Lover of Islands Premium Member

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    Airline Tickets
    Obviously there are no direct flights from Australia to Entebbe, but I imagined there would be a multitude of choices and a myriad of ways to get there. Entebbe is the town that houses Uganda's international airport, and became famous in the 1970's when an Air France jet flying from Tel Aviv to Paris was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists and was permitted to land at Entebbe by Idi Amin who supported the terrorists.

    Using the web I found the cheapest way to get there was to fly from Sydney to Bangkok on Thai Air, then fly Air Ethiopia to Addis Ababa, wait several hours and get another flight from Addis to Entebbe. Yeah, like I would do that.

    A similar option was to fly to Singapore, then go Air Kenya to Nairobi (or Nairobbery as it's now known) and wait several hours for a connection.

    Or I could go via Guangzhou in China, then Air Kenya again.....

    The most sensible options were flying via South Africa or Dubai, and I chose the latter. For only $400 more than the Air Ethiopia option I get to fly Emirates direct to Dubai, then connect to an Emirates flight direct to Entebbe. And it only takes 22 hours there and 23 hours on the return leg (as opposed to 34hrs and 30hrs on the cheapest option - although one option was 46 hours return).

    Medical
    Uganda is fun place to visit if you're a hypochondriac, because there is so many unusual and nasty things to contract. Churchill Safaris sent some information about health issues and they recommended vaccinations for:
    • Measles, Mumps, Rubella
    • Diphtheria, Pertussis, Tetanus
    • Polio
    • Hepatitus A
    • Hepatitus B
    • Whopping Cough [sic]
    • Meningococcal
    • Yellow Fever
    • Typhoid
    • Rabies
    Plus you need anti-malaria tablets.

    Other diseases transmitted by biting insects include Dengue Fever, Filariasis, Leishmaniasis, and Onchocerciasis (that last one can cause permanent blindness).

    Schistosomiasis (or bilharzia) occurs in most water bodies, so swimming is only done in chlorinated pools.

    And a couple of things they didn't mention: Tsetse Flies occur in Uganda, and can carry the organism that causes trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness);

    Last year there was an Ebola outbreak and at least 17 people died as a result.

    And of course, HIV/AIDS is prevalent.

    So earlier this week I started my round of vaccinations. I'm already protected against many of the diseases mentioned above, so I received Typhoid, Yellow Fever, Meningococcal and the first of three (expensive) rabies vaccinations. I get another one this week, and the third a fortnight later. Plus I still have to get two Cholera vaccinations. And I was given a supply of anti-malarials and anti-diarrhoeals.

    Fun days ahead!

    :p

    Hix
     
  6. zooboy28

    zooboy28 Moderator Staff Member

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    Thanks for the great blog Hix, very much looking forward to hearing more about your latest adventure.

    I was wondering which route you would take to get to Uganda, Emirates sounds like a very sensible airline choice.

    My supervisor recently took his family to Tanzania for a safari holiday, and one of their major costs ended up being vaccines, which cost several thousand dollars all up I think.
     
  7. nanoboy

    nanoboy Well-Known Member

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    This is great stuff. I'm a "planner", down to which outfit I wear on which day when on holiday, so I am enjoying this thread.

    Will you climb Ruwenzori? One of my dreams was to see the snows/glaciers of the tropics. (Who here knows that there is/was a glacier/snow capped mountain in New Guinea?) However, they may all disappear before I get my act together.
     
  8. zooman

    zooman Well-Known Member Premium Member

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    This is great Hix,

    Since meeting you awhile back, it makes following your posts much more interesting as l can picture you.

    Safe travels and l look forward to your posts.
     
  9. ThylacineAlive

    ThylacineAlive Well-Known Member

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    Great thread Hix!:D I look forward to reading about both Chlidonias' and your travel blogs! Keep us all updated on the species!

    ~Thylo:cool:
     
  10. Hix

    Hix Wildlife Enthusiast and Lover of Islands Premium Member

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    The four I got the other day, plus 8 weeks of anti-malarials, plus the travel kit which includes the anti-diarrhoeals, antibiotics, hydralyte, anti-nausea, a bunch of bandaids and a DEET roll-on cost me $423 (and my health fund only gave $121 back!). And I still have another $320 worth to get.

    Rabies - the most expensive - is a three shot vaccine, and each shot costs $105. So at $315 per person, if your supervisor and his wife have two kids, the rabies shots alone will cost over $1200.

    Unfortunately climbing the Rwenzori's is not on the itinerary, but we will get a good look at them for a few days. There are climbing tours but it's cold and muddy and wet, and apparently not a lot of wildlife to be seen at higher altitudes. But I would still like to do it because one of the climbing itineraries I read mentioned they visit Bigo Bog, which was one of the places mentioned in Willard Price's Gorilla Adventure. But just seeing the legendary Mountains of the Moon will be a thrill.

    I do. There's even a range there called the Snow Mountains.


    And thanks for everyone's kind words. I hope I don't bore you!

    :p

    Hix
     
  11. Taisha

    Taisha Well-Known Member

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    hallo Hix,

    I don't know if it is of any comfort to you, when I tell you, I survived Uganda for 4 weeks without any vaccination or any other precaution.

    I share however your dismay, travelling even with a small safari group proved at least in my case an absolute disaster. In fact, I hardly saw anything.

    This was made up however by the sightings at the hotel in Queen Elizabeth Park (I am almost sure you will also stay there, tourists in Uganda seem to be guided all the same route).
    Luckily behind the doorstep inside one morning, I was confronted with a hippo on the lawn, about 4 meters away.
    With eternal gratitude I remember the guide, who saved my backpack from the ground, about to be snatched by an wild elephant bull while all the employees were running away.
    But there were also lots of other interesting animals to watch around, you just have to get up as early as possible in the morning.

    A must is the Zoo in Entebbe, absolutely charming, and with shoebills!
    Maybe more of a question of luck were the various animal sightings I had in the nearby park.
    How about Chimpanzee tracking?
    For you to be prepared, some of the mountains had almost no trees left, very disturbing.
     
  12. devilfish

    devilfish Well-Known Member

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    I look forward to this blog too - I'm enjoying your planning stages already.

    Sounds steeper than here - the thing is that with the rabies shots you're not really given much more protection, you just have a slightly longer window to find treatment. Will travel insurance cost anywhere near as much?
     
  13. Monty

    Monty Well-Known Member

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    Have a good trip. I know a bloke who saw the Gorillas in Uganda about 15 years ago. He ended up being the only tourist on the hike to see the Gorillas. The guides showed him the hut he was to stay in on the mountain but he rathered stay in the hut with the guides and said they were all surprised a white tourist wanted to stay with the black staff. He had a very good trip.
     
  14. boof

    boof Well-Known Member

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    watch out for Kony.
     
  15. Hix

    Hix Wildlife Enthusiast and Lover of Islands Premium Member

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    Taisha,

    If there's a disease to be caught and I'm not careful, I'll catch it. I have no problem with the vaccinations, just the sore arms and the bleeding wallet!

    In Queen Elizabeth NP we're staying at Kyambura Game Lodge which is right next to the Gorge where we'll be tracking chimps. We'll probably hear them in the morning and evening as the Lodge is only about 1 kilometre from the Gorge. The other good place is Mweya Safari Lodge, on the peninsula. I would have also liked to stay there as they have some bird hides set up. But we'll be going there for the boat ride on the Kazinga Channel, so I might get some time in the hides after all.

    As for the zoo in Entebbe - I'm staying in the zoo grounds for a couple of nights. Should be fun!


    @Devilfish: Re rabies - it's probably more expensive to get Rabies shots in Australia because we don't have Rabies. This is the first time I've got the shots and I'm doing it this time because I'm probably silly enough to get bitten by something while I'm away.

    @Monty: I was told I got the last permit for that day, which should suggest there will actually be seven people trekking with me. But I certainly see the appeal of doing it by myself!

    @Boof: Kony isn't in Uganda at present (or so I believe) but DRC. When he does visit it's mainly in the North where we won't be. And apparently he leaves tourists alone, because he knows the value they are to his country, and his beef isn't with foreigners/tourists.

    Or so I'm told. I hope I've been told correctly.

    :p

    Hix
     
  16. sooty mangabey

    sooty mangabey Well-Known Member

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    According to this troubling but brilliant article from yesterday's Observer, Kony is currently in the Central African Republic, a country in which there is real danger both for locals and for visitors (I have only been through the corner of the place, and that in much more peaceful times, but even then it had a particular atmosphere of unease about it): Raped, plundered, ignored: central Africa state where only killers thrive | World news | The Observer.

    Unless you are particularly unlucky, you will be perfectly safe in Uganda - I would certainly feel more secure in the overwhelming majority of African countries than I would in many big European or American cities. Uganda is a fantastic country, in which the majority of people are well-educated and welcoming. Like many others, I am very much looking forward to following your travels....

    Anyone who can make a travel decision based on a Willard Price book is clearly a very sensible man! Now, watch out for the chopped-up leopard whiskers in your drinks....
     
  17. epickoala123

    epickoala123 Well-Known Member

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    who is 'Kony'?
     
  18. nanoboy

    nanoboy Well-Known Member

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    One Google search will answer that in a jiffy. He was the biggest thing a couple years ago for about 1 week.
     
  19. nanoboy

    nanoboy Well-Known Member

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    Hix, what sort of photography and bird watching gear are you taking with you? What about electronics? And a question that boggles my mind with Chlidonias's trips: do you carry lots of cash to third world countries, or credit cards are fine?
     
  20. Hix

    Hix Wildlife Enthusiast and Lover of Islands Premium Member

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    I'll probably have four cameras with me: a Canon DSLR, a Canon IXUS compact, a Canon D20 underwater camera, and GoPro Hero2. I'll have three lenses for DSLR - a 70-300mm zoom, a 18-55 Zoom, and a 100mm Macro. Plus my flash. I've also recently bought a pair of binoculars, 10 X 25.

    As for money, I have two credit cards but you also require cash and in Uganda credit cards are not widely accepted outside the big cities. But the good thing about being on safari with a tour company is - everything is already paid for: transport, accommodation, all meals, park entry fees, trekking permits, boat rides etc. The only thing I'll need cash for is souvenirs, drinks, tips and "items of a personal nature".

    :p

    Hix