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Rwanda & Uganda Birding Trip
Dave Sargeant & Nigel Moorhouse
3rd – 26th June 2003
This three-week trip comprised two quite different parts. The first week was an exploratory visit, with Nigel Moorhouse (owner of Sarus Bird Tours), to Rwanda; a country largely ignored by world birders over the last ten years, due in the most part to the legacy of the genocide and consequent collapse of the county in the late 1980's. The aim of visiting Rwanda was three fold: to assess its potential as a commercial birding destination, to search for Albertine Rift Valley endemics difficult to observe, or not present, in Uganda, and simply to venture off the beaten track and explore a country little visited by birders. The results were better than our expectations, with observations of Red-collared Mountain-Babbler, Rwenzori Turaco, Rwenzori Sunbird, Handsome Francolin, Red-faced Barbet and Shoebill, to name but a few. We also found the infrastructure more than adequate and the security situation appeared calm and safe. It should be noted that the initial plan was to have been to visit Mgahinga and Bwindi National Parks in Uganda to maximise the chances of seeing those Albertine Rift endemics that occur in Uganda. However, during research, it seemed that Rwanda not only offered these, but also some additional species not possible in Uganda. In addition, posts on the Lonely Planet website suggested that people who turn up at Mgahinga and who are not gorilla trekking are often informed that the park is closed.
The second and third weeks were spent in Uganda as co-leader, with Brian Finch, for the 2003 Sarus Bird Tours tour. Group members in Uganda were Panadda Sargeant, Tony Trott, Julie Trott, Tom Feild and Noel Lock. The tour was highly successful, recording over 525 species of birds in 15 days, as well as eleven species of primate including the Mountain Gorilla and Chimpanzee.
A GPS was frequently used, and throughout this report waypoints are referred to; coordinates of these appear in a table at the end of this report.
For further information contact Dave Sargeant: akalat [at] gmail.com or Nigel Moorhouse: nigel [at] sarusbirdtours.co.uk.
Although scant birding information seems to be available on sites in Rwanda post-1995, some information was provided by Giles Mulholland and Andy Plumptre in response to messages posted on the web. The Bradt guide to Rwanda (Briggs and Booth, 2001) also provided a lot of useful information. The itinerary in Rwanda was basically free form, and decided on a day-to-day basis.
Health, Safety and Hassles
All the people we met throughout Rwanda and Uganda were friendly and generally helpful, and we never felt any threat, except perhaps when a group of four soldiers spoke to us along the main road in Nyungwe Forest, Rwanda. They seemed jovial enough, but it was unnerving, as they could speak neither French nor English, and seemed to be joking at our expense. They didn't hassle us at all, and it was just the fact that we didn't have a clue what they wanted that was of concern. After that, we tried to keep away from the regular patrols as much as possible, but we always greeted them as we passed.
We always locked the vehicle when it was out of sight, and had no problems leaving it at either Uwinka or Gisakura ranger stations when we walked forest trails in Nyungwe, Rwanda.
In terms of health, malaria is present in both countries, although much of their areas are at too high an altitude for the mosquitoes that carry the parasite. Therefore the risk is not as high as within the surrounding countries, but is present nonetheless, so precautions should be taken. Tsetse flies were fairly prevalent in Akagera National Park, Rwanda, where we were also targeted by some odd looking red and black flat-flies which looked capable of some pretty nasty bites. Uganda was surprisingly lacking in biting insects, and in two weeks there we didn't even use insect repellent.
Getting there - Flights and Visa
Nigel flew into Entebbe on British Airways direct from London, while Dave from Muscat on Kenya Airways via Dubai and Nairobi. Flight costs each were around £450/$600. Several carriers fly into Entebbe, Uganda from London - British Airways, Kenyan Airlines and Emirates. The only direct flight is on British Airways, which is also the most expensive. However, the other carriers take twice the flight time (c16 hrs) due to stopovers, whereas British Airways flights take only eight hours. Into Kigali, Rwanda, there are flights from Europe (e.g. Brussels via Nairobi), and frequent connections from Nairobi and Entebbe.
Officially, visas are required for most nationalities, including UK passport holders, both for Uganda and Rwanda. For Uganda, from London visas are obtainable from the Uganda High Commission, 58-59 Trafalgar Square, London, WC2N 5DX. If passing through Uganda, one can obtain a transit visa for $15 that allows a seven-day transit. Multiple-entry visas are also possible for $60, or single entry visas for $30. Both these are valid for 30 days. If bought prior to departure from the UK, the fees are slightly higher, but there should be no problem obtaining visas on arrival at Entebbe. Theoretically, visas on arrival are only for people who start their journey from a country having no Ugandan representation. However, we noted that this wasn't checked on arrival, and buying the visa on arrival was quick and easy. Obtaining a visa at the border when returning from Rwanda presented no problems either. For entry into Rwanda, the official line is that you obtain a visa before leaving the UK (£30/$50). However, we simply pitched-up at the border crossing and obtained our entry visas for free - with no questions asked.
Car Rental and Driving
For the first week, a self-drive Land Rover 90 (2-seater plus space in the rear) was hired from City Cars in Kampala. Contact Paul Volrath, City Cars Ltd., Room 20, Tank Hill Parade, Muyenga, P.O.Box 151, Kampala, Uganda. Telephone 041-268611 or 077-412001. Fax: 041-232338. Email: citycars.at.starcom.co.ug. The waypoint location of their office in Kampala is at waypoint CAROFF. A representative met us at Entebbe airport and brought us to their office - and vice-versa on return. The cost was $70 per day with 150 km/day free and $0.30 per km thereafter. Although we discovered the odometer on our vehicle was over-recording by about 12%, both speed and distance, Paul was happy to take our measurements of this (we did it with GPS and km posts) into account when calculating the distance travelled. As we took the vehicle across the border into Rwanda there was an additional $50 charge for insurance coverage within Rwanda. This should be mentioned in advance when arranging any rental, as insurance documentation for the crossing into Rwanda needs to be arranged by City Cars. Overall, the hire for the week's duration came to $860, as we travelled about 2,100km. Some of this distance could have been saved had we used the more northerly border crossing into Rwanda at Kagitumba, rather than the one south of Kabale. However, lack of information about the state of the roads on the former, plus the fact that it is not a major route prompted us to choose the more heavily-used crossing. In hindsight, this more northerly crossing may be better in terms of getting to/from Akagera National Park, Rwanda, as it is flatter terrain, and the part of this road that we used near Akagera was in excellent condition.
The Land Rover was fine, excepting the discovery that a pipe was missing from the fuel-bleeder valve, which meant that we could not fill the tank fully, without fuel flowing out. We discovered this soon after picking-up the vehicle, but rather than waste time, we got the hang of not filling the tank fully, and put a plug of paper into the open pore to avoid too much spillage if we guessed the quantity incorrectly. This was a little inconvenient, as it meant we had to stop for fuel more often than we might otherwise have needed to. City Cars, whom we would recommend, also have other vehicles such as the Suzuki Vitara for the same rate, but which were unavailable at the time of our visit, or larger Land Rovers with 4 seats for $130/day. Cheaper saloons are also available.
Note that driving is on the left in Uganda, and on the right in Rwanda. So, when taking a Ugandan vehicle over the border the steering wheel is sub-optimally on the “wrong side”. Fuel prices were about the same in both countries, around $0.80 per litre.
In Uganda, on the tour, we used a Toyota Hiace 4x4 mini-bus from the company Access Uganda. The vehicle was in excellent condition, well-maintained and very comfortable. Although the vehicle could seat 11 persons (driver and guide up front with nine seats in the rear), the six persons we had in the rear was about the right number. On several occasions we needed to have extra people in the back (local guides, rangers, and even a cook) that would have been very cramped with more than six people on the tour. The extra space was very useful for scopes, tripods packed-lunches and the like.
In general the roads we used were mostly tarmac, and in surprisingly good condition (especially when compared to Kenya which we had visited the previous year). In Rwanda, all roads were tarmaced and many had been recently resurfaced. The worst main road in Rwanda was that between Kigali and Akagera, which had some potholes, although these tended to be shallow. During our first week we never used the 4x4 capability, although the clearance helped in Lake Mburo and Akagera National Parks. Otherwise, a saloon would have been sufficient, and we might even have gotten by with this in the parks too, as it was fairly dry when we visited. The routes we took were easy to find, and the only problem we had was in finding the Akagera road from Kigali. The average speed on journeys on all main roads was around 60 km/h. Speed humps only existed in Kigali. In Uganda, most of the roads were in good condition, though beware of speed humps, especially in built-up areas, some of which are seemingly sized to match trucks rather than saloon cars. On most roads they generally consisted of a series of smaller rumble-strips, with a huge bump or two between. The worst road we travelled on was the winding dirt road from Buhoma to Rukungiri en route to Queen Elizabeth National Park. This took about three hours and was not much fun for those in the very back of the vehicle. Additionally the road from Ruhiza down to Buhoma was pretty rough; even with our high clearance mini-bus we ground the bottom a few times. Other dirt roads in the west and northwest were graded and in good condition.
An International Driving Permit is recommended. The number of drivers on the rental agreement did not appear to be an issue, and we were not charged extra driver fees. As with most African countries, night driving is not particularly recommended. Although we did drive back to accommodation occasionally after dark, we kept it to a minimum and tried to arrange the itinerary so that we drove more in the middle of the day between bouts of birding morning and afternoon.
Be aware that Kampala suffers infamous congestion during morning and afternoon rush hours frequently with complete gridlock. These are definitely worth avoiding! Unfortunately we experienced one of these occasions when returning from Jinja and having to cross Kampala to reach our hotel, the Kampala Regency. The route we took, coming in from the north of Kampala, circumnavigated the worst of central Kampala and is mapped as a GPS route around Kampala (see GPS Waypoints page).
Crossing the Uganda-Rwanda border by car.
Driving a Ugandan vehicle across the border into Rwanda proved to be a lot easier than we had expected. On the crossing from Uganda into Rwanda Dave stayed with the vehicle throughout, as there were a lot of people around, while Nigel was allowed to process both passports. The process went as follows: ask if you are unsure, as most people will help:
The fact that there was a sign on the Uganda side saying KEEP LEFT gave us the clue that driving on the right was the norm in Rwanda, and the presence of a vehicle just arriving at the border on the right confirmed this. This was fortunate, as we could easily have not noticed the Ugandan sign, and as there are not that many vehicles on Rwanda roads, we could have blithely kept on the left before a panic when looking head-on at an approaching vehicle.
Other Miscellaneous Information
In Uganda we used the Nelles 1:700,000 map which proved adequate, although for the most part we had a local driver which meant we only used the map for overviews and planning. Roads around Buhoma were absent from the map, so it would not have been useful for driving in the Bwindi area. For Rwanda we were not able to obtain a map in advance, so had to make do with a map covering the whole of East Africa. However, this combined with the maps found in the Bradt guide proved more than adequate.
Internet cafés were reasonably easy to find in larger towns in Uganda, though outside of Kampala the connection speed was distinctly unexciting. However, prices were cheap at less than $1 for 30 minutes. The time zone in Uganda is GMT+3 hrs, whereas in Rwanda it is GMT+2 hrs. This gave daylight hours of approx 07:00-19:00 in Uganda, and 06:00 to 18:00 in Rwanda.
In Uganda, the exchange rate varied, depending on where money was changed and which denomination notes were offered. It is definitely sensible to take US$ cash as the easiest and most hassle-free currency to exchange. Other hard currencies are only likely to be exchangeable at banks in major towns; likewise traveller cheques. The exchange rate varied between 1,800 and 2,100 Uganda Shillings (/-) to the US$.
In Rwanda we changed money at the border crossing, with the owner of a supermarket in Butare and at a hotel in Kigali. At the Uganda-Rwanda border crossing we negotiated with several of the ubiquitous freelance moneychangers wandering around. For $100 bills we were offered from 450 to 520 Rwandan Franc to the $. Needless to say we accepted the later rate. Surprisingly, this also proved to be the best rate we could obtain anywhere, as elsewhere we were only able to get 510 Rwandan Franc/$. It was very common and notable in Rwanda that the banknotes were in appalling condition, most looking as though they had been used as floor cleaning cloths in a previous life.
Credit cards can be used for larger hotels and the suchlike in Uganda. However, the only time we tried to use a credit card, to pay the vehicle rental, they wanted to charge an additional 5% commission; so we paid cash instead.
We stayed at a variety of accommodations from basic hotels through to luxurious lodges, simple bandas and tented camps. During the first week in Rwanda we simply winged-it, turning up at accommodation as recommended in the Bradt guide. In Uganda, all were pre-booked and paid in advance through Sarus and their local agent, Access Uganda. Some of these places sported outrageous published prices, though we expected booking through a local agent would reduce these, possibly substantially. We stayed at the following:
Lake Mburo National Park, Uganda. Banda at the park HQ at Rwonyo. Accommodation is somewhat limited in the park, and the few bandas available are supposed to be booked in advance. However, we simply turned up and asked, and were able to secure a basic, but clean and comfortable, double banda with mosquito nets (although none appeared to be present) for 15,000/-. No electricity was available, although the staff did provide a paraffin lamp. The site had separate shower and pit-toilet blocks. A basic restaurant was available at the lake-edge campsite one kilometre away. This was a very peaceful spot, with African Scops-Owl calling commonly as well as good number of waterbuck sleeping under the trees in the grounds.
Ineza Motel, Butare, Rwanda. This small hotel was recommended in the Bradt guide. Probably the nicest thing was its location off the main road that made it relatively quiet – several other places on the main drag looked very noisy. It also had a small garden. Unusually, the rooms were all singles, and it appeared to be mainly used by local businessmen. This place was good value at $6-$7 for the room. All rooms had private bathrooms without hot water. However, hot water could be requested, although it wasn't delivered very speedily. We also had to wait an inordinate amount of time for food to be prepared and served. Others staying had pre-ordered food earlier, but it still took an age. The place was also full – we got the last two rooms – so it appeared to be one of the most popular places to stay.
ORTPN Guesthouse, Gisakura, Nyungwe National Park, Rwanda. This is situated right by the main road; just outside the western side of the park, and forms part of the ORTNP ranger station/park HQ. It makes an ideal base from which to explore the park, and the staff was very hospitable. As meals are freshly prepared, it's advisable to pre-order dinner, probably the night before if leaving early in the morning. The accommodation comprised of several stone bungalows, each with several bedrooms and a shared bathroom. Hot water was available, via electric water heaters, although ours was, at best, tepid. As we were the only guests we had the place to ourselves. Rates appeared to be charged by the room, with each room having two single beds. We paid $18 per night for the room. Meals were reasonably priced, varied and tasty, especially considering the fairly remote location. This was another quiet location with a reasonable garden supposedly containing “crimsonwings”, although we didn't spend any time looking for them.
Hotel Baobab, Kigali, Rwanda. Located at GPS waypoint BAOBAB. Another place recommended in the Bradt guide, and definitely a good spot for birders due to its relatively quiet location on a hill on the western side of the city making access to/from Uganda, Nyungwe and Akagera straight forward with no necessity to drive through downtown Kigali. Note that the map in the Bradt guide has an incorrect scale – the real distances being twice those indicated on the map. Meals were OK, and the speed of service passable. Rooms cost around $26/double with private bathroom. The rooms themselves were quite dark (small windows) and the bathroom a bit musty, but otherwise clean and comfortable. We were happy to note the excellent hot showers.
Sophie's Motel, Entebbe, Uganda. Located at waypoint SOPHIS. This place is popular, and advance reservations are definitely required. The reasonable price coupled with its location, just a couple of kilometres from both Entebbe airport and the Entebbe botanical gardens, makes this a good base for the beginning and end of trips. They also provide free collection and drop-off to/from the airport. Prices range from $25 for a double room without view, through to $35 for a room with a Lake Victoria view, and $45 for a small bungalow. We had great difficultly to find this place at night as, coupled with the small signs which are almost impossible to see in the dark, it is hidden away in a small residential area. This also makes the location quiet. The restaurant food was more than adequate, although service as everywhere in Uganda was less than speedy - order well in advance. The small garden had a few interesting birds such as Northern Brown-throated Weaver, Slender-billed Weaver and Olive Woodpecker. Email: Sophies.at.one2netmail.co.ug
Triangle Hotel, Jinja, Uganda. This was one of the less salubrious places we stayed and at 45,000/- for a double was not good value. The facilities were quite basic and the room so small that we actually put the cupboard/wardrobe outside the room in order to make space enough to open two suitcases! As the windows were louvered, and the curtain falling off the rail, it was neither particularly quiet nor dark at night, as the rooms overlooked the main courtyard where traffic came and went fairly late into the night. The night we were there, as there were visiting conference delegates, a local buffet was served, which was very tasty. The restaurant was quite helpful with providing early breakfasts. Other bird tours have used the Crested Crane Hotel in Jinja, which is actually a student-trainee hotel establishment, although the standard appears to be similar. Others have tried the Trimpton Hotel, which is of a similar standard but only has shared bathrooms. Apparently it's a pretty poor choice of establishments if staying in Jinja.
Kampala Regency Hotel, Kampala, Uganda. Situated on the western side of Kampala just outside the city centre, this was one of the better value hotels we stayed at. It also provides relatively easy access out of Kampala toward Lake Mburo NP, which is important in order to avoid traffic congestion in the morning. Although not cheap at 150,000/- for a double, the rooms were large, comfortable and quiet with good air-conditioning. It would be a good move to request a room on the back, as the front overlooks the main road, although the glazing was good and we had no problems sleeping. The buffet dinner was mostly finished by the time we made it to the restaurant, and we had to cajole the manager into cooking us something additional.
Lakeview Hotel, Mbarara, Uganda. It was disappointing to find that the “lake view” did not actually refer to Lake Mburo nor any other papyrus covered swamp, but rather an artificial lake in front of the hotel, which was good for mosquitoes and a few commoner birds. This is the only “tourist” standard hotel in Mbarara, and whilst adequate, was rather characterless. The food was good when it arrived but took forever to prepare.
Ruhiza Guesthouse, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest NP, Uganda. The “guesthouse” at Ruhiza ranger station makes a good base for exploring the upper levels of Bwindi NP. A stay here must be arranged in advance. Facilities are limited to bunk-beds (with sheets and blankets provided), pit-toilets, no electricity nor running water. All supplies, food, water, and even your own cook, must be brought in with you. Cooking facilities, in the form of an open fire kitchen, are available. The location in the forest was excellent, and Rwenzori Nightjar circled the trees right outside the guesthouse. Despite its limited facilities this was an excellent and interesting place to stay.
Mantana Luxury Tented Camp, Buhoma, Uganda. Several similarly luxurious tented camps can be found at Buhoma, both inside and outside the park gate. All are similarly priced, and all charge somewhere in the region of $200 per person per night, which can only be considered excessive. Unfortunately, sensibly priced alternatives do not appear to exist in Buhoma village (which has no electricity or running water). However, some enterprising local could surely make a killing by providing comfortable local accommodation at a realistic price. I suspect some government restrictions might prevent this, as the whole reason for Buhoma is to extract maximum tourist dollars from Gorilla tourism. Mantana Camp itself was very comfortable with hot showers provided from an overhead bucket, and very comfortable beds. The food was very good, especially considering the chef had to work without power and adequate lighting, and the staff very helpful and service-oriented. Although not in the forest, we had a number of birds in the trees around the tent including African Wood-Owl and White-headed Robin-Chat.
Mweya Lodge, Queen Elizabeth National Park. A fantastic lodge with an incredible 360° panoramic view, excellent accommodation and food – one could rapidly get used to this place. On arrival we had Swamp Flycatcher feeding from the chandelier in reception!
Mantana Luxury Tented Camp, Kibale National Park, Uganda. The set-up, tents, layout and price of this camp were exactly the same as at Buhoma. We did however feel this one had the edge due to the friendliness of the staff and the slightly better food. Despite its location next to a swamp we had no insect problems.
Masindi Hotel, Masindi, Uganda. This unpretentious hotel with a good location on the edge of town was relatively quiet, with good food and friendly staff. Good value, clean and comfortable, with Peter's Fruit Bat in the garden “clonking” all night. We enjoyed our brief stay here.
Paraa Lodge, Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda. This quite luxurious lodge had very few guests while we stayed, and was a relaxing place to hang out – beers in the swimming pool highly recommended. The only negative aspect was its location on the north bank of the river, which necessitates taking the ferry across to explore the falls area or exit the park.
Neither Uganda nor Rwanda can be considered a culinary experience. However, good, cheap local fruits and vegetables can be bought everywhere, and we were always able to find local restaurants serving chicken, fish, eggs or the like. The fancier lodges in Uganda served a variety of dishes both local and international. One will certainly not starve on a trip to Uganda or Rwanda. As in much of Africa, local grocery shops often had only a limited range of items such as tinned fish, biscuits etc. This we supplemented with liberal amounts of fruit (mangos, oranges, bananas) purchased along the roadside. Note that Uganda is colloquially known as the banana capital of the world with well over a 100 different varieties on offer. We were able to buy bottled water everywhere, and never experienced any stomach problems, although we also never took stupid risks such as consuming ice, ice-cream, or unpeeled fruits etc. Junk food – chips, chocolate and the like - were also available.
One thing that does appear to be very prevalent in both Uganda and Rwanda is the speed – or lack of – service in restaurants. Almost all meals took one to two hours to prepare and serve from the time of ordering. For some unimaginable reason we also never seemed to learn to order in advance. It would seem a good idea to order food on arrival at a hotel before heading off to dump bags and take a shower.
Beer was, of course, widely available. Although Uganda has a plethora of varieties, in Rwanda we only found Primus and Mützig. I think we preferred the later.
As English is widely spoken in Uganda we had no problems communicating. In Rwanda, although French is widely spoken, it appeared to be limited more to older, better-educated people. We were surprised to find the general standard of French was not that good, and in some cases too poor for effective communication. Evidently, English is becoming more popular and probably taught in schools more than French; several younger people we encountered spoke passable English.
During the duration of our stay the weather was generally excellent. As June is the tail end of the rainy season the weather can be unpredictable, and some visitors have been unlucky at this time. However, we only had a couple of extended periods of rain and for the rest of the time, variable amounts of cloud cover with sunny spells. We were fortunate at Bwindi National Park, where it rained heavily at Buhoma while we were visiting Ruhiza and vice-versa the following day.
Field Guides: Stevenson, Terry and Fanshawe, John. (2002). Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa. Poyser Ltd. As this has become the standard field guide for the whole East African region, it covers both Rwanda and Uganda. We used this as our main reference throughout and generally found it accurate and adequate.
Site Guides: Rossouw, Jonathan and Sacchi, Marco. (1998). Where to Watch Birds in Uganda. Uganda Tourist Board. An excellent and essential reference - make sure you have a copy. This small booklet covers all the main birding sites in detail, including excellent maps and details of access, accommodation etc. My only criticism would be that some of the site lists contain errors (E.g. some species listed that do not actually occur). It also conveys the impression that some species are much more readily found than they might be in reality.
Other References: Briggs, Philip and Booth, Janice. (2001). Rwanda: The Bradt Travel Guide. Bradt Travel Guides, UK. We found this travel guide excellent, and a great help with maps, accommodation and getting around. Philip Briggs, the author, evidently has a keen interest in birds and wildlife, and provides good overviews of his experiences in the main parks and forests, with key bird species often mentioned in his accounts.
Threatened Birds of the World BirdLife International, edited by N.J. Collar (2000). Lynx Ediciones and BirdLife International.
Birds of the World: A checklist by J.F. Clements (2000). Ibis Publishing Co.
Access Uganda. Access Uganda was used to handle all the local arrangements in Uganda. Hassan A. Mutebi, the owner, is not only an excellent companion, driver and guide, but also a keen birder. We would thoroughly recommend his company and services. We have to especially commend his efforts at the start of our trip where, despite suffering the effects of malaria and its drug treatment, he still battled on to make our trip a great success, where others would have been laid up in bed. Email: mutebihassan.at.yahoo.com. Note that Hassan is a good friend of Alfred at Bwindi.
Uganda Bird Guides Club, P.O. Box 33164, Kampala, Uganda.
Herbert Byaruhanga, General Secretary of the Uganda Bird Guides Club, and a bird guide himself: Mobile: (+256) 77-518290 or (+256) 77–468521. E-mail: byaruhanga.at.hotmail.com
Alfred Twinomujuni. Alfred is probably the bird guide in Uganda. His knowledge of the birds in Bwindi is phenomenal, and he is an excellent companion as well. Having started out years ago working as one of the park staff, he now runs a small birding company, based from his home in Bwindi. Alfred can be contacted on Mobile: (+256) 77–518290, or e-mail: ugasaf.at.hotmail.com. To ensure Alfred's services, it would be highly advisable to contact him in advance, especially if intending to visit Uganda at a time when bird tour companies tend to operate.
In addition to the authors of the trips reports used for Uganda, we would like to thank especially Andy Plumptre who answered a request, posted on the Internet, for birding information on Rwanda. Our thanks also to the people who joined in the various parts of the trip, and were excellent travel and birding companions.
In general we saw what might be expected at most sites, though inevitably dipped out on a few species due to time pressures in the itinerary. The comments below are intended to add to information provided in the references listed above, either to correct any changes, or add to that provided, and should be read in conjunction with them.
Nyungwe National Park, Rwanda
[Map.] This wonderful birding area lies west of Butare, with the Butare to Cyangugu road passing straight through the middle, providing excellent roadside birding. The park border lies 58.8 km west from Butare, where forest first starts to appear, and continues for the next 50 km or so as far as Gisakura. Around the park HQ at Uwinka, at about the 90 km marker, a number of trails can be explored for birds and primates. Park fees are complex, with various inconsistent combinations of entry fees, camping fees and primate trekking fees. Birding along the main road costs nothing. The basic cost when exploring the trails and entering the forest proper is $10 per person per day for entry and $20 per person if primate trekking. There appears to be no clarity on whether guides are mandatory in the forest or not. However, in reality it is hard to avoid taking one. We tipped the guides the equivalent of $10 for a morning or afternoon, and they seemed pleased enough. One can camp around the HQ at Uwinka. Guesthouse accommodation with warm showers and food is available at Gisakura in either the park HQ or local tea estates. The three days we spent in the park was barely enough, and five to six days would not have felt too many. Certain species, such as Rwenzori Turaco and Handsome Francolin are more readily seen here than in Uganda. Additionally, Red-collared Mountain-Babbler is relatively common. We walked the Waterfall Trail from the park HQ at Gisakura, where we readily saw Neumann's Warbler. Around the park HQ at Uwinka we walked the Blue Trail, although there are several others to choose from. At 65 km from Butare the road passes though an area of swamp where Grauer's Swamp-Warbler occurs. The abandoned army campsite at 104 km had Rwenzori Nightjar.
Akagera National Park, Rwanda
Although nowhere near its former glory, Akagera National Park is well worth visiting. We had Shoebill here and both Crested and Red-faced Barbets occur. The park lies on the eastern side of the country, a 2-3 hour drive from Kigali. A good map is available at the park HQ. Guides are available free of charge, and are a good idea if you want to spot game, as the scrub is generally quite thick and requires a trained eye to maximise the chances of finding mammals. Tsetse flies are fairly common here, especially in the more open areas.
Finding the route out of Kigali toward Akagera was relatively straightforward, though we did make a couple of errors. [Maps.] A GPS route around Kigali, starting from the Baobab Hotel is provided (see GPS Waypoints page).
Entebbe Botanical Gardens
Time permitting, the gardens are well worth a visit at the beginning or end of a trip. If staying at Sophie's Motel it's only a couple of kilometres walk. Verreaux's Eagle-Owl is resident, and local “guides” who will follow you around the gardens, can generally find them for you. The lake edge is also one of the few places in Uganda to find Orange Weaver. The “guides” we encountered seemed to be students out to make few shillings (we gave them 5,000/-), although they did appear to be reasonably knowledgeable about wildlife.
The turnoff from the main road to the reserve HQ is at waypoint MABIRA. There was a 6,000/- per person entry fee.
The key bird here is Uganda's only endemic - Fox's Weaver. The weaver can be found in floating papyrus vegetation around the shores of the lake. The species has a very patchy distribution and would be difficult to find without local assistance. It is necessary to rent a local fisherman to take you out on the lake. The boats are small, unstable, and have incredibly hard wooden seats. It would be a good idea to take a cushion, or at least a towel to sit on, as you are likely to be in the canoe at least a couple of hours. The turn-off to the lake is an unremarkable dirt track, near the entrance sign of the village of Kapir, along the Mbale to Soroti road. This turnoff is at waypoint FOX RD. From here it is a few kilometres on dirt tracks across through scrub and cultivation to the lake edge, where at waypoint FOXB, local fishermen and their canoes can be found.
Buhoma, in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, is the base from which gorilla treks start. Most birders opt to do a gorilla trek, as the possibility to get “up close and personal” with a gorilla is an almost once in a lifetime experience. The Ugandan government appears to have cashed in on this unique experience, and charges an eye-popping $250 per person for a trekking permit. Despite my initial reaction to this seemingly exorbitant fee, once on the ground, one appreciates the extensive logistical operation that goes into ensuring the gorillas are protected, tracked, and that visitors have a good chance of seeing gorilla. Supposedly, some percentage of the fee goes directly to the local community. One of the drawbacks seems to be that all accommodation at Buhoma comprises expensive, tourist camps. This certainly appears to be a government ploy to maximise the tourist dollar. Probably the biggest pain at Buhoma is the necessity to have a ranger and armed guards to enter the forest, making the minimum additional entourage four persons, which certainly assists in scaring away the wildlife. Furthermore, the guards and ranger we had insisted on walking ahead of us and talking loudly!
Kibale National Park
The turning to Kibale, off the main highway between Queen Elizabeth National Park and Fort Portal, is not signed, but is situated at waypoint KBTURN. Snacks, soft drinks and basic lunches are available at the canteen located at the park HQ. Much birding can be achieved along the main dirt road passing through the park, but to enter the forest requires a ranger. If you are lucky you will encounter chimps while birding, otherwise to specifically search of them with a ranger costs $20 per person.
In Rwanda our itinerary, as discussed above was free-format. In Uganda we generally followed a “standard” birders itinerary, visiting all the main areas for specialities. Certainly our two weeks in Uganda was “at a pace” and it would, as always, have been better to spend longer at each locality. Although we recorded an impressive total of 550 species - 525 in Uganda, 210 in Rwanda - we inevitably missed some key target birds.
4th June: Arrive Entebbe. Collect vehicle Kampala. Drive to Lake Mburo NP. Late afternoon in park.
5th June: Early morning Lake Mburo NP. Long drive Mbarara - Kabale - Kigali – Butare.
6th June: Drive from Butare to Nyungwe NP. All day in park. Overnight at Gisakura.
7th June: All day in Nyungwe NP. Afternoon trip to Cyangugu for fuel. Overnight Gisakura.
8th June: Nyungwe NP. Drive to Kigali. Overnight at Baobab Hotel.
9th June: Kigali to Akagera NP. Most of day in park. Late return to Kigali. Overnight at Baobab Hotel.
10th June: Drive Kigali - Kabale - Masaka - Mpanga Forest. Afternoon in forest. Drive to Entebbe.
11th June: Airport to meet tour participants. Return vehicle. Afternoon in Entebbe Botanical Gardens.
12th June: All day in Mabira forest. Drive to Jinja. Overnight in Triangle Hotel.
13th June: Drive to and from Lake Bisina for Fox's Weaver. Overnight at Kampala Regency.
14th June: Early at Mabamba. Drive to Mbarara with stops en route. Overnight at Lakeview Hotel.
15th June: Drive to Ruhiza. Overnight at park guesthouse in Ruhiza.
16th June: All day at Ruhiza. Late arrival at Buhoma. Overnight at Mantana Luxury Camp.
17th June: All day at Buhoma, mostly along old Zaire trail.
18th June: All day at Buhoma. Gorilla trekking.
19th June: Drive to Queen Elizabeth NP. Afternoon in park. Overnight at Mweya Lodge.
20th June: Morning in Queen Elizabeth NP. Afternoon drive to Kibale. Overnight Mantana Camp.
21st June: Kibale NP.
22nd June: Morning at Kibale NP. Afternoon at Budongo Forest Reserve.
23rd June: Budongo Forest Reserve. Drive to Butiaba Escarpment. Afternoon drive to Murchison Falls.
24th June: Murchison Falls NP.
25th June: Drive to Kampala. Overnight at Sophie's Motel.
26th June: Return flight.
Sat 4th June
Dave took Oman Air from Muscat to Dubai, “connecting” (a four hour wait) with Kenya Airways to Nairobi. Boarding the plane was the usual bun-fight cum free-for-all with everyone charging on to the plane knowing that the overhead lockers would be of insufficient size to accommodate the kitchen sink that African airlines seem to allow passengers to carry. Have none of these airlines woken up the hazard of six pieces of hand luggage per passenger? The 90-minute connection in Nairobi to Kampala was very smooth, especially as passengers had to re-identify their baggage before boarding the plane, which at least meant it made the connection. It must be said though that airport security at Nairobi was very lax as all passengers walked through a side-door, directly onto the tarmac with no hand baggage being scanned. The only birds seen at Nairobi airport were Hadada Ibis and Pied Crow. Nigel arrived in Kampala at 07h50 from London, and had to wait for Dave, who arrived an hour later. Both flights were more-or-less on time. A representative from City Cars was waiting with a board, and after changing money, drove us to the City Cars office in Kampala, where we had completed the paperwork by about 11h00. En route we saw Eastern Grey Plantain-eater and Piapiac. The initial plan was to have had the assistance of one of Nigel's Kenyan drivers as a passenger in the matatu-style back seats, to offer security whilst birding. However, delays at the Kenya border meant that he did not arrive on time, and we therefore had to leave without him. Based on our experience, it seems that Rwanda is very safe, and we had no problems with our gear and bags, or even any hint that there might be problems, so a guardian would not really seem to be necessary, although sensible precautions would always be advisable. The drive to Lake Mburo National Park took around four hours, although the first half-hour or more of this was negotiating our way out of Kampala in the heavy traffic. Whether coming into Kampala from Entebbe airport, or exiting Kampala from the City Car office, the highway out of Kampala toward Mburo NP is the junction at waypoint APTURN. As suggested by Paul, we filled up with petrol at Lyantonde before entering Mburo Park. The eastern entrance road is well signposted about 13 km to the west of Lyantonde. The road is basically easy to follow, although there is a T-junction a few km in where it is necessary to turn right (a sign for Mantana Camp had been switched to point in the wrong direction at this point, but we realised we were heading in the wrong direction after a few km). Entry into the park was a simple affair (payable in US$ or Uganda Shillings), and we headed slowly towards the Rwonyo park HQ (situated at waypoint HQ) along the Zebra Track, stopping for birding as we went. The highlight was in an open area, before the point that the Zebra and Impala Tracks join, where we had 3-5 Red-faced Barbets in the Euphorbias at waypoint BARBET. We reached the HQ at about 18h00, where we arranged to stay in one of their bandas. Just before dark, we drove the one kilometre down towards the lakeside campsite, where a restaurant provides simple, cheap meals (E.g. fish & chips, egg & chips) and drinks. Our meal came to 12,000/- including beers. On the way, we had some small rollers perched-up, but it was too dark to ascertain whether they were Blue-throated Rollers, although their identification was clinched as this the next morning. A Water Thick-knee perched alongside the restaurant, and Hippos snorted in the water. Other mammals seen included Impala, Waterbuck and Warthog, all of which took refuge around the HQ and bandas at night. During the night, both African Scops Owl and Black-shouldered Nightjar were heard. A bathroom trip during the night revealed a truly fantastic starry sky with the Milky Way clear and bright.
A dawn start at 07h00 saw us heading along the lakeshore towards the Kigambira Loop. Our aim was to check for some papyrus specialities before heading towards Rwanda. The level of water in the lake appeared quite high, and therefore the papyrus unfortunately some distance from the shore, but we managed to see some Papyrus Gonolek as well as Swamp Flycatcher, Black-headed Gonolek, Yellow-throated Leaflove, Northern brown-throated Weaver and other more common species. We left the park via the Sanga Gate and climbed back to the Mbarara road, which was about 40 minutes from the park gate. In Mbarara, we bought more fuel, and Dave found an Internet café on the main street. We also bought a case of bottled water (11,000/-) from a supermarket on the high street and some fruit and biscuits for lunches. The initial plan was to have crossed the border just south-west of Mbarara and go to Akagera, but our luck with the Red-faced Barbets lead us to decide in favour of heading for Nyungwe National Park in order to maximise our time there. We set off for the 2½-hour drive to the Rwandan border at Gatuna, 20 km south of Kabale. Once at the border, the crossing was surprisingly quick, taking only about 30 minutes. The drive to Kigali was also straightforward as it passed along a winding road through well-cultivated hills. In general we were amazed at the excellent condition of the roads. Birds were scarce, but Mackinnon's Shrike and Fan-tailed Widowbird were seen. We arrived at northern outskirts of Kigali within 1½ hrs, where we fuelled-up before taking the road to Butare. Along this road, after a few km, is a large (for Rwanda!) papyrus swamp that may be worthy of exploration. As we sped past we saw Purple Heron and Great White Egret. We reached Butare 2 hours later at 17h30 where, due to the time, we decided to stay the night, and head for Nyungwe first thing the following morning. We changed some currency and bought basic provisions at a supermarket on the main street, where we met an English VSO worker. We then filled up with petrol and opted to stay at the Ineza Motel on the advice of the Bradt guide. This was a quiet place, but the preparation of omelette and chips for supper took over 1¼ hrs! Nigel had a flyover pair of Common Kestrel from the garden.
We set off at dawn for the forest at Nyungwe, passing the first 50 km through the typically intensive subsistence farmland that is so prevalent in Rwanda. We arrived at the edge of Nyungwe National Park within an hour. [Map.] As we passed through the first forested areas, we observed a pair of quite tame Handsome Francolin at the roadside. Our next stop was just inside the reserve boundary, where a small stream crossed (waypoint RCMB), and we had excellent birding with Rwenzori Turaco, Red-collared Mountain Babbler, Regal Sunbird, White-headed Wood-hoopoe, Olive Woodpecker, Mountain Masked, Black-throated and Chestnut-throated Apalis, Mountain Greenbul, Rwenzori Hill-babbler, Stripe-breasted Tit, Red-faced Woodland Warbler, Cinnamon Bracken Warbler, Mountain Yellow Warbler, Northern Puffback, White-starred Robin and several Strange Weaver. After this stop, we moved on to a roadside marsh (waypoint GW) where Dave found Grauer's Scrub-Warbler, which could unfortunately not be enticed into the open a second time. As the road reached its highest point the forest petered-out somewhat. Here we had an unidentified sunbird, which could have been Rockefeller's Sunbird, as it was similar to Regal, but had olive, rather than yellow flanks. Brian Finch (pers. comm.) mentioned a friend who had seen something similar in the same area previously. A prolonged view, right by the roadside, of a Serval in the middle of the day was a nice surprise. We also found Rwenzori Double-collared Sunbird and had brief views of a single Dusky Crimson-wing. The roadside birds along this stretch included Thick-billed and Streaky Seedeaters and Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater. Continuing farther, spotting Great Blue Turaco and L'Hoest's and Rwenzori Colubus, we stopped briefly at Uwinka, before deciding to continue down to the Gisakura Resthouse, just outside the western edge of the park. On the descent towards Gisakura, it was fairly quiet – due in the main to the rain from 16h00 – 17h00 - except for several calling Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo; one of which we eventually enticed into flying over (at waypoint BLTCUC). We also found Purple-throated as well as Variable Sunbird, Waller's Starling, White-bellied Crested Flycatcher and Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird. A treetop batis intrigued us, as Rwenzori Batis is supposed to be an undergrowth bird, but later we discovered that Chin-spot also occurs. We were also intrigued by some small swifts overhead (at waypoint SSWIFT), which were fast-flying and all dark, and we had responses to tape from both Kivu Ground Thrush and Archer's Robin-chat, the former unseen, and the latter with brief untickable views only. During the afternoon we passed many small groups of soldiers on patrol, though not many spoke French. The weather was gloomy and windy, so we decided against night birding, stopping at the ORTPN (Office Rwandais du Tourism et des Parques Nationaux) Resthouse by 19h30, where we booked into a twin-room in one of their cottages for FRw 18,000, but where the promised hot water in the shower never got past lukewarm. They provided an excellent 3-course meal for FRw 3,000 per person.
Another peaceful night. The initial plan was to have taken the Waterfall Trail at dawn, but we were informed that, as well as a guide being mandatory, the park not open until 07h30 (for which read the guides hadn't gotten out of bed). We therefore decided to bird some of the slopes towards Uwinka first, and return for the Waterfall Trail later. This was quite productive, and we found new birds such as Yellow-eyed Black Flycatcher, Mountain Sooty Boubou, Rwenzori Batis, Blue-headed Sunbird, Sharpe's Starling, White-tailed Blue Flycatcher, Evergreen Forest Warbler, Dusky Tit and Doherty's Bush-shrike, the latter heard and responding well to tape. Returning to Gisakura, the park HQ produced a guide, and we paid our $10 pp park entrance fee. We had initially requested to drive as far as the forest edge (c.3km) as stated in the Bradt guide, but were told this was impossible. However, it was clear from our route that there would be a track somewhere through the tea plantations, probably from the junction north of the road just east of the ORTPN rest house. Our guide was Jean-Claude, a pleasant enough guy who spoke passable English. He actually knew a few of the forest birds. The walk through the tea produced Siffling Cisticola, Bronze Mannikin and Golden-breasted Bunting. The Waterfall Trail (four hours to the waterfall and back) was fairly quiet for birding, although near the beginning we had excellent views of both Neumann's Warbler and Red-throated Alethe, the latter following us along the trail. Once we had crossed the first stream, where we saw Mountain Wagtail, we actually saw little, and the walk to the waterfall was steep and tiring, and probably best avoided unless you want to see the waterfall itself. We did, however, find a Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo calling in good view just ten metres in front of us. Equatorial Akalat gave good views, and Black Cuckoo was heard. Frustratingly we also heard Kungwe Apalis high in the canopy but could not locate it. After returning to the rest house, where we tipped Jean-Claude FRw 5,000, we took a cold drink, pre-ordered our evening meal for 20h00 and decided to drive to Cyangugu for fuel (the nearest place) as it tended to rain in the early afternoon on the wetter western slopes. The drive took about 45 minutes, and we got to view the D.R. Congo across Lake Kivu and think of Congo Peacock tantalisingly close! After picking up some provisions – bananas and biscuits - and returning to Gisakura (through the expected rain!), we again checked the lower slopes of the western side of the park, from 16h30 until dusk. We concentrated on new species, and a likely-looking spot near a stream (at waypoint WBRC) was chosen to lure White-bellied Robin-chat, which was remarkably successful. Grauer's Warbler was heard, but not seen. As dusk approached, we started to try and tape Rwenzori Nightjar, without success. As it got darker, we decided to drive towards a deserted army camp (at waypoint RN), which seemed like a good nightjar spot, and as we approached it, the nightjar was heard. After some unsatisfactory views in the semi-darkness, we eventually had one Rwenzori Nightjar perched and calling about five metres away on a small stump in the campground. The night was otherwise quiet, and our attempts for Albertine or Red-chested Owlets were met with silence.
Today we needed to decide whether to stay in Nyungwe or take a short side trip to Akagera National Park. We opted for the later, and as we needed to be back at Entebbe by the evening of 10th June, we decided to head for Kigali, spending as much time in Nyungwe as possible before leaving. On the way, we had good views of the mystery swifts once again. They appeared to be uniformly dark, without noticeable throat patches, and gave 'tic' calls (about one 'tic' every 1-2 seconds), similar to the type of call given by Scarce Swift, but much less frequent. These may well have been Schouteden's Swift, about which so little is known. It is interesting to note however that there is a record of Schouteden's less than 70 km from this area. In addition, we had both Black-headed and Black-crowned Waxbills. As our primary aim was to walk the Blue Trail from the HQ at Uwinka, we headed up to the Uwinka ranger station, arriving at about 10h00, paid our fees (a further $10 pp), and were again told we needed a guide. Even though we tried to ignore this, a guide followed us, as it is supposedly mandatory. This guide knew a little about birds, but not sufficient to be really useful. This trail proved to be the best for bird feeding flocks, and we got our best views of Red-collared Mountain Babbler here. The rest of the birds in the flocks were species seen previously, although a woodpecker which was heard and could not be seen, may have been Elliot's. We also had glimpses of a pale apalis, which may have been a Kungwe. En route, we heard Archer's Robin-chat singing at the bottom of the trail, and obtained excellent views after response to tape. We also picked a likely looking spot and managed to quickly tape out Collared Apalis. A Crowned Eagle displayed overhead, and we heard Chimpanzees nearby. On exiting the forest we were caught in a heavy downpour for about 30 minutes. We drove slowly out, descending the dryer slopes, seeing Slender-billed Starling as a new species for the trip. Nigel also caught up with Grauer's Scrub-Warbler in the same spot as Dave had seen them a few days earlier. As invariably happens, we left a little later than planned, and eventually arrived at Kigali, an hour after dark, where we found the Hotel Baobab (waypoint BA0BAB) on the city outskirts (FRw 13,000 for a twin-room including breakfast, and hot showers!) This was found from the Bradt guide, although we discovered the scale to be totally wrong on the Kigali Environs map, as the distance from the crossroads was 5 km, not 2 km as indicated.
We had asked for breakfast to be ready for 06h30, but when we got up, there was no one about. However, someone arrived when they heard us muttering about poor service, to prepare breakfast (fruit, tea, coffee, bread and omelettes) within 20 minutes. What we hadn't realised all the time we were in Rwanda though, was the hour time difference from Uganda, and therefore, we had actually got up at 05h30 - so full marks to them for getting breakfast ready early! We headed off for Akagera National Park, and managed to bypass Kigali using the Kigali Environs map from Bradt. Again we found a few errors, and a corrected map is included above. We made the mistake of going past the airport, as our map showed this route to be (or at least join) the road to Rwamagana. However, it ended at a military station after a few km, so we had to double-back, to take the road which forks north just before the airport, although we noted no road signs. This road was the most pot-holed we travelled in Rwanda, but still quite reasonable by normal East African standards. We bought fuel at Rwamagana, and then turned right at the T-junction in Kayonza. It is worth noting that Kayonza has petrol, and is probably the nearest petrol station to Akagera, since the station at the turn-off to the park at Kabarondo had no fuel. The junction to the park at Kabarondo is well signposted, and this dirt road was in reasonable condition, and was easily followed by using the faded signs to the Hotel Akagera (now defunct, but possibly opening sometime in future). This road had a lot of birds in the cultivated areas, including White-crowned Black Chat, Familiar Chat, Black-winged Bishop and Arrow-marked Babbler; although we didn't have time to do it full justice, as it was about three hours after setting off that we finally reached the Akagera Park HQ (waypoint AKA HQ). The park itself is now just one-third of its former size, and although Bradt says that it was litter-strewn and full of cattle, this now seems not to be the case, and the place is smart, and the new boundaries appear to be properly defined, and available on a new map (FRw 1,500 at the HQ). Now all they require are some visitors, as we were the only ones there ($9 pp entry), excepting a group of students who had free entry. Before descending to the lakes, we watched a group of five Giraffe in the distance (just outside the park!), and poured over a group of Glossy Starlings. They appeared far too green (and small) for Greater Blue-eared, but both Lesser and Southern Blue-eared are apparently out of range here. We had a brief stop at the fish-landing stage, and were disappointed by the lack of waterbirds on the lake, before heading northwards. We found a good spot overlooking Lake Birengero with fringe vegetation (just before the fork at waypoint SHOE), and were amazed to have a Shoebill standing in the open at the northern end of Lac Ihéma. In addition, there were African Openbill, Egyptian Goose, Long-toed Lapwing, Spur-winged Plover, Black Crake, Long-tailed and White-breasted Cormorants and Goliath Heron. We spent the rest of the time exploring as far as Plage des Hippos at the edge of Lake Hago (about 30 km from the HQ), as well as fighting off Tsetse flies which were numerous here. Along this route we had African Marsh Harrier, Bateleur, Red-faced Barbet, Long-tailed, Trilling, Tabora, Rattling and Winding Cisticolas, Miombo Wren Warbler, Green-capped Eremomela, Red-faced Crombec, Rueppell's Glossy Starling, Amethyst Starling, Senegal Lapwing, Water Dikkop, Brubru, Bare-faced Go-away Bird, Brown Parrot, Red-necked Spurfowl, Broad-tailed Warbler, Bennett's Woodpecker, Sooty Chat, White-winged Black Tit and Flappet Lark. Mammals included Elephant, Hippo, Reedbuck, Waterbuck, Warthog and Impala. We left the reserve just after 16h00, in order to return to Kigali just after dark, disappointed in not being able to explore Akagera further, and perhaps catch up with Souza's Shrike or Crested Barbet. We were surprised to see the Shoebill in the same area on our return. The drive back to Kigali took about 2½ hours to our hotel on the far side of town (two hours to the airport).
We set off at dawn for the long drive to Entebbe, intending to stop at Mpanga Forest en route if possible. We quickly reached the border (1¼ hours), but a coach overtook us just before we arrived, so big queues were forming when we arrived at the immigration office, with only one person dealing with them. Once a second person turned up, things began to move, and we eventually cleared through into Uganda after 1¼ hours. Nigel obtained a transit visa whilst Dave was given a single-entry visa on the return into Uganda. The process was basically the reverse of when we had entered five days previously. We reached Mbarara in just over two hours, and Masaka two hours later. Evidently, things were going too well as we filled up with fuel at Masaka. Checking the oil, we noticed we were a little low, so got out the oil we had bought in Cyangugu. Pouring the oil into the engine, the small plastic seal of the cap top dropped into the engine, and disappeared into the rocker assembly, irretrievable without removing the rocker cover. Luckily, there was a garage adjacent, and we got a mechanic to remove the cover, and extract the offending seal, so we could continue along our way – this lost us over half an hour! We made good time, and reached Mpanga Forest (at waypoint MPAGA) at about 15h00, spotting African Marsh Harrier along the way, between rain showers. After paying the entry fee (3,000/- pp) we entered the good-looking forest. Due to previous rain and cool temperature, it was extremely quiet, although we eventually caught up with a bird-party. Birds seen included Crowned Eagle, Pied and Black-&-White Casqued Hornbills, Great Blue and Black-billed Turacos, Speckled Tinkerbird, Black-necked Weaver, Pale-throated Illadopsis, Grey Apalis, and Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher. Several birds were heard-only, including Joyful Greenbul, White-spotted Flufftail, and Red-chested and Emerald Cuckoos. We left the forest at about 18h00, and it took over two hours to get to Entebbe due to very heavy traffic approaching Kampala. We arrived at Sophie's Motel, where they claimed they had no rooms (despite Nigel's Sarus group being booked in the following day), and then went down to the Entebbe Beach Resort at the bottom of the hill, whose guesthouse also claimed to have no rooms. They eventually decided that they had one room only, and we took this ($50 twin-room B&B), although a later arrival also found a room! Clearly, there is some Entebbe Hotel conspiracy, where they can't be bothered to serve people who turn up unexpectedly. We ate at the resort restaurant, which provided Pepper Steak and Chips, very quickly considering we were the only people eating there.
As Nigel had set aside this day mainly to meet-and-greet his Sarus group we managed a bit of extra sleep until 07h00. We turned up at Sophie's Motel, where Dave booked into his pre-arranged room, and we met up with the couple from the US who had arrived two days previously. They mentioned that the hotel had been virtually empty the night before, so what had been going on when we'd arrived the previous evening was a complete mystery. However, throughout the day, we found the hotel staff to be unhelpful and the service to be slow, so whilst the hotel is good value, close to the airport, clean, and comfortable, it's not a good idea to expect anything out of the ordinary. After some birding in the small garden, which had nesting Northern Brown-throated Weaver and Red-chested Sunbird, and looking over the lake from the balcony at Whiskered and Gull-billed Terns, Dave and Nigel went to the airport to meet Dave's wife, Brian Finch and Tom Feild, another tour participant from the US, all of whom arrived more or less on time. Tom was short-changed by the Standard Chartered ATM Machine at the airport, and needed to go to Kampala to sort it out, so Dave and Nigel took him along whilst returning the vehicle to City Cars. We had taken a GPS location for City Cars previously, as it is tricky to find on the outskirts, and were glad we did, as our memories were not as good as we thought they might be! After dropping the Land Rover, Paul supplied us with a car and driver to take us back to Entebbe, via the Standard Chartered Bank in Kampala. The bank gave Tom the difference without fuss, and we set off back to Entebbe. Once back at the motel we met Hassan Mutebi from Access Uganda, who would be our driver and general “Mr. Logistics” over the next couple of weeks. In the afternoon all of us walked to the Entebbe Botanical Gardens (entrance gate at waypoint BOT). We had asked if Sophie's Motel could arrange a taxi, or use one of their shuttle buses (which provide free airport transfers for guests), but they seemed very reluctant to do either, giving some bizarre excuses. The walk is only about 45 (birding) minutes, so was not a problem. As Dave's African nemesis bird, Verreaux's Eagle Owl, had been seen by the others in the morning at the gardens, he was keen not to miss out after 20 years of trying! Along the way, we saw Double-toothed Barbet, Brown Parrot, Wahlberg's Eagle, Winding Cisticola, Woodland and Pied Kingfishers and Scarlet-chested Sunbird. Entry to the park is 1,000/- per person (although they want an extra 2,000/- if you take in a camera). Once inside, we eventually managed to find two Verreaux's Eagle Owls, although they were surprisingly difficult to see, despite being in the open! In addition, we tracked down Grey Parrot, Ross's Turaco, Green-backed Heron, Gull-billed Tern, Pied and Crowned Hornbills, and a waterside weaver colony containing five species, Black-headed, Northern Brown-throated, Slender-billed, Jackson's Golden-backed and Orange. On our way back to Sophie's we found a singing Black & White Flycatcher, and Pink-backed Pelicans roosting in trees just outside the gate. The final person for the Sarus Tour, Noel, arrived from the UK in the early evening, and thereafter Nigel soon had to leave for his flight home.
Following an 05h30 breakfast we had the vehicle packed and ready to go by 06h10. The drive to Mabira Forest (turning off main road at waypoint MABIRA) took two hours and by 08h30 we had picked up the local guide and went to investigate the pond area. Unfortunately the pond was almost non-existent due to locals having diverted the water flow. We walked one of the main trails in the morning, starting with a magnificent perched Cassin's Hawk-Eagle and a Black-billed Turaco. During the morning we also saw numerous Weyn's Weaver though failed to see Forest Wood-hoopoe or Nahan's Francolin. Whilst we were birding, Hassan drove off to a local eatery and returned just before lunch with sandwiches, and the first of the ubiquitous bananas we were destined to enjoy over the next couple of weeks. During lunch, birding activity had to be curtailed due to the heavy rain from 12h20 – 14h00, the most part of which the participants slept under one of the shelters near the forest HQ. After the rain ceased we tried the forest edge on the southern side of the main road where we were able to find Green Twinspot and Velvet-mantled Drongo. Reluctantly we left the forest at 17h45 to drive the 30 minutes to Jinja where we checked in to the somewhat smelly Triangle Hotel. Their evening buffet of local fare was excellent and we enjoyed a few beers before hitting the sack for some fitful sleep.
Friday the 13th, and the day we had earmarked to try to locate Fox's Weaver. A good Omen? We had another early start, for which we would commend the hotel for getting themselves out of bed and preparing an early breakfast. It was just over a four hour drive to the Lake Bisina, and even though Hassan had visited a couple of years back we still overshot the dirt track turning down to the lake (turn off the main road at waypoint FOX RD) and had to double-back. Driving a few km farther through the bush we arrived at the lakeshore (waypoint FOX B) where we were, or rather Hassan was, able to bargain with local fisherman to paddle us out onto the lily-covered lake. The small boats were not exactly the most stable of craft; especially with three-four of us in each boat, and with three paddlers each, progress was slow. However, this didn't matter a great deal as the lake was very pleasant, and as well as Lesser Jacana and Cotton Pygmy-Goose we saw one Cape Clawless Otter. Initially our sightings of “possible” Fox's Weaver were rather frustrating, as we had several views of shy, disappearing weavers that seemed to be Fox's, but after an hour and a half we managed to find a small group with at least one pair at a nest. Here we were able to get prolonged views at close range. As well as a few photos we were able to record the song, which according to Stevenson and Fanshawe is unknown. This weaver was certainly atypical, as it often fed right at the water's edge and walked around on lily pads. By the time we had finished, we had been out on the lake from 10h30 – 13h00 and our backsides were aching from the wooden seats. It was a 1½ hour drive from here back to the Mount Elgon Hotel in Mbale where we sat in the shade of a magnificent tree in the garden, enjoyed views of the back of, the sadly deforested, Mt. Elgon, and had a celebratory lunch. During lunch we had visiting Piapiac and Copper Sunbird. Whilst we lunched, Hassan, who had been experiencing a malaria attack, had to visit a clinic for treatment. Unfortunately, the drugs left him in no condition to drive, so Dave took up the job as tour bus driver while Hassan tried to sleep it off in the back. The drive back to, and across, Kampala to the Kampala Regency Hotel was a long and torturous affair. Kampala becomes gridlocked during rush hour and we didn't arrive at the hotel until 20h00 – four hours after leaving Mbale. Although the hotel was very comfortable, the buffet was mostly fished by 21h00 and we ended up feeding over the scraps like a pack of vultures. All in all a most successful day, and a good start to the trip with Uganda's only endemic bird seen very well.
Saturday 14th June.
This morning we had a slightly later start at 06h45 due to Tom accidentally over-sleeping his alarm, as well as Hassan having problems getting out of bed due to the recurrent malaria. We eventually left the Regency at 06h45 to drive to Mabamba marsh, where we should have arrived by 07h30. Instead, we were constantly side-tracked by birds along the wayside including Scaly Francolin, Papyrus Gonolek, Grey-rumped Swallow and singing White-winged Warbler which meant we didn't arrive at the lakeside until 09h15. Hassan did a repeat of his bargaining with the local fishermen and we again took two boats. Miraculously we saw a single Shoebill within 15 minutes. An awesome bird, especially as it was completely unafraid - allowing some great photographic opportunities from about 30 metres, which was as close as we could get. Continuing into the channels and the more open lake-edge, over the following two hours we saw a selection of the commoner waterbirds including Madagascar Squacco Heron. By 11h00 we left and continued the drive to Masaka where we took a quick lunch at a roadside buffet restaurant. Again progress was slow due to frequent stops. En route to Lake Mburo National Park, we checked Kyazanda Marsh, (waypoint WETLAN) but failed to get to grips with Rufous-bellied Heron. It was much later than intended when we arrived at the edge of Lake Mburo National Park. In fact it as so late that we were unable to spend time exploring the park proper and had to be content to explore the edge where we tried in vain to locate Brown-chested Plover that appeared not to have arrived yet. Originally we had planned a boat trip on the lake for the afternoon to look for papyrus specialities, but our frequent stops throughout the day had eaten away our time, so we ended up driving the 40 minutes to Mbarara from 18h30 – 19h40 where we checked into the Lakeview Hotel.
Sunday 15th June.
We had a quick look at the garden and artificial lake while the vehicle was being packed, but other than Wire-tailed Swallow and Sacred Ibis (not common in Uganda) we saw little. We then drove the short distance to a marshy area (waypoint MARSH) along the main road, just outside Mbarara, where we passed an excellent couple of hours, finding Collared Oliveback, Carruthers' Cisticola, Marsh Tchagra, and White-winged Warbler. From here we took a slow drive, birding en route, to Kibale, arriving at 11h30. While Hassan went off to locate Alfred, our cook, and food for the trip to Ruhiza, we took to the rooftop of a local café where we had a “lunch” of coffee and pizza while watching the numerous Yellow-billed Kite and Pied Crow raid the rubbish bins across the street. It was a two-hour drive up to Ruhiza, in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, where we started walking along the main track from the 5.8 km marker just inside the gate. Alfred was in amazing form, and no sooner had we gotten out of the vehicle he located Western Green Tinkerbird. For the rest of the afternoon we walked the main road with Alfred, arriving at the guesthouse by 18h15. Interesting species came thick and fast including Stulhmann's Starling, Sharpe's Starling, Montane Oriole, Grey Cuckoo-shrike, Rwenzori Batis, Archer's Robin-Chat, Chubb's Cisticola and Grauer's Warbler. At dusk we were rewarded with views of a circling Rwenzori Nightjar around the Ruhiza camp. We also walked along the main track again and were eventually able to track down one of the several calling African Wood Owl. Our cook made a splendid job of preparing a fish dinner and with the comfortable beds we passed a pleasant night's sleep (notwithstanding the snorers!).
Monday 16th June.
After a simple breakfast, we started with the very short drive to the start of the steep trail down to Mubwindi Swamp. Although the trail down is affectionately known as the “death march” it's not really as bad as made out. Although the trail is steep, any reasonably fit person can do the 3 km each way hike. The birding en route is some of the best in the area. In our eight hours on the trail we found at least four African Green Broadbill, as well as Dwarf Honeyguide, Oriole Finch, and Strange Weaver to mention just a few. However, one of the star encounters was with the endemic Johnson's Short-horned Chameleon as well as a Giant Rwenzori Earthworm. We failed to see Grauer's Scrub-Warbler, although we did get a poor response to a tape – most probably due to the heat of the day. It would be easy to spend a couple of days on this trail, and it was difficult to drag ourselves away from the area. However, time and our itinerary meant we had to push on, and after returning to the car we drove the very rough road down to Buhoma. En route we stopped several times picking up Docherty's Bush-shrike and, after a hack about in very rough fields along the rough track to Kyogo (starting at waypoint KYOGO), the elusive Dusky Twinspot. We stopped at the “The Neck” on the way to Buhoma, where we had Cassin's Flycatcher but little else, due mainly to the cool weather after heavy rain in the area; it seems we had been lucky having it dry at Ruhuiza. On arrival at Buhoma, we checked into the luxury Mantana Camp. The previous heavy rain meant that the solar-only electricity was effectively non-functioning. Dinner was a candle-lit affair under canvas – one could rapidly get used to this type of “camping” with real beds, warm showers, cold beers and other luxuries.
Tuesday 17th June.
An 06h00 pre-dawn reveille with coffee served in bed, followed by breakfast. By 07h15 we were inside Buhoma National Park gate where we walked the entrance road and birded the open areas around the HQ, picking up commoner species such as Grey Apalis, and Magpie Mannikin. Only part of our group was gorilla trekking this day, and an hour or so was wasted while the park rangers messed-about sorting out permits for the gorilla trekkers. It was not until 09h00 that we had secured the services of the mandatory rangers and guides that the other half of the group (Dave and Nad) was able to set out birding along the old track leading to Zaire. The army guards were a complete pain as they insisted on walking in front of us. This scared off a number of birds that we might otherwise have gotten good views of. Despite this, we saw numerous species including Jameson's Antpecker, White-bellied Crested Flycatcher, Elliot's Woodpecker, Chapins' Flycatcher, Archer's Robin-Chat, and Sharpe's Starling. We walked about 3 km along this track (again another site where several days birding would not be too much), and returned around 15h00 to pick up the other part of the group that was gorilla trekking. However, they had had a heavy day, having to trek hours up hill to eventually secure views of gorillas, and on their return were too knackered to want to bird the open areas around Buhoma (despite the promise of Bat Hawk), so we all returned to the camp for a beer and shower. We thus simply birded around the camp, where White-crowned Robin-Chat, and Luehder's Bush-shrike were the best of the bunch. After dark, African Wood Owl was calling in the trees around the camp.
Wednesday 18th June.
Gorilla day for Nad and Dave. Due to a slight delay in breakfast we didn't get to the park until 07h30. By some fortune we were not assigned to the same group of gorillas that had been so distant yesterday. While we set out for the gorillas, the other part of the group ventured along the old Zaire road as we had done the previous day. Our gorilla trek, 23 km back up the road towards “The Neck”, was disappointingly an easy 70-minute hike over relatively flat terrain. We encountered a group of about 12, including one adult silverback. After the allotted one hour with one of our closest relatives, which flies past very quickly, we had unfortunately to leave. We arrived back at the HQ by 14h15, to discover the others were still out along the Zaire road. On their return we learned that sightings had been similar to yesterday, with Neumann's Warbler proving to be elusive for both groups with only fleeting glimpses; quite contrary to our experiences in Rwanda where the bird was inquisitive and easy to see. Having successfully encountered gorillas we collected our smart “been there, seen it, done that” certificate. At 17h00 we returned to the fields we had given a miss yesterday evening. These were private land with visiting arrangements made by Alfred. The 5,000/- entry was a great price to pay to induce the local people keep the ponds and some natural habitat for birds instead of ploughing it up. A roosting pair of Bat Hawk, a very responsive Rufous-throated Wryneck, and a superb close-up view of Red-chested Flufftail was a fitting end to a very successful Buhoma part of the trip. We felt sad to leave this wonderful spot. Overnight again at Mantana camp.
Thursday 19th June.
After another morning of coffee in bed and a hearty breakfast, we struck out for Queen Elizabeth Park at 07h15. This road was the most torturous of our trip. Although not in particularly bad condition, the monotonous curves and bumpy ride become very tedious and unpleasant for those seated in the rear of the vehicle. En route we ran over a flip-flop that gave the vehicle of puncture (due to the nail embedded in it!) We eventually arrived at Mweya Lodge in Queen Elizabeth Park at 14h45. The lodge has a magnificent panoramic view, and you really feel the African bush around you. Swamp Flycatcher was even feeding from the chandelier in the reception area. From 15h00 to 17h00 we took the tourist boat ride on the Nile. In addition to heaps of Hippo, Cape Buffalo, and Crocodile we saw African Spoonbill, Saddle-billed Stork, Water Thick-knee, Kittlitz's Plover, Spur-winged Plover, and Swamp Flycatcher. Despite a lack of binoculars, the guide on the launch was quite knowledgeable about birds (even the small brown jobs). After, we drove in the grasslands along the Kasenyi track looking for, and finding several, African Crake. On the return drive at dusk we failed to locate Pennant-winged Nightjar. The day was topped with a few excellent cold beers and a sumptuous dinner.
Friday 20th June.
After some of the worst coffee we'd ever tasted, served in the foyer of the lodge, we did a pre-breakfast “game and bird” drive. As well as being productive for the commoner mammals, several Black Coucal and more African Crake were seen. After breakfast we again drove the Kasenyi track looking for buttonquails. This was only successful in finding Common Buttonquail and several African Crake as well as further Black Coucal. We also encountered some odd larks that were put down as White-tailed Lark on a basis of elimination, although according to Brian they behaved differently to those in Kenya. We reluctantly left at 14h00 and drove to Kibale National Park, arriving at 17h00. After checking-in to another Mantana Luxury Camp we tried the swamp edge, obtaining rewarding views of White-spotted Flufftail. Following another excellent dinner, one of the group saw a snake disappear into their tent. It took several people quite some time to locate it and persuade it to leave. Sweet dreams for some! Ants were also very prevalent in the camp, although a quick spray of repellent around the tent worked well at keeping them at bay. We dosed off to sleep with calling African Wood-Owl from the surrounding trees. Amazingly, despite the camps position on the edge of a swamp we had no mosquito problems.
Saturday 21st June.
At 07h00 we left to find the guide Ronald, who informed us he has several times recently encountered Green Pitta. During the morning, despite visiting several areas where the bird had been previously found, we failed to locate it. It was especially irksome that a party of school children found it in the afternoon! We walked in the forest from 08h00–12h00, and although several chimps were heard, we needed to make a specific effort to locate a couple of feeding individuals. Although some reports we had read indicated gorillas are an order of magnitude better than Chimps we found the Chimp encounter quite enthralling; gorillas being too approachable for their own good. Several times we tried playing the call of Red-chested Owlet, but only on one occasion was a single call returned. We ate our packed lunch at the canteen at the HQ where they also serve basic food. In the afternoon we worked the forest along the road passing directly through the park. We were primarily searching for White-naped Pigeon, although views across the canopy were fairly hard to come by. By 17h30 we gave up and returned to the camp for beers and another look at the White-spotted Flufftail.
Sunday 22nd June.
We left the camp at 07h15 and performed a slow drive out through the forest seeing Kenya Crested Guineafowl and a fair number of both Red-tailed and White-tailed Anthrushes feeding on the road. By 09h15, having driven to Fort Portal and out to the 16 km marked on the Kampala road, we worked the forest edge along this busy road. The forest here comprises a second, disjunctive part of Kibale National Park. This area regularly produces White-naped Pigeon, but we again dipped. We did however manage to tape in a distant Many-coloured Bush-Shrike, as well as finding Masked Apalis, and Thick-billed Honeyguide. Mammals included Red Colubus and Grey-cheeked Mangaby. At 11h15 we left for the longish drive to Budongo Forest where we arrived at 16h30. After a short hour in Budongo forest, seeing White-thighed Hornbill and Spotted Greenbul, we drove the 40 km to Masindi, where we checked into the Masindi Hotel. Good food in the hotel, but again we had to wait over an hour for it to be prepared – seems we never learned to order in advance!
Monday 23rd June.
An 06h30 start in good time to drive to the Royal Mile in Budongo Forest, collecting our ranger, Vincent, en route. We worked the Royal Mile from 07h30 to 13h30 seeing Nahan's Francolin, Chocolate-backed and Blue-breasted Kingfishers, and Lemon-bellied Crombec, but failed to find the sought-after Black-capped Apalis or Puvel's Illadopsis. After this all-too-short visit we drove to the Butiaba Escarpment en route to Murchison Falls National Park. This is another excellent site with good grassland and woodland. The escarpment is a good stake out for Foxy Cisticola (found at waypoint FOX CI) and we also had Common Cliff-Chat, Violet-tailed Sunbird and Pearl-spotted Owlet. From 16h15 to 18h00 we completed the drive to Murchison Falls National Park arriving in time for the last ferry crossing to the Paraa Lodge – another magnificent lodge with hardly any guests. Here we indulged in beers in the swimming pool with Red-throated Bee-eaters feeding overhead.
Tuesday 24th June.
In the early morning we investigated the northern, palm-studded, section of the park to the north of the river – the same side as Paraa Lodge. This area was very good for mammals, as during our four-hour drive we saw Giraffe and Gerenuk well as a group of the uncommon Patas Monkey. We also surprised and were given tantalisingly fleeting glimpses of a Leopard as it rapidly abandoned its prey in an acacia as we drove past. Bird highlights included African Quailfinch and Black-rumped Buttonquail. After lunch and a siesta from the heat of the day Brian had to leave the party to go back for a Kenya tour. Shortly after we crossed the river where we checked the area around the Red Chilli campsite for Bar-breasted Fire-Finch. These we failed to find, but did see Buff-bellied Warbler, Silverbird and White-rumped Seedeater. We then headed out to the Murchison Falls themselves at 15h00. It has to be admitted that the falls are spectacular, and certainly the most impressive I've ever seen, or likely to see – they are well worth the trip in their own right. With half the water of the Nile rushing through a ten metre wide gap, the force is truly awesome. Hassan took us on a walk along the river edge and after a fair amount of searching we were rewarded with good views of Pel's Fishing-Owl - a highlight for many people. In the bushes around the car park we found Red-winged Grey Warbler. We remained at the falls until dusk in order to use the opportunity to drive back to the lodge searching for various nightjars Although we didn't see a great number we did have a couple of Swamp, Gabon and Pennant-winged Nightjar. We also flushed Greyish Eagle-Owl from the road as well as African Wood Owl. As we'd deliberately planned to arrive back at the ferry after dark, Hassan had arranged for a boatman and guide to take us back across the river. Unfortunately Hassan had not planned on the whole village getting drunk and it took at least an hour to find two people sober enough to pilot the boat and take us back across to the lodge! This night was a late dinner, as we didn't arrive back till 21h15.
Wednesday 25th June.
We took the 08:00 ferry back across the river and had a last quick look for Bar-breasted Firefinch. Again we failed, but did have a very smart Green-winged Pytilia. On the drive out we had a single fly over White-crested Turaco, an African Cuckoo-Falcon but little else. We stopped a few times en route back to Kampala, in forested areas along the road near Masindi where we again had White-crested Turaco, arriving back at Sophie's Motel around 16h15.
Thursday 26th June.
We left Sophie's mid morning for an uneventful return flight again via Nairobi.