There are some adventures that are so wild and life changing it becomes a milestone by which you judge future experiences by. Although it had been a year in the works, our trip to Uganda somehow crept up on me without me realizing it. I had been so preoccupied with work and out-of-town visitors this summer that before I knew it, we were boarding a flight bound for Entebbe.
Twenty hours later, we were squinting under the bright African sun, looking for our friends in a sea of faces. We were meeting up with four of our closest friends, two of whom moved to Kampala about a year ago and planned to spend the next two weeks on safari, trekking with chimpanzees, and white water rafting on the Nile.
It’s been a few weeks since I came home, and I think a part of me is still processing everything that we saw and did. In conversation, I find myself repeating a couple of the crazier anecdotes (including one where I almost got arrested by the Ugandan army!) but our trip was about so much more than those vignettes. A few hours before we left, our friend Allison asked what our 10 second, 1 minute, and 5 minute stories were of our time in Uganda. I.e., the various mini-versions we invariably tell those who ask “so, how was your trip?”
I’ve more or less got my 10-second and 1 minute answers down. But for those who are interested (or are considering visiting Uganda anytime soon), here’s the 5 minute version – condensed into the top five craziest/most memorable things that happened to us on safari.
5. Camping on safari
Before this trip, I had this stereotypical picture of what a safari was: either a cross between a Taylor swift video involving old timey hunters, or something only the uber rich experienced while staying at luxurious safari lodges. Luckily for us, our friends were experienced campers and suggested we give roughing it a shot. I am so thankful that we did, despite the following:
- There may be a torrential thunderstorm: which indeed happened on our first night. Camping technology has improved greatly since I was a child and we managed to stay bone dry. But if you are startled by loud noises – there is nothing quite as frightening as being (seemingly) directly below lightning as thunder ripples across the plane.
- You may set up camp, only to realize afterward your tent door opens directly on top of a heap of hippo dung. This too happened. (For those wondering, it doesn’t smell, and nope, we didn’t move.)
- Mongoose may get into your tent. Thankfully this didn’t happen to us, though it happened to one of our neighbors. They did however, find their way into the engine of our car. Every time we we drove off, we had to check to make sure a mongoose wasn’t hiding underneath, waiting to be propelled from the muffler.
- Ending the night around a camp fire with friends (and drinks!) Since the dawn of time, fire has drawn man together. Whether huddling for heat, or telling stories late into the night, we are invariably drawn towards camp fires. The above photo is one of my absolute favorite experiences and captures how we ended each night – reliving the day’s adventures, telling stories, and laughing.
- You experience nature and wildlife like never before: hippos are nocturnal animals who graze after dark, and always walk the same path to and from the water source. If you set up camp in their path (as we did), do not be surprised to wake up to the sound of hippos grazing. At one point in the night, I woke up to realize we were surrounded by a small herd. They were close enough that I could hear individual blades of grass being ripped out of the ground. (NB: this may or may not belong in the “con” section, depending on your tolerance for things that go bump in the night.)
- You get immerse in the rhythm of safari life: waking up before dawn, brewing coffee and setting off on the first game drive of the day – it’s a morning routine that is like none other. Game drives are what most people equate with the word safari. It involves driving around in a vehicle, looking for big game. Game drives happen at either dawn or dusk, when the animals are most active and looking for food. Most of our game drives were in the morning, and we’d return to camp, make a hearty breakfast and hang out.
4. River cruise
While safari is all about the game drives, one of the best ways to see wildlife (particularly in mid-day) is on the water. Hippos and buffalo tend to spend most of their day in the water, and you’ll be able to get closer to animals than on the savannah.
3. Spotting a leopard during a game drive
Moments before this photo was taken, our ranger had told us that we’d have a better chance of seeing the face of god before seeing a leopard in the wild. Of the “Big Five” (rhinos, elephants, lions, cape buffalo and leopard) leopard sightings are the most rare. To give some perspective, our driver had been driving for ten years and had only seen a leopard on six occasions. We were unbelievably lucky, and spotted three (on two separate instances) on this trip.
2. Encounters with hippos in the wild
Above: a baby hippo uses its mother’s snout as a pillow, while a crocodile patiently waits for a possible snack.
I am cheating a little here, because quite frankly, the coolest animal encounters we had (both in camp and on game drives) were with the hippos. Hippos aren’t one of the “Big Five” but they rightly deserve a place in the safari pantheon.
Below: pairs of hippos wrestling in the water. We asked several rangers about this, and the most common explanation was that they are mothers teaching their male offspring how to fight. Hippos are herd animals with a dominant male. When a mother hippo gives birth to a male baby, she will hide him from the herd because there is a good chance the alpha male will try and kill it. Once the baby hippo grows up, it has to defeat an existing alpha if it wants to join the herd.
Case in point: this baby hippo was born only a few days prior and is being threatened by the alpha in the herd, while its mother stands protectively in the way.
1. We almost got stampeded by elephants
There was only one moment on a game drive in which I actually felt scared. We were on our way back to camp from an evening drive and came across a couple elephants – only to realize it was not just a few, but a lot. Around 25-30 of them. They blocked our path, taking turns drinking out of a small puddle.
At one point, they must have gotten spooked – possibly because there were a number of baby elephants in the herd. Moments later, the largest elephants formed a line, lowered their tusks, and started flapping their ears. Our ranger started pounding on the side of the vehicle, and started speaking in rapid Swahili to our driver, so as not to alarm us. We managed to squeeze through a gap in the line, and I and my camera went flying, gracefully smacking my head on the side of the car. Once we were at a safe distance, our ranger confessed that the threat of stampede was very real, and if they had gotten any closer, we would have had to jump out of the vehicle and run.
- Camp at Queen Elizabeth National Park: head to campsite 3 if you want to sleep among the hippos!
- Mwyea Safari Lodge: a beautiful luxury safari lodge located inside Queen Elizabeth National Park
- Pack light layers – the mornings and evenings are cool but the sun can be ferocious during the day.
- If you are SLR shooter, purchase or rent a telephoto lens for shooting wildlife. I had a great experience renting gear with Lumoid on this trip, which couldn’t have been easier. I rented a Nikon 70-200 mm 2.8 lens – a favorite of mine which I’ve shot with on several occasions, but I wish I had sprung for a super-telephoto lens (i.e., a lens in the 300-400mm range). I didn’t want to risk missing key moments with unfamiliar gear, but once I was on the field, I really wish I had.
- Buy this flashlight. Aka, the “hippo spotter.” It converts into a lantern and was the only light actually powerful enough to spot those hippos grazing around our tents. It recharges with a USB cord stored in the handle, and can even double as a power bank in a pinch, if you are stranded and need to recharge an iPhone. You’re welcome.
- Even if you’re camping, spend an afternoon relaxing by the pool at the Mwyea Safari Lodge. Treat yourself to a cocktail, a nice meal, and a hot shower (or all of the above). It’s a nice way of feeling like you’re back in civilization, if only for a few minutes while out in the wild.