Making a Difference in Rwanda and Uganda

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Woman at Coffee plantation, Uganda

I am proud to work for a company that is taking action in the fight against single-use plastic. This has been through education at our recent Steppes Beyond festival at the Royal Geographical Society, and Steppes’ support of many local and global charities that are making a difference when it comes to plastic pollution.

This campaign has made me more personally aware of the global issue of recycling and especially single-use plastic, both at home and when I travel. During my recent trip to Rwanda and Uganda, I was keen to see how these countries, both of which have struggled with civil wars in the last few decades, have managed to develop and rebuild their countries and whether tackling plastic pollution is on their radar.

Lakes, Rwanda

I started my trip in Kigali, Rwanda. I was immediately impressed by how clean the city was. Speaking with my local guide, he informed me that Rwanda had put to shame the likes of the UK in dealing with plastic pollution. In 2007, after San Francisco banned the use of plastic bags, Rwanda, banned both the use and manufacture of them in the entire country. As well as this, once a month, the whole country (including the country’s political leaders), takes part in Umuganda.

What is Umuganda?

Umuganda is a mandatory community work project that takes place on the last Saturday of every month in Rwanda. Every citizen between the ages of 18 and 65 (those above 65 are able to participate if they choose to) carries out community work, such as litter collection, in an effort to improve living conditions and increase tourism to the country.

Community project, Rwanda

From travelling around the country, it was very clear that Umuganda is working, and the world should learn from Rwanda and its policies relating to plastic pollution.

Leaving Rwanda behind me, I crossed the border in Uganda, where it was immediately evident that these neighbouring countries had very different policies in regard to keeping their country clean. However, I was pleased to see that one of the properties I stayed at, Kyambura Gorge Lodge, was thinking outside the box when it came to reusing single-use plastic.

Coffee Plantation, KG, Uganda

The location of Kyambura Lodge is stunning, with sweeping views of Queen Elizabeth National Park. The gorge, famous for its chimpanzees, surrounds the property. Whilst staying here, I visited the Women’s Omwani Coffee Co-Operative. As with all Volcanoes Safaris lodges in both Rwanda and Uganda, Kyambura Gorge partners with a number of local community projects to help and develop the communities situated nearby. The Women’s Omwani Coffee Co-Operative was one of the 10 local community trusts linked to the lodge.

Who are the Women’s Omwani Coffee Cooperative?

Omwani is a community-based project, which has been designed to provide vocational training to local women from the region as an alternative and sustainable source of income. At least 30% of the women who are part of the initiative are HIV positive and many are also widowed. The members of the cooperative grow coffee organically, without the use of pesticides or chemical fertilizers. The coffee is then prepared and sold to Volcanoes Safaris for use in their lodges throughout Uganda and Rwanda.

Coffee, KG, Uganda

When the project started, the women had no way to package and distribute the ground coffee. They came up with the unique idea to wash and clean the small plastic water bottles used in Volcanoes Safaris’ lodges and put the coffee in these. This is still how they sell their coffee to people visiting the initiative. It is a clever way of reusing plastic bottles, and a practical way to keep ground coffee.

Woman at Coffee plantation, KG, Uganda

As I said before, I feel proud to work for a company that is opening my eyes to the issue of plastic pollution – an issue created by us. It is encouraging to learn that countries such as Rwanda are making huge steps to tackle this issue. It is inspiring to see how having a clean, plastic-free country not only provides environmental benefits but helps boost tourism.

Every day in the UK, 35 million plastic bottles are used and discarded

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The eminent primatologist Jane Goodall recently visited her eponymous sanctuary for orphaned chimpanzees in Ngamba Island, Uganda. She asked after one of her beloved chimpanzees – yes, even the great researcher does have favourites. She was devastated to hear that it had died. She was horrified when she learned how the chimpanzee had died – drinking from a discarded plastic detergent bottle that the chimp had picked up from the lakeshore.

This happened in Uganda, thousands of miles away. It wouldn’t happen on our shores I hear the cynical cry. Yet in January, thousands of pink plastic bottles containing washing up liquid were washed up on the beaches of Cornwall. The Marine Conservation Society states that plastic litter on the UK’s beaches has increased by 140% since 1994.

And it is not just our beaches. Every day in the UK, 35 million plastic bottles are used and discarded. Almost half of these are not recycled and many of them end up in our oceans – killing marine life and threatening fragile ecosystems.

Worldwide, hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, whales, and other marine mammals and more than one million seabirds die each year from ocean pollution and ingestion or entanglement in marine debris. Most plastic pollution reaches the seas via rivers originating from landfills and other urban sources. In the Pacific Ocean, the North Pacific Gyre is home to the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’, a huge area that is almost three times the size of the UK.

Bravo for Jeremy Paxman for being so forthright and outspoken in today’s Daily Mail – I never thought I would say that about either Paxman or the Mail – about our plastic pollution problem and the lack of action from both the drinks industry and government on this issue. Paxman wrote, “When asked about trying to change attitudes by introducing a deposit scheme for plastic bottles, he (Lord Gardiner) said the Government had looked into the idea and decided it would be ‘an expensive exercise’. More expensive, presumably, than altering the landscape, poisoning wildlife and making the world uglier.

It is high time that mealy-mouthed ministers took themselves off for a little more refreshment, in the hope that it might give them the guts to tell the soft drinks industry that some things matter more than the bottom line of the balance sheets of multinational corporations.”

Paxman is not the first to expound this message. A profound truth lies behind the Cree Indian proverb “Only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish caught will we realise we cannot eat money.”

Over seventy years ago Franklin D Roosevelt is quoted as saying, “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.” And still we do nothing.

It is time for more of us to stand up and ensure our voice is heard.
This is how you can help:

  • Carry a reusable water bottle with you
  • Deposit return schemes work by placing a small deposit on a plastic bottle, which you get back when you return it.

Mud, Sweat and Tears: Gorilla Trekking in Uganda

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gorilla's face close up

I woke early with feelings of trepidation, anxiety (Would I be able to do the climb?), nerves and much excitement. I was going in search of mountain gorillas, in Uganda, following in the footsteps of the great Sir David Attenborough.

It was a mild morning, although the sky looked rather cloudy. With waterproofs packed, carrying lots of water and a picnic lunch, our group of eight headed down to the park station. We began with a briefing and an introduction to the guides and porters who would be assisting our search.

It is absolutely worth the $15 for a porter (more on that at the end). And so we set of at a fairly brisk pace through very pretty woodland, over streams and past waterfalls, taking in the sights and sounds of our wonderful surroundings.

After about an hour, we stopped for a water break and our ranger advised that we would now start our ascent up the mountain in search of the gorillas that were up ahead. Little did we know that they – the gorillas – would continue to climb the mountain with a group of humans desperately clambering after them.

So the climb started – and boy what a climb – a near vertical ascent, scrambling on hands and knees through virgin rainforest. And, in my case, being unceremoniously dragged up to the summit. Finally, after a further 90 minutes, we stopped and our porters moved aside for us to continue for the last five minutes to a small clearing…

…And there they were: a family of 14 gorillas, including the silverback, two babies and a selection of inbetweeners. To say this was emotional is an understatement. I did shed a few tears, not only because I was so overcome by the sight of our nearest relatives, but also because I had actually made it.

We then spent a very happy 50 minutes in the presence of these spectacular creatures. I cannot put into words what an overwhelming and extraordinary experience this was. The two babies played with anything in their reach, whether it was their mother’s foot or some nearby twigs. Others just sat and ate copious amounts of foliage. And some just slept – but it has to be said there was a considerable amount of flatulence from these guys, which was quite amusing.

During the time with the gorillas, there were lots of oohs and aahhs and looks of wonder on my fellow travellers’ faces. I think we were all exceptionally moved by our experience.

After almost one hour (which is the allocated time you are allowed to spend with them), we were advised we should don our raincoats and pack away our photography equipment as the ominous sounds of thunder reverberated around the treetops. Before we had time to finish zipping up our raincoats, we were soaked – right through every layer. The most incredible storm commenced in earnest.

We slithered and slipped in a most ungainly manner, back down the mountainside in the most torrential rain I have ever witnessed. The small streams we had encountered on the way up had now become small rivers, which we waded through, already too wet to worry about trying to avoid walking in them.

Finally, we arrived back at the ranger station, bedraggled and saturated, but wearing silly grins following our encounter. After receiving our certificates, we made our way back across the road to Buhoma Lodge. Here, we were greeted by the joys of a hot bath and a complimentary massage to ease aching bones and muscles.

We gathered in the bar with celebratory drinks and compared photos and videos, all as excited as children reliving our experience. This is certainly the most difficult, yet most moving experience I have ever had and it will stay with me forever. Do it – you will be so pleased you did.

For just $15, porters will carry your backpack and clothing, and help you over the tricky terrain. This not only helps the community and offers valuable jobs, but the porters themselves are worth their weight in gold. I was pushed and pulled up the mountainside, struggling all the way, but my porter was there every step of the way, with a helping hand and words of encouragement when I thought I couldn’t continue. These guys are more than worth the money.

Get in touch to learn more about gorilla trekking in Uganda. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

Uganda – The Karamojong of Kidepo

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Community Visit Dance, Uganda

Our tiny plane flew north from Entebbe over the rugged Mountains bordering Kidepo Valley National Park in the remote north-east where Uganda, Kenya and Sudan meet. In the foothills of these mountains, patches of red earth scratched out from the surrounding greenery showed small manyatta’s and villages, isolated by distance, politics and geography, home to the Karamajong people.

Their cattle raiding exploits with their Sudanese neighbours have created myths of fierce warriors and tyrants (both Idi Amin and Milton Obote hail from this region known simply as “North of the Nile.”). Thankfully, times change and a fledgling flight service, a lifting of foreign office travel bans and the establishment of a luxury lodge is opening up an area for explorers in the former badlands of Karamoja.

If you could design your own national park, it would look like Kidepo. Imagine the endless plains of the Serengeti, devoid of tourists, a park scarred with ridges and valleys begging to be explored on foot, where animals roam in a wild amphitheatre ringed by jagged mountains.

Our drives yielded all manner of wild beasts, but it was the chance to visit the Karamajong people in the region that was so exciting.

Often misunderstood, having suffered under Idi Amin’s rule when he  tried to brutally westernise what many Ugandans saw as a backward people, the Karamajong armed themselves after Amin fled from a nearby  munitions outpost, in order to protect themselves from further humiliation. This meant that the cultural significance of cattle owning – the size of your herd is vital in securing a wife – escalated from raiding with spears – to automatic weapons. The government has now pacified the area – some say a little too violently – but this history and current peace is what makes the region fascinating.

This was to be no ordinary community visit, but not in the way that I expected. On arrival into the village itself, women were tirelessly working the fields, bent double, children asleep on their back, but on hearing our vehicle they looked up, genuinely surprised, then delighted, a beaming grin and languid wave despite the heat and backbreaking work under a relentless sun.

A hearty embrace from the village leader was our second introduction to the much feared warriors, before we simply wandered around the village. Our first stop was a simple thatched roof rondavel, leathery goat skin blankets on the floor and children’s drawings sketched on the wall, above a low wall which sheltered the family from stray bullets when village raids were a very real threat.

The beauty of this village lay in its living embodiment of a rich culture whose beliefs were revealed in more subtle ways. A small medallion, hung above the entrances of huts, to ward off negative energy brushed your head as you walked through the doorway. Stepping back out in into the sun, our guide showed us other charms dotted around the village. Yellowing and cracked animal bones and horns tucked away in thatched roofs, from past sacrifices and offerings, each one telling a story to be understood and remembered by future generations. We were shown which plants in the bush they use to wash the dead, dried wild asparagus above the entrance on another hut to protect the pregnant occupant from lightning (the storm clouds were already gathering in the late afternoon) and a string of wild bark, spread between two huts to scare off dangerous animals.

They even talked of the traditional recipes used to cure illnesses, plants for Malaria of course, but epilepsy is apparently best treated with a steaming bowl of zebra brain porridge. The recent and well documented violent history seemed a long way from this relaxed village, where the women laughed easily, children chased chickens and most men seemed to be taking it easy (although like the weaver nests hanging in the nearby trees, the males had to decorate their homes to attract a mate so are kept on their toes.)

After having met the chief, who did look somewhat bewildered at our appearance, I asked our guide what the elder did all day. “It is difficult” he says, “The young people of the village are leaving this traditional lifestyle behind for an education” The role of the elders in settling disputes, offering advice and being the cultural lynchpin in the village is required less and less. Many found this loss of responsibility hard to accept.

The dancing however, seemed to be one thing that had not been abandoned and no sooner had we said goodbye to the chief, than we found ourselves pride of place in a crowd of around 100 people as the group of 20 dancers began stamping the ground, clapping and singing, each footfall ending in tiny explosions of dust. The women were simply, but colourfully dressed, bright beads and bangles seemingly suspended in mid-air as they jumped, the bells tied around their ankles shaking out a rhythm. It was the men however, who took most pride in their appearance, animal tails and hides were tied around sinewy arms, ostrich feathers stuck in felt hats, young men challenging each other to jump higher, sing louder, charm the women more.

Mesmerising as this was for us as spectators, we were soon forgotten and the dancers continued oblivious as we were invited to look at a banquet of carefully laid out jewellery, some old and faded, other pieces almost looking freshly painted against the dark dust. Everyone seemed to be involved, everyone seemed to share in the profit and there was no hard sell. We were more a curiosity to the villagers, who stood next to us staring and smiling, some trying to find common ground in language with a quiet “how are you?” There was no hint of terrifying warriors or “backward” villagers, despite the arresting tribal scars on the faces of the older men, only a community full of joy and pride. The singing and dancing was still going on as we left and they practically danced out of the village with us, surrounding the car as we drove off.

Back at the lodge that evening I spoke to Philip, one of the guides who was born in that very village, forgoing a traditional lifestyle in favour of a western education and guiding school. A decision that cost him daily beatings from his parents for abandoning his cattle until he moved in with his forward thinking Aunt. Having been a guide here for 8 years, I asked if he ever wished to guide elsewhere in Uganda. He looked at me, slightly taken aback, then said proudly; “People come here from all over the world and always tell me it’s the most beautiful park they have seen – why would I go anywhere else?”

Get in touch with me for more information on your Uganda holiday with Steppes, call me on 01258 787 560 or email inspire@steppestravel.com for more advice.

Steppes Beyond | Uganda & Rwanda: Gorilla Trekking

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gorilla trekking uganda

Gorilla trekking in Uganda is an excellent option for those looking for a more comprehensive wildlife experience but are more flexible on time and budget. Despite the trekking being much tougher than in Rwanda, Uganda is certainly no one trick pony.

Below is copy of my presentation on Gorilla Trekking holidays at our Steppes Beyond event in March 2015. For more information on any of our destinations please do get in touch.

Start your gorilla trekking adventure with us, call us on 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

Steppes – Discover Uganda

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We have been travelling regularly to Uganda for over 15 years. Such is our knowledge of the country, that over this time we have arranged tours to Uganda for ITV and BBC film crews, shown CNN journalists the ropes and even been approached by the Ugandan Wildlife Authority to help habituate a group of gorillas (Nkuringo, in case you were wondering). In short, no-one knows Uganda better than Steppes Travel. I’d love to speak to you about any queries you may have about a gorilla trekking holiday.

Call us on 01285 601 753  or email inspire@steppestravel.com to start your gorilla trekking adventure.

Uganda, more than just gorillas!

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I love Uganda.

For me, it encapsulates everything that makes Africa so special and its location alone is like something from the lost world. Open, wild savannahs in the shadow of rugged glacial peaks, where the western Congo forest, slowly grows over a rolling landscape scarred by gorges and ravines but softened by dazzling lakes and splashes of colour from traditional villages.

Go wild, find the money and fly into the remote Karamajong region (known locally as the land of the nomad hunters), where fierce herdsmen protect their cattle from other tribes and Kidepo Valley Park is visited by only 5% of those who explore Uganda. A dry, arid, but cinematic landscape, ringed by mountains where you can stand on a kopje and almost see the earths curve. The stunning Apoka Lodge offers soothing respite from the wilds.

In complete contrast to this you have the lush forests in Semliki wildlife reserve in the shadow of the Congo Blue Mountains. As Uganda’s oldest reserve and with only 1 permanent lodge in the 534sq km park, you can take your pick on where to create your adventure. A lazy river safari through the lakes and sparkling waterways, where shoebills hunt amongst the reeds or perhaps a drive to look for forest elephants who move silently through the trees whose canopies shake with frenetic chimps.

Even if you don’t spot chimps in Semliki, you can head out with wildlife rangers in nearby Kibale Forest and search for them again – troops of up to 60 chimps as they hunt, fight and smash their way through the tree-tops – not for the fainthearted!  If this all gets too much however, then slow things down with a leisurely walk around the calming waters of the regions beautiful crater lakes, as wooden pirogues glide across the blue waters, carpeted with lilies.

Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls National Park are perhaps the most famous wildlife parks, but don’t be put off. It is here you find the highest concentration of game, some of the best birding, the strange tree climbing lions and plenty of boat safaris as thirsty game comes to drink on the shore dotted with fishermen hauling the days catch ashore in the setting sun.

Of course if this hasn’t sated your lust for adventure, then join the photographers, adventurers and trip-of-a-lifetimers by heading deep into Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (note the name!) to peer through the thick vegetation, adrenalin racing, heart pounding and breathing hard as you come face-to-face with the unnervingly human mountain gorilla.

The beauty of Uganda is that all this adventure is balanced by welcoming, authentic lodges, where you can chose to live like a King in luxury above the clouds or if prefer your safaris, smaller and more intimate, bush camps in the forest, where distant chimps can be heard as you swap stories around the campfire.

The Chimp and the Colobus

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“Welcome to Mr A.K.”

I looked around me trying to identify which of our group was the celebrated Mr AK.

Then I realised that he was in fact, inanimate and none other than the rather battered AK47 slung over Joel’s shoulder.

Joel, a wildlife ranger with the Uganda Wildlife Authority, continued patting the rusty rifle, “Mr AK is our friend. He is here to protect us in case we meet Mr Hippo or Mr Leopard.”

Mr Hippo, Mr Leopard! I glanced around me for a second time, nervously. I thought we were here to track chimpanzees.

As if reading my mind, Joel continued, “Today we will track chimpanzees in this small area called Kyambura Gorge,” pointing at a map with the aerial of a radio. “The gorge is sixteen kilometres long, at its widest point five hundred metres across and one hundred metres deep. It is a tear in the earth’s crust that has been carved out of the savannah over centuries by the waters from the surrounding mountains.”

“The savannah, part of Queen Elizabeth National Park, is the lair of the lion whilst a hundred metres below is the forest, the domain of the chimpanzee. It is unique in Africa that within minutes and a mere matter of metres you have the chance to see lion and chimpanzee.

“The chimpanzee is man’s closest relative and seeing one in the wild is a privilege. Today we hope to be privileged.” Joel smiled proudly at this point. Judging by Joel’s smile and his enthusiasm what we were about to do was clearly something very special and all of a sudden I too became very excited.

Thoughts of bumping into hippo were forgotten; that was until I heard this most disconcerting “Urg, urgh, urgh,” a loud rolling croaking roar.

“What’s that noise?”

“Colobus monkeys. See over there,” Joel pointed.

Standing at the edge of the gorge the tops of the trees were at eye level and not far in front of us were a small troop of colobus. Their beautiful black fur contrasted with their long white whiskers and beards and their bushy white tails.

“The black and white colouration is camouflage. It breaks up the silhouette of the Colobus and makes it difficult for predators to see them. They sit at the top of the tree as protection from the chimpanzee,” Joel said.

“Why as protection from the chimps?” I asked, naively.

“Because chimps eat colobus,” he replied. “Chimps are not the cuddly animals that many people think they are. They are our closest relative and like us they are omnivores. Chimps eat meat. They hunt in groups for food and prey such as the colobus monkey.”

This revelation about the dining habits of chimpanzees in no way lessened my enthusiasm for seeing them. With great anticipation, I slipped and stumbled down the steep slope to the bottom of the gorge, where we waited in silence as Joel studied the ground looking for tracks and signs of chimps passing by this way. My heart was beating excitedly.

The air was still and close. Sweat dampened my shirt as shafts of sunshine streamed through the canopy above us. There was the constant ringing of insects. Butterflies, in their thousands, flittered and fluttered colourfully in the dappled light.

Suddenly there was a far-off thud thud thud. It sounded like a distant but agitated bass drum.

“Chimpanzees beating the buttress root of a tree,” whispered Joel as he motioned for us to move forward.

Suddenly, a screaming crescendo of chimpanzee shrieks and calls erupted. A cacophony of noise far more active and animated than their larger terrestrial cousins, the mountain gorillas.

Walking back out of the gorge, I was not really concentrating on where we were headed. So absorbed and amazed by what we had just seen and heard, I was simply following Joel’s feet. When Joel stopped abruptly, I was in too much of a dream to notice and bumped right into him. He looked round and motioned for me to be silent. He was staring intently high above into the trees.

“What is it?” I whispered.

He remained silent.

“What is it?” I said with greater urgency.

“There are two chimps up there. But there is something strange……Aaah I see now,” he added.

“What?”

“They are hunting. Look a little higher there’s a colobus. They are hunting that monkey.”

I was straining to see where Joel was pointing, when there was a sudden burst of activity, a flash of movement. I thought at first that the colobus was chasing the chimp until I realised that the chimp was dragging the colobus by its tail along the branch.

“Look, look. The chimp has caught the colobus,” Joel exclaimed.

The colobus was screaming, trying desperately to cling onto the branch, literally for dear life. But the chimp was too strong – an adult male chimpanzee is much stronger than a human – and there was a dull sound as the colobus was thrown unceremoniously to the ground by the chimp to his accomplices waiting below. A ghoulish scream from the colobus was followed by excited hooting from the chimps. And then nothing.

All this took a matter of seconds but it seemed like an age. I stood in stupefied silence, mouth wide open in awe, not really able to piece it all together, to appreciate what I had just witnessed. The noise, the intensity of the moment, it had all been so sudden. The stifling quiet made it all the more dramatic, and I was reminded how ridiculously vulnerable I was in this habitat and indeed was a little grateful that Mr A.K was still walking with us.

Are you ready to meet the relatives?

Gorilla Trek in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

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His name was Able, and he was my porter for the day, not only did he carry my rucksack but practically carried me too, up and down the steep slippery
slopes of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, making sure I did not stumble. It was as if he had a second sense and knew when I needed his help; I can certainly recommend hiring a porter for the day!

It was a varied trek and I was stunned by the beauty and the remoteness of where we were heading. I felt like an explorer trekking through uncharted territory to chance an encounter with the Mountain Gorilla. When we finally found them they were on the move in the densest steepest vegetation I have ever come across. I did not think they would ever stop and settle but my guide assured me they will want to eat and sleep soon!

After about 15 minutes of quietly following them, they finally rested and spread themselves out amongst the bushes and trees, our guide beckoned us over to a safe distance to capture those moments on camera. Viewing such tremendous wild animals, especially the Silverback was a privileged insight, they were content eating, sleeping, making noises with not a care in the world.. oh to be a Mountain Gorilla!