Welcome to a fuller account of our trip to Africa – October 2023.
I thought you might be interested in hearing a little more about our recent trip to Uganda and Zambia. After all it wasn’t all about Bee-eaters, Rollers and Kingfishers, indeed there was much more than birds to fascinate and entertain. We arranged the trip through Audley Travel who we find excellent in all regards and exceptionally well informed about the areas we wish to visit. Once more they did us proud. I’ll produce a short summary for each place visited.
Mbamba Swamp – Uganda
This wetland lies on the northern shore of Lake Victoria, just to the west of Entebbe. It covers an area of some 2424 ha with its many channels lined with thick growths of papyrus. The still water of this RAMSAR site is fringed with rafts of beautiful pale purple water lilies providing a very pleasing spectacle. Although over 300 species of bird have been recorded here, we were specially interested in just two of these. Fortunately we managed to see them both.
After paying the park entrance fee you are led to the boats which belong to fishermen who are supplementing their income by taking tourists to see their prime competitor, the mighty Shoebill Stork. These birds, some on which reach a height of 5 feet, love feeding on lungfish which are also sought after by the fishermen (in fact Mbamba translates to lungfish). Conflict is inevitable, but so long as the tourists come it benefits the fisherfolk to ensure the birds are not molested. It’s a win-win and a good example of why I never feel in the least guilty about travel. Without visitors like us, so many vulnerable animals would be killed.
These young Africans have eyes of a hawk and quickly point out the various birds and animals going about their business along the channels. I understand there are only about a dozen Shoebills inhabiting the area, but it only took us about 30 minutes to find one fishing from a small islet.
What a bird! If you’re going to find a lifer, then this surely is a pretty good one to pick. We watched this stately, grey-toned, creature for quite some time during which it took about 3 paces, had a bit of a scratch and then just stood still. I was hoping it would plunge its clog-shaped bill into the water to catch a fish, but it wasn’t to be. We left the bird to its patient vigil.
Other delights of Mbamba Swamp were an African Marsh Harrier that pounced on an unwary Jacana chick just in front of us, and of course those dainty Blue-breasted Bee-eaters I wrote about a few days ago.
Queen Elizabeth National Park – Uganda
This park, extending to some 700 sq miles lies in the western part of Uganda between two large lakes, Lake George and Lake Edward, which are linked by the Kazinga Channel. We spent our time here exploring the grassland plains in the morning with a boat trip around the Kazinga Channel on two consecutive afternoons.
Game viewing proved interesting, although nowhere near as prolific as other well known African sites. This is mainly due to the wildlife having to recover from a prolonged period of poaching and general exploitation during the mid 20th century. A modern day problem is the proliferation of invasive plant species which is forcing grazing animals to move elsewhere. That said, there are large populations of elephant, hippo and buffalo in the park together with leopard and lion – 4 of the Big 5 which can’t be a bad thing. We joined a lion tracking team who led us to a small pride resting up for the day. We then moved on to track a female leopard with her cub. That was an endearing session with the pair nuzzling one another and generally relaxing, totally unconcerned by the close proximity of 4 jeeps full of ogling tourists.
Other inhabitants of the dry areas: Red-faced Spurfowl and Long-crested Eagles
The shores of the Kazinga Channel was teeming with wildlife. On each day we spent 2 hours or so in the late afternoon chugging along the southern shore, avoiding the hippos and watching elephants and buffalo feed and cool off. Pied Kingfishers were very common, I took a shot of a waterside shrub which was liberally decorated with these monochrome birds – see how many you can count.
Other inhabitants of Kazinga: African Skimmers (top), Yellow-billed Stork (top left), elephants and White Pelicans
Our guide here, as in all places we spent time, was excellent. Young, enthusiastic and knowledgeable. He spotted some good birds for us that we would have struggled to locate with our ageing eyes, but some we had no difficulty seeing: African Fish Eagle, Maribou Stork, Spur-winged Lapwing and African Wattled Lapwing.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest – Uganda
The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is located in south-western Uganda on the edge of the Albertine Rift. We wondered why we were feeling a little strange during our 3 night stay until we realised we were at an elevation of well over 2000 metres – prime territory for a bout of altitude sickness. it is an area of thick forest inhabited by large populations of mountain gorillas, forest elephants, chimpanzees and various other monkeys. It is home to nearly 350 species of bird and 220 butterflies.
The demarcation between the forest reserve and surrounding human agriculture, mainly tea plantations and homesteads, is stark. In fact the transition is absolute – one second in open, cultivated terrain, the next thick afforestation. I found myself looking at the landscape and thinking how once it must have been, because sadly the forest is only a small remnant of what was once a vast swathe of jungle sweeping across the hills to the hazy horizon. Still, we should be grateful that some small oasis remains.
Everyone else we met in our lodge was trekking gorillas, but not us. We were instead looking for certain birds and to assist in this aim we were fortunate to have the services of a young man, Nicholas Tugumisirize, who has been a professional guide for a number of years (see here for links). He told us that he learnt bird recognition and calls from his uncle and now has a passion for running guided tours around Uganda, Rwanda and neighbouring countries. He certainly did us proud and found the Bee-eaters we were looking for. We also saw lots of other colourful creatures during our walks through the forest. I cannot identify the butterflies, but the birds are Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater and Lesser Striped Swallow.
South Luangwa National Park – Zambia
It was dry season here with the Luangwa River running as just a shallow stream between wide dust cloaked parchment. It was hot, dry and energy sapping. In the heat of the afternoon it was impossible to cool off: take a shower and feel refreshed for a few minutes before you began to swelter in the sauna like temperatures. Small wonder then that excursions here are limited to early morning and late afternoon. The days began with a 5am (4am UK time) wake up call. Breakfast at 5.40am and out by 6am as the red ball of the sun rose through a clear, cloudless sky. Back by 11.30 for brunch before the afternoon melt, followed by another game drive at 4.30pm. These were termed ‘Sundowners and involved eventually parking at a riverside location, absorbing the transition from day to night, watching the sun set in a flaming red ball.
We were here primarily for Southern Carmine Bee-eaters and enjoyed watching them every day at their nesting colonies in the sheer river banks. It was difficult to know quite where to point the camera at times, and devilishly difficult to capture them in flight. I think the following images manage show their startling colours and graceful flight quite well.
Elephants are less relaxed here because they only regularly encounter people during the dry season, July-Oct. The park is inaccessible for other periods and the animals have the place to themselves. This means that encounters with these large tuskers can be quite dramatic with threat displays and mock charges.
One evening we were invited to discard our shoes and socks and wade into the shallows where picnic chairs awaited us. Sitting there with the cool water running over your feet, sipping the beverage of your choice while watching the sun set was quite an experience. Better was to come though, for as we were ready to leave, a male leopard set about his evening ablutions. He paid no attention to us as we climbed back into the jeep and followed him for 20 minutes through the bush. He sauntered lazily along the trails, marking his territory as he progressed. A master of his surroundings and a majestic sight.
We had found another leopard the previous day lounging in the bough of a tree. The epitome of relaxation.
Other birds and animals punctuated our daily excursions around the park, all colourful, all interesting, all so approachable. Top set: Saddle-billed Stork, Lilac-breasted Roller, Pel’s Fishing Owl. Bottom set: Thornicroft Giraffe, Spotted Hyena, Wild Dogs.
Well, that’s a flavour of the trip, hope you like the images and get some sense of how wonderful it all was. I met a lovely American chap in Bwindi who said he finds the best way to get over the disappointment of one holiday ending is to immediately start planning another………..well, I am all for accepting good advice. Watch this space!