Week 8: Kampala, Jinja, & Lake Bunyoni


The capital of Uganda is crazy, colorful chaos and I loved it. There are lots of people and terrible traffic everywhere, but the city has a vibrancy and energy that is difficult to describe. Who cares that they’ve had a dictator for 32 years? Many Ugandans reflected a similar sentiment to me: “This is something I cannot control, I have to live my life.”

I visited both the Baha’i Temple and the National Mosque. If you’ve never heard of the Baha’i faith, its basic tenets are that all of the teachings of the major world religions were revelations from one God. Their faith is based on cultivating a personal connection to God through self-understanding. As you might imagine for a faith who centers their work on meditation and contemplation, Their temple was beautiful and calm. The National Mosque is huge and although envisioned by Idi Amin, it wasn’t completed until years later with help from Muammar Gaddafi. It was fun to find out that many of the fixtures and writings on the wall were done by Moroccan craftsmen. I did have to wear a scarf and piece of fabric wrapped over my pants to enter, which in the Kampala heat was hot, hot, hot.  The minaret was worth the climb for the beautiful views of the city.

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Baha’i Temple, stained glass windows in the National Mosque, me appropriately covered to enter
dome and light fixture, decorated with Arabic script, view up to the top of the minaret


view from minaret over Kampala city

Before Uganda fell under the influence of European colonial powers, a good portion of what is now Uganda belonged to the Bugandan empire (this is how Uganda got its name). The former palace of the Bugandan king has been updated, but the current king only keeps an office here and doesn’t stay here overnight. This is because when Idi Amin was in power, he used a concrete structure on the property to torture people. There were five rooms and the area that connected them below was filled with water and then electrified so that anyone who entered the water would be electrocuted.

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Bugandan king’s palace, shield on front gate, Idi Amin’s torture chambers


Jinja is famous for claiming to be the source of the White Nile. (I went and saw the source of the Blue Nile at Lake Tana in Ethiopia). Sources are a tricky thing to claim. What is the ultimate source for the Mississippi River? Some tiny little stream in Montana? Wikipedia gives claiming rights to Rwanda and Burundi. Nevertheless, the Nile spews forth from Lake Victoria at this point so it’s one of the main reservoirs for the White Nile as it flows north.


Nile River

The “Source of the Nile” spot wasn’t as interesting for me as the tiny Nile Reptile Park nearby. There weren’t that many animals inside, but they did have a gaboon viper, which is my favorite snake of all time. When I told the keeper this, he got a wire hook and took the snake out of its cage so I could see it up close. Gaboon vipers have the biggest fangs of any snake. They also have the most venom, although it is not the most poisonous. Their skin also has a tinge of purple to it in some locations. I first heard about them in Zimbabwe, but they’re not native to that area. The park also had some cobras, some monkeys that we fed bananas to, and some turtles. I can imagine that this is probably not all that exciting for most people, but it was one of my highlights of my trip to Jinja.

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supposed Source of the Nile, gaboon viper, lesser spot-nosed monkey

The other thing Jinja is known for is Class V whitewater rafting. The only other place I’ve been on rapids that big is on the Zambezi River below Victoria Falls. Due to the hydroelectric dam they recently built in the area, there aren’t as many rapids now (only 5 big ones), but we still had a lot of fun and we definitely got flipped over.

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our crew headed into our first rapid, me trying to boogie board a wave on the river (not successful), last rapid of the day


Watch the paddle!

I also jumped off this structure that was only a few meters tall and this, for me, was way scarier than flying out of raft. I used to jump off high dives when I was a kid, so I’m not sure when this became an issue for me. Nevertheless, after a bit of coaxing, I jumped in and was so proud of myself afterwards. It may have been a small fear, but conquering it felt grand!


I bent my knees to get a little closer to the water.

Lake Bunyonyi

This lake is one of the deepest in the world and it is free of both crocodiles and bilharzia (unlike the Nile River). I came here to relax for a few days and that is exactly what I did. I swam every day, did some yoga, and read three books. I’m gradually learning the value of taking a vacation from my vacation. 🙂

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view from my room, geodesic dome ceiling, view from restaurant

Ugandan Food

For the foodies in the crowd, typical Ugandan food is matoke (pronounced ma-toe-kay), which is basically mashed green banana, served with some kind of meat stew. Ugandans are also very fond of their rolexes. No, not fancy watches. A rolex is an omelette wrapped up in a chapati and they’re sold everywhere as a snack. My favorite find in Uganda was masala chips, French fries doused in spicy curry. I found them at a bougie café / restaurant and they were so incredibly delicious. Some enterprising food truck in San Francisco needs to get on this trend because they would make a fortune.

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beans and collards with matoke, rolex, masala fries

Even though I’ve had it before, I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about jackfruit. It’s sold already peeled (thankfully) on the side of the road and in supermarkets. African tea is quite popular, but it’s really just a variation on chai, harkening back to the Indian presence in Uganda. By far, my favorite beverage in Uganda is Stoney Tangawizi, Coca Cola’s version of ginger beer. Yum!

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jackfruit, African tea, my beloved Stoney


Week 7: Rwenzori Mountains & Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

Rwenzori Mountains

I’d seen the “Mountains of the Moon” mentioned in the guidebook, but dismissed it because I don’t have that much gear with me. Then I stumbled on a National Geographic site listing some of the world’s best hikes and with that second mention in a few days, I found myself signing up for a 5-day trek to the top of Mt. Luigi di Savoia, also known as Weismann’s Peak. The Rwenzoris are home to Mt. Stanley, the fourth highest mountain in Africa, but the peak is technical and I’m still not a fan of climbing where it’s difficult to breathe. I did a different route up the mountains then mentioned on the website, and it was both beautiful and very tough. Weismann’s Peak is 15,157 ft (4,620 m) high and the hike involves hiking up over 10,000 ft of elevation in four days. I passed through tropical rainforests, bamboo forests, fields of lobelia and other afro-alpine plants, and the rocky, snowy summit. We had fantastic weather for the whole trip until the last hour walking into town, where the sky opened up and dumped gobs of rain.

Day 1: Kilembe Town to Sine Camp


Day 2: Sine Camp to Mutinda Camp


Day 3: Mutinda Camp to Bugata Camp


Day 4: Bugata Camp to Kiharo Camp

Long day so double photos!

Day 5: Kiharo Camp to Kilembe Town
Bonus Panoramas

slug 🙂


view from Weismann’s Peak


view of Nyamwamba Valley


view of mountains


lunch spot on the last day


Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

Everyone goes to Bwindi for one thing, to see the mountain gorillas! It’s not cheap (a permit alone costs $600), but this was a once-in-a-lifetime situation and it was amazing. The park is in the southwestern corner of Uganda and everywhere I looked, everything was green, green, green. The park rangers have actually planted a large amount of tea on the surrounding lands because gorillas don’t eat tea leaves. It provides a potential boredom deterrent so the gorilla don’t enter the nearby villages. The idea is that they’ll give up when they see only rows and rows of tea ahead of them and turn back to the forest for better tasting food.


view of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

The rangers start tracking the gorillas from the place they left them the night before. They start at 7 am and they usually they find them by 10:30 am. They watch them all day until about 5 pm when they go home from work. We tracked the Nkuringo gorilla family and it only took us a couple hours of walking to get to them, most of which was just walking down to the forest itself from the headquarters.

The rangers actually hack down nearby vines so that tourists can get a good view of the gorillas. The silverback moved a few times, but eventually we were standing a few meters away. However, I have to say, this silverback spent almost the entire hour while we were there just eating tons and tons of leaves. They may look fat, but it is mostly muscle and larger intestines used to process all the cellulose in their vegetarian diet.


top (l to r): various views of the silverback (which it acquires at 14 years old)
bottom (l to r): baby gorilla (awww!), silverback gorilla, mama gorilla

Just like pandas, gorillas spend almost their whole day just eating.

I’m definitely feeling incredibly blessed to have seen these gentle giants in person.

Week 6: Murchison Falls, Kalinzu Forest & Queen Elizabeth

When I lived in Zimbabwe almost twenty years ago, several people told me that if I liked it there, I should see Uganda. There’s a lot of similarities: everything is lush and verdant, people are overwhelmingly friendly, tea with milk (aka British style) is available everywhere, driving is on the left side of the road, and ginger beer is plentiful. I spent my first week here living the safari life. Although I’ve been a few times before, nature continues to awe and inspire me.

Murchison Falls

The remnants of British colonization are everywhere in Uganda, including in the name of this epic waterfall. A couple of British explorers dedicated the site to the then President of the Royal Geographic Society, Sir Roderick Murchison. It is the most powerful waterfall in the world, mostly because of the narrow entrance at the top that is only 7 metres (23 ft) wide. Over 300 cubic meters of water flow every second (11,000 ft³/s) through that gap. Basically, it’s a lot of water moving through a very small space. Murchison Falls is part of the bigger Nile river system. It’s on a tributary of the White Nile that eventually joins with the Blue Nile (coming from Ethiopia) in Khartoum, Sudan to form the Nile River that empties into the Mediterranean Sea in Cairo.


Murchison Falls: view from front, looking into the gorge, me at the top

Murchison Falls National Park is one of the bigger parks in Uganda and has one of the largest assortment of animals because of its size. Although members of the antelope family tend to get old after you see them many times, I really enjoyed seeing the Ugandan kob for the first time and oribis may be the cutest antelope of all time.


top (l to r): red-headed Agama lizard, spotted hyena, Abyssinian ground hornbill
middle (l to r): Ugandan kob, warthog family, oribi
bottom (l to r): African buffalo, Rothchild’s giraffes, olive baboon mama with baby

We were also able to take a boat trip up the Nile to see the animals that live along the river. Watching the huge elephant walk along the edge of the hill was quite impressive. Due to continued threats of poaching, all of the rhinoceroses in Uganda live in the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary which continues to guard and protect the animals as they reproduce so there are enough to repopulate the national parks. The Ankole cow we saw on the side of the road, and this one has some of the craziest horns I’ve ever seen.


top (l to r): Nile crocodile, African elephant, common hippopotami
bottom (l to r): saddle-billed stork, white rhinoceros, Ankole cow


large group of elephants congregating along the river

Kalinzu National Forest

On the way to Queen Elizabeth National Park, we stopped a few times to enjoy some sights along the way, including an equator marker (flashbacks to Ecuador). We also saw some zebras along the road before we stopped to track chimpanzees in Kalinzu National Forest. This is the first time I have ever seen chimpanzees in the wild. We were only able to see a mama chimpanzee and her baby up in the tree, but it was still pretty exhilarating. After about an hour of staring up at an odd angle, we took a walk through the forest and I found all kinds of interesting things growing on the ground.


top (l to r): equator marker, zebras near Lake Mburo, mama chimpanzee
bottom: various finds on the forest floor

Queen Elizabeth National Park

More animals! Notice the two Nile crocodiles in the photo, the lighter colored one is a juvenile and the darker gray one is an adult. The solitary hippo in the mud has probably gotten kicked out of the main group in the river from losing a fight with the dominant male. Since it can’t be in the river anymore, it has to find another way to cool off its massive body.


top (l to r): Nile crocodile (female and male), hippo wallowing in mud, hippos 
middle (l to r): group of elephants, lions hanging out, symmetrical elephants
bottom (l to r): Uganda kob, banded mongoose, waterbuck

The Kazinga Channel is a 32-km long waterway that connects two giant lakes, Lake Edward and Lake George (named after British princes from back in the day). Colonialism strikes once again. The channel is full of birds, crocodiles, and hippos that are drawn to its shallow waters. There is one local community that is still allowed to fish in the area that mostly catches tilapia and catfish. The boat ride included a huge array of birds birds and more birds.


top (l to r): African spoonbill, saddle-billed stork, yellow-billed stork with Nile crocodile
middle (l to r): sacred ibis, African fish eagle, heron
bottom (l to r): great egret, yellow-billed stork, ?


On the way through the park, we also stopped at a salt production spot in Katwe. The harvest the salt in two ways. The first way is to create salt ponds with irrigation channels connected to Lake Katwe that is the source of the salt. From there, the water evaporates and women (only women) scrape away the salt that has accumulated at the bottom of the pond. This is tough, physical work made even tougher by the fact that the constant exposure to salt can cause skin issues and dehydration. They are paid very little, but this is one way that single women in rural areas can support themselves. Men do work outside of the ponds once the women have removed it to create large piles of salt.

The other way that salt is harvested is directly from the lake itself. Men (only men) go into the lake and using tools break up the bottom of the lake which has a crust of salt on it. From there, they float the pieces of salt back to the shore where they are collected in piles of 100 kg to be sold. The men have to wear condoms to protect their genitals while they are working in the salty lake.


salt pond, salt from the bottom of the lake, floats used to bring salt to the shore

Bonus Panoramas from Queen Elizabeth


herd of elephants (look for the babies!)


hippos cooling off in the Nile


African buffaloes (note the cattle egret hanging out on top of one of them)