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Uganda Safari
Uganda Safari:
Among the Best No Matter How Much
They Try to Talk You Out of It!
Story by Fyllis Hockman
Photographs by Victor Block

he animals here are still suffering from decades of poaching, we were told repeatedly. So many endangered species are still being replenished. Our wildlife are still fearful of humans and tend to hide more than in Tanzania and Kenya, it was further explained. After all, the government has only recently been devoted to protecting the wildlife. And if that wasn't enough deterrent, we were going out in the heat of the afternoon sun and surely all the animals would be hiding out in cooler domains .

And so began our first game drive in Murchison Falls National Park in southeastern Uganda as part of an ElderTreks Tour, which promotes "Small Group Exotic Adventures for Travelers 50 and Over."

Immediately as we entered the park, a handsome water buck sprinted across the road followed by an assortment of other antelopes and a number of elephants standing around oblivious to the clicking of cameras around them. Shortly thereafter, we were immersed in baboons, cape buffalo, giraffes, warthogs and the occasional hyena.

elephants at Murchison Falls National Park in southeastern Uganda

I don't know if the lowering of expectations was intentional but its effect was to electrify everyone in the van who oohed and ahhed at the sheer numbers of animals we encountered and led to the exclamation of one experienced safari-goer to declare, "This is the best safari ever."

Enhancing the trip even more was the lack of multiple vehicles taking up prime real estate in which to view the animals. Twenty vehicles a day versus the dozens found in Kenya and Tanzania, though our guide, Hamm, predicted that eventually Uganda would catch up. "Well, it's kind of nice to be a pioneer," observed Nancy Burnett from Seattle, WA.

And unlike other safaris I've been on, in Uganda the game drives are by land and water. On one along the Nile River in Murchison Falls, our guide proudly announced that there were 450 different species of birds but after he pointed out the first few, I couldn't help but think, "Oh god, we still have 446 to go." I'm obviously not a birder. However, of the animals he mentioned we might see – baboons, hippos, elephants, crocodiles and buffaloes – we saw them all. And that included, to the extreme joy of everyone on board, the elusive shoebill, of which only 8 pairs exist in the park, who preened and posed at great length for the cameras.

We took a short walk off the boat onto savannah grasslands where we sprinted between numerous piles of assorted dung and footprints, which were alternately identified as coming from hippos, elephants, lions and water bucks. No actual animal sightings but I did sense they were all lurking nearby. Still pretty heady stuff.

On a second boat trip along a different part of the Nile, we saw more land animals than on the first river trip and better even than some safaris: baboons, hippos, elephants, crocodiles, warthogs, cape buffalo and antelopes all by the water's edge.

hippos near a river bank, Uganda

Initially, I could only see only the tiny ears of the hippos peeking above the water until a big splash announced the arrival of another 6000 pounds into view. You don't want to mess with a hippo! And I've seen crocodiles in the past but usually had to rely upon a guide to identify the snout sticking out of the water. Not here. We saw multiple full-length crocs soaking up the sun on shore and staying around long enough for photos before slithering away into the river. These were very obliging animals.

The Kazinga Channel Cruise in Mweya brought us into contact with the highest population of hippos in Uganda, plus of course their standard neighbors: more buffaloes, elephants, crocs and the de rigueur abundance of birds. We were all gaping at a particular family of elephants -- or Ellies as they are more affectionately called -- with a baby of mere months so small you could practically take him home and put him on a display shelf.

elephant with young on a river bank

Oblivious to this unusual occurrence, the one birder in the group was staring in the other direction, waxing enthusiastically about the black-winged stilt in his sight. When teased about not even seeing the ellies, he deadpanned: "If elephants could fly, then I'd notice them." Such is life with a birder… But by the end of the trip, even I could recognize a common black and white kingfisher!

Right in front of the elephants were the barely submerged tips of hippo ears and I cringed at the thought of what one elephant misstep might do to them until I remembered the multi-ton enormity of the animal attached to them. I suspect the ellies purposely step gingerly.

cape buffalo at the Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda

Back on land in Queen Elizabeth National Park, cape buffalo were happily wallowing in mud which acts as both sun protection and insect repellant. Considered one of the most aggressive and feared of the African mammals, I figured that maybe it was compensating for its very ugly demeanor. The warthog, however, another resident not known for its good looks, clearly does not have the same compensatory good fortune. I figure it's just too ugly for any animal to even want to eat.

warthog, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda

antelope, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda

We also saw staggering numbers of antelopes, literally thousands of them of all sizes and shapes, each type with its distinctive, lovely shaped and colored horns from curved to straight, twisted to rippled, rounded to wavy. The list goes on as far as the antelope can run. Plus hundreds of giraffes and elephants and a multitude of all the other usual suspects. Still the greedy passengers in the van continued to clamor for lions – or at least one leopard in a tree. By this time we had become so jaded, it was "Oh don't bother getting up, it's just another dozen elephants."

We did spend a lot of time on several drives scouting the terrain in furtive attempts to spot the big cats. Hamm, our guide, was feeling increasingly frustrated, protesting that over 90% of the time, lions are seen.

At one point a line of cob antelope standing in quiet attention all looking to the right alerted us to the possible presence of our desired prey – good for us; bad for the cobs. After a while, the cobs reverted back to grazing dashing our hopes in the process: good for the cobs; bad for us. Eventually, we did track the small family of three cats to a large cluster of bushes from which a flicker of face or twitch of tail emerged, but the rest of their bodies eluded us. As if worried we were getting too close, papa lion suddenly ran out from the bush to divert our attention. There he stood, a short distance away, very elegant and stately and full of pride, so to speak, mesmerizing every inhabitant of the van – with the possible exception of the birder. When we pulled away, he sauntered at a leisurely pace back into the bush, confident his family was no longer in danger. Hamm breathed a very audible sigh of relief.

male lion at Queen Elizabeth National Park

The next day, it was a fresh kill nearby that caught our attention. Bright red blood still flowed from the poor dead Topi as did much of his intestines. But the exact nature of the alleged predator confounded our guide: Not the lions, they would have finished off the meat; the topi was too big for a leopard to have brought him down. Footprints near the kill suggested the culprit might be an hyena but Hamm insisted he would still be there feasting. As we drove away, Hamm kept shaking his head as he further pondered the mystery.

Later that afternoon, we returned to the site of the kill only to find it had been pulled into a bush from which the devoured head and leg were still visible. Only a leopard would have done that, Hamm concluded. Mystery solved!

topi probably slain by a leopard

Observed Jon Perica, an environmentalist from Northridge, CA: "The ElderTreks Uganda trip offers the most diverse scenery and wildlife than any other country in Africa."

And for those still seeking more animal sightings to add to their list, a trip to Lake Mburo National Park adds zebras, elands and the ever-graceful impalas to the count. Gorilla-trekking and chimp-tracking were another awesome part of the tour but are separate stories in their own right.

writer with traditional medicine man at a Pygmy tribal village

And it wasn't all animals all the time. We also visited a small tribal village that was a US Agency for International Development model of conservation, environmental and wildlife protection, and hygienic efforts successfully implemented in the most primitive of settings. An incredibly impressive accomplishment! Plus other cultural exposures including a traditional medicine man, a modern hospital, a local school and a meeting with members of an ancient Pygmy tribe. For more information, visit


Don't even think about coming on this trip if you have any kind of neck or back injury. There is barely a moment spent in the van in which you are not literally bouncing up and down and lurching side to side.

Outside of our accommodations, Western toilets are rarely available; squatting in the bush or over a hole is a useful skill to develop.

If you're overly attached to electricity, whether for light or a hair dryer, you might reconsider the trip. Bring a book light for reading at night and leave your vanity at home.

Showers were available at all the lodges, just not necessarily in the manner to which you are accustomed.

Except for maybe caveat #1, none of these should deter you from the trip; just make you better prepared for it.

Related Articles:
Namibia: Where Arid Desert Meets Frigid Sea (Part 1); Namibia Part II: Where Wild Women Meet Wildlife; Deutsch-Südwestafrika

(Posted 3-7-2013)

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Let Fyllis know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Feedback for Gullah Culture

I think a lot of the plantation enslaved Africans began with a variety of African languages and little contact with English speakers. Even today some of the speech patterns of modern descents of the enslaved hold onto this language or some of the patterns even after being away from the area for generations. That's what we heard in N Carolina.

-- Barbara, Mill Creek, WA

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Thank you for your extensive and accurate story of a remarkable, resilient culture!

-- Marlene O'Bryant-Seabrook, Ph.D. – Charleston, SC

And Marlene – thank you so very much for your comment. Nothing makes a writer feel better than hearing something like that!!!


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Nice story thanks, however there are also Gullah speak in southern Belize and Honduras coast to Trujillo, been all over both thanks.

-- Michael Johnson – Myrtle Beach, SC

Hi Michael,

Thank you so much for your comment. However, I think what you're referring to in the Belize/Honduras region is more accurately characterized as the Garifuna culture and language, which somewhat parallels the Gullah. If you'd like more information about that, please read my November 2011 story in about the Garifuna.


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Toooooooo cooooooool Now I want to go to Florida!!!!

-- Kathy Marianelli – Columbia, Maryland

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Feedback for Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

I'm a Vietnamese and I can't help but went through all of your pictures. They are beautiful, both the couples and the natural sceneries. Vietnam is such a beautiful place, I love it. I have been to Ha Long Bay once, in fact, I have been too all places that you took pictures of. I love your pictures and certainly will comeback for more. Thank you for these wonderful images of Vietnam and its people.

-- Quyen

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Feedback for Family Magic in Orlando

Great article!!! Makes me want to go back and experience it ALL all over again.

-- Ariane – Chicago

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Feedback for Mohonk

I love your signature and the writing (in "Mohonk: Sumptuous Old-World Flavor Tastefully Wrapped in Casual Elegance")... but the place is a bit expensive... more like the Romney types! Is Vic a "photographer" or does he just take pretty good pictures?

-- John Strauss – Campton Hills, IL

Hi John,

Thanks so much for your kind comments. Much appreciated! Yes, I do know Mohonk is expensive -- as is true for so many of the fine resorts -- but it is a historical structure that has been in operation for so many years and offers so many activity options for the whole family without nickel and diming the guest, that for those who can afford it, it actually is somewhat of a bargain.

And no, Vic is not a "real" photographer as much as he is a travel writer in his own right, but sometimes, as he says, he does get lucky.

Again, thanks for your feedback.


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Feedback for the Road to Hana

We enjoyed seeing the Road to Hana from a helicopter! After you get to Hana you've still got to make the return journey. Thanks but no thanks!

-- Betsy Tuel – Rosendale, NY

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Feedback for Dominican Republic

Thank you, Fyllis, for this engaging tour. For years I thought the Dominican Republic was all-tourists, all-the-time. You just made me want to go there! (those waterfall adventures look like great fun)

-- Richard F. – Saugerties

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Feedback for Traveling the Canadian Rockies

We (our family) also took The Rocky Mountaineer (gold leaf) in early June 2011. Great memories! Great food! Great service! I am sorry to hear about this labor dispute, as clearly, the attendants were a HUGE part of the experience. They felt like friends by the end of the trip. Good luck to all employees!

-- Susie – Hana

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Hi Fyllis,

I am one of the locked out onboard attendants. I enjoyed reading your lovely writing based on the trip you took with the level of service that was delivered until June 22, 2011. It is misleading to share this review at this time. Many current guests are dismayed when they experience the low level of service which does not live up to what this blog post boasts. The company is not even responding to the complaints of their guests who have paid top dollar, and are now consistently ignored when they write to ask for a refund. If you do not believe me, go to Trip Advisor and read the recent reviews. There are a few good ones, and they are almost all from pre-lock out dates. Many of those are from complimentary trips and the company seems to be pressuring them to post positive reviews. If you are unaware of what is happening, please consider visiting a site which has many news stories and letters of support from guests and local politicians.

--- City: onboard – Vancouver

Can I ask when this article was written? One of the managers onboard would have been travelling on it for more than 6 years by now...last I heard Shauna was in Edmonton.

--- tnoakes – Edmonton, Alberta

Dear Whomever --

I am so very sorry to hear about the lockout and the bad feelings that have been engendered between management and employees. It was not a situation I knew anything about and realize the timing of my article indeed was unfortunate.

What I wrote about was based totally on my personal experience and only reflects my trip at that time. Please accept my apologies for the difficulties current and former employees are now experiencing and the apparent disparate levels of service experienced by me and more recent guests. It was not something I had any knowledge of.

Fyllis, TravelingBoy

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