Saturday, May 13, 2017

On Safari with Lyn and Ian

Week 2 - Lake Mburo National Park and Kipling Lodge

We woke early on Saturday morning after heavy overnight rain.  The track out from the house was still trafficable but the hire-car was instantly muddy.  We collected Lyn and Ian from Danma Gardens about 0800 and headed off on the dirt road that connects our highway with the Masaka highway to the south.  Within minutes we were stuck as we tried to get around a truck stopped in the middle of the road.  The truck driver stopped because in from of him a Toyota Noah had slid into a ditch.  I could go forward but not back.  Going forward threatened to slide me into the truck so there we sat until a couple of local lads (and low range 4WD) got me out.  

Impala at the water point below Rwakobo Rock lodge dinging room.

Once past this delay we reached Rwakobo Rock Lodge in time for lunch.  We rested, swam and birded around the lodge that afternoon, had a lovely dinner, a few drinks and retired.

Sunday and Monday we spent in the national park.  A game drive on Sunday morning was followed by a lake cruise.  Monday saw another game drive to the western side of the park and more afternoon swimming and birding.  We haven’t been to Lake Mburo at this time before and it was wet, often drizzling and lush with green grass 60-100 cm high.  Some of our favourite tracks were impassable due to bogs.  It didn’t matter because we mostly had the park to ourselves and crawled along the main roads seeing excellent birds and mammals.  Jenny and I mostly left the photography to Lyn and Ian and just enjoyed the park.  I even got to be a passenger on Monday when Lyn drove us around.  A highlight was finding the Giraffes that have eluded us on our previous visits.

I think we were all reluctant to leave but we came back to home and Danma Gardens for Tuesday night then headed out Wednesday morning for two nights at Kipling Lodge on the Nile below Jinja.  An easy trip with one interesting incident - for the first time in East Africa were asked for a bribe by a police officer.  We were stopped and the officer informed us that a brake light was out (lesson - don’t put your foot on the brake pedal while the cop is looking at he rear of your car.).  She told us the ticket would be $60,000 UGX ($A22) but hinted strongly that this could be reduced.  I asked for the ticket then remembered that we were in a hire car.  I explained this and she looked totally baffled as to how to proceed.  “I will excuse you this time” she said and off we went!

I’ve already told you how nice Kipling Lodge is.  The view over the river, the gardens, the rooms and the food make it a great way to end your stay in Uganda.  Our hosts Alex and Sandra and their staff were professional while easy going.  I have put together a set of a 100 of my bird photos for lodge promotional material and these were much appreciated.  Jenny, Lyn and Ian went on the boat trip up to the rapids but otherwise it was a time for relaxing with a good book with the binoculars and a lodge dog or three snoring at your side.

Jenny, Lyn and Ian heading up The Nile.

Friday morning we had an early breakfast and headed off to Kampala to the School For Life office.  The hire car was returned and full deposit refunded (I recommend Roadtrip Uganda by the way) and the limo (upmarket taxi) came to collect Lyn and Ian for Entebbe airport.  

Bosco (the amazing SFL fixer/logistics/driver) was looking after our car while we were away and I asked him to get a couple of things fixed if he had a chance.   The car has become tired recently and I was unsure if it was worth spending much on it.  Number 1 priority was the driver’s electric window no longer working.  Other problems were the hissing noises (present since we bought the car), the exhaust starting to sound like an MG, the horn not working when you really needed to let another driver know how you were feeling and the right front wheel feeling like it was about to fall off.  Today when we headed off it was like driving a new(ish) car.  All the aforementioned issues have gone away.  We paid $US5000 for the car last October.  A week ago we would have been lucky to get $3000.  Today I would ask $6500.  The repairs cost just over $200.

So the two weeks were voted a resounding success.  Over 250 bird species.  All the arrangements worked out.  The lodges delivered comfort and great food.  We survived the roads and other drivers.  We saw some parts of Uganda few tourists visit and had some exciting wildlife experiences.  The three boat trips were all different but great value.  The hire car was a great safari vehicle and the fact that it was 25 years old just added to the traditional African safari feeling - if it was an old Land Rover it would have been perfect.

Six weeks now of school then Rob and Lou Drummond from Hamilton arrive in late June to join us on a three week safari to western and northern Uganda with Gorillas!

For more photos (birds mostly) see my Flickr site.

Friday, May 5, 2017

On Safari with Lyn and Ian

Week 1 - Mabamba Swamp, Kidepo Valley National Park and Sipi Falls

Jenny’s sister Lyn and cousin Ian have come for a two week visit and it coincides with school holidays so it’s safari time.

After a rest day we headed down to Mabamba Swamp for a Shoebill.  One was quickly found and we watched it unsuccessfully lunge for a fish then take to the air.  The highlight for me was a great sighting of a Papyrus Gonolek on our third attempt.

Shoebill expecting a lungfish but getting roots and mud.

Papyrus Gonolek

Next we headed off to Uganda’s most remote national park - Kidepo Valley in the far north-east corner.  This is a two day drive from Kampala and we hired a safari company car and driver to handle everything for us.

Straw-coloured Fruit-bats

First night was in a little hotel in Kitgum called Fugly’s with a tree full of Straw-coloured Fruit-bats.  Next day we reached Kidepo and Nga’Moru Lodge where we stayed 3 nights.  We did several game drives and a 3-hour walk with an armed ranger.  All good fun with lots of mammals and birds.  The scenery is spectacular - similar to the Grampians NP back home but much drier, wider valleys and buffalo.

View from our lodge hut verandah into Kidepo Valley NP

Abyssinian Roller

The birding at the lodge was good as well but I was unsure how safe it was to walk far.  We saw three lions in the park not too far from the lodge and a buffalo was near our cabin one morning.

He looks good from this angle but was actually rather skinny.

From Kidepo we headed south to Sipi Falls on the slopes of Mount Elgon NP.  Our stay here was far too short but Lyn and Ian appreciated the walk up the falls and through the village.  I appreciated the birds around Sipi River Lodge and saw my first African Dwarf Kingfisher - a young bird with an adult in occasional attendance.

View of Sipi Falls from our room window

African Dwarf Kingfisher (juvenile)

Today Jenny and I battled endless traffic jams in Kampala to collect a hire car.  We’ve decided our little Rav4 is a bit unreliable to take far from home so we have hired an elderly but perfectly serviceable Toyota Land Cruiser.  Tomorrow we are off to Lake Mburo NP for three nights followed by a couple of nights at Kipling Lodge.  Can’t wait!

More photos from week 1 are on my Flickr page

Monday, April 24, 2017

A visit home, missing cutlery, car stuff, mobile phones and security

We have just returned from a three-week visit home.  We hardly stopped for breath as we ticked off (in the birding sense) my dad, all the kids, the grand-daughter, the brothers and sisters and several of their kids and grand-kids.  We even fitted in an aunt and uncle and a few friends.

After two nights with dad in his new retirement village house (very nice!) we headed to our house in Hamilton.  Son Toby and tenant Alem are looking after it very well and we felt like squatters a bit as we had the guest room.  We caught up with work colleagues and friends like Rob and Lou who are coming to visit us in Uganda in June.  Next we had a week in an Airbnb in Reservoir, Melbourne with Toby, daughter Liz and grand-daughter Sophie (from Hobart).  Other son David is back in Melbourne and popped out to see us as well.  While in Melbourne we went to the zoo and had a nice dinner for nephew Callum’s 20th birthday.

A few days after we left the bnb we had a message from the owner saying “Um. We can’t find the cutlery.  Do you have any idea where it might be?”  First reaction was to blame Sophie (only 3 years old) - as we did when we blew out their internet limit.  Then we remembered the fancy dish-washer with its secret cutlery drawer.  Sure enough the owner wasn’t familiar with the drawer and the cutlery turned up safe and sound.

A few days in Ouyen to visit Jenny’s aunt and uncle, then a couple of days in Kinglake with Jenny’s sister (also coming to visit us here) and we were soon back on the plane to Entebbe.

A quick word about birding over the three weeks.  I had a target of 150 species and managed 163 with help from Rob Farnes in Portland and Rob Drummond who was camping at Hattah near Ouyen for Easter.  The weather also helped as it was sunny and warm most of the time.  I’m actually ahead of my average Jan-April total for Australia.  The highlight was seeing my first Lyrebird (up Toolangi way) since 2004.

Freckled Duck, Mill Park Lakes, Melbourne

We had lent our car (a 20 year old Toyota Rav4) to a colleague while we were in Australia and sadly it broke down just before we arrived back.  Kessia and friends took it to Jinja (which Ugandans wrongly insist is The Source of The Nile).  It took them there but refused to start when they wanted to come home.  Still not sure what the problem was but the mechanic ripped us off royally and the car seems fine.  I’m thinking a simple electrical fault that he turned into a major issue requiring new parts that weren’t installed and other work that was never done.  Stilll - it only cost money.  He told us he was ‘born again’ so I hope he can square his dishonesty with his god.

The issue now is that I don’t trust the car to take us on safari to distant national parks and we will have extra expense of  hiring cars for some planned trips.  Also, for some reason the driver’s side electric window has failed so not pleasant driving in warm weather.

The Ugandan government decided, just before Easter, that all mobile phone SIMs have to be re-registered.  This means that all citizens have to show their national ID card - otherwise their phones would cease to work.  They had until the 20th April to do this.  So barely a week with Easter in the middle.  It could be done using their phones actually but about 20% of citizens don’t have an ID number.  It is impossible to function in this country without a mobile phone.  

The situation for expats like us was confused to say the least.  I asked for advice on the Facebook expat forum and was given three conflicting stories within 10 minutes.  1. We could do it online with our passport numbers (wrong!),  2. We had to attend a phone company office and have our passport scanned and photograph taken, or 3. no action required if we had already obtained our SIM with our passport details.  

We also can’t function here without our phones so we visited the phone company office and were told option 3 was for us.  Colleagues who had registered a year or so ago had to re-register.  As it turned out I’ve lost my Ugandan SIM in Australia so had to register a replacement!

Just before the non re-registered phones were to be turned off the government announced a 30 day extension.  Possibly a Supreme Court action influenced this decision.  We are flabbergasted at the cost this exercise must be having on the economy as people wait for hours in queues to provide information that have already provided.  It's not like Uganda can afford the hit!

Security!  We arrived back at our apartment complex (sounds grand doesn’t it?) on Wednesday to a warm welcome from askari Richard.  Nothing was amiss in our little house apart from some gecko poo in places it shouldn’t have been (tables, couches …).  Our co-tenants were happy and well and also pleased to see us.  Yesterday we drove to Mityana to a bank to pay rent (further away but better than driving into Kampala!).  We texted our landlord to flag the payment and unusually he texted back.  “I’m beefing up security because of recent incidents”.  It turns out a couple of local lads have been pushing our security to the extent of stealing a side mirror from a car inside the compound and throwing bottles at Richard over the fence.  So now we have two armed guards helping Richard over night.  

I must say it is disconcerting to see guys in uniform with rifles over their shoulders arriving each evening.  The theory is that it will only be for a couple of weeks then random nights after that.  It’s such a quiet neighborhood here - I’m glad we aren’t in Kampala where this is essential (and sometimes insufficient).

I haven’t done much birding since we came back but have added five new species to the Katuuso School list - Brown-crowned Tchagra, Black Bishop, Thick-billed Weaver., Black-crowned Waxbill and Purple-headed Starling.

Purple-headed Starling

Red-headed Lovebird

Thick-billed Weaver

My bogey bird is currently African Emerald Cuckoo.  I have heard this species in Tanzania and now Uganda in many places but it will not show itself - therefore the rules of twitching declare that I cannot count it.  Normally a forest species, one was calling in an open area at Riverside School a few weeks ago but the bulldozers for the new site started up and I lost it.  One has been calling constantly near the house in recent days but will not reveal itself.  Along with the Leopard this bird will be a reason to keep coming back to Africa.

In a couple of days I drive to Entebbe Airport to collect Lyn and cousin Ian for a two week safari over the school holidays.  The highlight will be three days in Kidepo Valley National Park in far ne Uganda.  Some really cool birds up there.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Mpanga Forest visit - a few recent bird photos and a new monkey

We had a Sunday afternoon in Mpanga Forest recently.  

We drove through a thunderstorm to get there and there was still nearby - rumbling as we set off on the trail.  It gradually moved away however and we had a good 3 hour walk.  I don’t think we saw a bird for the first hour (but plenty of butterflies) then the activity slowly picked up and we eventually recorded 21 species.  The lowlight was African Emerald Cuckoos calling in several locations.  I’ve heard these in Minziro Forest and Arusha National Park in Tanzania and now Mpanga Forest but I still haven’t seen one.  The highlight was a pair of Fire-crested Alethe - a small robin-type bird that skulks in the dense undergrowth.  Another highlight was meeting Herbert Byahurunga.  Herbert is a birding legend here with his own tour company (Bird Uganda Safaris -  He is tireless in promoting Uganda to international birders and has been most active in developing the skills of women bird guides.  He has visited the USA and Europe but was recently rejected for a visa for Australia.

Fire-crested Alethe

Some of my recent bird photos are on my Flickr account at:

All taken at the two School for Life campuses.

Finally - at SFL Mbazi Riverside yesterday I managed to see one of the monkeys that live in the tiny remnant swamp forest patch the school owns.  They are Grey-cheeked Mangabeys - normally a primary forest species.  Apparently they are in Mpanga but we haven’t seen them there.  Our school population is marooned on a tiny island!  How can we ensure their continued survival?

Those red eyes are amazing!

Monday, March 6, 2017

Wood Warbler and a Kipling Lodge getaway

On Friday I photographed a small Warbler in trees below Katuuso school.  I thought it was a Willow Warbler but the photos later showed it to be a Wood Warbler - a European migrant to East Africa but not at all common.  I think there were three or four present.  A nice bonus lifer - especially since they will be leaving soon to head back to Europe.

Wood Warbler

Wood Warbler

We stayed at Kipling Lodge back in early January and decided to have another night there last weekend.  It is a 3 hour drive if you don’t get lost (as we did for a while).  We had from late morning on Saturday to early afternoon on Sunday.  It was good to see them busy as it is a new lodge and they are trying to grow the business.  As before, the food was excellent, the Nile was flowing fast, Jenny enjoyed the pool and I saw plenty of birds. 

The bird highlight was my first Great Reed Warbler.  These are migrants from their breeding range in Europe and are one of several very similar species.  Good views/photos are essential for identifying these and they rarely come out of dense cover to give you a good look.  Fortunately the two birds present were calling through the day and I was able to compare calls with recordings I had of the various species - only Great Reed Warbler was a match.  My photo attempts were of little use for identification purposes.

I did manage some nice photos of several species and the total bird list for the lodge is now 96.  I will give Alex and Sandra - the owners - some of my photos to use in their promotional material.

Eastern Plantain-eater

Woodland Kingfisher

African Pied Wagtail

Spot-flanked Barbet

Long-crested Eagle

Bronze Mannikin

Thick-billed Weaver

Great Reed Warbler

Pin-tailed Whydah

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Bed buying, rain, birds - and a cautionary tale

We went shopping for a guest bed on Saturday.  Lots of carpenters along the highway make beds - essentially the same design - so buying one is simply a matter of driving and finding one that looks finished.  We found one on Saturday morning that needed an hour of work to be finished according to the carpenter.  Fine.  We paid a deposit and agreed that we would be back at 3pm.  At 3pm we returned and nothing had been done to the bed.  The chap was confused - “You want it now?.  OK 20 mins”.  So we sat in the car and listened to the radio for 2 full hours before our bed was finally ready.

This is a typical experience.  Somehow the communication is just wonky and the two partners in the deal have a completely different understanding of the arrangements.  What did this chap think was happening at 3pm?  When was he expecting us?  Why did he tell us the work would take an hour, then 20 mins, when it actually took 2 hours?

Oh well.  We now have a nice bed all ready for guests.

After a prolonged period with virtually no rain since Christmas we have had some heavy falls in recent days.  There was a map in one of the national papers last week that showed big chunks of the country under drought and food shortages.  Hopefully the wet season that is about to begin will be at least average and well distributed across the region.  I’m planning to bring a rain gauge back from Australia when we visit in a few weeks.  I’ll set it up here at Katuuso somewhere and the science teacher can monitor and chart the daily rainfall.  At the moment the dust has gone and the mud has yet to appear so driving on the gravel roads is as good as it gets.

My patch at school continues to deliver with new birds every day.  Last week I added Red-headed Lovebird, Diederik Cuckoo, Black-and-white Shrike-flycatcher, African Yellow White-eye, Afep Pigeon, Garden Warbler, Grey-headed Nigrita, Black-throated Canary, Red-chested Cuckoo, Tambourine Dove, Thick-billed Cuckoo, White-browed Scrub Robin, European Honey Buzzard and Speckled Tinkerbird.  Some of these are forest species probably wandering due to the dry conditions.  With the rain coming I expect they will return to the forests but other species might arrive.  Lots of birds are always on the move in Africa and the Eurasian migrants leave in March-April.

We’ve had a professional videographer volunteering from Australia with us recently.  Liam has shot and edited a number of  promotional videos for School for Life.  An example of his work showing new kids on their first day at one of our schools is online at  Unfortunately his laptop with much of his video work plus other irreplaceable photos etc. was stolen in a restaurant in Kampala last week.  

What is your backup strategy?

Black-and-white-casqued Hornbill

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Miscellaneous jottings

All the children came back to school last week so we have been busy with school stuff and mostly trying to keep out of the way while everything settles down.  So no theme for this post - just some miscellany.

We pulled into Don’s service station in Lyantonde for fuel on the way home from Lake Mburo on Sunday.  It feels like the 1950s here sometimes and a good example is the service station.  Each pump has 2-3 attendants who wave you in, fuel you up, do your windscreens, check the oil etc.  At Don’s the woman filling the tank teased me about putting diesel in and we had a bet about how much a full tank would cost.  Several of the others came over for a chat (“where are you from?  where have you been? where are you going?) and Jenny decided that she would take a photo of them (and me) in their Don uniforms.  They were good fun!  This is an example of the little things that happen that make us glad we came.

Check out the fuel price - 3440 UGX for Unleaded is $1.25/l Australian.  What is it in Hamilton at the moment I wonder?

My birding spot at school continues to be productive even though the kids are back.  I spend an hour down there each morning - mostly concentrating my attention on one particular small tree.  I don’t know what species it is but it is possibly a remnant from the original forest.  In any case, every bird passing through seems to pop into it for a while and I have had some exciting species.  Best was Honeyguide Greenbul (a lifer) but I’ve also had Plain and Slender-Billed Greenbuls, Red-headed Malimbe, Yellow-spotted and Double-toothed Barbets and Olive Sunbird.  Every day something new!

Yellow-spotted Barbet
Red-headed Malimbe
Plain Greenbul
Olive Sunbird
Woodland Kingfisher
Double-toothed Barbet
Honeyguide Greenbul

We have had our compound to ourselves for 3 months but now we have neighbours.  Last week a woman with a house girl moved in to #1 (we are in #2).  So far we haven’t seen or heard much of them and they don’t seem to have a car.  Then today a family have moved into #3.  Mum, Dad and 3 boys.  It will be good to have people in the compound for security but we have enjoyed the peace - hopefully that won’t be affected too much.

We also had a visit from some of the neighborhood goats a few nights ago.  I think Askari Richard was wondering if he could get them to eat the grass but not the trees.  They haven’t been back.

Some of the children (and a couple of teachers) had fun with a big parachute thing.

Science Teacher Godfrey (my favorite teacher) was thrilled to receive his new laptop on Monday from the science faculty at Jenny’s old school Baimbridge College in Hamilton.  I have lots of sciency documentaries that I am slowly introducing him to.  He will be a critical thinker by the time I have finished with him.  He is loving the first series of Cosmos!

CEO Annabelle (centre) with Teacher Emily and Teacher Jenny on Wednesday showing they haven’t lost their primary school skills - preparing some signs for a photoshoot of the new truck School For Life has bought with a generous donation.

On Friday our car was used to teach the P5 class all the parts of a car (part of the English course).  It had all the necessary bits.

Saturday we drove into Kampala for supplies and to pay a deposit on a lodge booking (for gorilla tracking).  Some insane drivers - imagine a very busy roundabout where no-one ever gives way.  I used my horn at one point - very rare for me.

Today we had plans to buy a guest bed but we just couldn’t be bothered!  We stayed home, made bread and pumpkin soup and did some cleaning.