Night is falling fast and it’s hard to make out the massive shape through the trees in the half-light. The man to my right, AK-47 slung over his shoulder, nudges me and points with his chin at a smaller shape moving next to it. I edge closer and the big shape lifts an enormous head, revealing a foot-long horn on the end of it, and looks at me with a tiny eye – a pin-prick in the gathering darkness.
I’m looking at Nandi, a female white rhino and her six-month-old calf, Malaika. They are two of just 10 rhinos in Uganda, and they’re standing less than 30 feet away in a thicket of trees. There are no cages or pens in Ziwa Rhino and Wildlife Reserve – just 7,000 hectares of jungle, marshes and grasslands surrounded by a vast swamp and a two-metre-high electric fence.
“It’s not just to keep the rhinos in,” says Johan Genade, one of the directors of Ziwa. “It’s to keep the poachers out.” And the firearms? “They’re not for the rhinos either,” he grins. At the park’s headquarters, Jehan and his wife – Ziwa’s executive director Angie Genade – tell me more about their work while a tame African bushbuck grazes six feet away.
Throughout former dictator Idi Amin’s reign of terror, which gripped Uganda in the 1970s, and the civil war that followed in the early 1980s, rhinos were hunted for bush meat or killed for safety, and the species was wiped out by 1982. When relative stability returned, Rhino Fund Uganda was established to reintroduce rhinos to the country and repopulate Uganda’s national parks with sustainable rhino families.
Ziwa opened in 2005 and is now home to 10 white rhinos, four of which were born in the reserve. The first rhino born in Uganda in more than 25 years was the offspring of an American mother donated by Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park and a Kenyan father donated by the European Union. They named him Obama.
Like almost everything in Uganda, a visit to Ziwa is unique and intimate. It has an untouched feel that I haven’t encountered in other African safari destinations – a calm before (or perhaps after) the storm. Tourists started to return to Uganda when current president Yoweri Museveni took power in 1986, restoring peace in a country that had seen decades of unrest and brutality. But ongoing conflict in the north and a lack of infrastructure meant that until recently, tourists were still a fairly endangered species.
The intrepid few who travelled to Uganda in the past usually did so to see the endangered mountain gorillas of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, which is split between Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. But the appearance of several luxury safari lodges, improved infrastructure and a booming adventure travel scene have brought some much needed international attention to other parts of Uganda, which was named by Lonely Planet as the number one country to visit in 2012.
Instrumental to the development of Uganda’s burgeoning tourism scene is Roni Madhvani, director of the Madhvani Group – a conglomerate of companies that owns a huge portfolio of assets in Uganda – and the former head of the Ugandan Tourism Board. Madhvani returned to Uganda in 1983, after living abroad for 11 years. His family were among the 30,000 Asians expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin in 1972, but peace brought new opportunities to rebuild his family empire, and tourism is now one of the fastest-growing sectors of the company’s business portfolio.
Marasa Holdings, Madhvani’s hospitality arm, owns and operates two luxury safari lodges in Murchison Falls National Park and one in Queen Elizabeth National Park, as well as luxury safari company Premier Safaris.
“Uganda is not a mass market destination so it remains waiting to be discovered as a unique and unspoilt place,” says Madhvani. “The boom is yet to come and Uganda still remains off the beaten track, which is great for the discerning traveller as it still remains unspoilt and not commercialised.”
This is the impression I get from the moment I leave the capital Kampala and embark on a four-hour drive to Murchison Falls National Park, in the northwestern corner of Uganda. The land is green and teeming with long-horned cattle. The only conflicts I can see evidence of today are between rival mobile phone companies battling it out for control of the market, their logos plastered over buildings in every town and village we pass through.
There are only five lodges in Murchison Falls National Park, which covers an area of 3,983 square kilometres at the northern end of the Albertine Rift Valley, bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo to the west, so there’s little chance of bumping into the neighbours.
I spend the night at Paraa Safari Lodge, which is perched on the elevated northern bank of the Victoria Nile. Established in 1954, Paraa has a distinctly colonial feel, with warm wooden interiors, comfy armchairs next to the fireplace, and an old-fashioned billiard table, with comfortable guest rooms that all have panoramic views over the Nile.
The ring of wooden posts around the perimeter are designed to keep hippos out of the pool and other large animals away from the lodge, says general manager Crispus Mwamidi, moments after I emerge from an evening swim that was pleasantly hippo-free.
“The little ones can still get through the posts, which is why we have the rangers patrolling the perimeter. Sometimes they find their way into the dining room looking for food,” he explains. Wildlife is rife in Murchison Falls National Park. In 1907, Winston Churchill described it as, “Kew Gardens and the zoo combined on an unlimited scale.” Just over 100 years later, it seems little has changed.
Earlier that day I saw some of the park’s inhabitants firsthand on a three-hour cruise upriver to the mighty Murchison Falls – named after former Royal Geographic Society president Sir Roderick Murchison – where I ticked off most of Uganda’s big game minutes after the African Queen pulled away from the jetty.
The river bank was teeming with life – elephants, buffalos, hippos, Nile crocodiles, Jackson’s hartebeest, Ugandan kob, giraffes, families of warthogs and troops of baboons – all grouped in easy-to-photograph clusters.
Just above Murchison Falls itself, the Victoria Nile is forced through a six-metre gully, pushing the water over a 43-metre drop with ferocious power. From here, the river travels another 55kms to Lake Albert and the Albert Delta, a haven for ornithologists who come for some of the best bird watching in Africa and the chance to catch a glimpse of the rare African shoebill, whose huge shoe-shaped beak and demonic eyes make it look truly prehistoric.
The following morning, I set off at first light to explore the park from the comfort of a Land Cruiser with pop-up roof for easy game viewing, with destination consultant Marc Obwalatum from Realm Africa Safaris at the wheel. A network of well-maintained roads criss-cross the vast reserve, and within minutes we lose sight of the other safari vehicles that set off from the lodge at the same time as us.
With the exception of a small group of safari trucks at a spot where the last big cat sightings were reported, and a lone photographer crouched in the long grass by the hippo pool, I don’t see any other visitors. Marc points out some of the more intimate details of the animals we spot, such as the scars on the throat of a male giraffe that indicate that he has survived a lion attack. Herds of buffalo graze all over the grasslands, while white cattle egrets perch on their backs to feed on flies and warn the buffalo of threats by flying away at the first sign of danger. “Nature’s CCTV,” says Marc.
Murchison is a bird-watcher’s paradise. In the space of a few hours, we see red-throated bee-eaters, pied and giant kingfishers, African darters, African fish eagles, red bishops, crown-crested cranes (the national bird of Uganda), hamerkop, helmeted guineafowl and the flightless Abyssinian ground hornbill.
As the vehicle rounds a corner on a conspicuously quiet stretch of land, we skid to a halt and come face to face with a lioness lying breathless in the middle of the road. Our arrival doesn’t seem to bother her in the slightest and it’s not until we attempt to manoeuvre around her that she leaps up and growls in annoyance.
Later that afternoon I visit Chobe Safari Lodge, a handsomely renovated resort whose stilted tents are fitted out with luxurious interiors decorated with local art, all with stunning views of the river. Lunch on the terrace is an unforgettable experience, with a wide panorama of the Nile ahead and a group of hippos wallowing in the shallow waters near the shore below providing a natural chorus to my meal.
At the lodge’s private airstrip, four enormous buffalo are basking in the sunshine, indifferent to the comings and goings at the lodge. Journey times in Uganda can be long, but you can charter a small aircraft in Entebbe, on the shores of Lake Victoria, direct to Murchison. Accessibility and infrastructure are two of the biggest obstacles holding Uganda back, but the launch last year of a daily flight between Entebbe and Doha by Qatar Airways is the first of what the government hopes will be many new flights into the country.
Back in Ziwa, the Genades hope two new luxury chalets and the introduction of new bird-watching tours will bring in more visitors in 2012. But the arrival or six new female rhinos from South Africa is the most anticipated event of the year, and another step towards the ultimate goal of reintroducing the rhinos of Ziwa to Uganda’s stunning national parks. n
As we went to press, Johan Genade called to tell us that a female calf had just been born at Ziwa, bringing the total number of rhinos in Uganda to 11.