Home to one of the most beautifully wild places left on this planet, Uganda is undoubtedly one of Africa’s most exciting destinations. For travellers, it’s more than just gorillas. From a spectacular extinct volcano to a secret waterfall, discover what the Pearl of Africa has to offer.
Conquering a Volcano
The eight volcanoes of the Albertine Rift create one of the most dramatic skylines found anywhere on the African continent with Sabyinyo, roughly translating to “old man’s tooth” in the local Kinyarwanda language, being one of the most spectacular extinct volcanoes. Located within Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, it is considered one of Uganda’s most challenging hikes.
In Kisoro town, a mere 14km from Mgahinga, we signed up for the hike. Early the next morning we gathered for our pre-hike briefing at the park headquarters at Ntebeko (2360m). Our guide, Joseph, addressed our group that consisted of a bunch of hiking misfits, some wearing rather dapper office attire as if they were going for an interview. “This is a tough eight hour hike and many of you won’t make it to the top. Also, please stay behind the armed guard – the buffalos are really bad tempered here”. Right. Excellent. Off we went.
It was a mystical world; light filtered in through the bamboo canopy as the wind whistled above, the bamboo groaning in weak protest. The path was littered with fresh signs of elephants and buffaloes. Soon we left the bamboo zone behind and entered the equatorial rainforest proper. This marked the official start of the climb and it would be brutally steep all the way to the summit. The temperature dropped rapidly and the group quickly splintered apart. The gorillas were nowhere to be seen. “Probably over the border in Rwanda”, our guide offered helpfully. The mist descended and the clouds rolled over, giving us the odd glimpse down the abyss that led into the land of a thousand hills.
“Are those ladders?” My fiancée Jorien asked as we looked up at the exposed rock face towering above us. I was somewhat apologetic, I may have left out some key details when I convinced her to sign up. They were ladders indeed…the famed near-vertical ladders of Sabyinyo. We tried not to look down, but inevitably that is all we did. We gripped them tightly as we inched slowly upwards.
Suddenly there was nowhere left to climb. I wish we could say that the Virungas lay at our feet but thick clouds enveloped us on all sides. People do not climb Sabyinyo for the views, for Sabyinyo’s summit is almost always lost in the clouds. People climb Sabyinyo to conquer themselves.
A Secret Waterfall
Located in the foothills of Mt. Elgon National Park on the boundary of Uganda and Kenya, Sipi Falls is a little known jewel in East Africa. While you don’t need to have a particular reason to visit a place, most come to Sipi Falls to enjoy three things: world-class hiking, famous Arabica coffee and ultimate tranquility away from the hustle and bustle of Kampala.
It’s the tranquility we noticed first. Sipi Falls is no more than a cluster of houses situated along the tarmac road that snakes up the valley. Traffic is rare and people and animals alike dominate the road, occasionally stopping for a chat or to marvel at the spectacular views. They really are breathtaking!
The cooler climate is a pleasant change from the humidity of the lowlands. The fertile soils of the extinct volcano, Mt. Elgon, have transformed Sipi Falls into the producer of some of the finest Bugishu Arabica blends in the world. I love my coffee – so I would know.
And while Sipi Falls is a gentle little hamlet where people can ‘find themselves’, it is the glorious waterfalls that draw visitors like ourselves. Three waterfalls continuously cascade down the cliffs, some plunging more than 100m into the Kyoga basin below. It is a mesmerising landscape, with the most magical time occurring when the falls are bathed in a warm afternoon glow.
The best way to appreciate the falls, coffee fields and imposing wall of forest is to hire a local guide – and that’s exactly what we did. In a fairly strenuous six-hour hike, we covered all the waterfalls, passing through local villages whilst enjoying the clean air. We fell asleep listening to the rumble of the falls nearby.
In search of tree climbing lions
Bordering the spectacular Virunga Mountains in the west and stretching to the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains in the north, Queen Elizabeth National Park – located in the southwest extremity of Uganda – is one of Africa’s finest protected areas.
While it constitutes an unspoiled savannah landscape dotted with forests regularly patrolled by resident chimps, it is the famed tree climbing lions that pull the intrepid explorer. It is one of the few places in Africa where when your guide shouts “lion!” and you find yourself looking up!
We had spent several hours driving around the northeastern part of Queen Elizabeth National Park earlier in the day and encountered a wealth of wildlife, from numerically abundant kob antelopes and bad tempered elephants to sunburnt hippos and the disappearing tail of a leopard in the tall grass during a walking safari.
It was fantastic but we were on the hunt for something specific – and for that we needed to head to the Ishasha region, a trip off the beaten track into the deep south of the park. Two hours later, we leant out over the rooftop of our vehicle scanning the trees overhead. Not a lion in sight. I had lost count of the number of trees we had inspected. Dickson (our guide) turned to us, “I only know of one more tree – we hope for the best!”.
We followed the deeply rutted trail to the base of a colossal sycamore tree. We spotted them immediately. No less than five lions draped over branches happily avoiding the blistering midday heat.
As we circled the tree we spotted more lions, even cubs, all the way up in the highest branches, a staggering 5m above the ground. There wasn’t a lot of movement I have to say – the odd yawn, a twitch of the leg from a dream, a slight repositioning to improve comfort and the flutter of a sleepy eyelid. What a life!