TRAVEL: Safari heaven in Uganda
Gingerly stepping off the ferry, I’m not sure where to look first. An elephant is grazing freely in the long grass behind me, while a cluster of warthogs busily bury their snouts in the ground nearby.
Meanwhile, undaunted by this fresh boatload of tourists, a family of baboons paw at a discarded apple at my feet.
I have arrived in the heart of Murchison Falls National Park, known for its varied wildlife - but I wasn’t expecting such a face-to-face introduction with the animals.
“Don’t worry, they won’t bite,” a ranger reassures me as I nervously back away from the hungry primates.
His words are swiftly followed by a shriek of disbelief, as he receives a call informing him that his car has been burgled by a baboon.
Over at his jeep, a window gapes open, while the offending creature tears into a packet of biscuits from his position of safety halfway up a tree.
“There goes my lunch,” the ranger says, laughing, and I feel grateful for the buffet awaiting at my safari lodge.
I have always enjoyed marvelling at exotic wildlife and love visiting zoos, but nothing beats seeing animals in their own habitat, and Uganda offers this in spades.
Decades of civil war and dictatorships, most famously the brutal reign of Idi Amin, have kept the country largely off the tourist trail for many years, but it’s emerging as a popular holiday destination, topping the Lonely Planet’s list of places to visit in 2012.
Amin’s troops helped devastate the wildlife at Murchison Falls in the Seventies, but numbers are recovering and most large African animals can be spotted here.
Covering nearly 4,000km, the park is home to some 76 species of mammal and more than 450 types of bird, not to mention one of the most powerful waterfalls in the world.
My journey into the park, which lies a five-hour drive from the capital, Kampala, begins with a jeep drive through baboon-strewn woodland before we cross the river to a small clearing on the north bank of the Nile.
Afterwards, we are deposited safely at our accommodation.
Decorated with colonial touches, the Paraa Safari Lodge has a charmingly rustic feel without scrimping on comfort.
A dip in the curvy pool, complete with pool bar, is a great way to take in the sunset, while the simple but cosy rooms have views out over the river, doing away with the need for a flat-screen TV.
There are numerous ways to take in the wildlife at the park, and after a hearty buffet at the lodge I embark on my first scheduled activity, a three-hour cruise on the Victoria Nile, as the river above the falls is known.
My hopes for the trip are modest - one sighting of a hippo would do. My expectations are far exceeded though, as all along the river numerous schools of the creatures sit in glossy mounds.
As we progress along the Nile, the sightings keep on coming - water buffaloes basking in the reeds, a crocodile lying ominously still on the bank, kingfishers dive-bombing from a great height to grab an unsuspecting fish.
The main event doesn’t disappoint either - we take it in turns to clamber onto a rock and pose for a photo with the spectacular Murchison Falls crashing into the Nile in the background.
The next day, we swap water for dry land and set out on a game drive through the grassland, our trusty driver Marc regaling us with facts about the wildlife we encounter.
With the Blue Mountains of the Congo providing a misty backdrop to the rolling savannah, we are spoilt by the sheer numbers of animals that come within metres of our car.
Giraffes in their dozens roam languidly through the acacia trees, herds of buffalo bask in the sunshine, looking important, and scores of antelope - the elegant Jackson’s hartebeest, the pretty Ugandan Kob and the tiny orabi - skip through the grass.
But the one creature that seems determined to elude us is the one we’ve all been waiting for.
Throughout the drive, safari leaders quiz each other about sightings of lions, and shrug their disappointment when they find no leads.
But suddenly, bingo! A hushed awe falls over the jeep as, out of the blue, stretched out in the middle of the road, is a young male. It rolls over and yawns, prompting a feverish clicking of cameras, and then lazily strolls behind the back of the car before sprawling out again, looking as content as we all feel.
Our third wildlife-spotting trip is a visit to the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary at Nakasongola, a two-and-a-half hour drive north of Kampala.
The reserve is run by South African couple Angie and Johan Genade, who are fiercely passionate about protecting their charges from the extreme poaching that led to the extinction of rhinos in Uganda in the early Eighties.
Ten rhinos - including one called Obama - now roam the reserve freely, guarded by 86km of electric fencing and dozens of armed rangers working round-the-clock.
When asked if the guns are to protect the security staff from charging animals, Johan smiles and says: “We’d sooner shoot the tourists.”
The reserve’s ultimate aim is to reintroduce these animals back into the wild. But the couple insist this will only happen once they have at least 15 breeding rhinos and additional youngsters, and when they truly believe the poaching problem is under control.
And from the way Angie and Johan bitterly detail the crimes committed against the animals, that day seems a while off.
“Rhino horn is worth more than gold,” says Angie, executive director of Rhino Fund Uganda.
“There’s a mafia of poachers. In South Africa, they use helicopters and dart guns and leave the animal to bleed to death.
“Calves get hacked up just because they are a nuisance while the mum’s horn is getting cut.”
Instilled with a new-found respect and compassion for these mighty creatures, we venture out into the twilight to see one with our own eyes.
Peering at the back of a young rhino in nervous silence, just a few shrubs between the animal and us, it’s hard to believe this armoured beast could be brought to its knees by humans.
As well as the animal adventures and stunning scenery on offer in the rest of the country, there are worthy sights to be found in capital city of Kampala.
A walk through the teeming streets is an eye-opening experience. Maribou storks circle overhead, looking like they’ve flown off the pages of a children’s book, while stony-faced guards wield AK47s at the entrances to shops and hotels.
In the huge taxi park, street vendors peddling colourful sacks of fruit and veg vie for the attention of pedestrians amid a chaotic criss-cross of minibuses.
Away from the hustle and bustle, the 1000 Cups Coffee House has a relaxed, studenty vibe and is a good place to pick up sacks of beans to take home.
The elegant Khana Khazana restaurant, famed for its authentic Indian food, is also worth a visit.
The Ugandan government has high hopes for tourism in the country, and aims to push the number of passengers travelling through Entebbe international airport up from around 1 million to 10 million a year.
Several international airlines have added the airport to their flight schedules - last year Qatar Airways launched a daily flight between Entebbe and Doha - making it an easier place to get to.
I have seen just a fraction of what Uganda has to offer - gorilla trekking and searching for tree-climbing lions will have to wait until another trip.
But with Uganda due to celebrate its 50th anniversary of independence from Britain later this year, there’s no better time to visit the country once known as the Pearl of Africa.
Key facts - Uganda
:: Best for: Seeing lots of wildlife, including the big five (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and Cape buffalo).
:: Time to go: Uganda is good all year round, but drier seasons are December to March and June to September.
:: Don’t miss: Matoke, staple dish made from bananas and served with bread and millet.
:: Don’t forget: Mosquito repellent and comfortable walking shoes.
:: Need to know: Bring US dollars, and change them for Ugandan shillings in the capital, where exchange rates are better than in the rest of the country.
Diana Pilkington was a guest on Qatar Airways’ inaugural flight from Doha to Entebbe, with return economy class flights ex-Heathrow from £611.99 in October 2012, and from £620 54 ex-Manchester.
For reservations or information about packages visit www.qatarairways.com
Rooms at Sheraton Kampala start at 155 US dollars a night (B&B). Visit www.sheratonkampala.com
Rooms at Paraa Safari Lodge start at 125 US dollars a night (B&B). Visit: www.paraalodge.com
Operators to Uganda include Explore Tailormade, which puts together bespoke Uganda itineraries. Its 15-day Unforgettable Uganda itinerary costs from £3,840 (land only) or £4,505 (including flights) and includes Kampala, Murchison Falls and a two-night stay at the luxurious Paraa Safari Lodge. This trip also includes time tracking gorillas and chimpanzees. Swapping a stay at the Paraa Safari Lodge for ‘authentic’ accommodation, prices start from £2,633 (£3,325 with flights).
For reservations and more information call 0844 875 1890 or visit www.explore.co.uk