This is the first in a series of nine posts covering our 13-day tour around Uganda with Mountain Gorilla Coffee Tours (“MGCT”).1
Although I am a fiercely independent traveler, I am willing to accept group travel (albeit begrudgingly) when the practicalities of a given situation clearly point to its advantages (e.g., places that are so inhospitable that one has no business trying to visit them on their own, or locations that are so remote that it makes sense to share costs with others to reach them). Thus (as you may remember) we found ourselves on a three-week camping tour across Namibia, Botswana, and Victoria Falls.
Our interest in securing last minute permits for mountain gorilla trekking in Uganda during the high season, combined with the long distances and lack of public transportation between the other areas of Uganda that we wanted to visit, steered us again into the group travel fold. Seeking out potential tour options, we contacted a few operators, but the clear winner in terms of offerings/price/flexibility was MGCT – a Ugandan company that friends we had made in Tanzania had recently used for a tour and highly recommended to us.2 After a weeklong series of emails with MGCT discussing possible itineraries, and my mother’s subsequent indefatigable efforts to arrange an international wire transfer, we booked a tour that had us joining with a group of three Italians for a 13-day adventure around Uganda.
The first day of our trip began early, with a 5:00 a.m. pickup from our guesthouse in Kampala. Our driver and guide Robert introduced himself and we met our Italian traveling companions – who had just arrived on an overnight flight and been picked up directly from the airport in Entebbe. After a quick breakfast, we were on our way driving east, trying to beat the infamous traffic that clogs Kampala’s roads for large portions of the day.
After several hours of driving (including a few supply stops), we reached the slopes of Mt. Elgon, a 4,300-meter tall extinct volcano straddling the border between Uganda and Kenya, a key coffee producing region. Our plan for the afternoon was to check into our accommodation, the Twilight Guesthouse, and then explore the area around Sipi Falls, which is on the edge of Mount Elgon National Park. Arriving at the guesthouse, however, we found it in a state of disarray. The staff looked completely unprepared for our arrival, even though we had reservations and appeared to be the only guests. They bizarrely fumbled around for a few minutes trying to find the keys to the thatched roof bandas in which we were intended to stay while we stood around watching. When they eventually got the rooms open, it was clearly evident – despite the lack of lighting as there was no electricity – that the linen on the beds had not been changed. A feeling of unease began to come over me, wondering just what the hell kind of a tour we had committed ourselves to for 13 days. At that moment, however, Robert, unprompted, declared that the situation was unacceptable and that we would have to find somewhere else to stay.
Shortly thereafter, new accommodation had been secured at the Sipi Falls Resort. Not only was the new place much cleaner, its lawn directly overlooked one of the dramatic drops of Sipi’s multiple falls.
After a short rest, we set out on a hike with a local guide (and the resort’s friendly dog who insisted on accompanying us) to explore the falls and surrounding villages.
We walked through the hills, which were beautifully covered in terraced fields of maize, plantains, and coffee, stopping along the way to greet people, discuss local farming and architecture, and let livestock pass us on the path. Although it was evident that the people living in the area get by on very little, I was struck by the feeling that subsistence farming on the tranquil slopes of an equatorial mountain seemed preferable to life in the overcrowded slums ringing Kampala.
Eventually we reached the highest fall, which cascades off the top of a cliff, with the runoff then intriguingly disappearing into a series of old lava tubes before later reemerging. The rainforest-like microclimate surrounding the falls reminded me of the mists that rose from Victoria Falls.
We trekked further, climbing down to the base of a second waterfall and peering out at it from a cave that was hidden behind it.
After a few hours of hiking, we were all exhausted and returned back to the hotel. We sat out on the lawn drinking beer, gazing out at the waterfall, and watching the sunset over the Ugandan lowlands. It was then, at our first real opportunity to chat with our traveling companions, that we discovered that only one of the Italians spoke English, and even his fluency was pretty minimal.3 After conveying to them that we had been traveling in Africa for several months, and were not just solely visiting Uganda, we unfortunately ran out of manageable conversation fodder.
Where We Stayed:
☆ Sipi Falls Resort. Three-and-a-half goats. The view was spectacular. The rooms were just okay, and the dinner menu was limited (although it was pretty good and they adapted easily to our group’s various dietary requests) – but, again, the view was to die for.
1 Do not fear, mountaingoriillacoffeetours.shutterfly.com is not an amateurish phishing scam, MGCT really misspelled “gorilla” in their URL. Try not to judge.
2 Beyond simply wanting to keep my money in Uganda – many of the tour companies operating in Uganda are foreign-based/owned – I also appreciated the “Why Us?” section of MGCT’s website, as it kind of spoke to my travel ethos… “Probably you are the kind of traveler who prefer self organized journey instead of leaving everything in tour operator’s hands. You are the kind of traveler we like!”
3 This should not be construed as any sort of normative statement. Although it was disappointing to discover that we would not really be able to converse with the people with whom we would be traveling for nearly two weeks, it was just as much our fault that we did not speak Italian. In a throwback to our travels in Mozambique, I tried using some españoliano with them on occasion, to varying degrees of success.