Finding the elusive shoebill stork In Uganda

I can’t believe I am saying this, but hello from Uganda! Since Covid, it is of course much more difficult to travel, but since I have a serious travel addiction I knew this Christmas break I had to get out of Saudi to have an adventure. I got the idea in my head since I applied to a conference on Conservation Biology that was supposed to take place in Rwanda this December. Unfortunately, it was pushed online, but prior to it becoming an online event I was looking up things to do in Rwanda and found gorilla trekking, which is something that’s always been on my bucket list, and it is something David has always wanted to do as well. I started researching which countries you can trek to gorillas, and I came across Uganda. This would’ve been the easiest option for us since Rwanda requires PCR test every few days while traveling within the country and Congo seems a bit unsafe at the moment. 

This was the first international trip David and I have done together since Covid, our last big trip together was in Malaysia. We did a two week tour, and I spent a few days researching tour companies, and finally chose one based on price and the activities it included. We were happy to have a packed schedule and as always I wanted to do as much as possible in our limited time there. Some prerequisites included gorilla trekking, chimp trekking, and as many safari game drives as possible. In the end we went with a company called Lifetime Experiences Safari and I 100% recommend it. David and I had our own little private tour, and everything was planned for us so we didn’t have to worry about anything. All our food was included and the places we stayed exceeded our expectations. Our driver was named Baylon and he was great, he was friendly and organized. 

Traveling right now with the COVID situation is very stressful, I won’t sugar coat it, but for my mental health it was 100 percent worth it. It was my first time not going home for Christmas, which of course is hard, but I had such a special holiday season doing what I love, which is doing new things and traveling. We flew Emirates through Dubai. Our original flight had a three hour layover, but unfortunately this was cancelled and they gave us a 24 hour layover which to me was not okay, so I called and complained and they rebooked us to have a 9 hour layover. Fortunately, we had access to a lounge (thanks mom) that had unlimited food, wifi, and drinks, so we spent our whole layover in the lounge. To travel to Uganda we needed one PCR test to arrive and another PCR test from the airport upon arrival. My biggest fear was that we’d get there and the test would be positive, because then I would be stuck in Uganda to quarantine and would miss everything. But fortunately, after refreshing my email every 2 minutes throughout the night, we received confirmation that we were negative, woo. The first night we stayed in a hotel near the airport. Baylon picked us up at the airport and brought us to the hotel. David and I were so in love with the car we got in the tour, it is a perfect safari car with a roof that easily pops up.

Enjoying our free lounge drinks
Tired but finally arriving in Entebbe

We arrived to our hotel in the evening and checked in. This night wasn’t included in the package so I chose a pretty cheap spot, but it was lovely. The hotel was called BlueMonkey and we slept in a permanent tent that has a bed, electricity, and mosquito net. That evening we ordered some local vegetarian Ugandan food (avocado, taro, ugali, potato, groundnuts, beans, rice) which was super cheap, and we celebrated our arrival with some beers. We were supposed to get our COVID results in 3 hours but we ended up getting them in the middle of the night, and finally when we received them could I sleep peacefully. The morning had a massive thunder storm right above us, which was so amazing and cozy. We were staying right next to Lake Victoria, the biggest lake in Africa and one of the biggest in the world. But since we were near the lake apparently it is common for rain and thunderstorms here. I can’t complain though I absolutely loved sleeping in the tent through the storm. 

Local food on day 1

The next morning Baylon picked us up bright and early, a common occurrence on our trip, and we headed on our journey to the Mabamba Swamp, home to the elusive shoebill stork. This is a very cool bird, that’s massive and has a massive shoe-like beak. They are so bizarre looking but so extremely cool. Our guide was an amazing and talented birder and was pointing out every single bird we saw. Uganda is famous for its diversity of birds, home to over 1,000 species in the country. We were on this tiny motorized canoe, which fit me and David, the bird guide, and the driver. It was drizzling a bit and was colder than I anticipated, but fortunately for us our guide was so good and found us a shoebill! We got super close and watched it for a long time. It was hunting (they commonly eat lungfish) and then after we watched it for a while it flew away. They are the most bizarre looking bird I’ve ever seen, and I’m not going to lie they look like they want to murder you when they stare you in the eye. After our shoebill watching we meandered through the swamp past beautiful purple waterlillies and saw loads of different birds. Some tiny and colorful and some big predators, it was a lovely morning. Afterwards, we Baylon drove us to our hotel in Kampala. The hotel was called Forest Cottages, and although it was near the city, we really felt like we were in the middle of the forest. We got there around lunch and ate at their restaurant for lunch, which was delicious. It was raining and thundering this day but we really appreciated the change of weather as it never rains in Saudi. We went in the sauna and jumped in the pool, and also hung out in our hotel room and watched Netflix in the bed with our blinds wide open so we could watch the storm. It was super cozy and relaxing. We had a delicious vegetarian dinner (paneer Masala for me) with a brownie and ice cream for dessert, and of course some beers to go with it. It was a fabulous stay, and we were picked up the next morning around 6:30 AM

Found a beautiful and prehistoric looking shoebill
Enjoying the thunderstorm in our cozy hotel room
Delicious Indian food for dinner

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