Uganda blogWritten by Luke Gamble
Uganda: 06 December 2009
Noah attended Daniel’s 3 year old birthday party yesterday. I was giving Mum a well deserved rest, so Noah tightly clutching Daniel’s birthday present, dutifully trotted down to Daniel’s party at the local village hall, with me in tow. I’d also just spent half an hour washing the car with Noah so needless to say, we were a little moist, but I’d slipped on a clean pair of shorts and Noah always looks sharp so we were in the zone. I thought with all these trips, having worked in townships, slums and refugee camps I would be used to an environment of chaos – not even close. To the uninitiated, a three year old birthday party is a league unto itself. If I was trying to simulate a full scale riot in the sleepy village of Martin, I could do no better than recruit a very sweet and polite Daniel and his pals and dish out loads of sweets. I’m surprised the police weren’t called – and if they had been they would have needed a riot squad.
I’m hoping this next trip will be a much a calmer affair. Uganda has come around quick – just a week back at home and we’re now back on a packed plane racing towards the next destination… Bit of a tough turn around this one but Adam is back on the crew and with the old hands of Marc and Nathan. The grand plan is to pull it out the bag and hopefully make a brilliant programme. Big focus on primates this one so I’ve been told I should feel right at home… whatever that is supposed to mean.
Airline food: 07 December 2009
Not one to make a fuss I would like to briefly mention that a staple diet of at least three meals a day has been a mainstay of the human civilization for thousands of years. Today’s airline has decided to reverse the trend, so checking in at 8am for a 10am flight, arriving at a local time of 10:45pm – qualifies each passenger to one meal, a pathetic egg and spring onion sandwich on limp brown bread – and a kit kat. Maintaining a fighting weight of 100kg is going to be a challenge on this trip with a start like that.
I did see the stewardesses once or maybe twice during the entire flight (there might have been two of them – I’m not sure), but if I had seen them a third time, I would definitely have asked for a glass of water or something to try to fill the aching chasm of hunger within. Needless to say, when we pitched up at the airport guesthouse about midnight (customs was an epic) – they had stopped serving food. We managed to plead a bowl of pumpkin soup so all was not lost but be warned if you ever fly to Uganda – you are going to pitch up wanting and thin. Start booking your tickets now.
Ngamba Island: 07 December 2009
When you do arrive – Ngamba island is amazing. A chimp sanctuary of note, amazing animals, wonderful work and a brilliant start to the mission. Anyone can come here as they run a strong eco-tourism project alongside the charitable work.
We spent the afternoon with Baron and Africa – two orphaned infant chimps that the team here had rescued, integrating themselves to the 41 strong community of chimps that live on the island. Africa’s mother had been caught and killed, her parts harvested for witchcraft – baby Africa was rescued by local authorities and Ngamba stepped in to do the rest. Baron is missing a finger on his right hand after being caught up in a snare when he was very young. Captured and used for the illegal pet trade, he was subsequently confiscated and is now living it up with the staff here. Their integration to the community here is a long process as the chimp social hierarchy is complex and delicate so they need to first bond with the juveniles (5yrs-8yrs) then when they have made some friends, bond with the sub adults (8yrs-12yrs), finally they will bond with the adults (12yrs ) whereby hopefully one of the adult females will adopt each of them respectively before they meet the alpha male of the community. Scary business meeting a big troop of chimpanzees – 98.7% DNA same as us, adult males have the strength of five men – definitely a question of talking when spoken too. Wonderful interaction with the chimps today and more planned for tomorrow – I wouldn’t say I feel right at home as I miss it too much, but these animals are easy company and brilliant fun. Great start to the trip.
Full on Chimp experience: 08 December 2009
A stormy start to the morning would be an understatement – you could hardly see for rain it was that bad. Within a matter of minutes we were completely soaked to the skin as we walked with a group of chimps, into the forest to get the full on ‘chimp experience’. For me, this meant carrying a 50kg chimp for about twenty minutes that hopped on my back (what else can you do when a 50kg chimp with 3 inch canines hops on your back?). For Adam this meant getting mugged by a chimp and losing a £250 pocket camera. Whichever way you look at it – the chimps had a good morning and totally made the most of our intrusion into their world.
After a couple of operations on two chimps with Lawrence – the head vet there who was totally professional and very competent – we headed back to Kampala and have got things set for the USPCA tomorrow – dogs and cats, helping the only charity in the whole city. I can’t wait.
Before I sign off, I should mention that chimps are wonderful creatures, deserve a lot more protection than they get and are close to being wiped out by the illegal bushmeat trade, illegal pet trade and deforestation. Support the cause and sponsor a chimp.
USPCA: 09 December 2009
The USPCA is a great organization. Run on a total voluntary basis by three founders, each of whom help out when they can; it is staffed by five individuals lead by Dr Alex – a Ugandan vet – who manages it on a day to day basis. The USPCA can’t afford its own clinic but shares its facilities with those of Alex who runs his own private practice alongside the work of the USPCA. Being clearly a bit short of bucks doesn’t stop the USPCA from paying huge attention to detail in ensuring the comfort and good welfare of the dogs and cats under its care. I was really impressed with the shelter – they have about 80 dogs looking for homes that they have rescued from the street and all of them seemed happy, healthy animals, living in harmony in runs of about 6-10 dogs based on size and age. I loved the fact each run had raised platforms for environmental stimulation, that they manage being on the edge of capacity so well and it was so clean and the staff so friendly. The cat run was tucked as far away from the main dog runs as possible and it seemed more like a giant playpen for the animals rather than a mesh box exuding a cold sterile rehoming functionality that sometimes (albeit rarely) these places can become.
I had a good day – tried to catch one dog in a bad way – failed miserably and we’ll need to track her down and see her right at some point over the next ten days, but managed to catch another one (super friendly so not the biggest challenge) and spayed her with Alex as we discussed the goals and ideals of the USPCA. She had a TVT and was riddled with ticks so wasn’t in the best health – she had ehlrichia and her spleen was massive, she also couldn’t clot, but the surgery went well and I gave her the necessary meds. It’ll be good to check on her next week.
Ideally, I would love to spend a bit more time with the USPCA. It’s a charity I didn’t know and it is doing sterling work. It has no real administration and is a true champion with what it is trying to do – stoically going about its business without any fanfare. It is the sort of unassuming charity that really motivates me so I hope WVS can support them in the future and I look forward to hopefully sending them some teams to help out.
Rhinos: 10 December 2009
Fairly non interesting fact is that about 15years ago I went to Matusadona National Park in Zimbabwe and volunteered on a rhino sanctuary. It was a great adventure, four of us who had shaved our heads for black rhinos and were high on the adventures of our first year at University, backpacked around South Africa and Zimbabwe one summer and worked on the national park as part of our overseas extramural study experience. It was my first exposure to African game and I remember quivering in my boots when we stumbled upon a lion who had a fresh kill at its feet, and basically being fairly awed by the big game experience.
Sadly, the head ranger left and his deputy got arrested for stealing, the rhinos all got poached and Zimbabwe went downhill as Mugabe began to choke it relentlessly. Things didn’t quite pan out for that project or that country, but this one in Uganda – where we are today – oozes a lot more potential and has the driving force of Angie behind it who has a steely determination to see it through and succeed.
The Rhino Fund Uganda is on a mission to turn things around. Rhinos were wiped out in Uganda in 1983, the plan of the Rhino Fund is to establish a safe sanctuary for white rhinos (southern ones as the northern population is now in numbers such that genetic viability is impossible) and reintroduce them to the National Parks. To that end they have a 70km square sanctuary that is fiercely patrolled by over 50 rangers and have a breeding population of resident white rhinos. It is proving to be a winner – the second baby was born a couple of weeks ago and is in fact the second baby ever bred in Uganda in a sanctuary. It isn’t only the rhino story that is inspiring though – the bush meat trade where we are is immense. Totally illegal but if I wanted an antelope steak it would take me less than ten minutes drive down the road to buy one. Angie is on a mission to try to conserve the wildlife so has put word out that she will take any babies that are found orphaned as a result of the bush meat trade or indiscriminate snares.
Compensating villagers for handing over baby antelopes has it’s downsides but at least she is doing something and it gives the babies a chance of life – safe sanctuary in her reserve for starters. We rescued two such animals today – totally adorable little creatures which they named Luke and Adam. Goes without saying that Luke is obviously much better looking…
Angies family are great – Chris, Nico and Nico’s girlfriend Tammy are all from South Africa and have made their lives up here in the bush. Very hospitable and good company. Looking forward to tomorrow when we get tracking the rhinos and see what it’s all about.
On other news – Marc is tearing out chunks of his wispy beard due to the fact internet is proving to be such a total nightmare. I think it’s a good individualistic look – his wife may disagree.
Becoming precious: 11 December 2009
Finished a hardcore morning of tracking rhinos today. This was great as we got to see both the babies – the only two rhinos having been born in Uganda in over 27 years – which was pretty special. Godfrey was our guide and we pranced around in front of the camera in an attempt to be oblivious to the 2.5 tonne wild white rhino about ten meters behind us. The rhinos were fairly laid back and no misadventures occurred and then we hit the road towards our next stop in Bwindi. At this point I’m going to hit you with some fun facts about white rhinos such as that they have a 16 month gestation (black rhinos have only a 15month gestation), they weigh up to 2.5 tonnes, live until about 45 years of age and graze in social groups with big flat lips (as opposed to a prehensile hooked upper lip which their much more aggressive but small solitary black rhino cousins have). Hope you feel enlightened.
After a nice farewell to the wonderful Angie and her kind family, we hit the road. Describing an 8 hour road journey, 4 hours of which were in the dark, with poor lights and variable road rules, in words other than terrifying and death defying would be tough. Luckily Adam drove heroically the whole way which meant we made good speed but also presented numerous opportunities for him to impart driving tips to other road users as we passed them and which I’m certain they all found useful. Needless to say, he got us here safe and sound, which was the key and with much relief we are now in our stop over motel before we nail another six hours road travel tomorrow. It’s just gone midnight and hitting the sack is the next mission. Looking at the ‘sack’ I want to hit, I definitely won’t be the first to have done so judging from the massive dip in it. African motels in small towns on main roads have a special reputation and I’m keen to remain as naïve about this as possible. It might not be a plan to slip a visit here onto a honeymoon itinerary – there is hot water – and a working light – which is handy or I might not be able to read the large HIV leaflet complete with stomach turning pictures that has been left in my room for me. Very thoughtful. I wish I had packed a plastic sheet for the bed though – not too sure about the big black stain in the middle of it – perhaps all this ‘stardom’ is making me a bit precious…
Driving shots: 12 December 2009
The six-hour journey took us more like nine – perhaps we were driving like old ladies or something but we had a couple of interludes to film the journey. These are great moments whereby everyone piles out of the truck and I am vaguely instructed to drive over the horizon and then turn around and come back towards camera. I mustn’t look at camera and I have to be just to the left or right of the lens. I also need to make sure there are no cars in front of me or behind me and that I maintain a constant speed throughout the entire stretch of road no matter what traffic lights, roundabouts or bends are in my way. I cannot deviate from my path and slight alteration of the plan will ruin the shot. I also have Marc barking at me down the two-way radio in Germanic guttural tones – I am unable to respond on the radio because I then look strange and this also ruins the shot. As you can imagine, these little episodes are stress free and take no time at all to film. We did a lot of them today, which may account somewhat for the three hours extra it took us.
The views were simply stunning, we drove right across the Queen Elizabeth Park and saw elephants, buffalo, lots of baboons and monkeys and lush green landscape. Stunning as it was, the arrival at the impenetrable forest in Bwindi takes some beating though – I’m currently in a large tent listening to the rain driving down on the roof – love it. This place has huge amounts of atmosphere and apparently some very large residents I’ll be meeting the day after tomorrow. Tomorrow is down as a hardcore community livestock day so providing the rain stops, I should be in for a great time.
Community Day: 13 December 2009
Hardcore community day – loved it. Wasn’t too sure what to expect, in fact none of us were, but it was brilliant. Treated about 300 animals – cows, goats, chickens and pigs and there wasn’t a dull moment. There is a huge amount to relate about the community project set up by Joy Howell which is a fantastic venture and really making a difference to the people here – anyone wishing to volunteer and help work at the school would have a wonderful trip. The school itself has six classrooms – three of which are concrete and it runs classes for 400 pupils who come from all over the region. It has an amazing feel to the place and getting behind this venture is a must. Charlie Garret, a Scottish vet and ex University professor, sadly passed away last year but worked with Joy to set up a poultry unit to help the local children get better nutrition from eating eggs – it is brilliant and working well. It was wonderful to see what he has created and the improvement it has made to the people.
The above doesn’t do justice to the project Joy has set up here – it really is something special and very worthy of support and aid. The plan is to now really up the support teams from WVS for this project and I promise anyone coming on this trip, you will have an absolutely amazing time. I’ll expand on this on the WVS site when I’m back but this project is perfect for non-vets as there is so much to help out with in the school so fingers crossed you get involved.
Fairly beat – tomorrow is a big day, off to see the gorillas so getting my strength up ready for a mountain trek – should be the business. This is one whirlwind trip. Rest of the crew are all doing great, Adam has a new blackberry which allows him to keep pace with the football scores – very bizarre in such a remote place, but great if you are a football fan. Marc is gearing up for the big trek tomorrow and Nathan has promised to run up the mountain and dazzle us all with his super fitness… promises, promises.
Gorillas: 14 December 2009
What an amazing experience – I was about 10ft away from a huge male silverback gorilla and although we did our best to keep our distance in relation to the risk of disease spread – we didn’t have a lot of choice about it. One of the blackbacks (juvenile male – they become silverbacks around the age of 10-12yrs when they go through puberty and develop the badge of seniority of the silverback) came right up to us to check us out. The group seemed calm and didn’t mind our intrusion in the least – well accustomed to tourists popping up for an hour each day. It really was a special expedition and we all enjoyed it immensely. We’re all a bit beat – it was an uphill 10km hike through dense forest – but worth every step.
Dazzling facts about gorillas before I forget them: They live in stable polygamous groups lead by a dominant male called a silverback whose job is to protect them all from danger. The main dangers being man, leopards preying on the small ones and rival males trying to steal away the females. You can get more than one silverback in a group but it be his sons and they would only be there until they have enough confidence to branch out and try to establish their own family units. The females are attracted to powerful males, females born in a particular group will leave it about 8 years of age and go to another group – this helps genetic propagation of the species. They produce normally one offspring ever 3-4yrs, gestation is 8.5-9months, and they can live for up to 50years. The groups typically comprise 5-60 gorillas. What else – they have prominent bony ridges but the key reason for this is that it not only protects the eyes when going through dense foliage but it means the facial skin has a lot of flexibility and maximises their ability to perform a wide range of facial expressions – a bit like Nathan – allowing them to communicate with other family members. Silverbacks are about 180cm tall, weigh about 300kg and if they tried to take Adam’s camera you would pay tickets to see the result. Sadly, Adam might not keep his camera in that one. Infants are weaned about 4-5 years of age but move to their mothers backs from the bellies at 5months. Marc was a particularly attractive target for one baby who went right up to him and fixed him with a beady eye. I think it wanted to groom him but realized the challenge would be too great.
In a nutshell, gorillas are great – they are on the road to recovery (there are only 800 left in the world), but numbers are increasing mainly thanks to the tireless efforts of dedicated conservationists who are championing their cause. There is no denying it is a fragile process though. Ecotourism, despite the good it does, risks a viral epidemic amongst the habituated groups (based on today’s experience contact is a given despite the 7metre ruling), climate change is affecting rainfall and global warming the vegetation. Deforestation is destroying the habitats and we need to make every effort to preserve, protect and cherish the plant and the wonderful animals within.
On other news – washing has finally been done – took a few days to dry but great to have another change of clothes, Unfortunately for the man who brought me the washing, I was in the bath at the time (no showers – it’s a tented camp so sort of outdoor bath thing) and he decided that rather than come into the bathroom to collect his tip, he would high tail it out of there without witnessing a spectacle of me in the tub. Very wise. Nathan wants to go on a camera course, Marc is upset because we got messed around by one of the Ugandan vets who let us down at the last moment to show us a lab, and Adam is shattered after a hardcore day of filming in extreme situations – Simon (cameraman from Peru and Nepal) would be proud to have a companion on the pantheon of extreme cameramen. I am blissfully happy to have seen the gorillas – wish I could have taken Cords and Noah to see them, they would have loved it, (Noah would have been right up to the silverback like a shot and caused all sorts of chaos) but a good plan to come back in years to come and hopefully do it again.
Few relaxing drinks tonight to celebrate before out 10-12 drive tomorrow back to Kampala. Fingers crossed we can catch the stray dog with the USPCA that got away – I really want to get it fixed up. Rock on.
The long drive back: 15 December 2009
13hours of death defying driving constituted today. Marc, Adam and myself split the driving with Adam nailing the night drive section with virtually no functioning headlights – he said he felt very responsible for us all – touching stuff when you are bleeding from your knuckles gripping the seat. Nevertheless, we are once again here in Kampala safe and sound. Astonishing news is that Nathan slept – almost the whole way. Very impressive.
Met up with Dave the aerial cameraman who is at this stage becoming a good friend – albeit a surreal one who I only meet in completely random places around the world. This is definitely a moment to flag up the amazing patience, dedication, work ethic and thoroughness of Pascal and Andrew from AJ Tours who have painstakingly organized all the logistics for this trip. Really great guys and if anyone ever comes to Uganda through WVS or otherwise, you’d be making a mistake not to have them looking out for you and making sure everything goes to plan.
Aerial action: 16 December 2009
The big aerial day with David the pilot and David the cameraman. Full on David-David action and they made some magic shots. Adam joined in to direct things and we kick started early hours (luxury 4 hours kip last night) with first a trip to see Angie and her gang at the rhino sanctuary. They took me along for this bit and I then proceeded to stand in the bush about 20metres away from a wild bull rhinoceros as the helicopter flew overhead. As the rhino charged from the bush directly towards me, I turned to see that Godfrey the ranger had promptly left me for dust and Adam has a great shot of me legging it from a clearing as a 2 tonne rhino crashes past. Thankfully the rhino settled down pretty quickly and didn’t seem to mind the helicopter once it got used to the noise and I had no idea I could run at that sort of speed – and neither did anyone else.
Once we had that in the bag, David swooped us back to Kampala, I nipped off in the truck for driving shots and then promptly got lost. An hour and a half later I somehow miraculously managed to find my way back to the hotel in the city centre through rush hour traffic. No idea how that happened but today has been all about my secret powers. Running and driving – all going on here.
The aerial team slipped off to Ngamba to nail some chimp shots of the island and now we are back at base and all looking a touch shabby, except for Nathan who spent the day ‘editing’ in the hotel. Somehow he has that steely glint of alertness that we just can’t seem to shake, no matter how grueling the pace.
I think Marc will now feel a huge weight off his shoulders now it has all come together but breaking news is that one of the dogs we needed to revisit tomorrow has been released, so big drama and that may well sink Marc into a deep depression just when he was almost feeling good. Hopefully a pizza and chips will turn him around – can’t beat good local food.
Itâ€™s (another) wrap!: 18 December 2009
Big last day – lots and lots to do before our flight at midnight, but it went with a blur and we managed to squeeze everything in. Yes, we did catch the dog and it was a big op… Pascal saw us off with a fantastic Congolese dinner – delicious. What a great guy and all his team were all there to send us off; Andrew, Thierry, Adam and Lawrence from Ngamba also joined us which was great. Really lovely way to finish the trip and remember the great people we have worked with and met.
The big sad bit though was the fact it was Nathan/Bruce/Narender/Chai/Lupe Carr’s last day on a shoot with the crew. He will now be locked in a box like room editing shows for the next three months – looking at me endlessly for 12hours a day on about three tv screens. Lucky guy.
Uganda and the gorillas was a great way to end his trips with us – none of us will forget this one – or any of them for that matter – but it will be strange doing the last one without him. I’ll miss his silence and daytime sleeping patterns, the constant efforts to try to touch my microphone and change batteries and his general ability to blend as a native into any country in the world, but most of all, I’ll miss having someone who has become one of my good friends along for the ride. Thanks buddy and I’ll be sure to think of you sipping coffee in the edit suite when I’m on another 14-hour flight in a few weeks, economy, Iberia style. Rock on.