After a leisurely breakfast overlooking the tranquil Nile, we set off on our return journey via Lake Albert. The murrum road wound its way through small villages and towards the flat lakeside. We had to pause several times to let other road users pass.
These are the famous Acholi cattle with their magnificent horns. We later learned that many of the cattle living around Butiaba were brought there by the army after they were rounded up further north during the days of the LRA insurgency. Butiaba was also the location of Hemmingway’s second accident and was once a thriving port on the lake where travellers could take lake steamers to/from Congo and Sudan. In the 1930s seaplanes from Cairo re-fuelled here on route to East Africa. The lake runway was apparently marked by white buoys but these became a favourite snack of the crocodiles – perhaps because they resembled baby hippos. The airstrip was relocated on land. Unfortunately the floods of 1962 destroyed the dockside buildings and sunk the steamships and Butiaba became once more a sleepy fishing village.
From the lakeside, the rift escarpment dominates the horizon on one side of the lake and on the other, the Blue Mountains of Congo, but these were hidden in the haze on the day we were there. From the hot dusty plain we climbed steeply up to the top of the escarpment for expansive views back towards the lake.
The scenery on the high plateau was quite a contrast. We found rolling, verdant countryside full of banana groves, small farms and later extensive sugar plantations which supplied a large sugar factory.
The road passes through the Budongo Forest Reserve which is renowned for birdlife, but we were not very lucky at the spot we chose to stop.
After a drink stop in Masindi we continued to the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary where we spent the night at Amuka Lodge in anticipation of our Rhino Experience the next day.
It was certainly good advice to visit the rhinos in the morning which was much cooler than the evening before, so the rhinos were more apt to be active, and it was more comfortable for us walking through the grasslands to find them. This is definitely a walking safari. The rhinos tend to rest in the heat of the day. Each rhino has a ranger looking after it 24/7 so the control room know where all the rhinos are in the 80km² fenced reserve. There has not yet been an attempt to poach rhino, but poachers for bushmeat are the sanctuary’s biggest problem. Nightly incursions put the rangers in danger and decimate the other wildlife. It appears that the meat is not taken for local consumption but for trading with the north so is well organised and difficult to tackle without full support from judiciary and the law. Fines for poaching are small and the poachers soon return to their trade.
The last wild Ugandan white rhino was shot in Murchison Falls in 1982 and no black rhinos have been seen since 1983 in Kidepo, where in the 1970s there were around 300 animals. The aim of the Rhino Fund is to reintroduce rhinos to Uganda by educating local people about the importance of rhinos and by breeding animals in the safety of the sanctuary to establish a viable population. The rhinos prefer to graze shorter grass so the sanctuary allows local cattle herders to bring their animals into the sanctuary on a daily basis to keep the longer grass under control. An arrangement which benefits both parties.
After a safety briefing and talk about rhinos, our guide lead us through the grasslands and scrub to a mother and calf grazing by some bushes. While we were fully absorbed in watching them, our guide whispered to us to move a little and we turned to find Daddy rhino trotting into view. He wandered straight up to junior and did some playful horn butting, before quickly losing interest, flopping down and going to sleep.
Our ranger explained that this is how the male rhinos teach their sons how to fight – which they need to know how to do if they are going win the females! Some of the males are having part of their horn removed to prevent them damaging each other when fighting. Also to prevent injury to the calves should a male take against one, as happened a few years ago. Fortunately the youngster was tossed into a bush and the male could not get to it, so it survived.
The first calf born in Uganda was Obama, so named because his mother was from USA and his father from Kenya! There have now been 14 births, the latest later on the day we visited, the expectant mother is in this group. The females tend to stick together until they calve. Males are solitary. The females have been known to face off a male by dint of numbers, when one was trying to split them up!
The new calf was named Noelle, appropriate for the time of year and his mother’s name, Malaika, means angel. Meet all the rhinos here.
Standing so close to these endangered animals was an amazing experience. They seemed so docile yet somewhat menacing. Not really beautiful or cuddly, they are nonetheless impressive animals. The dedication of the staff at the sanctuary is certainly to be applauded and this phase has been very successful so far, on a shoestring budget. Future plans to reintroduce rhinos into the National Parks will be fraught with difficulty, not least how to protect the animals from poachers who, despite the best efforts of the rangers, are very active and well armed.
The heat of the day was increasing while we watched another mother and calf. The ranger asked if we could hear the squeaking sounds the calf was making. It indicated that he was getting tired and wanted to suckle, then sleep. Not unlike a whinging toddler! The mother ignored him for a while, but then gave in. It was time for us to go and leave them in peace to enjoy the rest of their day.