Although this is the first installment of my trip report. It'll be a long time before I finish as the photos from later in the trip won't be ready for quite a while. I have so many of birds, chimps and gorillas that it'll take weeks for me to get through them and get to Ruaha. And rushing through them would take away part of the pleasure. So, you'll have to bear with me, and if a break becomes just too long, I'll just start a part two. Ruaha will be a separate report anyway, so that it is filed under Tanzania.
"Now how does that Robert Frost poem go?"
Briefly, and contrary to my usual style, I will take away some of the suspense by giving a quick summary.
The Chimpanzee Habituation Experience (stop singing "I'm a Voodoo Chile" - it is no relation at all... and you're not!) was "superb with huge caveats". Contrary to expectations there are hills in there, there are massive bloody elephants running around that are distressingly easy to see, and those early Tarzan movies were not making it all up - there are vines that wrap around your ankles, plants that grab you and try to rip your clothes off like an over-eager teenage beau, and even swamps of black mud that would suck German tourists down to their doom if there wasn't a ranger and porter there to pull them out. And the chimps really move! I was assured even by the rangers as we started out that the chimps wouldn't move that much, but both days we were like Alice running after that rabbit down his hole and through the looking glass, again and again. Most pictures involve feeding since most of the rest of the time they were loping along with us in hot pursuit. It was great, great fun, the chimps were amazing, the photo ops great as long as you can shoot f/2.8 and ISO 3200 or equivalent (f/4 and 6400) happily, and we were really lucky with the weather. It didn't rain either day. But while the first day was as expected people-wise, on there second day there were six doing the habituation together and then another 20 pr so showed up for the hour-long viewing. With four rangers and a porter in there too, among ten or so chimps it was bloody chaos for an hour or so and I nearly went home. However, then a small group broke away and we habituationers followed them, leaving behind the larger group, and as we followed more and more chimps came out of the forest to join the conga line and it was one of my best wildlife experiences ever, which I won't spoil just yet by telling you about it. Meeting an elephant totally by surprise in dense jungle was one of the most disconcerting and comical wildlife experiences I have had and I will also save that for.a full description. The rangers are good with the chimps and armed, but they are not properly trained walking guides and somebody is going to get hurt if they put that number of people in there at the same time. Primate Lodge is very well located and the tents are far apart and spacious , providing a good refuge from the over-excited tour groups that sometimes use the place. I had excellent sightings of monkeys and some birds from the lodge of which the value shouldn't be underestimated.
The mongooses were seen but not in the company of researchers, and seeing the otters generally requires you to remain on shore, quiet and still and wait, but Lake Mutanda will deliver for the keen.
Queen Elizabeth National Park was a shock, even after reading about it. We saw what it had to offer and a couple of special sightings for me, but it is a crazy place and the only park in Africa that has left me speechless with horror and in angry dispute with my guide (we made up quickly - we were both just doing the male chimp tree-beating thing really). However, do not miss it. Take a Valium and tape up your mouth until you acclimatize, but don't miss it. Queen Elizabeth Bush Lodge is a good, bad option (there are only bad options). There are nice people there, it has nice views, and it is not too far from the park. We visited Mweya and were instantly certain we would have really disliked it, but it is definitely much more comfortable than Bush Lodge, The driving to and from the various bits of the park is boring enough even from these two locations so I wouldn't really consider staying elsewhere unless I were there just for a boat trip.
You really should drive Kasese to Kisoro if you go to this part of the world, it is a fabulous drive (as long as someone else is at the wheel). So, so beautiful and unexpected in Africa. It takes much longer than going to Buhoma but almost every minute of travel is pure pleasure until it gets dark (when it gets very hairy). The walk from Buhoma to Nkuringo gets great reviews, but I would do it Nkuringo to Buhoma, after having driven the other way. I definitely think there is a lot more to this area than the gorillas. Sure, there are a lot of people, but remarkable and interesting people and the scenery is so, so good. If only it weren't in cloud much of the time. My own trek was uneventful and very successful. We lost one tourist to exhaustion on the way back (it is a wee bit steep) but were back at the ranger station for lunch. Piece of cake I mouthed at the end as my lungs struggled to function. Porters are as-advertised great. Take one for the company and so you don't damage your cameras when you do a "Laurel and Hardy and a banana skin" type pratfall on mud that is as slippery as ice in places.
Uganda is a photographer's paradise, which makes Tanzania and Kenya look a bit dull and frumpy. Full of colours, lines, light and characters. Unfortunately I wasn't allowed to stop every five minutes, and I wished I could. It is also unfortunate that the rains were coming and the sun broke through the clouds only infrequently. A special mention to the road from Lake Mutanda to Nkuringo at dawn, when there is a sea of fog all the way to Congo, and to the charming people of Uganda (even the six-year olds who call you a stupid mzungu or something even worse that your guide refuses to translate).
Accommodation and activities and the way they are organized is all a bit "meh" and the sheer number of people is disorientating at times even if you are from Bangkok, but it's very much worth it for the things you see, hear and smell.
So that's the trip report done then - ther rest is mere frippery and navel gazing, but I like my navel.
What a very fine navel!