Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Ritchies' Farewell Tour: Stage 5, petit dejeuner en plein air at Lake Mburo National Park

By late November we were within a whisker of leaving Uganda, probably for ever - though who can be certain of anything in this life? Our farewell tour had to feature our favourite places, so that meant it had to include another sojourn at Lake Mburo National Park and Mahingo Lodge. (Well, someone has to do it!) Equally importantly, we were keen to show our friend Angela one of the most magical places we had been lucky enough to visit over the last two years or so.

For Stuart, a visit to Mahingo means sitting by the pool or in the bar with a pair of binoculars and observing the animals from afar as they visit the waterhole down below the rocky escarpment. Here a herd of eland gather in early morning, followed by other animals as the day goes on.

A topi nuzzles at the salt lick, flanked by a couple of bush bucks.

A waterbuck stoops to drink.

A herd of impala, male at front right with his harem around him, lick the minerals from the soil.

Some aimless zebra stand around doing nothing very much while behind them a couple of rather indistinct warthog kneel to graze.

So, you can see why Stuart really doesn't see the point of leaving the comforts of Mahingo Lodge. He can do his safari with a cold Club in his hand.

Angela and I, however, were made of stronger stuff. By seven o' clock in the morning we had clambered aboard the Mahingo four-by-four and were on our way to see who else was out and about at that time of day.

The answer is, of course, a lot of creatures, and all within a few yards of our vehicle. We had scarcely left the lodge when we saw this red-eyed/ring-necked dove.

A couple of African grey hornbill flapped across to a nearby tree.

Lake Mburo National Park is wooded savannah, with some swamp near the lake. As we descended the escarpment on which the lodge is built, we came across herds of animals, like these female impala, watching us curiously as we bumped past.

And their lord and master a few yards away.

Some, like this zebra and warthog, just stood around waiting to be photographed.

A rather surprised looking bare-faced go-away-bird continued with its morning ablutions, proving something of a contortionist.

The topi just stared. I love these lugubrious-looking antelopes with their chestnut and black coats.

These two swallows look as if they're not on speaking terms.

Suddenly, we rounded a bend and there, right before us, was a family of illegal immigrants.

These Ankole cattle had sneaked across the park boundaries to enjoy its lush grass. And it appeared they were not alone. We crept forward, hoping these rather intimidating animals would move.

Their herder was nowhere in sight. Probably hiding in the bush, said our ranger. The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) impounds stray cattle and charges their owners for their release. Quite challenging herding this lot, I would have thought. Fortunately, the cows just put their heads down and moved off.

Relieved, we went on our way, passing herds of eland, the world's largest antelope.

At our feet were some Senegal lapwing.

Above our heads, scanning the horizon for its breakfast, was a brown snake eagle.

But it was time for our breakfast now. We climbed a nearby hill, from which we could see several of the surrounding lakes.

You may be able to make out a hazy volcanic cone between the lake and the far-off hills which look over the Tanzanian border. Our ranger pointed out the corrugated iron roofs of one of Uganda's refugee camps, beyond the lake and deep among the hills. Set up for Rwandans, these camps are now taking in thousands of Congolese refugees every week once they have been processed at the reception centres on the western border.

We walked along the ridge, past acacia trees which had almost taken over as there are no longer any large herbivores like elephants to keep them under control. Apparently, there is a possibility that giraffe might be reintroduced. They would love the acacia. Lake Mburo National Park has suffered seriously from over-hunting, which killed off all the larger animals, and over-grazing by domestic cattle like those we had seen earlier. A large part of the park was given away to local people for cattle-grazing, so infiltration by local herds into the remaining area is not acceptable. Poachers are also still a major problem. Local farmers are - understandably - often tempted to kill leopards and other predators which threaten their goats and cows. The UWA cannot afford to pay compensation. However, Mahingo Lodge has a community project part of which involves compensating farmers if they can show that one of their herd has been killed.

Back to our breakfast. We had it in style, looking out over the lakes, trees and hills, a feast of home-made bread, Ugandan coffee, little sweet bananas and pineapple dripping with juice.

What a sight: mile after mile of wooded savannah, with the morning mist just lifting from the hills.

However, it was time to go back, through the woodland...

...and through the puddles, sharing the rainy season mud with bemused-looking buffalo.

Surprise, surprise: what did we see in front of us?

Our ranger guessed that there were about 200 head of cattle in this illicit herd - a different one from the one we had encountered on our outward trip. Cows may all look the same at first glance, but they're not. Some live a lop-sided existence, having lost a horn in a fight or other accident. Others are quite different in colour from the rest, partly to do with the introduction of Friesian cattle to improve the stock of the local cows and the quality and quantity of milk. In the past, cattle were currency; now they need to make an important contribution to food security across the country, not just to that of an individual family.

We drove on. Half-hidden among the lush rainy-season grass, were some Egyptian geese...

...some baboons, and a vervet monkey.

Soon we were back at the lodge, with the prospect of a delicious lunch and an afternoon by the pool. Without stirring from the rocks, there was plenty to see: this emerald-spotted wood-dove, for example...

... these firefinches...

..and lots and lots of Ruppell's long-tailed starlings and some greater/lesser blue-eared starlings. I just loved their glossy blue and mauve feathers. They sang to each other all day long, and flew back and forth with materials for building their nests.

Time to return to the balcony for our sundowner. We found the cold Club and the warigi and tonic very conducive to wildlife observation.

There was a bushbuck down below keeping watch from the top of a termite mound...

... and a few impala at the waterhole.

The sun set through the brooding storm clouds. It was going to pour. And it did...the next day. Our final evening, however, was glorious.