Mpanga Forest

There is always demand for a nature get-away that isn't far from Kampala and I wish I had discovered Mpanga Forest before living in Uganda for a couple of years to take better advantage of this little-known escape from the city.  Mpanga Forest is great for a day trip or a cheap option for spending the night away from the city; after our first visit a couple of years ago, I always keep it in mind as a place to escape life's hustle.

Butterflies, hornbills, and red-tailed monkeys are the main attractions at Mpanga Forest, and there are plenty to appreciate.  I saw each one from the porch of the simple bamboo cabin, where we spent the night at the beginning of this year.  The cabin is 40,000 shillings/night (just over $10) and provides the right atmosphere for rest and reflection.  Sitting on that porch surrounded by the forest, I felt places within myself opening, places I hadn't listened to in quite some time.

Here are some photos I have taken during a few different trips to Mpanga Forest.

Visiting the Ik, Uganda's "lost tribe"

Our trip to Kidepo Valley was splendid in many ways, but what really set it apart from other trips around East Africa was our New Years' Eve visit to Uganda's "lost tribe," the Ik.  In a region dominated by the Karamajong tribe, a people group still living very traditionally, the Ik (pronounced eek) have set themselves apart from their neighbors both in geography and in language.  After being forcibly removed by the government from what is now Kidepo National Park, the Ik supposedly wanted to avoid the violent clashes among the Karamajong, so they took to the hills.

And to those hills we went.  Eric's mother, Cathy, and I hiked with a few others through the mountains and valleys, an incredibly stunning scene in a remote corner of Uganda, for 5 very long hours.  We set out in the morning and began to walk, first among the lands of the Karamajong.

The hike was not easy, and after several hours of our guides telling us we were "close," we finally reached a small village where our hosts, the Ik, were waiting for us.  They greeted us with a song and a dance and later took us around their small village, showing us their granaries, and letting us observe their lives. Communication was sparse; .even our Karamajong guides could not understand the Ik language, but it was fascinating to discover what kinds of communication were universal among us.  A thumbs up?  An "ok" sign?  If nothing else, a smile!

As we left the Ik, a people so remotely tucked away, I reflected on how that night the rest of the world would be ringing in the "new year," yet the Ik lived not according to our calendars and wouldn't see any difference between that day and the next.  Our visit to a culture so vastly different from my own brought up several thoughts about who we are as humanity, what we share, and how our differences came to be.  This unique tribe will sadly, but likely disappear in the next few decades, leaving the world a little less aware of our human diversity.

The wilderness of Kidepo

We lucked out with a trip over New Years a couple years ago to Uganda's most remote and highly-lauded game park, Kidepo National Park.  Situated in the corner of the country between Kenya and South Sudan, Kidepo Valley required either a couple days' drive from Kampala or a flight.  Part of our lucking-out included a stunning flight over the country.  When we landed, we were escorted to Apoka lodge where the remoteness of the landscape met luxury.  We had bathtubs overlooking the savannah and an infinity pool overlooking a watering hole.

Kidepo is a place where the most well-safari-ed come to safari, and with good reason.  Each day, we came across a pride of lions, once just after they had killed a water buffalo for breakfast.  The park also has all the other big game, along with one of the best variety of birds in Africa.  Our time at Apoka was my favorite Ugandan get-away so far, and that's saying a lot!

A flight to Kidepo valley

As December marches on toward the end of 2015, I'm reminded of how we ended our year in 2013 - the last time we stayed in Uganda for the holidays.  We had nothing out of the ordinary planned for the last week of the year, but we ended up winning the lottery, so to speak, of New Years trips.  To make a long story short, we finagled our way into a flight to Kidepo valley, location of the most remote game park in Uganda, with a 2-night stay at one of the best lodges in the country.  Others had dropped out of an all-expenses paid trip and through a friendly travel agent and a generous mother-in-law, we were offered their spots.

More to come on the game park, lodge, and the people of that region in the coming weeks, but for now I share with you the beauty of the flight across Uganda and into Kidepo valley.  We flew low in our small plane over the shores of Lake Victoria spotting island fishing villages, followed the Nile River up to Murchison Falls National Park and convinced the pilot to circle the famous falls, then landed in the remote valley spotted with the huts of the Karamajong tribe.  Flights like these are always a treat, reminding me of the great beauty and diversity of this country.

Unwinding in Lake Mburo

Uganda has taught me how ridiculous we Americans are when we glorify being busy.  Over the past few years, while living in Uganda, I've reveled in living a life balanced between work, play, and rest, trying to avoid my culture's tendency toward workaholism.  But then I had a baby and started a new business in my "free time," besides continuing to work my other job.  For better or for worse, busy has been the word of the season for me.  Between the new business (stay tuned for details on that), Eric's PhD, our jobs, and our baby, there has been little time for rest and play in the last few months.

So when Eric's sister and her fiance (also named Eric!) came to visit for the Thanksgiving holiday, we were grateful for the opportunity to unplug with them for just a day and half at Lake Mburo National Park.  This park is often overlooked on the tourist circuit, but it is a fantastic place for a quick get-away from Kampala.  The last time I was there, I took a weekend of solitude after another busy period of life to contemplate my pregnancy.  This time, we took our 6-month old baby on his first safari.

We were spoiled during our stay at Mihingo Lodge, certainly the most luxurious in the park.  We enjoyed the incredible food in the lodge decked out in Swahili chic decor - my favorite style.  There was an infinity pool overlooking a watering hole and we had coffee on our cabin's porch while watching the sun rise over Lake Mburo (well, Eric watched the sunrise.  I slept!)  We even saw bush babies, a nocturnal primate, at Mihingo Lodge's deck they have built for them to come and snag a few snacks.

We were so grateful for the time away, even just a day and a half, to unwind and enjoy the company of family in this serene environment.