By Jonathan Benaiah (The Ugandan Tourist)
I will forever reminisce the day I chose to set out with friends to uncover Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve… boy was I stoked by the magnificence of this land of plains! Rare species of fauna and flora are found here, sunsets define royalty; and the expanse of forsaken plateau will ensure that you smell the rains, even from a couple of kilometers away. But just before I pour my out heart, I need to say one or two things.
So, I imagine that there are a number of diehard fans of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean, like myself; maybe you are a fan too?
Well I have been a devotee for a very long time, and it now feels very sad to learn that Johnny Depp, who starred in all episodes as the notorious Captain Jack Sparrow will not be returning to the movies. The genius with which he commanded the Black Pearl, using a compass that lacked a navigational north, always cracked me up. I’ll miss Johnny.
Away from the movie world, It’s over 3 years now since I got married to the road; 3 full years since I made the decision to get serious with travel blogging; not counting the many years in the past that I was a writer for different organizations.
Along the way, I started a YouTube travel channel which you, my friends should support me more on, as you have done for the blog.
Allow me to say, thank you so very much for making this journey beautiful; I owe it to people like yourself for the support, encouragement, advice, referrals, and recommendations; the uplifts, and most importantly the feedback. Thank you sooooooooooooooo much!
Along the way, I have learned that traveling and going on holidays is what many people envision as the perfect version of a complete life. Don’t we see it as an opportunity to rewind, unwind and revitalize; a chance to evade from the fast-lanes of the busy world in which we live? But it’s not rosy, okay let’s say not always.
I’ve for a very long time had a thing for solo travel, of course for quite a number of reasons; and I still hold that same feeling. But in the recent past, I have come to realize an extra flavor in wandering off with a group of like-minded persons; although solitude still commands that the groups remain small.
The few group trips I have taken have turned out to be my one chance to feel like Jack Sparrow; an opportunity to enjoy a voyage in pursuit of treasure. The ship being a safari van or African Jeep, the destination being my treasure chest, while my friends have formed the perfect cabin crew.
Back to where we started… Just last weekend, with a team of 9 local vacationers, we set out from Kampala for two main reasons; to have fun, but also to uncover a little-known wildlife area, the expansive Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve.
Rubber kissed the wet tarmac at around 8h35 that one rainy morning, as we drove east through Mabira forest, where we stopped for some nyama choma at Najjembe Trading Centre; what’s a road trip without some meat on skewers?
We Visited Sipi Falls, Kapchorwa:
Our voyage led us across the new Source of the Nile bridge in Jinja, past Iganga and Mbale Town; and into the green highlands of Kapchorwa at the foothills of Mount. Elgon.
Here we hiked the three waterfalls which are separated by steep hillsides but universally branded Sipi; a popular tourist destination in Eastern Uganda.
At Sipi, water cascades over a long narrow volcanic hillside forming a sight to behold! It’s main falls descend at a vertical steep of about 95 meters, and most lodges look out to this fascinating wonder of the African continent.
It’s crazy to believe that there are chaps who choose to abseil at this point. The last craziest thing I did this close was bungee jumping in Jinja, and that moment still freaks me out each time I think of it like it did the first and second time I jumped off into gravitational space.
While in the Kapchorwa area, we visited Casa Lodge, a community-owned tourist accommodation where we had our lunch. It was a tough time dragging members of the team from the photo point to the lunch spot. The truth is I too found it extremely hard to stop taking photos.
The drive to glory land
Having munched on chips (fries) and chicken, we continued north at around 17h15 for about 2 hours on a rugged road, in the direction of our main destination, the undiscovered Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve, marveling at the sunset that followed our safari van.
Did I forget the bit where we almost got lost when we took a wrong turn?
Thank heavens we quickly found our way to the Reserve headquarters, arriving slightly after the hour of 7pm. The night was young, but the sun had since gone to its beautiful resting place.
We could however still smell the warm spirit of a true African wilderness, we could feel (as if tangible) each and every bump in the dirt road, our eyes squinted so hard through the open windows for a possible glimpse of the tall standing mountains we had heard about before we came or a wild animal running past; but all we could get in the night were hazy images.
At least a thing I was certain of was that we were at our rightful destination, and I vowed to kick the bed sheets off my legs early enough, to spy on the sun evading its hiding place behind the mountains.
The night was long, well it must have been the eagerness for the events of the next day. I recall waking up at least three separate times that Friday night. It felt like the night before Christmas as a nine-year-old.
Adventures of Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve
Saturday morning finally arrived, and so did my date with the sunrise.
I got smacked right in the face with a landscape of outstanding beauty; endless plains of golden savannah, guarded by a backdrop of hills and mountains; can you believe that we had ostriches running through our camp? Who wakes up to that, like really who gets served with such manner of glamour?
Felt like living in that olden time movie, “The Gods Must Be Crazy”, but maybe I was the crazy one.
This place instantly rekindled sweet memories of my best part of the country, Kidepo Valley National Park.
We were served with a quick hearty breakfast of bread, eggs, yams, and fruits; and off we went, deep into the bush for an early morning game drive, and a hike to one of the beautiful caves, hoping to cross paths with some awesome wildlife.
Standing atop a pier that flew across a famous cave, we breathed in the scenery like we were reigning kings and queens. This point reminded me of “Pride Rock” in the ol’time favorite cartoon, the Lion King.
We returned to our campsite for lunch, having only traced the cheetah’s footsteps in the muddy path. Since cheetah was on our priority list, we agreed that an evening game drive was inevitable.
The Evening drive
Back on the untended roads, we drove past shy Jackson’s Hartebeests, Oribis, Topi, Waterbucks, Zebras, Ostriches and watched Patas Monkeys playing tag; but predators weren’t in sight.
And then the rain decided to sound a warning. Yea it was that bummer moment. The rain was trying to ruin things.
Before departing from the camp, we had been warned to not let the rains find us in the bush; for obvious reasons like getting stuck in the muddy paths.
We took a turn towards the main road, marveling at the rainbow, but our spirits were still low. No cheetah was in sight.
And then the moment presented itself…. “Stop, hand me those binoculars”, exclaimed an elated Daniel, our ranger guide, as he pulled a pair of binoculars off the dusty dashboard and instructed our driver guide, Richard, to bring the van to a silent stop.
I knew he had seen something exciting, but I couldn’t really guess what it was. Cheetah, Cheetah and Cheetah was all my mind hoped for.
The words “It’s a cheetah” sounded better than “I Do” in one of those romantic movies, as Daniel gave everyone a chance to look at the solitary male cheetah through the bins. There he was in the wooded savannah in all his grandeur, perhaps looking out for a mate or the day’s dinner.
We had to get a better look, and the photographer in me had to ensure that the moment was captured. So we drew nigh to where Mr. handsome was.
Tear marks, spotted coat, slender body, long tail, beautiful cat; all the words I could use to describe my very first wild cheetah sighting. It felt like I was living in the moment. There he was looking viciously at us and here I was taking photos of his every move.
Of course, we had to be forced to say goodbye, but that moment, like the leopard sighting in the Murchison Falls National Park, will remain a fond memory at the back of my head.
Back to our campsite, we drove, of course in the shadow of a stunning sunset, we had gotten used to those ones already.
That evening campfire tales cheered us up before the interrupting rain wanted some attention, as it sent us all prematurely to bed.
The following day, after an early morning game drive in search of eland, roan antelope, and zebras; we would visit a nearby Karamajong community for a traditional dance and an experience of their courtship and marriage process.
Sadly, Sunday afternoon arrived faster than desirable and duty dictated that we would have to return to the city to ready ourselves for Monday to do what Monday does.
You only live once, they say, and some moments cannot be relived, but you too can visit Pian Upe and create memories as we did.
We uncovered Pian Upe only for more people to visit.
Feel free to read more about Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve, the highlights of things to do, what to expect, where to stay, how to pack, and a whole lot more in a special guide about “Everything you need to know about Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve”.
Until next time, I remain yours truly, The Ugandan Tourist.