Tales from Visiting the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary
Tourist clients of ours were recently visiting Uganda from California, not California bar in downtown Kampala but The Golden State of the United States.
So at 6:00 am, we set off for Ziwa Rhino and Wildlife Ranch located in Nakasongola district, in order to see the rare and rambunctious white rhinos.
By the by, the Rhino sanctuary is located 176km (100 miles) north of Kampala on the Gulu highway towards Murchison Falls (you have to branch off at Nakitoma Trading centre).
Ziwa Rhino and Wildlife Ranch is the only place in Uganda where you will be able to see rhinos in the wild. The sanctuary is home to twenty two (22) southern white rhinos and so our guests were excited to go for Rhino Trekking and, hopefully, if they had time, do other activities like Shoebill Trekking and Canoe Riding, Bird Watching, Night Walking and Nature Walking while there.
The ride to Nakasongola district is lit up by the blazing tropical sun as places and faces whip by like mobile postcards when you are cruising at about 80 kms per hour. There’s not much traffic, especially when you pass the Oliver Tambo training ground at Kaweweta.
This a place where Nelson Mandela and the rest of the South African National Congress (ANC) guerilla wing (Umkonto we Sizwe or Spear of the Nation) trained before returning to South Africa for an Armageddon-like showdown with the naked racism of the apartheid system of South Africa.
We stopped briefly at a roadside eatery which lay adjacent to a hotel suspiciously called “Muzungu lodge”. Muzungu means ‘white person” or “foreigner” in Swahili lingua franca.
Soon, we had reached the gates of the rhino sanctuary (which opens at 7:30 am and closes at 6:00 pm) and, after driving inside, we were met by a network of dusty roads leading into the thick undergrowth.
Thankfully, signs were everywhere so that we couldn’t get lost when looking for a place to lay our heads, before going in search of the endangered white rhinos.
Ziwa rhino sanctuary is a tranquil getaway spot set in the unspoiled surroundings of nature’s leafy welcome.
Inside another sign read:
• Any roadkill is to be reported to Rhino Fund Reception.
• Littering, feeding and touching of animals is strictly prohibited.
• Driving around or bush walks without a guide is strictly prohibited.
• Driving on the sanctuary without a guide after 17H30 is not allowed.
• FIREARMS / DRONES / GPS / PETS are absolutely forbidden – declare them at the Main Gate.
• No Jogging or Cycling Around
We soon found that there were a variety of accommodations to meet our overnight needs.
Mercifully, at the lodge we stayed, electricity is run on hydroelectric power with solar as a backup and all rooms have light and so any power cuts are reduced to a rumor.
This ensured our phone batteries had a life beyond the life we brought them with. Of course there was warm water for our guests to shower with in the evening.
Travelling light, our guests put their bags in our spacious and fairly well appointed rooms only to realize that the banquet we had the previous night couldn’t serve as breakfast too: we were famished.
And so, before any other activities, went for a breakfast in the sanctuary restaurant. It was only 8:00 am, the ride over being 2 hours.
A grinning waiter immediately informed us: “Hello sirs, our specialized chefs will provide you with a fresh, tasty and satisfying breakfast of your choice. Also, my sirs, our bar is also fully stocked with a variety of drinks such as beers, alcohol, juices, tea and coffee.”
Although the thought of a morning beer was tempting to some of our guests, they all stuck to orange juice to wash down the bacon, eggs, sausages and toast.
Any complimentary sausages for buying these sausages, my friend asked.
“No, sir,” the waiter replied, his face torn between puzzlement and amusement. Clearly, this was not Pizzeria.
After breakfast, we sought and were assigned a ranger to help our guests do some on-foot rhino trekking since vehicles tend to unsettle the rhinos; which are notoriously shy.
And why not? If a rhino showed up in my home, I would hide under any furniture available, too. And I would probably evacuate my home if that rhino showed up in a vehicle!
Anyway, the rhinos have a very big habitat at the sanctuary of about 7,000 hectares of land for them to disappear from view. The area is also surrounded by a two meter high electric fence to keep out undesired trespassers.
To be almost completely unobtrusive, however, the sanctuary got our guests a Rhino Fund Uganda vehicle, replete with a driver.
And as we drove slowly through the sanctuary, we saw Uganda kobs (an antelope with golden hide), oribis, bush bucks, and water bucks scampering here and there in silent protest to our arrival. All the while, a flight of a number bird species shaped a feathered canopy above us.
Although trekking for rhinos can be done at any time of the day, we were told that the best times are morning hours between 8:00 am and 10:00 am or between 4:00 pm and 6:00 pm: within about 2 hours you are guaranteed to see these beautiful animals if you follow these timelines.
And, sure enough, we had parked our car and 200 meters later we saw about 18 rhinos at a watering point enjoying the cool springs of nature.
We were instructed to keep quiet because you don’t want to fall victim to a stampede of unsettled rhinos. Remember in the movie ‘The Gods Must Be Crazy’? Yeah, they loved putting out fires wherever they would find them by stomping those fires into “extinguishment.”
In this case, you would become the fires of that film as you’re stomped to the other side of eternity…where fires eternally exist for those who upset innocent animals!
Oh yes, I almost forgot, insect repellents are sold near the gift shop adjacent the lodgings since many flies tend to feast on human flesh.
They are not vampiric, and so you will not turn into a vampire fly once they bite you. But short of turning you into Count Insect-cula, they are very irritating.
So we recommend you carry your own your repellent before you come watch the rhinos enjoy themselves, in peace. Yours and theirs.
And what a sight that is: the rhinos there drinking and bathing, totally oblivious to our presence. It’s a surreal experience, their breathy and brooding postures filled the air with the outsize tension of a bar on the verge of a brawl. You feel you’re the verge on something big, a force of nature ready to unveil a new chapter in your lives, but one which came to an abrupt end soon enough when the Rhinos decided to go back into the undergrowth. Thereby leaving us hanging like moviegoers who expected a different ending to a film.
Sad, yet oddly triumphant.
Although the recommended time for shoebill trekking and the canoe ride is between 6:00 am and 10: 00 am, we decided to undertake this expedition at midday.
And why not? The shoebill stork is one of the most sought after birds in Uganda and so anytime should be shoebill time.
When on a canoe, you ride into the Lugogo Swamp (not the Lugogo you left back in Kampala, this one is the original one) and observe these spectacular birds amidst the sweltering tropical heat.
Truly, we were lucky to see a few of them since we had started canoeing late; sunrise is always the best time. These birds have the biggest bills which sit like life-size noses on their faces. We can imagine them ordering pizza and then telling the waiter, “put it on my bill.”
With such a big bill, the waiter would surely expect a massive tip!
By the way, the sanctuary is home to over 300 bird species! So after the canoe ride, we undertook a birding walk along four bird trails within the sanctuary which cover woodlands, swamp and savannah.
The bird guides added the proverbial feather to our caps by showing our guests a number of bird species even though the designated time for birding is between 4:00 pm to 6:00 pm, and also 6:00 am to 9:00 am.
However, it was about 1:30 pm when we had our birding walk and, after an hour, our guests felt hungry again.
Please, don’t judge them, for we needed to stock up energy for the guided nature walk later. Which, I might add, was thoroughly enthralling…on a full tank of food.
This time, after a quick lunch, we were within the recommended time for the walk, which lasts from 7:00 am to 4:30 pm. And we saw a number of animals, birds and reptiles…uh oh…that monitor lizard we saw was like an overgrown crocodile!
The only thing that stopped some of our American guests from clinging to each other and screaming “mommy!’ was that the monitor lizard has no time for human beings. It continued on its merry way like we weren’t even there.
After we had enjoyed the nature walk, the ranger to told our guests that they could have a two-hour “night walk” between 8:30 pm and 11:30 pm, to see the nocturnal animals such as Batman, presumably. As well as, on a serious note, the solitary leopard which prowls those parts like a lion out of its jungle!
The ranger said he would provide our guests with flashlights for this expedition, but they decided to pass.
Firstly, some had seen the caped crusader in many movies…their favourite being Michael Keaton….and; secondly, one of the tourists is afraid of the dark!
Well, if that darkness includes disco lights and beers, they would lose all the fear of the dark. So they repaired back to our lodgings, freshened up, and went for a night walk around the bar counter in the sanctuary restaurant!
It was indeed an epic journey worthy of John Hannington Speke himself.
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