The re-emergence of the East African country of Uganda as a bona-fide hunting destination is very exciting news indeed. I use the term re-emergence because many subscribers to The Hunting Report may not be aware that Uganda was at one time looked upon as one of Africa's premier hunting areas. Many of the old ivory hunters, WDM Bell among them, plied their trade there with devastating effect. Even Theodore Roosevelt added his name to the list of famous hunters who crisscrossed this beautiful land.
My wife, Sandy, and I recently returned from a mid-November hunting and fact-finding safari in Uganda. Our purpose was to experience firsthand the country, its people and some of the hunting currently available, as well as to personally meet with Misters Bruce Martin and Christian Weth, two of the several hunting operators who have either been granted, or soon will be granted, areas and/or animal quotas by the Uganda Wildlife Authority. Of course, this was a formidable undertaking for one trip, but I believe we came away with a fairly accurate assessment of the situation as it exists today.
It is general knowledge that Uganda is in the process of pulling itself out of the quicksand of questionable government, civil war, war with Tanzania and more than one reign of terror. The thing that surprised Sandy and me is the extent to which the country has done just that. Everywhere we went, we encountered smiling, upbeat people and a sense of national pride so lacking in other African countries that have suffered similar histories. So, at least from our perspective, it would seem that those hunters concerned about security issues in Uganda need not worry. Aside from those measures prudent travelers take anywhere, we went about our business just as we would in America. Also, we did not observe any physical scars of war, as are so evident in countries such as Liberia and Mozambique.
We booked our hunt with Bruce Martin, a Uganda businessman originally from South Africa, who currently conducts hunts out of his Lake Albert Safari Lodge. The lodge is located in the Kabwoya Wildlife Reserve, adjoining picturesque Lake Albert. Martin's operation has been mentioned in these pages before.
Mel and Sandy Toponce with Mel's Ugandan kob.
Upon arrival at Entebbe airport, we were met by Martin, who whisked us through gun clearance formalities in short-order, due to his having arranged for the necessary Temporary Firearms Permit in advance. Interestingly, we were told that my gun case was never put on the arrival baggage carousel, but was immediately collected by the Aviation Security Police and taken directly to their office for safekeeping. This is in marked contrast to the procedures in many other African airports, where gun cases seem mysteriously to disappear after being off-loaded from the aircraft. (This quick import procedure, however, was offset somewhat by the frustrating two-and-one-half hours it took us to go through security and complete our firearms check-in when we departed the country. The airport personnel seemed confused at times and even referred to operations manuals during our ordeal).
After paying US $50 each in cash for our entry visa, we departed by vehicle for the approximate five-hour road trip to Lake Albert. (Martin, a pilot, also offers an optional one-hour light aircraft charter at extra cost). While we were passing through the capital city of Kampala, Martin pointed out that hunters, in order to obtain better exchange rates, are advised to stop at one of the larger banks there and exchange money for Uganda shillings, the local currency. Just be advised that US $100 and $50 bills carry a more favorable exchange rate than US $20 and smaller bills. Also, it is to be noted that US bills dated earlier than year 2000 are not generally accepted throughout Uganda! Luckily, the bulk of the US currency we carried were of this date or later, so we avoided what could have been a very unpleasant situation. (We were told before leaving the US that traveler's checks and credit cards carry stiff surcharges and are not generally accepted throughout the country).
Dining area overlooking Lake Albert from Lake Albert Lodge.
We found the lodge complex attractive, with several thatched cottages and safari tents, along with the associated dining, lounging and support buildings, perched on the bluff above the lake. The entire facility enjoyed a commanding view of the Blue Mountains of the Democratic Republic of the Congo across the vast expanse of blue water below.
Anxious to begin hunting, we climbed aboard a typical 4-wheel-drive safari vehicle, replete with sun cover, and made our way out into the long grass. Since it is common knowledge that Uganda's wildlife suffered enormously from shooting for meat by soldiers during the above-mentioned wars, the big question in our minds was, "Is there anything left?" That question was soon to be answered, as we encountered herd after herd of Uganda kob, along with numerous Nile bushbuck, oribi, warthog, East African bush duiker, a few buffalo and Jackson's hartebeest and waterbuck. The picture presented was a very bright one indeed.
The following day, using a .260 caliber rifle, I collected a very nice Uganda kob, which is the animal I had come for, after looking over many fine males. I also turned down several medium-sized bushbuck. During our hunt, Martin talked about the Kabwoya Wildlife Reserve, explaining that it is 87 kilometers square, and is Uganda's newest. Basically, it is a portion of a savannah plain between the Bunyoro Escarpment and Lake Albert, in Uganda's part of the Rift Valley system. Through a tri-partite Contractual Agreement, his Lake Albert Safaris Ltd. is managing the reserve through tourism "for the purpose of restoring the wildlife populations, conserving vegetation resources and generating revenues for the benefit of the nation and local communities." Martin went on to remark that wildlife populations had increased dramatically at Kabwoya in recent years. Some animals had been relocated from Murchison Falls National Park, and plans were in place for more, including giant forest hog.
As part of our fact-finding mission, Sandy and I took a break from hunting and, through the efforts of Bruce Martin, engaged the services of Mr. Herbert K., of Done Way Tours in Kampala, to travel by 4wd vehicle some 200 or so kilometers north to Murchison Falls National Park. There, we took a launch tour with G & C Wild Frontiers Tours to view the impressive Murchison Falls from below and to photograph the prolific wildlife, which included hippos and crocodiles, along the banks of the Victoria Nile en route. The following day, we drove the wildlife viewing roads of the Murchison Falls National Park, and Sandy was able to photograph myriad wildlife.
Our accommodation during our four nights in the area was at the Nile Safari Lodge, located just outside the park, on the banks of the Albert Nile. Each combination tent/wooden structure with en-suite toilet and "under the stars" shower had a splendid view of the Albert Nile from its own private deck. From there, one could take morning tea while viewing hippos and elephants in the park across the river, and monkeys in the trees above the deck. All in all, it was a very lovely setting and one surely to please non-hunter wives, as was the case with mine. Meals were served in a nearby open-air, covered dining area and were outstanding. As one might expect, the service was likewise.
On our road journey to and from Murchison Falls, we distributed humanitarian goods to multiple schools and villages, under Safari Club Foundation's SafariCare program. This proved to be a heartwarming experience, and one of the high points of our Uganda experience.
Upon our return to Lake Albert Safari Lodge, we met up with 41-year-old Errington Miles, a South African PH working with Bruce Martin. Although relatively new to the business, Miles proved to be a stellar PH, and a most enjoyable person with whom to hunt. His enthusiasm was remarkable. With Miles, we looked at perhaps 25 or more bushbuck one day, approximately half of which were males. Since I had shot bushbuck before in Kenya and Cameroon, I was looking for a truly huge trophy ram. We did not locate one, so I elected not to shoot.
Hunting in Kabwoya Wildlife Reserve.
On our final night at Lake Albert, Martin, Miles, Sandy and I sat outside the lodge and observed fireflies and some 12,000 small fishing boats, each with a light, out on the lake. The scene looked like a city off in the distance, and I actually thought it was just that until Miles corrected me. Martin discussed his plans to acquire additional hunting areas, and was very optimistic about his ongoing negotiations with the Uganda Wildlife Authority in that regard. He stated it would be only a very short time until things were finalized and he would be able to disclose the results. At the time of this writing, we have still not heard from Martin on this.
And so, we concluded our stay at Lake Albert, where we enjoyed excellent food and service, and traveled with Miles to Kampala and on to Entebbe. While remaining overnight at the Boma Guest House near Entebbe airport, we met with German businessman Christian Weth for a briefing on his past and present efforts in the field of hunting and tourism in Uganda. Weth's name also has been mentioned in prior issues of The Hunting Report. He too was excited about the future. He described hunting and tourism areas he was in the process of bringing under contract but chose not to disclose details at the time.
Since our return, Weth has informed The Hunting Report that on December 11, 2008 he signed the Wildlife Management Contract for the Ajai Wildlife Reserve in Arua District, West Nile Province. He does not plan to hunt Ajai in 2009, but intends to get his infrastructure going and build a camp that will be open year around. According to Weth, plans are in place to relocate some animal species from Murchison Falls National Park to Ajai, commencing in 2009. The relocation program is to run over a five-year period and result in the transfer of some 200 buffalo, 150 hartebeest and 50 waterbuck. Weth did not state where the funding for such an ambitious project would come from, but seemed confident about the results.
Weth also stated that he was "about to finalize the negotiations for the former Aswa Lolim Wildlife Reserve." According to him, the size of this area is about 850,000 hectares, and it shares a 45 kilometer border with Murchison Falls National Park and an approximate 75 kilometer border, along the Nile River. He states the area is game rich and that he has chosen a campsite already. His sport hunting season is planned for mid-November or early December, 2009 to the end of April or mid-May, 2010, depending on rainfall.
Answering my e-mail question regarding operators other than Bruce Martin, Kaka Matama, and himself being granted areas and/or quotas, Weth replied it is his understanding that all available blocks have now been given out to private investors, but the details are still under wraps.
So what conclusions can be drawn from the information gathered on our safari? For one thing, I believe Uganda may have a bright future in store regarding its hunting programs. I do not in any way believe the hunting will ever begin to match its former glory, but I do believe traveling sportsmen may find Uganda to be a worthwhile hunting destination, as did Sandy and I. For certain, during the time we were there, everything regarding hunting area allotments and quotas and just who gets what was in a state of flux, and secrecy between outfitters was the norm. Soon, however, the information should be available for all to see. Then, outfitters can prepare their budgets, set their safari prices for 2009 and move forward.
Another conclusion I came to is that the Uganda Wildlife Authority is genuinely interested in rebuilding wildlife populations in the depleted areas of the country. Relocation programs are already in place, with others to follow.
As a matter of passing, and contrary to popular opinion among hunters, we used British Airways for nonstop flights from San Francisco to London and from London to Entebbe and return and did not experience any problems, other than very minor ones, in transporting our firearm. I simply advised the airline in advance of the full details of the firearm to be carried and the amount of ammunition (five kg. maximum) packed in the same case.
Oh, I almost forgot… We had two separate experiences with black mambas during our stay at Kabwoya. Stay tuned…