The Best of East Africa: Gorillas, the Big Five, and Village Life

Posted on November 4, 2013 by

After three weeks of traveling East Africa, I’m back at our home base in Spain and eager to share my experiences here. East Africa is a part of the world that’s particularly special to me. Five years ago, Alberto and I volunteered in a village in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania – and as cliché as it sounds, the experience changed our lives. It gave us that push and determination to make travel a way of life and we wouldn’t have made it otherwise.

Now, five years later, I’m finally back in East Africa to revisit the place where it all began. This time round, I made it a point to explore more of East Africa. From the dry savannas of Masai Mara to the lush mountains of Uganda, I traversed the various corners of the region with Africa Travel Co on the 24-day Gorillas, Game Parks and Zanzibar trip to experience its wildlife and nature.

But in a region as vast as East Africa, how is it possible to sum up all my experiences in just one article?  I will be writing about them in details; meanwhile, here is an overview of some of my favorite moments on this East African journey.

Reuniting with Children and Friends in Bomang’ombe

Returning to the village of Bomang’ombe, a place that’s extremely dear to my heart, turned out to be an emotional experience. I was truly overwhelmed to see my old friends and students, and even more so to see how much the village has changed. What used to be a calm and quiet village in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro had now grown to become a bustling town. Bajajs (tuk tuks from India) criss-crossed the highway, mobile money signs were everywhere, and the markets were bigger than before. Living conditions in the village were still basic, with limited water supply and electricity, but it was clear that life was improving for them. Back in Bomani Primary School where I taught, I was thrilled to see that the school’s infrastructure had improved and kids now had enough pens and books to go around. Most of my students had all gone but the curious stares and wide smiles remained.

Children of Bomani Primary School

Gorilla Tracking in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

Of all the wildlife experiences on this trip, gorilla tracking in Uganda was definitely a highlight. I will never forget the sense of awe that engulfed me when I first caught sight of the gorillas. A pair of male and female gorillas were lounging by on a slope when the rangers led us through the thick jungle. We slowly crept our way past thick thorny bushes to a clearing just inches away from them. Standing so close to these giant creatures was an utterly surreal experience – I’d never been this close to an animal of this scale, especially not on foot! We saw over six gorillas on our trek, including an enormous silverback that almost charged at us (more on that later). I felt very privileged to be able to see these endangered animals in the wild and enter their world.

Upclose to a gorilla in Bwindi
A male and female couple

Exploring the Villages at Lake Bunyonyi

The biggest surprise of the trip was Lake Bunyonyi, a stunning part of Uganda that I’d never heard about prior to the trip. This area in Southern Uganda defies all stereotypes of Africa with its lush green banana plantations, looming volcanoes and impressive terraces. Instead of dry savannas that are often associated with Africa, the area is blessed with an abundance of wet rainforests and colorful agricultural lands amidst reddish brown earth.

With a waterfront campsite as our base, we explored the surrounding villages and got to meet many people along the way — including an interesting character named Frida who amusingly groped me to see if I was African wife material. A visit to the orphanage, Little Angels, proved to be a meaningful experience as we played with the kids and sang with them. It was also market day at Bufuka village during our visit, so we took the opportunity to wander around, talking to locals, getting to know their culture and customs, and soaking up their way of life at Lake Bunyonyi.

Beautiful terraces at Lake Bunyonyi
The children at Little Angels

Tracing Rwanda’s Troubled History

Africa Travel Co offered an optional daytrip to the Rwandan capital of Kigali for a historical tour. I would have loved to explore the country deeper and spend more time there, but alas we had a schedule to stick to. Our visit turned out to be sobering experience as we learned about Rwanda’s troubled history and listened to first-hand horror stories. A civil war broke out in the 1990s between the two main tribes of Rwanda – the Tutsis and the Hutus – resulting in one of the biggest genocides in history, and over a million deaths.

At the Kigali Memorial Center, we scoured through photos and artifacts that depicted the brutal killings and watched videos from survivors. There was even a room in the museum that showed photos of children who were killed in the genocide and included details about how they were killed. The tour also brought us to the Nyamata Memorial Church where 10,000 people were murdered. Clothes from the victims were piled up on benches and their skulls and bones displayed in cabinets in the underground crypt. Beneath the cabinets lay a casket that belonged to a woman who was raped by 30 men and eventually killed with a club stuck through her private parts. At this point, there was not a single dry eye in our group. Our visit was short, but intense and eye-opening.

Beautiful fields surrounding Kigali

Kigali Memorial Center

Witnessing the Annual Migration at Masai Mara

Covering an area of 583 square miles in southern Kenya, the Masai Mara National Reserve is well known as one of East Africa’s best reserves and is most famous for the annual migration. Each year, impressive herds of over 1 million wildebeest, zebra and Thomson’s gazelle cross over the plains in search for new pastures. Even though we were there towards the end of the season, we saw part of the migration: thousands of wildebeest and zebras sprawled across the vast grasslands, dotting the landscape that stretched beyond the horizon. We were extremely lucky when it came to wildlife watching – besides the migration, we also saw a cheetah lounging under a tree just a few feet from our overlanding truck as well as a group of 11 lions feasting on a freshly captured zebra.

Lions feasting on a zebra
A cheetah in Masai Mara

Meeting the Masai Tribe

At the Masai Mara, we also had the opportunity to visit a Masai village where over 300 people of the same family live. The Masai is an ethnic group of semi-nomadic people who are best known for their distinctive customs and dressing. Clad in bright red and black handwoven cloth, the Masai sang warrior songs and performed their traditional jumping dance also known as adumu. Led by a young Masai man, we also visited one of their mudhouses (built using cow dung) and got to meet his family and learned about their traditions. He told us about the age-old tradition of lion hunting and the very painful circumcision he had to go through when he was 15.

Masai jumping dance adumu

Seeing the Big Five in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater

Although I’ve been to numerous national parks in Southern Africa and East Africa, the Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area remain the best place for wildlife watching in my humble opinion. The landscape there also make them stand out from the other neighboring national parks. On my first visit there, we descended to the bottom of the crater at dawn and were greeted by a flurry of animals who were just waking up in the early hours. This time round, it was almost noon by the time we reached the crater, but it was still bursting with wildlife. Zebras, wildebeest, hippos, hyenas, giraffes, elephants, lions, buffalos, and even leopards all made an appearance. By the time we saw the family of three leopards towards the end of our time in the Serengeti, we had seen all members of the big five — a great end to an amazing wildlife watching experience.

The Ngorongoro crater from above
Wildebeest

 


Disclaimer: This trip is made possible by Africa Travel Co, but all opinions expressed are our own.

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About Nellie Huang

Nellie Huang is the co-founder of WildJunket. As a professional travel writer with a special interest in offgrid destinations and adventure travel, she scours through the world in search for a slice of undiscovered paradise. In her quest, she's climbed an active volcano in Guatemala, swam with sealions in the Galapagos and built a school in Tanzania.

2 Responses to “The Best of East Africa: Gorillas, the Big Five, and Village Life”

  1. Raymond Waruhari November 5, 2013 7:29 am
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    I love anything that have been written about East Africa. It is great to see that you enjoyed your time there. Masai people are very welcoming and the easiest people to work with.

  2. Andi Perullo de Ledesma November 5, 2013 9:12 am
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    I can't even imagine how amazing this experience must have been. WOW!