Dear all, my name is Owen Bright, I am from Kyabahinga on Lake Bunyonyi and I have been a Gorilla Highlands guide for a decade. I learned everything on the job, gradually and steadily from the moment I joined Edirisa as a cleaner on 1 May 2010. Covid has disturbed our business badly but I have been trying to use the down time to obtain more knowledge and formalise my guiding education. … Still do not think tourism has died completely — I will enrich this article with some images from our tours in 2020-2021.
As a senior guide I will be sharing my expertise with you every few weeks, and I am beginning with an updated version of a blog I wrote 5 long years ago…
Planning around Covid
First, let’s talk about Covid! My colleague Charlotte gave a good summary in our Weekly Companion recently, and I really don’t have much to add. It is very possible to visit Uganda at the moment, all you need is a test before arrival and departure — and the discounts in national parks are huge! As guides we are responsible for your wellbeing on tour, so we encourage you to wear masks, wash hands, keep your distance … and plan conservatively.
A Gorilla Highlands client who was meant to do the Islands of Miracles canoe trek with me, sent us this story the day before Christmas:
Well, unfortunately, after spending half a day on this, it seems that it still hasn’t worked out. I had the covid sample taken today in Kabale in the afternoon by the lab person that you recommended, who is a really nice guy, and then my driver took the sample to Mbarara to a doctor whom we promised some money to delay sending the samples from Mbarara to Kampala until my driver arrives in Mbarara with my sample. That worked out, but unfortunately, the doctor in Mbarara did not accept the sample because for whatever reason, it seems that it was not properly collected or something like that. So I will need to drive to Kampala early on the 26th to have the test taken there and will just waste the 27th sitting in my hotel instead of spending a day at Lake Buniyoni. … I knew that once I come down from the Rwenzori mountains, my first priority for the remaining 5 days in Uganda would be this covid test and everything would revolve around it. I’m really sorry about this.
He then followed up:
I went to Kampala and had the test done around 3pm at the Test and Fly lab, which seemed very well set up and efficient. The results came the next morning around 6am. They were negative, so after spending one day in Entebbe, I was able to fly out on the 28th in the morning. I had already spent a day on Entebbe on arrival, so I would have rather spent it somewhere else, but it is what it is..
In short, his plan to have a Covid test done from Kabale didn’t pan out, despite everybody’s best efforts!
Cultural Advice Independent from Covid
Now to my advice that applies every day, in a pandemic or not:
When travelling in Uganda (and Rwanda and Congo of course), keep in mind that you are visiting cultures different from yours. Try to understand them and do not get upset when they surprise you.
Some words that you avoid are commonly used here. We say fat or big in our communities and people feel comfortable with their size, so it’s fine calling them what they are… When I realised that tourists don’t say that at home, I found it funny. At the same time, I understood that it was painful to hear those words.
For example, when we hiked from Lake Bunyonyi to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, we met a gentleman who liked one of our female hikers and kept telling her how big she was. “Like my own sister,” he said admiringly. But our lady felt annoyed and it took the man some time to grasp that she was uncomfortable being called fat. I encourage travelers to always feel free to talk about anything that they are not alright with.
Locals consider lower parts of the body the most private. While you look at the breast as something to hide, a woman here doesn’t mind exposing her bosom for a moment. I can’t even imagine how inconvenient it must be for your women to be forced to breastfeed in private, when our ladies are free to do it anywhere!
They will, on the other hand, protect anything below their waist and expect you to dress properly. To demonstrate cultural respect and avoid attracting unwanted attention, it is important for women to hide their chest, navel and thighs. Men’s conservative dressing is not that crucial but they should not have their trousers too low, flashing their underwear.
I have noticed that you don’t like begging but please understand that it originates from careless tourists. They dish money out to children, and children then expect money from everyone. It is good to give a donation to a school, a church or any organised group but not to individuals. Just do not feel obliged to do that at any point — your Gorilla Highlands tour already supports many communities.
Learning our local languages is the best. Make sure you have our Pocket Guide at hand, as it includes a useful phrasebook. I have witnessed a traveller wanting to take a photo and being rejected by locals. However, once he greeted them “agandi” they started to laugh, they came closer and even didn’t mind his camera.
Express your feelings and preferences to your guide. I have learned that you are interested in many things, even in those that locals take for granted. Your questions motivate guides; when you ask you get much more.
Other Travel Advice
We will conclude with some technical advice…
The weather in the Gorilla Highlands region can surprise you any time. Bring both warm sweaters and shorts, raincoat and sun-block. You can never be sure if it is going to rain in the next hour, but when it does, it doesn’t take long. Unlike in some of your home countries, a shower seldom lasts but it definitely can, for a short period of time, rain cats and dogs.
The topography of the region is hilly so don’t expect anything to be flat. When you hear us talking about flat it normally means less steep. And you know what else won’t be flat? Your shoe soles, if you are smart… We will walk through jungles, up and down, on rocky terrain and through mud. Be prepared.
You will probably not be shocked to read that there is no electricity in remote rural areas. Buy extra batteries and power banks and charge your camera and phone before the hiking even starts. Otherwise you will miss taking extraordinary shots, or run out of juice before you reach the next socket.
Internet connectivity is sporadic but when you have a chance to access your social media accounts, please share your photos and stories with your friends at home. Become our regional ambassador by spreading your experience worldwide!
photo by William Makanga and Edirisa staff