Despite being the most cliche way to start an article, I couldn’t help but reference Winston Churchill’s spot on description of one of my favourite places on Earth: Uganda. Almost a 100 years ago, the obviously perceptive leader described the country in this way:
For magnificence, for variety of form and color, for profusion of brilliant life, bird, insect, reptile, beast, for vast scale, Uganda is truly ‘the Pearl of Africa’.”
And it really is, an infinite collection of sights, sounds, and experiences. A treasure chest of all the special things that make up the proverbial “once in a lifetime” travel experience that is volunteering abroad. Allow me to share the five ways Uganda stole my heart and how it might very well steal yours too.
The dark continent is honestly a landscape of variety. There is not much you won’t get to witness in Africa. The continuous expanse is really endless and Uganda is no exception. The orange clay and dust of the man made roads creates a stark disparity between the abundantly green rainforests full of lush trees, vines, and grass and the rich coffee plantations that surround the villages. The slightly drier terrain of the Queen Victoria National Park, filled with an ample selection of wildlife, stands in perfect contrast to the crystal clear water of the Lake Victoria, of the same namesake. There really is no place like it, and I say that from experience.
It’s a fact that the people we encounter when travelling to different places impacts our time there. Uganda is an eclectic mix of people, from different backgrounds and religions, but one thing that binds them all together is their warmth. Their collective welcoming nature and curious response to Muhlungus (white man) comes from a truly authentic place.
I remember our taxi driver going out of his way to take us to brightly coloured fruit and vegetable stands at the local markets on the side of the road to buy the freshest bananas and tomatoes I have ever bitten in to. I remember the vibrant matriarchs of the indigenous pygmy village we visited and how they welcomed us with open arms, sharing their space and locally brewed beer. And, how could I forget, the barefoot shepard boys and smiling children at the local orphanage, the elated children who ran to welcome us at the gate with hugs and adoration, who encouraged us to play games with them and then graciously accepted their tiny bowls of porridge.
The Gorilla Tracking
Meeting these majestic creatures in their natural habitat is the ultimate wildlife experience. The anticipation of this encounter only adds to the excitement, and when you are awoken in the early morning to climb the mysterious mountains that lie ahead of you, it really is something out of a dream. Because you are in the wild and tracking an active and unpredictable troupe of animals that could be anywhere, the trek could essentially last an hour or an entire day.
The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is exactly that. I remember at some point between trying to catch my breath, find my footing, and avoid grabbing thorn riddled branches, our guide suggested we keep keep a close eye on his movements, as the 90 degree slope we’d be climbing was untraceable and most definitely didn't have a clear path. Then he used his machete to cut away at the dense bush ahead of him and disappeared into the darkness. And then I slid on to my backside again. I barely remember not being able to walk the next day, nor that my bum and legs were covered in bruises. I know I had scratches from thorns and a bag filled with dirty, wet, muddy clothing, but none of that matters or mattered, not in the slightest. The only thing I remember from that nine hour trek was the time that I got to spend in the company of who I deem to be one of the most resplendent and awe-inspiring creatures on this Earth.
The dark figures were simply going about their daily routine, resting in the shade, ripping grass and shoots from the ground and methodically chewing, climbing trees, and on the odd occasion moving past our legs. The sounds of the jungle and lush greenery made for the most perfect setting, and as I looked closely at the features of these gentle giants I realised how human like they really were, each with their own individual features and personalities. Being in their presence can only be described as humbling.
An awareness of your almost insignificant place in the greater working of this palatial world becomes more obvious, as you realise that this is the type of experience that not only moves you, but stays with you for the rest of your life.
The Food & Coffee
With an amalgamation of different cultures and backgrounds, there is bound to be a diverse range of exciting dishes on offer. And while spice is prominent in meat dishes, the bright assortment of vegetables and fruit, readily available on the roadside, make for an absolute treat. The real specialty though, came in the form of Uganda’s renowned coffee beans. Celebrated for its coffee plantations, Ugandan coffee is certainly celebrated, as it should be. The rich, and more often than not, organic blends are really a gift for the tastebuds. Yum!
The Wildlife & Adventure
Apart from the previously mentioned Gorilla experience, Uganda provides some of the best opportunities for wildlife viewings. We had a Hippo grazing outside our hut and were also afforded sightings of elephants, hippo, and buffalo on waterbeds. We were also blessed, and I mean blessed, to go on a rhino trek, where we were able to view these regal and peaceful creatures from just a few meters away and on foot, without the barrier of a 4x4 door. These animals are highly endangered throughout the world, and a heavily armed guard stood close by.
The reality of the plight of these truly innocent creatures was emphasised through the incredible measures taken by the sanctuary to protect their livelihood and this filled me with an immense feeling of gratitude for Uganda’s incredible conservation efforts. On top of these breathtaking wildlife encounters, there are a whole range of adventure activities on offer too, from bungy jumping to white river rafting.
So go on, open your heart, mind and soul, and allow yourself the gift of all volunteering in Uganda has to offer. I have no doubt you’ll leave wondering why you hadn’t visited sooner and when you can visit again, because Uganda will steal your heart forever.
This article was contributed by GoEco, a volunteer organization focused on providing eco-friendly, sustainable volunteer opportunities around the globe. GoEco more specifically gives international volunteers the chance to intimately experience Uganda through various grassroots volunteer placements with local partner organizations.