Our second day in Kasese ended up being one of my favorites in Africa so far. We went on a forest hike in the Rwenzori Mountains. These peaks make up part of the border between Uganda and the Congo and are gorgeous. We actually got to see (from a distance) a snow-capped peak! We were all very tempted to make a run for the Congo before we learned that the hike would last about four days through the mountains. So we decided to veto that idea. The hike was incredible though. We went through an open forest that was made up of trees and agricultural vegetation. The view took my breath away and the sun beat down on us. I actually got my first sunburn on this little outing. After the open forest we got to the dense forest that I loved even more. It was harder to navigate but there were so many trees, it was cool and smelled just like you would expect a somewhat tropical forest to smell like. We did not encounter any animals although seeing monkeys was a possibility.
Half way through our circuit in the dense forest we came across the river and were able to kind of swim in it. The water felt so cold it hurt our toes after not too long at all. The rapids were pretty strong and one of our classmates almost floated away, which was rather hilarious to be honest. A couple of the walking sticks floated down river as well. After the river we continued up the mountain and once we reached some muddy patches things got interesting. I think most of us ended up almost knee deep in the mud at the risk of losing a shoe at one point or another. Luckily our guide and our driver were better at navigating the mud than us and they continuously were pulling us out of it. After about four hours of hiking we finally left the mountain and the forest and all headed back for naps and showers.
On our last day and night in Kasese we stayed in the Queen Elizabeth National Park and in the morning we went on a game drive. The part itself was beautiful, African savannah at its prime. Watching the sun set and rise over open lands and lakes George and Edward was such a treat. This was also one of the first times that we got to experience the intense darkness of night that I had expected much more in Rwanda. With this also came the stars. I actually forgot to look at them that night before going to bed. Thank goodness we were up before dawn to start on our game drive though. Looking up at them was awe-inspiring. I am sure I saw hundreds of stars I had never seen before. I wish I could have taken a picture of them to share. We set off on our drive with the goal of seeing the Big Four: lion, buffalo, leopard and elephant. The last one actually might have been hippo but it is irrelevant now. When our tour guide told us this he said it hopefully and made it seem like it was not typical to see them all. On our way into the camp we had already seen buffalo and one of us saw a hippo so we were doing pretty good so far.
Not long into the drive we came across a leopard walking right in front of our van! It was so calm. We took pictures of it, turned the car around and followed it a little bit and there were even two other vans behind us but the creature just kept walking slowly down the road as if we were not even there. Continuing on we saw elephants, hippos, baby hippos, a plethora of birds, kobs, warthogs and then, a lion! We saw him from afar so he was just a tiny speck really. A bunch of safari vans and cars were parked in the same area on a road where onlookers were spying through their binoculars and standing on top of vehicles to get a better look. Eventually our driver and a couple of others worked out a little plot to get a better view of the lion who was resting behind a large rock. After the other vans slowly continued on down the path to find other animals, our driver and the others got ready to drive through the grass, circle the lion for a closer look and come back. Let me point out that this is very much against rules of the park. Even walking too far into the grass can get you kicked out of the park and a minimum $500 USD fine.
We were all so excited for the moment when the buses took off until our van failed to start. This was possibly the worst time it could have decided to give us trouble, and the only time on the trip so far. We watched sorrowfully as the other cars got close to the lion and he eventually was fed up with people disturbing him that he got up from behind his rock and went to rest behind a bush.
Finally our driver fixed our van and told us to get in – he was determined to get us close to this lion. We drove through the grass and he stopped the car about four feet from the resting lion. He was majestic and huge. He picked up his head and it was amazing. We were all in shock afterwards. It was definitely one of the most awesome parts of our journey. I can now say that I have been within five feet of a real, humongous lion on the African savannahs and am so proud to be able to do so.
After the game drive we went on a boat ride that was equally incredible. One of my classmates and I sat by a couple other Americans who were ornithologists on a bird-watching expedition across the country. They taught us eight or so birds on the two hour-long boat ride. We saw hippos, elephants, buffalo, birds, more birds, some more birds, monkeys, crocodiles, Nile monitors and I cannot even remember what else. It was gorgeous. We were able to go on the top of the boat and the view was just amazing. I need to come up with some more adjectives to start using because I am sure everyone is getting tired of reading how awesome and amazing everything is. It truly is though. Our ornithologist friends were pretty cool too. Their reason behind picking up the hobby was that they loved nature (hiking, boating, just being outdoors in general) and bird watching gave them something to do so that they were not just walking through jungles. It made them become more aware of the areas they were visiting and they learned so much more about the habitats they traveled to. They pretty much sold us both on picking up the hobby.
After all of this fun we finally hit the road and headed back to Rwanda. Clean, organized Rwanda. Altogether the trip was amazing. Some of our best weeks so far. Coming back to Rwanda also meant that our classes were finished and our internships would be starting in the upcoming week. This also meant that we were two months into our program with only three left to go and that we are half way done with our homestays. The time is flying by. Whenever I think about going back to America the thought seems so strange. It is going to be so different and weird, definitely weird.