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Yes, I want to see a shoebill stork


I was up early due to my flight to Entebbe, Uganda leaving at 8am. Once again the dire warnings of Nairobi traffic meant that I asked for a 5am transfer to the airport. Unfortunately, I have missed flights in the past and it now haunts me. It means that I am always a little cautious about departures and leave that little bit earlier than necessary.

I arrived at Jomo Kenyatta by 5.30am and was checked in and waiting at the coffee shop next to my gate by 6am. Thankfully Kenyan coffee is awesome and the coffee shop at gate 16/17 provides pretty good food as well. This kept me entertained along with my iPad (travellers necessity) whilst I waited for my flight to be called.

Unbeknownst to myself the gates are opened super early and you are asked to wait in a general area for the flight to actually be called. This can be quite nerve racking because there are no signs or people offering information about what is going on. You wait in an area hoping that your flight hasn't actually boarded and normally boarding is very late. This exacerbates the situation leaving not only myself but the fellow guests around me feeling worried about their respective flights. This was my only worry whilst in Nairobi Airport and the one thing I think should be fixed asap.

Finally we were all called to board the flight. We tried to follow the lady that called our flight but she disappeared pretty quickly and I was left to follow people who had no idea where to go. We made our way down a ramp to the airport floor. We finally found the lady who had announced our flight and went to the bus that would deliver us to our plane.

Boarding onto The Kenyan Airways flight was very easy. The flight was about 60% full which allowed me to have no one sitting next to me. Although there was a little bit of turbulence as we left Nairobi we then were left with 40 minutes of smooth sailing. A small breakfast was offered which consisted of a "plastic" croissant, jam, water and your choice of tea/coffee and other assorted drinks.

Arrival at Entebbe was painless and once again I was quick to go through the customs/visa entrance and was processed within minutes. Have the right cash and you will be fine! My hotel had arranged the transfer and my driver was waiting for me when I came through the arrival doors. Within minutes I was settled in the hotel mini-van and I was off to The Boma Guesthouse. The trip was uneventful except for the amazing size of the East African Headquarters for The UN. The UN Airport and extended space for all land based vehicles was incredible and something that I had no idea about.

I arrived at The Boma Guesthouse within 20 minutes and was welcomed by their lovely staff. They settled me in quickly into a nice, clean basic room that was equipped with everything I needed for a nights stay. I returned back to the reception area to wait for my tour guide to pick me up for my Shoebill Stork Tour at 10am. Whilst waiting I went online to check emails etc and was pleasantly surprised by the internet speed.

When the time reached 10.15am I knew that no one was turning up for my shoebill tour. I immediately contacted the travel agency but unfortunately no one was picking up the phone. I also emailed the different email addresses I had (two) to try and alert them to my predicament. The hotel offered me another possibility to use their supplier, which was double the amount at $300 for a private shoebill tour to be picked up immediately which I refused. I was finally contacted by the tour agency arranging the tour and told I was not expected until the following day. They arranged for me to be picked up at noon and to be out at the Mubamba Swamp by 1pm.

I was left with no option and thinking I was wasting a precious $150 to try and see a shoebill. Knowing we would be out at the swamp by around 1pm I had no illusion as to what the heat of the day would offer me. Being optimistic and on my first “real” day of safari I decided to go for it. My guide and the boat drivers were very enthusiastic about finding a shoebill and by then I was truly happy to just be out on Lake Victoria.

Lake Victoria is extremely vast and of course when you check out the map you will see it covers a huge amount of Uganda and also goes into Tanzania. Mubamba Swamp took about 45 minutes to travel to via a wooden speedboat that was very basic but extremely adequate. If travelling this route I would suggest that photography enthusiasts take with them a spare towel from their hotel and a waterproof bag or plastic shopping bag to put their equipment in. There was water along the bottom of the boat but the guys were great about rearranging some wooden planks to rest my camera equipment above the waterline. A towel/plastic bag would have been great to rest my bag on and if the towel had gotten wet then it could easily be placed in the plastic bag. A small towel would also be ideal to wipe down your face/neck whilst out in the midday sun. Put some water on the towel and you will instantly feel refreshed and you can easily place the towel on your neck to keep you cool.

We changed from the speedboat into a smaller boat to navigate the swamp’s narrower channels. We then travelled about 2 minutes into the swamp and rounded a corner. I was super surprised to come upon a large female shoebill who was hunting for a lungfish to feed her chicks almost immediately. Her husband I was told was in the next lagoon but we decided to stay with the mum to see what would happen.

I am not a birder and have never really had any interest in birds but after seeing David Attenborough’s Africa documentary last year I had a newfound interest in the shoebill stork. When I realised I would be in Entebbe and would have the opportunity to potentially see this bird I leapt at the chance. To see a shoebill in person is a pretty awesome experience. We were able to get within 5m of the 140cm female who waited patiently for a lungfish to come within her grasp. It was 90 surreal minutes that flew by. My guide was also blown away by the experience and he and the trackers remarked about this being the closest they too had been to a shoebill. The photos and video opportunities were endless and I took great delight in enjoying every moment I had with this magnificent creature. Truly, one of the world’s most unique birds, and of course rare birds.

After over 90 minutes with the female shoebill, I suggested we move to find her husband. The temperature was rising along with the humidity. Being out in the open whilst in the swamp was super hot and I was desperate to feel some breeze from the open waterways. The trackers used their oars to move the boat out into the channel and within seconds the movement must have created enough of a ripple to allow a lungfish to surface near the shoebill. She quickly caught the fish and swallowed it. About 30 seconds later she went to take a drink of water and seconds later was flying away to regurgitate the fish and water for her chicks wherever they were.

I couldn’t believe how fortunate we were and also the opportunity to be with the shoebill for the amount of time I was given. We couldn’t find the husband and made our way back to Entebbe. The open water allowed me to get some fresh breeze from our speed boat trip back to the town. We arrived back at an area next to the local market and I went for a quick walk around. It was amazing to see the difference between world markets and of course the people that see the produce in these places. The vibrancy was paramount but the smell and lack of hygiene and refrigeration would blow most people away. The western market is so “perfect” compared to African markets which showcases great diversity compared to the generic produce offered to us westerners.

My driver was waiting for when I finished walking around the market and he took me back to The Boma Guesthouse. I then spent the afternoon hanging around The Boma’s pool. The Boma made one of the best club sandwiches I have ever tried which was a pleasant surprise to be eating it in the middle of Uganda. Wonders never cease!

I headed off to an early night seeing that I was up for an early morning flight to Kihihi the following morning.

Suggestions:

The Boma Guesthouse was a great place to stay and offered a bed/breakfast for $125 per night. If booked directly with the hotel they also offer airport transfers. There are more modern properties in Entebbe but they come at a price, which I cannot justify for this part of the world. Each to their own though.

Ask for a quiet room but be prepared that most guests are using the hotel as a transit property and arrive/leave at ungodly hours which does interfere with your sleep.

The restaurant offers really good, home cooked meals. If you are time poor then there is no need to leave to find a good meal.

There is a supermarket that is about a 10 minute walk to stock up on any drinks/snacks you may need if starting a safari from Entebbe.

I used Mabamba Shoebill Tours which can be contacted on www.shoebillmabamba.com. I would definitely use them again but remain in contact with them and remind them of your tour 2-3 days before your arrival. The price was the best of all the tours and to have a private tour for $150 is exceptional.

No need to change your money into Ugandan shillings if you have US$ but if you want there are 3 money exchange places close to where the supermarket is. I would suggest using the lovely lady at the 2nd or 3rd money exchange who was very nice and able to provide smaller notes that I could use easily for tips when necessary.

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