Innovation: Budget Family Travel in Uganda & Rwanda


Evan the Gardener; photo by Grosel Davieses

Evan the Gardener; photo by Grosel Davieses

The Gorilla Highlands Team is co-hosting #Africhat, a monthly gathering on Twitter that will take place between 7:30 and 8pm this evening (Uganda time). The topic: Family Travel in Africa. The occasion calls for us to share our recent pioneering experience with budget family travel in our region…

At the end of December 2015 an intriguing email came:

Dear Sir/Madam,

I would like to organise a trip for my children, aged 15 and 12, and me to see wildlife as well as experience the life in you part of Africa. We plan to fly to Kigali around 20th March and leave around 2ashd April. We would like to do a trekking trip to the highlands as well as some other activties such as canoeing etc. Can you please send me some suggestions or information about options avilable as well as prices?

Thank you in advance,

Tina Grošel Davies

We jumped at the opportunity! First of all, we had been working on an alternative activity offered to children under 15 who are not allowed to track mountain gorillas. Secondly, Tina must have already done some research because she knew our preference for receiving travellers through Rwanda’s Kigali that is much closer than Uganda’s capital Kampala.

As any good tour operator would, we first shared with Tina an upmarket itinerary but with a clarification: travelling in our region can be done at any budget level. Due to Rwanda’s decent (timely, clean, organised) shared public transport and affordable special hires (taxis) it is really possible to meet any expectations. Tina replied that even though our proposed tour was extremely tempting, she would be interested in something as affordable as possible.

Family during the Mother of All Treks; photo by Grosel Davieses

Family during the Mother of All Treks; photo by Grosel Davieses

That was the moment for us to test our latest idea: to use Lake Bunyonyi as a base from which people can make trips to different parts of Uganda and Rwanda. A special hire would collect the family from Kigali and deliver them to us at Bunyonyi; they would stay at any accommodation option of their choice, volunteer at a primary school and opt for circular trips with movable starting days. There was only one really set date: mountain gorillas would be done on 1 April as that was the beginning of low-season permit discounts (instead of $600 per person, $450 throughout April in May and again in November).
Tina was also interested in being hosted by a Canadian expat in Kigali, the way we start our Learn From Africa orientation. Barrett Nash is a lovely many who gladly hosted them at his home and showed them around Rwanda’s city.

This Facebook post summarises the arrangement best:
Nash Barrett best reference

Nash finally took them to where shared cars for Uganda park. They crossed the border without any issues or additional costs (they had obtained the East African Tourism Visa) and soon they were with us at Edirisa. Oh yes, they didn’t mind shared toilets and the general basic environment; in fact they loved it for that.

Evan the Rock Star; photo by Grosel Davieses

Evan the Rock Star; photo by Grosel Davieses

Tina’s kids, Evan and Zara, were a bit shy at the primary school. The attention they were getting from local pupils was a bit overwhelming; Tina recalls it as her son having a rock star status as “Muzungu Baby” (White Kid). So they chose to volunteer in other fields. Well, literally in the fields, to be exact…

… But why don’t we allow Zara to describe what they did?

Zara in Queen Elizabeth National Park; photo by Grosel Davieses

Zara in Queen Elizabeth National Park; photo by Grosel Davieses

Our first couple of days at Edirisa were not so busy, as we DIDN’T have anything in particular planned. We visited the school at the top of the hill, where we got to play with the children, who were very excited to see other children. They danced to a few of their songs for us, and they let us join in, as well.

Elephants in Queen Elizabeth National Park; photo by Grosel Davieses

Elephants in Queen Elizabeth National Park; photo by Grosel Davieses

Then, back at Edirisa, we helped with the new vegetable garden, and planted some vegetables. One day, we all went on a day trip to Kisoro, to pick up some animal permits for later in the holidays. Kisoro was a very pretty town, and it had some really cool volcanoes that were very close. We went to the market to pick up some food for the next day, because we would be heading to Queen Elizabeth National Park to see the wild animals, but in particular, the tree-climbing lions.
The drive to the National Park was very fun, because we were in a big safari car. Once we had our tents set up, we went for a drive to see if we could spot some animals, which we did. The next day, after driving around looking for them, we eventually found some lions, although they were not climbing the trees, unfortunately. 
After another night in the National Park, we went back to Edirisa, because the next day we were going to go on a 3-day canoe trek on Lake Bunyonyi. The first day was easy, as all we did was sit in the canoe, but the second day was quite tiresome. Although most of the trek was relatively flat, there was an hour or two of hiking that was tough, but that made it all the more rewarding when we reached the top of the mountain. The entire 3-day trek was really interesting, though, because we DIDN’T just walk around aimlessly, but we actually got to meet a bunch of people and their families, like a Batwa family, so we actually learnt some things, too. When we got back to Edirisa, we were very tired, so we had a day of resting before the final day, where we would split into two: me and my mum would go Gorilla trekking, and my brother,  who is under 15, would go on a Pygmy walk through the forest.

Switching to Evan now:

Evan the Paddler; photo by Grosel Davieses

Evan the Paddler; photo by Grosel Davieses

Because I was too young to go to the gorillas they arranged a Batwa-led forest walk in the Echuya forest. Me, two Batwa tribesmen – not much taller than me -, Miha, Owen and the driver got into the car and drove to the Echuya. Because it was raining we stopped at a restaurant. At the restaurant Miha made a rope to go through one of our targets and outside was the guide, making a basket for the arrows to go in. Because it was raining we stayed longer in the restaurant and Owen was telling me a story from a Batwa book. When the rain passed we continued in the car to the forest. As we entered the forest one of the guides went ahead and was hiding with the box so I could shoot at it. The other guide was telling us about the plants and what you can eat and what you can’t. When we spotted the box we would shoot it – or tried to -. A bit later on we stopped at a tree – which you will find out about yourselves – and had a picnic. After we ate we went to the little village in front of the forest. We were on the look out for chameleons, but the rain scared them away. Back at the village we had a game of Limbo with Owen and other locals. When Owen won – of course – we returned back to Edirisa.

As this was an inaugural activity, we asked Tina to inquire with Evan how happy he was with it. He gave Batwa Today for Kids 10 out of 10! … We must add that he was also very very happy that we could find shelters during rain; the female part of the family got SOAKED during their gorilla tracking!

Tina and Zara tracking gorillas; photo by Grosel Davieses

Tina and Zara tracking gorillas; photo by Grosel Davieses

Evan went home with the Batwa bow and arrows and we were a bit concerned what he might do with those at school (he seems to hate each and every teacher* in Luxembourg where he resides). However, Tina has informed us that Evan’s main tool these days is the hoe! He learned how to dig at Lake Bunyonyi and now he can’t stop… He is very helpful on their family garden and plans to return as a Gorilla Highlands volunteer once he turns 15.

You see?! The budget Gorilla Highlands Tour is every parent’s dream!

Don’t hesitate to contact us

* Apart from his science teacher Mr Machiel Smit, claim reliable sources in Luxembourg.

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