The House of Gongo Ranger Africa Safaris
If one were to approach the great Bwindi Impenetrable forest by means of Kabale up winding, rural roads, then turn up a gnarly dirt track at a humble wooden sign, then were to come upon a lush garden flourishing with sunbirds, flowers, bees, goodness and cheer, then one would have arrived at Broadbill Forest Camp. High on the slopes of the Albertine Rift, amidst rampant over-cultivation of the land, there lyeth a sanctuary for many a weary naturalist in search of peace and natural tranquility. This sanctuary hath summoned many naturalists from all across Middle Earth, and indeed, from all of Earth. A place of peace and calm amidst a bustling world of corporate greed and desperate subsistence.
We were greeted by a charming young lady at the reception office, who told us to wait for Emmy. It seemed as though he had made us wait intentionally, for just long enough, to be able to calm our minds from the journey and absorb some of the natural tranquility of the camp, before popping in at just the right moment. A man in coveralls appeared and gave me a hearty handshake. His hands suggested he was not unaccustomed to a little manual labor. He wore a grin on his face, not an over-exaggerated one of so many hospitality people, but a measured grin which conveyed just the indented amount of warmth. His eyes had the certain sort of depth and gleam that betray vast amounts of knowledge and wisdom. We took a walk around the camp, talking of our journey, of the camp, the local people, the guests, and ultimately, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Then I realized, Emmy is basically the Elrond of Uganda. He is on good terms with all of the community residents and the park personnel, and is a reservoir of knowledge on the local flora and fauna. One day, many years ago, Emmy was taking a wander in these hills, with an idea in his mind to start a camp and where to build it. A certain hillside caught his attention with Dusky Twinspots and even African Green Broadbill near the forest edge.
However, another discovery saddened him. The bones of two Duikers, small forest antelope. It had become quite difficult to find these in the park, and now he knew why. The locals were trapping them for bush meat. Emmy decided to take action. His solution was simple: provided the people with what they need (food). So he bought them a few pigs. Of course, money is needed for these things, but that’s where the camp comes in – as a revenue source. The positive effects of the camp have been so great that the Duikers and other animals became once again easy to see, which in turn makes the area all the more attractive as an eco-tourism destination. We stayed a full 3 days here, which is longer than our usual two. The idea of a “mid-range” lodge frightened me at first, but my fears soon evaporated once we met our host. Of all my travels, I cannot think of an experience where I felt my money was so well spent, because the memories we gained are priceless. To do a birding trip in Uganda and to pass up a stint at Broadbill, you would have to be a “fool of a Took”. And it was comfortable. If you were to take a canvas tent, set it upon a wooden platform overlooking beautiful unspoiled rainforest, then add a porch with a rustic straw roof and comfortable chairs, then you would have a very charming accomdation indeed. If you were then to build a permanent self-contained bath room complete with a bath, decorated with nice rocks and constantly supplied with hot water, and finally, put hot water bags under the bed covers, then you would have built the tents at Broadbill Forest Camp. The only thing imperfect about our sleep here was that it was not interrupted by the calls of Rwenzori Nightjars, owing to the absence of moonlight. Otherwise, perfect.
View from our “tent”
Now, the birding. Our first morning was spent hiking to the Mabwindi Swamp, one of the few breeding sites of the Grauer’s Rush Warbler. More importantly, however, was the nesting area of the African Green Broadbill halfway to the swamp. The odds were against us. Broadbill nesting season was over, so these birds would not be vocal and could be scattered for all we knew. Besides that, it was very windy, and the high-pitched wispy whistling call of the broadbill is difficult to detect by the keenest ear on even the calmest day. Emmy had even summoned an extra guide to help us, a young protégé of his whom I’ve forgotten the name. The birding was extremely frustrating. I would say it was as frustrating as Semliki, minus the heat. But we were strong of mind and we had some serious guide power, but Emmy made no promisses. We worked hard for every species, and eventually had a pretty nice mixed-species flock going. We decided to split up, but after going at it for a while, hope was starting to wane and we considered continuing to the swamp to avoid missing other specialties. Just then, our younger guide called from a great distance. We ran up a massive slope which we had just gone down (well, I ran, Martha walked). I got my bins on the bird immediately. By the time I had caught my breath and could actually hold them without shaking, Marta was there too, and we both admired a pair of broadbills feeding at medium range in the lower canopy. This might have been my highlight of the whole trip, to be honest. I mean, what a spanking bird! And to think it only lives in Bwindi.
African Green Broadbill with that spanking blue bib
Continuing to the swamp, we snagged more specialties like Yellow-eyed Slaty Flycatcher, an Albertine Rift endemic.
Yellow-eyed Slaty Flycatcher
Then to the swamp, where the warbler proved difficult to detect. We tried the recording but could not elicit a response. But the swamp was big, so we worked the edge until we could hear one. This is the shiest of a genus of uber-shy warblers that all live in dank vegetation. I’d been really lucky to see the Evergreen Forest Warbler, its close relative, earlier in the trip and I was really keen on adding another. Luckily, it did a flight display, fluttering up from the reeds and promptly back down, but alighting on a reed for part of a second, just long enough for a view! Stunningly, 3 more joined in on a calling frenzy, and we were able to see two displaying right in the open! Hence the shot bellow:
Grauer’s Rush Warbler
We were getting quite tired by this point and ready to leave. But our exodus was cut short by the sound of a Red-chested Flufftail calling from the marsh. I wasn’t really sure if the 4 flufftail species actually existed until that day, because I see them in the book but I never hear about anybody hearing let alone seeing one. The tiniest, shyest, most mythical rails that no one ever sees. Unless they have Emmy Gongo. We looked at each other and I sensed a reluctance in his expression, like “aw, now we gotta stay at least another half hour for this.” Obviously, we did. As still as statues, we placed ourselves with a view of a crushed reedbed, the sort a crazed rail might impulsively run across. Emmy called persistently, but not too persistently, and gingerly, at tantalizing intervals. The rail responded. And so did 3 more. A mix of males and females, we reckoned. After half an hour or so of this, we could tell one was about to rush the gap. It was right on the edge of a clump of reeds, rearing to go. I had to decide between readying the camera, or bins because it would be quick. I opted for bins. Then, a female emerged in full view for about 1 second, before darting for cover upon seeing us. It would have been a perfect photo. I have no regrets. Later, the birding quieted down but was punctuated with excitement, like a Great Lakes Bush Viper crossing the trail, which Emmy could have stepped on had he not been careful. All-in-all, an epic morning.
Great Lakes Bush Viper
For the second day, we’d decided we’d hammered enough of the high elevation stuff to warrant a trip down to the neck. We’d only missed Grauer’s Warbler and Lagden’s Bush-shrike, but at the neck, several lifers awaited. Plus, if could be birded from the road (without paying the enormous park fees).
Our precious morning hours were hampered by some construction along the way. However, I was impressed that they could install a culvert in about 40 minutes, and we were soon able crush the residual dirt mound in Emmy’s Land Cruiser. Along the way, we enjoyed views of several monkey species.
Our birding was interrupted
Arriving at the neck, I was thrilled to be able to spot a bird before Emmy. It was a Black Bee-eater hunting from a snag in trademark fashion. Other than that, the neck proved anticlimactic, our expectations having been boosted to unrealistic heights by the day before. So, we returned with no Woodhouse’s Antpecker or Many-coloured Bush-shrike in hand, but definitely with some great laughs and great memories and a couple of excuses to come back.
Thank you to Emmy and all others who made our visit to Bwindi so special.We left feeling truly inspired by a great naturalist and community leader and cannot wait till our next birding adventure (eastern TZ, perhaps??).
The crew: Mfalme, Martha, Emmy
Oh, and I cannot forget the Handsome Francolins (rift endemic) which we snagged from the taxi on our way back down! MORALE WAS THROUGH THE ROOF!!