Conversation with Uganda and Rwanda Safari Expert Phil Ward

Recently we had the great honor of having Phil Ward, a long-time Uganda and Rwanda safari expert, come by our Boulder, Colorado office for a visit and a chat. He was gracious enough to allow me to ask him a few questions so I could put some of his thoughts up on our blog. I hope you enjoy this useful “insider’s information!”

– Dan Crandall, International Sales Manager for Adventures Within Reach

Dan Crandall (DC): What is your favorite park in Uganda and why?

Phil Ward (PW): Murchison Falls National Park. This park has it all; big game like elephants, hippos, and crocs; amazing bird life including the Shoebill, in fact we get bird watchers from all over the world coming to Murchison just to find that bird; unique activities like boat safaris on the Nile; and the Falls themselves, which are beautiful year-round.

DC: How hard is it to hike to see the gorillas?

PW: This is a tough call… it can either be very very easy or very very difficult. Reaching the gorillas can range from 30 minutes of hiking to 5-6 hours of hiking each way. Overall, if someone is looking for the easiest trek to the gorillas, choosing Rwanda for your trek is a good idea, though the difficulty or easiness level is unpredictable and never guaranteed.

DC: If I were to splurge on a fancy lodge somewhere, what would it be?

PW: In Rwanda, I’d say Sabyinyo Lodge, a property used in conjunction with gorilla treks in Volcanoes National Park. In Uganda, I’d have to say Apoka Lodge, a special boutique kind of lodge, in the remote Kidepo National Park. Kidepo is simple amazing. You can visit real stone age tribes who are still using stones for tools. There right there. And it has good wildlife. I saw the best scene of lions hunting buffalo I’ve ever seen in my life there, and I’ve been doing this for over 35 years remember. Just fabulous…

DC: If I want to do a truly unique experience, perhaps off the beaten path, what would it be?

PW: I’d have to say Kidepo again. It’s hard to get to: 2 days of driving each way or what most people would do is fly one way, and drive the other, especially as part of a larger tour where you visit Murchison Falls, trek chimps in Kibale, explore Queen Elizabeth Park, or trek the gorillas, etc. Kidepo is true wilderness… this is what Africa used to look like 30 years ago!

DC: What is the biggest mistake travelers make? (overpacking, not staying long enough, only doing gorillas for 1 day, not bringing enough money, etc.)

PW: Over-packing! People often bring just too much of everything. I used to do this fun exercise when I was guiding… after a trip, I’d ask people (the ones who brought big bags) if they had ever gotten to the bottom of their bag. Almost everyone said no! Most hadn’t even gotten to half-way through their bag.

DC: Are there a lot of bugs?

PW: No, not really. Most of the two countries are close to a mile high. The altitude helps the climate and the bugs. Malaria is present in some areas though.

DC: What is the most frequently asked question from travelers?

PW: “Are we there yet?” Ha! (Phil laughing) Just kidding. Before people go on a trip, a lot of people ask about the bugs. On the trips, people often ask how hard or easy it is to trek the gorillas.

DC: What is one thing people should pack that they often forget?

PW: Travelers need to bring enough cash and the right kind of cash (for example, clean bills in good condition that are from 2006 and newer) to Rwanda and Uganda. Especially Uganda, you need to bring cash and exchange it (to Uganda shillings in Uganda and Rwanda Francs in Rwanda) as soon as you can, for example, right after you arrive, while you are still in civilization. Many places you visit on safari are in the bush far away from banks. It’s hard for locals to convert US dollars or euros in the middle of nowhere and it’s also hard to use credit cards even at the lodges to settle bar bills. Sometimes lodges do take credit cards but charge a 10% processing fee. Local currency is a must to bring along on a safari there. And travelers checks are not a good idea to bring, they are getting harder and harder to cash and there’s often a fee.

DC: Any funny or amazing stories?

PW: Many years ago, I was leading a group who was trekking the gorillas. We found the gorillas and one guy just could not stop himself from standing up for a better vantage point. A female and her juvenile youngster took special interest in him, starting to stare at him. I wondered why. Anyway, the ranger discretely told the man to crouch back down, which he did, but he gradually stood back up,. This time the female and juvenile got even closer, just staring at his crotch, mesmerized. I couldn’t figure it out until I saw that his foil-wrapped sandwich (we bring picnic lunches with us on the treks) was dangling inadvertently between his legs, hanging from the back of his belt where he had tied the sandwich. (Phil laughing). I’ll never forget it!

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