Driven by her love for mountain gorillas, Amalia Celeste Fernand journeys to Uganda and connects with scenery, landscape and culture in today’s Women Who Travel Solo.
How did you get started traveling?
I spent much of my childhood moving around the United States, and went on my first big international trip to Australia when I was 13. My mother helped me raise money for the plane ticket by starting a jewelry business, and I learned a lesson that would shape the rest of my life. At a young age, I knew to value and prioritize travel, and how to make it happen for myself. In high-school, I was an exchange student, and in college I organized independent study work-aways. My graduate program was completely field based, and involved 225 days of camping and a semester of teaching in Costa Rica.
I started organizing trips based around teaching my environmental education curriculum to local villages, and founded Nature Explorers International. I always center my travel around a place with interesting wildlife, and find ways to volunteer.
Why did you decide to pursue the adventure of solo travel in Uganda?
I was invited to accompany friends on a trip to Ethiopia that was focused around building schools in a rural area. I was part of a big group for my two weeks in Ethiopia, and although I did educational side projects, I knew that I would need time for my own African exploration. My love of great apes led me to choose Uganda. A place where it is possible to see chimpanzees and mountain gorillas in the wild, as well as other iconic African wildlife.
Tell us about your experience with solo travel in Uganda.
I lived in a homestay in a small village, tracked chimpanzees and mountain gorillas through thick forests, and saw amazing African animals on a private safari. I rode a boat down the Nile, crossed the equator, stood on top of the powerful Murchison Falls, watched lions hunting, and taught beautiful Ugandan children. I bathed with a bucket under the stars, lived without electricity, made fresh peanut sauce, and ate the cooked banana Ugandan staple; matoke. I saw poverty and perseverance, and witnessed the strength of the human spirit first-hand.
For two weeks, I lived in the village of Bigodi with the family of John Tinka. I worked as a volunteer for KAFRED, a community run environmental organization, and taught at the Bigodi Women’s Primary School (See Blog: To Impact a Community). I was treated as part of the family and community and felt very welcomed, appreciated, and safe. I was able to experience the Ugandan way of life, and make strong connections with locals in a situation that was comfortable, affordable, and unforgettable.
After my volunteer time, I gave myself the ultimate birthday present: an eight day Ugandan safari. I visited all of the major National Parks in Western Uganda, and had incredible opportunities for photos and wildlife encounters. Being solo on my safari meant that I could stop when, and for however long, I wanted to. I could observe a particular animal or place, and take the photographs that I wanted without annoying or slowing down anyone else. It was a bit awkward spending all that time alone with my one male guide. But, I had my ipod and FM wireless convertor, and we blasted Michael Franti and Bob Marley as we rolled through villages.
All in all, Uganda is one of my favorite places that I have ever been. I would recommend it to anyone that wants to experience African culture, landscapes, and wildlife. Don’t be afraid to go solo! The people are friendly, accustomed to tourists, and eager to accommodate you and help you to enjoy and understand their country.
What recommendations do you have for solo travelers in Uganda?
Western Uganda is the place to go for National Parks, and a truly amazing location for almost all of your African wildlife. Having never been to mainland Africa before, I spent a lot of money to book a private driver. At each National Park that I visited, I met backpackers traveling from place to place on their own by bus. If I were to go back, I would do it more independently. As solo travelers, we often pay extra for guided tours. I would recommend trying to find other solo travelers to go in on it with, or just save up, because a Ugandan Safari is worth every penny! Out of the “Big Five,” I didn’t see a rhino or a leopard, but I did see giraffes, zebras, lions, antelope, cape buffalo, hippos, crocodiles, elephants, and so much more!
Kibale National Park is the best place for chimp trekking. I chose Bigodi to volunteer because of its adjacency to Kibale, so that I could go searching for chimpanzees on the weekend. It was just the park ranger and I for the whole day of my chimp trek, and I was happy about that. It meant that I could stop and take as many pictures as I wanted, spend solo time with individual chimps, and not be distracted by other voices on the trail. I chose the sunrise to sunset option, but many people just go for a few hour hike. We entered the African rainforest before dawn to find a large family group waking from their nests. I spent the day following a mother with her two children, leaving only at twilight, after they had made their nightly nests. The ranger spoke English and was fairly informative. He did carry a large gun, but it was to scare off any potential forest elephants.
If you do go to Kibale, make sure to talk a walk in the Bigodi Wetlands. A protected corridor between the park that supports the local community, it is home to eight species of primates, and 200 species of birds. I was also able to spend a few hours with another group of chimpanzees in Kyambura Gorge on my safari.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is where to see the Mountain Gorillas. It’s $600, and after tracking them through the forest, you spend one hour with them. I say it’s worth it. These critically endangered great apes only live in a small region of the world. To be in their presence is indescribeable and there is no price tag that can be placed on that experience. By spending most of my time volunteering and staying at a homestay, I was able to save money to do the activities that I really wanted. The other parks that I visited were Murchison Falls for giraffes, Queen Elizabeth for lions, elephants, and a boat ride down the Nile, and Lake Mburo for zebras.
The village of Bigodi is a great place to volunteer, KAFRED is an important organization, and Tinka’s family are amazing hosts! To organize a home-stay or volunteer project, contact TInka at: +256 772 468113 email@example.com. There are volunteer opportunities in primate, tree, and snake surveys, conservation education, guide training, reception, photography, and website design, or you can design your own program.
What was the best part of your time in Uganda?
My 30th birthday coincided with my last day in the village, and the family had a big dance party. They plugged in the generator and distant relatives came from all around. My favorite birthday picture ever is from that night. I have a baby in one arm, a giant warm beer in the other, and am dancing with multiple generations of my African family. This was my most cherished moment, although both my chimpanzee and mountain gorilla encounters are a close tie for second!
What was the worst part of the trip?
Although travel often has it’s terrible experiences along with it’s amazing ones, the worst parts rarely frequent my memories. When I arrived in Uganda, I was recovering from a serious illness that I had in Ethiopia, so everything seemed refreshing and beautiful.
There was the time that the tire rolled off my safari vehicle and into the grassland as the sun set over the Congolese Border. My driver was freaking out about Congolese rebels, elephants, and large predators. But, eventually, someone stopped to help us, the view was gorgeous, and as we took off again, a pride of tree-climbing lions ran across our path. I find it important to remain calm in chaotic travel moments. Problem solve instead of stressing and worrying. There are always solutions to what may seem like hopeless situations. And in the end, you come out stronger, wiser, and with a great story.
Are there any safety concern for women traveling alone in Uganda?
Like anywhere, safety concerns vary with region. I never, personally, felt unsafe. It is a good idea to be considerate of the conservative role of women, and the different expectations as a female. Follow regular traveler safety protocol such as not walking alone at night, drinking alcohol in moderation, and following safe food and water guidelines.
The HIV virus has a strong presence in Uganda, and many of the children at the school had one or more parent infected. Avoiding sexual relations or using the proper safety precautions is, of course, common sense. Malaria is also prevalent in Uganda. Since I have had malaria before from Madagascar, I made sure that I was good about taking my Malarone, and staying covered at dawn and dusk.
The sides of the roads are busy, and there are not usually foot paths. Unfortunately, I witnessed a tragic accident, where a man on his bicycle was killed by a hit and run right in front of me. Everyone should always be extra safe and aware when walking on busy roads.
What advice do you have for women who are traveling alone?
Volunteering and/or staying at homestays allows you to become part of the community. To see how the locals live, and have a first-hand glimpse into the simple tasks of their daily lives. Solo travelers get a lot more opportunities to develop close relationships with locals, volunteers, ex-pats, and travelers.
My safari guide wasn’t as knowledgeable as I had hoped for. Although I had researched the companies, and chosen one with a very experienced and educated guide, it was his younger brother that was actually sent. Since I am a big nature dork for wildlife facts, this was disappointing. There were many animals that I knew more about than him, and questions he couldn’t answer. I recommend choosing your tour company carefully and asking a lot of questions about who your actual guide will be.
Do you have anything else to add to inspire women solo travelers?
Traveling solo makes you so much more approachable and much more likely to approach others. You have more opportunities to create stronger connections with communities, engage in cultural experiences, and form life-lasting friendships. You have the freedom to push through on a long day when you need to, rest when you need to, to eat, and sleep, and dance, and play when you need to. I honestly have much more fun, am less stressed, and have more enriching experiences when I travel solo. I would recommend it to anyone.
About Amalia Celeste Fernand
Amalia has traveled solo on six continents, teaching nature programs to children wherever she goes. She recently spent a year in Borneo, is currently living in Australia, and calls Northern Michigan home. Amalia loves photographing wildlife encounters, and volunteering with local communities. Her blog, Amalia Explores, features solo travel tips, lesson plans, wildlife features, and volunteer stories. To donate, or find out more about recent educational projects, visit her gofundme.
About Women Who Travel Solo
Women Who Travel Solo is a weekly column that shares the stories of women’s solo travel adventures in hopes of spreading the message that traveling alone is not only safe, but wildly rewarding. Inspire other women to travel solo by sharing your story with Something In Her Ramblings. Email Lauren at firstname.lastname@example.org.