PERFECTLY PUDGY in every way, my first hippopotamus sighting was through bleary eyes and a dusty windshield. Past the dinner hour, exhausted from a day of traveling, and anxious to stretch my legs, our Land Cruiser sped desperately along a dirt road on a pitch black East African night. We spotted her eyes first, glowing in our headlamps. Then her rotund body came into view with curves that could not look more plump in a cartoon drawing.

On our first day in Uganda, the first “big five” sighting from our seats in the safari vehicle trumped even the best inflight entertainment and comfortable seats on our convenient Brussels Airlines flight from New York to Belgium to Entebbe the prior day. Then, without slowing much, Brian, our expert safari driver, sped off to Mweya Lodge for food and rest.

Already hooked on Uganda by the hippo experience, even sleep deprivation would not keep me from waking early — ready to absorb every minute on our schedule that allowed us to uncover unexpected adventures and new experiences in Uganda.

[Editor’s note: Andrea was a guest of the Africa Travel Association in part to attend their 39th annual World Congress event.]

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Waking up on safari, I quickly discovered that many hippopotamuses roam through the Queen Elizabeth National Park. Staying near lakes and rivers to protect their sensitive skin against sunshine during the day, hippos even give birth in the water. At night, the massive herbivores heave their bodies onto the land in search of grasses to eat.

2

During my eleven days in Uganda, I encountered about 30 elephants -- some close by and others grazing in the distance. Each magnificent sighting reignited my childlike imagination. Each day, the enormous animals can walk more than 80 km (50 miles) to graze on up to 300 kg (660 lbs) of grasses and trees, and drink an impressive 200 liters (53 gallons) of water.

3

Queen Elizabeth National Park hosts a number of volcanic craters within its boundaries. Mineral-laden lakes fill many of the craters and cape buffalo enjoy their cool waters. While the lakes contain too much alkalinity and salinity to drink, the buffalo appear to enjoy cleaning up in these volcanic bathtubs.

4

Traveling to Uganda to attend the Africa Travel Association’s 39th Annual World Congress, our group of conference delegates learned about the government’s commitment to strengthening tourism awareness and infrastructure in Uganda. The Hon. Maria Mutagamba, Minister of Tourism, Wildlife, and Antiquities spoke of new roads we saw under construction and announced plans for new airports that will enable travelers to bounce around the country efficiently. His Excellency, Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda reinforced the government’s commitment to tourism by attending the opening ceremonies at the World Congress in Kampala -- taking pride in his Country’s impressive, mostly unknown, sites like the glacier-capped Rwenzori Mountains.

5

The women in the Rubona Basket Weavers Association use natural dyes made from scratch at their workshop in Rubona to color raffia used in the beautiful baskets they create. The Association employs 200 female workers who create baskets in a variety of colors and designs. Eco-friendly production makes these baskets marketable around the world with profits from each basket going back to the women who made it. With economic growth that may hit a 6% increase in gross domestic product in 2015, Uganda has an impressive number of entrepreneurs and sustainable businesses that provide employment and revenue for their towns and businesses.

6

If Uganda had a single color, it would be green. Cloaked in tropical foliage, the landscape sits at an average of 1200m (4000 ft) above sea level, keeping the country cooler than I expected on the equator. This environment enables tea farmers to produce vibrant green crops on the hills. Uganda’s southern landscape radiates the color green in beautiful and evenly manicured tea fields.

7

Bicycles carry every kind of item in Uganda. Many people, particularly in small rural communities, are limited in transportation resources. I saw bikes moving everything from pineapples to a stack of mattresses! On market days men carry farm produce, like matooke (a variety of banana), to town by bicycle, where their produce can be bought by distributors and exporters.

8

Inside Queen Elizabeth National Park resides an entire community of labourers who only have one initiative: to mine salt. The government allocates the Katwe Salt Lake to the economic benefit of the Katwe townspeople. Since salt is the only commodity allowed to be developed within the park, all other goods, including food, are brought in and traded for salt.

9

Only leaving a nomadic life in the forests of Uganda, Rwanda, and Democratic Republic of Congo in 1992, the Batwa Pygmies now reside in Uganda near the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. To preserve their culture and heritage within their community and educate visitors about their history and livelihood, The Batwa Experience provides a peek into the life of the pygmies. After a long uphill hike, the Batwa people welcomed us to their small village with lively dancing and songs. The proceeds of this experience go back to the Batwa people for their education, healthcare, and development projects.

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The cornerstone of Uganda’s tourist industry resides with the 400 mountain gorillas that call the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park Bwindi Impenetrable National Park their natural home. With an estimated 786 mountain gorillas remaining in the world, Uganda currently has 53% of the global population. The gorillas, of course, have no passports and cross freely between Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda.

Threatened by poaching, recent preservation efforts and tourism have enabled the mountain gorilla population to begin growing again. The steep price of a tracking permit goes back to preservation efforts and into the local communities for development projects. Witnessing the beautiful creature in their environment is unforgettable. The animals treat their own illnesses and even add sweet and salty flavors to their food using various roots and plants. They move together as a family and make a new nest each night.

11

Water really does drain in opposite directions on either side of the equator. On every major road in Uganda, a line marks the earth’s midsection. Heading south out of Kampala, we found an equator crossing where a man used three funnels to demonstrate how water drains in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. As for the funnel set up directly on the equator — it goes straight down with no spin at all!

12

Our final official activity for the Africa Travel Association’s 39th World Congress took our group of conference attendees to the source of the Nile River in Jinja. Everyone planted a tree to symbolize Uganda’s commitment to the environment — emphasizing each person’s role as a caretaker of our world. Justa C. Lujwangana, founder of Curious On Tanzania, posed for stylish tree-planting photos before we rushed off to watch canoe races and enjoy a boat ride to see bubbling source waters from Lake Victoria flow into the River Nile.

13

Saying farewell to Uganda, our group visited the Uganda Wildlife Centre where distressed animals are taken for rehabilitation and care. I never expected to bow to a bird, but with the very large (and in charge) shoebill, a bow is protocol. The bird first dips its head toward a person and waits for the move to be reciprocated — a sign that this enormous, winged creature shows respect and should be respected.

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Endangered and protected, white rhinoceroses are being bred in captivity in order to help their population. Poachers have significantly stolen from their herds for the love of their horns. The Uganda Wildlife Centre cares for two “just friend” rhinos. With a thick iron gate between us, on a back-of-house tour I felt privileged to pet these leathery animals and marvel at their distinct and large features.

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With smiles and laughter, we said goodbye to Uganda by feeding the gentle giraffes at the Uganda Wildlife Centre. On an elevated stage we marveled at their spots — a darker coat for the older giraffe and lighter one for the junior. Known as the “graceful giraffe” for their walk and run, Murchison Falls National Park is the best place to see them in the wild.