Grace Villa Fundraising Expeditions
For 3 years now, Grace Villa has taken adventurous groups on unforgettable bucket-list type expeditions, bringing people together for a good cause as they discover the most exotic, under explored corners of Uganda.
The annual fundraising events symbolize and raise awareness for the challenges that marginalized girls “climb” and struggle through each day. But then they Rise by Lifting Others as our motivational phrase. So far we have done three expeditions i.e Muhabura Mountain Climb, Kidepo National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable forest the home of the Mountain Gorillas.
The events usually launch with a Press Conference at the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB). Last year the press confrences was attended by the Chief Executive officer of UTB, Mr Stephen Asiimwe, the Business Development Manager of Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) Steven Masaba, the Senior Marketing Officer of UTB Sylvia Kalemba, Grace Villa’s Ruth Ndyabahika and representatives from all major media houses in Uganda.
Grace Villa has made a mark on Uganda’s tourism industry as THE domestic tourism adventure for a good cause. Each adventure symbolizes and raises awareness for the ‘mountains’ and hardships that marginalized girls climb every day, as Grace Villa’s girls did before they found a home. Today, the #4GraceVilla family has grown to a combined membership of 115 adventurers. The passion for the cause moves them. As does the age-old thrilling romance of exploring the wildest parts of Africa.
Before sunset on June 4th 2016, an eclectic group of 50 nervous yet excited adventurers converged in Kampala – the Capitol of Uganda, and embarked on the road trip of a lifetime. They were athletes, non athletes, professionals, socialites, perfect strangers, friends, journalists, work colleagues, thrill seekers and more.
Most had never been to Western Uganda before, so the itinerary included all the essential stops. A photo-op at the equator, a muchomo and gonja stop in Lukaya, a quick stop in Muhanga for coffee and to admire sculptures such as Kabale’s version of Norway’s “The Monolith” at Great Lakes Museum. Later that evening the group reached Kabale town, where Grace Villa is located. They drove up Makanga Hill to the Grace Villa home, and were welcomed by a spectacular cultural performance, a home tour and a special meal that was prepared by the girls themselves.
It was hard to leave, but eventually the travelers tore themselves away from the home with promises to return, and continued on to the final destination: Kisoro. They settled in for the night at “Volcanoes Mount Gahinga Lodge”, a rustic luxury lodge nestled at the base of the Virunga Volcanoes.
This beautiful luxury lodge was the official hotel of the climb, and had generously slashed its prices from $550 to $50 per night, in support of Grace Villa!
The mountain from which the climb derived its name is one of the mythical peaks that make up the Virunga Ranges mentioned in the book “Gorillas In The Mist” by the legendary Dian Fossey. The next morning as we drove along the bumpy road towards the starting point of the climb, we saw it. 4,127 meters high.
Our mountain – silhouetted in the dawn light, a looming figure that dwarfed even the other mountains around it. The chatter in the buses subsided for a bit as we approached the intimidating sight.
Activities started off with a yoga session in the grass beneath the mountain led by Kabale yoga master Alex, a quick pep talk from UWA, another by the organizer, an official flag off by special guest Professor Charles Kwesiga, and a fervent prayer by brother Bless. Then we were off.
Each one armed with a bamboo stick given to us by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) guides, the group was charged with excited anticipation and adrenaline, practically skipping through the meadow and over the rugged rock buffalo wall that separates the protected forest from the gardens of local farmers. We even had accompanying beats, as one climber came armed with a boom box!
The vegetation on this mountain is spectacular, each section uniquely different like turning the pages of an exotic travel magazine. Lush rainforest gives way to bare mangled trees, then dessert-like terrain, meadows scattered with large volcanic rocks, and sections with plant life that looks like it belongs on the moon.
The energy with which the trek began dwindled fast. Excited conversation turned into grunts and groans, then silence. Colleagues started falling behind, while others gave up and turned back. The music eventually stopped. I remember walking past the DJ laying on one of the volcanic rocks, fast asleep, head covered with his jacket. We rested, but were cautioned not to stop for too long else our muscles would stiffen. Below, the view was one of the things that kept us going.
The winding Lake Kivu, the villages that looked like toy houses, the thick Bwindi forest tree canopy below. Eventually, we were actually above the puffy clouds, and then above neighboring volcanos Mgahinga and Sabinyo! Total exhaustion kicked in. My legs started to feel like spaghetti. I would beg my guide Mark (who by that point had become my best friend on earth) to let me rest for a bit. I would then get up with renewed energy, start walking, only to sink to the ground again after 5 steps. I panicked at one point and asked myself, “what the heck made you think you’re a mountain climber, Ruth? What happens if you collapse?”
I learnt later that this strange lack of energy was an effect of the quick change in altitude. Some annoying members of our group had no trouble at all with the climb, prancing up to the peak, posing in triumph with our Grace Villa banner next to the crater lake at the top, then racing past us on the way back down, gleefully jumping over tree trunks and rocks. The trek back down for us mere mortals was the worst.
At this point you are exhausted, and everything aches. You are now using muscles that you rarely use, and putting heavy strain on your knees and ankles. At one point i gave up on walking and decided to sit and basically inelegantly slide down the mountain. After falling, crying and suffering together, a special bond is inevitably formed amongst former strangers. Darkness fell while we were still in the forest with hours to go.
We attempted to distract each other with stories, the strong held the weak, and when one group of lovely ladies came crashing through the forest swearing that they had seen a leopards eyes in the dark, we all crowded closer and walked as a group. UWA rangers were always close by, as was my guide Mark, which was a great comfort.
Finally, we made it to the bottom and used our last reserves of energy to climb into the vans awaiting us. It was after 10pm. The night ended at our Gahinga Lodge with muchomo (skewers of grilled meat), cold drinks, music under the stars brought all the way from Kabale by “Mist”, and a bonfire. The realization of our accomplishment slowly sank in as energy started to seep back into our bodies. We had actually climbed a real mountain!
I still don’t know what it is about mountains that is so addictive that it makes one forget the agony and long for another one. Due to insistent demand from our group for the next adventure, we made a brazen decision. We chose one of the most extraordinary, epic African safari experiences one could ever have: 4 days and 3 nights in one of Uganda’s best kept secrets: the ends of the wild savannah’s of Kidepo Valley, to climb Mount Morungole.
On Valentines Day 2017, Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) heralded the expedition with a press conference, and the next day we were off to Kidepo. “Possibly the most picturesque park in Africa.”
CNN Travel called it. We agree. When the sun reaches its peak in this land, there is a clarity to the light that makes it possible to see over great distances, and in incredible detail. Sometimes we would stop just to gaze in silent awe at what lay around us.
A dreamy haze of sunlight and sand, a sort of beige color scheme of unspoiled vast savannah wilderness and rolling foothills leading to magnificent mountain ranges etched on the horizon. The wild grass of the plains scattered with acacia trees and boreholes where animals hide from the scorching sun, and from curious humans like ourselves.
We climbed Morungole on the February 16th, bearing sacks and boxes full of items for the marginalized Ik tribe that lives at the peak. The 2,749 meters above sea level hike which was underestimated by most at first, turned out not to be for the faint hearted. But driven by the anticipation of meeting one of the most endangered tribes in Africa, we struggled up.
We crossed over breathtaking landscapes, and would turn back to gasp at the scenery in the valleys below that got more and more striking the higher we climbed. The Ik came to literary fame in the 1972 book “The Mountain People” by anthropologist Colin Turnbull. In it, they come across as a people who do not love. He must have gotten it wrong.
They received us with so much joy and dancing, and we responded with an unrehearsed but passionate rendition of our own Kiga dance. We almost left one of our girls atop the mountain, with the Chief who passionately proposed! She would now be a queen. Most likely one of his many as theirs is a polygamous society, but a queen non the less. Later that night back at the campsite, as we relaxed and nursed our sore exhausted bodies around the campfire waiting for a much deserved dinner, our time spent with the Ik was a main thread of conversation. They will remain etched in our minds and hearts for ever.
And who knows. Gathering from some of the ideas brewed around our campfire that night, some more good may come of our visit.
On day 3, the few early risers had breakfast sitting high up on Lions Rock, watching the sun rise over the Morungole mountain that we had conquered the day before. Our adventure today was all about the magnificent vast plains of the Narus valley.
We piled into two 4×4 coasters, armed with lots of water, snacks, binoculars, cameras and 2 passionate game rangers. The valley was rich with wild life that seemed to come out to meet us. Huge herd of buffalo, and zebra’s swinging their chubby hips. Lions, elephant, giraffe, ostriches, eland kept unfolding in front of us.
A group in one of the 4×4’s swore that they saw the elusive cheetah. And the awkward Jackson Hartebeests posturing on anthills, in a macho territorial display. which That afternoon we spread a picnic lunch over the hot sands of the seasonally dried up Kidepo River itself, surrounded by soaring Borassus palm trees which elephants “planted” over time and thus marked their migration path. We took off our shoes and played in the sand, some taking turns to jump from fallen tree stump spring boards into the river of sand below. We danced, did cartwheels, ate & danced.
While others simply sat together in silence, listening to the breeze in the Borassus trees, awed by the unexpected wild beauty of this new place. Later that night, we sat around the campfire under the spectacular starry skies one last time. There was a nostalgic sadness in the air. Nobody wanted to go to bed. Because this would mean that the beautiful, once in a lifetime Kidepo story had actually come to an end.
The 3rd annual celebration of love, nature and wild places was set against the majestic backdrop of a place so exotic that CNN dubbed it “One of the 5 Best Parks in Africa”. The ancient Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Home of the glorious silverback mountain gorilla.
This adventure was a particularly intense one, unfolding wondrously deep into the most mountainous of rainforests. Guided by Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) knowledgeable rangers, we trekked – and sometimes even slashed through the forest, brushing against majestic 100+ year old pre historic mahogany trees and other rare fauna.
Bwindi is home to 120 species of mammals (from gorillas and baboons to forest elephants), 348 species of birds, 220 species of butterflies, & much more. In here lived the First People of the forest: the Batwa pygmies who gathered and hunted here for over 500,000 years in harmony with their beloved forest and wildlife, leaving barely an ecological footprint behind them.
It was grueling steep climbing most of the way, rewarded by fascinating sights & refreshing moments like a beautiful series of waterfalls which were a favorite for most, offering cool relief for the hot, exhausted trekkers. Some gleefully dove into each one, while others opted to simply climb close enough to cool their faces in the mist.
A picturesque river junction was the perfect spot for a quick picnic lunch, probably in the very same spot that a mountain gorilla took a sip a few hours before! And then we journeyed on, uphill all the way.
Roughly 9 hours later, we emerged on the other end of the forest at Nkuringo, muddy and so exhausted that most could barely put one foot in front of the other, and stumbled gratefully into our coaster which we found waiting for us. It took us to our home for that night: Rushaga Gorilla Camp. As the group decompressed around a camp fire at this beautiful location, an amazing feeling of exhilaration & accomplishment swept through them.
We had actually slashed through an impenetrable forest, ALL the way from Buhoma to Kisoro, experienced all its wonders, & emerged victorious on the other end! It was Grace Villa’s toughest adventure to date.
Day 3 started before day break for the adventurers who chose to add tracking mountain gorillas to their package. After a briefing on the rules like making sure they maintained a distance of 7m (about 22 feet) from the gorillas to minimize possible transmission of human diseases, they went back into the dense Bwindi forest with a trained tracker. Only eight visitors are allowed per gorilla group each day. They returned to the hotel 7 hours later with looks of awe and glee on their faces, and photographs to prove that they had actually had the surreal, magical experience of encountering an entire mountain gorilla family.
We said goodbye to our forest home, and went on to the next location: Lake Bunyonyi where we found a dinner set, overlooking the 28 islands that make up this lake which is arguably the second deepest in Africa. That night, we lounged on strewn mattresses and pillows, as the movie “Black Panther” was projected on a large sheet. This had to be done, as this was the physical location at which the Marvel blockbuster shot its Wakanda scenes.
We woke up to beautiful birdsong, synonymous with its name “Bunyonyi”, which translates as “little birds”. We went on to have breakfast and a museum tour at Kwanzi, Grace Villa’s bistro/museum in Kabale town. After a quick stop at Grace Villa the home to say hallo and goodbye to the children, the farewell chapter of ##Bwindi4GraceVilla began as the team which had now turned into family boarded the buses for their trip back to Kampala.