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Sunday, May 22, 2022

African Adventure 2022: Best of Chameleon Hill

For the first time all trip, we did not have to be awake and moving before 6am. What a magical experience to lay in bed with the curtains and sliding doors open to hear the sounds of birds as we watched the sunrise. Despite this fairly relaxing start, we had a bit of excitement when the safe did not open. I scurried up to the lodge to get the keys from Agnes to discover the batteries had fallen out. No wonder I could not get it open.

After making sure all was good with the safe and we had what we needed from it, we went up for breakfast. It was another delicious spread of fresh fruit, toast (GF for Kari), eggs (cheese omelette for me & medium fried for Kari), sausage, and bacon. The fresh passion fruit juice was also available to wash everything down. Delicious! Agnes brought our packed lunches (both requested chicken sandwiches with GF bread for Kari), and we were off to meet our guide, Gilbert, for the start of our outing.

The first portion was on bicycles. I was a little surprised to see decent looking mountain bikes waiting for us, expecting more of a hybrid bike to tootle along the lake. Instead, we ripped along the dirt road back to Kisoro. Given the road condition, mountain bikes were the appropriate tool for the job. We surprised Gilbert by being capable cyclists with most of our stops due to my seat post not staying in place. He was especially impressed with Kari as she was better than most of the men he typically goes on these with. Needless to say, we got to town a bit faster than expected, so our boda boda bikes weren't at the meet point yet. We took the opportunity to use the facilities and buy a pot holder. Pretty cool souvenir for $3.

When the second boda boda bike (read motor bike named so due to being the best way to get from border to border) arrived, we jumped on the back and rode off to the coffee plantation. Kari was more nervous riding on the back of the boda boda than ripping down the dirt road on mountain bikes. It probably did not help that we were relying on Gilbert and his friend to get us to the coffee plantation safely. It also provided another perspective of transportation from while here.

The first portion of the ride was on a paved road, which was probably good to get the handle of it. Before long and we were off on a dirt road, trying to hold on. Thankfully, we made it to the drop off point and began our walk up the volcanic rock strewn path to Kisoro Volcanic Organic Coffee plantation. Ronald and his dog, Max, greeted us as we enter the garden. He first brought us to an arabica coffee plant to show us the different colours of fruits: red is ripe and green is not ripe. To ensure high quality coffee, they only pick the red berries to test as part of the water method. He also explained that the arabica coffee trees grow at elevation (1700m to 2300m); whereas, the robusta coffee trees grow in the lowlands. They grow the trees for 15yrs, harvesting coffee from 18 months through 15 years, then they cut it down, leaving only about 1 foot of a stump. From the stump grows a second generation of the tree, which they let grow another 15yrs before repeating the process. When the root system has been used to grow trees for 45yrs, they dig out the roots and start over.

To assist with soil nutrient and water composition, they also grow a variety of other plants, including banana, in close proximity to the coffee trees. It was fascinating to hear their process to grow and cultivate the trees. He then showed us some of the other plants in the garden that they use for food and/or natural fertilizer and pesticide. kari got the recipe for the natural pesticide, which is part animal urine, so we can consider growing organic at some point in our future. It was fascinating to hear about all of the things growing in his garden and their uses. You could hear his passion coming through. His garden tour concluded with a brief display of the seedlings they cultivate for others to have. Growing coffee beans to sell is only one avenue that they make money from coffee with the other being giving seedlings to local farmers that want to get into coffee production. In those cases, the government will pay him for the plants that he gave away as a mechanism to aid in the country's ability to increase coffee exports. It is a pretty cool way to approach it.

Following the tour of the garden, Ronald showed us the water method to prepare the coffee beans. First, they put all of the harvested berries in a bucket of water to remove the floaters, or ones that have been impacted by a bug or disease. Then, they pulp the berries to free the beans and continue the process. Then they let the beans soak in water for three days, cleaning and changing the water every day to remove the first outer casing. The beans felt a bit slimy when first pulped. After this process, they let them sit on drying racks for a few weeks, not in direct sunlight, to dry out. This dried out bean has a flaky casing that needs to be removed, which they mash in a log until all of the casings are off. Then, they winnow (think pan for gold) to separate the casings from the beans. What you are left with is a green coffee bean, ready for sale and exportation. When they sell the green beans, they are graded AA, A, AB, and B with only AA & A used in premium coffee and AB & B reserved for instant. Ronald prefers to sell the green beans unroasted as they have a two year shelf life and roasted beans only have an 8 month shelf life.

To make sure we know the whole process, he and his wife roasted a set of beans in light, medium, and dark roasts to help us see the difference. Finally, he brewed some of each of the roasts for our taste test. To properly brew, you need to boil the water and then let it sit for a minute to drop in temp to ~80 to 90C before adding to the grounds. Then once combined, you need to let it sit for 4-5min to ferment. While he was letting everything process, he also filtered some of the dark roast using a common way to obtain coffee, also for our taste test.

When it was time, he poured us each a cup of light, medium, dark, and dark filtered to try and compare. He also set out nuts and bananas to snack on. Now, I am not a coffee drinker, but I didn't mind the light roast, even found it a bit enjoyable. The medium roast was ok, and the dark roast was not great, despite smelling the best. It was also remarkable how different the fermented vs filtered dark roasts were. Another fun fact he imparted was the lighter the roast, the greater the caffeine as it is burned off the longer you roast the beans. Interesting! They gave us small bags of our choice of beans or grounds as a souvenir. Kari chose the medium roast beans, and I chose the light roast beans. We debated getting more little bags for family and friends but opted against it due to weight restrictions on our little flight upcoming, not knowing what people would actually want, and unsure when we would see them next. It was a tough decision to say the least as this was the first time I tolerated coffee well enough to finish an entire cup (light roast).

Once we finished, we said our goodbyes and walked back down the path to the boda bodas. For the next part of our journey, Gilbert led us back to the main road for a bit before we drove off onto another dirt road to meet up with Chameleon Hill Lodge's pontoon boat for the final part of our experience: a ride from the southern end of Lake Mutanda back to Chameleon Hill Lodge on the northern end, stopping at a couple islands along the way to check things out. While it was sad to part ways with Gilbert, it was nice sitting on the pontoon boat to eat some lunch and get ready for the ride.

At the dock, we met our guide, Herbert, and boat captain, Amon, for our journey across the lake. As we set out, a couple guys began paddling away from shore in a dugout canoe, which is the primary way to cross the lake. Very few people, mainly tourists, cross the lake with an engine-powered boat. Herbert explained the process of making a dugout canoe from eucalyptus trees and chisels. It is amazing how much people seem to favor the eucalyptus tree (invasive from Australia) over the endemic species, but the wood works better for many of the tasks required of people and grows fast.

As we sailed along, Herbert pointed out various landmarks and gave us information about the area around Lake Mutanda. Before long, we were alongside Mutanda Island, the largest in the lake. This island is home to about 200 people. With no school beyond grade 1 and medical facilities, people would have to row the 15km to the mainland regularly. Moving livestock from the mainland to the island also required rowing with sheep & goats in the canoe and cows swimming alongside. It was fitting that two canoes from the island were heading to the mainland as we approached: one with a small boy paddling solo and one with a family hauling goods and a pig.

When we reached the next island, Amon slowed the boat, so we could look for birds. We saw an osprey, African fish eagle, some ibis, a couple kingfishers, and some cormorants. We also saw a kite swooping down to try to spot some fish. It was neat to not only see the birds but Herbert's genuine excitement for them. He mentioned birding was his favorite activity.

Our next stop was to Skeleton Island, so called because of the cave with royal members of one of the local clans being buried there. Instead of being buried below ground, they were rested in a cave encased in reeds and a blanket. With most of the natural fibers long disintegrated due to exposure to the elements, the bones remained. This is one of two caves in the Lake Mutanda area used for burials with the second on the mainland and better preserved from people taking the bones and other artifacts for museums or personal collections. Herbert explained that people would use these caves as part of their sacred rituals, a practice that has diminished a bit as other religions made their way into Uganda.

Following our stop on Skeleton Island, we got back on the boat and continued on to the lodge. Our final island that Amon slowed the boat for allowed us to see a pelican perched near the top of a fig tree. Herbert also pointed out roughly where he lived along the shores of the lake. That would be a stunning spot to grow up and live!

As we approached the dock, Amon slowed again so we could try to see the otters that live near the shore below Chameleon Hill Lodge. With the reeds providing a great spot for tilapia to grow, the otters also settled in to take advantage. We saw several in their hunt for fish, darting amongst the reeds. Pretty neat! We then said our goodbyes to Amon as we started our walk back up to the lodge with Herbert.

Along the way, Herbert pointed out the garden where some of the food for the lodge is grown, more bird species, and some cool plants. You could tell how much he enjoyed being part of nature and trying to learn as much as he could. Our walk with him also showed us the correct and fast way down to the lake from the lodge, which was much more direct than our misadventure from a couple days before.

When we approached our room, Agnes was coming down to get our dinner order and hand over our keys. We parted ways with Herbert, feeling a little bad he scurried off before we could tip him. We will have to find him later as he was one of our better guides thus far. We then got cleaned up and relaxed until closer to dinner time, looking forward to another delicious meal. While we were relaxing, Kari found some large bees making a home in the roof of our patio. She was not pleased. She wants bees to live and exist, but far from her.

The time came for us to venture up to the lodge for dinner. We connected briefly with Michael to hear about what he has been up to while we were on our day of adventure. He also briefed us for our gorilla habituation trek for tomorrow. Agnes called us in for dinner a little after 7pm. While the menu called for pan seared fish, they substituted some delicious steak for me; Kari had the fish. This was paired with tomato basil soup (another sub), roast potatoes, veggies, and passion meringue pie. Another incredible meal! We hung out for a bit before turning in to get some rest before our big day tomorrow! We also got to meet our new lodgemates: Ollie & Kirsten from Germany. While it was fun to have the run of this place, it will be nice to have a bit more company!

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