Spectacular wildlife scenes in the Ngorongoro crater.
Spectacular wildlife scenes in the Ngorongoro crater.
Karen Blixon's home in Nairobi.
Karen Blixon's home in Nairobi.

Kampala - Where, when, why: Last July we set out on a journey of discovery to experience the beauty of east Africa and to retrace the path of my late uncle, Bishop Vincent McCauley, who was a Holy Cross Catholic missionary in Uganda.

Highlights and high points: Our trip started with a week-long safari to the Tanzanian national parks of Lake Manyara, the Ngorongoro Crater and Tarangire and the endless plains of the Serengeti, where we saw countless wildebeest, zebras, gazelles, elephants, giraffes, leopards, lions, monkeys, colourful birds and much more.

Most memorable were our “close encounters” including a crossroads confrontation between our Land Cruiser and a lumbering bull elephant who was in no hurry to clear the way, and a brief charge by a lion when our driver inadvertently stopped between him and his (in-heat) companion.

But more thrilling was our two-day trek to see the mountain gorillas of Rwanda, where we were literally close enough to “reach out and touch” these vegetarian giants. Remarkably, we were able to see the youngest (a four-day-old baby), oldest and largest gorillas living in Volcanoes National Park.

Cultural connection or disconnect: In 1958, my uncle, then a priest, and three newly ordained priests were sent to establish a new diocese in the Ugandan kingdoms of Toro and Bunyoro.

My uncle fell in love with the people of Uganda, and his legacy includes establishing numerous schools, seminaries and medical clinics. He was also a founding member of the Catholic University of East Africa in Nairobi.

He died in 1983 and in August 2006 was named a Servant of God, the first step towards canonisation.

In the Ugandan capital of Kampala, John and I met Father Patrick Neary, the superior of Holy Cross’s District of East Africa, who sent us on a week-long exploration of my uncle’s legacy, starting with a stay at Bishop McCauley House, headquarters for Holy Cross’s east African missions.

After a day of sightseeing in the harrowing, motorcycle-packed streets of Kampala, we left early the next day for Fort Portal, a bustling city flanked by picturesque tea plantations at the edge of the Rwenzori Mountains.

It was here that my uncle established his parish and served as bishop. We stayed at the Holy Cross Novitiate on Lake Saaka, home to nine young men who were completing a year-long period of study and community living before taking their vows to become priests or brothers. We were privileged to attend the ceremony at which they made their initial vows into a life of religious service.

We also attended Sunday mass at Our Lady of the Snows cathedral, built at my uncle’s behest after an earthquake destroyed the original in the 1960s.

Then it was on to Nairobi, where we stayed with members of the Holy Cross community and visited the campus of the Catholic University of Eastern Africa.

We also visited the plantation home of Karen Blixen, aka Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa, and toured the National Museum and an elephant orphanage in Nairobi National Park.

Biggest laugh or cry: On our gorilla trek in Rwanda, the guides advised us not to approach the young gorillas. Obviously, they didn’t get the message, as John was sent sprawling head over heels when one of the juveniles playfully punched him on the shoulder as he scurried by.

How unexpected: Our Ugandan driver wondered why we were taking pictures of a bicyclist with a live pig strapped to the fender. When we told him that we’d never seen this in America, he sped up to a motorbike whose passenger was holding four goats and another group of cyclists carrying chickens in a basket so that we could get photos.

Fondest memory: It was tremendously gratifying to meet the people and visit the places my uncle so loved and that so influenced him.

The most memorable moments were our “non-tourist” ones spent with Africans. We were overwhelmed by their generosity and helpfulness.

Our Ugandan driver, David, and his sister invited us to their family farm for tea.

In Rwanda, our driver, Afrika, arranged a private tour of a cultural village, where we were crowned king and queen and clothed in leopard skins.

And the young novitiates we shared meals and evening card games with were inspirational in their faith and desire to help others. It’s no wonder my uncle became so attached to a land so beautiful and a people so generous with their affections. – The Washington Post

l Kathy McCandless Opitz travelled with her husband, John.