Uganda - View from the Inside

"An unforgettable wildlife experience with the gentle giants that are the gorillas of Bwindi,  exploring the very best of Uganda- the 'Pearl of Africa'".

November 2019 • Laura Kelly, Head of Commercial

Uganda - View from the Inside

Uganda is known for good reason as the ‘country of a thousand smiles’. Visually spectacular, bright and colourful with verdant greens and rich browns and  a kaleidoscope of local colour.

Uganda straddles the equator, where the jungles of West Africa meet the savannahs of East Africa leading to an incredible diversity of landscape and wildlife. It is a paradise for birdwatchers with over 1062 species comprising 67% of Africa's and 11% of the world's total bird population.

Uganda’s National Parks offer game drives, walking safaris and boat rides as well as chimpanzee trekking in Kibale National Park and you’ll find incredible wildlife and birdlife in Queen Elizabeth National Park. Landscapes range from open savannah to rainforest, dense papyrus swamps, from the beauty of individual crater lakes to the vastness of Lake Edward. Marvel at the tree climbing lions of Ishasha, magnificent Lake Victoria and the mighty Murchison Falls, and of course the fabulous Mountain Gorillas of Bwindi.

Entebbe is the capital and a pleasant modern African city. Attractions include the Uganda Wildlife Conservation Centre whose resident species include a tame Shoebill (Sushi) and an orphaned White Rhino. There are botanical gardens attracting a wide variety of birdlife and if you have longer in Entebbe you could venture to the Mabamba wetlands for  beautiful landscapes and a wide variety of birdlife, including the elusive, wild Shoebill.

Just a short distance away is Kampala and Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa and one of the sources of the Nile, from where the Nile starts its 600km journey to the Mediterranean. Kampala was the colonial capital and originally formed on 7 hills, the city now incredibly spills out into 34. Thriving and vibrant, the roads are filled with bodda boddas (motorbike taxis) and ridiculous traffic. Ramshackled shop fronts line the roads and colourful townships with their terracotta coloured, corrugated rooftops fill the city skyline. Traffic is intense but a drive through provides the opportunity to see the colourful daily life of Kampala; vendors on the roadside, skillful drivers avoiding cows that follow their own rules, bodda boddas and a brass band marching kindergarten children to their graduation.

We took the long and winding road to Murchison Falls National Park. The landscape is stunning with undulating hills of verdant greens and rich brown fertile earth. Travelling via Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, home to the only wild Rhinos in Uganda, that roam the 7,000 hectare park. Here we enjoyed a walking safari with the local ranger through flat grass and shrubland, in search of White Rhino and were lucky to discover a ‘crash’ of 4 taking a siesta, we returned to camp but not before encountering the famous ‘Obama’.

The first European explorers to reach the area now known as Murchison Falls National Park were John Speke and James Grant, in 1862, followed shortly by Samuel and Florence Baker. The falls were named after Roderick Murchison, then president of the Royal Geographical Society and they are absolutely spectacular, comprising a dramatic descent of 45m by the Victoria Nile from the Albertine Rift Valley, itself containing a stretch of rapids for 80 km. From the drop the waters calm and flow serenely into Lake Albert.

The next morning we took a launch along the River to the Nile Delta  - the papyrus laden banks are  reminiscent of the banks at Aswan and have an abundance of birdlife, to be enjoyed on this wonderfully leisurely cruise. The Delta edges Uganda and the Congo, and local fisherman still fish for Nile Perch, Talipa and Silver Fish. There is great birding on the banks, aside from the hippo pods, Rothschild giraffe and roebucks, colobus monkey and baboon, we saw yellow beaked kites, black headed river birds, heron, egret, ibis, sacred ibis, cormorant, piper kingfisher, the elusive shoebill and fish eagle. A super morning birding.

From the river we continued with a game drive in Murchison Falls National Park across savannah, Borassus Palm Forest and grassland to Lake Albert. The grasses of the savannahs are high after the rains, but still we see elephant, buffalo, oribi, giraffe, warthog, buffalo, kobs, Jackson hartebeest, monkeys and multiple deer and antelopes. We headed down to the river and took a private launch along the Nile to Murchison Falls, spotting wildlife en-route; the river widens to a great expanse, again plenty of birdlife and the occasional croc spotted on the shore. The approach to the falls is spectacular, the force of the flow quite incredible.  For the fit there is an afternoon hike to the top of Murchison Falls, tough but exhilarating and well worth the effort - the sight of voluminous, cascading water is staggering.

So onward to Rwenzori mountains, at 5109 m. above sea level, the cool, pleasant highland temperatures  welcome. Crossing the highlands, where the Great Rift Valley meets the mighty Congo Basin, driving above lush valleys filled with banana trees, maize, eucalyptus, coffee and tea plantations to Crater Lakes; comprised of 72 craters, created 8-10 thousand years ago, a stunningly scenic area. From here enjoy crater ridges walks and Kibale National Park for Chimpanzee trekking. Established in 1938, it is the Primate Capital of the World, set over 795 sq km with 13 primate species: Olive Baboons, Colobus Monkeys, red tail, red Colobus Loest, Blue, Mangabee and Chimps, as well as nocturnals and 372 bird species, 21 endemics.

For chimp trekking you are arranged in groups of 6 and travel with your assigned ranger - we drove to outer rim of the park and our excellent ranger, Letticia, walked us through the flat forested area in search of a chimpanzee family. Did you know that the chimps spend 90% of their time in the trees and 10% of their time on the ground?! After a long period of sky gazing, we are rewarded when the alpha chimp - Mr Orphan, dropped from his perch in the heavens and walked among us. The eventual proximity to the chimps makes this a really very exciting experience.

So on to Queen Elizabeth National Park, crossing the Equator en-route. This National Park is a little unusual with 11 communities resident within the park, it is the second largest in Uganda and one of the most bio-diverse reserves in the world. The beautiful landscape lies on the Albertine Rift floor and the vegetation varies from forests and swamplands, to the open savannah. The park’s biome boasts 95 mammal species, 20 predators and over 611 bird species, making it a birder’s paradise. To the east is Lake George, the Kyambura Game Reserve, Kyambura Gorge and the famous Maramagambo rainforest (approx. 440 sq km and home to over 1000 wild chimpanzees). To the south the park is bordered by the Ishasha River, which is the boundary between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, while Lake Edward borders it in the west. To the north is the town of Kasese and the famous Rwenzori Mountains, known also as ‘the mountains of the moon’.

We took a small launch out onto the Kazinga channel to explore for wildlife, the channel is 40 km long connecting Lake George with Lake Edward. On the shores we spotted Cape buffalos (with their 1 day old), savannah elephants, hippos, giant forest hogs, water bucks Nile crocodile (& baby) and giant monitor lizards. Incredible birdlife including piebald kingfisher, yellow billed stork, black winged silt, cormorant, green shag, spoonbill, egret, marabou stork, gulls, African skimmers, water huckers, bee eaters, African Jacana, hammernet, African fish eagle, sandpiper, papyrus gonolek, fire finch, habada ibis, black crik, malachite kingfisher, sand martins, nightjars, yellow back water biob, pink backed pelican, sacred ibis and southern billed stork.

We drove south to Ishasha, home of the tree climbing lions. Racing from the rains, with the expert guide, we spotted dun duns, topi and a couple of tree climbing lions just before the downpour and that was quite magical.

So onto Bwindi - leaving behind the landscape of savannah dotted with trees, passing through charming villages where we spot homemade wooden bicycles, blooming flame trees, and on each corner, excited children waving us onward on our journey. We stop at a local school with supplies and spend an hour or so with the teachers and children, and plant a tree to commemorate our visit.  Travelling onward through cultivated valleys and hillsides, spotted with clay houses, to the terraced and misty hills of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park - a large primeval forest, home of the Mountain Gorillas.

Bwindi town has one main street that everything gravitates around; colourful shop fronts of curio, souvenir shops, community projects, a few bars and restaurants as well as the main visitor center.  It is quite a funky place to explore taking walks, relaxing and exploring the local community projects, not forgetting the Gorilla trekking. It is here on the mountainous slopes and jungles of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park that we  spent time searching out the majestic gentle giants and is where we hope to make contact with the great loping silverback gorillas.

Gorilla trekking registration and briefing take place at the Uganda Wildlife Authority park offices and trekking usually starts at 8.30 am. Here  you will be given the name of the specific gorilla family you are tracking. Some gorilla families are easier to track than others; it all depends at what altitude they range, or what distance they cover during the day. It normally takes 1 to 3 hours trekking time (each way) to find your gorilla family and you will receive a safety briefing ahead of the trek. You’ll be one of just eight trekkers, accompanied by a Uganda Wildlife Ranger and two armed rangers (to fend off any rogue forest elephants). Every trek is different depending on the location of the gorillas. The terrain is varied and may involve climbing up and down the mountains, or a more leisure loping ramble. The aim is to find out where the gorillas spent the night, as they tend to only travel up to 1km per day and are likely to still be nearby the nest. Once you have located your chosen gorilla family, you will have an hour to observe them in their natural habitat. The rangers are extremely knowledgeable and are on hand to answer all your questions and explain the gorillas’ behaviour. 

Of the estimated 900 mountain gorillas in existence, half live in troops in the UNESCO protected Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Mghinga National Park, and can be observed and tracked by a select number of visitors. We drove an hour to the far side of the forest, met with our porters and trackers and prepared for our trek into the unknown.  The excitement was palpable and the nerves were rising, we each had a staff to help navigate the terrain and a porter to carry our bags and water, we started our walk in single file through the forest and out onto the ridge above farmland and plantations with the sun shining brightly down as the skyline opened to reveal the velveteen forest and mountain slopes before us. Bwindi has many equatorial forest trees that create the thick canopy; African brown mahogany and ebony trees as well as Ceiba and Cecropia. Back into deep foliage and the dense jungle of Bwindi with a ranger hacking through the occasional branch with his machete, just ahead, this was quite the adventure! The terrain was not particularly gruelling but in parts hands hoist you upwards over slippery slopes, and the occasional gentle shove from behind assists your upward trajectory.  The guides stop and murmur, they examine the surrounding forest for clues, scouring the foliage for droppings, leftover food and knuckle finger prints. There is a flurry off  to our right as a black mass rushes through the undergrowth. Our trekkers quieten us to listen for movements and silently direct us off the path through the forest, cameras to the ready.  There is movement around us a young male in the group forages, a few steps further and just above us, in the branches of  a Cecropia, a gorilla is lounging and picking at fruit. After a few moments we spot the silverback, in slumber beneath the trees.

There is an hour spent with these wonderful creatures. This is an intimate encounter, coming face-to-face with a majestic mountain gorilla in its natural habitat is an unparalleled, magical wildlife experience. Ensure that for at least half of this time you put down your camera and you really experience their presence. Behind the camera I would have missed the infant tumbling head over heels in the long grass and the junior orphan taking shelter behind the Silverback. We watched as the youngster play, the young adult chews on bamboo shoots and stands deadly still as an adult saunters through the grass and brushes beside us. We hold our breath but grin inanely at the contact made. What a fantastic experience!  Once we were out of the forest and back on the ridge we stopped and re-live that precious hour; their proximity, their silent power and grace, their majesty in the forest. Our final night in Bwindi was spent inspecting each other’s images, video footage, and recalling the spine-tingling encounters. 

And so back to Entebbe, 1 ½ hrs to the airstrip for the 1 hour 40 min flight to Entebbe where our journey ends.

What a superb country! Small and safe with a real tapestry of landscapes, where mountain soar, rivers run and wildlife roam in a perpetual spring-like climate. The infrastructure and mid-range lodges may not be as sophisticated as those of its East African neighbours, but this lends a certain charm to the destination. The people are so welcoming and the smiles live up the country’s moniker. Uganda has so much more to offer than Gorillas, but the Gorilla experience is just pure magic!

Essentials for the trek:

  • Copy of passport
  • Camera: extra memory cards
  • Poncho or rain jacket - it can rain heavily, even in the dry season
  • Bum bag – or sealed pockets
  • Walking stick - provided by the camp
  • Gloves – these are useful for grabbing bushes, or sliding downhill on the seat of your pants (you never know where your trek might take you!)
  • Bug repellent
  • A good, solid pair of hiking boots
  • Cool, comfortable clothing in muted colours.
  • Long sleeves, trousers, long socks and gaiters to keep bugs out and prevent scratches
  • Tips for Porters $15 for porter $10 for ranger
  • 2lts of water
  • Wet wipes
  • Tissues
  • Plasters
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Patience
  • A sense of humour

You will be rewarded with an awesome experience!