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Joe encounters the great apes of Uganda and Rwanda

In May, I made a long-awaited visit to Uganda and Rwanda. The focus of a safari to these countries is usually to see the mountain gorillas, but the highlights of my trip weren’t limited to just the great apes!

Unlike our usual educational trips, this time I was travelling as part of a group with other tour operators from across the world. It was put together by one of our suppliers in East Africa and involved 11 nights in Uganda, followed by three in neighbouring Rwanda.

I landed into Entebbe Airport and after visiting a couple of city hotels departed east past the capital Kampala and on to the town of Jinja. It is said that Jinja is home to the source of River Nile as it works its way northwards through Uganda, South Sudan and Egypt before emptying into the Mediterranean. We drove for around three hours and arrived at Wildwaters Lodge. Roughly 20 minutes north of Jinja, the property is located on an island in the White Nile and surrounded by rapids, hence the name! Being on the banks of the river was a lovely start to the trip and somewhere to ease into Africa after lengthy international travel. As a place to simply relax, enjoy the birds and watch the river flow by, it works nicely and reminded me of the lodges in Zambia/Zimbabwe upstream from Victoria Falls. Wildwaters also offers a number of activities from more sedate cultural visits and island nature walks to adrenaline-fuelled bungee jumping, white water rafting and kayaking.

The following day, we made our way back to Entebbe where we visited some more properties in the city and met the rest of our travel companions for the next week – a mix of British, South African and Canadian tour operators made up the group, all with varying levels of experience. In the afternoon, we visited Mabamba Swamp which is on the outskirts of Entebbe. We boarded a speedboat and made our way to the edge of the swamp, where we were met by local guides in wooden canoes (with engines) and then we ventured in. Our reason for the visit was to go in search of the prehistoric looking shoebill – it was a success! We managed to find a lone male shoebill standing incredibly still, watching for mudfish. They stand still for hours and are incredibly patient. Shoebill are a much sought after bird and there are only limited places in Africa where you can see one. Mabamba Swamp is so easily accessible from Entebbe that if time allows, spending a few hours looking for this unique bird, either at the start or end of a trip, is well worth it!

Exploring Uganda can be done either by road or by light aircraft. Travelling by road allows you to truly experience the country, watching local children play and seeing daily life in rural Africa. Taking flights does, however, allow you to minimise travelling time and avoid the challenging road conditions (commonly known as ‘African massage’ across the continent).

We travelled by vehicle and departed Entebbe bright and early for a six hour drive northwest. We visited a couple of properties en route to the Fort Portal/Kibale area of the country which is most well known for its chimpanzee population in Kibale Forest National Park. There are roughly 1,450 chimps in the forest comprising 15 families, six of which are habituated. Tourists are permitted to trek to spend time with three of those six families. We did one trek in Kibale, walking along the road where a family of chimps decided to cross – an incredible sighting. We followed the family into the forest, making our way through the undergrowth, listening to their calls. Here we spent an hour with the group, predominantly watching two males grooming each other on the forest floor. Being habituated chimps, they barely acknowledge us and are relaxed enough to go about their daily routines undisturbed.

From Kibale, we headed south towards Queen Elizabeth National Park. We spent one night in the northern Mweya sector of the park. A highlight in this area is the Kazinga Channel which is 20 miles long and links Lake Edward and Lake George. We took an afternoon boat cruise on the river, drifting past herds of buffalo, elephant and lots of hippo too. We came across a colony of pied kingfishers occupying a sandbank; something I hadn’t seen before as they are usually seen on their own or as a pair. However, they had taken to the sandbanks of the Kazinga Channel in huge numbers, digging nests into the bank sides, similar to Carmine bee-eaters – such an unusual sighting.

Driving south through Queen Elizabeth National Park on what were challenging driving conditions for our poor guide after prolonged rains in the area, we arrived in the Ishasha sector. A small portion of the National Park, the Ishasha sector is renowned for its resident lions’ habit of tree climbing. During our short stay in the area, we were fortunate to see two lionesses lounging in the fork of an acacia tree. Lions may be ‘kings of the jungle’, but they are incredibly cumbersome and unnatural when 20 feet off the ground! The Ishasha sector landscape is stunning with a mix of open savannah, rolling hills, riverine forest, ancient fig trees and swathes of acacia woodlands. The game viewing in the area certainly cannot compete with the more famed areas of East Africa such as the Masai Mara and Serengeti, but it does offer diversity during an extended Uganda trip and the birdlife is sensational. You will see good plains game, with herds of topi, the endemic Ugandan kob and elephant too as well as other general wildlife.

Further south of Ishasha is the area for which Uganda is arguably most well known: the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Home to half of the world’s mountain gorilla population, Bwindi is a must visit when in Uganda. It is split into northern and southern sectors, with Buhoma (northern side) and Nkuringo (southern side) being the forest’s two main neighbouring towns and home to a number of accommodation options. We spent two nights in Buhoma exploring the lodges, community projects and of course trekking for gorillas too. Buhoma tends to be our preferred base for clients who are gorilla trekking. There are a number of superb lodges, ranging from three to five star level, so it can cater for varying budgets and preferences. The Buhoma area is home to six gorilla families, so plenty of trekking options depending on walking ability and fitness. Gorilla trekking does require an element of fitness, but the fantastic trackers keep a constant eye on the gorilla families and know their whereabouts from first thing in the morning until nesting time in the evening (gorillas don’t move after dark). They therefore have a location on each family group and the rangers do their best to allocate gorilla groups according to trekkers’ fitness levels, thus accommodating people of all ages and abilities. However, the length of the trek can never be guaranteed as the families can move – so you need to be prepared for a three to four hour trek as a standard.

Our gorilla trek was incredibly special! I have been fortunate and privileged to have had some phenomenal experiences throughout Africa over many years of travel, but my hour with the gorillas was so different to anything I have done before and something that will stay with me for life. Due to the make-up of our party, the trek itself was quite straight forward as we were allocated a more accessible group of gorillas located not too deep into the forest. We trekked for around 40 minutes up and down some quite steep terrain, but with the help of the porters it was made much easier. Once we met up with the trackers, we knew we were close to the gorillas. We left our belongings, put on our facemasks, grabbed our cameras and made our way to the group. We visited the Rushegura family which is a group of 16 led by a silverback named Kabukojo. He was the first gorilla we spotted, just sitting, relaxed, chewing on some bamboo shoots. He acknowledged our presence but continued going about his routine. Making eye contact with a silverback is hard to describe. Their gaze is so human and so relatable, but the power and dominance of the animal makes you feel inferior and submissive, and so I found it very hard to maintain eye contact with him for too long. I have been up close with elephants and lions previously on foot, making similar eye contact, but nothing is comparable to coming face to face with a silverback! After Kabukojo had had enough of us, he went on his way to find more tasty shoots and we made our way to see the rest of the family. We watched little ones playing, with mothers trying to keep them in check, while the rest of the family feasted. The interactions between the gorillas was again so human and wonderful to watch. The hour goes extremely fast, so my advice to anyone spending time with the gorillas is to put your camera down for at least a portion of the hour and just sit and watch the behaviour.

The gorilla viewing is of course the main reason for visiting Bwindi, but the area offers more than just the great apes. The forest is home to around 350 different bird species, with 23 being endemic to the Albertine Rift – a haven for birders. There are also several community experiences possible, including visiting local Batwa villages where you can learn about the traditional hunter gatherer ways prior to the Batwa people being moved out of the forest in the late nineties. Elsewhere in the local area, you can visit community empowerment programmes which have been set up to help disadvantaged local people supplement their income and improve their quality of life. One such project is Ride 4 a Woman which is a wonderful initiative helping ladies who have been impacted by HIV, poverty and domestic abuse by teaching them skills such as pedal sewing and finance to help better their future.

From Buhoma, I walked south through the forest to Nkuringo which was a great three hour walk (roughly 7.5 miles) with exceptional birding and interesting scenes with local people lugging huge sacks of coffee, potatoes and numerous fruits to sell to the lodges in Buhoma. A night was spent near Nkuringo (another access point for gorillas) before continuing south to Lake Mutanda.

Uganda is covered with crater lakes which are very deep and some of which are almost lifeless. In the south of the country the likes of Lake Mutanda and Lake Bunyonyi are huge lakes which offer another dimension to the Uganda experience. Boat cruises, kayaking, stand up paddle boarding and wild swimming are all possible due to the absence of crocs and hippos here. A couple of nights to unwind and enjoy the lake work well as a stopping point when driving from south to north or vice versa. There is also the potential to see spotted otters in the lakes – we weren’t lucky enough to glimpse any this time unfortunately.

Our final stop in Uganda was Mgahinga National Park on the border with Rwanda. The border between Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC is dominated by seven volcanoes with the most easterly being Muhabura, Gahinga and Sabyinyo. These volcanoes are also home to gorillas and can accessed from both Uganda and Rwanda. The forest here is very different to that of Bwindi – it is much less dense and the lower slopes are dominated by bamboo which the gorillas love, as do the golden monkeys which can be found here and viewed from the Rwanda side also. While in Mgahinga National Park we embarked on a morning golden monkey trek. It works in a similar way to the gorilla trekking, but generally speaking is less strenuous as the monkeys enjoy the forest fringe where the newer bamboo shoots are accessible. These little creatures are small monkeys, with golden backs and very fun to watch. They go about their own business in the trees and on the ground with a focus on eating, eating and eating. They are very peaceful and funny to watch, so certainly worth spending an hour with them. Golden monkey trekking is also a fraction of the price of a gorilla permit.

As the majority of the educational group returned home, I continued south crossing the border into Rwanda at Kyanika. Upon entering Rwanda, the change between the two countries was very noticeable. The dirt roads were long gone, replaced by immaculate tarmac roads without a pothole in sight – no more ‘African massage’. Even in rural areas the people were busy, the vast majority of whom were working and going about their daily lives. Rwanda of course has a tragic and very complex history, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Many still think of the 1994 genocide when hearing the country’s name. After the troubles of the 90s, there are no longer individual tribes in the country and instead, just one, Rwandan. People are happy, smiling and have turned a corner vowing for nothing of the sort to happen again.

Northern Rwanda is most well known for Volcanoes National Park and the mountain gorilla population. As mentioned above, the volcanoes straddle the border with Uganda, but gorilla groups are more plentiful on the Rwandan side. Volcanoes National Park is home to 23 family groups of gorillas and in 2017 the permit price was doubled from US$750 per person per trek to US$1,500. The key reason behind this was to limit human impact on the gorilla families, restricting the permits to 96 (12 groups of eight people) per day. Not all the family groups are accessible to tourism; some are the focus of research and some are still being habituated. With the increase in permit cost came a change in clientele. A number of Africa’s luxury operators have now opened lodges in Rwanda to accommodate the more affluent clients who can afford the increase in permit price. Investment in the local area has followed and 10% of the permit cost goes directly back into the local community funding individual projects to improve quality of life. The general infrastructure has improved, with excellent roads, solar street lights, electricity more widely available in households and more employment opportunities for local people. All of this has been brought about by mountain gorillas, which demonstrates the importance of wildlife to the local people and they treasure it as a result. Rwanda has become a very polished destination, compared to neighbouring Uganda, making it ideal for those wanting a luxurious and sophisticated base from which to experience the mountain gorillas.

Elsewhere in Rwanda there is the opportunity to see chimpanzees in Nyungwe (southwest of the country) as well as more traditional game viewing in Akagera (east) which is a National Park currently being re-established by African Parks. The aim and hope is that in the next 10 years or so Akagera will be able to rival East Africa’s other premier game viewing areas, making Rwanda an all-round destination.

My final stop of the trip was the bustling city of Kigali. For me it seemed to be one of the most ‘sorted’ cities I have visited in Africa. Parts of the city felt like cosmopolitan Cape Town and others like European cities. The investment is plain to see with skyscrapers towering over the CBD – evidence that international companies are seeing Kigali’s location and improved political stability as a great base from which to establish in Africa. A visit to Kigali MUST include a visit to the genocide museum. It is a sobering and emotional experience, but as the president Paul Kagame has said, it is important for people to learn about the tragic events, so nothing of the sort can happen again. A visit to the museum really highlights further how far Rwanda has come as a nation in my lifetime and from what I understand from my guides and hotel staff on the ground, the country has big plans to continue to develop and improve the quality of life for those who live there.

My time in Uganda and Rwanda was fascinating. The people are some of the most friendly and hospitable I have met. The levels of service and slickness are by no means the finest I have encountered, but that is part of Uganda’s charm in particular. It is like jumping back in time 10 or 15 years, with the focus on the location and experience, rather than the luxury and polish. Across the border, Rwanda caters for the added sophistication and luxury needed for clients looking for that added ‘wow’. The biggest takeaway, however, were the great apes. Although just making up two hours of my two weeks, spending time with chimpanzees and gorillas in the wild are experiences I will treasure for the rest of my life. I certainly came away with a feeling of privilege to be in their company and an appreciation for the tireless work that the rangers do to conserve the wildlife in what can be a challenging environment.

During Joe’s time in Uganda and Rwanda he stayed at: Lemala Wildwaters, Hotel No. 5, Ndali Lodge, Elephant Plains, Ishasha Wilderness Camp, Buhoma Lodge, Clouds, Chameleon Hill, Mt Gahinga Lodge, Sabyinyo, Bishops House and The Retreat.

Joe also visited: Karibu Guesthouse, Protea Hotel Entebbe, The Boma Entebbe, Kyaninga Gorge Lodge, Primate Lodge, Chimpundu, Mweya Safari Lodge, Kyambura Gorge Lodge, Baboon Safari Resort, Mahogany Springs, Engage Lodge, Bwindi Lodge, Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp, Trackers, Haven, Gorilla Safari Lodge, Four Gorillas, Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge, Lake Mutanda Resort, Virunga Lodge, Tiloreza Eco Lodge, Five Volcanoes, One & Only Gorillas Nest, Mountain Gorilla View Lodge, Singita Kwitonda, Amakhoro Songa Lodge, Wilderness Bisate Lodge, Kigali Serena Hotel, Hotel des Milles Collines, Kigali Marriott and Four Points by Sheraton.