Uganda is perhaps best known for its primates and in particular the famous Mountain Gorillas. Nothing quite beats that feeling of seeing your first gorilla in the wild, but the country has so much more to offer.
I was super excited to re-visit this country that surpassed my expectations the last time I travelled. My first stop was Entebbe where I spent the night at The Boma. On my last trip, it was a simple guesthouse with a handful of rooms, but it’s grown and now has a swimming pool, extended restaurant by the pool, and Wi-Fi. I was delighted it was still as charming as ever, simple and relaxed atmosphere with wonderful manicured gardens alive with birdlife.
An early start the following morning, with a scheduled light aircraft flight south-west to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. On arrival into Kisoro airstrip, in the southern section of Bwindi, I was met by our private vehicle and guide for the journey north-westwards through the country for the next two weeks.
Driving through Uganda is definitely part of the experience, primarily dirt and bumpy roads with the infamous African potholes giving you what they love to call an ‘African Massage’. You feel completely engrossed by the landscapes, wildlife and charming Ugandan people. As you drive through countless villages and take a glimpse into their daily lives, you can’t help but feel mesmerised by everything you see, from women working in fields; children playing, smiling and waving to bustling food markets, where you too can stop and buy the sweetest bananas I have ever tasted, or try out the local Jackfruit!
I spent a couple of nights in the Buhoma section of Bwindi and enjoyed another incredible gorilla trek. The terrain in this forest is tricky, it’s not called the Impenetrable Forest for nothing, but seeing a gorilla is definitely a spine tingling experience and worth every drop of sweat. Our trek to find them was quite short, only around an hour to find the gorillas, but they were on the move and to keep with them we did have to go ‘off piste’ and clamber on the side of a mountain at 180 degrees through the thick vegetation. They eventually settled to eat and we had the most wonderful time with them, the hour melted away into what felt like minutes. The Silverback was very impressive, but we were even more fortunate to visit a group with three babies, one of which was as interested in us as we were in him!
Most people visiting the gorillas will stay in the Buhoma area in the north, where the lodges are surrounded by the community village. It is definitely worth taking a stroll into the village, there are a number of curio shops offering handmade ware and the ‘Bwindi Bar’ is well worth a visit. The bar provides a practical training institution for local disadvantaged youths living near the Bwindi National Park in Buhoma. Thanks to this programme, the majority of the trainees will leave with the appropriate skills to go on to gain successful employment in hospitality in the Bwindi area. I enjoyed a delicious coffee and slice of banana cake (okay yes, for those who know me and a cold beer, I was in a bar after all!).
With the magical memory of the gorillas still vivid and a little surreal, I departed Bwindi, having visited several lodges in the area of course and travelled northwards to Queen Elizabeth National Park. I spent three nights in the park, the first in the southern Ishasha sector, famous for its tree climbing lions, and two nights in the central/northern part of the park overlooking Kyambura Gorge and the Kazinga Channel. I just love the diversity of this park, from forests to open plains, lakes and craters. The park does not rival the likes of Kenya and Tanzania for big game, but will offer good game-viewing, excellent birdlife and a variety of activities from forest walks, chimp trekking in either Kalinzu Forest or Kyambura Gorge, game-drives and a boat cruise on the Kazinga channel. The boat cruise in particular is a highlight and fantastic for birds and wildlife, in particular hippo, crocodiles and buffalo wallowing on the shore in the heat of the day.
I then travelled northwards to Kibale Forest National Park, home to the chimpanzee as well as several other primates and over 300 bird species. I included a chimp trek which was very rewarding. I will never forget the sound through the forest as one chimpanzee group calls to another, the screams built to a crescendo which is electrifying and a little intimidating! At first the chimps where high up in the trees, but our patience prevailed and several came down to the ground and we had some fantastic views and close encounters with these intelligent primates.
For the avid birder, an afternoon (or morning ideally) bird walk at Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary will not disappoint. I enjoyed a lovely three hour walk around the swamp, a few big ticks for me were the Great Blue Turaco as well as a Shining Blue Kingfisher. Apart from the excellent birdlife, there are also several primate species including the red colobus monkey, black & white colobus monkey, blue monkey grey cheeked, mangabey, vervet monkey, red tailed monkey and the L’Hoest monkey.
Next stop was Murchison Falls. I was super excited to visit this part of Uganda as I missed this out on my previous trip. I spent three nights in the area, the first at Budongo Forest and a further two nights on the southern shore of the Nile.
Wow! This park blew me away, again the diversity was incredible – from chimp trekking in Budongo Forest in the morning, to a peaceful boat cruise on the Nile alive with birds, hippos, crocodiles and a wonderful hike up to the falls in the afternoon. It did not stop there, the following morning a five hour boat cruise downstream to the delta swamps with incredible birdlife including a few new species for me: red throated kingfisher, dwarf kingfisher and blue headed coucal – a bird lover’s paradise. Unfortunately, the weather was not on our side with torrential rain and I did not get to see the rare Shoebill Stork, but I had luck elsewhere at the end of the trip …..
Your game-drives take place on the northern bank of the Nile where you catch a ferry to cross the river, all very efficient. My excitement for this park kept growing as the landscape on the northern side was breath-taking: rolling hills dotted with palms trees and wildlife. I could have easily spent another night here, after all, I did not have chance to fish and try catch the giant Nile perch, a reason to return for sure.
A sad farewell to Murchison, we headed back early to Entebbe to visit Mabamba Swamp west of Entebbe, our last hope to see the elusive Shoebill. The swamp is an extensive marsh of papyrus, water lilies and other wetland grasses stretching through a long narrow bay towards the western main body of Lake Victoria. We explored the maze of trails with a local motorized wooden boat (traditionally used to transport people and goods across Lake Victoria). It was baking hot and after two hours of searching, nothing. However, we persevered and eventually there it was, standing just in the open, this prehistoric looking bird, with its impressive size, piercing eyes and distinctive large hooked bill. Getting the rare opportunity to see this magnificent bird in the wild is well worth the time invested.
Uganda is definitely up there as one of my favourite countries in Africa and the gorillas are without a doubt one of my top three experiences in Africa. The country has so much to offer – incredible scenery; exciting primate encounters; good wildlife and sensational birdlife. Uganda gives you the opportunity to experience ‘rural’ Africa and it does get under your skin.
For me, the words of Winston Churchill, published in 1908 still ring true today. “For magnificence, for variety of form and colour, for profusion of brilliant life — bird, insect, reptile, beast — for vast scale — Uganda is truly “the Pearl of Africa.”
During Michele’s trip through Uganda she stayed at and visited several properties including Boma Guest House, Karibu Guesthouse, Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge; Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge; Buhoma Lodge, Bwindi Lodge, Mahogany Springs, Gorilla Forest Camp, Engagi Lodge, The Haven, Ishasha Wilderness Camp, Ishasha Jungle Lodge, Katara Lodge, Enganzi Game Lodge, Kyambura Gorge Lodge, Mweya Safari Lodge, Ndali Lodge; Primate Lodge, Budongo Eco Lodge, Ndali Lodge, Baker’s Lodge, Murchison River Lodge, Paraa Safari Lodge, Cassia Lodge Hotel and The Emin Pasha Hotel.