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Uganda – it’s not just gorillas!
My last “wet season” Ugandan trip wasn’t just gorillas, but a refreshing step back into the simple and unsophisticated ways of being on safari.
First stop, Emin Pasha Hotel. A first class “boutique hotel” in the centre of Uganda’s capital, Kampala. Its a great place to start – outstanding food, fine wines and great service. Setting the stage for some contrasts to come. One is lulled by its relaxed and civilised atmosphere in the hotel. It could be a really nice hotel in any city of the world.
Traffic chaos reigns in Kampala
Step outside and things change quickly. The journey starts by negotiating grid-locked traffic along pot-holed short-cuts through a shambles of shopping and residential areas before you’re on the open road out to Fort Portal. Its a steady 5 hour drive to the first stop, the Ndali tea estate and coffee farm about 30km out of town.
Ndali Lodge itself is perched high on the rim of an extinct volcano overlooking Lake Nyinambuga. It’s a quiet and informal step back in time where there’s still no electricity. The sitting room boasts a library, a modern telescope and a dozen dogs at your feet. Nights at altitude are cool but the water’s piping hot. A 1774 hydraulic ram feeds a donkey boiler from the Crater Lake below and there’s no shortage of wood for the fires.
From Ndali dawn views overlook the lake with sunset views across rolling hills, more crater lakes and farmland towards the Ruwenzori Mountains.
Dinner is served under fully-laden candlelit chandeliers over a great vintage banquet table. Ask for the wine list and “George” takes you to the wine rack and passes a corkscrew. The main course is a simple choice – pork, chicken or vegetarian. Served full of flavour with local vegetables, herbs and spices. There’s no mistaking it, this is old Africa. As is custom the company is genial and the smiles are warm, relaxed and unaffected.
Deeper into the forests
Gorillas and chimps, of course, are Uganda’s traditional safari draw card. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is where we go to find the mountain gorillas.
This protected area is 330 km square, set in south-western Uganda. It’s a mountainous region which includes both lowland forest and rare Afromontane vegetation on the peaks. This ancient patch is around 25000 years old – one of the few “refugia” that survived the last ice age. Its home to about 320 mountain gorillas including 4 habituated groups. Trekking can be tough here but the success rate is as good as 100%.
Eight of us were in the company of “Ham the Man”, Hamidu Juuko, a quietly spoken Professional Guide who gave us an hour with the Mubare family group. It was a challenging trek to a deep glade in steep forest and then suddenly we were in “their” world – silverback, adults and youngsters going about the business of eating, socialising and generally contemplating life. They were utterly indifferent to us.
Some people describe their first encounter as “life changing”; others are simply lost for words. Photo opportunities are plentiful but never quite do justice to the experience.
Chimp treks are done in Kibale and Chambura Gorge and they couldn’t be more different. They’re mostly noisy, hectic, frantic moments before the chimps disappear into dark cover before reappearing without warning for another few disorderly minutes. The local guides here always have extra time to share their deep working knowledge of these environments and the complex relationships between plants, insects, birds and beasts.
So just beneath the surface one finds much more to Uganda than tracking primates alone. Queen Elizabeth National Park, Ishasha and Lake Mburo are truly under-rated for tree-climbing lions, elephants, masses of kob antelope, great herds of buffalo, rare shoebill storks and loads of “lifers” for seasoned birding enthusiasts! The wild landscape is positively littered with Crater Lakes, savannah, great forests, woodlands and kopjes. Over 1000 bird species, 1200 butterfly species, endemic orchids, epiphytic ferns and hundreds of tree species make it a naturalist’s paradise. It’s a fertile and vibrant place – it’s said that if you press a burnt match into the soil in the morning you’ll find a tree growing in its place in the evening.
It’s true to say that if you removed all of Uganda’s big features and attractions you’d still find month’s worth of serious exploration to be had just in Kibale or the QENP’s Maramagambo forest alone.
So next time I’m in Uganda it might be for a month, perhaps only in one place. Most likely from a quiet tree house hidden in a remote forest, but I’ll finish off with a mouth watering steak at Emin Pasha on the way home!
Top tips for planning a mountain gorilla trek
- Go to Rwanda or Uganda for mountain gorillas. We have small group trips on set dates through the year, private departures at anytime on request
- Rwanda is more accessible and the trekking can be easier
- Uganda is more varied and deserves more time to include the lions of Ishasha and chimps of Kibale at very least…there’s lots more to see and do
- “Dry season” from June to September is “regular holiday season” too
- Plan as far in advance as possible – we have access to permits up to 2 years ahead
- Current permit allocations per day: Bwindi-Buhoma 24; Bwindi-Nkuringo 8; Rwanda 40; DRC 8+32 maybe. No amount of money will purchase unavailable permits. Fixed at $600 in Uganda and $1500 in Rwanda (2018)
- Set flights 12 months in advance and the permits and best available accommodation is guaranteed. If last minute permits become available then chances are that accommodation is “potluck”
- If you don’t have the budget then join a group (we have set date trips available 18 months in advance)
- Private trips give us best access and flexibility to spend extra time wherever needed but watch the calendar – July to October gets block booked in advance so remember to plan a year up front.
Further reading and some essential viewing
- More about Uganda
- Visiting the rare mountain gorillas in Uganda and staying in a luxury safari lodge for 3 nights; a truly must-do experience to see this highly endangered ape
- An 8 day Uganda safari tracking mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, game viewing in Queen Elizabeth National Park, chimpanzee tracking in Chamburu (Kyamburu Gorge)
- Ham Juuko Safari Guide - guiding in Uganda
- Beyond Uganda and Rwanda there’re lots of other gorilla trekking safari options further west into DRC, Congo, CAR, Cameroon and Gabon.
- A photo account of a Ugandan safari including Ngamba Island, Entebbe, Kampala, Kibale, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Bwindi and Lake Mburo