From gorillas, chimpanzees and tree-dwelling lions to luxuriant lakes and primordial mountains, Uganda’s got the lot, as Karl Cushing discovers
I hear them long before I see them, the dense, shaking treetop canopy providing more than ample cover for the fast-moving, wildly ‘whooping’ chimpanzees – and proving more than a match for my slow-focusing camera. But then there they are, a whole group nonchalantly stretched out on the boughs of a fallen tree, just feet before me, lorded over by the alpha male as he acquiesces to an attentive preening session. Watching the group dynamics and interactions is mesmerising. I stand transfixed, rooted to the spot.
I’m in western Uganda’s Kibale National Park, where chimps are the undisputed stars of the show. They are, however, but one of 13 primate species in the park, which claims the highest density of primates in Africa. Some prove remarkably easy to spot, not least the black-and-white colobuses I spy from the grounds of Primate Lodge (ugandalodges.com/primate), my homely haven mere metres from the park’s HQ, the starting point for tracking.
More elusive are the galagos, or ‘bush babies’. With night-time being the right time to glimpse the little critters, I sign up for a private night walk where, thanks to the keen-eyed, torch-bearing ranger, I tick off two of the park’s three species, although I fail to catch a nocturnal glimpse of civet or serval cats, which feature among the local predators. Birding is another big draw, with Kibale home to 372 of Uganda’s thousand-plus species of bird.
After Kibale’s primate-packed rainforest, the vast open plains and gorges of Semliki National Park, a few hours’ drive away, offer a refreshing contrast. While big game is limited for now, and it lacks big cats, plans are afoot to restock and restore Semliki to its former glory.
For now, it offers stunning landscapes and the sumptuous Semliki Safari Lodge (wildplacesafrica.com), where I lap up the daily game drives, my afternoon forays capped by sundowners amid the acacia. Come nightfall the return home offers the chance to pick out everything from nightjars and owls to a huge African Rock Python blocking the path as it slithers out on the prowl. Other times I content myself with kicking around my palatial platformed tent’s terrace or lazing around the lodge’s main lounge area. From this vantage point I witness the wildlife stir around me, from the endlessly grazing warthog below to the monkey business in the distant tree line. As the sun falls below the horizon, I flank the fire and allow myself to be lulled by the sounds of the bush.
Alongside visits to Semliki Chimpanzee Project, the park’s forest areas serve up excellent birding, bolstered by a guided boat tour on nearby Lake Albert. Here, I tick off all manner of other sightings while peeling my eyes for my ultimate goal – a shoebill. Hours pass as we fruitlessly scour the banks, but when we finally spot one it’s an unforgettable experience. Standing a full four incongruous feet against the grassy papyrus backdrop, it fixes me with the fierce, piercing yellow eyes that float above its gargantuan hooked beak before breaking off for some disinterested preening. I’m not done though. Later, in Entebbe, I chalk up a second sighting on an extended scouring of the papyrus-lined channels of Lake Victoria’s Mabamba Swamps.
With ten National Parks in the country, however, from remote Kidepo to Bwindi with its gorillas [see below] and Queen Elizabeth with its tree-dwelling lions, I hardly scratch the surface of the country’s possibilities. Wildlife aside, the ‘Pearl of Africa’ offers a riot of experiences, from hiking the slopes of the snow-capped Rwenzoris and tackling Mt Stanley to croc and hippo encounters at Murchison Falls and rafting at Jinja, the country’s adventure capital. One thing’s for sure: there’s a lot more to Uganda than gorillas.
In these information-heavy days, it can be hard to experience genuine jaw-drop awe when doing something for the first time – but exceptions remain, a first encounter with a group of mountain gorillas being one.
Uganda is arguably the best place to see the world’s largest primates in the wild, having more gorillas than neighbouring Rwanda and without the same level of security concerns as the DRC. Uganda also has far more groups of habituated gorillas to track, while the $600pp tracking permit fee (rising to $700 in July 2020) is a steal compared to the $1,500pp charged in Rwanda.
Gorilla tracking is focused on two national parks in southwest Uganda. Most opt for the more accessible, enchantingly named Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (bwindiforestnationalpark.com). Home to half the world’s population of mountain gorillas, the park now offers 17 habituated groups to track, plus you have the option of tracking chimpanzees, too.
By contrast, lesser-visited Mgahinga (mgahinganationalpark.com), part of the Virunga Conservation Area that spills over from the DRC and Rwanda, offers visitors the chance to track just one habituated group, the Nyakagezi, and there are no chimps. What it does have is endangered golden monkeys and excellent trekking on its three volcanoes.
Bwindi has been offering gorilla tourism since 1993 and gorilla numbers have been steadily increasing in recent years. Following the anticipation-fuelled trek, your guide finding a path through the thick forest blanketing the majestic, mist-covered mountains, you’ll be gifted an hour with your group of gorillas once sighted.
Trekking is best attempted from June to September or December to February, avoiding the rainy seasons when tracking conditions are slightly tougher. You’ll need to be more than 15 years old, mustn’t be sick at the time of your visit and you’ll need a level of physical fitness to reach them. That said, older or less physically fit visitors are generally allocated the nearest groups, while capping the number of visitors to each habituated group at eight per day keeps groups small and minimises disruption.
Bwindi’s gorillas are spread out over four sectors – Buhoma in the north, Ruhija in the east and Rushaga and Nkuringo in the south, home to some great habituated groups, the Nkuringo tracking trailhead and lovely, lofty lodges such as Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge and Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge. Gorilla Forest Camp offers luxurious tented accommodation and, if you’re lucky, you may spy gorillas in your grounds.
Not that gorillas are the only wildlife in town. Aside from chimp tracking, Bwindi is a prime birding spot, its myriad species including a healthy number of endemics, while interactions with local Batwa communities combine well with scenic forest walks.
ABTA has produced the first Global Welfare Guidance for Animals in Tourism, supported by six manuals covering specific topics. These are practical guides for travel businesses as well as suppliers of animal experiences. The aim is to encourage good practice in animal protection and welfare. The manuals set out unacceptable and discouraged practices, minimum requirements for animal welfare and best practice. They bring together existing guidance and are intended for travel providers to issue to their suppliers, for tourist boards and relevant destination authorities as well as animal attractions. Developed in consultation with more than 200 stakeholders including animal welfare experts, the manuals ensure that everyone working in the travel industry can be informed and up to date with the latest guidance and good practice in animal welfare. ABTA will publish updated guidelines by the end of the year.