Will Lane Explores Uganda

Will Lane Explores Uganda

The Itinerary of a Lifetime

Up close and personal with Uganda’s Mountain Gorillas

There are only three countries in the world where you can see the mountain gorilla: Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is, for most, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I couldn’t wait to board the plane in Cape Town and start my journey to Entebbe – and ultimately, Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Uganda provides an incredible opportunity to see Africa’s primates in the wild, and this itinerary includes chimpanzee and gorilla trekking, and the chance to soak up the incredible scenery of Uganda’s national parks.

Day 1 | Entebbe and Lake Victoria

I arrived, like many others, in the early hours of the morning after a quick connection in Addis Ababa (with Ethiopian Airlines). Interestingly, although Kampala is the capital of Uganda, all international flights are in and out of the nearby town of Entebbe, on the sandy shores of Lake Victoria. Papyrus Guesthouse provided a welcome retreat after the long flight, and I was able to rest and relax before my adventure began!

Lake Victoria - Uganda
Lake Victoria – Uganda

Day 2 | Entebbe and Kampala

There is nothing quite like waking to birdsong in a new destination, and in southern Uganda, it’s loud! My designated driver and guide, David, collected me from the guesthouse, and we spent the day getting to know each other and the sights and sounds of Kampala before heading back to meet my fellow travelers at Hotel No. 5, a modern 5-star boutique hotel in the heart of Entebbe.

Uganda Monkeys
Uganda Monkeys – Black-and-white colobuses

Day 3 | Onward to Kibale

The next day introduced us to the rhythm of the trip: long drives between destinations, arriving at our next lodge just as the evening sets in, with the promise of warm welcomes and delicious dinners before bed. The drives are interesting and, to a degree, essential, and journeying through different landscapes and towns on our way to Kibale became one of the highlights of our trip. (It is worth noting that if you are only flying in to see the gorillas, transferring to Bwindi by air has huge advantages, including avoiding some of the rougher road conditions.)

Our group was fortunate to have both chimpanzee and gorilla trekking on our itinerary, and Kibale Forest National Park is home to over 1,500 chimpanzees, the highest concentration in Uganda. Before arriving, we experienced a guided “swamp walk” on the periphery of the forest, on land owned by several local communities. Not only did this give us an insight into village life, but it also provided an opportunity to see up to five species of primates that co-exist with humans in a habitat that benefits both. Primate Lodge in Kibale was our base for the night – and perhaps the best accommodation we stayed in during the trip. The lodge sits in the center of a forest that is home to several chimpanzee families, with the décor and design befitting the environment perfectly. Large windows, natural light, spacious rooms, private patios, and the surrounding sounds of the forest all add up to an unforgettable stay.

Chimpanzees in Uganda
Chimpanzees in Kibale

Day 4 | Chimpanzee Trekking

On this day, we set off on our trek to find chimpanzees deep in the forest. These primates move constantly, setting up nests in trees to sleep in before moving on the following day. Our guide showed a lot of patience as we went in search of the elusive chimps, and at first, it appeared our trek would prove futile. Not to be outdone though, we headed for a group of fig trees, a favorite fruit of the chimpanzee. As we got close to a large cluster of trees, the shrieks were a good clue that the animals were close by. Some raced by us and were up the trees in seconds, as this particular family grew in numbers. We craned our necks, looking upwards, only to be rewarded with an incredible sighting as, after a few minutes, the majority started to descend and relax on the forest floor. It’s hard to put into words the feeling of being so close to these amazing animals, whose DNA replicates up to 98% of our own. It was fascinating to watch as they petted one another and relaxed around us. It seems their social desire to be close to and communicate with one another is no different from ours.

After this remarkable experience, it was time to move on to our next destination, the Queen Elizabeth National Park. But before we departed the Kibale region, we took the opportunity to visit other lodges in the area, including Kibali Guest Cottages (set adjacent to the forest and on land that is being carefully reintegrated with indigenous vegetation) and Chimpundu Lodge (with its wooden walkways connecting 14 luxury cottages). We also had the unique opportunity to experience coffee making, basket weaving, and plantain gin and beer making in the local community. (On this occasion, we had to forfeit visiting Murchison Falls as it was too far north to fit into this particular tour, but it is something that should be considered on any visit to Uganda.) Our home for the night, Elephant Plains, just outside the northern sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park, sits about 950 meters above sea level with expansive views over two crater lakes: Lake Kikorongo, a freshwater lake, and Lake George, a natural salt lake.

Uganda Locals

Day 5 | Queen Elizabeth National Park

Elephant Plains’ location is hard to top. I woke to a cacophony of bird songs and quickly made my way to the east-facing veranda to watch the sun rise over the craters. Interestingly, there are just two lodges within the boundaries of Queen Elizabeth National Park. The main one is Mweya Safari Lodge, with its impressive views over the Kazinga Channel. Here, you are able to take a boat cruise or simply relax at the lodge’s pool bar or formal restaurant as you watch large herds of buffalo and elephants gather on the opposite bank of the river.

We spent the day exploring and getting an idea of how staggeringly vast the area is (just under 2,000 square kilometers in total). Tree-climbing lions are one of the park’s famous attractions, and we were lucky enough to see them! The park differs from reserves in southern Africa, where wildlife is abundant. So, a little more patience is required when it comes to spotting game. Local communities also live within the park, and it is not uncommon to see people walking or perhaps on motorcycles as you drive in search of wildlife! Tonight, we headed to the remote Ishasha Wilderness Lodge on the edge of the Ntungwe River (the only other lodge within the borders of the park) and hearing the gentle sounds of the river from our tented accommodation is something I will always remember.

Tree Climbing Lions in Uganda
Tree Climbing Lions in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda

Day 6 | Onward to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park

Another long day of driving took us to the very edge of the rainforest, where we were accommodated for two nights at Mahogany Springs. Arriving in Bwindi took some endurance, as our driver used all his skills (and those of our 4×4) to navigate the potholed road. This is unavoidable even if flying into Kihihi in southwestern Uganda, as there is only one route into the park. It’s best to relax and enjoy the experience as the road twists and climbs to this impossibly lush, impenetrable, and mysterious part of the world, home to nearly half of the world’s remaining mountain gorilla population.

The Bwindi community is primarily composed of the Batwa people, an indigenous group with a rich cultural heritage closely connected to the forest. A very positive aspect of traveling in Uganda is witnessing the relationship between people and wildlife; both have been affected by tourism, but the country has realized the importance of this relationship, and visitors can experience the culture of a community deeply intertwined with the forest and its endangered inhabitants. Sitting down to dinner the night before the trek, you could feel the nerves and anticipation. After all, we were about to go on one of the most sought-after wildlife experiences in the world!

Gorillas in Uganda
Gorillas in Uganda

Day 7 | Gorilla Trekking

It’s an early start, but you are rewarded with local community entertainment (including choreographed dance routines) when you sign in at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest HQ, before being briefed by the Uganda Wildlife Authority and choosing your hike level according to your fitness level. (Gorilla trekking requires a reasonable level of fitness, so if you are not exercising regularly, you may want to build up your fitness before heading to Uganda. Guides are on hand to help you choose the best route or trail for your level of fitness.) 

We chose the moderate route, a journey that took us up a steep, zigzagged pathway carved out from the mountainside with a series of tree roots and rocks for footholds. Joining us were a couple of armed guards positioned at the front and back of our group, a leading guide, and several porters to carry our bags. This network is important, not only for guidance and assistance but also in terms of supporting local communities with valuable employment. Each person plays their role in ensuring the success of the trek and, on a larger scale, maintaining this industry’s success. We trekked the steep but manageable mountain for around two hours before it plateaued, stopping several times to rest along the way. Once at the top, the scenery changed from typical forest conditions to one of dense foliage. Around 20 minutes later, we encountered the first trackers with a family of gorillas.

Gorillas are shy. They like to keep out of sight. But the trackers are skilled at finding them and treat them with deference and respect. It feels like a natural, almost spiritual co-existence between ranger and gorilla, and we were privileged to spend an hour in their (often very close) company. We were fortunate that ‘our’ family was a multigenerational group, ranging from a newborn gorilla (around one month old) to the more senior silverbacks, with many family members in between. It was incredible to witness their behavior, in particular the young males, who enjoyed showing off and expressing bravado at any given opportunity! And then it was over. Our time with the gorillas, as with the chimps, was done. We left them to continue their lives (perhaps waiting for the next lucky group of tourists to encounter them) and returned home, making it back to base in good time.

High on life (and an extraordinary morning with the world’s largest primates), the afternoon provided another unexpected highlight. We were invited to a presentation of a mobile ambulance tricycle by a local organization called Ride for a Woman. There are over 50 of these ambulances across Uganda, delivering essential medical care to people in some of the remotest villages in the country. Once again, we were treated to a series of dances and songs, and the joy was palpable.

Uganda Ambulance
Uganda Ambulance

Day 8 and 9 | Lake Mburo National Park

Today we headed to our final destination, Lake Mburo, a freshwater lake in western Uganda. En route, we stopped at Rwakobo Rock Lodge for a site inspection and the opportunity to learn about the area’s adventure activities (including cycling, walks and hikes, and cultural experiences). Then it was on to our home for the night, Mihingo Lodge, set high up on a rocky enclave with sweeping views of the National Park.

Rwakobo Rock Lodge
Rwakobo Rock Lodge Activities

A sunset boat cruise on Lake Mburo is an absolute must, as is a walking safari the next day. We ventured into the park on foot, walking amongst giraffes, buffalo, warthogs, and other non-predatory wildlife. Uganda has over 1,400 bird species (a colossal number!) and we ticked off several species in our short time here, including fish eagles, bateleur eagles, hamerkops, the superb starling (yes, that is its real name), maribou storks, and a host of waders. (Lake Mburo National Park, with its forests, swamps, and grasslands, is a unique destination. It feels quite remote but is still easily accessible on a circuit that can include Kibale, Murchison Falls, Queen Elizabeth National Park, and Bwindi.)

Lake Mburo
Lake Mburo

Day 10 | Entebbe

Following a comfortable night’s rest, it was time to set off for Entebbe, a long day of driving that took us back over the Equator (we had crossed it previously in the Queen Elizabeth National Park, so had the unique experience of crossing it twice in one trip!) and onward to Kampala. The stretch of road between Entebbe and Kampala has been recently built – modern and without any hint of the ‘African massage’ we had gotten so accustomed to on our adventures!

Uganda Equator
Uganda Equator

After saying goodbye to the rest of the group (I had a later flight), I took the chance to relax at a local homestead and reflect on my trip. I learned so much over the 10 days, and it’s all down to David’s deep knowledge of the country, technical driving ability, and relationships with park authorities and lodge owners. The itinerary gave us a good perspective on the country’s tourism industry, its infrastructure, and its wildlife, and I shall keep that knowledge in mind when continuing to promote the country.

But among the many unique experiences I encountered, it was the people who made the biggest impact, greeting us with respect, compassion, and a willingness to showcase the incredible and diverse range of activities on offer. I have vivid memories of my time here and will be keen to share them with anyone looking to travel to this amazing country. May the spirit of the ‘Pearl of Africa’, a land of resilience and beauty, continue to inspire those who venture here, and may its natural treasures thrive for generations to come. 

By Will Lane, Jenman Safaris

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