Paul Bonsfield, went on the Ugandan 'Gorilla & Chimp Safari'. Find out what it was like to come face to face with a huge silverback!
Uganda is one of those countries that cause people to look at you askance when you tell them where you're going. But, despite its obvious challenges - infrastructure, pollution, poverty - it's a stunning place to visit and, (cliché warning) the people are some of the friendliest I've come across.
The city of Kampala, the country’s capital, is dirty, sprawling and there’s not a lot to keep the traveller within its crowded streets. There is a certain chaotic colour and atmosphere here though; that feeling that you are most certainly in an African country and most certainly not anywhere else. The only potential place of interest to visit is the Museum, which has an interesting musical display apparently – I say apparently as I didn’t go there myself.
Head out of the city though, and a world of stunning scenery opens up. From the marshlands on Lake Victoria near Kampala, to Jinja where the source of the Nile is to be found (I swam from Lake Victoria’s warm waters into the Nile itself something that should be on everyone’s 100 Things To Do Before” lists) along with some great white water rafting or canoeing on the Lake. I was travelling with an Explore group and we decided to experience a “sundowner”, which meant paddling out onto the lake, tying our canoes together and then drinking cold gins and beers while watching the sun set over the jungle surrounding the lake, always a fairly rapid affair this close to the equator, but what a beautiful way to end the day.
On the west side of the country, the national parks provide glimpses of what could be. From Murchison in the north to Bwindi in the south, all benefit from a seemingly enlightened government attitude to conservation. Wildlife isn't hugely plentiful in Uganda, but populations are recovering rapidly so it’s a good time to go, with relatively few tourists just yet. We saw a good selection, including elephant, buffalo, zebra, antelope, crocs, hippos and a wide variety of birdlife, including the oddest I've ever seen - the shoebill, (looks like a cross between a pterodactyl and a dodo).
Queen Elizabeth NP is beautiful. Part of the Great Rift Valley, it was the real deal; Africa like you see in the movies, with tall yellow grasses, flat-topped acacia trees and purple mountains in the background. Very cool. We stayed in the beautiful Mweya Safari Lodge which sits on top of an escarpment overlooking Lake Edward, home of hippo, crocs and other assorted wildlife.
If you want to see chimps in the wild, head into the Chambara Gorge. It’s quite humid and stuffy down there, but the rangers are pretty clued up on where the troop is likely to be. It’s quite an exciting trek too, following trails along the ground and the echoing calls up in the canopy until you come, at last, to the animals themselves. The alpha-males are a lot bigger than you’d think, but obviously used to visitors, so you can get pretty close. You’ll need to organize the visit with the rangers, but it’s a good curtain-raiser on the main event in Uganda, the mountain gorillas.
Down in the Bwindi NP, in small groups of no more than 8, we spent a reasonably tough 3 hours of trekking to find the large family group we were searching for. You can find them much quicker than that (another group walked for just a carefully stage managed 20 minutes – the rangers want to give everyone the best experience possible) or it can take many more hours before you get a glimpse.
First we came across was the silverback, and despite whatever you read or see on TV, nothing can prepare you for the sheer powerful presence of this animal. He is the boss and he leaves you in no doubt about that fact.
On my trip the family was feeding on the slippery slopes of a wide gully, so getting a foothold wasn't the easiest, but even so the allotted hour came to end sooner than anyone wanted. The family numbered 25, the guide reckoned they would soon split into two smaller groups, so there was plenty to see and the shutters kept clicking the whole time we were there.
The earthy smell of them, the scent of wet undergrowth, the sounds of strange birds in the trees and the occasional grunts from the adults are memories that will remain. The overriding memory though will be when a mother, with baby firmly clutched to her chest, casually sauntered by, so close to me that she brushed my leg. And, although the video from another group member is unclear on the subject, I will swear to my dying day that she looked up at me as she went by and contact was made. Looking into the eyes of one of these animals really can be a life-changing moment – you witness us, as we once were, or maybe as we are now.
Be prepared for long road journeys in Uganda and along many un-made roads too. It’s easy to say that driving along red, hot, dusty roads adds to the whole African experience, but that’s really only for the first hour or so. After that, it’s just hot and dusty - although companies such as Explore will often break up the longer journeys to make it all a little more manageable. This is a country that could be on the cusp of a tourism boom, so a good time to get in now before the crowds.
Paul travelled on Explore's Gorilla & Chimp Safari in Uganda.