Sir Winston Churchill called Uganda ‘The Pearl of Africa’ and, with its amber earth, emerald forests and moody graphite sky, it’s easy to agree that this country is a jewel of the continent. However, what is hidden in those forests is more precious than any stone. Their rarity is one of the planet’s greatest tragedies but to see one of the last remaining jet black Mountain Gorillas in the wild is a moment you’ll treasure forever. Be warned though, like any good hunt for gold, you’ll have to work hard for the prize!
Landlocked Uganda is located on the East African Plateau and is nestled between Kenya, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Tanzania. This equatorial country has a rich geography with eight major rivers, five lakes and mountains marking both the eastern and western borders. Uganda’s national parks are the best place to explore the country’s stunning scenery and, on a two-week tour, you can tick off most of the highlights.
Kibale National Park is one of the best places in Africa to track chimpanzees. The groups here are habituated to humans, which means that they are used to people entering their habitat and observing them. These great apes are absolutely fascinating to watch. On my one-day visit to Kibale I witnessed them hunting a monkey, grooming each other, building nests and a male trying to (unsuccessfully) attract a female! A guide will take you into the forest just as the chimps are leaving their nests in the morning and you can then spend several hours with them.
It’s a fantastic opportunity to photograph and film the group in their natural habitat but there are a few rules to abide by:
- No flash photography
- No eating near the chimps
- Keep a distance of 8m between you and the chimps
- Don’t enter the forest if you’re suffering from an infectious disease
“A fantastic opportunity to photograph and film chimpanzees in their natural habitat.”
Queen Elizabeth National Park
Queen Elizabeth National Park is just south of Kibale and its vegetation is mostly savannah grassland. Here you can spot elephants, buffalo, leopards, hippos and the rare tree-climbing lion population. Apart from rhinos, Uganda has all of the charismatic African species but it’s often overlooked as a safari destination. Exploring this park contrasts nicely with the forests of Kibale and there are plenty of other mammal and bird species to spot if your interests are deeper than the big four.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (called that for a reason!) is about a 4-hour drive from Queen Elizabeth National Park and is home to Uganda’s star attraction. This misty equatorial rainforest is Uganda’s oldest and most biologically diverse. Here, nearly half of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas can be found (around 340 individuals) and several groups have been habituated to humans so can be tracked. Tracking them sounds easier than it is. The gorillas are wild so they can be very near basecamp or so far away that hours and hours of extremely challenging trekking is required. Also, there is no guarantee of finding them at all. However, the rangers leave at dawn to help locate the groups for the tourists. Hearing their deep, contented grunts just before catching a glimpse of these huge, human-like apes is the most thrilling feeling in the world. You only get one-hour with the gorillas and the permits are expensive but it’s a once in a lifetime experience that is humbling and exhilarating all at once.
The same rules apply as for tracking chimps and spreading infectious diseases to these endangered animals is a huge concern. However, without ecotourists visiting rainforests to see the gorillas, it’s more than likely they’d already be extinct.
- Insect repellent
- Vaccination card
- Walking boots
- Lightweight waterproof jacket
- Small backpack
- Gardening gloves (there are lots of thorns in Bwindi)
- Pens, pencils and toys for the local children
I travelled to Uganda in June (in the dry season) but gorilla tracking operates all year round. Just be sure to purchase your permits in advance if travelling in the high season. To get to Uganda, I flew to Entebbe and had a wonderful guide called Brian who drove me to the national parks (a Ugandan driver is recommended as the roads are not smooth sailing). In Bwindi, I stayed at Chameleon Hill Lodge, which has phenomenal views of Lake Mutanda.