Stunning Wildlife Encounters on the Uganda Gorilla Trek

Stunning Wildlife Encounters on the Uganda Gorilla Trek

A Uganda Gorilla trek had been on the bucket list for a long time. Mark Huggins from Undiscoverd Destinations travelled to Uganda for this once in a lifetime wildlife experience. How would the reality be?

The Uganda Gorilla Trek was one of many highlights

Uganda Gorilla Trek with Undiscovered Destinations

I arrive in Entebbe Uganda around mid-afternoon.

I was wrong to think this might save me from the jams for which Kampala is famous. After an hour slugging it through the chaotic melee of vehicles I arrive at the somewhat more tranquil surrounds of the Cassia Lodge with lovely views out over Lake Victoria, the second largest freshwater lake in the world and shared by Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya.

After checking in we enjoy a nice meal on the terrace and an attractive sunset with lake views to one side and the city of Kampala to the other. A very pleasant start to the Uganda Gorilla trek trip.

The next day we hit the road and head west excited to experience the wildlife and scenery of the country. After navigating some more carnage on the streets of Kampala we get out into the country and are immediately struck by just how green Uganda is.

We are travelling in the height of the main wet season but are told that most of the South and West of the county are very green all year round. It’s a fairly long day on the road for us but an enjoyable one, passing through lots of small towns and seeing locals go about their everyday business.

As we approach our first major stop, the road passes through thicker forest, and we get our first primate sighting with a group of black and white colobus monkeys frolicking in a roadside tree.

We also slow down for a good close sighting of a number of olive baboons who sit casually on the verge and they scope us out like traffic police as we wind the windows down.

We arrive at Bigodi Swamp by late afternoon for a 2 hour walk and welcome the opportunity to stretch our legs after the drive. The walk is guided by members of the local community and it is a real delight. In beautiful afternoon light we stroll leisurely through the forest, along boardwalks through the swamp and finally through a beautiful meadow where we get some great sightings of black and white hornbills.

Our overnight stop is at Kibale Safari Camp. The permanent tented accommodation is situated down a small hill from the main dining area, in order that guests can really get the feel for and appreciate the sounds of the forest at night and early in the morning.

After an early breakfast we take a short drive to the Kibale Forest park centre and check in for a guided forest walk to track chimpanzees. Some red tailed monkeys are playing in the trees by the car park when we arrive. We are briefed on what to expect and then head into the thick forest with our guide.

The guides are armed on account of the potential to accidentally encounter forest elephants, which whilst being much smaller than the African Savannah elephants, are much shyer and if stumbled upon are often aggressive.

The guide explains that a shot into the air is effective at sending them in a different direction. The forest is stunning and after not too long we hear the screeches of noisy chimps close by. We are also slightly unnerved to hear the heavy cracking of trees which is the sure sign of the forest elephants but we manage to avoid them.

Our first sighting of chimpanzees is of a few females high up in the canopy feeding but soon after we find a number of the animals on the ground and our tracking hour begins.

It is a magical hour, where the overriding feeling is how similar these animals are too us in their actions and mannerisms. Just the way they stretch out and lie down, the way they sit on a fallen tree and the way they hold fruit and branches for example. We are able to get very close and although generally they are always on the move so the hour passes quickly, one has to move smartly to keep up with them.

I didn’t feel that the walk was difficult at Kibale but good sturdy footwear is recommended and also long sleeves and pants as chimps don’t stick to the paths!!

We finish our walk at Kibale Primate Lodge and inspect the facilities before we head south to our next wildlife hotspot. The journey takes us through stunning hills and we stop for a while and linger at a crater lake with panoramic views in one direction to the Rwenzori Mountains bordering Congo and also known as the mountains of the moon.

These mountains climb to 5000m and have snow clad summits despite their equatorial position. In the other direction we can clearly see the plains of Queen Elizabeth National Park and this is where we are heading.

We arrive at the park entrance late in the afternoon and immediately take to the park tracks for a game drive. We take the Kasengi route which is a vast grassland dotted with Acacia and cactus trees and supports vast numbers of Ugandan Cob, a small antelope and seemingly the main dining option for the parks resident lions.

We also spot warthogs, water buck, a large monitor lizard and lots of bird life but for much of the drive the lions remain elusive.

Then as we are heading back to the park gate something remarkable happens. Steve, our guide, suddenly gets excited. He says he can see some lions. I see nothing but grass and bushes. We must be more than 100 meters from where he says he can see them. We head to the spot and sure enough laying down in the grass next to, and actually inside a large bush lay a few male lions.

I find it utterly incredible that our guide even spotted them. We spend a few minutes watching them laze around swishing their tales without seemingly a care in the world. They hold our gaze with a hint of menace but don’t move a muscle. We have to be at our lodge for 7pm so we leave them in peace.

We have a twilight drive along a dirt track to the lodge and on the way we spot a herd of elephant grazing on the hill side overlooking a salt lake. The lodge we are staying at is Mweya, frequented by the Queen in 2007 and it occupies a great position high on a hill overlooking the Kazinga Channel where hippo, crocodile and buffalo all gather together in an uneasy union.

The next morning we take another game drive in the park. We don’t see the lions this time but the light is magical as a thin mist lifts and the colours of the grasslands and the lower slopes of the Rwenzori are illuminated by the rising sun. We have a few hours back at the lodge to kill before our afternoon activity and I sit on the terrace with a pair of high powered binoculars looking at the banks of the channel for wildlife.

Just above the mudline in the trees I spot the huge flapping ears of an elephant and in one of the trees near the waterline a majestic pair of African white breasted fish eagles survey the channel from on high.

After lunch we take to the channel by boat with a doomsday sky advancing from the distance. Our first spot along the banks is dozens of pretty pied kingfishers. It’s not long before we come across pods of hippos as well as buffalo and Nile crocodiles.

As we move up the channel the bird life is prolific with sightings of great crested cranes (featuring on the national flag) Goliath Heron, Hammerkop, Yellow weavers, and Pelicans to name but a few.

As we near the turning point in the channel we are treated to two large elephants frolicking in the water, periodically dipping in and out onto land and looking as though they were having a great time of it. By now the gloom that threatened to envelop us has passed and we consider how lucky we have been with the weather thus far considering we are in the wet season.

The next day it is time to leave Mweya Lodge which no doubt is a real gem of a place with its great location and excellent wildlife viewing. We still have a long way to travel through Queen Elizabeth National Park as we head south. The rain greets us in the morning but we are driving so it fails to dampen the spirits. We encounter hippos crossing the road and lots of elephants on the verges.

We stop at the Kichwamba escarpment for a panoramic view of the park before continuing towards Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The rain clears well before Bwindi and the scenery in the south west is ever greener with lovely tea plantations dotting the slopes.

As we arrive at the steep and thick forested slopes of Bwindi, a blanket of low cloud hangs on the canopy. We take a walk through the village returning greetings from friendly locals before dinner.

The permanent tented camp Lake Kitandara at Bwindi is our accommodation for the evening and the tents are comfortable. We also visit the Silverback Lodge higher up the hill with lovely gardens and a stunning view of the thick forest. Tomorrow we hope for an experience of a lifetime – a Uganda gorilla trek!

We are up early the next day and arrive at the park entrance at 07:45. Of course we are here to track the endangered mountain gorilla. The thick blanket of cloud from the night before has dispersed and we are treated to cloudless skies. We have our briefing and meet our local park guide and learn which of the 3 habituated gorilla groups we will be tracking.

We are allocated the Habinyanja group which has the largest number of gorillas of the 3 groups situated in Bwindi. Other groups of gorillas reside nearby in Rwanda and in Congo. The trek for one gorilla groups starts at the visitor centre but our group involves a 45 minute 4WD journey to a different section of the park. The drive is stunning, the vivid green of tea plantations covering the hillsides.

On arrival at the beginning of the trek we meet our porter and with our armed guard (again to warn off forest elephants) we start the trek. It takes around 30 minutes to get into the dark forest and once inside it is not hard to see why it is called the impenetrable forest.

I have never seen forest so thick and the slopes are steep. We have been preceded on the trek by trackers so periodically our guide radios ahead for news and we stop to take in the sounds of the forest. The walk is tough and I am thankful for bringing my boots. After about an hour hacking through the jungle we can hear the gorillas close by.

Our first sighting is of a small female sitting on a small tree and the view is good although we are looking straight into the sunlight streaming through the trees. We move on and suddenly we are in the proximity of the silverback.

We have an unnerving moment where he charges us making loud shrieks and pushes some bushes towards us to show his strength. Although scary, we are told this is normal behaviour, a show of strength. From then on we spend a magical hour with the group with so many close encounters.

The silverback stays out of the way mostly but we have some fabulous views of the silverbacks nearest challenger known as the black back who is very impressive in his own right. We also spot a female with a month old infant and various other younger gorillas.

They do not move as much or as fast as chimps so whilst the effort to get to the gorillas was considerable, once there it is quite relaxed and the efforts to get there melt away in the presence of these majestic animals.

After what seemed more like 10 minutes we had to leave them. Luckily we were close to a path and the walk out of the forest was straightforward. What an encounter. An unforgettable wildlife experience.

From what I experienced and was told by the rangers one has to be well prepared for long and tough trekking in Bwindi even though if you are lucky it may not take long to find the gorillas. The terrain should not be underestimated. Sturdy boots and long shirts and pants are essential to avoid nasty ant bites. The guides are excellent at clearing the best path possible and helping in difficult stretches.

Still riding high on the experience we drive further south again through even more exceptional scenery getting to around 2500m altitude where the air is refreshingly cool and the smell of eucalyptus gushes through the open car window. Our southernmost location for the trip near the Rwanda border is Lake Bunyoni situated at close to 2000m altitude.

Bunyoni is said to be the prettiest lake in Uganda and immediately on arrival it is hard to argue as the lake is surrounded by beautiful green hills in all directions and is dotted with 29 islands of varying size. We take to the lake by boat in the late afternoon and are treated to a double rainbow lighting up one of the hills.

We make a brief stop at Sharps Island on the lake where in the early 1900’s, a missionary named Dr Leonard Sharp established a leprosy treatment centre. He planted beautiful gardens on the island which still exist to this day. The trip on the lake was a peaceful end to an unforgettable day.

Our final full day in Uganda is a long drive back to Kampala but with another highlight still to come. After a drive of around 4 hours we get to Lake Mburo National Park. Mburo is a relatively small park and is the most accessible from Kampala. It’s a real gem and very beautiful although lacks the big 5 game.

Nevertheless it is a birders paradise and still has large numbers of zebra and antelope including impala, a small population of giraffe and lots of warthog and hippos around Lake Mburo itself. Leopards also inhabit the park but are usually elusive.

At Lake Mburo one can safari on foot and on horseback as well as of course by vehicle. We spend an hour checking out the wildlife before we have lunch at Mantana camp which has great views from the restaurant over the grasslands towards the lake.

After leaving the park we drive the final 4 hours back to Kampala and once again endure the horrific traffic from the outskirts to the centre. We enjoy a nice evening meal at an Indian restaurant with our local team to discuss the trip and future possibilities and opportunities. We stay at the modern Africana hotel in downtown which is a comfortable option.

On our final morning of this Uganda gorilla trek holiday, we travel out towards Entebbe and take an excellent excursion in Mabamba swamp to look for the odd looking large stork related Shoebill.

The tour is guided by the local community and our guide points out many different bird species as we navigate the channels. It is not long before we find a shoebill in amongst the reeds gazing longingly into the water hoping for a lungfish to pass by.

The Shoebill is an improbably large bird with a large head and huge beak but it is captivating and we spend 15 minutes or so observing its patience and dedication to the fishing cause. Early morning is the best time to see the Shoebill although even without a sighting this would be a fitting and relaxing end to a trip to Uganda.

After the swamp I see a couple of Entebbe properties and then take the short journey to the airport. As I wait for the flight I reflect on how Uganda most certainly lived up to its billing as the Pearl of Africa….and then some.

Mark Huggins travelled on the Uganda Gorilla trek in April 2016.

April is the wet season in Uganda but apart from some heavy showers it is still absolutely feasible to visit and permits for gorillas and chimps are cheaper as well as the accommodation.

There are also very few tourists in April meaning that trekking to see chimps and gorillas is often in smaller groups. Of course if you prefer or can only travel in the dry season (and busier) conditions then avoid April and May.

Undiscovered Destinations can offer our Best of Uganda small group (maximum 12 clients) tour 11 days.
We will be shortly introducing some extension possibilities to the main group tour including little visited Kidepo National Park in the North East.

Undiscovered Destinations can also offer private and tailor made options in Uganda and can offer a range of services and accommodation.

If you do not like long road journeys and would prefer to take a flight option to a national park on a private or tailor-made tour then contact us for more information.

For chimp and gorilla trekking it is highly recommended that you use sturdy walking boots and have long sleeves and trousers to trek in. You should tuck your socks into your trousers to avoid ant bites.

You should be used to some strenuous walking and please bear in mind that in particular at Bwindi trekking is usually on steep and sometimes slippery slopes.

Porters are available and are recommended. A walking stick can be provided at Bwindi by the porters but you may wish to bring your own stick/poles. For tailor-made clients wishing to have a longer experience with chimpanzees or gorillas we can also offer longer habituation experiences.

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