Uganda, Gorilla Trekking & More
Uganda’s Top Destinations
It’s the moment of truth meeting with a mountain gorilla in Uganda. After a long, sweaty scramble, your guide ushers you quietly into the clearing. Troop 13 are taking their midmorning break: hillocks of black fur protrude from the glossy greenery on every side – a crooked elbow here, a swollen belly there. Above the drip-drip of the foliage come sporadic snores and the soft sound of wind. Yes, there’s little going on, but you have never felt so alive. You inch forward and reach for your camera.
David Attenborough’s breathless encounter with mountain gorillas in 1979’s Life on Earth remains an all-time television favourite. Back then, such an experience had seemed as improbable as walking with dinosaurs, and just as dangerous. Today we know better: we have nothing to fear from these gentle and highly endangered primates. And visiting them in their natural habitat – the mountain forests of equatorial Africa (Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, Mgahinga National Park in Uganda, Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda & Virunga National Park in Congo) – has become one of the planet’s ultimate wildlife experiences in Uganda, Congo & Rwanda.
Scientifically speaking, the mountain gorilla is a high-altitude race of the eastern gorilla, the larger of Africa’s two gorilla species, and distinguished by its denser fur, which protects it from the colder highlands climate. It lives in troops of 10-30 individuals, over which a “silverback” male (named for his cape of white hair) presides. This formidable individual, sometimes topping 200kg, seldom uses his great strength in anger. Indeed, gorillas – compared with excitable chimps – are very relaxed animals.
Today the mountain gorilla is confined to the Virungas, a cluster of forested volcanoes that straddle the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It is much rarer than its lowland cousins further west but – thanks largely to American primatologist Dian Fossey, of Gorillas in the Mist fame – much better known. Fossey’s work in Rwanda during the Sixties and Seventies radically changed our perception of these animals and, in the process, paved the way for today’s tourist industry.
Uganda’s star attraction is the endangered mountain gorilla, the bulkiest of living primates. Coming face to face with these gentle giants that share 95% of their genes with humans, is a thrilling experience of a life time. Within Uganda, eleven habituated Gorilla troops, ten in Bwindi and one in Mgahinga National Park, can be visited by tourists daily. Mountain Mgahinga National Park is the main home of the mountain gorillas.
Uganda is also home to man’s closest relative, the chimpanzee. Chimpanzee communities have been habituated for tourism at Kibale Forest, Budongo Forest and Queen Elizabeth National Parks. Monkeys are exceptionally well represented in Uganda. Kibale National Park is a primatologist’s dream. It hosts a population of half a dozen readily observed monkey species including the acrobatic red colobus and black and white colobus and the handsome L’Hoest’s monkey. Indeed, Kibale Forest boasts the greatest primate variety and density in East Africa, with five or six species likely to be observed over the course of one afternoon walk. Elsewhere Mgahinga National Park hosts habituated troops of the rare golden monkey while Murchison Falls is one of the few East African strongholds for the spindly, plains dwelling patas monkey.
Sprawling across both sides of the equator, a network of 10 national parks and several other protected areas offers wildlife enthusiasts a thrilling opportunity to experience Uganda’s biodiversity, not only the mesmerizing tracts of thorn bush savannah teeming with antelope, buffalo and elephant one tends to associate with equatorial East Africa, but also lush expanses of tropical rainforest, shimmering lakes and rivers heaving with aquatic life, and the glacial peaks of Africa’s tallest mountain range.
The country’s largest protected area is Murchison Falls National Park, whose palm studded grassland supports dense populations of lion, buffalo, elephant and Uganda kob, together with the localized Rothschild’s giraffe and patas monkey. Immense concentrations of hippos and birds can be observed from morning and afternoon launch trips along the Nile below the spectacular waterfall for which the park is named.
Set majestically in the shadow of the Rwenzori, flanking Lakes Edward and George, the lush savannah of Queen Elizabeth National Park offers prime grazing to buffalo, elephant and antelope while the forested reserves of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is best known for its superb gorilla tracking but it also provides refuge to elephants, chimpanzees, monkeys and various small antelope species. Mammalian specialties include the giant forest hog, and the legendary tree climbing lions of the Ishasha Sector.
The closest savannah safari park to Kampala, Lake Mburo National Park and the green acacia woodland surrounding the lake harbours dense populations of zebra, warthog, buffalo, impala and various other grazers, including the last surviving Ugandan population of eland, the largest of African antelopes.
In the far northeast, the remote wild and little visited Kidepo Valley National Park provides refuge to a long list of dry country species not found elsewhere in the country, including cheetah and greater kudu, while its perennial waters attract large numbers of elephant and thousand strong buffalo herds, especially during the dry season.
Uganda is Africa’s most complete bird watching destination, with more than 1,000 species recorded within an area comparable to that of Great Britain. Specialist birding tours through Western Uganda routinely notch up an incredible tally of 400 species within two weeks, while enthusiastic amateurs might reasonably hope to aim for 300 species within the same time.
For dedicated ornithologists, Uganda’s prime attraction is the presence of more than 100 West African forest species at the most easterly and most accessible extent of their range. This alluring list of forest specialists includes the psychedelie Great Blue Turaco and the raucous Black and White Casqued Hornbill as well as the gem like Green Broadbill and 23 other species endemic to the Albertine Rift. Uganda is the best place to see what many rate as the most sought after African bird the Shoebill, a massive prehistoric looking swamp dweller notable for its heavy clog shaped bill.
Birdlife is prolific throughout Uganda, but certain key sites should be included in any ornithological itinerary. In the west these include Bwindi National Park for Albertine Rift endemics, Queen Elizabeth National Park for a peerless checklist of 600 species, Semuliki National Park for Congo Basin endemics, Mabamba Swamp near Entebbe for Shoebill, the community run guided trail through Bigodi Wetland near Kibale forest for Great Blue Turaco and other colourful forest birds, and Murchison Falls National Park for savannah specialists such as Abyssinian Ground Hornbill, Red-Throated Bee Eater and Denham’s Bustard. A key birding location in eastern Uganda is Lake Bisina a stronghold for the endemic Fox’s Weaver as well as papyrus dwellers such as Shoebill and Papyrus Gonolek.
The lowest lying and more remote Semuliki National Park, an extension of the Congo’s Ituri Rainforest set at the base of the northern Rwenzori, is of special interest to ornithologists for some 40 congolese bird species recorded nowhere else in the country. Nearby, the spectacular Semuliki Wildlife Reserve, which borders Lake Albert, is one of the best localities for sighting of the enigmatic, swamp dwelling shoebill.
Roughly one quarter of Uganda’s surface area consists of wetlands, ranging from vast inland seas to the mysterious marshy expanse of Lake Kyoga, formed by the Nile as it drains into a show sump at the very centre of the country. The northwestern third of Lake Victoria, the world’s second largest freshwater body falls within Uganda’s boundaries, while the impressively scenic lakes Albert, George and Edward extend along the Albertine Rift Valley floor bordering the Congo.
Renowned for its water birds and dense population of otters, mountain ringed Lake Bunyonyi is one of Uganda’s most rapidly developing wetland destinations with its steep sided shores and small islands dotted with rustic hotels and campsites. Another rising attraction is the cluster of 200 crater lakes that extends northward from Queen Elizabeth National Park to Fort Portal, reaching its scenic peak in the vicinity of Kibale Forest, where several forest fringed lakes have been developed as community based ecotourism projects.
The jewel in Lake Victoria’s crown is the Ssese Archipelago, whose 84 islands, some large and dotted with local fishing villages, others small and uninhabited are all lushly forested. Mainlanders traditionally revere Ssese as the Islands of the Gods, and one specific island called Bubembe is regarded to be home to Mukasa, the spirit presiding over Lake Victoria. The Ssese Islands make for an ideal retreat after a long safari and they also offer superb opportunities for bird watching and for hooking heavyweight Nile Perch.
The River Nile
A visit to the source of the River Nile in Jinja as it starts its 6500 Kilometer journey to the Mediterranean Sea is a moving and wondrous experience. A couple of Kilometers from the source of this mighty river are spectacular waterfalls and rapids; the setting for some of the world’s best white-water rafting and bungee jumping spots. Its crowning glory, however, is Murchison Falls, where the river funnels through a narrow fissure in the Rift Escarpment to erupt out of the other side in a crashing 43 meter-plume of white water blowing a fine mist high into the sky filled with dancing rainbows. The view from a boat below also gives a sensational view of the majestic falls surrounded by profuse birdlife, thousands of hippos and outsized gape mouthed crocodiles.
Uganda is a tropical country and much of it lies on the African plateau between 900-1,500 meters above sea level. This gives Uganda a nice tropical climate, with temperatures averaging between 21 and 27 degrees Celsius during the day and between 12 and 18 degrees Celsius at night. The hottest months are from December to February, with 27 to 29 degrees Celsius. The rainy seasons are from April to May and October to November.
Ecologically, Uganda is where the East African savannah meets the West African jungle. Where else but in this impossibly lush country can one observe lions prowling the open plains in the morning and track chimpanzees through the rainforest undergrowth the same afternoon, then the next day navigate tropical channels teeming with hippos and crocs before setting off into the mystery mountains to stare deep into the eyes of destination whose range of forest primates is as impressive as its selection of plains antelope. And this verdant biodiversity is further attested to by Uganda’s status as by far the smallest of the four African countries whose bird checklist tops the 1,000 mark!
Yet there is more to the country than wildlife. There are the snow-capped peaks of the Rwenzori, which provide a tantalizing challenge to dedicated mountaineers, as well as the Virunga Volcanoes and Mount Elgon, both of which offer highly rewarding hiking opportunities through scintillating highland scenery.
More sedately, the myriad islands of Lake Victoria and Lake Bunyonyi are idyllic venues, as are the myriad forest-fringed crater lakes that stud the rift valley floor and escarpment around Fort Portal. Whether you’re a first time safari-goer or a seasoned African traveler, Uganda, with its unique blend of savannah and forest creatures, and the rare wealth of montane and lake habitats, is simply dazzling.