Uganda, took me by surprise. All I knew about Uganda prior to my trip was the decades of anarchy and civil unrest, Major General Idi Amin and the Entebbe raid episode in 1976 which was made into a movie some years ago.
My trip started in Entebbe.
Uganda, took me by surprise. All I knew about Uganda prior to my trip was the decades of anarchy and civil unrest, Major General Idi Amin and the Entebbe raid episode in 1976 which was made into a movie some years ago.
And the rare mountain gorillas in Bwindi, the Impenetrable forest, the reason for my trip.
My trip started in Entebbe.
The Entebbe Airport is the country’s sole international airport. I flew from Johannesburg with South African Air.
Entebbe is located at the shores of Lake Victoria, and from the plane you can see that the city is almost entirely surrounded by the waters of Lake Victoria. The city is 21 miles from Kampala de Capital.
Adventure Consults, my tour operator in Uganda, provided me with a great VIP service inside the airport and quickly I was out. There is fee of USD $50.00 to obtain the visa upon arrival. Brian Mugume the owner of Adventure Consults was waiting for me at the luggage carrousel.
Outside the weather was comfortable; it was a little cloudy and it looked like rain had fallen earlier, but little humidity and heat. The country is located on the equator, with the weather being usually summer-like all year around.
My hotel was just 15 minutes from the airport, it was early afternoon and the traffic was busy although it was moving fast. My first impression was that Entebbe is a city on the move.
The lake really is beautiful and peaceful with lots of little boats cruising on the 2nd largest sweet water lake in the world. Seeing the extended portion of water makes you believe, for a moment, that Uganda is not a landlocked country.
My hotel, The Boma guest house – a bed and breakfast, was perfect for an overnight stay. They had super comfortable beds, and it was very quiet with a little bit of a nice sanctuary away from the traffic and noise of the city. The property is in an upscale residential neighborhood and only 10 minutes from the airport.
The next day I was ready to travel to “Living my Adventure” in Uganda. I know my reason to be here is to go to Bwindi and track the gorillas, but before I reached the Impenetrable forest, I would be visiting the rural area of Uganda.
Bryan told me that “the Kingdom of Uganda is a fairy tale” using the words Sir Winston Churchill used in his book: “My African Journey”, Churchill was the one who nicknamed Uganda “the Pearl of Africa”.
I am an outdoor person, so I was thrilled to see with my own eyes this country that offers such a rich variety of nature, as Bryan described during dinner the night before, “a plethora of sites of nature”. I was ready to walk its red dirt, see the wild animals, and enjoy the lakes, rivers and the impenetrable forest with the mountain Gorillas. This will be a trip of a life time.
I left early in the morning from the Entebbe Airport to Kasese District in the western part of the country to visit Queen Elizabeth National Park
I flew in a new Cessna Caravan aircraft operated by Aerolink, super comfortable. I was told Uganda has a well-developed domestic air network.
The cloudless sky allowed for great views of the lake when departing and during the 1:30 flight, I was able to see how green Uganda truly is. The flight on Aerolink arrived at the Mweya/Kasese airstrip on time.
Robert, my guide, was waiting for me with his safari jeep outside the airstrip.
Kasese is also the good base to visit the Ruwenzori Mountain National Park. This range of mountains, located on the equator, has an interesting phenomenon. Their peaks are covered with perpetual snow. The other range of mountains with the same phenomenon is The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia.
The Queen Elizabeth National Park is one of Uganda’s three parks and it covers an area of 770 square miles one of the richest and most well managed parks in Africa.
The drive was pleasant and the Park is not too far from the airstrip, about a 12 mile drive, on a dirt road easily negotiated by two-wheel-drive vehicles. It was nice to have seen the small villages along the way, the peoples’ daily lives, their roadside markets and the Rwenzori Mountains in the horizon.
The closer we got to the park the game-viewing increased. I saw bushbucks, troops of baboons on the side of the road, buffalo and elephants.
Queen Elizabeth has two beautiful lakes; Lake Edward and Lake George, both attached by an umbilical cord called the Kazinga Channel. After passing the Channel and Lake Edward I noticed much of the park is open savannah dotted with spectacular Acacias.
We were heading to Mweya Safari Lodge where I would be spending the night.
Before arriving, we stopped to see Katara Lodge located on the top of the Great Rift Valley. With uninterrupted views of the savannah, 8 luxury thatched cottages built into the hill site overlooking the stunning savannah. The lodges are spacious with 2 double beds, balcony and a decent sized bathroom. The bed comes with wheels you can roll it to the balcony and sleep under the stars and wake up under the sunrise. I definitely recommend this property for its location, comfort and food. I had a wonderful lunch here.
Once I visited this property, we drove to Mweya Lodge. Meandering through the park, it was very calming to see the clean ecosystem.
I saw small fishing and salt villages existing within the boundaries of the park. According to Robert, during the civil war many were forced into exile and the war almost extinguished all the animals in the park, so it was refreshing to witness peace and stability after a long civil war.
The Mweya Safari Lodge is one of the most highly rated hotels in Uganda. The hotel is perched on the peninsula overlooking the Kazinga channel and Lake Edward – spectacular site.
After a nice fresh and healthy lunch, I was ready to do a unique boat cruise on the Kazinga Channel one of the major delights of coming to Queen Elizabeth National Park. It can be done directly from the Mweya lodge.
The Channel is a 20 mile long natural channel connecting two lakes: Lake George to the east and Lake Edward to the west. At the hotel I was told that from the shores of this channel come hundreds of hippos and I will be able to observe them from the safety of the boat at a much closer range, as well plentiful amount of Nile Crocodiles and many more wild animals.
The Boat operates from 3pm to 5pm local time.
This really was amazing to observe so much wildlife; I saw buffalos, waterbuck, elephants coming down to drink at the water edges and I saw a monitor lizard in the grass.
The small little fishing villages sit atop of the ridges of the channel.
Peoples’ lives depend on this channel. Dozens of fishing boats were ready to go in the late afternoon, out to collect the abundance of fresh water fish that live in this channel. The mild warm breeze felt nice on my face while my eyes were fixed on the immense variety of water birds flowing above the blue water of the lake. I enjoyed the tremendous display of wildlife and birds.
The trip lasts bout 2 hours, and there are four trips each day from Mweya lodge: 9:00, 11:00, 15:00 and 17:00. I did the 3:00 PM and it was an unforgettable experience.
Back at the lodge I did an inspection. The lodge has 32 standard room, 12 deluxe rooms all with air condition, and two suites. This a great lodge for all ages, easy access to the rooms and good food. Service is the best, with young Ugandans working with a genuine smile. My dinner server was a boy no more than 18 years who told me he was scouted by the hotel at his village and trained at the hotel, and for him it was a great job working for the best hotel in Uganda. He studies English with a teacher at the hotel and learns about etiquette and food service.
My room was a deluxe room well furnished with a nice view to the channel from above the bluff.
At night after dinner, I sat by the campfire outside the garden. It was pitch black, and above I could see thousands of bright stars. The cool breeze, the flickering and the sounds of the sparks from the fire made for a perfect night at the lodge.
Next day after an early morning rise and a good cup of a Uganda’s tea, I checked out of the Lodge. Next time I will allow myself more time in this wonderful hotel.
Robert was waiting to take me for a morning game drive. I was not disappointed, as the first animal we spotted was a healthy beautiful Leopard along the track.
I saw plenty of elephants, cape buffalos and waterbucks.
The park on this side, north of the main gate, is an open savannah with lots of acacias trees and “Candelabra tree” Euphorbia trees.
It was beautiful to see small families of elephants making their way across the park in their search for water.
Robert and my driver, who is from the Kasese, told me about the crater lakes in the area and he took me to see one. The explosion craters as they are called at Queen Elizabeth are perfect round oculus left by extinct volcanoes, filled with sparkling waters. Some of them, like Lake Katwe, are used to extract salt.
To view these explosion craters which are situated in the highest elevation of Mweya Peninsula there is a drive of 27 Km. Robert, took me to a great viewing spot. From there I could see the entire view of the dramatic crater surrounded by tall elephant grassland and verdant forest, a perfectly round mirror lake reflecting the open blue sky. It was a view like no other I have seen.
Robert kept driving south through an extensive track of lush greenery, our next destination will be to see the famous tree climbing lions of Ishasha that are unique to this area.
To reach the lions, we arrived from the south-western rim of Queen Elizabeth park were the Ishasha rest camp is located, about two hours away from Mweya Lodge. While getting there we came across a large number of elephants, antelopes, water buffalos, and lots of acacias tress.
Only two parks in the world have these unique lions, Lake Manyara in Tanzania and Queen Elizabeth in Uganda. A habit not commonly found in other lion populations. No one knows why these lions like to climb trees, in this case in Uganda, the Fig trees, and lounge in the upper branches of the old trees.
When we arrived a family was in position of this giant tree. Even the cubs have the ability to climb up into the trees; there were two of them sleeping in the branches while the Lion and lioness were constantly looking down to us.
You can tell they just had their morning meal because their stomachs were full. Robert said they climb the trees to get away from the tsetse flies or on hot days, to escape the heat of the ground and take advantage of the cool breeze. For whatever the reason, it is unique to see them lazily lying up within the branches starting down at us, it was a great sight.
We did a couple of circuits and headed for lunch to Ishasha Wilderness Camp. The road is uneven and difficult at times, so it is very important to know about the weather conditions before you plan your trip to this side of the park.
The Lodge is completely isolated, hidden by tall vegetation and acacias savannah, and built along the Ntungwe River. It is completely eco-friendly, entirely made with local materials with its raised in-suite wooden deck cottages. There are 10 spacious tents, all overlooking the river. The lodge operates several wildlife game drive tours, along with a nearby village walk.
I love the location, the isolation makes it so much more special. I had lunch in a quiet peaceful setting near the bank of the river. It was a great lunch with fresh fish, a phenomenal salad and white wine. It was very relaxing listening to the sound of the water passing by and the vigorous sounds of many birds. It’s definitely a place that invites you to be at peace with yourself and the surroundings.
We left the park and drove south. The drive from Ishasha Wilderness Lodge to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest takes two hours. Once you exit the park, small villages start showing up and then another world unfolds in front of your eyes: The people of Uganda. In all my travels around the world I think Africans are the most welcoming people, so I was excited to experience life in rural Uganda.
Robert told me we would be heading south towards Buhoma from where the gorilla viewing is conducted.
The road to Bwindi is just a typical gravel road, it was mid-afternoon and there were so many people walking along the road. It was so wonderful to observe the homesteads of the people and their plots surrounded by their gardens and fields with maize and coffee. Women were walking with their child strapped on their backs with colorful dresses adorned with beautiful lengths of cloths of many different colors and geometrics prints. I had the chance to stop and get acquainted with many of the people in these villages. A large number of people speak English and I had the chance to see an elementary school and interact with the children in their classrooms. Beautiful children full of joy.
The drive took me through the countryside with a lot to see.
There is a bank in Kihiki that could be very useful if you need one before arriving in Bwindi which has none.
Once we passed these uphill towns with red and yellow dirt roads; the landscape changed immediately and I started seeing beautiful verdant hills and in front of us the steep mountains where Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is located. The road takes you through beautiful lush tea farms, and rolling hills surrounded by lowland forest vegetation.
You see more about peoples’ lives like children in their school uniform walking along the road returning back to their home after a school day, a mother with the child on her back walking and other women balancing packages of stacked wood on their head for dinner that night. Young children corralling goats so they can stay in formation. We saw lots of children playing in the dirt, and women with their colorful traditional dress talking under the shade of a tree. I felt good knowing that the people here live in peace and seem to be happy.
Bwindi was getting close and being on the edge of the rainforest made me happy. Robert told me that most typical rainforests in Uganda are found in the lowlands, bellow 3,000 feet, but Bwindi ranges in altitude between 3,800 and 8,553 feet and has the highest biological diversity and it is a super complex rainforest.
Mountain gorilla viewing is the major attraction in Bwindi and they live in this rainforest.
Rain was visible and a large heavy mist had engulfed the mountains. We definitely had arrived at the rolling hills of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. We passed the village craft shops and Robert informed me that the lodge was behind the gates of the park.
Once we passed the gate, Buhoma Lodge was on the right, tucked into hills. It has a great rustic appeal.
I was welcome by the manager, Anthony, and he took me into this open-air lounge/dining/bar area with very comfortable couches and an open charcoal fire around the furniture; the fire made the whole setting very cozy.
This exclusive eco lodge has ten cottage suites, and offers spectacular views to the forest canopy.
It was nice seeing the mist rolling down while Anthony was giving me the briefing about the lodge. My cabin was the one at the top and the stairway was steep, but it comes with a nice handrail and even more amazing uninterrupted views of the pristine forest from the veranda.
I had very comfortable rooms with a jungle theme. Each cabin and its furniture are constructed from local timber and have very ample bathrooms with a good water source. There are no glass windows, just screens to keep out the bugs and curtains for privacy. At night, the staff turn down the beds and they leave behind hot water bottles and a good night glass of port.
Needless to say I slept very comfortably.
The food was excellent – Chef Ben made one of the best tomato soups I’ve ever eaten. All super fresh, homemade chocolate chip cookies and fresh baked bread, all meals were delightful, and the staff was super friendly and attentive.
I left the lodge the next day at 7:20AM for registration and briefing at Buhoma UWC (Uganda Wildlife Center commences at 7:30AM and gorilla trekking starts at 8:30AM.
The briefing provides instruction about appropriate gorilla etiquette with all the do’s and don’ts, once we contact the gorillas and their behavior.
I was told we will drive 1 hour to my trekking point, we were going to track the Mubare family of gorillas, the first family to be tracked in Uganda. Its habitatuation process started way back in 1991 and trekking started 1993. The location was in KINYABEHO which is in the neck of the Impenetrable National Park.
Until recently Bwindi only had three gorilla groups, but now they have over 10 groups/families both in the North which is Buhoma side, Ruhinja and southern sectors of the park. Uganda Wildlife Authority is working on habituating more families. It takes 2 ½ years to habituate an entire family and it is an everyday process. Guides are sent to live with the Gorillas until they are habituated (used to human contact).
Groups are visited every day for an hour.
The park provided for me 4 guards, and I asked for a porter because the trek will be strenuous and it will be very important to use one, it is only $20 USD and it made a big difference to have one as I found out while doing the trek.
The drive to the trekking point was breathtaking. It was beautiful to see the lush tea plantations growing in the fertile soil of the steep valleys and high ridges of Africa’s oldest rain forest. The more we drove on the steep dirt road, the viewing become better and better and the vegetation thicker and thicker.
We arrived to the trail head, and I could not believe I would begin my trekking to see one of the most amazing creatures that have captured humankind’s attention for years.
Today, like all the other creatures in the world, including us, we are facing an uncertain future – and I was here!
I finally arrived and in some hours I would be with a group of mountain gorillas.
Bwindi covers an area of 331Kms and is the home of half of the world’s mountain gorillas. There are only 900 gorillas in the world ( according with one of my guides), and to think I would be seeing some of them in their own environment made me feel butterflies in my stomach.
We started the hike in the slopes of the jungle through bushes of tea. Once we passed the last bush of tea, the vegetation swallowed us and all I saw was jungle everywhere.
There were two guards and the porter in front of me and I was told the guards behind me were to protect me from elephants that live in the forest and they are very aggressive because they have very little contact with humans.
We were engulfed by very tall trees with huge roots. The soil was covered with dead leaves and thick tangled vegetation making the walk slippery and difficult at times. There was lots of dead wood, making the walk even more difficult.
I saw woody plants with long slender stems hanging everywhere, very obtrusive and covering pretty much everything – hence the name “impenetrable”. The guards in front of me used their machetes to open up the trail.
Gloves are important as there are a lot of prickly thorns and bushes everywhere. I am glad I brought my leather gloves.
I’ve never seen so many varieties of tree ferns with beautiful green foliage full of life looking healthy, and also very tall bamboo. The guards pointed out to me the mahogany trees; these were very large trees about 180-200 feet tall with long trunks and large massive crowns. There were other trees with massive buttress trunks. After some hours of walking we sat down on a fallen trunk to take a break.
The forest was silent after the early morning chorus of the birds. I opened my eyes and sat down still to listen to the silent forest.
One of the guards advised that the gorilla situation changes continually and we need to be on the move. The UWA had sent ahead of us two more guards to find the location of the Gorilla family we were trekking for. The trackers and the guard were in constant communication through their walkie talkies.
I have hiked in other rain forests: Laos, China, Colombia, Peru, Malaysia and the Pacific Islands, and I’ve learned that no two rain forests are alike, but this true African rainforest was very impressive with a beautiful canopy.
The porter who is from a village close by told me that these mountains are where the people in his village find a variety of medicinal plants. The porter was excellent. There were times all I had to do was to give him my hand and let him guide me. Since there were so many obstacles and having that hand holding really helped me to not slide through the wet soil.
It is very important to wear boots or shoes that supply good traction.
We had walked about 5 hours, when suddenly we arrived at a riverside with an open lowland forest. The men sent by the park had brought us here where a mother gorilla was with her two young gorillas.
The first thing I noticed was their coarse black coats. They were so close I could reach my hand and touch any of the young gorillas.
The proximity took me by surprise. I know the guards told me in the gorillas briefing that they will be at least 7 feet away from us.
Once you are with them, 7 feet looks very close. So the adrenaline starts coming soon to your brain and panic is your first reaction. But luckily the guards and guides are very familiar with trekkers’ emotions and they know how to calm you down so you can enjoy this amazing thrill.
I was finally seeing gorillas. My first encounter with gorillas.
I was mesmerized by the appearance of the mama gorilla with its large mouth and flaring nostrils. She was looking at me with those dark deep-set eyes beneath beady brows.
The first eye contact is the most exciting and poignant wild life encounter in the whole of Africa, and for me it was love at first sight.
Their eyes are so humanlike, but with a deeper gaze that almost takes your breath away once eye contact is done.
The Silverback is always vigilant and that day he was easily annoyed by us following him and his family everywhere, so he was acting up and showing his power to the guards by standing up and making gorilla angry sounds.
There was one time I wanted to run, but I was sandwiched in by two of the guards that held me by my shoulders and with a firmed voice they said to me “DO NOT RUN”.
Seeing this massive, powerful animal, six feet in height and 600 pounds charging us a couple of times was scary, but the guards knew how to control the situation.
For the most part the gorillas are quiet, self-centered animals, antagonistic to men only when wounded or provoked. But the silverback was afraid we would take the babies away because he sometimes could not see them or us because of the dense vegetation.
They are very protective of their clan and they fight to the death to protect their family. My hour was captured by these gentle giants, eating leaves, and stems, and the infant gorillas playing and amusing each other.
The trekking was captivating and an unforgettable experience which more than repays the effort of the strenuous hike. The walk is hard, but this is quickly forgotten during the magic hour spent with the mountain gorillas.
Gorilla trekking can be challenging and one needs to be reasonably fit to undertake this venture into activity.
I was glad to know that visits to the gorillas are strictly controlled to ensure the sustainability of the gorilla families.
The mountain gorilla is facing an uncertain future, so limited well-regulated, expensive fees are allowing the government and local communities to preserve gorillas and their habit.
Once the hour passed, we returned back to meet our driver located in a difference position of the park. The return was not bad as it was shorter.
The rain comes quickly and the rainforest soil becomes a slippery carpet of chocolate mud. The rain makes the forest look greener and the water refreshes and brings more life to the jungle.
Gorilla trekking tips
Dress in layers
Be sure to bring a bandana to mop your brow (it is very humid).
Rain at all times throughout the day, so a poncho or other rain gear is good idea.
Lots of liquids should be arranged.
Leather gloves, long-sleeved shirt and long trousers.
Layering in clothing is good idea.
A walking stick that you can get from the lodge or the UWA meeting point.
Buhoma lodge offers free massages as a complimentary amenity, and the night before I scheduled with the manager a massage after my trekking.
The Buhoma lodge also has free laundry, and they cleaned and dried my hiking boots.
Bwindi is not just a stopping off place for the gorillas.
The village offers several community tours, a beautiful hike to the nearby waterfall, and visits to mixed crop farms owned by the local Bantus, to see how they live in their traditional settlements.
Near the main entrance of the gate there are great woodcarving shops with a large selection of masks from Uganda, Congo and nearby countries.
I did a visit to the Batwa “pygmies” the next day; a short hike from the village took me to see the oldest peoples in Africa.
The Batwas were forced out of the national park, losing their land. They are full of energy, their ability to make fire in a matter of minutes was amazing. I enjoyed their stories and knowledge of the land and spiritual beliefs.
They still roam the forest looking for fruits and honey and they hunt with bows still.
The Munyanga River Trail in the valley below Buhoma park office provides an ideal short walk to view birds and primates along the forest edge. The trail leads through one of Uganda’s most pristine tracks of rainforest, passing beneath tree ferns.
After a great adventure, next day we drove to Kahihi airstrip in time for my 9:45AM flight to Entebbe. It was Sunday and seeing everyone in their best dresses walking to their churches was so beautiful.
Uganda is rich with a great variety of nature’s endowments, mountains, lakes, swamps, plains, tropical forest, and because of its geographical position, astride the equator, Uganda has a summer-like climate throughout the year; it is ideal to visit at any time.
Uganda is a blessed country, and the biggest blessing of all is its people. The whole country is populated with friendly folks, they are quick to laugh, make jokes, smile, and offer assistance.
I just hope for Uganda to maintain its freedom, peace and tranquility so we all can benefit from its beauty.
Nothing compares to having someone on ground who has an intimate understanding of the destination and Brian Mugume the owner of Adventure Consults was definitely the person I needed in this new adventure. When I spoke with him months before my trip, I knew he was the one that would take me to Bwindi Impenetrable Jungle to see the mountain gorillas.
Credit: Living The Adventures