When I shared with friends that I had an upcoming trip to Uganda planned in the fall of 2018, the number one inquiry was, “Where is that?” followed by a somewhat snarky “Is it safe?” In all fairness to them, the media tends to cover bad news much more diligently than good news and then rarely follows up afterwards.
Uganda, after securing its freedom from the UK as a British protectorate in 1962, faced instability — leading to coups, border disputes, economic turmoil, protests, and an era a terror throughout the 1970’s lead by Idi Amin. All Asians were expelled from the country at that time and an estimated 300,000 Ugandans lost their lives through indiscriminate killings during the regime. But where is the news coverage now about their stability and beauty? Uganda, like their elusive prehistoric-looking bird, the Shoebill, has emerged into a glorious flight. Truly living up to their motto, “The Pearl of Africa.”
From the moment I peered out from the window of the lumbering Emirates double-decker A380’s final approach into Entebbe, I was struck by the raw beauty of this surprisingly green country. And then I was further touched by the warmth of the people. As I had mentioned to my travel mates, people who emerge from a war-torn history typically have an edge. However I did not find this to be true of the Ugandans whatsoever. Their friendliness and warmth was palpable.
For example, during our 10 days we came to know guide, Eric, very well. His pregnant wife was home nearing the birth of their second daughter. After some conversations about how names work in Uganda (given name vs family name vs local language name), he told us that he would be honored for our group to name his daughter. At first we did not believe it, but sure enough it happened. We went through a list of “E” names we compiled on the road and Eric eliminated names eventually down to 3 choices. We voted on the name Elena (ultimately approved by both parents) and now are forever bonded as extended family to them.
The equator slices through this landlocked country, however Uganda boasts a shoreline along the second-largest freshwater lake in the world — Lake Victoria. As well as a multitude of other large life-giving Great Lakes and waterways, including the source of the Nile River which flows northward through the Sudans and Egypt on its course to the Mediterranean. Each part of Uganda to which we traveled looked and felt like a different country. Uganda is mostly plateau with some rolling hills and low mountains. Grassland and tropical forest dominate the central region, with volcanic foothills in the east. The Ruwenzori Mountains form much of the southwestern border between Uganda and the DRC. The highest peaks are snow-capped — which came as a surprise being close to the equator.
Although our main goal for this Ugandan adventure was to track the critically endangered Silverback Mountain Gorillas (population now up to about 1000 in country), I quickly learned that this piece of Africa has so much to offer — covering most anything you would like to do on the continent.
On our trip north from Entebbe, we visited the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary where we were able to walk with a guide and rangers to see the rare southern white rhinos who are now flourishing in Uganda after their extinction from the country in the 1980’s. They currently have 22 rhinos on the property since starting with six, just 10 years ago. They will begin to carefully reintroduce them to the wild when this population doubles.
Once up north at deliciously warm and humid Murchison Falls National Park, we enjoyed the thrill of staying on the Nile River with dangerous hippos munching on grass at night just a few meters from our luxury tents. The game drives in the park were spectacular — we managed to observe the nearly extinct Shoebill among other eternal thrillers like lions, elephants and giraffes. And the water safari upriver to see the falls is a must. It was a breathtaking climb to the top of Murchison Falls, but well worth the workout to see these magnificent falls plunging 45 meters.
As an alternative to (primarily) bumpy road travel there are small AeroLink planes serving the many airfields around the country. We were fortunate to fly to Kasese on a picture perfect weather day over Lake Albert the farmlands, savannahs, forests and the crater lakes in the west. We stayed at a posh, yet cozy, family estate in Fort Portal with breathtaking mountain and crater lake views which conjured up images of Hemingway’s Colonial Africa (see “where to stay” links below).
The biggest draw in this part of the country is the Kanyanchi and Kibale Forest National Park, which is home to 13 primate species. In the park, we had the thrill of chimpanzee tracking with our well-trained guide, Africano. The forest is muddy, the foliage is unforgiving, and damn, those chimps move fast! But Africano is a pro and guided us deep into the jungle where we could hear the eerie calls of the chimps as they informed one another about finding food or needing help. It was raw and wild to listen and watch. Eventually we caught up with them at a good feeding place and captured some fantastic images — initially with shaky hands and pounding hearts.
Onward to Queen Elizabeth National Park, we first drove through Ishasha sector (I love this name. Perhaps I will name my next dog Ishasha) to see the rare tree climbing lions unique to this region.
Once at QE National Park, we took one of the best water safaris I have experienced, winding down the Kazinga Channel which connects Lake Edward to Lake George. This piece of land is rich with elephants, hippos, African buffalo, and a dizzying array of birds.
Saving the best for last, we traveled to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in the southwest of the country to conquer our 2-day Silverback Mountain Gorilla track. These gorillas can only be found in Uganda, Rwanda (permits are twice as expensive) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (their park is closed due to violence and unrest). They cannot survive outside their mountain jungle habitat. So you will never see them in a zoo. That makes witnessing them one of the most unusual experiences in a lifetime.
I remember when we arrived at the spectacular Bwindi Lodge on the edge of the forest and received a briefing, I looked out the window at this misty, forested mountain and secretly thought to myself, “I am not sure I am going to be able to climb this thing.” It is high. Parts of it rise to 3,904 meters (8,553 ft). Fortunately for us, the gorillas travel the entire territory of the park, so it is easy to see them at lower altitudes, depending on where they are feeding that day.
The tracking is executed in groups of 8 visitors, plus 3 trackers with machetes and radios, a guide, a couple of rangers with guns and a group of porters. For $20/day the porters will carry your pack, hold your hand, point out obstacles, move branches and do a little mountainside pushing and pulling, as needed. Plus this money goes back into the community and helps educate locals regarding how important conservation is for the area’s continued tourism based economy.
We were fortunate to have Omax as our guide both days — one of the best and most knowledgeable in the park (add charming and cute and it makes for a perfect day in the jungle). We had requested a moderate to easy trek, since we were really there to see gorillas, not to marathon up a mountain for hours. Fortunately the gorilla tracking gods granted our wish and we found the 2 different families within 45 minutes the first day and less than 15 minutes the second day. These families are habituated — meaning they can handle being around humans observing them for up to an hour without becoming agitated.
The gorillas were shy and peaceful and we never once felt threatened. But they are formidable in size. Especially the adult Silverbacks and Blackbacks, who can average 195 kg (430 lbs). It is nearly impossible to recreate this experience in words. The Impenetrable Forest is misty with a cool humidity, and is eternally green. The air is the freshest I can remember in my life. It feels sensual reaching your lungs. Yet if you move too quickly the altitude with force you to slow down and catch your breath. It often rains, but again we were lucky, we did not have to dig for our rain ponchos. The unforgiving prickly vines and roots and leaves seem to grow back instantly after a machete hacks through them (gardening gloves are a must). When the gorilla family is close, you can see black blobs moving through the forest tearing down branches — slowing approaching. Your heart pounds and your breathing stops as you stand stoically waiting….
And then, like magic, they will appear in a small clearing. Mamas and babies, juveniles — and if you are lucky — you can catch a good glimpse of the patriarch — the Silverback. The babies are often curious. We had one our first day sit near mama and watch us for several minutes, its eyes peering into ours. I get goosebumps just typing these words. Such a rich, sensory connection is made through the eyes. Since they share over 98% of our human DNA, it is so easy to become mesmerized watching their oh-so-human facial expressions and behaviors — wondering what they are thinking.
I will need to write a second article specifically about the gorilla tracking experience, since there are infinite things to say about it. It is the most amazing human to animal exchange I have ever felt anywhere in the world. I am forever thankful to my friend, Joanne, for inviting me to travel with a very cool group of ladies and to Uganda for allowing me to add this once-in-a-lifetime magical experience to my journey; Katsjourney.
Where to stay:
The Boma Guest House — Entebbe
Bakers Lodge — Murchison Falls
Ndali Lodge — Fort Portal, Ndali Crater Area
Mweya Safari Lodge — Kasese, Queen Elizabeth National Park
Bwindi Lodge — Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Note: Our unflappable travel agent (Denise Burcksen) with Luxury Travel Adventures and our local, on-the-ground team with Adventure Consults (Eric and Brian) worked exhaustively to make this trip not only exceed my expectations, but to be seamless, easy and so much fun. Uganda is not the kind of place you simply land, rent a car, and figure it out. It is still emerging in its tourism expertise, road signage and infrastructure — so it is best to have someone arrange and guide you. Contact Denise at Luxury Travel Adventures, if you are interested in booking a trip to this magical place.
Originally published at katsjourney.com on November 2, 2018.