The Great Apes of Uganda
We had two requirements for our Christmas vacation: one, travel to a new country and two, photograph something. This is how we wound up in Uganda.
Uganda is a landlocked country in East Africa, bordered by Kenya, South Sudan, the Congo, Rwanda, and Tanzania. It is about the size of Arizona in the United States, or Victoria in Australia.
Our itinerary started and ended in Entebbe, and visited three areas renowned for wildlife; Kibale, Queen Elizabeth National Park, and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
Traveling around the holidays is usually a nightmare, so because we had some flexibility we arranged to fly to Dubai on Christmas Eve, spend Christmas day in Dubai, and then continue on to Entebbe on the 26th. This gave us a decent chance for an upgrade and also gave us a buffer day in case of delays. We wound up getting the upgrade, however our flight was delayed 12 hours due to fog in Dubai.
Because of the 12 hour delay, our overnight flight became a 14 hour day flight. This was weird for sleeping, but at least we still received the Qantas pyjamas. We arrived in Dubai around 2pm, breezed through the efficient arrival process, jumped on the airport wifi and summoned an Uber.
We checked in to the Marriott and then grabbed a cab over to the Dubai Mall. We’d pre-booked tickets to the Burj Khalifa, and though we were 15 minutes late they still honored our tickets. We also splurged on the “fast track” tickets to bypass all the lines. This was WAY worth it. Our tickets were for 4:30pm, which is prime viewing time and made for ridiculous crowds. I think next time I’d take advantage of early wake-up due to jet lag and go for sunrise. We did a little bit of last minute shopping and then had dinner in the mall.
The next morning we headed back to the airport. Our flight ended up being delayed an hour (due to fog) but that just gave us more time to enjoy the Emirates First Class Lounge (including a free massage!). We lucked out with the exit row for the five hour flight to Entebbe. Departure from Dubai provided some great views of the fog over the city and the Palm.
Arrival in Entebbe was pretty efficient. We first cleared a health check (verified our yellow fever vaccination), and then got our visa (which we had applied for online a few weeks back). After getting our bags from the belt, we had them x-rayed before leaving the airport.
It was easy to find the representative from Let’s Go Travel, and a few minutes later we were in the Land Cruiser that would be our ride for the next ten days. Given the flight delay, it was after 4 by the time we reached the Boma B&B and checked in to room #9. The lodge grounds were lovely, with lots of birdlife and a pool (which we took a quick dip in to refresh after the long journey). Our room featured a four poster bed with a mossie net, decent air conditioning, and fairly reliable free wifi. As we were both pretty wiped out, we had dinner at the restaurant and called it an early night.
Our biological clocks had caught up by the next morning, and we were feeling pretty good despite the eight hour time difference. We had a quick breakfast and met up with Vincent, our guide for the rest of the trip.
It’s worth a quick mention that eggs in Africa are suspiciously white. I meant it isn’t that suspicious – the chickens eat white corn so the egg, including the yolk, is more off-white than the yellow we’re used to. They are still one of our favourite foods to eat when traveling because they are pretty low risk for food sickness potential.
Anyhow, back to the story.
The drive from Entebbe to Kibale is about 250 kilometers and takes about six hours. Some of the road is lovely paved tarmac, and the parts that aren’t range from “this isn’t so bad” to “holy hell when will this end”.
The time passed farily quickly as there was a lot to look at – the main methods of transport in the area are motorbikes and bicycles, some carrying three or four people, others carrying a full size sofa AND loveseat. Oh, and at one point I’m pretty sure we saw a naked dude jogging down the road.
About five hours in we stopped for lunch at the Garden Restaurant, which seemed to be on most mizunga (what Ugandans call white people) itineraries. We skipped the buffet (one of our travel rules – avoid buffets at all costs) and instead ordered a pizza. An hour, and several troupes of road baboons later, we arrived at the Primate Lodge in Kibale National Park.
The lodge has a large common area (with wifi) and a handful of cottages. After a quick briefing, we were assigned to cottage #9 (a.k.a. “Baboon”). The room was large with two mossie-net-covered beds and a gigantic bathroom. The garden around the cottage was swarming with butterflies, and the trees were rustling with colobus and white nose monkeys. At night, the outside was swarming with fireflies (a.k.a. lightening bugs). It was a pretty magical place, and it was literally a one minute drive down the hill to the chimp trek departure point.
Chimp Trek #1
Kibale is home to 1200 East African chimpanzees, and four of the communities can be visited by tourists (with permits).
After an early breakfast, we headed to the ranger station to check-in for the 8am briefing. This time of the year they run chimp treks twice a day (8am and 1pm), but during the high season (July) they often have a third departure. After the briefing, we were split into groups of 6, assigned a ranger (ours was named Africano), and provided a porter (if requested). We didn’t know how strenuous the hike was going to be, and we had a fair bit of gear, so we each hired a porter. In retrospect it wasn’t necessary but the porters were glad for the work.
We were assigned to visit the Kanyantale chimp community. Based on their last known location, we drove a bit and were dropped off in the middle of a forest. The hike was fairly flat, sometimes on a trail, sometimes on wooden walkways, and sometimes just charging through the forest. In total, our trek was 12km and we wound up back at the ranger station around 1pm.
We returned to the lodge for a much needed shower, followed by lunch.
Bigodi Swamp Walk
That afternoon, we traveled about 10 minutes down the road to the community-operated Bigodi Wetlands sanctuary. It was oppressively hot and humid, so we decided to cut the outing in half and have Vincent pick us up mid-way through the walk. We saw a massive troop of baboons, colobus monkeys, and had a great sighting of a few very chill L’Hoest’s monkeys. It was also interesting to see village life.
Chimp Trek #2
With wildlife trips, we always plan at least two days, because you never know about weather, the animals, etc. Our first trek was awesome, so we requested to go out with Africano again. This trek was different. We started out of the back of the ranger station, and as soon as we were in the forest, we heard them. It sounded like they were surrounding us actually. Within an hour we’d found them; some in the trees, some on the ground, some brushing against our legs as they walked by, and some in great light. At one point I almost kneeled on a rhino viper, but the guide explained that it is a friendly snake. “Very poisonous, but very friendly,” he explained. With the exception of the snake, it was an absolutely perfect experience (and only an 8k hike – we were back at the lodge by 11:30!).
After another much needed shower and lunch, we packed into the Land Cruiser and headed for Queen Elizabeth National Park.
Queen Elizabeth National Park
Our original plan for Uganda was focused on primates. We quickly learned that unless you fly from place to place, you need to add a stop or two to break up the long drives. When you fly around in Africa, you kind of miss the majority of Africa and are pretty sheltered in the camps. We also find one night in a location to be a bit rushed, which is how we wound up with two nights in Queen Elizabeth National Park.
The drive to Queen Elizabeth National Park took about five hours. After a short drive on glorious tarmac, we turned onto a dirt road into a mix of mountainous crater lakes, endless banana farms, and bustling village markets. At one point I kept hearing squealing and finally figured out that it was coming from the scooter driving next to us (carrying two men and three pigs).
After a quick stop in Kasse to visit the ATM, we arrived at Kasenyi around 5pm. The lodge consists of a large common area (with wifi when the generator is on) and a handful of “tents”. I put quotes around tents because they were pretty plush – raised on stilts, proper bathroom with hot water, king sized bed with mossie net, and huge terrace overlooking the salt lake. There were buffalo in camp, and at night we heard lions and hyena.
The guard collected us at 6am and we were off on a game drive before the sun peeked over the horizon. Within minutes we had found two lionesses with a three month old cub. And we had the sighting to ourselves, which is kind of unheard of in a national park where you can self drive.
On a bit of a high from the morning sighting, we returned to camp for brekkie and a rest before heading out for the afternoon activity.
Kazinga Channel Cruise
As I mentioned, we didn’t really research this part of the trip, so we weren’t expecting too much. After about a two-hour drive, we arrived at Mweya Safari Lodge. It had a great view of the channel but was a bit overwhelming after being at small camps for the past week. We were the last ones to board the boat, so I went upstairs while Andy stayed downstairs. This worked out great because we got different perspectives rather than identical photos. In addition to seeing elephants, hippos, and buffalo, the bird life was outstanding.
On the drive back to Kasenyi we had a lion jam (about 18 vehicles crowded around a male lion under a bush), and some elephant traffic (had to stop because elephants were crossing the road).
The next morning we got an early start for the drive to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. We’d hoped to see the tree climbing lions that make this park famous, but after several hours and only one good bird photo, we decided to give up and head to Bwindi.
Of course JUST as we were leaving the park, our guide spotted a pregnant lioness in a tree off the side of the road. NO idea how he spotted it (turns out that it was the only one spotted in days before and after our visit).
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
We arrived at Mahogany Springs lodge around 1pm. The landscape in Bwindi was the complete opposite from Queen Elizabeth National Park. We’d come from the hot dry open plains to cool, very lush mountains. The lodge consists of a common dining area (with decent wifi) and a handful of thatched cottages. Ours (called “Victoria”) was close to the dining area and had a lovely view.
Due to gorilla permit availability, we had a rest day before our two days of hikes. This turned out to be a good plan as it gave us time to adjust to the altitude. We booked this a few months out, so were able to get one day at Buhoma (close to the lodge), and one day at Ruhija (not close to the lodge).
Gorilla Trek #1 – Buhoma
Gorilla permits are issued for a specific area. Our permits for the first day were for Buhoma, which is a short drive from Mahogany Springs. Much like the chimp trek, we were given a briefing and divided into groups. We were pleased when we were assigned to the Rushegura group, because people at our lodge had visited them the day before and only had to walk about 30 minutes.
Our group included 8 tourists, 6 porters, a ranger, two armed guards (to protect against the forest elephants), and three researchers. The trackers go out ahead of the tourist groups track them from the last known location from yesterday.
Our hike started off fairly easy. From the ranger station we walked up a road, and then turned into a fairly well cleared path. There were a few hills, and a few times when we had to cross structurally unsound bridges, but all in all it wasn’t that bad. After an hour and a half, the trackers had located the gorillas. We were instructed to leave our bags, water, and walking sticks with the porters and proceeded with only our cameras.
The gorillas were very active. I got one shot before they disappeared into the forest.
I was a little disappointed thinking that was the extent of the sighting, but our ranger headed into the forest in hot pursuit. There was no trail whatsoever. We scrambled under vines, up mud embankments, and waded knee deep across a river.
We were dripping with sweat, and exhausted, but we kept following. I couldn’t get the rhino viper from Kibale out of my mind. I’d just about reached my physical limit when we stopped on top of a hill. The gorillas had gone up into the trees. Very cool to watch but not great for photos. Just as the hour was up (you are only allowed to stay an hour once you find the gorillas), the gorillas descended from the trees and came to rest in partial sunlight. Victory !
By the time we got back to the ranger station, we’d logged over 10k, including 71 floors. We were absolutely wiped out, but the last five minutes of the experience made it all worth it. We’d seen 10 of the estimated 800 mountain gorillas in the world, and we still had one remaining trek.
Gorilla Trek #2 -Ruhija
The following morning started out early, because we had a 1.5 hour drive to reach the ranger station for Ruhija. We expected to be sore from the day before, but we were both feeling pretty good. We asked the driver if we could be assigned to one of the closer groups, and wound up assigned to Kyaguriro.
Our entourage (8 tourists, 8 porters, a ranger, four armed guards, and a handful of other park service people) drove about 10 minutes on the windy mountain road, and then stopped and entered the forest. It was raining lightly but too warm to wear a poncho. The first hour or so was downhill on switchbacks. The next hour was a decent trail, with some parts uphill and others downhill. After another hour we stopped and waited. The rain had let up and there were rays of sun streaming into the forest. The gorillas were near.
After about 30 minutes of waiting, we headed off again, this time off the trail following the guide with a machete. After about 10 minutes we met up with the trackers and were instructed to leave everything except our cameras and follow them. The rain had started again, so we put a lot of faith in the so-called weather sealed equipment and followed them into the bushes. Unlike the day before, the gorillas were fairly settled so much easier to photograph.
The hour passed quickly, and we were all grinning ear to ear (despite being covered in mud, vines, and bugs) as we headed back to the porters. I was hoping that there was some shortcut out of the forest, but we had to hike back the way we came (and it was brutal). The trail was steep, but the altitude was the killer. By the end I just gave up and had my porter drag me up the hill 🙂 My fitbit logged 19k and the equivalent of 227 floors.
Because we’d arrived before sunrise, there was plenty to see on the drive back to Mahogany Springs. I would have loved to stop for some photo opportunities, but I was just too tired.
The next day we started our long journey home. Instead of making our way back by car, we arranged to fly from Kisihi to Entebbe. It was market day, so the drive to Kisihi had plenty to look at; massive trucks overflowing with people and goods, goats on leashes, and super cool wooden bicycles. The flight from Kisihi to Entebbe took about an hour.
Our connecting flight didn’t leave for several hours, but we couldn’t check in until noon so we loitered in the restaurant (free wifi). Once we checked in, we headed for the lounge which was quieter than the rest of the airport and has decent wifi and air conditioning. The flight to Dubai was a little over 5 hours, but once in Dubai we had access to the First Class Lounge for a hot shower and nice dinner. A little over 14 hours later we landed in Melbourne.
This was an absolutely amazing adventure