They call it ‘The pearl of Africa’ and what a great description it is. In April 2013 the Askari staff team were lucky enough to visit Uganda, an up and coming tourist destination in East Africa which was voted destination of the year in 2012. Within a very short time, it is easy to see why…..a stunning country with great people and that’s before we have even discussed the wildlife! Not only do they have all the wildlife species you can expect to see on a South African safari but they have the added bonus of 2 great apes, the Mountain gorilla and Chimpanzee.
The main purpose of our trip was to see the Mountain gorillas – but the birdlife was a very close second with over 1300 species having been recorded in this stunning country. If you just want the facts and to by-pass our ‘personal’ experience then head straight to the bottom of this post for travel tips and gorilla trekking information.
After landing in Entebbe at 7pm, it was a tiring 2 hour drive into the capital Kampala. The roads are insane, crazy and dangerous and you rely on your driver being experienced enough to get you through safely. We were glad to escape the madness of the city and begin our trip to the Bwindi impenetrable forest. It was a crazy long drive and we arrived in the rain and dark at Buhoma community rest camp. After dinner we settled into our tent ready for our first trek the next morning. We woke up to a stunning view of the Bwindi forest as our tent was set amongst the forest itself. We had breakfast and made our way to the park HQ where we had a briefing about the time we would spend with the gorillas. We then split off into our different family groups and met our guide. We were trekking the Rushegura group and were shown a page of photos of the different individuals we could expect to see. Soon after we set off along the road and then turned off to head up the slopes. It had rained in the night so the trail was wet and very muddy and slippery! It wasn’t long before we were going UP, on a near vertical slope. It was tough going but the guide cut a path in front of us. After about an hour he received a call from the trackers who had already found the gorillas. They were actually outside the protected area and the guide told us we had half an hour or so to go. We continued on and the first sign was some poo! It was in a nest that the gorillas had prepared the night before and we were told this one had been used by a mum and baby – they could tell by the poo!
Just a few minutes later we caught a glimpse of our first wild mountain gorilla – it was AMAZING! In fact it was the silverback and along side him was a youngster who was swinging in the vegetation and showing off to us with a little chest beating! We proceeded on to some more members of the group and one young male approached us within just a metre. Just a second later a gorilla behind me pulled down on a tree, collapsing it to land within a few centimetres of where I was standing! The hour that followed just flew by and a lot of it was spent laughing at the antics of a young 2 year old ‘Kabunga’ who entertained us swinging through the vines. He was vey curious and one stage even approached Joe, pulled himself up on Joe’s trouser leg and pulled his finger! A few moments later he had made his way across to where I was crouching. He stared me right in the eye and then climbed a tree about a metre in front of me. It was at this stage that the amazingness became too much and in a very unusual moment of emotion for me I found myself crying tears of complete overwhelming joy. It was a moment I will never forget. Sadly a little while later, the guide said our hour was up and we made our way slightly down the slope. Luckily the black back male was sitting a few hundred metres away from the main group with another 3 indviduals. We were able to spend a few moments with him before making our way back through the forest and onto the cultivated slopes of the boundary with the protected area.
The following morning we were tracking the Oruzogo group who live closer to the Rujiah entrance. We therefore started with a 2 hour drive round to this park entrance where we joined our guide for the briefing. The forest here was so different and completely beautiful. It suddenly became very clear where the name ‘impenetrable’ comes from! The slopes were pretty much vertical and it took a few hours of trekking before the trackers reported they had found the group. It was tough going but worth every minute for the feeling of being back with a wild mountain gorilla group at the end. This was quite a different sighting as the family were in a more open area with the sun shining on them. We again shared an amazing hour with them and had some great views of the silverback today as well as 4 babies interacting with each other and their mums and also riding on mums back. Following a disagreement in the group, the silverback was quick to spring into action and sort everyone out! The trek back out was hard work again but through the stunning forest there was always something to look at. At the end you are presented with your tracking certificate!
Gorilla trekking in Uganda or Rwanda?
Mountain gorillas can only be seen in 3 countries in the world, there is not a single indivdual outside of these countries or even in captivity. The remaining population of between 700 and 800 individuals exist in the forests and Virunga mountains habitat between the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and The Democratic Republic Congo. Due to the current political situation and safety risk of the DRC, sensibly that leaves the decision between Uganda and Rwanda. At the time of writing (April 2013), there is a considerable price difference in the permit price for trekking. Rwanda charges US $750 for a permit and Uganda US $500. If you visit Uganda in the off-season and promotional permits are available, these are only $350 each. Rwanda does not offer any promotional permits meaning that if you plan it right, you can get 2 treks in Uganda for less than the price of just one in Rwanda. Once you have spent your hour with the gorilla family, trust me…..you will wish you have another trek!
In Uganda, the gorilla families range in 2 areas, the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the Mgahinga gorilla national park. In fact the gorillas here make up just over half the worlds population! The group in Mgahinga is a little unreliable since it regularly crosses the border to Rwanda to avoid a rogue Silverback who patrols the slopes on the Ugandan side. At the time of writing, permits for this family were not being sold. Bwindi is also the only place in the world where mountain gorillas and chimpanzees co-exist alongside each other in the same area. Access to the Bwindi Impenetrable forest is fairly hectic. It takes a minimum of 9 hours by road from the capital Kampala, probably closer to 10 or 11 and only the first 6 of these are on tarmac. The remainder is gravel road with plenty of potholes and often tricky patches following rain. Although a trek, it’s a great journey and a good time to explore more of this stunning country. Passing through communities, tea and banana plantations, there is always something to look at. Your route may also take you through the Queen Elizabeth National Park so there is the chance to see all sorts of other wildlife on the way. We saw elephant, buffalo, Ugandan kob and waterbuck but others we met had also seen the famous tree climbing Ishasha lions. If this all sounds a bit too traumatic, then Rwanda may be a better consideration?
Rwanda is obviously famed for its genocide history and this may be part of your decision to visit the country. Gorillas on the Rwandan side live in the Parc National des Virungas. Access is easier and quicker than Uganda with the trip being a mere 1.5 hours on a tar mac road from the capital city Kigali. Personally I have not trekked there but many people seem to suggest that the trekking conditions may be a little easier? This will depend hugely on where the gorillas are however so it is by no means guaranteed.
Gorilla trekking – which group or family?
It’s safe to say your experience with the mountain gorillas will be amazing no matter who you see. It is hard to put into words, the moment when you first set eyes on a wild mountain gorilla before having a unique insight into their world for that 1 hour that seems to fly by. In many instances, you may not get a choice of which family to visit as it will just be whichever permits are available. However on the off chance that you do get to choose, you may like to select who to visit and do a little research on them before you go – get to know them! For this section I will just discuss the habituated groups in Uganda of which there are currently 10. One very important thing to check is which entrance of the forest your trek leaves from. For example if you are trekking the Nkuringo group in the south you most definitely do not want to stay in Buhoma! Most trail heads have accommodation nearby and that is recommended so you don’t have to travel too far (on the fairly dodgy roads) in the morning before hand. It is possible to trek from the Ruhija entrance if you are staying at Buhoma; you will just start your day with a 2 hour drive to get there before you trek.
Rushegura (R group) - Trek leaves from Buhoma. Approximately 21 individuals with 1 silverback and a number of infants. Typically known as the group closest to the park entrance and in fact the ones who often visit the hotel grounds and village of Buhoma itself. May be a good option for a shorter walk but defintiely not guaranteed as 2 days before us they had a 9 hour return trip to see them! I personally would have found it disappointing if I only had to walk 10 minutes to see them as I was keen for a good trek but they are thought to be the best group out of Buhoma at the moment. They also frequently move out of the park but you can still visit them if they do.
Mubara (M group) – Trek leaves from Buhoma. This is one of the smaller groups with 7 members. It is the oldest habituated group.
Habanyare (H group)- Trek leaves from Buhoma. These guys are notorius for being a long trek but that means you get to spend longer in this amazing environment! Around 15 members including 2 silverbacks
Oruzogo (aka star group) – Trek leaves from Ruhija. Around 21 members with 1 silverback. One of the newest habituated groups
Bitukara – Trek leaves from Ruhija. A relatively small group of around 12 individuals but with 4 silverbacks!
Nshongi – Trek leaves from southern section of the forest. One of the biggest groups of 24 individuals. There were originally more than 30 until the group split and some members left to form their own group (the Mishaya family)
Nkuringo – Trek leaves from Nkuringo entrance (Southern section). Around 19 individuals including 2 silverbacks
Mishaya – Trek leaves from southern section of the forest. Around 10 individuals who were originally part of the Nshongi family who have now split off to form their own group.
Kahungye (aka Bikingi group) - Trek leaves from southern section of forest
Kyaguliro – This family is not visited by tourists, it is for research only and lives around the Ruhija entrance.
Nyakagezi – This is the family which spends some of its time in the Mgahinga National Park; the rest is spent over the border in Rwanda. Currently no permits are being sold for this group as they are unreliable!
What to carry with you when trekking
Prepare yourself for what may be a tough and long climb through hectic terrain. The Buhoma section of the park is known to be the easiest for trekking but there are still near vertical slopes to tackle and some extremely thick vegetation. You get the option to take a porter with you. This costs US $15 and they will carry all your equipment for you. It is a good way to support local jobs as well.
- 25 litre backpack
- External waterproof cover for your bag
- Packed lunch
- 2 litres drinking water
- Gardening gloves to avoid thorns and pull youself up on vines etc
- Long trousers
- T shirt or you may prefer a long sleeved top to avoid the nettles
- Many people use a walking stick to steady them on the slopes. These are available from your hotel or to rent at the trail head
Due to our very limited time period and for complete ease, we booked our trip to the gorillas with a private safari company. I beleive it is possible on public transport but you should allow PLENTY of time! It will likely involve many different modes of transport and changes at each town to reach the forest. En-route we saw a number of buses that had either broken down or were stuck in the mud! with no alternative offered for their passengers now sitting on the side of the road. The other benefit to a tour company is the obtaining of gorilla permits. Only 8 are sold for each family per day and with 10 families that makes a daily limit of 80. For us, in the rainy season, there were still spaces available but we were told that permits for June, July, August and most of September are already sold out. To obtain your permit you need to contact the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) directly, make a payment and collect it from their Kampala offices. I did plenty of research on tour companies. Although it may be a little nerve wracking to send money abroad, it is much cheaper if you deal directly with a local Ugandan company than using a ‘middle man’ at home. In fact for our purposes, we just needed to be picked up, taken to the forest, driven around a bit and brought back. We also relied on the company to book our permits and accommodation. The best value for money I found was Kabiza wilderness safaris. They were great, more than fulfiled their requirements and our guide really looked after us and kept us safe on the roads – which is no mean feat! They were by far the cheapest I found but here is a number of other companies I considered along the way. I can’t vouch that they are any good, but it may be a starter for anyone who’s looking. Most important is to check your chosen company are a member of AUTO. All of these companies will ask you to pay for your gorilla permits in advance as they need this money to pay at the Kampala office. Kabiza didn’t ask for any money other than that, we paid the balance when we got there. I have heard of some that also wanted 50% of the tour fee as well as deposit.
Accommodation in Uganda
During our trip we stayed at a wide range of accommodations including Red chilli hideaway (basic and average but chepaer than other Kampala options), Buhoma rest camp, Sunset Entebbe and Karibu guesthouse. We found all accomodations to be over priced for what they were but that seems to be the way all over the country. By far the stand out for us was the Buhoma community rest camp in Buhoma. We had a self contained tent which was literally in the forest with amazing views of the peaks. It’s worth paying for full board so you get your evening meal, a good breakfast before starting your trek and then a packed lunch to take with you. The restaurant is open air with great views as well! It affords the same views as many of the more expensive places in town and is a mere 30 second walk from the park headquarters where you have your brief before trekking in the morning. If you have an early flight out, it is definitely worth staying in Entebbe the night before instead of Kampala. Here we stayed at the Sunset, Entebbe which was very acceptable and the slightly more luxurious but pricey Karibu guesthouse which was lovely (with awesome food).
Other tours and sites
Mabamba swamp: For us, the birding in Uganda was unbelieveable. Our real hope was to see a shoebill – a rare, prehistoric looking bird which recently featured in David Attenborough’s ‘Africa’ series. For this we arranged a seperate tour, in the hopes of fulfilling our goal. Our destination was the ‘Mabamba swamp’, only 15km as the crow flies from Entebbe but 40km (and 1.5 hours) by road. The swamp is known to be one of the best places in the country to see the elusive shoebill where 9 just individuals live. Our tour was organised by the sunset hotel using Olive safaris. For US $30 we were transferred to the swamp and then moved into a dugout canoe with a driver and guide to head out onto the water. It’s by no means guaranteed but luck was on our side and within about 20 minutes our guide found a shoebill which we then spent around an hour with as it attempted (and failed) to fish before flying off.
Entebbe Botanical gardens: We visited here in an effort to notch up our bird list. Lovely vegetation and surroundings and we did get a few new birds. Parts of the gardens are full of rubbish however, it could definitely do with a spring clean. They try and charge you to take a camera in so just keep that in your bag and say you don’t have one!
The Equator: Most tours going to and from Bwindi will stop at the equator crossing.
Travel tips for Uganda
- You will fly into Entebbe. This is around 40km by road from the capital Kampala but due to traffic the transfer can take up to 2 hours and it can be a bit hairy!
- Most nationalities require a visa to enter Uganda. This is easy to obtain when you land at the airport and costs US $50 which you must pay in cash.
- You will require a Yellow fever vaccination & CERTIFICATE to enter and leave Uganda. You MUST carry your certificate with you and we had to show it at both check-in and immigration to leave the country.
Transport options in Uganda
- A taxi or transfer into Kampala from the airport should be around US $25 and can be arranged by your hotel
- Shared taxis also known as ‘Matatus’ are a cheap way to get around.
- There are also motorbike taxis called ‘Boda-bodas’. If you don’t value your life too much, it may be an option for a mode of transport but the accident rate is insanely high and you’ll see why pretty quickly once you see how they drive!
- Local buses exist but can be unreliable so leave ALOT of time!
- There is not too much to see in Kampala itself but the craziness of the city is worth experiencing if you have a spare day!
- For big expenditures such as tours and hotels, most places charge in US dollars so it is worth having these with you. Only notes from 2000 to the present are accepted. Everything can also be paid for using local Uganda shillings.
- Ugandan shillings can be drawn from ATM machines. The success of this can be a bit hit and miss so be prepared to try a few! A visa sign on your card is essential. We had success with Barclays, Stanbic, Standard chartered and Orient bank ATM’s.
- Credit card use is not recommended in Uganda due to the high fraud levels. Take one as emergency back-up but also be prepared to pay a surcharge (minimum 5%, often more) for using it.