Uganda, Rwanda & Tanzania Adventure Safari

Jaki Kennedy and George Kennedy-Copeland

24 Feb 2017

the trip of a lifetime

We’re so excited – we’re going to see gorillas!! That had been our state of mind for months before finally going out to Uganda in mid-September. We also wanted to make the most of going all that way so we extended the trip to include chimpanzees, tree climbing lions, golden monkeys and a couple of days of R&R to recover from it all afterwards, resulting in an 18 day itinerary to Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania

We had done a lot of planning and preparation with the help of Paul and then Oliver at NWS, and had high expectations before we set off.

We had a truly wonderful experience that was even better than we’d hoped. 

Our itinerary started with an overnight in Nairobi – because we had wanted to fly BA and they had, unfortunately for us, stopped flying direct to Entebbe. We arrived late in the evening and got through security very quickly and there were a few people waiting to meet arrivals but there was no sign of our transfer driver. We hunted around for a while and eventually decided to venture further from the arrivals hall, at which point we were able to see a large group of people round a bend and at the bottom of a ramp all waiting with signs for their respective arrivals. Clearly they were not allowed up to the actual arrivals area itself so we weren’t sure how the others had been allowed up there. However, once we had found our driver he was very helpful and quickly got us to our hotel for the night and collected us again in the morning. We stayed at the Ole Sereni, which is a lovely modern hotel with lots of character. It is very secure but discreetly so – be sure to let them know your driver is coming as they only allow cars in through the gates and up to reception when they know who to expect. The hotel overlooks Nairobi's game park at the back and has a busy highway out front. Consequently, rooms at the back are much quieter although we weren't kept awake in our room at the front. By now it was about midnight so we had a look round and enjoyed having a drink on the balcony of the bar area looking out towards the national park and feeling that we were now in Africa again, before retiring ready for an early start the next day.

The adventure truly begins!
We had an early flight to Entebbe where we were met by Davis – our guide and driver for the next 12 days – and escorted to our Toyota Landcruiser which we were going to be spending a lot of time in as we had a lot of ground to cover. 

It took about 6 hours to get to our first ‘home’ - Kyaninga Lodge at Fort Portal - where we spent 2 nights. On the way we discovered that the ATMs have different limits for the amount of cash they will dispense and some of them charge for withdrawals (eg Stanbic Bank: limit UGX70,000, no charge (but not always working) – Barclays: limit UGX1,000,000 – we enjoyed being millionaires for a very short while! - and most reliable but does charge per withdrawal).

We were surprised by how green and lush everything looked and how beautiful the scenery was. 


The hotel has lovely bungalows overlooking a volcanic crater lake. There is a walk around the lake that we enjoyed on the afternoon after the chimpanzee tracking despite some rain on the way round. We were guided by Simon who was keen to tell us about the community work that he is involved in and would have been very happy to show us more if we had wanted.

Bungalows are spacious and very well appointed, the staff are friendly and service is very good. Owner Steve and his wife are very active with community projects that the lodge supports – at the time we were there they were building an extra bungalow to be used as a dance hall and were planning their own version of Strictly Come Dancing in aid of the Kyaninga Child Development Centre that they run. 

Meals are all very good and vegetarian options not a problem. It’s not the closest lodge to the chimpanzee tracking – it was about 1 and 1/4 hours each way – but we enjoyed the comfort and the location so didn’t mind the extra journey time.

Kibale Forest Chimpanzee Tracking
A fantastic experience managed by the UWA. Our guide Silver was very knowledgeable and keen to give us the best experience possible. We were divided into 5 groups of 8 people, each with their own guide, and although we did come across some of the other groups from time to time it didn't detract from the experience. We had wondered whether we would need a porter here but there weren’t any around. However, we were accompanied by a student who was keen to carry our backpacks in exchange for a few dollars, and we were happy to go along with that. We discovered, though, that it really wasn’t necessary or expected to have a porter there but our student was very helpful so we were happy with the arrangement with her. 

After a drive into the forest Silver led us on a short walk to the chimp family's favoured tree and after watching several of the chimps up in the tree for a short while, a quite big male - 'Toti' - the alpha male in waiting - came down from the tree and we followed first him and then another, more shy, male, mostly on the ground, for well over our allotted hour. Although the paths get quite narrow and the vegetation quite dense, the going was reasonably easy and the pace relaxed. 

Rules state that you must keep 8 metres from the chimps but chimps don't follow the rules and we were thrilled when Toti strolled nonchalantly through our group as we all made way to let him pass. It was a magical morning. On the way out of the forest we also saw black and white colobus monkeys, and had fleeting glimpses of red-tailed monkeys and grey-cheeked mangabey.

Queen Elizabeth National Park
From Kyaninga we headed off to the QENP – by means of a game drive in the afternoon before heading up to our accommodation for that night - Kyambura Gorge Lodge which is about a 45 minute drive from the park, and then went back for another game drive in the morning. 

There is a busy main road going through the park so at first we didn’t feel we were in a park at all, but then Davis took us off on some smaller roads and that felt much better. 

In the northern part of the park we saw elephants, buffalo, hippos, vast numbers of Ugandan Kobs, baboons and warthogs. During the game drive the next morning we saw 3 lions, which we hadn’t expected in that area of the park - we had only anticipated seeing lions in Ishasha. In their eagerness to see the lions a couple of vehicles got stuck – Davis did a good deed and helped pull one out – it all added to the excitement. We also saw a leopard in the distance dragging a kill. 

Overlooking the gorge and Savannah of the QENP, Kyambura Gorge Lodge is delightfully furnished and each bungalow has a view. As you leave the main road in the village a tiny track leads to the lodge entrance behind which the lodge opens out into a spacious garden, lounge and veranda. Food is excellent with superb vegetarian options. The staff are all very attentive and friendly. 

After the morning game drive we returned here for lunch and to collect our bags and then set off again in the afternoon to go to Ishasha in the Southern Sector, with more game viewing along the way and the hope of spotting some lions in trees.

This afternoon we crossed the equator and then stopped to do a boat trip on the Kazinga Channel. The boat was a wonderful surprise, being small but particularly comfortable with refreshments provided, including vegetarian snacks prepared especially for us. This was a lovely relaxing experience and there were countless hippos, buffalo, and a range of beautiful birds – especially pied kingfishers, weaver birds and storks. 

Then, back on dry land, as we moved off in the jeep we spotted a family of banded mongoose in the bank beside the road. We tend to be very fortunate with our game viewing and on the way into Ishasha we spotted a family group of giant forest hogs, which we were told was quite rare. 

When we got into the area where the fig trees were and the potential for lions in them we were all on the alert and looking carefully at all the trees. After only a short while we thought we saw a ‘lump’ in one of the more distant trees. We got a bit closer and pulled up to check and could make out 1 lion but then Davis, brilliant spotter that he is, pointed out that there was not 1, not 2, but 3 lions in the same tree!! Fantastic. They were quite hard to discern in the tree at first but with the aid of our binoculars we could make them out. 

We then managed to get quite close to their tree, at which point 2 of them stood up, and then after Davis moved the jeep back a bit we saw them climb down the tree and move off across the savannah. Wonderful – what an amazing afternoon. 

We stayed for 2 nights at Ishasha Wilderness Camp which was a delight. It was all very civilised - spacious tents with running water, and solid floors. Showers are 'bush showers' - 20 litres is ample provided you don't faff around too much but they made it clear that you can always ask for more when you book the time for your hot water to arrive. 

Tents are situated along the riverside and apparently elephant and other game can be seen on the opposite bank (but not while we were there). We did hear animals snuffling around at night and spotted Black and White Colobus monkeys around the entrance to the camp. Food is excellent with nice options for vegetarians and it was lovely to sit and have drinks and then dinner looking out over the river. The staff here are friendly and attentive too.

Ishasha Wildlife
Over the course of the next 3 game drives we saw a family of hyenas, with two youngsters still being fed by mum (we’d never realised hyenas could look cute!), more hippos, a few elephants, Topi and other antelope, more buffalo, lots of birds, and another lion in a tree. 

We were particularly amused by this one as there was a bend in the road so we could see it from the front and the back. From the front the lion looked comfortably draped over the branch but from the back we could see his belly, and his backside wedged in a fork between 2 branches and his back legs dangling - it didn’t look comfortable at all. 

Davis spoke to other drivers - one in particular had been driving a family round for 4 days and they hadn’t yet managed to find a single lion in a tree so we considered ourselves to be very fortunate indeed. They then went to where we had recently seen the lion in the tree but it had already gone when they got there. 

On our way out of the park on our last morning as we were heading off to Bwindi we saw another leopard – in a tree quite close to the road – it was an excellent sighting. Another good spot by Davis. A couple of hours drive took us to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and our home for the next 2 nights.

Bwindi Lodge looked out across the mountain and rainforest that we were told we would be climbing up the next day. It provided good food (excellent vegetarian options) had friendly and attentive staff, an excellent complementary massage (great after gorilla tracking), and a quick turnaround on laundry (also great after gorilla tracking). Meals are generally intended to be communal although you can vary the start time a bit if you ask. They also cleaned our boots and gaiters up so they came back looking like new – what a joy! It is very well situated for gorilla tracking in Bwindi, about half a mile from the UWA briefing point. 

On the first night we chatted over dinner with a couple who had been out that day and were telling us about their experience – how steep it was, how helpful the porters were and, most exciting of all, that when they found their gorilla family it was discovered that they had a new-born baby with them, which was a delight for the rangers as well as the tourists.

Bwindi Gorilla Tracking

We were so excited, and a little nervous – this is what we were here for. Briefing by the Rangers started at 8am and we were divided into groups and assigned our gorilla families. We had mentioned to Davis about the new baby and he kindly arranged for us to be allocated to that group – the Mubare family - which was a lovely surprise for us. We were put in a group with only 2 other couples making a total of only 6 of us instead of the usual 8. We were going with the Lead Guide, David, who was also keen to see and photograph the new baby. David then explained in more detail how the trip would go and what we should expect, and checked us all out to make sure we were fit and healthy and suitably attired, and also arranging porters for those who wanted them. We opted to take a porter each - something we'd strongly recommend – as well as carrying backpacks they also offer a helping hand at some of the more slippery sections and it provides work for people who otherwise might not have any. We also had walking sticks that were provided by our lodge, but David had some for people to borrow if needed. Each group was also accompanied by armed Rangers (to scare off forest elephants if necessary (it wasn't)).  

The trackers were up in the forest looking for the gorillas and advising David where to head for. We left the registration point and walked briefly alongside the river before starting up a steep and winding track up through the forest, with David communicating with the trackers by radio to learn where the gorillas were that morning. 

When we got very near to where the gorillas were we were told to leave our packs and sticks with the porters, as it is not allowed to carry anything into the presence of the gorillas. The gorillas are wonderful to see and they appeared completely unperturbed by our presence, to the point of pretty much ignoring us. The silverback was very evident and there were lots of youngsters who are delightful to watch as they clamber about learning which trees will hold their weight (and which won’t!). 

We had a good chance to see the mother with her 2-day old baby, which was tiny, although she was very protective of it (the guide and rangers weren’t able to see well enough to sex it).

Although we had been instructed to keep our distance from the gorillas they, of course, didn't bother. Our fellow tourists were considerate of each other, moving around so we could all get closer and get the pictures we wanted. We left after our hour was up feeling fairly sure the gorillas didn't mind us being there during what, for us, was a magical experience. 

We had heard numerous and varied reports regarding the exertions we should expect but we'd say that if you're comfortable on the more adventurous Lake District walks then the fitness requirements are similar. The trickiest part for us was getting through the vegetation the gorillas are sitting in the middle of. This involves walking through/over the vegetation that one of the Trackers has cut a way through with a machete. We were out for 5 and a half hours, including the hour with the gorillas. We covered 6 and a half miles with a variation in altitude of about 500m. At the highest point we think we were at no more than 1800m. We came down by a slightly shorter, more direct, route and stopped to have our packed lunch along the way. 

We learned that the length of time is not an indication of difficulty - 2 of the group had been out the day before and had taken 4 hours to get to the gorillas but they said this trip was more difficult as a lot of that had been on flat land out in the open. Also, we were the first group back, which was a surprise to David as the guides had apparently expected the Mubare family to be the furthest away – so clearly you have to be ready for anything on these trips. But it’s all well worth it!!

The next day we walked from Bwindi Lodge at Buhoma (6 and a half miles) through the forest to get to our next accommodation – Clouds. We were accompanied by a guide, a porter, and armed Rangers again (to scare off any forest elephants). It was mostly a fairly easy and uneventful walk of about 3 and ½ hours through the rainforest but with a sharp incline for the last 30 minutes. Clouds sent a vehicle to pick us up at the top of the incline and take us the last few miles. In the meantime Davis had headed off in the jeep with all of our luggage to do the 6-7 hour trip by road.  

Clouds was our favourite lodge in Uganda, it has fantastic views, great food and service and a very cosy atmosphere. Felix, our butler, looked after us very well indeed, to-ing and fro-ing between the lodge and our cottage, bringing us tea, snacks, beers etc and lighting a fire in our cottage or in whatever fireplace we settled closest to in the main lodge. He also negotiated with the chef over Vegetarian menu options, which were, by default, some form of pasta but which Felix arranged to be substituted for curries at our request.

Cottages are spacious and comfortably furnished with the same type of sumptuous sofas as the main lodge. Beds are also very comfortable and hot water bottles are added before bedtime. From here we did a Gorilla habituation experience in the Rushaga Sector of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

Gorilla Habituation Experience

This is organised by the UWA and was first made available earlier in the year as an alternative to the normal 1-hour tracking. It meant we would be helping to habituate a family of gorillas who had been only partially habituated – ie. habituated to the rangers but not yet (fully) habituated to tourists and it meant that we would be able to spend more time with the gorillas, and would go in a group of 4 instead of the usual 8. It also meant that we would require higher levels of fitness as we would need to be prepared for more rugged terrain, would need to keep up with the trackers and would be left behind to be picked up on the way back if we couldn’t keep up, and that we could expect to be out for up to 12 hours and possibly be covering up to about 20 kilometres. It was also at a higher cost. 

We had known we wanted to do this as soon as we had heard about it but had also known that we were going to have to get into training for it and had swapped the second normal – ie 1 hour - tracking trip already in our itinerary for this one. 

In the time leading up to our departure we had been told that the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) had adjusted their approach to make it ‘a bit more’ tourist-friendly - meaning they would wait for us a bit and give us breaks but that they would still leave us behind if they thought we weren’t able to keep up, and so we still felt unsure just what to expect. They had not said anything about bigger groups though so when we were told the night before that there were 3 other people joining us – making a total of 5 - we were a bit put out. 

The registration point (which is much more rough and ready than in the Bwindi Sector) is about 30 minutes drive from Clouds and when we arrived there we found yet another couple waiting for the habituation experience – making a total of 7! This was not starting well and we were extremely disgruntled, and became even more so when we learned that one of the group of 3 was an octogenarian who was going to be carried up the mountain in a sort of elongated wicker basket-cum-stretcher. This was definitely not what we’d been led to expect or what we had paid for. 

The other couple were also unhappy but they were going to be in the area for a few more days so they negotiated to change to a normal tracking trip that day instead and to do the habituation experience the next day – still leaving the 5 of us.  

We expressed our concerns to Davis, our driver/guide, and he brought the Lead Guide – Augustine – to talk to us so we could express our dissatisfaction to him too. One of the UWA guys was saying that they were still not co-ordinated in making the reservations and that different people might be taking bookings for the same day without knowing how many people were already booked for that day. Clearly this was something that needed sorting out locally, and is probably the result of it still being a relatively new offering.

Once we’d registered our dissatisfaction we decided that we would go anyway as it was the only opportunity we had and would lodge a formal complaint when we got back, and we then decided to focus on enjoying the day and making the best of it.  

As we set off, it quickly became evident that our octogenarian in his stretcher/basket wasn't going to be a problem as the porters (in 2 alternating teams of 4) rushed off up the 300 metres (elevation) of almost vertical mud that was the path up to the forest, leaving the rest of us to make our way up, ably assisted by our porters (don't even think of doing this without one, though you may have to swallow your pride as George did to be helped by a 20 something slip of a girl who was carrying his rucksack and wearing wellies). Augustine had quickly spotted that one member of the family group was quite a bit slower than us and he had brought us past her so we weren’t being held up and we were very appreciative of this. 

By the time we got to the top of this first steep slope the varying fitness levels of our party were fairly evident and so Augustine then sent the two of us ahead with a couple of the trackers whilst the rest of the group stuck to the (longer) path. For us, this involved working our way through the undergrowth and vegetation, following the tracker with the machete, up and down across various surfaces and steep inclines. 

We got to the area where the Gorillas were after only an hour and a half in total, (rather than the possible 6 hours that we had been prepared for) and we stopped to have a good drink before, again, leaving our packs, water bottles and sticks behind with the porters to go the last few minutes to where the gorillas were. 

We had a wonderful time tracking them as they roamed through the undergrowth for the next (almost) four hours (we stopped 10 minutes early because it started to rain very heavily and the gorillas took to cover, as did we). We were scrambling over and under undergrowth, and up and down very steep and slippery slopes with gradients of between approximately 45 to 60 degrees, treading on and over the vines and vegetation that had been chopped down so the surfaces were often springy and shifting underfoot and we had to watch out that we didn’t get our feet caught up in tangled vines. As we had left the porters behind the trackers or rangers often helped us (often holding one of our hands in one hand and a machete or rifle in the other hand!). Our octogenarian was allowed to have 2 of his porters with him to assist and sometimes bodily carry him, and the slower member of their party was also allowed to keep her porter with her. When the exertion was too much for our elderly companion he stayed behind and then rejoined us again when the gorillas were a bit more accessible. All the scrambling up and down used up quite a bit of energy and I wished I had had an energy bar before starting this section of the day as I started to feel a bit depleted, but I soon got a second wind when thinking about keeping up with the gorillas. Talking to the other family, who were American, it seemed that they hadn’t been properly advised of what to expect and hadn’t known that there was an easier 1–hour tracking trip so full marks again to NWS for their expert knowledge. 

We noticed that when tracking a fully habituated group the gorillas stay mostly around one place and it is easy to stay with them, but as these gorillas are still being habituated they move around a lot more and often work their way into the midst of the undergrowth, and we were on the move a lot following them wherever they went. 

The gorillas were, once again, magical.  

The silverback was huge and the trackers were very focused on following him mostly, sometimes stopping as he made a bit of a charge, which we’d been told to expect. There were again several youngsters playing around – one in particular putting on quite a show for us with cartwheels and pirouettes in the trees, and also doing his own bit of a charge in imitation of his dad.
This was a much larger group than the Mubare family that we’d seen on our first trip, and there were gorillas of all sizes and ages to be found all around us – some high in trees, others on the ground – some keeping their distance from us, and others not too bothered by us being there. It felt like their behaviour was much more natural. I’ve heard people wondering if gorillas climb trees – they do! although it’s more like just walking vertically up the trunk of the tree than climbing. 

After 3 hours 45/50 minutes the heavens opened and we retreated to the relative shelter of some trees where our porters had been waiting. There we managed to eat our lunch, with our sandwiches disintegrating in our hands as we did so, and then scrambled into our waterproof kit for the way back. 

Once again, Augustine and the team knew the most direct route from where we left the gorillas and we were very relieved that it was less precipitous and slippery than the way up, although still requiring some assistance from our porters. 

On this trip we covered about 6 and half miles, although with all the scrambling up and down and round about it felt like more, and climbed about 300 metres elevation. While we were still getting into our wet weather gear the other porters had rushed off with their elderly charge safely tucked into his ‘chariot’ and the fitter of his daughters went with them, so we had a slightly longer return journey as we were with the slower member of their party. The whole trip lasted about 7 and half hours; an hour and a half to find the gorillas, just about 4 fours with them, 20 minutes for lunch and then 1 and 3/4 hours (for our group) to get back down.  

Despite our early misgivings, it was a fabulous day and we were very happy and felt we had been very well looked after. We were impressed that when we got home NWS had already been advised of the concerns we’d had at the start of the day because Davis had told his office and they had passed on the information to NWS (we’ve since heard that Augustine has been given the award for the Best Guide 2016 by UWA’s top management).  

It was then a joy to get back to Clouds to find a fire already lit in our cottage and Felix the butler on hand to take our order for afternoon tea and a couple of beers, and Grace our housekeeper ready to whisk away all our filthy and wet clothes and boots. 

When we returned from dinner that evening everything had been returned clean and dry, and we found little carved wooden gorillas on our pillows.

Clouds Community School  

Before coming out to Uganda we had asked Oliver at NWS about bringing anything out that would be helpful and were told that there is a community school linked to Clouds, so we brought some notebooks and pens and pencils to give them.  

Our guide for the walk from Buhoma to Clouds – Asgario - was one of the community leaders and when he had told us that we mentioned that we had brought these things out for the school. He invited us to drop in and visit the school before we left, so in the morning as we left Clouds to head off to Rwanda we stopped by, expecting a short visit and to meet a few of the staff and children. Instead we were met by Asgario, introduced to the staff and given a tour of the school and then all the children put on a wonderful show of singing and dancing for us – it was totally unexpected and a real high-point of the trip. 

We then set off in very high spirits for our journey into Rwanda. We stopped for a coffee and a snack in Kisoro, the town nearest the border while Davis went and had the car cleaned – a requirement for taking it across the border apparently. The crossing was pretty straightforward - we had to go through on foot and then wait for Davis as he did all his paperwork in order to bring the car through. Once through we found the roads on the Rwanda side generally better than in Uganda where they can be of quite variable standard.

Tipping Guidelines  

We found that, although we had calculated the money we would need for tips, we kept finding that we needed/wanted extra, so we had topped up once in a town on the way to Bwindi, and now needed to top up again before heading into Rwanda as Davis had told us there wouldn’t be a bank before Virunga – so we stopped at the bank in Kisoro for more Ugandan Shillings and then did an exchange with a money changer on the border. 

We had brought dollars with us for tipping as our experience in other countries had always been that dollars are preferred, but we found that the guides and porters here actually prefer local currency (fair enough) even though they seem to calculate the tip in dollars. We did find this a bit confusing (but found a very helpful app – XE.COM for up-to-date currency conversions). And on the Habituation Experience we wanted to give extra because the guides/trackers/rangers and porters had all worked so hard. We wished we had read the Money Matters notes in NWS’ documents more carefully before we had come out – we thought we had gone through everything but obviously hadn’t absorbed some of the information (there is a lot of it). We ended up using the dollars we had brought with us mostly for tips at the lodges and to top up the Rwandan francs we had got at the border before we were able to get to a bank in Rwanda.

Virunga lodge

Virunga Lodge is about a mile from the road, up a fairly precipitous track. It has a great outlook with views of Lake Bulera to the east and Lake Bohondo and the volcanoes to the west so you choose (or are allocated) your Banda for either sunrise or sunset. Sunrise is academic if you're gorilla tracking as departure is before dawn. The registration centre for all activities is about 45 minutes away. We used Virunga as a base for both gorilla and golden monkey tracking.  

Food is great, with good vegetarian options, and staff are friendly and attentive. Here too, they work miracles with muddy boots and gaiters, returning them clean and dry between outings. Breakfast and dinner are communal around a long table so it was easy to break the ice very quickly with new guests. The lodge and bandas all have great views and the main lodge has a lovely big fireplace and lots of comfy chairs and sofas. When we got back from our hard days tracking we were keen to have hot showers but as it had been an overcast day (and with some rain) we found that the solar hot water heating didn’t quite keep up with our requirements. We were told afterwards that we could have requested extra hot water but we needed to know that in advance and schedule it in.

Gorilla Tracking in Rwanda

Rwanda is one hour ahead of Uganda so everything has to start an hour earlier to fit in with the gorillas who are working with the sun, so we had a very early (4.30am) start and after a lovely but quite rushed breakfast were driven 45 minutes to the Rwandan Development Board briefing point ready for the 7am start. 

We arrived at the Rwandan Development Board briefing point to find a great many vehicles in a large car park – which was a bit of a shock. This is the registration point for all the different tracking activities in the area and was a much bigger, and slicker, operation than we had experienced in Uganda which, by comparison, seemed relatively unsophisticated and less geared to handle large numbers of tourists so we were pleased we had done it this way round. There was a dance troupe enthusiastically putting on a display of tribal dancing, and coffee and tea were available while we all waited to be allocated to our groups.

Gorilla tracking in Rwanda is generally regarded as being much easier than in Uganda, and some of the trips only take a couple of hours in total, but we had asked to see the Susa group and were aware that they were usually the furthest away. We wanted to see this group partly because of their history (with Dian Fossey) but also because we wanted to see Ihoho who we have 'adopted' through the WWF. We knew Ihoho was a member of the Susa group and wanted to see him ‘in person’.  

As ever, Davis had worked his magic, and we were quickly allocated to our Guide for the day – another Augustine, but known as Gus. We were then joined by the others who would make up our group for the day – 4 twenty-something (we think), long-limbed Canadians fresh from conquering Kilimanjaro, and a German couple of similar age and stature. As they were obviously very fit and we had a few(!) extra years on them we did feel a little apprehensive about the pace they would want to go at.  

After the general briefing, we were told we would be driving for about an hour and a quarter to our starting point, so we all piled into our vehicles and headed off. Gus came with us and we had already asked him if Ihoho was in the group we were going to see – just to be absolutely sure – so he was interested to know why we had particularly asked about him. When we explained he said that he would make sure we saw him, and was then busy on the radio to his trackers. Although we couldn’t understand what he was telling them we did hear the name Ihoho mentioned so we were sure he was telling them to make sure they found him.  

When we got to where we were to leave the vehicles we had a more detailed briefing, and those of us who wanted had porters allocated to us (by this time, this was a given for us – no question), and then we were told we would have a bit of a wait as the gorillas were in a ravine and Gus wanted to know on which side of it they were going to come out so we could be sure to head off in the right direction to find them. Gus was also keen to set the tone for the climb – that we were a team and it was important for us all to get there together, so there were no prizes for racing on ahead or commenting on people being slow and this helped set the mood for the walk up. We were also told we might be climbing up to as high as 4000m so we checked our GPS on our phone to see what sort of an increase in elevation that would be. We were starting at 2670m.

After an hour Gus got the word that the gorillas had come out of the ravine and were moving in our direction so we set off – initially through a bamboo forest – which was a lovely easy, if muddy in places, walk. But that was just to lull us into a false sense of ease. The path quickly became steeper and when the bamboo ended and we went into the rainforest we encountered the first of a number of increasingly steep inclines with paths that, as it had rained the previous day, were a mass of sticky, squelchy mud that stuck to our boots and made the going a great deal harder than it would otherwise have been, but with our porters pulling and pushing we made good progress. The porters were, once again, invaluable on this trip and, again, we were keen to provide them with employment which, in turn, helps make tourism more acceptable to local communities. Porters are selected for treks in rotation and we were told they expect one trek a week each. We were also told that they used to be (or would otherwise be) poachers, but how true that is we don't know. 

This was by far the toughest trip we had done – the most mud and the steepest climbing, one steep face after another with only the briefest flattish bits in between. This was the only trip where I had momentary doubts that I was going to make it, but the thought of the gorillas up ahead kept me going, and it became clear that I wasn’t the only one finding it tough going. It did cross my mind too that this was the third trip in 5 days and at higher altitude and that might have something to do with it too. We noticed also that our Kilimanjaro climbing companions were snacking on energy bars each time we had a break. I had thought of bringing some out with us but had not got round to getting them, and I wished I had. 

We 'found' the Susa group after about 2 hours having covered a mere 3 miles (approximately) but climbing 670 metres to an altitude of 3350 metres (we were so glad we didn’t have to go up to 4000m!).

The gorilla group was magical to watch once again, although this was probably the least active of the 3 groups we’d tracked. There was one particular youngster, though, who was obviously curious about us and keen to show off and would really have liked to have got closer to us all, but he kept coming towards us and then losing his nerve and retreating again. 

We were tolerated with indifference by the Silverback who was even more huge than the one on the habituation experience – he sat facing us for a while, then lay down on his side and eventually turned and faced the other direction – showing us just how enormous his rump was. There were also older females, one of whom was very heavily pregnant. It was particularly nice to see how a number of them huddled up close to the silverback. And Gus was quick to point out Ihoho, who mostly stayed very close to his Dad, the silverback, but he briefly moved out on his own and we were able to get a very clear photo of him looking in our direction. 

There was also a 6-month old baby who mostly stayed close to mum but who then demonstrated that he was just finding his feet as he had a bit of a clamber about. 

When it was nearly time to leave Gus alerted to us having just 5 minutes left and it was clear that the gorillas knew when our hour was up because the silverback got up and led them away. 

We had lunch and then descended via the same route but obviously coming down 670 metres is easier than ascending, even with all the mud, and we were back at the vehicles by about 4pm and got back to our lodge at 5.30, after another wonderful day. 

Despite our initial apprehension about tackling one of the more difficult groups to reach, especially when our fellow trackers turned out to be quite a bit younger, we made it and we're very pleased we made the choice we did. It was another fantastic day.

Golden Monkeys 

When we were planning our itinerary we had been told that tracking golden monkeys was done in much larger groups and that it might be less interesting to us after the gorillas and chimpanzees, but as this is the only place where they are found we decided to do it anyway. 

We started at the same briefing point as for the gorilla tracking the day before and, as the guides are swapped around the different tracking activities we found that we had Gus as our guide once again. At first we seemed to have an exceptionally large group but then this was split in two, so finally there were about 20-22 of us in our group. 

The format was much the same as the day before – a general briefing at the registration point, then a drive to the starting point, then another briefing before heading off. This time the walk was much more gentle and with quite a bit less mud. It took just an hour to reach where the golden monkeys were on that day and, as before, we left our packs and sticks behind with the porters (which are more of a nice to have than an essential on this trip) and then went in amongst the trees and started to look around. Before long we were able to spot a few of these unusual looking monkeys and then realised that they were all around us – on the ground and up in the trees. They are very quiet and very cute with chubby cheeks, and are well named for the colour on their backs. We had been told not to all stay together as this would put the monkeys off, so we were able to move around a bit on our own following different small groups of monkeys, or particular individuals, but always keeping an eye on where our group and our trackers were.

We spent a delightful hour with them, getting very close to them at times and felt very pleased to have included this in our itinerary.  It was a lovely and relatively gentle way to finish off the adventurous part of our trip and an opportunity to see an animal that is particular to this part of the world.

We then walked back to our vehicles and headed back to our lodge having had a relatively relaxed morning, and then changed and had lunch before setting off at 2pm for the drive up to Kigali where we would be spending the night before our flight to Dar Es Salaam and some well earned chill-time on the beach.  The team there did an amazingly quick turnaround with our boots and gaiters before we left.

The scenery on the way to Kigali was lovely – very tidy and clean, and very steep all the way along – with lots of terraces which all seemed well cared for.  And Kigali itself is very clean and well kept too – apparently there is a clean up day at the end of every month.

We spent the night at the Kigali Serena Hotel and found it to be a very pleasant hotel near to the city centre. The room was comfortable and quite large. The food was good and we were happy with the vegetarian options. The staff were friendly and helpful. We enjoyed a drink on the balcony overlooking the pool in the central courtyard of the hotel and watching a number of large birds flying overhead. (There is an ATM opposite the hotel – useful for a final top up of cash – but this is one that charges per withdrawal). 

To The Beach!

It was only a short drive (1/2 hr) to the airport at Kigali but the security when we arrived was very tight. We had to stop and get out of the car, and get all our luggage out too, before we could enter the airport perimeter. The vehicle and the luggage was checked with mirrors and dogs.  

Once at the terminal Davis found a porter to take us and our luggage through the security checks to the check-in desk as he was not allowed to take us in so we said our farewells in the car park. It seemed strange to be leaving him behind after our 12 days together. 

Our flight and arrival was fine and we easily found Paul who was to take us to our accommodation at Ras Kutani

The traffic in Dar es Salaam is horrendous, especially late afternoon on a Friday. Also it is apparently common for the cash machines to be empty on the last Friday of the month as everyone has just been paid, so we could not get cash out at the airport. Fortunately, Paul knew where to find some alternative ATMs and did a bit of a detour for us. The journey should have taken about 1 and ½ to 2 hours but we were a bit longer than that as a result. 

By the time we arrived at Ras Kutani it had been dark for some time and it is VERY well tucked away and the signage is very discreet so we were starting to wonder where we were being taken to. But all was well and we were delighted with the resort once we arrived.

Ras Kutani is a charming beachside resort and ideal for a few restful days after a safari. The beach is shared with a few local fishermen but there are no beach hawkers. The cottages with the best views face onto the lagoon, with the beach and sea beyond. You can't see the beach from the beach cottages as they are set back with a row of trees between them and the beach. 

There are two groups of monkeys in the resort – the quieter and more well behaved Sykes Monkeys that stay near the beach and restaurant end of the resort, and the noisy and mischievous Vervet Monkeys nearer the lagoon-facing bungalows – in fact we were often woken in the mornings by vervet monkeys either on our cottage roof, or dropping fruit onto it as they foraged in the trees above. 

Food is excellent here and drinks are reasonably priced. We had an all-inclusive package but it seemed as if that was unusual. All the staff are friendly and attentive – waiter John P especially so – and the management team all made us very welcome. Our vegetarian requirements were well catered for by all the chefs – but one in particular, Juma, went out of his way to meet our needs and is also very well aware of allergy requirements (I am intolerant of a lot of cheese). We spent our wedding anniversary there and were served a romantic dinner on the beach and then they brought a cake out to us which was very much appreciated. We had brought a bottle of champagne from Kigali airport duty free but found this hadn’t been necessary as they had KWV ‘champagne’ which was very acceptable (and at a good price).  

We had 3 nights there and found this was the perfect amount of time to wind down after all our adventure and activity.

Our journey back to the airport at Dar Es Salaam was quite stressful however, as there were visiting dignitaries who had required road closures for security reasons and this meant the already traffic-jammed roads were even more clogged up. We had to request some emergency measures from the transfer company’s office as we were concerned about missing our flight out to Nairobi to connect with the BA flight home. When we eventually arrived at the airport (after 3 hours) our driver whisked us past the queues for security to get into the terminal, and we were pleased to then find Paul waiting for us inside ready to speed us on our way through check in and passport control, so we ended up with half an hour to sit and relax while waiting for our flight. From there everything went smoothly. 

And so our trip of a lifetime, the one that we had taken so long to plan, came to an end but our memories are still very clear. 

This was by no means a cheap trip – in fact it cost more than any of our previous holidays by far - but we knew the gorilla tracking permits were a costly item, and we stayed in some fabulous places, and I gather the exchange rates didn’t go in our favour – so we think it was value for money. 

Thanks again to NWS - to Oliver (and Paul, who has since moved on) - for a wonderful trip, for their patience and diligence through the numerous (11 at final count) changes of itinerary before finally confirming the booking, and in answering all the questions we had to help us prepare ourselves appropriately.

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Comments

Arabella @ Natural World Safaris

3/3/2017 10:04 AM

Dear Jaki - A really interesting and inspirational read, thanks so much for taking the time to write such a wonderful blog, illustrated with fantastic photos. Delighted you had such an amazing time on what was clearly a trip of a life time! Thanks again for sharing. Best wishes, Arabella

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