Uganda Small Group Safari 2014

Chris Rhodes

10 Sep 2014

A Uganda Safari Review by Chris Rhodes

After a late arrival into Entebbe airport, I was very glad to see my bed at the Boma Guesthouse, just a short drive from the airport. Whilst not the best accommodation on this trip, the lodge was clean, comfortable, and the food pretty good. A hot shower was very welcome!

After a short walk out the next morning to investigate (and get some local currency), the rest of my group arrived around lunchtime. It’s always slightly nervy to meet the group for the first time, as you know you’re going to be spending lots of time in close quarters for the duration of the trip, but the mix was great, and we all got on really well. We then got to meet our guide and driver for the trip. George was so friendly and knowledgeable, he proved an invaluable companion throughout the whole trip – nothing seemed too much trouble, and I got the sense at some of the places we stayed, George was in competition to make sure we got the best local guides, the best seats on the boat trips, and the best chance to see the wildlife – he was fantastic.

That afternoon we visited the Ngamba Chimpanzee Sanctuary – an hours boat ride to the Island in the middle of Lake Victoria. A really interesting start to the trip, we got to see the Chimp’s being fed – whilst necessarily feeling a bit “zoo” like, it was great to see so many chimps together, and find out about the work the sanctuary do.

The next day was a long drive to Lake Mburo National Park – we got to know the inside of our Land Cruiser very well, but the ride was surprisingly comfortable. A short stop at the Equator crossing saw a few photos and a welcome cup of coffee, before heading on to the park. The scenery as you pass through Uganda is stunning, whilst the villages give a real sense of what life in central Africa is like – pretty basic, but some very friendly locals! We arrived at our camp around 3pm and then headed straight for a boat trip on Lake Mburo. Lots and lots of wildlife – hippo’s galore, crocs and buffalo, as well as bushbuck on the lake side. And the birdlife here was incredible – too many varieties to mention, but we got some great photo’s of the Fish Eagles keeping a close eye on us as we glided around the lake. The camp we stayed in was great – this is not tented camping I remember from my childhood. Permanent tents, with plumbed in loo’s for a start! There was some nervousness in the group about the bucket showers, but they were great, so long as you were ready when the buckets were filled!

After breakfast the next morning, another longish drive up to Bwindi – for all of us, the part of the trip we were most looking forward to. As you climb into the hills, the change in scenery is dramatic – tea plantations finally give way to thick forest vegetation – with the mist floating above the tree tops (when you see this place, it becomes obvious why the film was called “Gorillas in the mist”!). The drop in temperature is also really noticeable – getting the right gear packed for Uganda is not easy as you will have really hot days down in the plains, and some pretty damp and chilly days up in the rainforest. Most places do laundry though, so no need to go overkill on the packing. The Buhoma Lodge at Bwindi was really fantastic, with great views over the forest, and more wonderful food. The excitement for the trek the next day was palpable.

So, our first day trekking to see gorillas had finally arrived. After a hearty breakfast it was a short walk to the start of the trek, where we were briefed on the dos and don’ts, got to meet our guide for the day, and also got the opportunity to hire a porter. It may not seem necessary, but I could not recommend getting a port highly enough – it’s such an amazing boost for the locals to have the opportunity to help us on our trek – probably the best $20 I spent on the whole trip. We were going to see the Rushegura family today – a tough 2 hour trek up the side of the mountain, in quite slippery conditions, but all that was very quickly forgotten when we found ourselves right in the midst of these amazing creatures. Our first sight was of two youngsters sitting in the middle of the lush greenery, quietly chomping on the vegetation.

To be with the gorillas at such close proximity was simply breath-taking. It wasn’t long before the rest of the family emerged from the undergrowth, and before we knew it, there was a family of around a dozen gorillas busy eating, playing, grooming, and for one young female, definitely posing for the cameras too. Watching the two youngsters play fighting under the watchful eye of an older sister was really something else. At this stage we had not seen the dominant male, but suddenly he emerged too and the effect on the rest of the group was noticeable – it was very obvious who was in charge! We had been told that this family had no silverback – the previous one had sadly died about 3 months ago – and so the current patriarch was a black-back gorilla. But there was no doubt who was boss.

We were told that our time with the family would be limited to one hour – this is really important to give the gorillas as normal a life as possible. As it turned out, we probably had about an hour and twenty with them, as nobody, including the guides with us, could tear themselves away. After such an amazing experience, the energy in our group was really noticeable. We were back at camp by 2pm for a late lunch, and the chatter about our trek was non-stop.

The next morning the group split – some went to visit the local hospital, whilst I and some others joined a second gorilla trek – this time much easier – literally half an hours stroll down the road, when suddenly the silverback from the Mubare gorilla family walked out on to the road in front of us. Again, the sensation of being so close to these animals was out of this world – and this time we were seeing them in such different terrain. The rest of the family was close by, and it wasn’t long before we were following around 8 gorillas into the forest. They were swinging through the trees as we struggled to keep up through the dense vegetation. Another amazing experience.

After lunch we sadly said goodbye to Bwindi, and headed off back down the mountains to the Queen Elizabeth National Park. After a few hours in the truck we arrived at the park, and almost immediately, George got a call to say that lions had been spotted. It didn’t take us long to spot the fig tree with three other trucks surrounding it – as we approached, we were all amazed to see 5 lions asleep in the branches – we could not believe our luck. I know from my own pets at home just how lazy cats can be, but it really was something else to see these magnificent lions fast asleep in the most uncomfortable looking places!

Our home for the next two nights was Ishasha Wilderness Camp, down by the river – a beautiful setting, especially at sunset. A large fire was lit as the sun went down – the perfect spot for a pre-dinner drink.

Next day was more game driving in the QENP – we saw lots, in particular some really interesting birdlife, but the highlight of the day was probably the hyena family – mum and two babies – who were busy playing around their den.

The next day we moved to another part of the QENP, at Mweya. Here you are close to Lake Edward and the Kazinga Channel which links Edward through to Lake George. After checking into the hotel (my least favourite of the trip, but still clean and comfortable) we headed out to the Channel by boat, where again there was an abundance of wildlife: elephant, buffalo, crocodile…and more hippos than you could shake a stick at. A great trip, with another very knowledgeable guide, and lots of photos.

Some overnight rain meant that the next day’s driving, up to Kibale National Park, was a little hairy at times – many of the roads are dirt roads in this area, and we saw several vehicles stuck in the mud – we were all very thankful that day for the 4-wheel drive, and George’s expert handling!

Arriving at the Primate Lodge in Kibale, we were again high in the mountains, with a noticeable drop in temperature. This was another great lodge – individual cabins this time – but the hot water for showers was variable to say the least.

The next day was trekking to see the Chimpanzees. The terrain here is easier walking – less dense vegetation with more defined tracks to follow, and not so steep! Our guide, who again was really fantastic, had warned us that we may only see the Chimpanzees high in the trees, given the recent wet weather. For the first half hour we were straining to watch two Chimp’s at the very top of the trees, when suddenly, there were screams in the forest, and our two came down to ground level, and ran off to meet up with others – the chase was on! It wasn’t easy keeping up with the Chimpanzees – they were much more comfortable with the terrain than we were – but it was really worth it, as we got some great sightings of these wonderful animals in their natural habitat. At one point, a young male chimp decided to “perform” for one of the females – this involved him running up and down a tree trunk, and swinging through the branches, at very high speed! It was quite a performance. After an hour with the chimpanzees, it was time for a leisurely and beautiful walk back through the forest to the Primate Lodge. By this stage, there was an air of sadness amongst the group as we realised we were almost at the end of our trip.

And so to the last day – a long drive from Kibale back to Kimpala, where George gave us a city tour, and proudly showed us where he grew up, before a final drive back to Entebbe, where we all packed for the journey home.

Uganda was an amazing experience and one that will always have brilliant memories for me. The highlights had to be spending such quality time with gorillas and chimpanzees, but a safari trip that fills the gap days with amazing birdlife, tree climbing lions, baby hyenas, elephant, hippo and all the rest, tells you this place is a wildlife lover’s dream!

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