Mountain gorillas and more… Unbelievable Uganda
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to track mountain gorillas? Here, Louise Stanion gives you the chance to find out.
Few wildlife-spotting experiences are comparable to tracking mountain gorillas. With movement, behaviour and physical characteristics that at times seem unbelievably close to our own, this endangered species is a joy to see living in the wild. Due to how few mountain gorillas are left across the entire planet, Uganda ranks as one of the very best places to see them; indeed, it houses approximately half of the world's population.
Incredibly, this is concentrated in just one of Uganda's 20 nature parks and reserves – Bwindi National Park. The rarity of both the animal and the experience make mountain gorillas the best-known reason to visit Uganda, but Cox & Kings' Louise Stanion explains there is so much more to see while you're here.
She shares her love of Uganda, its wealth of natural attractions and its astonishing array of wildlife today, as well as offering her expert insight into where to go, what to see, how to have the best experience – and what tracking mountain gorillas is really like.
Meeting mountain gorillas in Bwindi National Park
"There's only one place in Uganda to see the mountain gorilla, and that's Bwindi National Park," Louise begins. This Unesco World Heritage Site is situated in the west of the country on the edge of the Great Rift Valley. Remarkably, with its approximately 320 mountain gorillas, it is home to roughly half the species's entire population.
The park has four main gorilla tracking areas: Buhoma, Ruhija, Rushaga and Nkuringo. Home to the bulk of the park's accommodation and certainly the easiest from which to track mountain gorillas, Buhoma is the focal point. This section of the reserve houses three habituated gorilla groups (meaning they are comfortable with human proximity).
Explaining how the tracking works, Louise notes that you usually go out in groups of approximately eight tourists, trekking for between one and six hours to find the mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. What's particularly exciting is that is that all visits are unique.
"It's very variable what kind of sighting you're going to get. You can't tell. Sometimes the group is moving through the forest, so you follow them as they move. And sometimes they're just in one place. Sometimes you're in a bit of a clearing, which is really good for photography, and sometimes you're underneath the forest canopy, so it can be quite dark," enthused Louise, explaining that groups will usually have one silverback male, and a number of females and babies.
Spending time with the gorillas
You are allowed to stay with the gorillas, watching them play, eat, swing through the trees or simply sit for an hour – an unforgettable and moving experience. Of course, actually getting to them is something of an experience in itself, involving treks through dense rainforest. Louise reveals that while for the most part you will travel along paths, these tend to undulate and be quite uneven underfoot. In some instances, your scout may need to forge a fresh path through the foliage using a machete, imbuing the experience with an even more adventurous hue.
Fitness and mobility
Louise also notes that you can discuss your level of fitness and mobility with the park headquarters, so they can place you on the most appropriate trek. Indeed, she added that provided they have sufficient notice of special conditions, such as wheelchair use, they can accommodate virtually anyone, making the rare and wonderful experience of gorilla trekking tremendously accessible.
You will find a similar flexibility awaits you when it comes to accommodation. Buhoma offers everything from four and five-star lodges to tented camps, so you can select something that best suits you. Wherever you decide to stay, don't forget that there is more to see here than mountain gorillas alone. The park's boundaries have more than 100 species of mammal and over 300 birds species within them, including Albertine Rift endemics, which can only be found in this particular part of Uganda.
Other national parks and wildlife
Part of what makes Uganda such a wonderful place for wildlife spotting is its incredible array of national parks and reserves, which shelter an even greater array of animals; everything from baboons and buffalos to giraffes and antelope can be seen in this exciting country.
Murchison Falls National Park
Commenting that it stands out from the crowd for its mix of landscape and wildlife, Louise enthuses about Murchison Falls National Park, which is further into Uganda's interior. Situated along the Great Rift Valley, it is perhaps most remarkable for being home to the spectacular shoebill – an aptly named 2 ft tall bird with a vast bill that really does resemble the sole of a shoe.
Seeing this remarkable creature is a real highlight for any twitcher. The best time of year to spot them is January to March, when the dry season will draw them to the river. Incidentally, a boat trip along the river will take you to the park's other main attraction – the Murchison Falls. This spectacular waterfall is where the Nile is squeezed through an 8 metre wide gorge and then thunders down into the wonderfully named Devil's Cauldron. As you glide up the river on your way to great it, you will have the chance to see hippos, giraffes, buffalos and a wide variety of aquatic birds.
Sharing her own experience of doing so, Louise says: "Our boat got stuck on a rock, and we were just sat there chatting when we looked up and there was this shoebill just sitting on the rock – it was just amazing. Nobody had seen it because we'd been looking for hippo!"
Queen Elizabeth National Park
Home to some 600 species of bird, Queen Elizabeth National Park is somewhat flooded with winged creatures – including the distinctive shoebill. Owing to its variety of habitats, which include woodland, forest and water, there is much else to see here too, including hippos, buffalos and even hard-to-spot tree-climbing lions.
Kibale National Park and Kidepo Valley National Park
Also cited by Louise as standing out from the crowd are Kibale National Park and Kidepo Valley National Park. The former is celebrated for its 13 species of primates, while the latter is the best place to go for spotting big game. Although very different, Kidepo is the nearest Uganda gets to the big game of Kenya’s Masai Mara.
Immensely isolated, Kidepo Valley National Park can only be reached by plane, and has just one lodge available. So, when visiting here you will see barely any other vehicles, and an incredible amount of wildlife, including buffalo, elephants, lions, cheetahs and warthogs.
Expert advice: Drive if you can
When asked if she has any tips for wildlife spotting in Uganda, Louise comments that all the usual advice applies – such as bring your own pair of binoculars and pack a fleece for early morning and evening game drives. What she recommends particularly for Uganda, though, is driving rather than travelling by internal flights.
Explaining that internal flights can be useful if you're short of time, she adds that driving gives you the chance to experience the country's culture – simply by the nature of it. Simple, everyday activities such as stopping to buy drinks from the locals offer the best chance of breaking through the tourist layer to experience real Uganda.
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