Uganda... moving mountains
Uganda is a country of astonishing natural beauty emerging from years of political turmoil. Telegraph Africa & safari expert Richard Madden reflects on its miraculous transformation.
Lioness sleeping in a treeAlthough political thunder clouds were in the air, my memories of that summer have never dimmed. For a month of my stay, I joined a group of sixth-formers from the local school travelling around the country in the back of a four-ton truck. Our route covered all the highlights in the west of the country including Murchison Falls, the largest of Uganda's 14 national parks; the Rwenzori mountains, the highest mountain range in Africa; Queen Elizabeth National Park, home of the legendary tree-climbing lions; and finally the mountainous region around Kabale and Kisoro on the border with Rwanda. In those days, Murchison Falls was one of the most wildlife-packed parks in Africa. I remember clinging to the sides of the truck with my new Ugandan friends, mesmerised by the sight of huge herds of elephants, zebras, giraffes and antelope of every shape and size, and then taking a motorboat cruise along the Nile surrounded by hippos and crocs while buffaloes stared moodily at us from the banks. I still have a photograph of myself beaming like a Belisha beacon on the banks of the Nile with a hippo basking in the water just a few feet away. I'm not sure I'd be so brave (or foolhardy!) to do that now.
Murchison FallsThis was also my first view of one of Uganda's great natural spectacles, Murchison Falls, where the Nile is forced through a 25-ft-wide gap in the rocks and cascades with a thundering roar into the appropriately named 'Devil's Cauldron' creating its signature rainbow, which hangs day and night over the river below. I have returned to Uganda three times in the last 10 years and each time the parks take a giant leap back to their former glory after the devastation that followed the Amin years. On one visit to the Kibale Forest in the south-west I joined a chimpanzee habituation project run by the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI). Kibale's 770 square kilometres of tropical forest is home to one of the highest concentration of primates in Africa. I had the opportunity of spending 10 days studying the chimps at close quarters while working alongside the project team. As well as acclimatising the chimps to human proximity and the visits of small groups of tourists, which brings in much-needed funds for wildlife conservation, we also observed and recorded their behaviour. Our daily routine included making notes on their activities over set time periods, recording everything from feeding, grooming and playing to fighting and copulating.
Chimp family in Kibali forestWhile working with the scientists, I was lucky enough to observe a mother with a baby less than a day old, a very rare sighting, as well as a group of male chimps 'buttress-banging', an aggressive display designed to demarcate their territory from neighbouring chimp groups. Crouching low with their fur standing on end and standing in an aggressive bipedal posture, they smacked their hands repeatedly against the buttress roots of the huge rainforest trees producing a sound like a tom-tom.
This unforgettable experience was followed by a visit to the chimpanzee orphanage on Ngamba island in Lake Victoria. While organisations like JGI are working hard to prevent the extinction of chimpanzees in the wild, large numbers are still being killed for bushmeat, sold as pets or captured for circuses. Their surviving orphans would be unable to survive in the wild were it not for the work of the Ngamba Sanctuary. I was also lucky enough to go gorilla trekking in Bwindi forest further south near the border with Rwanda. As with the chimpanzees, there is an element of luck with gorilla trekking, depending on the weather and the season. On some days a half-hour trek in benign conditions will result in a wonderful sighting, on others five hours in torrential rain will produce nothing. We were lucky enough to join a group (max 8) who struck lucky; the sight of a giant 35-stone silverback gorilla cradling his two babies will remain with me for life. Straddling the equator between the Kibale and Bwindi forests is Queen Elizabeth National Park. The long grasses of its savanna landscapes mean that wildlife-spotting can be difficult and safari vehicles are not allowed to venture off-road. Nevertheless, we had an excellent viewing of its renowned tree-climbing lions lolling lazily in the branches of a huge fig tree in the Ishasha sector in the south-west of the park.
“ ...the sight of a giant 35-stone silverback gorilla cradling his two babies will remain with me for life. ”
Gorilla looking upwardsI made some wonderful friends on that memorable journey around Uganda all those years ago and actually succeeded in tracking down some of my fellow travellers when I last visited the country. In the 35 years since I had last seen him, one had risen from being the amiable joker of the group to a much-respected vicar in his local community while another had become a nurse in the local hospital. It was a heart.warming reunion and a reminder of the indomitable spirit of the amazing people who live in this remarkable country. Cox & Kings can organise a tailor-made holiday to Uganda, including the Queen Elizabeth National Park. To find out more, speak to one of our Africa experts.
Elephants in Queen Elizabeth national parkShare: