Uganda... moving mountains

| January 2, 2018

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.

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, Uganda

It was 1972 and I was just 16 when I first travelled to Uganda. My half-brother, Bob, was working there and I had been given the opportunity to fly out and join him for the summer holidays. It was my first ever trip abroad, my first ever plane ride. I had never even been to continental Europe. On my first evening as we checked into the Speke Hotel in Kampala, I enquired rather boisterously about the identity of the man in military uniform whose photograph hung so prominently above the reception desk. Bob quickly ushered me to one side and advised me that it was best not to discuss such things in public.

A few weeks later I joined the cheering crowds when that same man, General Idi Amin Dada, made an official visit to his
home town of Arua in the north-west of the country where Bob was based. The sense of excitement as that dusty cavalcade of black limousines swept into town, rifle-toting soldiers riding shotgun on the accompanying jeeps, has never left me.I still have the shirt I was wearing that day. A museum piece of dictator-trash at its best, it is emblazoned with propaganda pictures and images of the cheering crowds at his take-over in a military coup. At its centre is a photograph identical to the one hanging in the Speke Hotel. On sale on every street corner, it was the garment of choice that day as the whole town was swept up in the general euphoria.

Lioness sleeping in a tree, Uganda

Lioness sleeping in a tree

Although 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 Falls, Uganda

Murchison Falls

This 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

Chimp family in Kibali forest

While 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.

“ ...the sight of a giant 35-stone silverback gorilla cradling his two babies will remain with me for life. ” 

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.

Gorilla looking upwards

Gorilla looking upwards

I 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 park

Elephants in Queen Elizabeth national park

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One thought on "Uganda… moving mountains"

  1. alfred wasike says:

    very very well written…