Close encounters…in Uganda
Ann Smyth travelled with her husband to Uganda in search of gorillas. After initial apprehensions were abated, they settled into a trip that saw them fall in love not only with the wildlife but also the striking scenery and charming people.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda
Veterans of several brilliant Cox & Kings wildlife-focussed trips, we were nonetheless a little anxious as we contemplated our next adventure. Now both over 70 and living an urban lifestyle, had we left it too late to undertake a trek to see gorillas in the wild?
A couple of conversations with a Cox & Kings representative for the region persuaded us otherwise. Having lived in Uganda, he exuded infectious enthusiasm for the landscape and the people as well as the primates. We signed up, unusually, to travel in July, a month our generation tends to avoid unless holidaying with grandchildren.
Just before we were due to travel, there was a small outbreak of Ebola. We were impressed by the seriousness with which Cox & Kings dealt with our request for an informed risk assessment. They and we have form on this sort of judgement; our previous last-minute conversation was about risks of travelling in Syria in spring 2011. Then, as now, we accepted their carefully considered assurances about our safety. Then we were among the last tourists to have the opportunity of a truly wonderful, safe and sadly unrepeatable visit to Syria. Now we were excited to be heading to Uganda.
From the outset it was clear this was going to be a special trip. The weather was pleasant: warm, not hot, not humid. Arriving at the Karibu Guest House in Entebbe (HQ for Experience Uganda) felt like visiting friends, so warm was the welcome. We rehearsed our itinerary and interests with Brett who provided helpful maps and introduced the trusty kamya, our driver, from whom we learned so much about this delightful country.
Karibu Guest House, Entebbe
The varied scenery was indeed beautiful. The scenic Papaya Lake Lodge, nestling among the volcanic crater lakes, was our initial base where we passed the first fitness test, ascending innumerable steps from our cottage to the main lodge, several times each day.
Normally the rainbow variety of primate species (red colobus, black-faced vervet and blue monkeys to name a few) and multitudinous bird species would star in any travel log but we were after bigger fish. Tracking chimpanzees in Kibale forest was a muddy business but, reassuringly, not a taxing hike. We were impressed by how busy, noisy and apparently untroubled the chimps were by our presence.
Chimpanzees, Kibale National Park
Our well-crafted itinerary – thank you Cox & Kings! – built up ever more exciting primate experiences. The next, in Kyambura gorge, really did bring us “up close and personal” with chimpanzees who seemed as curious about us as we were about them. This encounter evoked a different order of empathy from us compared to any sentiment we may have felt for chimps in captivity, particularly as we learned about the threats to their future in this circumscribed habitat.
So to the intimidatingly named Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and the anticipated climax of the trip: gorilla tracking! The familiar armed guards (to warn off any forest elephants we might encounter – but never did) came with porters who carried our packs and kindly heaved us up the trail when the going got steep. The effort was rewarded by the truly awe-inspiring opportunity of close observation of a gorilla family, again with that primal sense of connection.
Mountain gorillas, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
We have always been grateful to Cox & Kings for providing respectful opportunities to gain insights into other cultures. In Uganda it was inspiring to learn how one rural community has been developing its education, health and welfare facilities following a dark past of political instability and widespread HIV/AIDS. Education is not compulsory but at the primary school we visited in Bwindi the enthusiasm for learning was palpable. Conditions were spartan but they are fundraising for a kitchen to support better nutrition for children at school. We were happy to help.
Visit to St Michael’s Primary School, Bwindi
The community hospital is growing with support from International Rotary. Outreach teams cover a wide area on motorbike to bring obstetric and childcare services to remote areas. A talented nurse has introduced nurse training which is now winning distinction at national level. In a women’s centre, one lady with a passion for African prints and patchwork has transferred her skills to a collective, making and selling a range of high quality goods thus supporting aid for victims of domestic abuse.
Women making patchwork, Ride 4 a Woman charity, Buhoma Village
The Batwa have not fared so well. They were hunter gatherers in the forest, living on animals shot with poisoned arrows. They rarely harmed gorillas but in gathering berries and plants for traditional medicine were food competitors and hence were displaced from the forest in 1991 as part of the conservation project.
We were fortunate to have a guide who, as a child, had played with Batwa children on the edge of the forest and learnt their language. Thus we were able to understand something of their former culture. Opposite is a picture of my husband (5’11”) beside a chief of the Batwa.
The increased use of alcohol and drugs, the reducing life expectancy and the pervading sense of loss echoed the distress of indigenous people elsewhere who have been displaced by “development”.
Nonetheless the overwhelming memories are positive. We will forever remember this beautiful country, the captivating wildlife and the cheerful, resourceful and friendly people. Thank you, Cox & Kings, for another perfectly tailored trip of a lifetime!
Cox & Kings offers a private tour, Classic Uganda, offering the perfect introduction to the wildlife highlights of this beautiful country. Alternatively, if you are interested in a tailor-made trip, please either call one of our specialist travel consultants or complete our tailor-made request form and one of our experts will get back to you to help you plan an itinerary.