Gorillas are Uganda’s biggest drawcard, but stay longer and this underrated East African country reveals a whole hand of extraordinary species.
The aptly named Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park is home to half of the world’s population of mountain gorillas. Kitted up in long trousers, socks pulled up over the hems to prevent biting ants from getting in, we set off to find them.
Eight of us fall into line behind Katungi Said, our machete-wielding Uganda Wildlife Authority guide. It is named “impenetrable” for a good reason, and we wear gardening gloves too as protection against the fine needle-like coverings of forest ferns.
It can take anything from 25 minutes to five hard hours to find a gorilla family. What nobody admits though about an encounter with these shaggy-haired primates is their tendency to pass wind.
Fortune favours us, and a short half an hour into the tracking, there she sits. A female gorilla totally unobstructed in the middle of the trail.
It is the reverent scene I had always imagined. Her coffee-coloured eyes match the dirt, and she gazes calmly over her shoulder at us, while pulling foliage from the shrubs that cushion her seat. Without a flicker of bother, she let rip. Ninety-eight percent human, alright.
To be honest, it was a relief when the gorilla farted. There is something downright peculiar about a creature that is so startlingly human and simultaneously so very exotic. That release of noisy gas levelled the genetic playing field.
In 1981, environmentalists estimated that just 240 mountain gorillas roamed wild in the world. “They have just finished a census, and we are waiting for final stats to be released,” Said says. A guide for over seven years and tracking them four times a week, he reckons there are about 400 gorillas currently in Bwindi.
“Coming here plays a big role in conservation. Twenty percent of the permit fee is deducted and distributed to communities around the forest. You should count yourselves lucky – and don’t tell everyone it was so easy!”
Supporting Bwindi’s Surrounding Communities
Among East African forests, Bwindi is one of the most diverse, boasting more than 100 types of ferns, and over 200 tree species. This forest alone makes up more than 50 percent of Uganda’s total tree varieties.
It would be irresponsible though not to mention the other forest inhabitants that once lived amongst these trees. Before Bwindi National Park was gazetted and protected, it was home to the Batwa tribe.
The “pygmy” people were forced from the forests in 1991 without any land compensation, becoming conservation refugees and squatters on the fringes.
The best way to support Bwindi’s surrounding communities? Hire a porter on your gorilla trek (an inexpensive $15 fee) to aid you through the slippery, chocolate–ice–cream mud of the rainforest.
Unexpected Wildlife Sightings
Trees became an ongoing theme during this trip. Our next arboreal address was Kibale National Park, but Queen Elizabeth National Park provided a fitting overnight stop on the way.
The park is a classic big game-viewing destination, but with one animal anomaly thrown in. The southern section, Ishasha, is renowned for its population of tree-climbing lions.
I had anticipated the riveting mountain views of Uganda, and dazzling lakes of the Great Rift Valley, but not the excellent wildlife sightings – and without any crowds to boot. The only car is the one we are travelling with, and our timing is terrific as lions tend to take to the trees during the heat of the midday.
Kiwanuka Joseph (my guide from Crystal Safaris) and I dig into a memorable packed lunch while watching a pride lazing on fat fig tree limbs. Later, Joseph locates Uganda’s national bird, the regal grey crowned crane.
There are also elephant bulls with long tusks, buffalo herds, bee-eaters, giant forest hogs, as well as topi and kob antelope grazing the savannah plains, peppered by an unmistakable safari icon, umbrella acacia trees.
Following an evening at Ishasha Wilderness Camp, we forge on towards Fort Portal, a town roughly 300 kilometres away from Uganda’s capital, Kampala. Crater Safari Lodge is surrounded by a series of curious lakes formed over 8 000 years ago, and it overlooks the second-largest lake of its kind. However, visitors are not here for water.
We hear the troop before we see them, whooping eerily from high above in the canopy. There are five kinds of chimps in the world, and Kibale National Park is home to the Eastern chimpanzee, plus 350 tree species, some of which rise over 55 metres high.
I regret not bringing binoculars. Craning my neck back, I follow the dark, furry lumps as they forage for figs in the early morning. We try to dodge their droppings too, but one of our walking party isn’t so lucky. Chimp-trekking is the more affordable ape alternative at $150 per person, but it is no less exhilarating than seeing the gorillas.
Heeding the advice of our guide Kwatampola Benson, I sit on a fallen log as the chimps holler and hover above us. Benson is an advocate of the universal law: what goes up, eventually has to come down. Patience pays off. One by one, the apes drop down, and we follow the last male as he moves swiftly through the dark undergrowth.
Part of The Animal Kingdom
Chimpanzees share almost 99% of our DNA. They are the most abundant and widespread of the great apes, but they are still classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List. “Kibale has the greatest variety of primates on the planet,” Benson says.
Including us, I think as we crouch on our haunches beside the chimpanzee. The creature stops to feast on the forest abundance, in a way that once upon a time, we probably did too.
Even though the bigger gorillas tend to trend on the international travel scene, I can’t help but agree with primatologist Dr Jane Goodall when she said, “the more I came to learn about chimpanzees, the more I came to realise how like us they are… Finally, we realise we are a part of the animal kingdom, not separate from it.”
After all, the apple does not fall far from the tree.
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Word by Melanie van Zyl