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Wildlife experiences you won’t want to miss on a trip to Uganda

Of all the many different vacations you can take on this huge planet, an African wildlife viewing safari should be high on your bucket list, and Uganda promises nothing less than the rarest wildlife experiences. If you’ve travelled extensively and are a passionate traveller, it is hard to imagine that you wouldn’t enjoy a wildlife experience in Uganda – even those who might not think it is for them. A wildlife experience in Uganda is so gratifying and stunning. It connects you back to the natural world that everyone should experience – that once-in-a-lifetime journey you could have every year for the rest of your life.

Unlike a castle, ruin or museum, Uganda offers living experiences full of living things. Every single day on your trip will be different. You will see plenty of primates, elephants, giraffes and lions, but you may have to visit more than once to see and really enjoy a leopard or cheetah, or gorilla. Uganda gives you the wildlife experience in forests, savannahs and mountains, which is rare in most wildlife destinations.

Besides the natural beauty and unimaginable majesty of nature, Uganda’s safari travel infrastructure is superb. Some of the most luxurious safari lodges straddle the outskirts of rainforest and savannah destinations. The best lodges have great services, and excellent safari guides, and lead trips in uncrowded national parks. The entire wildlife experience in Uganda is educational, entertaining, and a non-stop thrill ride, yet extremely relaxing.

If you are planning a wildlife vacation in Uganda, here are two of the most gratifying experiences you must include on your itinerary.

Locking eyes with a giant silverback in the misty mountain rainforests of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

Travellers that have been fortunate enough to visit wild mountain gorillas in southwestern Uganda’s forested mountains speak of it as a profound, almost ethereal, experience. Something in their expressions speaks to the heart of what it means to be a sentient being. It is even more meaningful knowing that such visits significantly contribute to the well-being of these majestic animals.

Unlike Rwanda and DRC, the other two countries with mountain gorillas, Uganda has two national parks harbouring more than half of the last endangered mountain gorillas on Earth. Mgahinga National Park, located on the tri-border with DRC and Rwanda, shares habitat with Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park and DRC’s Virunga National Park. The tiny park protects the slopes of three dormant volcanos, making it a popular destination for day hikes through incredible vegetation with a wildlife spectacle. Although the scenery is quite fascinating, the most endearing adventure that would bring you to Mgahinga is watching the endangered giant apes and cute little golden monkeys.

The outstanding Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is the best place to visit the mountain gorillas in Uganda’s wilderness. With the largest population of mountain gorillas, Bwindi offers four park entrances with some of the most affordable and luxurious safari lodges, making the gorilla trekking experience accessible to more travellers.

For the gorilla trekking experience, you must book a trekking permit before you go and book at least two nights in a safari lodge outside the park. Gorilla permits can be scarce and tricky to procure, especially during the peak summer season of June to August. So book with a trustworthy and vetted tour operator to make planning easier for you.

Mountain rainforests, where gorillas live, are steep and have a high altitude of about 8,000 to 13,000 feet – undoubtedly something to consider. However, it’s not a technical climb, so most visitors don’t need help. You may feel shortness of breath, but you can take a local porter to help you, and the guides take you slow and steady. You’ll find it easier when you prepare your body for the toughness before you go. But no matter how much you sweat, how much muscle you stretch, how many tears you shed, the minute you lock eyes with the Silverback, it’s worth every moment.


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Visitors convene at the visitor centre in small groups of eight tourists for each habituated gorilla family and are guided into the forest by a local expert tracker and two armed rangers.

And once you get in the same area as the gorillas, you will see footprints and broken branches; the guides will ask you to take off your bags and leave anything back, and that’s when the nerves kick in because you know that the giant beasts are nearby. At first, you may not trust your eyesight seeing these huge, black, and furry bodies against the greenery. Your first glimpse may be a face half in shadow. You walk towards them cautiously. You may hear something behind you, turn around, and see a juvenile gorilla walk past. As you become familiar with your surroundings, you realise they are everywhere around you – in front of you, beside you or a couple of them in the trees above you.

They’re very much like us. They live in family groups, and they kind of worry about the same things. They are emotional beings. A dominant Silverback, the leader, ensures the group is kept safe and well-fed. Everyone in the group follows him. The females keep the babies and the newborns near them, ensuring their safety. You’ll see Blackbacks, who haven’t quite reached the maturity of the Silverbacks, usually showing off like teenagers, unsettled, playing ruff and tumble. And then, of course, the most adorable babies and toddlers, taking their first tentative steps and falling over, doing somersaults and climbing on the backs of their patient Silverback fathers.

The gorillas may come to you, but you have to be sensible. The rule is to stay about 10 metres (33 feet) from a gorilla. But expect the gorillas to stand close to you. They can be at a safe distance, and suddenly, the Silverback will brush past you and step on your boots. There is a lot you can do to stay safe. But to see a Silverback walk past you, it’s mesmerising and heart-stopping.

This incredible experience is crammed into 60 minutes; that’s the thrill of the experience — that it could end anytime while you are still engrossed in the wilderness charm. And you keep your eyes open, and the more carefully you look, the more you see. Sixty minutes will go by in a heartbeat, and before you know it, you’ll be back at your lodge looking down into the forest canopy wishing to return to the wilderness.

Walking with a troop of wild chimpanzees in Kibale Forest

Imagine walking in an African tropical forest with hundreds of hyper-active chimpanzees swinging in the treetops above you and others walking a few feet right next to you. It is one of the most thrilling wildlife experiences in Africa that few travellers experience. And it costs a fraction compared to tracking gorillas in the mountains.

There are about 300,000 chimpanzees left in the equatorial forests of Africa, and about 5,000 find blissful refuge in Uganda’s rainforests. The best natural habitat where you can watch wild chimpanzee troops at close distance is Kibale Forest National Park in western Uganda, where some troops have been habituated for tourism and are within easy walking distance.

We all know that chimpanzees are our closest genetic family – sharing around 98% of our DNA and human-like behaviour that has attracted scientists to study them more than any other animal. Celebrated primatologist Dr Jane Goodall first observed their astonishing human-like behaviour in the 1960s when she lived with a community of chimps in Tanazania’s Gombe National Park. She then proved that chimpanzees hunt, forage and use tools — ideas that were completely unknown about these creatures. Her fascination with the great apes is within us; that’s why we are drawn to venture into their habitats to watch them.

By spending time with the chimps, Goodall eventually taught them to accept her presence in their troops – a process known as habituation which is fantastic for scientists and opens up opportunities for ordinary visitors to come almost within touching distance of these great apes.

Chimpanzee tracking excursions in Kibale occur in the mornings and afternoons. They typically last 3-4 hours, with up to one hour spent with the chimps, following or observing them. Each visitor must have booked a tracking permit with the Uganda Wildlife Authority, which costs US$200 per person and allows one hour with the chimps.

If you need more than an hour for a riveting experience, join the habituation experience with primatologists and rangers. You’ll spend an entire day (US$250) following a chimpanzee community undergoing the two-year habituation process. However, you must be prepared for a fair bit of brisk walking – chimps can move fast.

The chimp adventure starts with a briefing, during which you’ll learn a little about the apes you’re about to see and be given a few must-follow rules. Once briefed, you’re separated into groups of up to eight, each accompanied by a guide and armed ranger, and you head into the forest.

Pushing through the tangled undergrowth, ducking under low branches and watching your step for twisted roots, you’ll hike in the direction of where the animals were last seen, all the time listening for their cries in the trees above. With some luck, you’ll soon hear them: that harsh, high-pitched screeching that rises and then fades away again as the family members call to one another. It’s an eerie, thrilling sound that you know means you’re about to meet the stars of the show. As you follow the direction of the racket, you should soon find one of the family’s sub-groups. They may be high up in the treetops, feasting on figs, grooming or playing. But if you’re lucky, some will have come down to the ground, and that’s when the real magic happens.

No matter how prepared you are, nothing beats that first up-close chimpanzee experience. That intense buzz of being no more than a few feet away from these bonkers wild creatures. The thrill of seeing how intelligent they are, with their poses, expressions and interactions that could be almost human. The way they look right at you with their bright eyes and even pose for your camera; you may wonder if they’re enjoying the interaction even more than you are.

Book a safari lodge outside the park as your base for the chimpanzee experience. There are a fair number of luxury lodges with incredible views across the crater lake region and the rainforest to make your stay quite memorable.

How to organise your once-in-a-lifetime trip

Uganda has a lot of good safari travel specialists who can, without doubt, organise for you an incredible safari experience on the entire journey from planning to your last goodbye. Through the AUTO or UTB website, you can find a licensed company with full-time staff, offices and local guides to help you plan your unforgettable journey. Ultimately, they have all the insider connections to ensure a great experience. They will book your permits too, and take care of all the nitty gritty for the price of the package.

The best time to explore Uganda’s primates is during the summer peak months of June to September, but be aware that the availability of the best accommodation and gorilla permits is scarce during the Summer peak season. So book your Uganda safari months in advance – at least 6-12 months in advance.

Lydia Eva Mpanga is CEO & Founder of Nkuringo Safaris. Nkuringo Safaris has been in business since 2007, offering bespoke sustainable, innovative, private wildlife safaris in Uganda and Rwanda.

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  1. Whenever I see images like these from the mountain gorillas I become reminiscent of my trip to Virunga DRC where I saw these giants in their natural habitat. It’s such a humbling experience to see these creatures going about their daily life.
    If I’m honest I would like to visit them again in both Uganda and Rwanda, to see if there are any differences in the way they are approached and if meeting them again will give me the same sensation as I had the first time.
    I guess there’s only one way to find out…

    1. The sensation of watching these gentle giants is new every time I head into those misty jungles. I don’t think you can ever exhaust the experience. Kristof, you should go again and again.

  2. Visiting gorillas is the one remaining item on my wife’s travel bucket list. It’s not so much a matter of if we do it but where. Thanks for some very helpful info here.

    1. Jack, it’s indeed a bucket list experience you won’t regret having. There are 3 places you can watch the gorillas, but the choice of where comes down to the logistics of planning your trip and how much more you want to squeeze in the same trip. Uganda offers you more options, especially if you want to see the chimps, connect with the local cultures, and do a safari game drive; plus, you get incredible landscape views in gorilla forest lodges. Rwanda gives you the splurge-kind of travel experience in their exotic brands of forest lodges. DRC is not much of an argument, but I can say it is for the deep rural adventurer with no boundaries. However, the experience you get sitting a few meters from a silverback is the same no matter where you go. You will want to tick this off your bucket list several times.

  3. You make the point about Dr Diane Goodall’s groundbreaking discoveries but I can’t help wondering about how much more we’re yet to learn about these all fascinating species?

    1. How can they be so alike – yet so different? There is so much more these fascinating great apes have to teach us, and I believe scientists will push research to the edge with the backbone of conservation.

  4. You say that these gorillas are so
    much like humans in many ways. The thing is that they look a lot calmer than many of the humans I mix with.

    1. Ha ha ha, Fiona, that cracked me up. Yes, the mountain gorillas have a very calm demeanor that would make you want to abandon your tribe and move in with them. It is unfortunate that Hollywood initially implanted in us a shoddy picture. For us who live near them, we are incredibly lucky to rub on that calmness every time we take visitors to observe the gentle giants in their mountain jungles.

  5. Let’s say the permit is an exclusive ticket you must have to start planning your trip. They are a limited number on sale – say in a day there are about 160 permits in Uganda and less than 100 in Rwanda. From my tour company’s experience booking permits, you can’t just walk in and buy one. Also, the permit will have the trekking location, which will determine where you book your lodge because you must have slept near the visitor center to join the early morning trek. Plus, the date on the permit will help you plan your itinerary and flight. So yeah, book it first and in advance.

  6. As my surgeon told me, there’s not much holding my knees together. Climbing isn’t a problem, it’s the coming down that’s difficult.

    But somebody told me that there are times of the year when the gorillas can be found at lower levels. Is there any truth in that?

    1. Yes, Tom. Sometimes they come down and forage near the villages. We can’t accurately tell in advance when they’ll come down, but it usually happens in the rainy months of March to May when it’s too cold in the higher parts, and there’s enough to forage in the lower slopes. Also, you could hire porters to carry you on a stretcher locals call the African Helicopter. Usually, physically challenged people use this to reach the gorillas. You can see the gorillas, Tom.

    2. The truth is that these are Mountain Gorillas – there will always be walking and hiking involved. However, Uganda has 4 sectors where you can track Mountain Gorillas, each with several families. Among the families, there are easy ones to trek – which has nothing to do with the season. For example, in Buhoma, we have the Rushegura group – which is relatively easy to trek. Some visitors have seen gorillas just behind the Gorilla Forest Camp, and in Nkuringo, south of Bwindi, where we operate an eco-lodge. Rushaga sector, also in the south, has over 6 gorilla families, and 2 families forage in the lower areas – this is where we recommend visitors with knee problems or walking difficulties. Nonetheless, we highly recommend you take a porter. Porters are a local support team for Gorilla trekking; they will give you a hand up or support you whenever you need them to, and above all, it’s Fairtrade as they make a living from providing support to the trekkers.

      However, the local Africa Helicopter service is available for rescue for those who fail to walk back. The copter is four porters carrying you on a stretcher bed. Its concept is copied from village ambulances used by communities to carry the sick to hospitals. It’s more like traveling like a medieval king, although the fees go directly to supporting the poor communities. In my travel company, we provide guests with walking ticks which help to support your weight on the leg.

  7. Walking with chimpanzees in Kibale Forest sounds absolutely amazing! Have you ever had the chance to do it? I’m curious, with the growing popularity of wildlife tourism, how can we ensure that such experiences remain sustainable and respectful towards the chimpanzees’ natural habitat and behavior?

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