Uganda – Africa’s true Eden
Primate playground in the pearl of Africa
If ever there was an African Eden, it is Uganda. A place of vastness and extreme natural beauty, with genteel people and rare wildlife, this is Africa’s garden of the gods.
By Keri Harvey
Every day Prossy Bagabirwe plays hide-and-seek in Kibale Forest. That’s what it feels like to her, because to her being a chimpanzee trekking guide is not work – its pure enjoyment. “The forest draws me back each day,” she says, “because it’s different and magical. I never get tired, even after trekking all day.”
Yesterday we drove 10 hours and 440km from Murchison Falls National Park in western Uganda to Kibale National Park further south. It was an all-day affair over rough red sand roads lined with banana trees and locals in their finery making their way to church. We crested the Rift Valley and met a man repairing his bicycle’s puncture on the very rim of the Rift; his cargo of sticks neatly stacked beside him. Another bicycle passed carrying a goat in a bag, and a motorbike with lady passenger riding side saddle and dressed to the nines
Late afternoon we arrived in Kibale, welcomed by clouds of tiny brown butterflies. The Kibale Forest National Park is 795km² and with 13 species of primate has the greatest primate variety and density in all of East Africa. Here there are also 375 different birds, 250 butterfly species and 21 species of snake. Plus there are about 500 elusive forest dwelling elephant, plus the reason are here: 1 450 chimpanzees living in 13 different territories across this mountain rainforest.
We fall asleep, in our tented rooms set in forest clearings, to the sound of noisy tree frogs. They seem to be imitating cell phone ringtones as loudly as possible. A beeping alarm clock beckons us to awake and kit up for an experience we’ll never forget: meeting wild chimpanzees deep in Kibale forest. Expectations are high because there’s a 90% chance of finding chimps here. While they nest in different places every night, they remain in their territories so we need to be in the forest early before they start moving around. Once they’re in action, keeping up with the chimps as they leapfrog through the forest canopy is difficult.
“Please tuck your pants into your socks, so you don’t do the forest dance without music,” smiles the lithe and softly spoken Prossy, as she gives the trekking briefing at the edge of the forest, “because there are red ants here and they bite. Also remember to stay at least eight metres from the chimps and don’t try to imitate their communication. When they talk we stay quiet and listen, because they have their own language. And if you see a snake, just let it pass. It will look back with a smile.”
“If we’re all ready, we can go,” says Prossy. Our group of six is kitted and everyone is wearing serious hiking boots, while Prossy leads our pack nimbly across the forest undergrowth in gum boots. It’s cool and humid as we ascend into the forest, under a dense canopy of dappled green. We walk, crunching leaves and holding onto trees as we hike up and down hills for an hour, stopping every so often to regroup. “The quieter we are, the more we will hear,” says Prossy as she walks, sans a single bead of sweat. “The chimps are moving fast so lets try to keep up with them.”
Hiking is slippery and beautiful. Spindly mushrooms sprout from crumbling logs and frilly fungus adds splashes of colour on the forest floor. Chimps are calling in the tree tops. Prossy stops to listen and adjusts our direction a little. “They’re close,” she whispers, “prepare to meet our charismatic cousins.” Chimps are 98.4% our DNA; gorillas are 98.2% the same as us, which is a little unnerving to think about. Prossy stops and points to the top of the forest canopy. High above us sits a chimp, quietly, with his bum on a branch. It’s our first chimp sighting. Not gracious, but comical.
Quickly there’re chimps bouncing across the tree tops, cavorting and chattering in chimp. Then it’s quiet again. We walk on as trees rustle above. Bam. A chimp lands on the ground near the group and startles us all, and others follow to play and tumble in the leaves. They’re wildly charismatic and mischievous, like naughty kids out on a play date. We watch in silence. Cameras click, but mostly the group keeps a fixed gaze and seems to be absorbing the enormity of the moment, the rareness of the occasion and the unmistakable likeness of being. “They’re just so much like us,” murmers Prossy, “you can’t help being captivated.”
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is 230km away and a completely different world of dense and ancient forest. There are over 200 species of tree here, along with a huge variety of natural life that is difficult to get your head around – 350 bird species; 310 butterfly types; 88 different moths; 51 species of reptiles and 120 different mammals. To get there is also along a red sand road that winds past magnificent still life crater lakes and the moody Rwenzori Mountains in the west – where Uganda’s highest peak resides. Later in the day we later weave through rolling tea plantations, passing bicycles piled high with green bananas for market day. Most impressive in Uganda is that wherever you travel – city, village or countryside – it’s litter free. There can be no cleaner, greener country to visit in Africa. Arriving in Bwindi is no different.
This is home to endangered mountain gorillas and half of the world’s population of about 700 live here. The rest are split between the Virunga National Park in the DRC, Parc National des Volcans in Rwanda and tiny Mgahinga National Park in Uganda. Bwindi is also the historical home of the Batwa pygmies, who in 1992 vacated their historical forest home and left it for the gorillas. This because living in close proximity to gorillas could spread disease – like the common cold – to gorillas which don’t have the immunity to fight it.
Trekking gorillas in Bwindi is tough – literally uphill – unless you are allocated to a particular group that lives around the foothills, but that still requires good walking fitness. The forest is dense, hence its impenetrable moniker, but the physical effort and exhaustion is definitely worth it. Looking into the chocolate eyes of a massive mountain gorilla is a moving experience, like recognising a kindred spirit. They’re just so much like us, and not.
Yet, as with the chimps, there’s the distinct sense of wondering who is really watching whom. Of course gorillas and chimps are not playing a game of hide and seek for trekkers, but simply going about their lives. Just wanting to survive and thrive. In Uganda they are doing just that, supported by dedicated guides and conservationists who work with pure passion and tireless commitment. “I learn so much from being in the forest every day,” says Prossy. “It settles and frees my mind and reminds me of how fragile life is. The forest is my teacher. I really don’t want to be anywhere else.”
“For magnificence, for variety of form and colour, for profusion of brilliant life – bird, insect, reptile, beast – for vast scale – Uganda is truly the ‘Pearl of Africa’.” – Winston Churchill, My African Journey (1908)
Best time to visit: Uganda is on the equator and bordered by Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, the DRC and South Sudan. Weather is warm all year but cooler in the rainy seasons of April and May and November to mid-January.
Best times for trekking chimps and gorillas: the dry season from June to August, and January and February. For birding, visit February to May and September to November. Uganda has over 1000 species, more than any other country in Africa.
Getting there: SAA flies direct from Johannesburg to Entebbe. Entebbe is 37km from the capital Kampala
Visas: $100 on arrival at Entebbe for South African passport holders.
Land arrangements: Premier Safaris arranges superb itineraries and photographic safaris. They are very well established and thoroughly professional. See www.premiersafaris.com or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Accommodation: Marasa Africa offers excellent accommodation and proximity to wildlife across five lodges within National Parks in Uganda – most other accommodation is outside the national park borders. See: www.marasa.net; email: email@example.com
Credit card usefulness is limited, so bring cash and exchange into Ugandan Shillings
Road travel conditions – mostly red sand roads through the western safari circuit of Uganda.
General safety – people walking long the roads with pangas are simply heading to work in their food gardens. No reason to panic; Uganda is far safer than South Africa.
Primates to see in Kibale National Park:
- Vervet monkey
- Red colobus monkey
- Black and white colobus monkey
- L’Hoest’s monkey
- Blue monkey
- Olive baboon
- Grey cheeked monkey
- Red-tailed monkey