Uganda had been high on my list of to-do countries, for one main reason – to see mountain gorillas in the wild. The total population of these majestic animals was hit hard by a number of human factors, including loss of habitat, disease and poaching, to the point that there was only a few hundred left alive in the wild. Conservation and education efforts across three countries (Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo) have seen population numbers rebound somewhat, to around 900 gorillas in the wild. However, they remain endangered and only from the continued good work of the local national park employees and charities will we continue to see mountain gorillas in the wild for years to come.
What is special about the trip?
So what IS so special about seeing these big guys in the wild? Anyone who has gone on safari will know how amazing that first glance of the animals you have read and seen about as a child. My trip to Kenya the previous year was exactly like that. We went on safari for five days and every day I was like a kid in the candy store, about what we may see that day. The key difference is the intimate nature of your experience with the gorillas. You REALLY get up close and personal with these guys. And they are BIG.
As you can see in the photo, you can get VERY close to the gorillas. The silverback can be up to 200kgs of pure muscle. And trust me, they can move FAST if they want to. So how can people get so close, and be safe? It’s a long term project, over two years long, of experienced people slowly interacting with the gorilla family, before they become ‘habituated’. In Uganda there are currently seven habituated families. There are still wild families through the forest, and the guards didn’t really say much about these, apart from that they are not safe to get close to.
We were in the Buhoma area of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, which has three habituated families within walking distance. We were lucky enough to see the Mubare Group (or M-Group). The M Group was the first family to be habituated back in 1991, with the first tourists visiting the family in 1993! You will see the family that best matches the walking ability of your group, based on the last time the trackers saw the gorillas the day before. There is no guarantee with this, and the group that is meant to see the closest family can end up walking the furthest, as happened to us with my girlfriend and her family. So be prepared to walk for hours, up a hill, in the muggy rainforest. One group the week before we went didn’t get back until after 8pm after hiking from early that morning.
But that is part of the fun! You really feel like you are one with nature. From our point of entry, guards carried guns, not for if we saw poachers or other people, but for the mountain elephants. ELEPHANTS! On a mountain! I didn’t know there was such a thing. Supposedly there ARE small mountain elephants that have evolved to live in hilly countries, but the elephants at Bwindi were normal elephants that have just decided to live on the side of the hill, and they were aggressive if they saw humans, hence the guards needed guns to scare them away. I REALLY wanted to see one, but alas, no luck this time.
The actual experience
We had to walk for around four hours before we saw our family. As I said before, this was a tough slog, and I’m glad I bought proper hiking boots for the trip. Definitely get some walking in beforehand if you aren’t used to long walks. It got pretty hot too, but some of the track isn’t super well maintained so it is worth wearing light long sleeve clothing, and also having a waterproof jacket if you are in the wet season (we were just at the tail end, we saw some rain every day but it didn’t affect our walk).
As we got closer to the gorillas, it was pretty clear that the family had been through the area earlier, with wide tracks cut through the bushes. As we came to the tracker team, they told us to be quiet and we walked around a tree, and suddenly the family were just sitting there, only metres away. The baby was the centre of attention, rolling around and around in front of his mother. The daddy gorilla, the silverback, was a pretty chill dude, hanging out in front of his family, farting and lying on his back for the first hour or so of us watching. Suddenly though, he decided he was hungry, pounded his chest and ran off at great pace away from us.
Lucky for us, he didn’t go too far, but we did have to do some proper bush-whacking through the forest to catch up to him and his family. Your time with the gorillas is limited to around two hours, and our last thirty minutes was spent climbing through the forest following the family grazing as they went. For me, seeing them so relaxed and in their own background was just incredible. I highly recommend making the trip to see these amazing creatures, and while the cost for the day is quite expensive (US$600 for an official day permit in Uganda) it will be a day and experience I will remember for the rest of my life.
Accommodation and getting to Bwindi
The cheap option to Bwindi
Getting to Bwindi from Kampala can be reached by bus, which costs around 50,000 Ugandan shillings (~US$15). To get to the north section of Bwindi, the bus will drop you off at Butogota, a township 17km from the Bwindi gates, where you will need to organise private transport to get to your accommodation in the park. For more information, click here.
In the south side, the bus will drop you off at Kabale or Kisoro and then you will need private transport to Nkuringo or Rushaga. At all of these places, there is basic hostel type accommodation to keep costs down.
The expensive option to Bwindi
From Entebbe/Kampala, you can fly to Bwindi, with aerolink having a number of different airstrips depending on where you are staying. You can also hire a driver to drive you from Kampala, which is a good option if you have time as it is a beautiful country to explore. The first half of the roads from Kampala are of high quality, but as you get closer to Bwindi the roads decline significantly.
Some of the more expensive lodges have the full safari option as well, where you pay for your whole experience and the lodge will pick you up from Kampala and drop you off. We stayed at Volcanoes Bwindi eco-lodge, and it was amazing in every way! The food was excellent, the chef, Innocent, put on an amazing Christmas buffet for us, including a whole turkey. All of the staff were very friendly and happy to help for anything.
Getting In – Landing at Entebbe Airport
When we went at the end of 2015, we paid US$100 on arrival for a one visit visa. The visa on arrival was due to end in mid 2016 but conflicting reports on-line indicate this may have ended. To be safe, use the Uganda on-line application system here. Its now US$50 to visit Uganda or you can get an East Africa visa (Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda) for US$100.
Entebbe Airport is a standard African airport, with not much to it – the standard Taxi touts and simple travel booking options. We had already pre-booked a taxi that my girlfriend’s father used for business regularly, so I don’t have any personal experience on the local taxis. One safe option is to book a hotel that offers free pick-up from the airport- be aware Kampala is a fair drive from the airport (~41kms) so it is definitely worth organising your trip in advance.
There are a number of airlines that fly into Uganda from Europe, including KLM, Turkish Airlines, Brussels Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines and Qatar Airways. A nice little trick to save money, if you have time, is to buy a cheap flight to Amsterdam, Brussels or Istanbul and then fly using the local airline. Over Christmas, this saved my girlfriend and I around £200 each instead of flying direct out of London, and we got to have a weekend in Amsterdam with friends and a long weekend in Istanbul for New Years. As always, I recommend using a number of websites to look for the cheapest flights. My favourite is Momondo but also check Skyscanner and kayak.com.
The currency is the Ugandan Shilling – currently around 3600 to US$1. There are ATMs in the big cities you can get money out, from banks such as Barclays. I have heard reports of money running out, so have some USD as a back-up – you are also limited to how much you can take out from the ATM each day.
Like most of the world, everyone in Uganda has a mobile phone – and you can pick up a local sim for cheap if you are going to be there for a while – roaming is expensive!
Uganda, like many African countries, has a rich and varied history, and its fair share of controversy and bloodshed. Idi Amin was the despotic ruler in the 1970’s, who was the third president of independent Uganda. Two excellent books about this time of Uganda’s history, are
- The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden – a fictional narrative but with an excellent flavour of what Idi Amin’s rule was like, also captured in film)
- The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget by Andrew Rice – a historical account of the time of Idi Amin told through the eyes of a family who lost their father at the hands of Idi Amin’s brutal police force.