Uganda – Gorillas, but so, so much more (Part1 )
When mentioning to friends that I was going to Uganda, I got a look of surprise and a question of what am I going to do there? I would remind them that Uganda was one of the destinations to see the wonderful Gorillas in their natural habitat. Wanting to see the gorillas as our main aim we initially looked at Rwanda, a country also not known to me, but marketed as one of the best destinations to view gorillas. The one drawback, especially due to the exchange rate of the South African Rand against the US Dollar, is that most fees in central Africa are priced in USD, the park fees for Rwanda is way more expensive than Uganda, This alone was the deciding factor making us pick Uganda. And were we happy with the decision – Winston Churchill wrote of Uganda, ‘The scenery is different, the vegetation is different, the climate is different, and most of all the people are different from anything elsewhere…….”
Referred to as the ‘The Pearl of Africa‘ The Republic of Uganda is a landlocked country bordered by Kenya in the East, Sudan in the North, the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the West, Rwanda in the Southwest and Tanzania in the South. A country blessed with 4 lakes, the southern part of the country includes a substantial portion of Lake Victoria, which it shares with Kenya and Tanzania, with Lake Albert and Lake Edward shared with the DRC.
Recognized for having a total of 10 National parks, the Bwindi National Park, Murchison Falls National Park, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Kibale Forest National Parks, Lake Mburo National Park, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Kidepo Valley National Park, Mt. Elgon National Park, Rwenzori Mountains National Park, Semuliki National Park.
In what now has been decided, that we did not do Uganda justice as we only did two of their parks, the visit left us even more intrigued by how the communities and wildlife work together, putting a new meaning to Ecotourism and how important it is to get that balance where the community exist and grow their crops while leaving the natural ecosystem to thrive and live in peace. A wonderful aspect of Uganda is the approach to community tourism. Wherever you go, there is a community campsite and they are often conveniently located right outside park gates. All the benefits at a fraction of the cost! In addition, you also know that you are giving something directly back to the community.
Our flight from Johannesburg to Entebbe was three hours and fifty minutes arriving at 14h30. Unable to catch a connecting flight that night in Entebbe, we stayed over. The city was surprising in its cleanliness and we encountered the friendliness of the Ugandan people which was evident throughout our whole visit.
Our flight from Entebbe to Kihihi, the airport for Bwindi Impenetrable National Park was 50 minutes with a birds-eye view of the country from our Cessna Caravan. On arrival, we were met by Francis our driver and host for the next 5 nights. The Bwindi Volcanoes lodge is in the most amazing position looking onto the forest with the continuing calls of what turns out to be a birders paradise. An estimated 350 bird species share the forests and lakes, with 23 endemic to the Albertine Rift and 14 recorded nowhere else in Uganda. Bwindi National park has a population of around 340 gorillas of which an estimated 116 are habituated. There are at least 120 mammal species living in the forest, the eleven primate species found here include black-and-white colobus and L’Hoest’s monkeys, baboons and chimps. There are also forest elephants and several species of antelopes. Of Bwindi’s 200 butterfly species, 42 are endemic to the Albertine Rift.
An early morning wake up call and lovely Ugandan coffee with a special lunch parcel packed by the lodge for our trek, we were taken by Francis to the Bwindi Forest/Gorilla center where we were first entertained by the various schools children of the area and then put into our various teams, with a maximum of 8 tourists taken by a designated warden, in our case Sarah. (For those not too fit and needing assistance a porter can be arranged.) He would carry your pack for you and when needed will push/pull you to the top and down again. Jackie my partner opted for one and was extremely pleased to have his assistance. Going up the excitement of the climb to meet the gorilla family overshadows the at times the difficult climb, however, coming down one realizes with shaking knees that the climb is strenuous to the body and particularly the legs especially to someone who is not that fit. Our trek to the top and the meeting of the “Mubare family” took us 2-30 hours arriving with camera’s ready we were taken into thick bushy vegetation where the Silverback and the female who was holding a month old baby kept us fixed to our positions for a good hour.
While we did see 4 of the other females they were scattered in the vegetation and were more interested in eating. While sitting and looking at this closely knit family one is firstly overwhelmed by the size of these beautiful mammals but also that, thank heaven how complete at ease they are with our presence, sleeping and grooming each other. The one aspect which we all noticed is how while at ease at our presence the ridgeback always put himself between us and the mom of his little one. She was also very protective of her little one allowing us only brief glimpses of that beautiful face.
The service at the Volcanoes Bwindi lodge was synonymous of the service right through Uganda. The lodge layout is designed to enjoy the scenery while having a lovely cold Nile lager. What overshadows the gorilla encounter if it can is the Volcanoes Bwindi total commitment to working with the local community in training education firstly the community of what a natural treasure they have by having the gorillas on the there doorstep. but also the tourist in involving them with the communities introducing them to the challenges in trying to live, work an carry on there lives while having a balance in living in a cohesive environment with nature.
The Volcanoes lodges have set up the Volcanoes Safari Partnership Trust (VSPT), a non-profit organization that connects Volcanoes lodges to neighboring communities and conservation activities. Their aim is to create long term, self-sustaining projects which all guests are encouraged to visit. In the Case of Bwindi, They have numerous activities from Tea processing, explaining the tea planting process to picking, production to the eventual tasting of this widely grown product in Uganda.
Another great initiative is the Bwindi Bar, located near the Volcanoes Safaris Bwindi Lodge on the edge of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The Bwindi bar provides a practical training institution for local disadvantaged youths living near the Bwindi National Park in Buhoma.The VSPT aims to provide practical experience in the tourism industry, to create more job opportunities in the region. Thanks to this program, trainees are armed with the appropriate skills set to go on to gain successful employment in hospitality in the Bwindi area.
The trainees gain practical skills in food and service before they intern at the cafe for two months. They are then sent for further internships at nearby lodges. Bwindi Bar will serve a variety of coffees and teas as well as delicious breakfast and lunch options that blend international and local tastes.
As mentioned while the gorillas were our aim to tick off on our bucket list we knew in the first three days that Uganda had so much more to offer and where eager to explore so much more. Next, Kyambura George and the Queen Elizabeth National park.