Uganda: Great Apes and More

Silverback Lodge has sweeping views of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, home to mountain gorillas.

Trekking in Uganda, home to half of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas, was an epic adventure we were able to cross off our “bucket list” in October. We discovered that this stunning East African country offers far more than encounters with the endangered primates. No wonder Winston Churchill called it the “Pearl of Africa.” 

In addition to being a primate-lover’s paradise, Uganda is gaining attention for its scenic diversity and big game safaris. Over eight days, we spent quality time with gorillas, chimpanzees, lions, elephants and hippos at three of the top 10 national parks.

The trip began and ended in Entebbe, a quiet town on the shores of Lake Victoria in central Uganda. We flew Brussels Airlines from JFK to Entebbe via the Belgian capital. From there, domestic flights were with AeroLink, which connects popular safari destinations in the country (AeroLink also recently introduced a new Uganda route to Kenya’s popular Maasai Mara). 

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Murchison Falls National Park

Our first stop was two days at Paraa Safari Lodge, along the banks of the Nile River in Murchison Falls National
Park. Uganda’s oldest and largest wildlife reserve is home to four of the Big Five (no rhinos). On our first game drive, we saw elephants, lions, giraffes, Ugandan kob (a species of antelope), and water buffalo. 

The main reason to visit this northwest region is for chimpanzee trekking in the ancient Budongo Forest. It is home to the largest population of chimps in Uganda. Our guide, Evelyn, took us deep into the rainforest, ducking under vines and listening for calls. Chimps live in trees and are hard to spot. Once we did, it was exhilarating to see them in their natural habitat. The morning trek lasted three hours.  

Visiting the actual falls was an afternoon outing. Here the mighty Nile squeezes through a narrow gap before crashing 130 feet below. After a rigorous hike down the falls, we boarded a private boat for a cruise down the timeless Nile — an intimate way to capture life along the banks of the world’s longest river. Tucked between the reeds, hippos bathed while crocodiles seemed to pose, water bucks grazed, and countless birds searched for their next meal. The classic Humphrey Bogart-Katharine Hepburn film “The African Queen” was shot here.

Uganda and neighboring Rwanda are the only two established countries where visitors can view mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. 

Queen Elizabeth National Park

An hour-plus flight over scenic Lake Albert brought us to Queen Elizabeth National Park, the most popular one in Uganda. Our home for the next two days was five minutes from the airstrip. Mweya Safari Lodge sits atop the Kazinga Channel, which connects Lake Edward with Lake George. The sweeping views upon arrival took our breath away. Rooms also overlook the channel. We were told that hippos climb the banks at night.

Mweya is the sister property to Paraa Safari Lodge. The cuisine at the lodges was consistently fresh and delicious. Local Nile perch was a standout, served grilled or with groundnut (peanut) sauce, with chapatis (flat breads) and rice. Vegan and gluten free options were always available. Hearty buffet breakfasts kept us going for our early morning game drives. The outstanding coffee is Uganda’s leading export. 

The vast plains of Queen Elizabeth Park are famous for tree-climbing lions. A fascinating way to focus on the big cats was a morning spent tracking a pride with Dr. Ludwig Seifert, who runs the Uganda Carnivore Project, which works to resolve conflict between the villagers who live alongside natural predators in the parks. We learned how fragile and complex the conservation process is; education is key. 

Seifert and his team showed us how they monitor the lions’ movements by using satellite technology. When our Land Rover reached the lion king Sankara, he had just finished feeding from a water buffalo kill. We watched quietly as he gracefully found a large tree to climb and settle into a nap.

Our afternoon was spent exploring the peaceful Kazinga Channel by boat. The waters are home to countless water buffalo, hippos and an exotic array of birds.

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park

Anticipation to see the gorillas was building up all week. On day six, we boarded our 11-passenger aircraft headed to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The flight southward lasts only 10 minutes. By 9:30 a.m. we were in the van, climbing up the Buhoma Valley, passing vibrant tea and coffee plantations. We spent the next 80 minutes peppering our driver Adams with questions about our trek the next morning. 

He explained how the mountain gorilla is a national treasure, even though most Ugandans have never seen one in person. As their renowned trekking program expands, it brings much needed economic aid. Uganda and neighboring Rwanda are the only two established countries where visitors can view mountain gorillas in their natural habitat (the unstable Democratic Republic of Congo is the third). They only survive in the wild, and fewer than 1,000 exist today. They share 98 percent of human DNA. Trekking permits in Uganda cost $600. At $1,500, Rwanda’s fee is targeting the luxury market.

The open-air lounge is the heart of Silverback Lodge, which is perched high above the valley overlooking the spectacular Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Here is where excited guests trade tales of their gorilla trek with those who have yet to climb, sharing tips on what to pack and wear. While Wi-Fi is only available in the lounge and dining area, the staff, location and food are excellent. The unobstructed views of the mountains we would eventually trek are nothing short of breathtaking. 

On the morning of our excursion, we felt prepared, excited and nervous. Day packs were filled with lunch, three bottles of water, rain jackets, non-slip gloves, cameras, extra chargers and cash. Bodies were covered head-to-toe in layers, waterproof boots, and DEET. The lodge provided walking sticks.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority runs a seamless program at Bwindi. Park guides led a general intro and split trekkers into teams of eight with similar fitness levels. We met our leader, Goreth, and our invaluable porters, Fillmore and Peace. Our group was assigned a medium-level hike. Goreth shared the history of the Mubare family that we would be following. Then she led us into the forest.

Over five intense hours we climbed single file through thickets and steep, muddy trails. We found the ascent challenging despite being physically fit. Our porters were always a hand away, steadying our balance, pointing out safari ants, and pushing us forward. Any exhaustion melted away at the first signs of the mountain dwellers. Seeing the silverback Malaya emerge from the dense brush for the first time left us speechless. We only had an hour to observe the family. We also met Malaya’s two pregnant females and watched in silent awe as they ate and groomed, comfortable in our presence. The joy from that experience alone will last a lifetime. We highly recommend it.

Work with a qualified tour operator to ensure the best possible gorilla trekking experience; permits are limited to 152 per day. Our itinerary was arranged by Let’s Go Travel Uganda. 

While on safari, we stayed at Marasa Africa lodges, an established four-star chain. In addition to the aforementioned Paraa, Mweya and Silverback, Marasa operates the Chobe Safari Lodge in Uganda and three properties in Kenya. We also visited other upscale properties in Bwindi: Trackers Safari Lodge and Mahogany Springs Lodge. In Entebbe, we tried a chic new boutique property, Hotel No. 5, which has luxury rooms, apartments and the four-guest Residence, as well as a swimming pool, fine-dining restaurant and spa.

In addition to being a primate-lover’s paradise, Uganda is gaining attention for its scenic diversity and big game safaris.

Uganda: What Clients Should Know Before They Go

  • Tourist visas, which can be obtained online, and yellow fever vaccines, are mandatory for all U.S. passport holders.
     
  • Brussels Airlines flies business class from JFK to Entebbe. Business class comforts include flat beds, gift boxes of Neuhaus chocolates, and a well-stocked airport lounge.
     
  • Plan to exchange currency at the airport. Larger bills ($50 and $100) will get better exchange rates. We also found U.S. dollars to be widely accepted for tipping.
     
  • Hire a porter ($15 per person) to assist during gorilla trekking. They are optional, but we each found them to be essential to navigate the trek. It also helps the community. Do not share a porter. 
     
  • Expect unpaved, bumpy roads outside of the city.
     
  • Wi-Fi is an issue in the bush. It was available only in the lodges’ reception areas and dining rooms.
     
  • Gorilla trekking is for all. Uganda Wildlife Authority reps assess your physical stamina and plan the route accordingly. With advance notice, treks for physically disabled visitors can be arranged.
     
  • Pack waterproof boots and a rain jacket. You never know when it will start pouring.
       
  • Always wear hiking socks over pants on safari. Safari ants and tsetse flies are common.
     
  • Power outages are common but brief. Make sure to pack extra converters and portable chargers.
     
  • If they want to bring home a taste of Uganda, suggest the coffee, tea and Ugandan gin.

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