Southwest Uganda: The Home of Mountain Gorillas
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
I opened my eyes as we were crawling up the hills. Winding through an intense fog blanket, I could start to see hints of sunrise. Almost two hours had passed since we set off from Kabale town at 5:30AM with Alex in the driver’s seat. We were almost at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park – by Uganda’s southwestern border with the Congo. This was a moment I’d been waiting for with nervous anticipation since the time I arrived in East Africa. It’s home to about half the world’s population of critically endangered mountain gorillas. Just over 1000 of these peaceful, sociable, gentle giants remain in the wild. And today, I would hopefully see some of them.
After the lead ranger briefed us at 8.00AM, we were split into groups of eight. Our team ranger gave us basic guidelines: crouch if growled at, maintain 7 metres of separation, eye contact is alright, don’t do anything if they touch you, and tuck your trousers into your socks to avoid the vicious bites of the aggressive safari ants. We trekked through the beautiful forest in Bwindi, which can be quite hilly. Despite trackers heading out at dawn to locate the gorillas and radio their location back to our team ranger, spotting gorillas can take anywhere from a leisurely 3 hours to a tiring 8 hours. Many a time we had to go off the mud track, in which case our armed guards (who came for protection in case we met wild animals like forest elephants) would use machetes to clear out a path for us.
There were surprisingly few insects and bothersome creatures along the way – no leeches, thankfully. Thick gloves that I was advised to bring turned out to be incredibly useful as we needed to cling precariously onto prickly branches, rocks and roots on steep hillsides while ploughing forward off-track. Highly recommend swallowing any pride and taking the wooden pole you’re offered at the start – it’ll be an invaluable source of support. With every step, I told myself, we were getting closer to the gorillas.
The first sighting of the peaceful mountain gorillas happened after 5 hours of trekking through the forest. We had to climb two hills, go off track and clear a path for ourselves – our group of gorillas was on the move. But somehow, despite torn trousers while clawing through vegetation, slipping on the slopes and landing on my bottom, the moment we saw gentle gorillas hidden behind trees and nibbling on decaying wood made it all worth it.
All 8 of us were completely transfixed and in awe of these creatures for the whole hour that we were allowed to spend with them. From the cute babies, to the feisty female who had a staring contest with me and the bored teenagers who seemed to chomp incessantly on wood – it was definitely a day to remember. The population of this critically endangered group is finally on the rise – now just over the 1000 mark. A small glimpse of positivity is now emerging on the fragile future of this species
#AdminTips: Getting to & Visiting Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Visits to Bwindi National Park as a foreigner are almost always organised by a local tour guide. Most packages are from Kampala and involve a 2 night/3 day visit and some kind of car/driver. Given that I was travelling on a budget and the permit alone to enter the National Park to see gorillas was $600 in Uganda, I couldn’t really afford the perks of being driven in a car and staying at a nice hotel. So I negotiated switching the car ride to a coach ride and stayed in a budget guest house. The mountain gorillas can be seen either in Rwanda, DR Congo or Uganda. It was significantly cheaper to visit the gorillas in Uganda as the individual permits were $600 (vs $1500 in Rwanda). DR Congo had an Ebola outbreak and a volatile security situation, so was not an option for me at the time.
#AdminTips: Speedway Safaris
They aren’t big or well-known but are trustworthy and responsive by African standards. Kiganda was the person I dealt with and he coordinated everything. He managed to bring down a typical 3-day Gorilla Tracking Tour (with budget hotel stays) from $1500 (pretty comparable to many other tour operators I found online) to $900 by changing from full board to B&B, and by changing from car and driver to tickets on executive coaches while ensuring I was always dropped off and picked up (he organised all drop-offs and pick-ups). Was worth the compromises since the main highlight was to see the gorillas! Their package covered the cost of the gorilla permit, a 2 night stay in Kabale Town, bus transfers to and from Kampala and pick up/drop off from the bus station.
#Gettingthere: Kampala to Kabale (closest town to Bwindi National Park)
I took the Volcano Express (Rwandan company) bus going to Kigali. Given this was a Rwandan bus company, the 7 hour journey was safe, had minimal stops, and had comfortable & plush seats. Price: USH 35,000 ($9.55). On the return I took Trinity Buses as Volcano Express was sold out. Same story: Rwandan company, bus was coming from Kigali. Verdict: Slightly less nice, stopped more often, older bus. Price: USH 30,000 ($8.20). Buses make a pit stop at Mbarara which is roughly at the 60/40 mark. Useful place with useable public loos, for those like me who eternally need to keep emptying their bladder.
#Stayingthere: Hilltop Hotel, Kabale
Mainly used by Ugandans – not that many tourists here. It was nice enough, with an attached bathroom. Breakfast was simple but on request they made me posho (a stiff maize porridge, that everyone loves in Uganda) the following day. WiFi sadly wasn’t working. From here it was a 2 hour ride to Bwindi National Park to see the gorillas (we set off at 5:30am, and returned at 5:30pm). Sadly a day after I left, I developed a series of bites, which was almost certainly from bed bugs. Yikes.
Friendly people and good African coffee – a milky sweet concoction of coffee with hints of ginger, cardomom and cinnamon. I wolfed down rolexes here (rolled up African chapatis with an omelette inside). I was intent on taking every opportunity to have a rolex in Uganda!
Eastern Uganda: Sipi Falls
Sipi was my favourite and the most peaceful part of Uganda I visited. With a cooler climate than most of the country, this is a cozy place to unwind and relax – away from the hustle and bustle of urban Uganda. Sipi Falls, in the foothills of Mt Elgon, is a stunner – arguably the most beautiful waterfall in all of Uganda. There are three falls separated by steep hillsides. Though the upper two are beautiful, it’s the 95m main drop that attracts the crowds, and most lodges look out onto it. The view of the wide plains disappearing into the distance below is also spectacular and quietly magnificent.
Life moves at a glacial pace here – people always have time to say hello and greetings are always extended – like when I wandered into Noah’s Ark Guest House, found the lovely people working there and had a long chat at dusk about hiking in the vicinity and my travels in Uganda so far. Afternoons here are meant for siestas, reading, or just staring at the vast vistas – and no better place to do that than sitting on the verandah in Lacam Lodge.
I hiked from 9:00AM to 2:45PM, starting with the two smaller waterfalls, followed by the steep knee-crunching 95 metre descent to see the largest of the three falls. It’s an incredible feeling to just stare and listen to the sound of the water and feel the cool spray on your face as the wind changes direction. I’d highly recommend taking a wooden pole for support and going with a guide. It made it much less stressful (especially if you’re navigation skills aren’t top notch) and it’s a great way of helping the local communities (part of the fee goes towards the community). Equally amazing was just strolling on small paths through villages and banana fields.
Flesh-eating insects? Oh yes, they’re here.
I stayed in a little wooden hut on a cliff top in Lacam Lodge with stunning sunset views. I often left my laundry to dry outside and why not? Direct sunlight meant clothes would dry quickly. Then I saw bites on my arm one night and panicked when I read about the Putzi fly (mango fly). This tropical fly, found in many parts of Africa, lays its eggs in drying laundry. They hatch in a few days and the larvae penetrate the skin upon contact, producing small boil-like sores in a couple of days that can be very itchy. The larvae (living inside the boils) feed for several days and eventually the boils burst with pus and blood, and the maggot wriggles out. I shudder at the thought.
Luckily for me, the bites were something completely different. But for reference, the remedy to avoid the above is to always dry your clothes indoors and iron all your clothes including your underwear (the heat kills the eggs).
#Gettingthere: From Kampala to Sipi Falls
YY Express Coaches run approximately every hour (4AM onwards) from Kampala to Mbale and take about 5 hours – price: 20,000 USH ($5.5). They do not leave from the Qualicell Bus Terminal but from the Namayiba Bus Station near Aldina Mosque (important to take note if you don’t want to arrive at the wrong bus station!)
I arrived 30 mins in advance and bought a ticket for the 9AM bus. Buses in Uganda are much more crowded than Rwandan buses. Seating is 5-abreast and the roads aren’t that great. To make life interesting, the bus keeps stopping periodically to gather passengers and also has itinerant salespeople peddling all sorts of wares before the bus leaves (sandals, slippers, socks, snacks, food, drinks). To top it all off, while the bus is ploughing along, people stand in the aisle and give hour-long lectures to the passengers and then attempt to sell products like traditional medicine. I believe one of them was a Viagra alternative (?) – but my comprehension of the lecture was limited to say the least. The chap seated next to me was highly enthused and bought some.
At Mbale, I took a break to stretch my legs and stopped for an iced tea and sandwich at the Endiro Cafe – very expensive and very much the expat hangout. Reminded me of the Gallery Cafe in Sri Lanka. From Mbale, I took a matatu (shared van) for 10,000 USH ($2.7) and asked the matatu driver in advance to stop at Lacam Lodge (my abode at Sipi Falls). I was the first to board and while effusive guarantees all reinforced an immediate departure, we circled around town for a good 30 minutes to round up more passengers – including 2 live chickens and another bird that were squashed under our seats. They managed to squeeze 18 people inside in total!
Before we got to Sipi Falls, the conductor decided that the matatu was going to end its journey and that I had to make my own way on a boda boda (motorbike taxi) to Lacam Lodge. Key lesson: Never assume what has been agreed will play out. I had to negotiate hard, and get the support of another fellow passenger to make sure he paid the boda boda in full before he turned around and left.
#Stayingthere: Lacam Lodge
A beautiful place with wonderful views of sunset and the largest of Sipi’s three waterfalls. There are 4 bandas (self contained) and 3 basic rooms with shared facilities – including a compost toilet. But everything was clean. Would recommend this place even though they completely messed up my booking and said there were no rooms after reconfirming with me several weeks ago (the manager soon resolved that).
The bar area has a wonderful verandah to sit and read in the afternoons while overlooking the valley. Lunch is a 2 course set menu and dinner is a 3 course set menu at 30,000 ($8.1) and 40,000 shillings ($10.8) respectively. I enjoyed the solid breakfast and ate snacks at lunch time, but indulged at dinner. If you want to hike to all three waterfalls and see the caves with a guide, it’s 45,000 USH at Lacam Lodge. I chose to do it at Noah’s Ark Guest House instead (15 min down the road) which charged only 25,000 USH – they were very friendly and Isaac is a great guide!