Our next big adventure was seeing mountain gorillas in the wild. You can track gorillas in Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo; we weren’t super keen on going to the Congo and after some reading it seemed Uganda was the best place to go. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park holds 50% of the world’s mountain gorilla population – which is just over 800 according to the last gorilla census (which is legit a thing). A friend of ours had gone Tracking in Uganda with Engagi Safaris and was really pleased so we decided to give them a go as well.
Engagi provided several options; just gorilla tracking or gorilla and chimpanzee tracking as well as options to go to Murchison Falls. We thought chimpanzee tracking would be really cool so we went with that option.
Bryan (who would be our driver and guide for the rest of our tour) and Ivan (our driver for that day) picked us up at Hotel 2000 in Kigali early in the morning and we set out for Kabale National Park. Originally we were going to start at Lake Bunyonyi and see the gorillas first and then head north to KNP, but our itinerary was switched the week before by Robert (the owner of Engagi). We didn’t realise this meant spending our first day in the car for nearly 10 hours as we drove 6 hours past Lake Bunyonyi only to be returning there 2 days later! It also meant ending in Kabale Town instead of Fort Portal, which is further from our next destination, Kampala. We were bummed we hadn’t looked into the distance between the two and insisted on sticking with our original plan. But, I will say that when we expressed our frustration, Robert was really understanding and even threw in an extra night at Lake Bunyonyi at the end of our tour which was much appreciated! Needless to say, our first day was not very exciting, though it was scenic!
The next morning we awoke early to have breakfast and head over to the National Park. We met our guide Mozart and our group of 6 started off tramping through the forest around 7am. It’s not the easiest task, as you’re literally in the bush – pushing twigs and larger branches out of your face, stepping over large fallen trees, getting stuck in (or slipping on) the mud and often times not being able to see where you’re stepping at all! After 2 hours of walking and tracking a group that we could hear in the distance, Mozart realised it wasn’t a habituated group and we turned in another direction. After another hour, and some chatting on his walkie-talkie he informed us that we were less than 10 minutes from a habituated group of chimps! That got everyone’s energy up!
As we narrowed in on our first chimp, it was a little chaotic. 2 other groups of people had also turned up and everyone was trying to get the best vantage point for a picture. It became even more hectic once the chimp started to move and guides yelled to their groups to follow him. I’m sure you can picture 3 guides and 20 tourists in the middle of the jungle, trying to move as quickly as possible while falling all over the place to see where this chimp had gone!
After 10 minutes of scrambling, we came out to a clearing with a group and everyone got a good look. It got infinitely better after that (in my opinion) as the 3 tracking groups dispersed to find their group to follow. By then it was 10:30 and many of the chimps had moved into the trees to feed. We sat down by the bottoms of the trees watching them and relaxing for a bit until eventually they made their way down.
The rest of the afternoon was spent watching a chimp or a group of chimps for a little while, until they decided to move along and then we would slowly follow behind for awhile before coming across another group and tracking them. It was so interesting to watch their mannerisms! One of my favourite moments was when we were watching a female just snacking in a tree, while a male (her boyfriend as Mozart called him) sat around nearby waiting for her to finish. He looked bored out of his skull, but Mozart informed us that he couldn’t leave until she was ready to move on. Watching him sit there, picking at his fingernails out of boredom was so human-like!
Toward the end of our day, the males started to get a little rambunctious, showing off for the females. This invoked a lot of yelling and whooping, accompanied by loud banging on the roots of trees. You could hear it echoed throughout the forest which was amazing.
Unlike gorilla tracking, for chimpanzees you can spend as much time with them as you like. We had been following various individuals and groups for 4 hours when James asked Mozart what time we would finish. He said it was totally up to us and that we could stay until 5:30 (it was 2:30). After another half hour it was clear that everyone in the group was very satisfied and also tired, so we wrapped it up and got back to the main road to meet our guides around 4pm. Which was perfect timing as it had just stated to rain.
We stayed at Chimpanzee Guest House, which is in a picturesque location on an old tea plantation. We could see the rolling hills of tea and other plants in the distance as we are our dinner that evening. The food was included with our tour price, which was a 3 course meal of our choosing and the beer was cheap which was appreciated after a long day in the rainforest!
The next morning we left around 8am to head south to Lake Bunyonyi. We took a different route this time and were rewarded with some amazing sights on our nearly 7 hour journey. We had asked Bryan the night before at dinner if there’s anywhere to stop that marks the equator. He said he was unsure, but then surprised us the next day by stopping at this sign.
This route also took us through Queen Elizabeth National Park where we were amazed to see elephants right off the main road! As we made our way out of the park and onto the hillside, we stopped for James to fly his drone. With the help of our binoculars we were able to spot the elephants and get some pretty cool shots from above. And finally, we stopped by a green crater lake. The photos don’t do it justice, but it was incredible to see this vibrant green lake against the equally colourful green hillside.
We arrived at Lake Bunyonyi Rock Resort and were blown away by its beauty. The staff were so warm and kind, we immediately felt welcome. Our room had a beautiful view of the lake (as they all do) and made me nostalgic for Ontario.
As we made our way to the main area for dinner (and a little WiFi action), Pius (one of the staff members) brought us a chiminea so we could keep warm. We enjoyed a beer by the fire and felt pretty damn content! When we moved inside for dinner he even brought the fire beside our table!
The food at LBRR is delicious! If you are booking at tour through Engagi, chances are you’ll be staying at LBRR for full board since Robert and Jessica also own the resort. This meant 3 course meals which incredible choice! Our first dinner I had a tomato and avocado salad to start (which I proceeded to eat every day!), a whole grilled fish for dinner and a banana fritter with chocolate sauce for dessert. If you have a healthy appetite, you won’t be disappointed! By the third day, James and I were sharing one meal with no dessert because we were getting so full after meal times! We also ate them out of avocados 🙊
The next morning was a free day to relax. According to our changes itinerary this was supposed to be our gorilla tracking day but at the last minute that also got switched to Friday (which ended up being a good thing!). After a leisurely breakfast of smashed avo and poached eggs, we were taken on a boat tour with Bryan and Robert.
Our first stop was Bwama island, which is the largest island on Lake Bunyonyi. It holds a primary and secondary school, as well as a small hospital. Some people live on the island, and others (like many of the children) commute by canoe. We happened to come on teacher’s day, which meant the children were not in school and it gave a pretty eeary feeling to the island! We walked around the school buildings which looked almost abandoned. We were both taken aback by some of the phrases painted into the side of the building – certainly not like anything you would see in Canada!
As we continued our walk, we came across the education director for the island (unfortunately we didn’t catch his name!). He was able to tell us some of the interesting history including how the school buildings used to be part of a hospital. In 1921, Doctor Sharp, an English missionary, came to Lake Bunyonyi with the intention of building a hospital to cure leprosy. He chose Bwama island, and lived on a smaller island nearby which was aptly named Sharp Island. By 1933 the hospital was up and running. Knowing that many people with leprosy did not want to be kept in common quarters, he also constructed smaller houses around the village to act as a rehabilitation centre for those with leprosy. In 1969, leprosy had been phased out and the hospital continued to run curing other ailments until 1989 when it was converted into a school. The director also spoke to us about his vision for the school, which was heavily entered around empowerment of girls and gender equality; I had to hand it to him, I was incredibly impressed at how forward thinking it was for a small village in Uganda! He expressed the importance of the children not only learning key values while at school, but also taking them back to the community. He even said that older children had been involved in diffusing domestic violence back in their communities! He asked us to sign the visitor book, where it appears we were the first Canadian visitors, and we happily have a donation to the school.
We walked down to the other end of the island where we met Robert and continued on our boat tour. We drove past Sharp Island and our next stop was Punishment Island which is a tiny piece of floating grass with a tree (calling it an island is more than a stretch) where unwed and pregnant women were sent, presumably to die, because they had premarital sex. Thankfully this practice ended in the first half of the 20th century. A bit removed from the gender equality the education director is striving for today!
James decided to fly his drone around a bit, and get a few shots for Robert that he could include on his website or any other sales material. He was flying for quite some time, taking video of the islands and of us driving around. He asked Robert to stop the boat as the battery was getting quite low and he needed to land. In a matter of minutes the drone was making its way back down to earth, but didn’t appear to be slowing down. As it got closer to the boat it slowed, but James couldn’t make it stop lowering. I tried to grab it with no success, and before we knew it James was on the back of the boat leaning over the lake. He caught the drone no problem, but also went for a bit of a dive in a heroic act to save this precious piece of machinery. Somehow, the drone survived! As James fell into the lake, I could see the terror in Robert and Bryan’s faces; they surely thought he would drown (I don’t think they see a ton of people who can swim visiting the lake). But soon enough he was back on the boat and we decided to cut the tour short and head back for a celebratory beer (and a change of clothes). It was good timing anyway as it soon started to rain and after eating a delicious lunch of crayfish, we took shelter in our room with Netflix’s ‘Big Mouth’.
The next day was the one we were looking forward to most, the whole reason we came to Uganda – gorilla tracking! It was an early start and we were on our way to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest NP by 5:30am. As the sun started to rise, we stopped to take a few pictures of the interesting landscape and mist that almost looked like water.
We arrived at the park before 8 and were soon put into a group and briefed about the day. We were told it could be very gruelling and tiresome; the landscape is difficult, with lots of climbing up mountains and down into valleys. We were encouraged to get porters, who could help us with the trek and also carry our bags (plus it’s a good way to support the local community). Our group of 5 was introduced to the rest of our team, which included 2 armed police officers and 3 rangers (2 of whom were already out tracking our group of gorillas so that it would be easier for us) and given instruction for the day.
By 8:45 we were walking out to our guides and their vehicles to drive to our entry point. We started walking through the jungle around 9:00 and met up with our other rangers at 9:10. It appears we had the luckiest day ever and at 10 minutes in we were just 2 minutes away from the gorilla family we would be spending an hour with! We could hardly believe it.
We soon saw our first gorilla, just lounging off the path and another group walking in front of us. We followed them and soon had as many as 10 gorillas in our sight; some in trees, some eating in the bushes and some lounging in the shade. Our rangers guides us through the area for the next hour or so, showing us different members of the family (there are 19 altogether) including the 3 silverbacks: the alpha and 2 juveniles. They were also so beautiful, it was truly awesome.
We followed one juvenile around for about 10 minutes; he would hang out and eat for a bit and when our rangers tried to cut the bush surrounding him or move branches so we could get a better view, he would try and intimidate them. Once by trying to hit the hand of one of the rangers, once by throwing a branch and once by beating his chest. Everytime he did something like this, our group would basically freeze while the rangers could not stop laughing. One of the rangers told us this juvenile was his favourite because he was always doing stuff like this.
It was amazing how quickly the hour passed (which was probably closer to 75 minutes) and it was time to start heading back. The police officers and porters (James and I hired a porter since Bryan had recommended it as a way to support the local people) met with us and we hiked 10 minutes straight uphill to the road. The sun was still shining; it appeared to be the perfect day for gorilla tracking! Our guides informed us that the day before was raining and, as such, it took a few hours for them to find the gorillas. We were thankful our plans changed!
We headed back to LBRR for a relaxing afternoon of reading in the sun and researching the next leg of our trip.
The next morning started our next adventure – taking a bus from Kabale Town to Kampala which was sure to be an experience in and of itself!