Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in the south west of Uganda is one of the few places in the world that you can see mountain gorillas, the others being just across the border in DR Congo (currently on the FCO no-go list) and Rwanda. These aren’t the gorillas you’ll maybe have seen in zoos – those are lowland gorillas – as mountain gorillas can’t cope in such environments. Less than 800 of these magnificent creatures remain in the wild and about half of them are found in Uganda.
I was really keen to include a primate tracking safari as part of my Uganda itinerary but knew from what I’d read online and from what others had told me that I just wasn’t physically fit enough to do a gorilla trek. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest truly lives up to its name (well, almost). The hike, which research indicated could take anything from one to seven hours depending on where the gorillas were that day, was likely to involve the thin air of high altitude, steep uphill climbs and trails wet and slippery with mud. Last April, a 63 year old French tourist lost his life after collapsing with a heart attack on the way back. Though Trip Advisor is full of gung-ho reports about porters and assistance, I decided that realistically, it wasn’t for me. Oh, and it would cost $600 in permits, though admittedly that’s a whole lot cheaper than the $1500 you’d pay across the border in Rwanda.
Fortunately for me, Uganda’s primate tourism doesn’t begin and end with gorillas. While I was looking into a gorilla trek, I came across a chimpanzee tracking experience that seemed the perfect fit for me. I’d get to see primates up close but the trek, across the relatively flat forest floor of Kibale Forest, shouldn’t be anywhere near as tough. I put together a customised itinerary with car and driver provided by Roadtrip Uganda and they sourced a permit for me. It’s not wise to leave the purchase of permits until you arrive as they are strictly limited in number and you may be disappointed if they’ve sold out.
Tip: to further minimise the need for a long hike, opt for an afternoon tracking slot.
As I had opted to stay overnight in Fort Portal and planned to spend the morning driving around the area’s crater lakes, I opted for an afternoon permit which would give us plenty of time to drive south to Kibale Forest. This turned out to be a wise idea. Groups go out in the morning and when the rangers come back to base, they report back on where the troops of chimps have been spotted. There’s no guarantee that they’ll have stayed put, of course, but I was told that there’s usually less walking involved in the afternoon excursions as a result. The downside is that temperatures do increase as the day wears on, though in the shade of the forest this isn’t as big an issue as you might first think.
Our group of six met at the park office for a short briefing before our own drivers took us to the part of the forest that had been chosen as the start point for our tracking experience. Accompanying us were a ranger and also an armed guard; in the event of elephants or buffalo encroaching too close to the group, the latter would fire warning shots in the air. Before we gave our drivers a few hours off, there was another briefing. No one would be allowed to trek if unwell, the group should remain at least 8 metres from the chimps at all times and most important of all, we were told to tuck our trousers into our socks to avoid being bitten by ants. Photography was encouraged but we were to turn off the flash to avoid startling the chimps.
Three whoops of chimps (that’s the collective noun!) in Kibale Forest were habituated, that is, they’re used to being close to humans. Others are left alone. We set off in search of one of them, Benson our ranger encouraging us to hurry so we could reach the spot before they moved deeper into the forest. The pace wasn’t actually too fast, largely because we were picking our way over buttress roots and ducking under forest vegetation. Benson told us that the “hoo hoo hoo” sound we could hear was chimps calling to each other and that they were close.
I was thrilled when we came across the first group of four – three adults and a baby – after only about fifteen minutes of walking. Benson arranged us so that we’d have a clear line of sight to the chimps without getting too close. We were the only group at that point, so the six of us enjoyed an intimate encounter and it was truly a delight. Though the baby had climbed a tree, too unsure to remain on the ground so close to us, the three adults weren’t fazed at all. Two were too focused on grooming each other to acknowledge our existence while the other rolled onto his back and closed his eyes for a snooze.
The chimpanzee tracking permit had cost $150, considerably less than that of the gorilla encounter, but still a significant amount of money. But at that point, it was worth every cent. About five to ten minutes later, another group caught us up. Benson asked us to move on so that the chimps would not be overwhelmed. We did so and and after a few minutes came across a larger group.
Once again, watching their behaviour was fascinating. These creatures share 98% of our DNA and many of the mannerisms are uncannily similar. We watched, transfixed, as they ate fruit, chased each other in play and swung from the canopy high above our heads. We saw their nests high in the canopy – the chimps overnight in these but prefer to hang out on the forest floor during the day. Generally speaking, it was a pleasure to be so close. The loud chatter and screams as they approached was a bit intimidating – as it was intended to be, I guessed. I think I’d watched too many Planet of the Apes films to have been entirely comfortable at this point, but Benson calmly explained what was happening and pointed out where they were which made me feel safer, particularly when they had us surrounded.
After the initial delight of seeing the chimps, I began to notice how different each were from the others. One was a proper porker – we were told he was vying for the alpha male spot and thought his extra weight might help. Some of the older chimps in the family were going grey, or balding. The youngsters, true to type, were mucking about and being put in their place by their elders. And the baby, well he was just too cute. We saw a female in oestrus, and then a bit of chimp sex up a tree after she parked her baby on the branch next to her while she got it on with her potential baby daddy. Sadly, light levels in the forest weren’t sufficient to get it on film but that’s probably just as well.
In all, we spent around an hour with the chimps before Benson led us on a trek out of the forest back to the ranger station. This was at a very leisurely pace, with plenty of stops to point out types of trees, birds, monkeys and butterflies. The tracking activity that I booked in Kibale Forest has about a 95% success rate of spotting chimps. This is nature, of course, and nothing is guaranteed. In all, we saw about 25 chimps. The permit cost me $150, which included entrance to Kibale National Park for 24 hours.
You can also try your luck spotting chimps at Budongo Forest Reserve in the northwest of the country, those living in the Kyambura Gorge at Queen Elizabeth National Park in te south and also at the Toro-Semliki Wildlife Reserve near the Congolese border. To spend longer, a chimpanzee habituation experience is offered, where visitors can spend all day in the forest shadowing researchers. This costs $200 for foreign visitors; on the Uganda Wildlife Authority website it does state half-day habituation experiences were available for $100 but I was told this was not the case. For a full price list, including prices for other areas, please use this link:
My greeting, freshly learned, typically resulted in a surprised face, followed by a torrent of incomprehensible words in Luganda, the language of Uganda. The villagers that responded could have been saying anything. It was as if I was participating in a kind of verbal line dance in which everyone knew the steps except me. I trusted they were repeating the familiar pattern of “hello, how are you?” that I’d been led to expect.
“Cale!” I replied, I’m fine.
Fortunately, passing astride a horse at a slow but steady pace, by the time I’d uttered the final response I was some way down the trail and thus unlikely to be troubled by a continuation of the conversation. Francis, my guide, was effusive in his praise, commenting on the accuracy of my pronunciation, though obviously not on the extent of my vocabulary. As he’d been the one who’d taught me earlier that morning, I echoed the compliment.
A couple of hours earlier, I’d made the short journey out of Jinja, a pleasant town famed for being at the source of the Nile. English explorer and army officer John Hanning Speke had made his way here in 1863, searching for the beginning of the world’s longest river. Noting a spring that rose from an outlet of Lake Victoria, he staked a claim, sending a telegram that said simply:
“The Nile is settled.”
The claim was disputed, however, largely due to a lack of corroborating evidence and competing egos. Speke died in 1864, receiving posthumous recognition for his discovery in the latter part of the 1870s after Henry Stanley mounted his own expedition and proved Speke had been right all along. Things are considerably easier in the 21st century, with a memorial to Speke in the grounds of the Living Waters Resort and a blue and white marker located prominently (though inconveniently) in the middle of the river. Disputes over the source of the Nile continue, however, with many differing theories as to which bit of water lies furthest from the Nile Delta over four thousand miles to the north. The very visible spring bubbling up at the outlet from the lake at Jinja adds credibility to this particular claim.
Kitted out for my own, much more modest expedition in helmet and half chaps, I’d set off on a horseback trek. A series of mounting blocks at different heights made it easy to mount JD, a sturdy horse with a calm temperament that boss TJ had selected for me. The path we took soon led us through the village of Naminya. A succession of little children tottered about in the dust, their older siblings busy in the classroom. As we approached, they waved enthusiastically.
“How are you?” they trilled, giggling with delight at my response, “I’m fine, thank you. How are you?”
“I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine! I’m fine!!!” The singsong chorus was one that would become familiar wherever I went.
The sound of their voices faded to a whisper as the horses continued further along the dirt track. Such small children had much more freedom here. Passing bodas aside, there was little to trouble their safety. In any case, these motorcycle taxis hooted a warning as they passed and even at this tender age, the tots knew to stand back. We continued on, the horses’ hooves kicking up the compacted terracotta earth which passed for a road. The same mud held together by thin branches and topped with rusting sheets of corrugated iron provided rudimentary shelters. Those who could afford it upgraded to brick built dwellings, the uneven blocks fired in crudely constructed kilns that belched acrid smoke.
We passed the village well. Two women chatted idly as they pumped water into faded yellow plastic cans. Effortlessly, they swung the weighty loads onto their heads and strode off in the direction of home. They made it look deceptively easy. A man passed us, carrying a sizeable bunch of green plantains, the staple of the Ugandan dish matooke. What we call a bunch is merely a hand; this was a stalk crammed with the fruit and weighed a ton.
Soon afterwards, we encountered a woman in a fuchsia pink blouse and skirt making light work of an equally heavy sack on her head, and, more unusually, a lighter bag in her hand. Along the track, three sheep tugged at the ropes that tethered them in a yard shaded by banana trees. Next to them was a roughly constructed wood and rusted iron shelter that in no small measure resembled a bucking bronco.
The ride took us through plantations and lush countryside. Francis turned and said:
“Julia, if you’d like to pick up the pace tell me and we can trot.”
In the warm sun, though, I was content to walk, the lazy rhythm far too relaxing to interrupt. Out of practice – it had been a year since I was in the saddle – I wriggled uncomfortably in the saddle. The tightly zipped chaps gripped my chunky calves and numbed my feet. JD plodded on, patiently accepting the fidgety novice on his back without complaint. Every so often, I freed a foot from the stirrup and rotated my ankle. Francis continued to lead the way at a steady, manageable pace, glancing over his shoulder at regular intervals to make sure I was OK. I was. Even when his horse spooked a little at some cows beside the road, JD was reassuringly composed.
We looped round, passing verdant fields planted with crops. I was getting stiff, my body unused to the saddle. Ready to return, my interest suddenly piqued as the Nile came into view and all aches and stiffness was forgotten. Across the grass, in a gap between the trees, a glimpse of blue appeared. Francis led us to a clearing, from which the sliver opened up into a broad swathe of water.
“Would you like me to take a photo, Julia?” he asked.
I nodded, and manoeuvred the horse with some difficulty so that I faced the camera yet avoided coming a cropper down the steep river bank. Photo session concluded, we headed off along the trail following the river bank. So high above the river, one slip would send me tumbling down to the water, crashing through bushes and trees on the way. Once again I was relieved that JD’s calm disposition meant I could trust him not to stumble, leaving me free to enjoy the view from the saddle. Soon, the gate to the property came into view and it was time to dismount.
About Nile Horseback Safaris
Nile Horseback Safaris is an established riding business well run by TJ, an Aussie expat, and his Kiwi partner. A number of rides are offered, the most popular being the 1.5 and 2 hour rides that combine village trails with river views. These suit most riders as the pace is relatively gentle, but complete novices may prefer the one hour ride. Longer safaris are available for more experienced riders.
It’s a very professional set up and one which receives consistently positive reviews. Horses are well looked after, safety is paramount and helmets are provided. To ensure that the horses are as comfortable as their riders, a strict weight limit is enforced – check the website for details if like me, you are on the heavy side. The mounting blocks make it easy to get on and off the horses and TJ’s policy of sending out two guides with each group – one leading and one at the rear – ensures that if a rider was experiencing any difficulties, assistance could be given promptly.
I’d like to thank TJ for providing a complimentary ride but would hasten to point out that all views expressed are my own. I was very impressed, both with the set up and the scenery, and would happily recommend Nile Horseback Safaris to anyone looking for an alternative way of viewing the Nile and Ugandan countryside. This is slow travel at its best.