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Uganda: Face to Face with Gorillas

Recalling his up-close gorilla encounter in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, director Nick Joynes experiences a sensory overload.

I could feel my heart beating like a tympani – pounding against the inside of my chest and resonating through my body; this wasn’t as a result of spending the last two hours hiking up steep overgrown pathways that cut through the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, no, it was because we were close…Our guide had stopped and hushed our small group with a slow halting signal. “We are here. We have found them”, she said in a firm and steady whisper. “Remember, do not get closer than seven metres. Look away from them, when necessary. We have one hour only. Ready?” I nodded. “Too right, I’m ready” I thought…

{img_alt} Gingerly picking our way through the dense overgrowth, the six of us proceeded in a ceremonial-like line and after no more than ten paces our guide stopped us again, held her finger to her mouth and with the other hand pointed to a spot about one metre to the left of our feet. There, buried deep within a thicket of bracken and vines, we could just make out a black bulk, covered by a mass of foliage.

The mound of shrubbery began to move and then unfold. Then, with scrunching and crackling, like a volcano erupting, an enormous silverback emerged, looked at us, then turned and ambled across a small vegetated area to recline in a shaded hollow beneath some trees. My chin dropped, and my eyes widened to the size of a pair of dinner plates.

Three or four metres to our right, a pair of young gorillas munched and chewed on the lush vegetation, ripping at vines and stems; stripping them of their succulent leaves, with absolute ease. Our guide beckoned us another few paces further, and only two metres in front of me, a mother cradled her three week old baby close to her bosom. Gazing down, she stroked her child’s hair to one side of its head, tenderly repeating the movement over and over again. I watched – transfixed as she lovingly pressed her lips against the baby’s head. Were these tiny kisses of affection? I was rooted to the spot, I didn’t dare lift my camera for fear of missing the moment with my own eyes - I became overwhelmed and let my tears roll freely down my face – it was so utterly moving. Never before have I witnessed such love and affection within the animal kingdom. Even now, I remain choked as I write this.

{img_alt} Another female, lay in the shade while the silverback nuzzled and groomed her, two juveniles (twins, I understand), energetically scampered about the adults like fireworks – chasing one another up the trees and tumbling down again – rolling on the ground and then, like drums, beating the back of their father, who coolly accepted the annoyance, paying no attention whatsoever to his children’s demands. ”Good parenting skills”, I thought, “I could learn something here…”

The hour passed by in what felt like five minutes. And then, almost on the hour, the silverback raised his gargantuan frame and silently signalled to his family that it was time to move on. And so they did – all eleven of them slipped through the trees behind…and then we were left alone. Standing amongst the trodden vegetation, dumbstruck, we looked at one another – did that really happen? I was exhausted. My mind was racing. We began our walk back, and I tried to piece together the sequence of events that had preceded it. My mind raced – it was very much a sensory overload.

In the same way that this gorilla experience surpassed all my expectations, so had each of the wildlife experiences of this, my first trip to Uganda. The gorillas were certainly a grand finale, but absolutely not the only memorable wildlife experience Uganda offers…

Though not typically part of a country ‘circuit’, Murchison Falls was our first location, and it certainly gets the award for one of the most beautiful national parks of the country. The presence of the river Nile, cutting through the heart of the park - let alone the spectacular Murchison Falls themselves - should be enough to warrant its place on any itinerary to the country. The wildlife here is fairly typical – huge herds of impala and giraffe (the highest concentration in Africa, I believe), and an abundance of elephants to boot. Predators are common too – lion in particular, but more about Uganda’s lion later…what I was staggered by, was the variety of birdlife – and the quantity.

{img_alt} All along the banks of the Nile, swallows, swifts, bee-eaters, darters and eagles would fly. Flocks of pied kingfishers – dozens of them at time – would hover six metres above the river surface, then fold their wings to plunge into the rich waters and pluck small fish from the water, repeating the practise time and time again (– and not once did I manage to successfully capture the ‘exit moment’ with my camera!). Malachite kingfishers, tucked themselves onto low hanging branches and fell towards the water only to ‘lift up’ millimetres from the surface and zip across to the opposite side of the river with remarkable speed.

A long and interesting drive then brought us to Kibale (pronounced ‘Chi’-bale) - the centre for chimp tracking in country, and though there are a couple of other areas you can undertake this activity, Kibale has the highest concentration of these primates. Though lacking the intensity of the gorilla tracking – it is certainly an engaging experience to look into the eyes of a chimpanzee, and observe their near-human like habits and mannerisms. I thoroughly recommend upgrading to a ‘chimp habituation’ programme – and spend all day with a troop, following them from location to location, observing them on the ground, grooming, using tools, in the trees, fighting and...well, doing what chimps do.

To the south, Queen Elizabeth National Park serves as the ideal stopover between chimps and gorillas. It is one of Uganda’s largest national parks and holds some fantastic wildlife hot spots including the Kazinga Channel and Kyamboro Gorge. The entire park remains unfenced, so it affords the wildlife complete free-roaming access throughout the whole area. So much so that I was awoken one night by the cacophony of trumpeting and belly growling of an elephant that had strayed on to the accommodation’s neighbouring farmland, and needed chasing away by the night-watchman.

However, for me, the southern region of the park (Ishasha) was the most thrilling. The transfer journey was short and punctuated by surprise elephant sightings beside the road. Mega flocks of swallows raced around the vehicle, taking what insects and grubs they could from the dust that swirled behind our vehicle. Here, the grasslands remain lush and verdant almost the entire year and wildlife researchers focus on the area’s lions, who have developed a remarkable skill – they can climb trees.

{img_alt} Unlike their tree climbing cousins, the leopard, the lions here are large, certainly no smaller than any other lion I have seen in Africa. So why and how have they come to do it, and why here and nowhere else in the world? The why question is easier – it’s either because the lions want to get away from the area’s tsetse flies, or to escape the heat and get a better view of their prey. The question of how they have evolved this skill, on the other hand, is harder to answer and remains the subject of debate between researchers. Certainly the trees of the area are an indication – extremely strong, and with very low hanging branches that gently gain height; easy to climb, basically. 

Researchers currently suggest that these trees may have provided the perfect climbing-frame for very young playful lions, who would have cavorted around the shady base of the trees during the hottest periods of the day. Then, one-day, one of these playful cubs, may have clawed their way onto one of these branches to escape their equally playful brother. And bingo! The brother would have tried to copy and eventually succeeded. Other cubs would have seen this and eventually succeeded too, and then these cubs would have grown up with this tree-climbing ability, and then would have cubs themselves, and taught these cubs to climb trees too. And so – the tree climbing lions of Ishasha were born.

{img_alt} Our journey continued to Bwindi and after that remarkable gorilla experience, we made our way back to Kampala, spending a night at Lake Mburo en route where, despite having the largest concentration of leopard in East Africa – we only saw the blurred shape of one leopard darting across the track far ahead of us. “Another good reason to go back”, I thought. And then, finally, our trip was rounded off with a ‘quick’ two hour boat ride through the Mabamba Swamp in search of shoebill – and yes, we did see one – flying and standing - as well as countless herons, kingfishers, egrets, swallows, fly catchers, weavers, sandpipers – oh it was wonderful!

And, so in the same way that my mind had raced in a blur of superlatives when I walked away from the gorillas, it did again as the plane roared down the runway to bring me home. And as it lifted me high over Lake Victoria, I answered the key questions I had travelled to find the answers to: 

  • Is Uganda open for business? Yes!
  • Is there more wildlife to see in Uganda than just gorillas? Definitely!
  • Is the guiding good? It’s excellent!
  • Is it easy to travel around? It’s Africa!

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