In Search of the Gorillas, Chimpanzees and Tree-Climbing Lions of Uganda and Rwanda

The Safari Index’s exploration of East Africa took the team through some of the most beautiful terrain in Africa – through the highlands, forests and savannahs of Rwanda and Uganda. The Indexpedition Team spent several weeks exploring the parks and reserves in these lively and friendly countries, primarily in search of the primates, and especially the Mountain Gorilla and wild Chimpanzees.  They got all they wanted, and a whole lot more….

Rwanda- Africa’s Little Switzerland

Known as Africa’s ‘Little Switzerland’, this small landlocked country is as amazing as its history is tragic. Although there was the mass genocide here in 1994, the country has completely rebuilt and rebranded itself. Rwanda is an agricultural hub, and everywhere you go there are beautiful, green, well-managed farms – many of them co-operative setups. The place is cleaner than any other African country we have seen. One day a month is dedicated to cleaning, where even the country’s leaders head out and pick up litter. There are brightly coloured stalls where you see African entrepreneurism is at its best. The road network is in great condition, although there are a few patches still to be tarred. The only frustrating thing is that the speed limits fluctuate between 40 and 60 km/h. The country is very well policed, with zero corruption. We even got flagged for doing 63km/h in a 60km/h zone.

Nyungwe Forest National Park

Then you head out into the forests, where the highlight is the primates, which are prolific. The Safari Index Team headed south from Kigali to the Nyungwe Forest National Park, famed for its chimpanzees. Here, there are 2 large troops that offer tourists the chance of interacting with wild chimps in their natural habitat. The park protects some of the most pristine rainforests we have ever visited, and is incredibly picturesque and peaceful. The Indexpedition team spent a morning hiking in search of one of these chimp groups, and were rewarded with some amazing interactions with these fascinating creatures. Their similarities with mankind are uncanny. In addition to the chimps, there are 12 other primate species to be found. The birdlife is equally as special. As Rwanda is situated in the Albertine Rift Valley, there are 24 endemic species in the area, and it is a great place for birders to tick off a number of lifers and birds you will likely never see again.

Lake Kivu

The Indexpedition then meandered their way up the shores of Lake Kivu, having a look at some fantastic boutique lodges and hotels that offer a similar lake experience one would normally associate with Canada or the US. Lake Kivu is a volcanic lake that sits on the border, with the jungles of Congo on the far shore. It is a hub for water activities, or you can just relax and unwind on the water’s edge.

Volcanoes National Park

Then it was time for the gorillas! The team drove up to the Volcanoes National Park in the far north of the country. The area is dominated by farmlands, which run right up to the park’s edge, where natural rainforest takes over. There are several great lodges and larger resort-styled hotels in the area, accommodating travellers and safari goers who are there for one thing – gorilla trekking! The costs of permits for gorilla trekking are steep, but it is well worth it. Trekkers can opt to do short, medium or long hikes to view one of the ten habituated family groups in the park. The hikes vary in time and distance, depending on where the gorillas have moved. A team of expert trackers head out early each day to locate each group- so seeing the gorillas is almost guaranteed. The gorilla trekking experience is definitely one of the top highlights of the Indexpedition thus far, and encounters with wild mountain gorillas should no doubt be on everyone’s bucket list. It is a privilege to be able to sit amongst these great apes and watch them go about their day in a most human-like manner. A very profound and almost spiritual experience indeed!

Kigali

The Indexpedition completed their circuit of Rwanda by spending a couple of days in the capital city, Kigali, and visited the genocide memorial. The well-documented atrocities of 1994 are displayed in a number of memorial sites throughout the country, but the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre is an exceptional tribute to those that lost their lives in a crazy period not long ago. The tour around the memorial is very stirring and emotional, and we all agreed that it was best to have done this at the end of the trip. It is incredibly humbling to see how the Rwandan people have picked themselves up and rebuilt their lives. They say that ‘from all bad things, good things come’, and nowhere is this more evident than in Rwanda.

Buhoma Lodge

With an early start, the Indexpedition left the bustle of Kigali and had an easy border crossing through to the neighbouring country of Uganda. A scenic drive through the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest took the team to Buhoma. We spent the next 3 days at Buhoma Lodge, which is tucked into a corner of the rainforest on the edge of the park. Similar to Rwanda, Uganda is incredibly fertile, and as such, one can see a plethora of fruit, coffee and tree plantations. The Bwindi area is a Mecca for birds and primates. It is one of the only places where gorillas and chimpanzees are found together. However, there are no habituated chimpanzee troops, so at best you will get a fleeting glimpse of a wild chimpanzee, unless you head further north to the Kibale Forest National Park.

Gorillas- Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

However, it is the gorillas that draw people here. The permits are cheaper in Uganda, and there are a number of affordable to mid-range accommodation options just outside the park, so it is more suited to those on a budget. There are, of course, several luxury lodges that cater for those wishing to do gorilla trekking in style. The gorilla trekking lasts anywhere from 3 hours to the whole day, depending on which trek you elect to do – short, medium or long. You will hike with a group of up to 8 fellow trekkers, following the trackers who locate the various family groups of gorillas. You will get to spend up to an hour with a single family group once you have found them. Seeing these magnificent beasts in the wild is a most moving experience, and you get to appreciate that they are the kings of the forest. Their sheer size is impressive, but it’s their gentle manner and the intimate family interactions that you witness that really touch your soul. They are very human-like in many ways.

Queen Elizabeth National Park

From Bwindi, the Indexpedition hopped 50km north to the southern sector of the Queen Elizabeth National Park, known as Ishasha. This area is completely different to the forests, consisting of vast open grasslands dotted with thousands of topi, Ugandan kob, waterbuck and buffalo. The elephant herds we saw were all great specimens with exceptionally large tusks, which make for great photos. The Ishasha area is especially famous for its tree-climbing lions that spend the daylight hours in the large fig trees that occur in the area. That in itself is a sight to behold – a pride of lions in a tree! The birding here is also on another level, and one literally ticks off a completely new species of bird every 5 minutes throughout the day. The northern parts of Queen Elizabeth National Park host larger concentrations of traditional savannah game, along with higher concentrations of hippo, elephant. There are also regular sightings of the elusive leopard. In the east of the park is the adjoining Kibale Forest, where one can go chimp trekking to see a troop of habituated wild chimpanzees in their natural habitat.  Queen Elizabeth National Park is a great spot for a safari in conjunction with Bwindi. It offers guests the opportunity to see all of Africa’s famed game, as well as its kingpin primates – the gorillas and chimps.

Jinja

After a long drive via Kampala, Uganda’s congested capital city, the Indexpedition headed to its last destination in Uganda, Jinja. We first crossed the White Nile River at its source in Lake Victoria. The area is a fantastic base for those looking to do adventure activities, including white water rafting, fishing, sun-downer cruises and kayaking. It is also another very rewarding birding hotspot, with an incredible diversity of birds, ranging from African grey parrots to the more common kingfishers and fish eagles. After seeing and experiencing such amazing things, it was with sad hearts that the Indexpedition left Uganda and headed east towards the Kenyan frontier. But we will no doubt be back to taste more of Africa’s two most remarkable countries!