This week I have fallen in love. With a country. A country blessed with magnificent wildlife, a wonderful climate and some of the friendliest and happiest people I have met. Its name is Uganda.
Situated on the East African Plateau, Uganda is often overlooked by tourists who flock to neighbouring Kenya and Tanzania to see the “Big 5” – African Elephant, Buffalo, Leopard, Lion and Rhinoceros. It’s a bit of a secret that Uganda offers not only the “Big 5” but “Big 5 Plus”. And the “Plus” is a big plus – MOUNTAIN GORILLA.
For the birders, there is another major attraction – the prehistoric-looking SHOEBILL, which can be seen in the swamps around Lake Victoria just a couple of hours from the airport at Entebbe.
Ever since I saw Sir David Attenborough’s unforgettable encounter with Mountain Gorillas during the BBC’s series “Life On Earth” (1979), I had dreamt of seeing the Mountain Gorilla. That dream has stayed with me for more than 30 years and when I was invited to attend the BirdLife Global Council meeting in Entebbe this November, I knew this was my chance. I didn’t have much notice, so I was worried that the strictly limited permits to see the Gorillas would be sold out.
I contacted “Gorilla Whisperer”, David Agenya, who reassured me it would be possible. “Leave it to me” he wrote. And, after sweating for 48 hours, he replied “Good news. Everything is arranged.”
Luckily, Marie was able to rearrange her work commitments to accompany me and so, on 11th November, we set off from Beijing to Entebbe, via Dubai. I daren’t raise my expectations.. but I was excited… and the feelings I experienced when I first saw that “Attenborough moment” came flooding back.
On our first full day in Uganda, we visited Mabamba Swamp on the edge of Lake Victoria to look for what must be one of the strangest looking birds in the world – the magnificent SHOEBILL. Despite being the size of a toddler, it has a small and thinly-spread population and, together with its habit of standing motionless and silent for hours deep in the swamp, it is often tough to find.
However, after struggling for several hours, we finally found one of these superb birds standing motionless – like a statue – in the swamp. As we paddled slowly towards it, this magnificent bird was unconcerned.. it didn’t even look at us but instead focused on a small patch of water, waiting…. We watched in awe. What a bird! After a few minutes it suddenly thrust its head into the water… Whatever it had targeted escaped and, after a few seconds shaking itself dry, the Shoebill began to walk slowly as if taxiing for takeoff and, sure enough, after throwing us a brief, penetrating stare it began to accelerate and, eventually, this huge beast took to the air to find a new hunting spot. A truly unforgettable encounter.
Mountain Gorillas – The Ultimate Wildlife Experience?
Elated, we began the long journey west to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park to begin the second leg of our Uganda experience. Taking in Queen Elizabeth National Park on the way, where we connected with African Elephant, Water Buck, Impala, Topi and Hippo, we arrived at the excellent Silverback Lodge after 13 hours on the road.
Penetrating The Impenetrable
The next morning will stay with me forever. At 0730, after a 5-minute drive from our lodge, we were at the entrance to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, ready to be briefed before beginning our trek. Gorilla trekking is, admirably, strictly controlled with a limited numbers of tourists being allowed into the park each day, and the time spent with the gorillas strictly limited to a maximum of one hour.
The visitors split into three groups of 8 and we were allocated a guide. David was the head guide and would be leading our group. After the CB radio crackled into life with messages from the trackers, who had headed out at first light to discover the whereabouts of each family, we set off. The trek can be anything from 1 hour to 6 hours each way, depending on the gorillas’ location. We were lucky. The family we were to visit were a little over 90 minutes away and, after a steady but not too taxing hike through the forest, we were on site.
A few hundred metres away from the gorillas we made a base where we left our bags with the porters and prepared ourselves as best we could for what we knew would be a special experience.
Before we had even put down our bags, the dominant male – the so-called “silverback” approached us, almost as if to check us out. He lumbered past, just a few metres away, as we stood in awe, before climbing a nearby tree to join 4 other members of the group. Wow.
David summoned us a little further into the forest where two female gorillas, with young babies (12 and 14 months old respectively) were relaxing on the ground. Words cannot describe how it felt to watch these majestic animals. The mothers were so caring and attentive to the young, cradling them, hugging them, grooming them.. as the playful young clumsily clambered up and down onto their mothers’ backs. It was such a privilege to watch this behaviour at close quarters. Everyone was speechless.
All too soon, our time was up and we reluctantly pulled ourselves away from these gentle creatures. But there was one more treat for us in store. The silverback climbed down from his lofty perch and slumped in front of us as we made our way back to the trail.. providing the group with stunning views. What an experience! We really couldn’t have asked for a more memorable encounter.
It’s now two days since our visit and, as we sit in our hotel lobby in Entebbe ahead of my work meeting, we are still on a high. A little boy’s dream has (finally) come true!
Edit: here is a short video of our encounter (handheld using my Canon EOS7D and a 100mm f2.8 lens).
I cannot recommend Uganda highly enough. A truly wonderful country – appropriately described by Churchill as “the pearl of Africa”. It was heartening to see the gorilla experience extremely well-managed, minimising the stress to the animals and generating funding to ensure the protection of their habitat. The Bwindi National Park authorities spend 18 months to habituate each family of gorillas before allowing tourists to visit and three quarters of the families are deliberately left completely wild. The fact that the gorillas are so relaxed in human company, breeding well and residing so close to the Park HQ says everything about the professionalism and dedication of the staff to put the welfare of the gorillas first. If you are interested in visiting and would like to contact our guide directly, his email address is: email@example.com.