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Gorillas weren’t missed: an alternative safari in Uganda

Gorillas weren’t missed: an alternative safari in Uganda

Wildlife in Uganda usually means mountain gorillas but a simpler, lower-cost tour offers a wealth of other primates, tropical birds and jungle adventures

Two volcanic peaks beyond jungle hills
 Twin peaks … view of Mount Muhavura in the Mgahinga Gorilla national park Photograph: Alamy

At first we walk along the forest edge. On the right is a stone wall and beyond it women are weeding their potato patches. Watching them are two magnificent augur buzzards, eager to snaffle any rodents. Sunbirds loop in crazy arcs around our heads and a chameleon creeps away along a branch. “The wall was built to keep the wildlife out of the farms,” says wildlife ranger Christine, “but it doesn’t always work.” We turn towards the jagged mountain on the horizon and enter thick jungle on a narrow trail.

uganda national parks map

The wildlife here in Mgahinga national park is special. For most visitors to this pocket of volcanic mountains near where Rwanda, Congo and Uganda meet, the mountain gorillas are the headline ticket. But I want to see what else western Uganda has to offer. At park HQ, groups of well-heeled, rather elderly, tourists are being shepherded towards the gorilla walk. I am the only candidate for the Golden Monkey Habituation Trek. Am I crazy, I wonder. After all, seeing gorillas is the ultimate bucket list item. Why not join the throng?

For a start, gorillas are expensive: in Uganda you pay $600 for the chance to encounter them; in Rwanda fees recently went up to $1,500. For that you can hope for an hour with the animals. Smaller beasts attract far smaller fees: $100 in the case of golden monkeys.

“Gorillas are quite easy to habituate to humans,” Christine tells me. “And they like sitting around. Golden monkeys are much rarer and harder to find. This group keeps moving. We could be out trekking for the whole day.”

And there’s the key for me: I want to be out all day. I want to see the jungle and as many of its inhabitants as possible, not just grab one iconic species and be back for lunch. Besides, I may end up with the best of both. Richard, the other ranger, says: “We sometimes run into a gorilla anyway. There is one old male who was habituated, but went wild again. He often turns up in the Golden Monkey territory.”

A golden monkey up a tree  in Mgahinga national park
 A golden monkey in Mgahinga national park. Photograph: Kevin Rushby/The Guardian

We begin to climb, slipping through bamboo groves and into thick under-storey. Richard leads, slashing through the vegetation with a machete. He’s in radio contact with another ranger and we have a possible golden monkey sighting to check out. We reach an impassable cliff, double back and press on.

Two hours go by, and then there’s a sudden movement in the canopy and an alarm cry. Richard takes off, clambering rapidly up a steep forested slope, then along a ridge. We slow down. Richard tells me not to break twigs underfoot: it can startle the monkeys. We do, however, talk in low voices. Habituation means helping the monkeys relax when humans are near.

And finally, after three hours, we are rewarded. The dominant male of the group is quietly enjoying his morning coffee – actually chewing his way around a wild coffee tree. Coffee beans rain down. My binoculars reveal a beautifully groomed monkey with impressive whiskers. For 30 minutes we sit and watch until, with a splash of branches, he’s gone. By the time I return to the park office, we’ve been out for over seven hours. I haven’t seen that old gorilla, but I’ve seen a lot of other things. The gorilla walkers are long gone.

At the gate I linger for another hour of birdwatching: the park is small (13 square miles) but has 116 bird species, many endemic to these mountains, including the spectacular Ruwenzori sunbird who makes a brief appearance for me. That night I stay at the Traveller’s Rest in Kisoro, a 30-minute drive north, which is a simple but lovely guesthouse with great views of the Virunga mountains.

In the 1960s and 70s it was second home to conservationist Dian Fossey, who was strongly opposed to wildlife tourism. These days, however, tourist dollars have helped defeat the poaching that plagued the area in Fossey’s lifetime, though they have not stopped human encroachment on gorilla territory.

Young man preparing rolex - Uganda’s favourite street food.
 A roadside stall selling rolex – Uganda’s favourite street food. Photograph: Kevin Rushby/The Guardian

Next morning I move on with guide and driver, Ibra, who introduces me to Ugandan street food, notably the “rolex”: a rolled chapati containing omelette, tomatoes, red onion and fried cabbage. It’s delicious and becomes our mainstay snack, along with another Ugandan favourite, passion fruit juice.

This is not an upmarket safari: I’m with Travel Local who do things more affordably than many safari operators, so I’m staying in budget hotels, often tents covered with thatch, but unless you need swimming pools and room service, the standards are good: clean simple accommodation with a decent dinner. My only complaint is that the food tends to be non-Ugandan cuisine, but tourists in Africa are rarely served what the locals eat. For me, Ibra and the rolexes are a welcome gateway to local food, one followed by an introduction to matoke, the Ugandan staple of boiled, mashed plantains with sauce.

Another budget aspect is the vehicle. I’m in a van, not a customised 4×4, and Ibra is a driver, not a wildlife guide. But he knows his birds and animals well and it’s Ibra, not the guides in the fancy 4x4s with raised game-viewing seats, who locates the tree-climbing lions in Queen Elizabeth national park (which we pass through later en route to Kibara national park).

Our next stop is Kyambura Gorge, five hours north, to visit a habituated group of chimpanzees, an experience that costs $50 (plus $40 park entry). My guides are Valencia and Esau; the latter has been working with these chimpanzees for over three decades. We take a narrow trail down into the gorge and soon hear a cacophony of wild whooping. Valencia grins, “You’re a lucky man!”

A chimpanzee on a fig tree in Kibare national park.
 A chimpanzee on a fig tree in Kibare national park. Photograph: Kevin Rushby/The Guardian

We cross the river at the foot of the gorge and head back along the bank. Valencia points out chimpanzee nests, six metres up in some smaller trees. “They make a new nest each night, males sleeping below the females to protect them from leopards.”

As we approach some dense foliage, a chimpanzee rushes out, brandishing a hefty stick which he smashes against a tree. Then, grabbing a convenient liana vine, he swiftly hauls himself aloft, disappearing into the canopy.

“That’s Ekibira,” says Valencia, totally unconcerned by this display. “He once ripped a pocket off Esau’s trousers.” He peers into the bushes. “And there’s Lumumba, the former president.”

Behind the sleeping ex-president I spot a movement: a female with a baby, who peers back at me. “They tend to be secretive with the babies,” says Valencia.

“How come Lumumba is still alive?” I ask. “Didn’t the new alpha male kill him?”

Valencia looks surprised. “No, it usually doesn’t happen like that. In this case a group of males formed an alliance with Kihango, a 32-year-old male. Lumumba simply retired. It has changed him though: he used to be very confident but he’s become a bit shy.”

This is the first of many surprises. TV documentaries love to show the violence and savagery of chimpanzee life, but Lumumba the chimp survived being toppled (unlike Patrice Lumumba, the human and first president of post-independence Congo).

“Here’s Moya,” says Valencia, as a young male comes strolling past and casually throws himself on the ground, cocks a foot on a convenient branch, and inspects us while nonchalantly scratching his balls.

I ask Esau about his long experience with this group. What has he seen that most surprised him?

“In the early days, when they were very wild, I would sleep near them. One morning they came down from their nests and I saw them shake hands and hug.”

A bird expert at Bigodi swamp.
 A bird expert at Bigodi swamp. Photograph: Kevin Rushby/The Guardian.

I hear about more shockingly human-like behaviour on my next chimpanzee experience, this time in Kibale national park, a few hours north of Kyambura. Kibale was made a national park in 1993 and before that, poaching was rampant. But an estimated 1,450 chimpanzees – plus a dozen other species of primate – survive in 307 square miles of dense jungle. With three other tourists, I join a habituation trek ($200), this time with ranger Richard Alicwamu, who proves a mine of information, which he delivers in short bursts as we bash our way through thick vegetation. “Yes, I’ve seen them shake hands,” he confirms, “and kiss!”

He then delivers a startling account of chimp sex. The French couple on the trek raise their eyebrows. The American lady reapplies her lipstick. Richard has seen other amazing behaviour. “Once a mother chimp had a coughing baby. I saw her collect some leaves and feed them to the baby. Those leaves are ones local people use too – for sore throats and coughs.”

We then spend a remarkable hour watching the chimps gather wild figs, occasionally swiftly following the animals as they move on. Many people find forest-wildlife watching a frustrating experience, more a series of fragmentary glimpses. But I enjoy the effort required, and on this occasion we get plenty of extended viewings. Back at my lodge, Kibale Forest Camp, I see four kinds of monkey pass through the gardens, then watch colourful barbets and hornbills in a nearby tree. Next day the wildlife extravaganza continues with a swamp walk around Bigodi with a bird expert.

My last overnight stop is on an escarpment above Kisore park. Isunga Lodge is run by an inspirational Glaswegian couple, Karen and Gerry, and a wonderful spot to finish: mousebirds and sunbirds zip around my simple but spacious chalet while great blue turacos, like magnificent feathered dinosaurs, hoot from the eucalyptus grove. I feel I have barely scratched the surface of Uganda’s possibilities – and I haven’t thought about gorillas at all.

 The trip was provided by TravelLocal, which connects travellers with local tour firms. Its seven-day Chimps and Primates in Western Uganda trip costs from £1,450pp based on a group of four, including meals, excursions, park entry fees quoted above, transfers and guide but not flights. Gorilla tracking can be added


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Customer Reviews

Ngoni Safaris Uganda

Customer Reviews

Michael T 06/June/2021

Above & Beyond
Review of: 3-Day Gorillas trekking and Batwa Experience
Sedrick went above and beyond to accomodate our request for an itinerary alteration due to our compressed time in Uganda. He also compeltely took care of scheduling our covid 19 testing and drove us to the site on arrival.

Our driver/guide Ben was also outstanding!

**We highly recommend using a porter during gorilla trekking as their are some complex parts to the trail/terrain. This also benefits the local people by providing them work.**

David 24/June/2021

Seeing Lots of Animals and Uganda
The schedule suited my time in Uganda exactly and was a great opportunity to view some of the top wildlife and natural wonders of the country. Lodgings range from mid-range to near upscale and are in beautiful locations. Food is good and ample. My driver, Stanley, was expert at spotting wildlife and, very importantly on the Ugandan roads, a careful and skilled driver. You see various parts of the country on this tour, and due to distances, be aware you'll spend quite a few hours on the road. One thing they might add is an itinerary going into more detail ahead of time on each day's activity and suggested things to bring. I was concerned about the needed COVID test for return home, but they took care of arranging that, and it turned out successfully. Overall the tour was a real highlight and is highly recommended.

Justo Nov 18, 2019

I went on an 11 day safari visiting Kampala, Jinja, Lake Mburo NP, Bwindi NP, Queen Elizabeth NP and Kibale NP. Communications with Ngoni were prompt and easy from the start. As soon as I made my booking, Sedrick contacted me through WhatsApp and guided me through the rest of the process. Leading up to the tour he made sure I was well-prepared to begin. He was always very clear and friendly. Service was exceptional. I had the pleasure of going on this safari with three members of Ngoni's staff - Sedrick, Nelson and Joel. These guys made my comfort their priority from the moment we met. Whether it was checking if I was okay with the accommodations or making sure I always had a bottle of water, I always felt like I was being well taken care of. Nelson is an excellent guide. His knowledge about the flora and fauna of Uganda was extensive, always able to answer any questions I had and was eager to teach - it's obvious that he has a great love for his country and it's environment and is eager to share this love with his clients. My experience with Ngoni and Uganda surpassed all expectations I had. Absolutely amazing, and thanks to the guys at Ngoni it feels like a new home - can't wait to come back and visit. Webale, brothers!

Stephany Aug 13, 2019
Sedrick was unique and stood out from the rest in the high quality communication he provided since the first inquiry. He called me to provide information about the itinerary and see if I had any questions even before booking the tour. We communicated through WhatsApp for any other questions that came to mind after that call. After picking me up from the airport, he and Pilot (additional tour guide) provided plenty of information about the country to give me some context and we started our long drive to the impenetrable forest. The food was delicious with many options; the accommodation was very clean with exceptional service; and the transportation from Entebbe to Bwindi park was very comfortable (although long). As a solo female traveler, both tour guides (Sedrick and Pilot) did an exceptional job at enduring I accomplished everything intended to in Uganda, and always made me feel safe. I highly recommend to book your safari with this company because the quality and professionalism will not let you down.

Shakira Dec 14, 2018

Ngoni safaris uganda is the best tour operator in Uganda. A few weeks back we traveled to Bwindi impenetrable with sedrick to explore the beauty that is Uganda. This company took care of us . with most comfortable car , Great guide .We highly recommend it to the next travelers

Winnie Dec 19, 2018
I was going on a gorilla safari with my friend and this was going to be the first ever safari for the both of us. Luckily, the communication with the office was super easy and we got answers to all of the questions we needed. The driver / guide (Sedrick) was very professional and funny and made our time very pleasant. Also, he had a proper knowledge of the local area close to the Mgahinga national park and he promptly spoke some 7 languages which we thought was super positive. The safari was surely the highlight of out East African trip!

Ritah Jan 2, 2019
My Team and I did a five day trip, including Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, Murchison Falls and Kidepo. It was truly an incredible experience. Our guide, Sedrick, was knowledgeable, skilled in driving in some challenging settings and just plain fun to hang out with for five days. The lodging was perfect, especially Savannah Lodge. The tents and beds were high quality. The views were spectacular. Meals were delicious and varied. I recommend Ngoni safaris Uganda with all my heart and soul!

Pilot May 28, 2019
Our six days trip was amazing. The driver/guide had an incredible knowledge of animal and bird-life and are so interesting to talk to. His driving skills through lashing rain and massive puddles was admirable! The cooks managed to produce varied and delicious meals from the kitchen, which we ate both at accommodation or roadside when we were travelling from one place to another . At all times we felt safe and well-looked after. All in all, an incredible experience, due not only to the abundance of wildlife we were lucky enough to see, but also to the great efforts put to have our Safari a better one . The safari was full of fun. Traveling with ngoni safaris is my life time memorable experience and I highly recommend it to travellers who would love to visit uganda or EastAfrica for holidays, vacations or Adventure.. Even five stars are too small .