Tracking gorillas in Uganda

By Marlene Snedaker
This item appears on page 22 of the August 2019 issue.

Marlene Snedaker and a ranger in Kibale National Park, Uganda. Photo by Umar Kalule (driver)

I spent two weeks in Uganda in February 2018 — my fifth trip to Africa — traveling with Explore! (Oakland, CA; 800/715-1746, www.exploreworldwide.com). They’re based in England. This was my sixth, and best, trip with them!

Excluding international airfare and travel insurance, I paid $5,130 for the 11-day/10-night “Gorilla & Chimp Safari.” (Even though I was traveling solo, my lodging was twin share to save money.) Full medical and travel insurance is always required when traveling with them. Tips for the trip came to $140.

Transfers from the Entebbe, Uganda, airport to Kampala, an hour’s drive away, were included if you arrived the same day as the rest of the group. I arrived two days early, booking my extra hotel nights online. I stayed in Kampala at the Cassia Lodge (Buziga Hill, Kirudu Rd.; cassialodge.com), which had a wonderful view of Lake Victoria. I paid $369 cash, which included meals and airport/hotel transfers.

There were 15 others in my group; two were Canadian, and the rest were English. Peter was our leader. Two vans were used, with the luggage, mostly duffel bags, stored in the back.

After one night at the hotel, we departed for Fort Portal and Kibale National Park. We spent two nights at a lodge in the park. The next day we went chimpanzee tracking in the jungle, where it rains for short periods.

When the sun came out, the chimps that were high in the trees came down, and I was lucky to be able to see them close up, sometimes only a foot away. In the afternoon we walked around the village, where we met a basket weaver and a medicine man.

Our next stop was Queen Elizabeth National Park, where we spent two nights. We saw elephants and other animals on a morning game drive, and in the afternoon we took a boat ride along the Kazinga Channel, home to hippos, buffaloes and birds. This was a tour highlight.

Adult female gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. Photo by Marlene Snedaker

I’d always wanted to photograph mountain gorillas. These are found in only two areas of the world: Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (in Uganda) and the Virunga Mountains (in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo).* Due to poaching, only about 600 to 700 are still in the wild.

I paid $680 for my gorilla permit, which allows the holder an hour to watch a gorilla family, after the rangers find them. (The gorillas move around constantly.)

We stayed for three nights in Bwindi Park. The mountain scenery there was breathtaking, and the Mahogany Springs Lodge (www.mahoganysprings.com) was another great accommodation. They even cleaned the mud off my hiking boots! (All of our hotels were small but had great service and wonderful views.)

At the gorilla ranger station in Bwindi Park, we were split into groups of eight, each accompanied by a ranger, trained trackers and two armed guards with rifles. I was assigned to the “easy” group.

Rangers guided us through the jungle by cutting down bushes and vines. Rain was frequent, so it was muddy and slippery. I expected that it would be one to four hours before we spotted any gorillas. Fortunately, I had hired a porter to carry my backpack and help me through the muddy spots, and we were lucky; our group found the gorillas after only an hour’s walk.

Adult female gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. Photo by Marlene Snedaker

I was able to get very close to the gorillas, as they weren’t afraid of people. While the females and babies were on the ground eating leaves and other vegetation, the males rested in trees. When the males came down, the females and babies climbed into the trees. I could have spent another hour taking pictures.

Uganda is the most beautiful African country I’ve visited. The mountains, especially at Bwindi Park, were magnificent. The people were very friendly and loved having their pictures taken, especially the children.

The next day we hiked through a village near Bwindi, passing small coffee and banana plantations. We also visited a hospital.

We then went to Lake Bunyonyi, where we stayed in a deluxe lodge with a beautiful view of the lake and took a boat ride.

Our last night was at Lake Mburo National Park, where we stayed in rustic lodges and had a spectacular view of the plains. Zebras were everywhere during a game drive.

After driving back to Kampala, we continued to Entebbe for the international airport. My flight left at 11:55 p.m., and I was able to stay at a nearby hotel and shower.

Unlike some others, I was unsuccessful in getting an electronic visa for Uganda, so I used Allied Passport & Visa (Washington, DC; 877/393-3745, alliedpassport.com), paying $192, which included postage. I had to get a multiple-entry visa, since there were no single-entry ones available. (You cannot get a visa at the airport in Uganda.)

One-year-old gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. Photo by Marlene Snedaker

I took dollars to Uganda and converted $100 into Ugandan shillings to spend on small items. If you use a credit card, you’ll be charged an extra fee. Most places wouldn’t take credit cards.

I would recommend this trip. I got some wonderful pictures of chimps, elephants, hippos, buffaloes and birds. However, the highlight was the gorilla tracking.

MARLENE SNEDAKER
Point Pleasant, NJ

*In June 2018, Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was closed after two visitors and their driver were abducted and the park ranger accompanying them was killed [see Aug. ’18, pg. 4]. The park reopened Feb. 16, 2019.


Adult chimpanzee in Kibale National Park, Uganda. Photo by Marlene Snedaker