Anton and Natasha Schutte from Sunset Adventure Travels lyrically recounted their once-in-a-lifetime experience in Uganda when they spotted the highly endangered Shoebill Stork in its natural habitat in the Mabamba Wetland. Dubbed the Pearl of Africa by Winston Churchill, this country still had a whole lot up the sleeve.
The search for the Shoebill was only of the items on our bucket list we had hoped to mark off on our Uganda adventure. The other big one was to see the eastern mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. Would Mother Nature smile upon us and make this dream a reality too?
According to our guide, Emmy Gongo, the Ruhija area- which 11 groups of gorillas sensitised to human presence calls home – would be our best opportunity to spot them. As with our Shoebill experience, the anticipation was palpable, and we were hopeful that we would experience something extraordinary… Something that is destined for only a few… An eastern mountain gorilla will, in all probability, have disappeared entirely from its natural habitat in 50 years, and our offspring will possibly only be able to see these majestic animals in captivity.
The well-known actor Antony Hopkins rightly said in the film “Instinct” that a gorilla in a cage is no longer a gorilla, but only an empty shell… Fortunately, we found ourselves in a Tarzan movie, with a very real opportunity to get close to these special animals. Even the men struggled to control their emotions when – from nowhere – a gorilla female and a youngster suddenly appeared, less than a meter from our group. The moment is so mesmerising; we completely forgot about the cameras around our necks and instead captured this glorious moment with our eyes and hearts.
For most people in our group, the tears were already shallow at this point. When a massive male, with his silver bulging muscles, calmly strolled past us, the dam broke. No one even tried to hide the tears as we were are all overcome with emotion, humbled by this amazing opportunity. We were face to face with a 200 kg animal that could cause a person’s death in the blink of an eye. Yet he moved around us, completely trusting us and even gave Natasha a slight kick while passing. Emmy later said it was a sign of affection. Wow. Just wow!
few seconds later, we were surrounded by a family of 12 mountain gorillas ranging from the young to the patriarch. These majestic animals continued with their day as if we were not even there, grazing on the ferns and the little ones running amok, hitting their chests and making a racket. An indescribable sense of calm engulfed us. Shortly after our experience in Uganda, we read a piece in a book that describes this incredible feeling: “When you look into a gorilla’s eyes and the gorilla looks away, you instantly feel lonely“. We wished time could stand still for a while.
It is important to obtain your gorilla permit before you arrive in the country (and when you book, your visa should also be ready) as the gorilla tours are usually fully booked. You pay in US dollars for your tour, and yes, it may feel like a lot of money but believe me: the experience is worth so much more than all the money in the world! An incredible, blessed moment in time, which of course, is often recounted around campfires!
The following day, we partnered with two younger guides, both with razor-sharp senses, and headed out to the same area we experienced the gorillas the day before. We hoped for another blessing from Mother Nature – the opportunity to spot the African Green Broadbill, a special little bird endemic to the Albertine Rift Valley at 2 200 m above sea level. Our birdwatching bible for this trip, Birds of East Africa, warns that this bird is very scarce in the Bwindi Rainforest, but we remain optimistic.
The Broadbill is tiny, measuring a mere 11 cm from head to tail, with a green colour and shaped identically to the millions of leaves around us.As we hike the strenuous mountain passes, none of us dared to speak, intently listening to the call of this species. One cannot help but acknowledge these guides, who dedicate their lives to finding these species for our enjoyment.
It was not long before we were standing, looking up at the little bird, barely recognisable through our binoculars. The photographs we took will not win any prizes, but the proof is in the bag – yet another tick on our bucket list!
Walking back to camp, we spotted the particularly rare yellow-backed Duiker, but it’s the gorilla tracks on the footpath that made us a little uncomfortable. We were not part of an organised gorilla tour at this point, and the tracks could belong to any group, even those not sensitised to human presence. Amazingly we were blessed with another glimpse of this scarce animal in its natural habitat, without any incident.
On our fifth day in Uganda, we headed to Ishasha, the park where tourists can see the world-famous tree-climbing lions. En route to the Queen Elizabeth National Park, the road winds past Lake Edward, the smallest of all the great lakes of Africa. But do not let this distinction fool you! The lake is 77 km long and 40 km wide. When you enter the Queen Elizabeth National Park, the landscape changes from rainforest to savannah and grassland. It is an incredibly beautiful park, and it is not a surprise that it appears in Rebo Publisher’s list of the World’s 100 Most Beautiful National Parks.
Tree Lions and boars
Of course, the park brings even more breathtaking moments and the abundance Churchill wrote about in My African Journey. We fall in love with Uganda all over again! The Kazinga water canal is abundantly full of game, and we spot the Ugandan Cob – the species that appear on the country’s national coat of arms – and also see a giant wild boar on the shores of Lake Edward. This animal stands an almighty 1.1 m at its shoulder and can weigh up to 275 kg.
Of course, the water canal also offers brilliant bird watching opportunities, and here we spot several species of Gonolek. Of course, the park’s highlight is the lions – they climb high up in the trees and lay flat on their stomachs, legs and tails dangling. No one knows why these lions behave in this peculiar way, but the general belief is that the lions want to escape the tsetse flies or seek reprieve from the hot sand. This behaviour does not occur anywhere else among lion populations in the world.
A cruise on Lake Edward takes you to the world’s largest concentration of hippos, and on the ridge, we spotted the rare forest elephant. Although they breed with the savanna elephant, it is easy to distinguish them by their blunt, downward teeth and smaller posture. This highly endangered elephant is the smallest of all three surviving African elephants and is only 2.4 m in height.
After a day in the park and a stay in one of the luxury hotels, we leave early for the Kibale National Park located in the western part of Uganda. In this park, you can find 13 different species of primates and 351 different tree species. The tree canopy extends almost 55 m high, which makes photography impossible. We are privileged to notice Olive baboons, Red Colobus monkeys and Blue Cheeked Mangabeys but our next bucket list items await us: the Green Breasted Pitta and, of course, chimpanzees.
The Uganda Parks Board devised a clever system where they rehabilitate poachers and train them as guides, as they know the forest best. And so we meet Gerald, a former poacher who has now become a keeper of this unique forest.
All the early mornings of the adventure to date started taking its toll, and we started our day later than we had planned. Gerald warns that the Pitta is usually noticed early in the morning and that we may have missed it. Of course, it isn’t very reassuring but as we head out into the Kibale Rainforest, we remain hopeful. As we walk behind Gerald, while admiring the beautiful scenes, we decide that paradise must have looked like this. Pristine. Stunning.
Well, running after him is a more apt description. He is a short man in his late sixties, but we cannot keep up. He knows the forest like the palm of his hand. At one point, he says we are making too much of a noise, and we should rather wait for him while he goes to explore by himself. So, there we were: a bunch of South Africans somewhere in the middle of a jungle in Uganda, without cell phone reception or any type of GPS! Just when we started to think that Gerald had forgotten about us, he showed up again and gently called us closer.
“Come quickly, but do not run!” he says with great excitement. One of the first rules of bird watching is to not swing your arms around too wildly and never point in the direction of the bird. With all the excitement and the unnatural time slot in which our guide tracked this bird, he could not help himself and pointed both his index fingers in the direction of the bird. We fully understand the excitement when we get the Pitta, one of only two pitta species on the continent, in sight. There he sits, in all his glory – beautiful on the tree stump. Few people get such a photo opportunity, Gerald explained and told us about a group of professional photographers who – only a few weeks earlier – spent five days in a hide in the hope to capture this rare species on film, without success. When a local guide gets this excited about a sighting, you must count your blessings in the knowledge that you had experienced something extraordinary.
We are convinced that Uganda has now shown us everything that is there. Alas, the abundance continues. Fueled by all the excitement, Gerald now walks even faster than before because he hears the chimpanzees. Once again, our hearts beat in our throats with anticipation. We have already experienced so much on this adventure, and to see chimpanzees, would be the cherry on top. And low and behold – we walked trump-up into a group of chimps. The dominant male introduced himself with a loud shout and hands hitting the tall tree stump.
We are amazed at the contrast of these rather spirited animals compared to the serene gorillas from a few days earlier. They loudly protected their territory, and as our tour group climbed over the horizontal tree stump, a male ran behind us and looked one of the men in the group straight in the eyes, as if to say, “Here I am the boss!”
Walk among kings
With our Uganda adventure heading into its final days, we stopped to hike the famous birdwatching trail called the Royal Mile, as it is on our way to the Murchison Falls National Park. The route refers to the time when King Chwa II Kabalega trained his soldiers in this area from 1870 to 1899.
The hiking trail in the Budongo Forest is on the edge of the Albertine Rift Valley, and here we met a guide who worked with the famous gorilla researcher, Jane Goodall. His stories are, of course, exceptional, albeit also very sad at times. The dense tree canopy made bird watching and photography quite challenging. Still, our list continues to grow with sightings of rare species such as the Chocolate Backed Kingfisher, Spine Tails, African Dwarf Kingfisher and the Shining Blue Kingfisher.
Massive trees surround you, and it truly feels like a hike befitting a king. Annual rainfall here is between 1 200 and 2 200 mm, and the area boasts 360 bird species, 130 moth species and 465 different species of trees. On the west side of the park, as we were standing next to a stream representing the Uganda and Democratic Republic of the Congo border, one cannot help thinking of the atrocities that took place here during the so-called “Africa’s First World War”.
The next area, Murchison Falls, is exquisite, and we instantly realised why this park also features on the list of 100 most beautiful national parks in the World. The mighty Nile River, which is about 400 m wide here, flows into a 43 m deep valley and narrows to only 7 m wide. The sound is deafening, and after the valley, the water spread out again to the splendour that is the Nile.
The Delta boat cruise along papyrus water canals is a sensory overload with hippos and crocodiles everywhere. This is one of the largest protected areas in Uganda, and the landscapes strongly remind us of the Serengeti. Here we spot a herd of Lord Derby’s Moose, Rothchild Giraffes, Jackson’s hartebeest, Grevy’s Zebras, Defassa waterbuck and even a leopard. We are entertained by the Abyssinian hornbills, sporting blue eye skin and an open helmet in the middle of his bill. Otherwise, they are identical to South Africa’s hornbills.
We needed more time here than our itinerary allowed we realised as we spent the night at Murchison Falls Lodge. It is located next to the banks of the Nile and we enjoyed dinner with the camp’s managers, two South Africans who bid Midrand farewell and made this piece of paradise their home. To say we are a little jealous is an understatement.
At the end of this adventure-filled 12 days, we depart Uganda with heavy hearts but vow to be back and promote this country as a prime tourist destination. The tears are near when we fly over the Pearl of Africa for one last time, our hearts contracting and experience almost the same feeling as when the gorillas look away…
Sunset Adventure Travels
Sunset Adventure Travels specialises in overland travels within Southern Africa but also as far as Uganda. Based in Marloth Park, the team offers several tour options that include getaway weekends to Swaziland and within the Kruger National Park and can be customised according to your specific needs. Anton and Natasha Schutte, both passionate overland travel enthusiasts with a penchant for bird watching and ecotourism, manages the company.
CONTACT: email@example.com | +27 83 381 0964