Trip Report for Uganda Visit with AJ Tours – October 2007
My recent trip out to Uganda, Rwanda and The Democratic Republic of Congo was for various reasons, but primarily to tour with Pascal to see and photograph the gorillas and chimpanzees of Rwanda and Uganda, obtain material for several writing projects as well as visit the DRC to consult on the possibilities of offering tours to the DRC in these early stages of development and reconstruction after the recent war.

There is a slide show link below to give a visual representation of the trip in chronological order along with a couple of audio/visual shows of the kids performing at Buhoma and Karangara schools in the Bwindi area and some of the unique sounds of the BaMbuti pygmies of the DRC.

The Trip

Flying into Entebbe on the overnight direct BA flight from Heathrow means you arrive in Uganda first thing in the morning and with visa formalities being quick and efficient at arrivals it's usually a smooth process entering the country. Pascal was waiting outside and the day was spent shopping for a few essentials for the trip and visiting the Embassy for the Democratic Republic of Congo to procure entry visas. Armed with passport sized photos and photocopies of passport, the Embassy staff was polite and efficient and the visa was ready the following day.

Ngamba Island

While Pascal was collecting the Congolese visas a quick trip to Ngamba Island allowed time to acclimatise and enjoy an invigorating speed boat trip, bound to blow away any cobwebs remaining from intercontinental flights. The Island is part of the Ssesse Archipelago out on Lake Victoria and run by the Jane Goodall Institute for rehabilitating Chimpanzees that have been rescued from captivity and is vital in learning reintroduction techniques for future conservation of our closest relatives. The Island is an important venue for education of Ugandan school children and the public at large to ensure the future survival of these intelligent and highly sociable primates. A brilliant day out and a great opportunity to photograph chimps in a natural looking environment, not to mention the Islands stunning birdlife!

Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda.

A long days driving to Rwanda took us to the border which can be a slow process due to the pressure from road haulers and other cross border traffic, but Rwanda relies on these roads for trade and commerce with its neighbours. The border officials are pleasant and polite and there are no visa requirements or fees for UK and USA passport holders to make life easier.

A long haul for Pascal but comfortable in the 4X4 mini bus kitted out for safaris and we arrived at the Gorilla Nest Lodge on the edge of the Parc National des Volcans and the Virungas! These dormant volcanoes are at a high altitude and the montane rain forest habitat is the home of the worlds last Mountain Gorillas (Gorilla gorilla beringei). There are only about 720 individuals left ranging in the bamboo covered forests of the Virunga's with common borders between Rwanda, Uganda and The DRC.

Next morning 'D', the Parks Department guide, gave the early morning briefing giving the standard safety talk and the "do's and don'ts" of gorilla trekking and using identification photos described the various members of the 'Susa' Group for our party of eight trekkers, who were from all points of the globe. The Susa group is particularly famous for several reasons. Firstly it's the biggest family group of Mountain Gorillas with 44 members. Secondly it is the only group with three silverbacks, or mature males and lastly they are the only family known to have successfully raised twins that were born four years ago. A unique group all round. The lawn at HQ had a visual representation of the 7 meter distance one should keep away from the primates, see the photo gallery. Someone should show it to the gorillas!

The Susa Group are the furthest from the Parks HQ and range over an area that means that hikes can be long and at altitudes of between 10,000 and 12,000 feet can be tiring. But the hour you get with these gentle giants makes the breathtaking up-hill hike more than worth it. The weather was surprisingly warm and sunny for several days which meant that the gorillas enjoyed their midday rest in the thickest shade possible, a dense stand of bamboo, making photography difficult in the deep shadow.

But the experience was unbelievable, with adults resting and some sleeping so contently that they were actually snoring! The young, especially the twins, were full of it and playing all around us, much to D's consternation and he had to regularly admonish playful individuals who wanted their 'cousins' to enjoy the games and become part of them! That is a no-no, any human germs and bugs can be transmitted to all the primate family and the next flu pandemic could be the end of the Mountain Gorillas and tourists must recognise this fact and act responsibly.

A visit to Lake Kivu at Gisenyi got me to the borders of the DRC but this was not the place we were entering, but the shores of Kivu were tranquil and would provide a superb place to rest on a long mobile safari and enjoy the quiet pace of life of the local fishermen.

Kibale Chimp Trekking

Leaving Rwanda by road Pascal drove to Kibale National Park, a medium altitude forest region that is home to the largest population of habituated Chimpanzees in Africa. Unlike the gorilla, which does not move too far in the course of its day foraging for food the chimp on the other hand covers a much larger territory searching for the randomly spread trees that will bear ripe fruit, their favourite food. The hike was led by Godfrey the UPA guide and the chimps made us work for our encounter but Godfrey was an excellent tracker and was on their trail. After a lengthy period of moving and feeding the chimps came to ground and had a period of grooming and socialising close to our group, completely at ease at our close proximity.

After the hour with the chimps then we were able to enjoy the forest and the flora and fauna that makes it one of the most diverse and richest habitats on the planet. After the rush following primates that are much better adapted to get around such dense vegetation it was a real pleasure to stop and listen to the birds and insects of the forest and be shown the traditional and medicinal use of the plants of the forest by Godfrey. That evening we were joined around the camp fire by Astone, another UWA guide, who regaled us with a wonderful assortment of traditional tales of village life and wildlife folklore.

Visit to the DRC.

Driving from Kibale down the Rift and skirting the Ruwenzori Mountains took us to the border between Uganda and the DRC. Here we were met by Andrew and Adam from the Kampala AJ office as Pascal had commitments with other clients. With help from a travel agent from Beni, Kitambali Tours, we were soon across the border with the guidance of Godefroid, who was to be out 'minder' from the ICCN, the Congolese Parks and Wildlife Department, our paper work was quickly processed and we were off to Beni.

Hotel Beni was a modern and well appointed hotel on the main street of Beni. The market allowed us chance to buy provisions and gifts for the pygmy communities that we would be visiting. A visit to nearby Mavivi allowed us our first visit to the Mbuti Pygmies and a chance to enjoy their distinctive singing and dancing.

Next day a trip on a seriously bad road eventually got us to Epulu in the Ituri Rainforest. We had to get papers to travel from Kivu North Province into the Equatoria Province. Our papers obtained in Kampala had only been for Kivu and if it had not been for Godefroid and his boss, Norbert Mushenzi, the regions Senior Conservator, this could have proved problematic. Strangely it was the paper work for our Ugandan contingent that was more of a stumbling block.

The collapse of the bridge across the Ituri River on the Main Road between Beni and Bunia meant we had to detour. This also required a change of vehicles as a Toyota Surf was far more suited to the ruggedness of the roads. A long cramped day's journey saw us eventually at the Epulu River camp of the ICCN in the Ituri rainforest and at the base for the Okapi Faunal Reserve. The stay was far too short but seeing and photographing the elegant Okapi, the forest dwelling relative of the giraffe and visiting the local Mbuti community was worth the discomfort of the roads. When the main road bridge gets fixed the route will be easily done in half the time and twice the comfort!

Only when you spend time in the forest with the Mbuti can you appreciate how they are so superbly adapted to their jungle home. The headmen arranged a net hunt for us to accompany with all the preparatory ritual and song. It is when you are in the rainforest that the haunting melodies and cadence of the unique yodelling songs of the Mbuti take on a life and meaning of their own.

The return trip took us to the foothills of the Ruwenzori, the fabled Mountains of the Moon. Since the times of Ancient Egypt these forest clad mountains have drawn explorers and adventurers. The ICCN office is nearing completion as Wildlife Direct has been responsible for helping fund expensive refurbishing and reconstruction. Researchers, NGO's and ICCN are all developing community based projects to establish tourism development in the mountains and forest of the Ruwenzori. Godfroid's day-job is liaising with the communities to stop poaching for primate bush-meat and start chimpanzee habituation programmes with the local people. A vital programme for the survival for all primates and in a way that the local community can see and receive the benefits of looking after our cousins.

The final night in the DRC was spent under canvas at Ishango, over-looking the Semliki River as it debouches from Lake Edward. Here the open savannah is attracting wildlife back from the nearby Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda. DeFassa Waterbuck, Kob, Topi, Bushbuck, Warthog, Elephant as well as large numbers of Hippo in the Semliki were seen whilst walking with ICCN rangers. A boat trip on the Semliki showed the riverine fringes to be a paradise for birdlife.

A week in the DRC highlighted how the country is recovering from the ravages of one of the world's more recent wars and the most costly in human lives since WWII. The people were quick to overcome their wariness of strangers and proved hospitable and friendly. The DRC's resources, in terms of habitat and wildlife have been overexploited in places but most of the country has immeasurable potential that we can only hope that the people of the Congo will be able to enjoy and at last take benefit from for their future sustainable prosperity.

The outcome of the trip is that we believe that access to the DRC is relatively easy through the Kasindi border crossing and the potential of the Ruwenzori Mountains, Ishango and the Semliki River as well as the Mbuti Pygmy community is ideally suited to tourism. As soon as the bridge is repaired and access to the Ituri is made easier then extending trips to the Okapi Faunal Reserve and rainforest hikes with the Mbuti will become much sought-after wildlife and cultural experiences.

Queen Elizabeth National Park

Back in Uganda several days were spent in the QENP and some brilliant encounters with mating lions, a most obliging leopard and another Chimpanzee hike in the Kyambura Gorge kept the cameras busy. The boat cruise on the Kazinga Channel is always a feast of birdlife in particular, waterbirds throng along the banks as you cruise sedately along. A real 'twitchers' paradise!

One day we attended the official opening of the Kasenyi Kindergarten School. Pascal had helped co-ordinate the programme with the local building contractor and the main fundraisers, the Keiser Foundation from Switzerland. The Provincial Governor opened the school and the whole community was present for the party afterwards with food and drink for everyone. The Keiser Foundation will now be raising the funds to supply the fishing community and schools at Kasenyi with a supply of safe, clean drinking water.

Next it was onto the less visited area of Ishasha in the south of the Park. This region is famous for its unique population of tree dwelling lions. An unusual sight, seeing full grown lions deliberately climbing large fig and acacia trees that dot the rolling savannah lands. Why? No one is 100% sure but the shady trees will catch the cooling breezes during the heat of the day, which will also get them out of the reach of small and annoying biting flies. And they are less likely to be harassed by the areas aggressive elephants. Whatever the reason it is nearly a daily occurrence. Bird life is prodigious and many species new to me were photographed. Ishasha is my favourite area of National Parks in Uganda and is less used by operators and tourists unlike the comparative congestion of the Mweya area in QENP.

Gorilla Trekking in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

Leaving the Albertine Rift Valley floor the trip route climbed to the hilly, medium altitude rainforest of Bwindi. In days gone by the Bwindi were the eastern most fringes of the vast Congo Basin Rainforest. Today it is a relic patch of forest surrounded by dense human population and intensive agriculture development, the surrounding hills covered in terraced fields and large commercial tea plantations. The Gorillas of the Bwindi live in a small oasis but the terrain has meant that it was too rugged to exploit the hardwood trees growing in the hills and 'development' by-passed the forest, luckily for the Gorillas and Uganda's tourist trade!

The daily groups head out after the briefing by the UWA guides and though not at such a high altitude as in the Virungas hiking can be arduous as the hills are steep and the place is not called the Impenetrable Forest for nothing! Allocated to the 'H' Group, the furthest of the three family groups easily accessed from the Buhoma base area, usually means an eight hour hike and it's all up and down. But it's worth every second of the slog, even the torrential and spectacular thunderstorm on the way back down!

UWA also conduct hikes, other than the gorilla treks, with Parks guides in the Bwindi and it is recommended to spend some time slowly wandering around the rainforest to see and hear this wonderful habitat and the varied wildlife of these green hills. Once again the region is a birder's paradise. If you are doing a 'tick-list', take a few extra pens along!

School Visits in the Buhoma District.

Time was also taken to visit the local schools at Buhoma and Karangara. Over the past few years Joy Howell has done amazing work raising funds and co-ordinating development at Buhoma Orphans Community Primary School. Now the new school and dormitory blocks mean the pupils and staff can get down to the serious work of education in an environment conducive to study. Work continues and there is always more to be built and funds to be raised.

A visit to the school at Karangara about 20 miles away from the tourist centre shows what Buhoma was like in the early stages of development and the funds had just started coming in for the construction of the first classroom block. Early days, but the enthusiasm of staff and pupils at both schools is a real pleasure to watch. The audio/visual shows in the gallery hopefully convey the enthusiasm and joy of the kids and teachers and are testimony to the hard work Joy has put in over the years.

Anyone who wants to get involved as an individual or corporate, church or society group with the school projects and send funds to help the constant work or sponsor a child through school (£60.00 per annum can put an AIDS orphaned child through school and this includes boarding and feeding! Now that's value for money!) They should contact Joy Howell at: - tel 01635 580 292 or cell 07882 195 851

Lake Mburo

A stop over at Lake Mburo National Park can break a long road trip back to Kampala and Entebbe on the return leg. A peaceful park with beautiful hills and water ways. The acacia woodlands are most reminiscent of the thorn veldt back home in Matabeleland. It is also the only place in Uganda where you find herds of zebra and impala.

Thoughts and Overview

AJ Tours really put together a special trip and experience. The mixture of primate, wildlife, bird watching and cultural experiences made it a trip to remember. The time spent in the DRC was not only enthralling and an eye-opener but also showed that there was definitely scope to start developing short trips to the Congo for the more adventurous traveller. Something Pascal and I will definitely be looking at developing. Hope this information has been helpful and don't forget to check out the photos in the link below.

Anyone interested in a trip to Uganda/Rwanda and the Congo contact AJ Tours though the direct link from my web site or drop me a line.

Life's a journey, so might as well make it an interesting one!