“For magnificence, for variety of form and colour, for profusion of brilliant life — bird, insect, reptile, beast — for vast scale — Uganda is truly “the Pearl of Africa.” Winston Churchill wrote these words in 1908 and quite remarkably they still ring true today.
Since I was a little girl I dreamt of visiting the forests where mountain gorillas lived. I didn’t only dream about it, I obsessed over it. All I wanted was to be Diane Fossey and spend my days amongst primates but life’s twists and turns took me in other directions. For years I imagined the incessant shrill of the cicadas interspersed with the calls of monkeys and mangabes and the way light might filter through the canopy. I dreamt of the rising mist that shrouds moss-covered trees and I imagined families of gorillas living in that mist.
You might think then that with such high expectations, Uganda had the potential to fail these self same but thankfully it did quite the opposite.
Uganda is a country of extraordinary beauty with dense forests, snow capped mountains, expansive lakes and savannas. It’s a friendly nation and it’s teeming with wildlife. My guests, Paul, Erica and I, hiked to see the gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park that even in the name summons a sense of the adventures it promises and ultimately delivers on.
The highlight for all of us was finding these iconic apes. There is a startling familiarity that is felt when a gorilla and a human lock eyes. They are so human and yet not quite and we are so gorilla and yet not quite. The result is a bizarre insight or sense of what it might be like to be the other.
Spending time with the groups felt as if we were among friends. Mothers nursed their babies as the silverback munched noisily beside them. Youngsters scrambled up trees and played rough and tumble, jostling between the adults dotted around the squashed vegetation; some resting, some grooming, others feeding.
On our second day, a female walked right up and sat in front of me with her 3 month old baby hugging her large chest. The little youngster peered at me inquisitively, sun falling onto it’s face and close enough for me to see the intimate detail of its brown eyes, whiskered lips and human-like ears. After resting and feeding there a while the mother then wandered right past Erica sitting beside me, the gorilla’s baby scrambling up her side and onto her back, before they meandered into the forest.
I also had some minutes alone with the largest silverback in Uganda. He comes from the Rushegura group, which was the very first group of gorillas to be habituated in the country. This animal commands your attention just with his sheer size and presence. To watch them move is to marvel at the intimidating.
We were also lucky enough to see a group of our closest relatives, the chimpanzee, in Kibale National Park. We got a habituation permit, which allows you to spend the day with a group of researchers who trail the chimps in the area and record their day-to-day behaviour and movements. Despite the sighting being difficult from a photographic perspective with the chimps high up in the trees, it was fantastic.
We watched some of the bigger, dominant chimps chase less dominant males through the canopy screaming and swinging from one branch to the next. We watched them grooming one another, napping and feeding their young as great blue turacos weaved though the trees amongst them shouting their distinctive call. The forests are also teeming with other wildlife and we were spoilt with sightings of primates such as the red colobus monkey, red tailed monkey, black and white colobus, Olive baboon and the shy L’hoest’s monkey.
Although we chose not to visit these on this trip, other gems include Murchison Falls, Uganda’s largest park, which is home to elephants, buffalo, crocodiles and hippos as well as the gorgeous falls forming part of the Nile River. Queen Elizabeth National Park also has a strong leopard population and is famous for its tree climbing lions that rest in the reserve’s massive fig trees on hot days. But if nothing else, you need to visit for a taste of the local gin made from bananas.
This photo is possibly my favorite of our entire trip to Uganda. Captured on our last day; it is exactly as I took it, completely unedited, which I love because it looks the total opposite of that. It looks fake, almost too good to be true. It represents a moment where my breath caught because I remembered that life is capable of creating in a way that’s even more beautiful and more unreal than I imagine in my wildest dreams. How surprising for the real to be more unreal than you imagine. How wonderful!