Meeting the Chimps & Gorillas in Uganda

By Leanne Flanagan Smith In April 2019, I travelled as a guest of Africa Wild Explorations into Uganda to see the gorillas and chimps. It was an incredible experience, and I would go back in a heartbeat!

After landing in Entebbe we drove for around an hour to Kampala, passing through the vibrant Saturday markets along the way.  We spent the night in the capital and got up early the next morning for a long day of driving before reaching Kibale. Our hotel was about an hour away from the national park among tea plantations and overlooking a lake which was a stunning setting.

The Chimps

We were up early the next morning to make our 8am briefing at Kibale National Park. There are 13 chimp communities within the park. Three are tracked for research purposes, and two are tracked for tourism. We visited the Kanyantale community, which is home to about 120 chimps. The other community, Buraiga, is comprised of 182 chimps but is a more strenuous trek – you’d need a full day to get to see those guys!

We were VERY lucky and saw so many chimps both in the trees and on the ground. We saw them almost straight away and we were on the move following different ones for about an hour and a half.

The chimps are noisy and active but then also calm and gentle. It was amazing to see them interact with each other. There was lots of grooming and caring for one another which was sweet to watch.

Exploring Uganda

Outside of seeing the chimps and gorillas, Uganda offers the chance to see other African wildlife.  Throughout game drives on other days we saw plenty of hippos (even had lunch near a few!), elephants, baboons, giraffes, zebras, buffalo, impala, elands, warthogs and plenty of birds.

We did drive through Queen Elizabeth National Park in hopes of seeing the famous tree-climbing lions, but alas, we were unlucky.

The roads are very bumpy, so be wary of that. However, the vehicles are comfortable, and everyone gets a big window seat – perfect for animal spotting!

It’s stunning scenery with a beautiful contrast of red earth, lush green vegetation and blue skies.

Life in rural Uganda focuses on community and unlike us, life is lived mostly outside. There aren’t many cars outside of the city; instead, motorbikes, pushbikes and walking seem to dominate the roads.

The Gorillas

We started the morning at Bwindi briefing centre for an 8am talk. After, we drove for approximately 50mins then walked up through a plantation and village before entering the forest. The line where farmland finished and forest started was a sharp one, and a reminder of the importance of conservation. We walked for about 60mins before catching up with the gorillas. We had about 1hr 25mins with them (you’re only allocated an hour but our wonderful guide didn’t start the hour until the gorillas stopped moving so much). Our family comprised 16 gorillas across a range of ages and we saw around 10-12 of them. It was right then I wished I had a good camera – the photos and videos I captured on my phone did not do these majestic creatures any justice! The trek to catch up with the gorillas was not difficult although it was steep, and once in the forest you didn’t seem to notice the climbing. The forest floor was springy & spongy with lots of roots. Good mobility is a MUST. Our guide gave us plenty of opportunities to stop, catch our breath and soak in the sights during the trek.

Final thoughts

Spending time with the gorillas was a huge bucket list item for me, and watching them interact, it’s easy to see how we’re such close relatives. It’s hard to describe the feeling of being in their presence and I will confess to shedding a tear or two as I watched a mum and her little one snuggle.

All of our guides were extremely knowledgeable and happy to assist in any way possible. I would say it was a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ trip, but I really want to go back!