Uganda Expedition 2019

Gorilla nursing baby gorilla

Dates: 23 February – 4 March 2019

Location: Kibale, Queen Elizabeth & Bwindi Impenetrable National Parks

Conditions: During the day, it was warm and pleasantly overcast, averaging around 20 – 25 degrees Celsius in the country side and QENP, while slightly cooler temperatures were experienced in the rainforests of Kibale and Bwindi, where some good rain was received in the form of late afternoon and evening thundershowers. As always, we had excellent Chimp and Gorilla trekking as well as fantastic game viewing and birding.

Tour leader: Greg Whelan

All the participants were greeted with the fresh warm air upon exiting the airport terminal, which was most welcomed, especially for those who were coming from winter back home. As we made our way to the Boma Hotel, situated within 10 minutes’ drive from the international airport, we could see that the clouds were building up for a thundershower. Although the rains are mostly only expected from April/May, one may expect some showers of rain at this time too, which was realised later that night.

Our guests had the opportunity to relax at the Boma’s pool, to decompress after their travels, while listening to the sounds of the wonderful birdlife that abounded in the lovely garden setting. After an enjoyable dinner, where all the participants were able to meet and learn more about one another, and where I was able to brief everyone on the very exciting tour that lay ahead, we all retired to our rooms for a good night’s rest.

We set off the next day after an early breakfast for our flight to Kasese. The flight heads almost due west towards the spectacular Rwenzori mountain range. The air was crisp after the previous night’s rain. On arrival, I introduced all our guests to our local guide, Livingstone, who would not only be transporting us all safely to all our destinations, but who would also be engaging with interesting information about the local culture, history and of course wildlife, especially the feathered kind!
En route to Kibale, we were able to enjoy sights of country life in rural Uganda. We stopped to buy some delicious bananas, which we were able to enjoy en route as well as a whole packet full of delicious avocados, which became our regular side dish for the rest of our meals throughout the trip.

On entering Kibale Forest we spotted our first primate!!! A family of Guereza colobus monkeys. These great looking black and white primates were resting after their morning feed.

Colobus monkeys, have a complex and sacculated stomach, which is able to process difficult plant materials as they prefer unripe, green or brown fruits, seeds or pods instead of more ripe, soft and colourful fruits like most other primates, and therefore spend long periods resting to allow digestion to take place. This allowed us to get a great view of them before they decided to leap very confidently and acrobatically from tree to tree, with their long balancing tails.

A great start! Next up was the ‘border patrol’; a troop of olive baboons. A mother suckling her baby, a flirtatious female seductively approaching the dominant male and then suddenly an unruly youngster hopped onto the bonnet. He’d spotted the bananas in the vehicle but we were not letting him have any of them.

We arrived at Primate Lodge, which is aptly named since Kibale is renowned for being the primate capital of the world, in time for a well-deserved lunch. Later, we set off for Bigodi Wetlands, which offers a trail around the wetlands to look for primates and birds.

Among the larger of the bird species, we found the black-and-white-casqued hornbill and also had great views of the great blue turacos, which were feeding on some palm fruits. We were also fortunate enough to get a fantastic view of Uganda’s national bird, the grey crowned crane!

We had some more great views of Guereza colobus monkeys, their close relatives, the red colobus monkeys, as well as a family of grey-cheeked mangabeys; a very recognizable primate with its naked black face, long ragged tail and tufted crown. The male’s loud, distinctive “gobble” call, was one we would all become familiar with over the days ahead. They, in fact, have enlarged vocal tracts and when males become dominant, their call becomes the beacon for their group’s movements and orientation. Dotted amongst the mangabeys was a family of red-tailed monkeys. These small primates, weighing no more than 5kg, as their name suggests, have beautiful long red tails. They also have a very recognizable white nose-spot and blue facial skin. They spend early mornings foraging for fruit, which makes up more than half of their diet, before being displaced by larger monkeys.

After walking through some tall papyrus, we came across some young children who were selling some clay carvings of chimps and gorillas and it was hard to resist supporting them, even though we knew that these kids should have actually been in school. With the youth learning that there is great value in the wildlife that they have on their doorstep, it will hopefully bode well for the conservation and preservation of their natural resources for generations to come.

Livingstone decided to catch a taxi to fetch our vehicle, while we continued ambling slowly around the wetlands. In Uganda the local taxis are motorbikes called Boda-bodas (which comes from the word “border”). When people wanted a lift to the border to get across into the neighbouring country Kenya, they would hold up their hands and cry “Border-Border”. After dinner and a quick stroll around the camp to look for nocturnals, we headed off to bed for some much needed rest, as we had a big day of trekking ahead of us!

We strolled down to the visitor’s centre, after an early breakfast, where we were to meet our guide. After a brief orientation talk, as sun was just starting to rise, we set off into the forest. We were doing the full day habituation with the chimpanzees, and we were all very excited! This meant that we were going in search of chimpanzees, which were not used to seeing people. By doing this over time, the chimps would hopefully not perceive people as being a threat, as would be their first impression, and allow us to view them more closely as they do in other parts of the forest.

Birding in the forests may often prove to be challenging as the birds themselves are difficult to see high up in the canopies. The sounds however are wonderful. As we strode through the forest along wet but not muddy trails, we could hear the repetitive call of the scaly-breasted Illadopsis.

As we walked further into the forest we could see where chimps had built previous nest sites, something they do at night to sleep, but also at times during the day during heavy rains. The smells of the forest were so clean and the colours of green so vivid and walking among the giant trees of Kibale was inspiring. After crossing a beautiful running stream, we received news from our guide that the trackers, who headed out ahead of us to track the chimps from where they’d been seen the day before, had found a small group of the family.

With the keen help of our porters, the guide was able to navigate his way successfully to the trackers, where we were able to feast our eyes on our first sighting of our closest living relative!

They were up in a fig tree, enjoying their breakfast and did not seem to take too much notice of us, which was great as this meant that the habituation process was working well! While watching them from a distance of about 40m we also observed and heard the distinct loud bark of a male olive baboon, just behind us. He too would have been keeping a close eye on the chimps, which are known to strategically hunt baboons as well as the red colobus monkeys. The call may have been a warning to the rest of the baboon family as to the whereabouts of the chimps that were spotted, as well as a signal to the chimps that they would be wasting their time too, as they’d already been seen. The chimps however took no notice. One of the female chimps appeared to be in estrous as the anogenital region looked swollen and had acquired a pink hue. This was far more interesting and was attracting the attentions of a few of the males.

As the light was not in our favour, we decided to move around to get a better view for taking photographs, which was good for a while, until the chimps decided to move and without hesitation our trackers were hot on their trail.

We caught up with them again and spend at least another hour watching them at much closer range above us in the trees. At one point a male chimp moved suddenly, fortunately just after some of us had repositioned, and a piece of a branch came crashing down beside us. I for one, was well impressed by the progress that the habituation team had been making with this family of chimps, who seemed very relaxed in our presence. Just one year ago, the family had been far more elusive.

After having spent 4 hours walking in the most beautiful primary forest, we were all ravenous and so decided to take a break and enjoy some lunch, which we had packed and brought along. A picnic beside a small stream where butterflies of all colours, shapes and sizes were attracted to the moisture and flittered all around us. Bellies full, we headed off to another part of the forest. Our guide, had a surprise up his sleeve. After another hour of walking we heard the screaming of chimps ahead of us. A group of females and their young were up in the trees feeding. As we approached to get a better look, we heard the males calling in the distance, to which the females responded. We decided to head for the males, but when we found them they were heading straight towards us and strode right past, without even a glance. The new ‘chief’ who recently took over from the previous dominant male, ran right behind one of our participants, brushing right up against her. On the ground, on all-fours, they can move really quickly; there was no time to get out of the way! This was the well-habituated family of chimps that we were now viewing, and what a privilege it was to be in their presence! One of the males lay on his back with his hands behind his back for a good 20 minutes giving us all ample opportunity to get some good close-ups of him. Seeing and hearing the chimps all around us, was a totally exhilarating experience and one that everyone will cherish for a long time to come!

After having spent most of the day on foot in the gently-undulating terrain, we headed for the lodge and enjoyed ice cold drinks, while we relived and chatted about our experiences in the Kibale Forest.

While we enjoyed a more leisurely breakfast the next day, red-tailed monkeys fed in the trees around the camp. We decided to take an alternative route as we headed back south to Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP). En route we got to see snow on the equator; the Rwenzori Mountains’ snow-capped peaks were a sight to behold! We also relished the incredible sights of some of Uganda’s impressive volcanic crater lakes. Makekwa ndali, being one of them, which apparently is the same lake that appears on Uganda’s bank notes.

The volcanic field is about 200 square kilometers and some of the craters in QENP are up to 3 kilometers in diameter and 100 meters deep. These unusual formations were formed individually by a series of violent volcanic explosions over the last 1 million years. The explosions were a result of superheated gas and steam, and despite the volcanic activity, there was no lava flow. Many of the craters have now developed into picturesque saltwater and freshwater lakes.
Soon after Kasese, we passed the equator and entered the famed Queen Elizabeth National Park. It was fitting that the first animal we saw was in fact Uganda’s national animal, the Uganda kob.

We arrived at Mweya Lodge in time for a hearty lunch. The superbly located lodge overlooks the Kazinga Channel, which is a wide, 32-kilometre long natural channel that links Lake Edward and Lake George.

While enjoying a lunch, overlooking the channel below, we could see a breeding herd of elephants in the distance walking to the water for a drink, while hippos and buffalo were cooling down in muddy shallows on the edge of the channel. In the late afternoon, we set off on our private boat trip along the channel. From the boat we were able to get up close to the hippos, buffalo, crocodiles, warthogs, waterbuck and kob. The calls of the African fish eagle resident on the channel could be heard throughout the trip. Fantastic views of red-throated bee-eaters, African skimmers, pied kingfishers and a plethora of wading birds was adored by everyone. An elephant bull in musth put on an impressive display as he broke a massive branch from a euphorbia tree and proceeded to wave it around for the other bulls that were nearby to see. He was a big bull in his prime and the other bulls in his vicinity gave him a wide berth. When elephant bulls enter into musth, their testosterone levels are much higher than normal, which forces them to look for females in estrous and gives them the competitive edge when there are other bulls around looking to mate. This usually lasts for about 3-4 months a year and is easily recognisable by the wet marks on the sides of the heads, where their temporal gland secretes a fluid, which rubs off on the trees as they pass. They’re also continually dripping urine, which may also allow the females to pick up on their scent and seek out the more dominant bulls. Even from a distance, one may see the inside of a bull-in-musth’s legs stained green and wet with urine. As the sun was starting to fade, we relished a game drive along the banks of the channel before heading back to the lodge for dinner.

The following morning as the sun rose over the channel, to the honking sounds of hippos and striking cries of the African Fish Eagle, we all enjoyed a hearty breakfast. We made a slight detour before heading south to Ishasha, as we caught wind that there were lions found in the kob leks, which are the mating grounds for the Uganda kob. The day was starting to get quite warm. By now the lions would be resting up. In the distance we spotted a young lion moving from a bush to a Euphorbia tree in order to find more suitable shade. The lion climbed the tree and we were all absolutely thrilled that we had managed to find the famed tree-climbing lions of QENP!

After enjoying some great views, we headed south. En route, we passed through the Maramagambo Forest, which borders the eastern side of Lake Edward.

We had some more great sightings of Guereza Colobus monkeys and Olive baboons close to the road. After passing through the forest, the landscape again changed to be that of savanna grasslands. Having deliberately been burnt a few weeks prior to remove all the old moribund grasses to allow for all the new fresh growth after the rains, it was looking was spectacular! The new growth was attracting large herds of buffalo, Uganda kop and on entering the Ishasha section of the Park, we had our first sighting of topi, before arriving at Ishasha Wilderness Camp in time for a delicious lunch.

During our time exploring the southern parts of QENP, we enjoyed wonderful sighting of the plains game as the grasslands were littered with herds of buffalo, Defassa waterbuck, topi and lots of sure-footed Uganda kob lambs, which were no more than a couple of weeks old.

In the evenings, from our tents, we could hear the croaking sounds of the Guereza Colobus monkeys, which could easily have been mistaken for frogs calling. In the distance, we could also hear hyaenas whooping, as well as the rasping call of a leopard.
On two occasions during our drives, we had fantastic sightings of the territorial female leopard (most likely the one we had heard calling during the night). On one drive, while driving along the raised banks of the Ntungwe River, we spotted a hyaena in the distance below moving into a small stand of papyrus. Suddenly right next to us the leopard lifted her head and moved to reposition, which was perfect to allow us a fabulous up-close look at this elegant yet powerful feline. On returning to the lodge one evening, we could hear the call of a leopard in the distance and hoped that we may get another glimpse. Our wishes came true as we saw her up ahead strolling through the plains whilst calling to signal her dominance in the area.

A great way to leave behind the riches of Queen Elizabeth National Park, as we drove the next day towards the rainforests of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest for our final adventures.

While enjoying our lunch, we were treated to the ever-present call of the brown-throated Wattle-eye, whose call always reminds me of a child’s rusty swing. Afterwards, we decided to stretch our legs a bit and headed into the local market to see some of the local crafts. After a wonderful dinner, we were briefed on what to expect on our first gorilla trek that lay ahead.

The next day, after a hearty breakfast, we loaded up our waters and packed lunches, chose our walking poles that were provided by the superbly located Buhoma Lodge, and headed eagerly down to the visitor’s centre for our pre-trek briefing. It was great to learn that there was in fact a new family of gorillas that had been habituated and were open to trekking groups, to compliment the other three. On this day we were to trek the Habinyanja family, and in order to cut down some of the distance to where the family had settled in the forest the day before, we drove for about an hour through the beautiful countryside before reaching the point from where we would trek. Our guide was in radio contact with the trackers, who had headed off earlier to locate signs of the gorilla family. Gorillas make a nest on the ground at night to sleep. The trackers guided us to where they were moving, as they were hot on their heels, following the fresh tracks of the family.

After just over an hour of walking the slopes in this beautiful forest, we were led to find the Habinyanja family. The dominant silverback lay flat on his back, while a couple of the youngsters seemed to be in a very playful mood. It was incredible to watch them climbing up the vines, swinging while beating their little chests, and at times we even had to move back, as they seemed to be very curious and without any fear of us observing their antics. A black back made his way between our group and beat his chest loudly, which at such close range, gave most of us a fright. Since the adults were resting after having spent the morning feeding, we had some outstanding views of the young gorillas in particular and all the participants were extremely pleased with their first sighting of the endangered and much loved mountain gorillas!

Since we’d returned back to the lodge a little earlier on this day, we decided to visit a craft centre, which was established by a young woman and her mother as a way to empower many of the local woman. We were able to see first-hand the skills of these talented woman as they wove mats, bowls and baskets. Others were making clothes from very colourful fabrics attained in West Africa. Later in the afternoon, a few of us enjoyed some birding around the lodge in the afternoon, which yielded some delightful new species, as well as some great views of a very playful family of L’Hoest’s monkeys.

The next day was to be completely different. We set off from the visitors centre straight into the Impenetrable Forest in search of the Mubare family. In the beginning it was all up and up the hill. Fortunately, we were well assisted by our helpful porters, who not only took the weight off our shoulders by carrying our bags, but were always very willing to pull and push us whenever we required any assistance. It was almost midday and our legs could feel that they’d worked out. Finally we received word from our trackers that they had found the family and that we were getting close.

We were particularly excited to see this group, as we’d been told that it has the youngest gorilla in Bwindi Forest, just 2 months old! The terrain was a bit denser than what we’d encountered the day before, nevertheless we had some great views of a female and then the silverback, who was trying to make advances on the female, as she was in estrous. He was a new dominant male in the group and had taken over from the previous silverback, who sadly died from his injuries after the fight. An impressive display was witnessed as he suddenly thrashed a bush to show off his dominance. Not far behind him we spotted a female who’d made a small nest in a tree to settle with her youngster. As she moved down, we could see that it was in fact the 2 month old baby. What a thrill to see the helpless little being, as she supported it in one hand as she moved. We all managed some great views of the mother and baby; a truly soul-touching experience, and a phenomenal way to end our time in Bwindi!

We rested our weary legs and enjoyed a well-deserved lunch in the forest, before making our way back to the lodge; at least all downhill from there!

We relished another really enjoyable dinner, which was filled with stories of our incredible encounters of our trip. The following morning we chartered a flight back to Entebbe, enjoyed a final lunch together at the Boma hotel, and said our farewells with memories that will last a lifetime!

A special thanks to our local guide Livingstone for his kind nature and wealth of local knowledge and to all the respective lodges where we stayed for their incredible hospitality and wonderful meals. Also, a big thank you to all the trekking guides, who spend each day in the forest informing guests about the need for conservation and the special role that they play in preserving such habitat and the animals that reside within. And of course, a big thank you to all our participants for being on board this expedition and for the great enthusiasm shown throughout!

Photo credits to Greg Whelan.

Download the Mammal & Bird species spotted on our Uganda Expedition