“If we look straight and deep into a chimpanzee’s eyes, an intelligent self-assured personality looks back at us. If they are animals, what must we be?”
― Frans de Waal
I arrived in Entebbe, Uganda without any expectations; I was following in the footsteps of great conservationists like Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey. I came wide-eyed and in awe of the long-anticipated bucket list item of seeing gorillas. I came ready to learn and ready to soak it all in. I was prepared to hike into the mountains, into the mist and up the rolling green hills.…but nothing could prepare me for what I would discover while traveling through Uganda and Rwanda.
Uganda, known as the “Pearl of Africa,” has 10 national parks offering not only a primate experience but exceptional game viewing opportunities throughout the country. After a quick stop in Entebbe, I headed to Ndali Lodge, passing through crater lakes and into the Ruwenzori Mountains on the outskirts of Fort Portal, close to Kibale National Park. The estate known as Ndali Lodge dates back to the early 1920s and was started as a tea plantation. The land is now a verdant expanse of indigenous trees and home to a diverse array of wildlife, including birds and monkeys. The lodge runs a coffee plantation on the property, and their resident guide did a phenomenal job of walking me through the process from start to finish. I ended my tour with one of the best cups of coffee of the entire trip.
Dinner was served on the veranda, where I opted for a traditional dish of Matooke: mashed plantain cooked with a peanut sauce. The views are breathtaking. Here, you can combine culture and wildlife viewing, topped off with exceptional birding right from the lodge. I spotted various great blue turaco, Ross’s turaco, cinnamon-chested bee-eaters, long-crested eagles, blue-headed tree agama and butterflies galore, just to mention a few, all while enjoying a fantastic meal! In addition, there are various local communities and schools you can visit in the surrounding area to add more cultural interaction to your visit.
We started early the next morning for Kibale National Park, which is a 45-minute drive from the lodge. On arrival, we were briefed before heading into the forest. We were only 5 minutes into the walk before hearing chimpanzee vocalization, and then right there at my feet, my first encounter with a chimpanzee! Kibale National Park is not impenetrable forest (like Bwindi for gorilla trekking), so the chimps actually come down onto the ground. They move pretty quickly when they are on the go, but they are relatively easy to follow because they are habituated. The social organization of chimps is almost too human to be true, and staring into their eyes can only leave you pondering about what stares back at you.
Chimps are not the only primates in the area. We hiked about 10km combined between Kibale National Park and the Bigodi Swamp, which is home to red colobus monkeys, blue monkeys, vervet monkeys, l’hoest monkeys, grey cheeked mangabey and olive baboons. Birding is also spectacular here, with over 325 species present.
The following morning, we set off early on a 4-hour drive on unpaved roads heading south to Queen Elizabeth National Park. The scenery was absolutely breathtaking as we passed over the equator, making for a great photo opportunity. The tropical forest combined with the Rift Valley make for such a dramatic backdrop. The park extends from Lake George in the northeast to Lake Edward in the southwest and includes the Kazinga Channel connecting the two lakes. This area is known for abundant wildlife, including elephants, cape buffaloes, hippopotami, crocodile and fantastic birding. I enjoyed a river cruise on the Kazinga Channel and was blown away by teeming wildlife and the sheer number of birds spotted. This area gives the Lower Zambezi a run for its money and, in my opinion, walks away with the prize! I spotted the rare all-white kingfisher amongst trees filled with pied kingfishers, as many as twenty in a bush along the river at a time. Truly magnificent.
The park is also well-known for its volcanic features, including volcanic cones and deep craters with crater lakes, such as the Katwe craters, from which salt is extracted. I headed further south and spent the night in the Southern Ishasha sector of the park at Ishasha Wilderness Camp on the Ntungwe River. Here the phenomenon of tree-climbing lions occurs on a regular basis. You find an abundance of kob, topi antelope, elephant, buffalo, troops of black-and-white colobus and vervet monkeys.
The following day we headed for Rwanda. The long drive through the mountainous Bwindi National Park was filled with mysterious beauty, and we continued on through the border and across to Volcanoes National Park. We reached Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge in the late afternoon, arriving to find the lodge engulfed by a thick mist concealing the mountains surrounding the property.
We departed at 7:30am the next morning, and our guide led an extensive briefing at base camp to prepare us for the trek. There are currently 18 gorilla families found in Rwanda (10 are habituated and visited by tourists; 8 are studied by researchers). We set off in search of the Karisimgi group, made up of 16 members including 2 silverbacks. The group is the hardest to track as it inhabits the upper slopes of Mt. Karisimbi at an altitude of 4507m. The Karisimgi group has established their home high in the upper slopes and is suitable for trackers interested in serious hiking.
We set off with the slowest person at the front and fastest at the back to even out the pace. The incline started right away, and we walked through a village and farming community until we reached a roughly assembled stone wall which marks the official start of the park and end of the community settlement. We entered the thick forest, muddy and rough, but the scenery takes your breath away! We hiked for 3 hours, stopping periodically to ensure all hikers were managing the altitude and incline. Our guide announced that we were only 5 minutes away. We unloaded our backpacks, walking sticks and excess gear and left everything with the porters as we followed the trekkers further into the brush, tiptoeing behind them as if we were stalking prey.
Transfixed on the moment, we made our discovery – gorillas in the mist! A baby chewing on a bamboo shoot (bamboo beer to gorillas), adolescent teenagers play-fighting and a big silverback keeping a watchful eye. Slowly we uncovered member after member of the family. An hour flies by so fast – my only reassurance was that I would get to do it all over again the next day!
The following morning, Francis (who trekked with Dian Fossey) met us at base camp to prepare us for our second trek. This trek visited the Sabyinyo group, the nearest gorilla family and easiest to track. This group inhabits the gentle slopes between Mt. Sabyinyo and Mt. Gahinga in Bamboo Forest and is named after the Sabinyo volcano that means the “old man’s teeth.” The group is popular for its giant silverback known as Guhonda, the largest silverback in the park weighing about 220kg/485lbs. He hammered his chest, and the sound echoed loudly before he pushed past me and turned back with a dominant stance. Francis giggled, reminding me that these moments are what I came for. I was the lucky one – capturing the moment of dominance! The family consists of many babies, juveniles and sub-adults, which lends to such entertainment as they frolic in the trees and get reprimanded by Guhonda when they step out of line. Gorilla trekking is arguable one of the most memorable wildlife encounters one can have!
The Lessons of Rwanda
There were many moments on this trip that took my breath away. As I headed back through a thousand rolling hills and reached Kigali, I came face to face with a profound truth. Rwanda lost more than 1 million of its people in a genocide of epic proportions that took place over a hundred-day period in 1994. The story of Rwanda was not new to me, but I had the privilege of experiencing a journey through Uganda and Rwanda with an exceptional guide, Sam Nayebare, a Tutsi whose parents fled to Uganda during the genocide in search of a better life. They lived through the genocide, the divide between Tusti, Hutu and Twa, and survived to tell the stories of freedom. Sam was born in the same year as me and returned to Rwanda, where he now lives with his family.
I got to see the beauty and the sadness of Rwanda through Sam’s eyes. It is nothing less than profound to see what a human being is capable of. It lives in us all – the hurt, the destruction and the darkness we can inflict on one another – but Rwanda has an amazing way of showing forgiveness. The people of Rwanda show how love overcomes even the darkest moments. The heart can forgive the deepest atrocities, and with forgiveness comes personal freedom. Approximately 70% of the Tutsi people living in Rwanda were killed, leaving over 75,000 surviving children orphaned, but the children of yesterday have grown into the future of Rwanda. The country now only consists of the people of Rwanda, with no segregation between tribes. The country stands together to rebuild as one. My time in Kigali was a stark reminder of what happened here while the world stood by and watched, doing nothing to save these people… a reminder that we have not learned from these events. Particularly relevant to change today, it was a wake-up call and a reminder of that old Cherokee legend:
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too. Which wolf will win? The one you feed.”
Rwanda will forever be etched in my mind. I am left wondering what Guhonda saw when he looked into my eyes…