As with many bird and mammalwatchers, there is a list of species and/or habitats and regions that simplymust be logged before the legs, mind and body give up the ghost. For thelatter, we have been lucky to tick off some notable goodies, including Tiger, Grizzly, Polar & Black Bears, Panda, Orang Utan, Meerkat, and a host of African specialities . However, Gorillas and Chimps hoisted themselves up the list over the years to claim undisputed top spot. The glitch was that Rwanda seemed the obvious choice for the former but ideally required a separate site for the latter, and a lot of focus was on the two great apes. Enter Venture Uganda (www.ventureuganda.org) , and a huge image of a gorilla on the exhibition stand at one of the travel shows. This proved to be the seed that grew into the tree. Lesley Harris, the company director, outlined a circuit in the South-west of the country that could take in both the great ape habitats, as well as varied safaris and other wild/birdlife. The costs she came up with were more than reasonable and competitive, with the inclusive bonus of the trip being tailor made just for the two of us - a driver/guide and vehicle, all to ourselves. No having to pretend to make new friends! Result! Lesley is proficient at replying to emails, unless she is on a tour, and tailored the route to our needs. We also met up at the same travel show (2 years on) to sit down and go through last minute details. Our guide/driver turned out to be Michael, who is also Lesley's business partner. He is keen on all wildlife, and will take any opportunity to point out birds as well as mammals. We were driven in a 4 wheel drive van, which was capable of taking 7 passengers, although Venture Uganda work on a tailor made principle, so we had it to ourselves. We were delighted with the overall service delivered by the company, and wouldn't hesitate recommend them to anyone wanting a wildlife holiday to the country.
Our itinerary was basically a clockwise circuit of the South-west of the country, and chose late February to early March since it was just before the wet season, and one of the better times recommended for the Gorillas. As it turned out, more or less all of the birds which changed plumage, such as the weavers, seemed to be in full breeding plumage. Also, we only had a smattering of rain on one occasion, while in Queen Elizabeth NP, although rain can still fall more often even at this time of the year. Temperatures ranged from mild (but not requiring a jacket) at night to 30°C, although the overall impression was of not being quite as baked as we expected. The condition of roads also varied, from decent tarmac to bumpy uneven clay types of surfaces, and transfer between locations up to 5 hours. We did take antimalarials, but were pleasantly surprised at the low incidence of mosquitoes. The electricity is almost universally the UK 3 pin plug type, although Mihingo Lodge and Engagi run on solar power, so don't have additional sockets in the rooms - charging equipment can be done in the main reception areas however.
These were the two main reasons for the trip, with the additional benefit in Uganda of being able to add on plenty of game drives and birdwatching without too much extra travel and effort. Both can be done at excellent sites in the far South-west if the country, next to the Congo and Rwanda borders.
There are a selection of locations where Gorillas can be sought, but the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is probably the most predictable, with Buhoma being the sector where there is likely to be less distance needed to find the quarry. Permits cost $600 each ($750 in Rwanda), and are usually bought as part of the package - Venture Uganda advise on the best time to buy these and then do the purchasing for you. Once bought they are non refundable, so it is best to be certain of dates and other arrangements. The trekking starts at 8am, and a briefing is given beforehand on what to do, with each person allocated to a maximum of 8 in a group per Gorilla family. Length of time to find them cannot be guaranteed (anywhere from 30 minutes to 4+ hours), although it is likely that there is more or less a 100% chance of finding them, as long as the time is put in. Terrain can be taxing, with steep and high slopes combining with some thick and moist vegetation. Long sleeves and trousers are recommended, with the latter tucked in to fend off ants, and even gardening gloves are useful to counteract some of the spiked plants.
Tracking the Chimpanzees is quite a different affair. There are several locations where this can be done in Uganda, but Kibale is probably the better choice, since the success rate is around 85%. Kick off time is again around 8am, and each person is allocated to a guide. The terrain is a lot kinder than in Bwindi, since the floor of the forest is a lot flatter. Also, almost all of the walking is on well trodden paths, although these can vary in vegetation density. Cost is $150. Similar attire to that for the Gorilla trekking is recommended, however.
These were very interesting - we had expected to pay in the region of £600+, but ended up forking out just less than half of that. I'm not exactly sure how this came about. Lesley, our tour operator kindly offered to broker a deal through Brussels Airlines in this ball park area. However, on searching through some of the meta analysis agents, Opodo came up with around £280 each for the return flights from Newcastle via Brussels. She even called the airline to see how these had been made available, but they also were looking at the larger sum. Naturally, we snapped up the bargain, but I was suspicious all along as to whether they were genuine or even existed. Phoning the airline direct a couple of times found they were indeed in existence, and they even allocated seat numbers on the international leg. I was uneasy nearer to departure, since we're couldn't check in online on either the BMi short flight or the Brussels airlines international leg. However, we turned up for both and there seemed no problem. Weirdly, the BMi flight to Brussels flagged up full payment not made, but again this didn't seem to be an issue - I assume it was an internal matter between the two carriers. At Brussels on the outward journey, we simply checked in at the African flights transfer desk.