COMBINING GORILLAS WITH AN AFRICAN SAFARI
For many of us, an African safari is a proper bucket list holiday. The chance to see plains game sweeping across huge savannahs, rivers full of hippo and crocs, big night skies studded with stars, lions snoozing in the long grass and leopards lolling in trees is the ultimate wildlife experience. But what if you could have all this classic and delicious safari cake, and top it off with a unique and magical wildlife cherry: seeing mountain gorillas, up close and very personal. Too much to ask? Not at all. In fact, you can binge on all this wildlife in a single, week-long break. You just have to know where to go…
Safaris & gorillas in Uganda
Uganda is the simple answer; it’s the one destination in East Africa that can serve up both a safari and gorillas. And chimps. And white water rafting down the Nile… This compact country contains a huge range of landscapes, from open plains to mountain forests, supporting amazing biodiversity. Conveniently, many of the country’s wildlife highlights lie quite close to one another. Queen Elizabeth, Uganda’s second largest national park, is home to lions, gazelle and huge numbers of hippos and elephants. From here it’s a short hop to Kibale Forest to track chimpanzees (around 1,500 live here) and the other primates living here, and then you can travel to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest for a true wildlife spectacle – trekking to see one of the 11 habituated groups of mountain gorillas that live here, and spending a precious hour in their company.
If you have more time, you can get your safari and gorilla fix by combining countries. You might start by enjoying the rich game life of Kenya, taking in the famous Masai Mara and potentially even catching the Great Migration of wildebeest as it thunders past, before travelling to one of Kenya’s lesser visited parks, such as Lake Nakuru National Park, famous for its population of black and white rhino. Then most trips head west into Uganda, where more game awaits, and gorillas inhabit the mountainous forests on the border with Rwanda and DRC. Another possibility is to combine safari in Kenya with gorilla tracking in Rwanda, at the Parc National des Volcans, which is a two and a half hour drive from the capital Kigali. Rwanda doubled its fee for gorilla trekking permits from US $750 to US $1,500 in 2017, and since then most safari and gorilla trips head into Uganda.
WHAT DOES COMBINING GORILLAS WITH AN AFRICAN SAFARI ENTAIL?
A holiday that includes trekking to see gorillas with an African safari can be either a tailor made or small group trip. With a tailor made trip, you’ll pay a little more for the chance to fine tune your itinerary depending on your interests, and to pick your accommodation from a range of lodges and safari camps. On trips that stick to Uganda only, travel is by road, but on tailor made itineraries that take in Kenya, short flights are often included, to help you cover the ground swiftly, with the option to relax on the beaches of, say, Zanzibar in Tanzania at the end of the trip.
Small group holidays are a more purse friendly option (although this is never a budget trip; a single gorilla permit in Uganda costs US $600) and bring the camaraderie of travelling with a group of likeminded travellers – usually, a maximum of 18 people. Some small group trips use lodges and hotels for accommodation, others offer full service camping, which is a less luxurious, but more immersive experience – we’re talking hyenas, hippos and warthogs nosing around your tent at night levels of immersion!Most safari and gorilla holidays also offer chimp tracking. This is a fun experience, quite different to seeing gorillas. Chimps tend to move around more and frequently climb between the forest floor and the trees. They live in fluid, often fractious communities rather than families, and observing them interacting is really entertaining. In Uganda, you may also take a boat cruise on the Kazinga Channel in Queen Elizabeth National Park, to see the huge concentrations of hippo wallowing there (reported to be about 30,000), plus there might be optional white water rafting on the Nile, and village and community project visits.
You should expect a few long days of driving, especially on those trips that cover two or three countries, and also poor, bumpy roads that make even the shortest journeys a bone-jangling experience (this is the famous ‘African massage’). The trick is to go with the flow and just soak up the scenery and glimpses of village life, which won’t disappoint. There will be lots of chances to stop to shop at roadside stalls, stretch your legs or take photos.
While the game drive component of these trips is classed as leisurely, you’ll need to be fit enough to cope with a trek to see the gorillas. They’re not called mountain gorillas for nothing, so expect to be hiking uphill and also veering off into dense forest, since gorillas rarely oblige by sitting right on the path in front of you. So, expect a minimum of three hours walking on irregular terrain to find the gorillas, sometimes hiking up to around 2,600m, tackling steep ascents and descents over muddy slopes. It’s a good idea to hire a porter for gorilla tracking, who will help carry your bag and camera kit and offer a steady hand on slippery sections. Porters can be hired on the day, and you’ll be providing a valuable wage for local people by employing one.
Organised tours that include a safari and gorilla tracking will secure the gorilla tracking permit (and chimp tracking permit, if on the itinerary). These permits sell out extremely quickly and far in advance, but specialist tour operators will buy up permits, so you don’t need to. Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), which manages the national parks, issues only 88 permits a day for gorilla tracking in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, so competition is fierce.
Some trips include one gorilla tracking experience, with the option of choosing to do a second. Be aware, though, that if you do want that second tracking trip, you need to secure it at the time of booking, and you also need to book early, too, since your tour operator will not have secured any tracking permits additional to what’s set out in the itinerary.
BEST TIME TO COMBINE GORILLAS WITH AN AFRICAN SAFARI
Tailor made trips that include a classic safari and gorillas run throughout the year. Uganda sits on the equator but its higher elevation means that it enjoys a pleasant climate with average temperatures of 25°C and cool nights. It is rainiest in March, April and May, with shorter rains in October and November. You can still find gorillas; just expect trekking to see them to be more slippery. Since the game is not migratory you’ll also be able to take game drives in the national parks now, but thicker vegetation does make game spotting harder.
Trips that include Kenya don’t tend to run during March, April and May, since this is the rainy season. Roads are often impassable, and the lush vegetation and falling rain make wildlife watching difficult. If you’re combining Kenya and Uganda, and want to catch the Great Migration in the Masai Mara, travel in July and August for the best chance of seeing it.