Gorilla trekking is one of the most thrilling wildlife activities in Africa. The experience differs from a game drive in the Serengeti of Tanzania, the Mara, Kenya, or Kruger National Park in South Africa. Intrepid travelers who have been on a safari before often yearn for that next African wildlife adventure of Gorilla trekking. Mountain gorillas are only found in three places on earth: the Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. This opportunity is extraordinary because lucky trekkers hike into this region’s hilly, forested mountains to find gorillas in their natural habitat. To encounter a family of gorillas is like no other wildlife encounter because they look and behave so much like humans, which is not surprising given the fact that data confirms that humans and gorillas are about 98 percent identical on a genetic level!
This trip, however, is about so much more than the gorillas, the area is the primate capital of the world, and we had unreal encounters with chimpanzees and several other of the 20 species of primates found on the continent. We went for the wildlife, but it was the people of Uganda and Rwanda who really stole our hearts. I hope you will read about our experience and let me help you visit these beyond-stunning countries as well!
Our first briefing with our fabulous guides Eric and Robert who are to be our hosts from start to finish for 12 days in Uganda and Rwanda. They went above and beyond and took amazing care of us!
We started our adventure in Uganda, flying into Entebbe, which has the largest international airport in the country and is a relaxing city built on Lake Victoria and considered a vacation destination for Ugandans who live in the nearby capital of Kampala. It’s the perfect spot to overcome jet lag and get in place for the trip to the more rural and remote regions we will see in Uganda. Our group arrived here on flights from Amsterdam, Nairobi, and Cairo and had an enjoyable first days lunch on the rooftop at K Hotel with Brian, my on-site partner, and a wonderful new friend!
Gorilla Conservation Cafe
One of the things that immediately struck me about Uganda is the vast community outreach programs started and run by locals with a focus on conservation and sustainability. Yes, those are both big buzzwords in the travel world right now, but in Uganda and Rwanda I saw it manifested on so many levels in ways where humans are helping other humans positively leverage their natural resources for the betterment of the community and to help lift hard-working people out of poverty.
Gorilla Conservation Coffee was one of the first places we visited, and the concept is simple. The incredible coffee is purchased at a fair price and maybe even at a premium from coffee growers in Bwindi. Not only are the farmers then paid a LIVING WAGE, yes, they deserve it, and you can ensure all coffee you drink is certified FAIR TRADE COFFEE. Gorilla conservation goes a step further; for all coffee sold, they donate it to Save the Gorillas. Mountain gorillas are a critically endangered species, and money from your coffee purchase goes back to help preserve their natural habitat. If there are gorillas, much-needed tourism currency and all of the benefits that come with it also come back to the communities. It is a winning circle. Yes you can buy gorilla coffee from home too and save gorillas “one sip at a time” – https://gorillaconservationcoffee.org/where-to-buy/
Highly recommend a stop here in Entebbe, incredible friendly service and outstanding coffee too!
Hotel No. 5
Our first night was a quick sleep at the Protea hotel next to the airport, where we met up with our flight crew at the bar. The next morning a great workout in their beautiful gym overlooking Lake Victoria and then on to our Hotel No. 5 for our overnight with most of our group. Service everywhere is incredibly genuine and heartfelt. We were greeted with refreshing hibiscus tea and opted for dinner at the pizza restaurant for our first dinner.
Today our adventure begins as we board our charter flight for a beautiful flight from Entebbe to Kasese where we landed on a grass air strip near Kibale National Park.
The drive to Ndali lodge was so breathtaking, and this is where we got our first glimpse of the most beautiful of humanity – every person was smiling and waving at us. So genuine, no strings attached, just happy to have us there and to share their heartfelt smiles with us!
Ndali Lodge is perched on the rim of an extinct volcano which, since its demise, has filled with water to become the breathtaking Lake Nyinambuga (250 acres in size and 130 meters deep). There is a main thatched lodge with a spacious sitting room, reception area, and dining room flanked by eight cottages providing luxurious accommodation for 16 guests.
The cottages, which face west, offer a panoramic view of the spectacular Mountains of the Moon. They were designed by Captain Mark Price and are built of local stone and thatch. The interiors are imaginatively and comfortably furnished, with the decor emphasis on using local materials. Each cottage has en-suite facilities with a bath, shower, WC, and hand basin as well as a private verandah, perfect for watching the setting sun behind the Rwenzori Mountains. The snow-capped peaks are markedly visible on a clear day.
At night the dining room is adorned with candles. The lodge has no electricity or generators to destroy the tranquility and atmosphere, although there are solar lights in the cottages. The sitting room, reception, and dining room open onto Lake Nyinambuga and are connected by two open passageways or breezeways. Breakfast is on the verandah overlooking the lake. Freshly squeezed passion fruit juice from Ndali’s vines and homemade bread with wild honey go down well with a full English breakfast. Ndali’s water comes directly from the lake, pumped up by a hydraulic ram based on technology invented in the 1770s.
A special shout out to what I call a true “Jungle Gym”!
Kibale National Forest – Chimpanzee Habituation Experience
Today we enjoyed tracking the exuberant chimpanzee families in the Kibale forest on the Chimpanzee Habituation Experience (CHEX). Tracking chimpanzees in their natural habitat as they swing from the branches in the canopy high above the forest floor is a thrilling experience. Though I must warn you, our necks were sore after a few hours of spying on these complex creatures in the trees. Chimpanzee trekking is arduous labor, but it’s well worth it when you stumble across a family of chimps preening, playing, and relaxing. Chimpanzees are fascinating animals to witness in the wild due to their human behavior.
The hiking is pleasant and not overly challenging but expect lots of mud, slippery surfaces, wild vegetation, and streams – proper gear is critical.
If you are patient and are willing to sit back and wait, you never know when the family will decide to come down from the trees and scurry right by us on the trail.
A fond farewell from the consummate gentlemen – Aubrey, the charming owner and Gilbert, the lovely hotel manager.
Queen Elizabeth National Park
Today we drove from the Kibale National Forest to Queen Elizabeth National Park, crossing the Equator.
Queen Elizabeth National Park was initially known as ‘Kazinga National Park’ before it was renamed in 1954 to commemorate a visit by Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain. How fitting was it that our visit coincided with the funeral of the late Monarch.
Kyambura Gorge Lodge
A simply magical welcome after a long day….each stop, we felt like long awaited family members!
Kyambura Gorge Lodge bordering the Queen Elizabeth National Park, was converted into a modern lodge from an old coffee processing plant. Located in a prime position for many of Uganda’s most sought-after attractions and activities, the eco-friendly lodge also boasts beautiful views of the Queen Elizabeth National Park and the Mountains of the Moon.
Guests can go chimpanzee trekking in Kyambura Gorge, game drives in Queen Elizabeth National Park, boat cruises on the Kazinga channel, and visit a wetland, coffee, or beehive tour. Visits to the Omumashaka playground and the opportunity to watch an Omumashaka dance performance are also available.
All rooms are made of either brick or timber with thatched or corrugated iron-sheet roofs. The rooms have mosquito nets and a private balcony boasting beautiful views of the national park. Guests can read on their balcony, relax with a complimentary massage, enjoy the view from the pool or enjoy sundowners from the terrace.
Every meal is carefully prepared and balanced with local, sustainable sourcing and authentic flavors while offering guests as much diversity as possible. Meals are all included at these lovely lodges, and every event is an affair.
On arrival, each of us was introduced to the fantastic “butler” who would assist us with absolutely everything from morning wake-up call (or song), usually at 5:30 am, with a cup of local coffee, tea, or cacao in hand. They would pack our lunches, serve our wonderful meals, collect our laundry or gear from the day’s hikes and have it all back to us for the next day, and basically become our “BESTIES” for our time at each lodge. Here is dear Isiah with my friend, Dina. (Gerald is another fabulous butler who is not pictured). All of these ladies and gentlemen were superstars and beyond kind!
Queen Elizabeth National Park – Community Visit & Initiatives
Queen Elizabeth National Park is the ultimate example of humans and wildlife co-existing and cohabitating. What makes it completely unique is that it is surrounded by fishing villages and is a major thoroughfare for local people. Conservation education is critical, and the initiatives we have seen to educate local farmers and fishermen on the importance of sustaining and conserving the wildlife for the future of many endangered species, but also for preserving financially critical tourism that is drawn to the area for wildlife viewing. It was so eye-opening to understand that a farmer’s entire lively hood can be wiped out overnight with a lion attack on his cattle. Yet when farmers kill the lions, they are removing opportunities for the communities to gain financially from the tourism that the lions bring to the area for generations to come. This is where our incredible guide, Eric, and his relentless and rewarding work with his foundation – WILDLIFE UGANDA – touched us all!
Here is Eric’s foundation and the many critical initiatives. This includes “Lights for Lions,” which puts up flashing lights on the perimeter of farmers’ Boma or yard to protect wildlife from attacks at night, community education for young people to get into guiding and conservation, education for women to make their artisan handicrafts, and get products to “market” by building tourist restrooms and a community center where items can be sold. You can learn more and donate here if interested: http://sahaya.org/wildlifeuganda/
Hamukungu Fishing Village
We had the privilege of visiting Hamukungu Village – one of 11 communities WITHIN Queen Elizabeth National Park. We learned first hand what it is like for communities and wildlife to co-exist and the critical work and initiative that Eric and Wildlife Uganda are encouraging to give people the empowerment and tools to improve their lives.
Eric will be coming to Atlanta in 2023 for a series of events that Resort to Laura Madrid and my wonderful partners in crime will be supporting!! I am excited for you to meet Eric and learn more about travel in Uganda and Rwanda, so do let me know if of interest! TELL ME MORE – https://forms.gle/7uofhfxyCJiDF1D79
Queen Elizabeth National Park Game Drive
Queen Elizabeth National Park is the most visited wildlife park in Uganda and has an abundance of wildlife, including waterbucks, Elephants, Leopards, Buffaloes, Hyenas, and a variety of Antelope species. These spectral animals were right in front of us and we will always cherish being able to experience them in their natural habitat.
Queen Elizabeth National Park – Lion Research
Today our guide on this bespoke adventure was a member of a local predator research team that has been doing carnivores research at Queen Elizabeth National Park for over ten years.
We used the telemetry to find the different lion prides who roam the Savannah of Queen Elizabeth. We can confidently state there is no better way to find and photograph lions in all of Uganda. Given the fact that one lion in each pride is collared as part of the research project, we saw multiple prides this morning, many of which were camouflaged entirely in thickets or bushes. During the drive, we learned more about human-animal conflict in communities around the park, veterinary issues within the park, and lion family dynamics.
The Kazinga Channel, which flows between Lakes Edward and George, is home to one of the greatest concentration of hippo in Africa and herds of elephant, buffalo and other animals come to drink at the water’s edge. The channel is a magnet for waterbirds, with great flocks of pelicans and other birds on the shore, and a great spot to see the beautiful African fish eagle. We humans enjoyed all of it!
I loved this parking spot sign. What a beautiful perspective!
The wonderful team at Kyambura Gorge Lodge did not make leaving easy!
Yes, it is rather astonishing that we came to Uganda and Rwanda for gorilla trekking, yet it is Day 8 since we left home and are now on our first Gorilla Trek of the trip. Uganda and Rwanda are spectacular in so many more ways than Gorillas; we have built up to this point and are so excited to explore Bwindi!
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park lies in southwestern Uganda on the edge of the Rift Valley. Its mist-covered hillsides are blanketed by one of Uganda’s oldest and most biologically diverse rainforests, which dates back over 25,000 years and contains almost 400 species of plants. More famously, this “impenetrable forest” also protects an estimated 320 mountain gorillas – roughly half of the world’s population, including several habituated groups, which can be tracked.
Bwindi National park has 9 habituated gorilla families that enthusiasts track. Seven of them are in the Buhoma Vicinity, while two are in the southern part of Bwindi, known as the Mkuringo and Nshongi families of Bwindi Gorillas.
Bwindi Gorilla National park supports not only gorillas but also a tremendous biodiversity of flora and fauna. It is a prime destination for bird lovers. When most of Africa’s rain forests disappeared during the arid conditions of the ice age, Bwindi is one of the few refugia that survived. The flora and fauna in this tropical rainforest include; 310 species of butterflies, 51 reptiles, 200 trees, 88 moths, and unique 120 types of mammals that also include 10 primate species. The Uganda primates species in this park include: chimpanzees, l’hoest monkeys, black and white colobus monkeys, retailed and blue monkeys, baboons, and the legendary endangered mountain gorillas.
Altitudes in the park range from 1,190 to 2,607 meters above sea level, with 60% of the park having an elevation of over 2,000 meters above sea level. The highest elevation in the park is Rwamunyonyi hill at the eastern edge of the park, and the lowest part of the park is located at its most northern tip.
Finding the gorillas can take up to 6 hours of trekking, and when you locate the gorilla family, you have one hour with the gorillas. Groups of 8 persons are assigned to different lead guides, rangers who find the gorilla family, and porters who are locals who, with training, join the porters guild and are thrilled to be able to carry your backpack and help you maneuver trick terrain.
Traveling in a private group is ideal as you can more easily agree on the amount of terrain and the degree of difficulty you are able to manage in order to see your assigned family. It is nature, however, and there are no promises that the family will be easy to find or keep up with, nor how active they will be when you do find them. Either way, when you come across “your” family of gorillas, it is just ONE OF THOSE MOMENTS IN LIFE!
Poised on the edge of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, famous for its thriving population of mountain gorilla, Bwindi Lodge is where uncharted adventure and African hospitality meet.
Bwindi Lodge’s eight beautiful stone and timber bandas face the forest, offering each guest their own private window into the dense canopy that is home to chimpanzees, mountain gorillas, and a variety of monkeys. When not enjoying the comfortable surrounds of their bandas, guests can meander along a variety of forest and river walkways, or retreat to the cozy main lodge to sit by the fire and sip some house-made African tea.
Below our beautiful Banda –
Above, celebrating our first successful Gorilla Trek with homemade mango martins back at Bwindi Lodge!
Bwindi Bar is another one of Uganda’s ever-inspiring impressive community outreach programs.
In 2015, the Volcanoes team officially opened the Bwindi Bar, located near the Volcanoes Safaris Bwindi Lodge on the edge of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The bar provides a practical training institution for disadvantaged local youths living near the Bwindi National Park in Buhoma.
The VSPT aims to provide practical experience in the tourism industry to create more job opportunities in the region. Thanks to this program, trainees are armed with the appropriate skills set to gain successful hospitality employment in the Bwindi area.
The trainees gain practical skills in food and service during their three-month training. They are then sent for further internships at nearby lodges. Bwindi Bar serves a variety of delicious locally-inspired food and drinks, including the famous Ugandan ‘Rolex’ wrap and the signature ‘Gorillini’ cocktail!
Guests of Bwindi Lodge can hike directly up to the Bwindi Bar, which sits on the main road and is a great spot for watching the local community go about their days.
Ride 4 A Woman
Today we have another opportunity to see how communities in Uganda are LIFTED UP, not by charity but by empowerment and education!
Ride 4 a Woman was set up in 2009 by Evelyn Habasa and her husband, Denis Rubalema. The organization exists to support local women struggling at home with issues associated with HIV, domestic violence, and poverty.
More than 300 women from 11 villages now use or work at the Ride 4 a Woman community center, where they can learn new skills like how to pedal sew, weave baskets, dance, sing, and drum; to help them to make a living and make it possible for their children to gain an education.
The organization also offers microfinance loans for small business start-ups, helping women to help themselves and support their families. To this date over 100 women are actively engaged in the Ride 4 a Woman Microfinance Program.
This retreat in the local community offers local women a place to stay, something to eat, and a wage while they learn new skills. For visitors in addition to buying beautiful handicrafts (they will also turn around custom orders in a day), there are options to participate in basketry, weaving, making local dishes, or taking an escorted cycling adventure through the villages. Interact with the local communities for insight on their cultural practices and ways of life. Get involved – https://www.ride4awoman.org/
Kigali is a beautifully kept city, spotlessly clean due to monthly mandatory clean-up days in which everyone participates, and manicured streets, infrastructure, and pedestrian side walks. Rwanda relies heavily on tourism, and the city is the hub of economic activity and conferences in the country. Gorilla trekking and luxury lodges, a very strong tourism board, and marketing have very much put the country on the luxury travelers MUST DO list. We stayed at the Serena Kigali, which is a perfect hotel for a layover or city visit due to well-equipped gym, nice restaurant and bar, outdoor pool, and comfortable suites. Rwanda has a painful history captured beautifully but hauntingly and achingly in the Genocide Museum. The 1994 insurrection and slaughter of the Tutsi people left 500,000-800,000 estimated dead. It is remarkable how the country and people have been able to forgive and live in harmony again so quickly. A visit to the Kigali Genocide Museum is a must for any traveler to Rwanda not only to understand and remember what has happened but also to stay involved and help prevent other Genocides that are happening in parts of the world right now. Many believe the Genocide in Rwanda could have been avoided if the world did not find it easier to look the other way during the tragedy. Get involved – https://kgm.rw/get-involved/
Perhaps the best meal of the trip was at Kigali Afro Fusion restaurant, Meza Malonga.
“We are storytellers of the history of the people and lands behind each ingredient. The lush District of Musanze, Rwanda is the soil of our homegrown fruits and vegetables. With Maasai, Bantu, Zulu influences and beyond, Dieuveil Malonga’s cuisine reveals the splendor, uniqueness and complementarity of African nations.”
Chef Dieuveil Malonga is a 28 year-old award winning chef and entrepreneur hailing form Congo-Brazzaville.
A favorite of famed architect Sir David Adjaye, Rick Owens and global head of states, his signature Afro fusion cuisine is a subtle blend of tradition, modernity and cultures. Malonga honed his culinary skills in Germany at Michelin-starred restaurants Schote, La Vie and Aqua; and was a finalist of the prestigious Basque Culinary World Prize 2018.
Located in Kigali, Rwanda, the newly launched Meza Malonga has already been acclaimed by Travel + Leisure and Food & Wine as one of the “world’s best restaurants”. Through his social enterprise Chefs in Africa, Malonga is committed to shedding light on the continent’s gourmet rising stars.
A two-time Forbes 30 under 30 honoree, Dieuveil Malonga has been featured by The New York Times, Vogue, CNN, BBC and spoken at The United Nations.
Most impressive was him teaching everyone on his team everything he knows! Once again, the self-less approach to building up the community but mentoring so many other young promising chefs!
Every bite was a feast for the senses – a wonderful evening and experience!
Virunga Lodge, Volcanoes National Park
Our welcome to the lodge after a long day, was a wonderful treat. The entire team here was TRULY MAGICAL!!!
Set on a stunning hillside, the magnificent Virunga Lodge boasts panoramic vistas of the Virunga Volcanoes and the beautiful lakes of Ruhondo and Bulera.
Each of the ten luxurious Bandas has a private terrace from which you can watch the sunrise over the dramatic landscape of mountains and lakes. Each Banda has an individual fire place, a luxury shower room with a double vanity, and a charging station.
Those in need of relaxation can relax in the comfort of the main lodge or spend some time in the Dian Fossey Map Room. Each guest will enjoy the opportunity for a relaxing complimentary massage. Adventures include tracking gorillas, golden monkeys, hikes to the top of the volcanoes, and scenic walks through the picturesque villages surrounding the lodge – make sure to visit the nearby village with your guide.
Our final evening at Virunga brought tears to our eyes and joy to our souls. The entire staff of Virunga surprised us with a cake, champagne and a beautiful local dance and song, which we all joined in.
The Ellen Degeneres Campus & The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International
What a treat to be at the Ellen Degeneres center for Gorilla Conservation on World Gorilla Day itself!!
The multi-acre, eco-friendly facility adjacent to the Volcanoes National Park includes three main buildings—the Sandy and Harold Price Research Center, the Rob and Melani Walton Education Center, and the Cindy Broder Conservation Gallery—as well as housing for visiting students and researchers. The Ellen Campus will serve as a gateway to conservation for the many stakeholders with whom we work, helping to create the next generation of conservationists.
Gorilla Trekking – Parc National des Volcans
As if this trip could not get more dramatic, here we go again! This time the trek is in Volcanoes National Park. This was our most challenging trek through very steep bamboo forests where our guides and rangers cut the way through the forest with machetes. The elements are anything but hospitable, with very wet and impossibly muddy and wet paths – each step was an exercise in keeping your footing and your boots on! This is where the porters really come in handy.
Hiring a porter for the day might be his only employment for a month. The qualified porters are part of a guild, and their rotation may only be once per month, so you can get that $20 is essential to the porter and their family. HIRE A PORTER, even if you can carry your own backpack. You make a friend, enrich his life, and likely save your rear from a few embarrassing falls.
Volcanoes National Park Artisianal Center
Wonderful place to buy art and handicrafts – money goes directly to the artists who pay a fee to be a part of the cooperative.
One & Only Gorilla’s Nest
Our last stop was at the top luxury property in the country One & Only Gorilla’s Nest and the arrival was just as they do everything: over-the-top wow!
The property is for those seeking the ultimate in creature comforts with a location right at the gorilla base camp for Volcanoes National Park. The decor, privacy, rooming and inviting suites, world class service team along with spa, fitness, heli-pad, and killer food and wine make this a winning proposition and a great way to end a spectacular trip in the region! One & Only has a sister property in the Nyungwe National Forest for those that are lucky enough to extend their stay.
Every suite is designed to reflect the surrounding ecosystem, yet envelopes guests in a chic haven of relaxation.
The cuisine reflects the resort’s close attention to detail and commitment to connecting guests to local culture. Everything served is inspired by the surrounding land’s colors, scents, textures, and sounds. Local farmers and talented chefs created dishes that tell the story of Rwanda. Our fun family style lunch was just the ticket after our hike in the bamboo forest looking for primates! Oh and don’t get me started on the beautiful infused gin collection.
Back to Kigali and the Repub Lounge
Saying Good Bye
It was an inspirational and mind-blowing two weeks, to say the least. Mostly we will miss Robert and Eric, who are unflappable and extremely capable and knowledgeable guides! The people throughout Uganda and Rwanda overwhelmed us with kindness. I will be back, and I know that Uganda and Rwanda have changed me and will remain a part of me. Here we go, though no place like home! My domestic wildlife (my dog, Porter) awaits! Sending all my love to the people of Uganda and Rwanda – thank you for showing us the best!
I am exhausted just like my new friend – no wonder we have so much in common!
If you would like to know more about travel to Uganda & Rwanda, would like to learn more about how you can support conservation and sustainable tourism to this region, please express your interest here – https://forms.gle/7uofhfxyCJiDF1D79 – or email Laura@resorttolauramadrid.com