In July 2011, my partner and I visited Uganda for 11-days/10-nights. It was an incredible trip. Uganda is well set up for tourism, but is off the beaten path enough to avoid many the downsides of extreme tourism (e.g., crowds, scams, cheap souvenirs etc.). We found the country to be beautiful and the people to be genuinely warm and friendly.
We organized an 8-day/7-night safari with Primate Watch Safaris Ltd. I cannot say enough good things about the company or Florence (Flo), who we worked with to plan our itinerary. Because Primate Watch Safaris offered such reasonable prices, we were able to arrange for a private safari. Despite the fact that we arranged for a relatively budget safari, the hotels we stayed in were charming and the food quite good. Furthermore, Flo was incredibly helpful throughout the process of planning the safari, answering all of our questions, obtaining permits, and adapting the itinerary to meet our needs. When we met Flo at the hotel in Entebbe the first night of our safari, she treated us like old friends and made us feel incredibly welcomed. She was also very organized, emailing us a detailed itinerary ahead of time, and walking through the itinerary with us day-by-day upon our arrival. She also helped us organize and book the final 3 nights of our Ugandan trip, and made sure that every detail was accounted for. On our last day in Uganda, she actively solicited our feedback in order to improve her customer service, and made sure that we got to the airport on time.
Flo also impressed us in unexpected ways. My partner secretly was planning to propose towards the end of our trip, and Flo worked with him to make all the arrangements. These details included not just the day of the proposal itself, but also extra activities and secret hotel upgrades for 3 nights of the trip (that were kept secret from me). Flo even helped get a bottle of wine for a romantic post-proposal dinner and flower petals to sprinkle on the bed. She did all of this for no extra money (other than additional hotel costs).
Our driver (Eduardo/Edward) was also excellent. In addition to being a great driver, he was knowledgeable about the animals and Uganda in general. He kept us on a good schedule and made sure that our meals and other activities were in order. He also was apparently very helpful with the secret proposal planning, helping to make phone calls, etc.
Our Itinerary (July 20-30):
Day 1: Arrival in Entebbe, Uganda
Overnight: The Lodge, Entebbe (comfortable rooms, excellent food)
Day 2: Travel to Kibale National Park (lunch en route at the Garden)
Overnight: Chimpanzee Guest House (2 nights)
Day 3: Kibale National Park
AM - Kibale Chimpanzee Trek
An incredible morning spent with our closest primate relatives. Luckily for us, the chimps were very close to the visitor's station, and we only had to walk for a short time before finding the animals. There is nothing like seeing chimpanzees in the wild; I will never forget it. In addition to chimps, we also saw olive baboons, red-tailed monkeys, black and white colobus monkeys, grey-cheeked mangabes, dung beetles, and (sadly) many safari ants. Our trek was followed by a tasty lunch of fried fish, rice, and banana fritters at the Kibale visitor's station restaurant.
PM - Bigodi Wetlands Swamp Walk - The guide, Ivan, took us on a several hour walk through the Bigodi Wetlands/Swamp. Despite the afternoon rain, we saw 4 primate species and dozens of birds, including the Great Blue Turaco and the Black and White Casqued Hornbill.
Day 4: Drive to Queen Elizabeth National Park
Overnight: Simba Safari Camp (2 nights)
PM - Game Drive (Kasenyi part of the park) - My first real game drive! We saw water buck, Uganda Kob, water buffalo, warthogs, Grey Crested Cranes (the national bird of Uganda), and other birds. This park is relatively quiet (in comparison to the Masai Mara, which we visited later on in our trip), but it is a nice place to stop on the road between Kibale and Bwindi. Simba Safari Camp was cute and comfortable, but the food wasn't great.
Day 5: Queen Elizabeth National Park
AM - Early Morning game drive (Kasenyi) - We left for our morning game drive before dawn, and were lucky to see spotted hyena, hippo, and 8 lions that were stalking some Kob (sadly the lion were spotted before they could begin the hunt).
PM - Boat ride on Kazinga Channel - This was an incredible experience. From the comfort of the boat, we were able to observe dozens of elephant on the shore. There are also upwards of one thousand hippos in the channel; we had a close encounter with one that charged our boat! We were also able to see many water buffalo, crocodiles, monitor lizards, warthogs, and an incredible number of birds (fish eagles, large groups of cormorants, kingfishers, pelicans, saddle-backed storks, etc.).
Day 6: Travel to Bwindi
Overnight: Gorilla Mist Camp (this hotel was not part of our original itinerary; we were originally supposed to stay at the Buhoma Community Bandas for two nights)
AM - Kayambura Gorge Hike - We planned to visit Kayambura Gorge in order to have a second opportunity to see chimps (in case we didn't see them at Kibale). However, despite a long and relatively strenuous hike, we did not see any chimps. We did see several black and white colobus and red-tailed monkeys. This is the one place that we probably would not recommend from our itinerary.
PM - Drive to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest - This is a long, slow drive on difficult roads. The first part of the drive passes through sections of Queen Elizabeth National Park, and we saw Topi, several monkeys, and other animals. We were further delayed by a giant tree in the road, that took our intrepid driver several hours to remove with a machete and shovel. We spent a cold but comfortable night at the Gorilla Mist Camp, which is a stunning eco-facility with a gorgeous view of the mountains. After a very tasty dinner (the best tomato soup I've ever had, and I don't like tomatoes), we relaxed by the campfire.
Day 7: Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
AM - Gorilla Trek - AMAZING! We had permits to visit with the Bitukura group, a group with several silverback males and several juveniles and a new infant. It took only around 90 minutes to locate the group (again, we were lucky) and we spent a blissful hour watching the 2- and 3-year old gorillas play in the trees as the adults lazed about in the brush. The 5-month old infant was moving around near his mother and the silverback, and towards the end of our hour, the male gorilla moved to only ~8 feet away and sat calmly eating and watching us take photos. A once in a lifetime experience!
PM - Drive to Bunyonyi
Overnight: Bunyonyi Cottages (another secret upgrade with beautiful views, romantic cabins, and tasty food)
Day 8: Drive to Entebbe (lunch at the Equator)
Overnight: Uganda Wildlife Education Center Apartment
Staying at the UWEC was a very special experience. The cottages were all booked, but our tour company was able to get us a reservation in the apartments, typically used for visiting staff. The apartment was comfortable but nothing special. However, it was wonderful to be on the grounds of the facility. There is a 24-hour restaurant, where we had a pleasant dinner overlooking the lake, and we were able to visit the animals after the other guests had left. Additionally, while walking behind the scenes, we happened to meet a zookeeper, who introduced us to Charles, a 2-month old rescued elephant! We spent an unforgettable hour playing with Charles and taking him for a walk. Thank you to Bruce for making yet another dream come true.
Day 9: Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary
Overnight: Wild Frontiers Tented Camp (2 nights)
Visiting Ngamba is a unique experience. The island is beautiful and serene, and the staff is attentive and genuinely interested in creating a positive environment. The tented camps are comfortable and the food is well prepared. We spent the first day enjoying the chimp feedings, relaxing in hammocks, and sitting by the campfire.
One thing to note: Ngamba has a forest walk (which we did) and an infant integration program. It was not entirely clear to us prior to arriving on the island that there were different experiences. When you make reservations to participate in one of the programs, be clear about what you would like to do. There is only one young chimp who participates in the forest walk (Rambo, see below) - without him, the experience would have been a bit disappointing, particularly given how expensive it is.
Day 10: Ngamba Island
AM - Forest Walk - As many have written before me, this is an incredible and rare experience to physically interact with chimpanzees. It's hard to find the words to describe my joy at having Pasa look through my pockets for peanuts. The experience was made really memorable, however, by Rambo, a 7-year old juvenile male who loves to play and snuggle, especially with women. Later in the walk, Rambo did somersaults into my lap, and at one point drew me in and kissed me on the lips. It was a fantastic hour. The entire experience was made even more memorable when my partner proposed at the end of the hour, to the hoots of excited chimpanzees (I should note that I'm a primatologist, so a proposal with chimps was perfect for me).
The staff at Ngamba did everything they could to make the rest of our stay as romantic and special as possible. They put flower petals on our bed, took us on a boat ride around the island, and served us a candlelit dinner on the porch of our tent. They recently emailed to check in and to inquire about our wedding plans. We were told that we are the first people to get engaged during a forest walk.
Day 11: Departure
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11 days in Uganda with Primate Watch Safaris