A Big Fish Expeditions Trip Report
By BFE Trip Leader Andy Murch
Gorilla Trekking, Primate Safari, and Big Five Photography Adventure
As always, our Uganda trip was an action-packed adventure! Its kinda tough to sum it up in a single paragraph because (as the title implies) we see an enormous variety of species, in highly varied terrain; from dry forests, to tropical cloud forests, to open savannah. Eastern Mountain Gorillas are one of the most iconic species that we see, but the expedition encompasses so much more! So, please read on to enjoy some of the many critters we encountered this year.
Walking with Rhinos
On the journey north to Murchison Falls, we stopped at Ziwa Wildlife Sanctuary; a large wild area where the Ugandan WLA is attempting to breed rhinos to introduce into other parks in Uganda and eventually the surrounding countries as well.
After a short talk about the rhinos, we walked into the bush with a tracker and encountered 8 different rhinos. Mostly they were mom’s resting with their calfs; a testament to the success of the program!
Olive Baboons at Murchison Falls
By late afternoon, we pulled into Murchison Falls National Park. The road in was filled with large troops of olive baboons.
Murchison Falls is a vast park; one of the largest in Africa. The south and north sections are divided by the mighty Nile River, which is forced through a small rock channel at Murchison Falls. This is a great place to stop and take pictures.
Once we settled into our cottages at the lodge and had dinner, we headed over to the cook’s shack to photograph a habituated troop of bush pigs that show up every night looking for veggie scraps.
The next morning we ate early and headed deep into Murchison Falls National Park. Not only is the park enormous and beautiful, it is filled with an incredible biomass of animal life. The herd species include 40,000 Uganda cob, and many thousands of waterbucks, bushbucks, oribis (a small antelope), Jackson’s hartebeasts, cape buffalo, giraffe, and so much more! We spent most of the day driving among the herds, enjoying one epic encounter after another.
We see most of the primates later in the trip but Murchison is the only spot where you encounter Patas Monkeys. This is an unusual species that has adapted to life on the savannah where there are not many trees. They have very long legs for a primate and are capable of running at 50kph for short distances; an important skill to escape predators.
By late afternoon we were all exhausted from animal sensory overload! So we returned to the lodge for a couple of hours to recharge and relax before the night drive. That didn’t stop a few of our avid guests chasing down lizards in the forest around the lodge. The most remarkable being the yellow-headed agamas.
Lions by Night
After dinner we returned to the park for a night drive. Predators are generally more active at night so this is a good time to look for them, especially lions which come out in the open with their cubs.
Although they are more than capable of hunting on their own, side-striped jackals are often found hanging around prides of lions. If you’re a relatively small predator, why hunt when you can just wait for the big guys to abandon their kill?
Onward to Kibale
The next day was an inevitable travel day. Uganda is a large country and we needed to get from the north to the southwest. The route took us through villages and tea plantations until we finally climbed into the hills and entered Kibale Forest. After checking into the lodge, we took a guided night walk on the edge of the forest to look for galagos; a small nocturnal monkey that is common in the forest, but shy and extremely hard to photograph!
The next morning we gathered at the ranger station for a discussion about chimpanzees and then walked deep into the forest to spend time with humanity’s closest living relative. We had some fantastic encounters with chimps coming down from the trees and walking past our little group within touching distance.
After lunch we relaxed at the lodge for a while. Or rather, we tried to relax but there were birds all over the grounds begging to be photographed. One of the iconic species is the yellow weaver bird. The males spend most of their time building elaborate hanging nests in order to attract females. If their nest doesn’t cut it, the females will find a better nest builder.
That evening we went on another forest walk to look for more galagos. We found quite a few although mostly just eye-shine as they bounced around in the canopy. The highlight of the walk was a beautiful genet that walked across the path right in front of us.
Swamp Walk with Monkeys
The following morning we took a long walk around a swamp. This is one of my favorite parts of the trip because the primate action in this part of the forest is excellent! We all got great views of vervet monkeys, guereza black and white colobus monkeys, ashy red colobus monkeys, and redtail monkeys.
Queen Elizabeth National Park
After lunch we moved on to Queen Elizabeth National Park; another enormous savannah, much like Murchison Falls but with different species and the spectacular Kazinga Channel.
Game Drive in Queen Elizabeth National Park
We started the next morning with an early game drive. Waterbucks abound in QENP. They are the largest antelopes in Uganda and have formidable horns.
The Kazinga Channel
We brought a pack lunch so that we could stay deep in the park all day. In the afternoon, we made our way to the famous Kazinga Channel and boarded a river boat to enjoy the amazing diversity of life on the river.
The only source of water in the dry season, the channel attracts hundreds of buffalo, elephants, and antelopes, and is home to massive herds of hippos, nile crocodiles, and a myriad of colourful bird species.
After our river tour we stopped in at a nearby village to photograph a habituated family of banded mongooses. Always a fun encounter!
Back at the lodge, we had just enough time to chase down some blue-headed agamas before supper, and then we watched the sun set over the park while we downloaded the day’s images.
South to Bwindi
The next morning we packed our safari vehicle for the journey to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, but the route south if far from just a travel day. We spent the entire morning driving south through Queen Elizabeth National Park, stopping for wildlife encounters along the way.
The first thing we saw was a large family of tantalus monkeys foraging on the side of a cliff; our ninth primate species of the trip.
After many interesting encounters, at the south end of the park we found a small herd of Topi; a shy and unusual looking antelope species that cannot be found in Murchison Falls.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
After lunch we spent the afternoon climbing into the hills of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest; home to five habituated troops of mountain gorillas. The view from Silverback Lodge with Bwindi in the background is breathtaking and a little intimidating, as we knew we would be climbing that mountain the next day!
After a hearty breakfast, we descended from the lodge to the ranger station for a talk about mountain gorillas. Then, before the sun’s heat became too intense, we set off uphill towards the gorillas. The rangers always know where each troop is because they are accompanied by trackers during the day and they rarely travel at night. So we followed our guide up into the forest and after a couple of hours of not especially strenuous hiking, reached our destination. Leaving our packs with the porters, and keeping our voices down, we walked the last few steps through the thick undergrowth for our first look at a family of Eastern Mountain Gorillas.
For the next hour or so, we stayed with the gorillas as they slowly moved through the forest, foraging for bamboo shoots and other tasty morsels. The gorillas were extremely relaxed about our proximity to them, often passing so close to us, we could have reached out and touched them.
Even the enormous silverback strayed very close to us a few times. It was an incredible experience that everyone in our group will remember forever!
Back to Entebbe
That night we relaxed at the lodge and celebrated our fantastic trip while the sun set over Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The next morning we packed up for the long journey back to Entebbe. To break up the journey, we always make a few stops along the way. The first was to photograph a massive colony of straw coloured bats.
Lunch with Zebras
At lunch time we stopped at the edge of Lake Mboro National Park; a pretty spot where we often find groups of zebras shading under the trees.
Equatorial Photo Op
Our final pitstop was at the equator. A fun spot for a group shot at the end of a great trip.
In the late afternoon we rolled into Entebbe and said goodbye to our awesome group of adventurers. Unquestionably, this was another fantastic trip to Uganda, and one that we are looking forward to repeating!