Chimpanzee trekking in Uganda – Kibale National Park
One of the main reasons we decided to visit Uganda was to see gorillas in the wild, but we also wanted to go chimpanzee trekking and Kibale National Park is one of the main places to do it. So after our day and a half stay in Entebbe, we hopped in our hire car and set off on the first leg of our Ugandan road trip – Entebbe to Fort Portal. This is the main base for chimpanzee trekking in Uganda and there are also other interesting things to do in Fort Portal.
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Why chimpanzee tracking in Uganda?
Kris and I first met while studying for our PhDs at Liverpool University. While I was studying feral goat behaviour, I was working in a research group with lots of students studying primates. My supervisors were Robin Dunbar and Louise Barratt, who not only research primates, but have also written several books on them, including the accompanying book to the Cousins BBC series.
My research group mates were people studying various baboons, macaques and other human relatives, while I watched goats. However, lots of my reading for my PhD involve primate behaviour, and our research group meetings were spent discussing them. So I was always fascinated.
Fast forward to a few years later while living in Vietnam when Kris and I wrote our bucket list. It was both of our dreams to see great apes in the wild, we had already seen orangutans in Borneo, and now we added gorillas and chimps to the list. Our decision to go gorilla trekking meant we could add chimpanzee trekking in Uganda to our trip.
What is chimpanzee trekking?
Chimps live in Africa, with the subspecies, the south-western chimpanzee, living in Uganda. They live in large groups of up to 150 individuals in forests. To make them easier to see in the wild, some groups have been habituated to humans, which means that researchers have spent lots of time with them so they are used to people.
In Uganda, there are several places where chimps have been habituated: Kibale National Park, Bugungo Forest Reserve near Murchinson Falls, and Kalinzu Forest and Kyamburo Gorge, both near Queen Elizabeth National Park.
To do chimpanzee trekking in Uganda, you need to get a permit from the Ugandan Wildlife Authority. They vary in price depending on where you do it. For chimp trekking in Kibale National Park, we paid $150 each for the permits. For this, we got to spend 1 hour with the chimps. Permits are booked for either the morning or the afternoon and you have to specify the day. We arranged our permits through our car hire company in advance, but I have heard that it is possible to get them last minute sometimes.
Our chimpanzee trekking in Uganda experience
Early on a Wednesday morning, we drove from Fort Portal town where we were staying to the Kibale National Park office. The sun was just coming up and the route took us through the National Park forest, so we drove slowly, looking out for random animals jumping into the road. It isn’t the done thing to run over a baboon and it would have made a mess of our car.
Proving our British-ness
We had asked at the Ugandan Wildlife Authority Office in Fort Portal about the time we should check-in before our morning chimp trek. We were told 7.30am, so we left our hotel in Fort Portal at 7am, and arrived at 7.30am the Kibale National Park gate like the punctual Brits we are.
The armed guard at the gate looked a bit surprised that we were there that early. We signed our car into the registration book, and yes, we were the first to sign in. Then we drove up to the National Park office.
We were the first. By far. People trickled in bit by bit, and we didn’t start organising to leave until about 8.15.
Hum….we had been a little early to arrive and looked like the keenest chimp trekkers ever. If you are going chimp trekking in Kibale, note that you don’t need to arrive until 8am, so you can leave at 7.30. This might not seem like a major difference in terms of sleep, but it does mean it will be fully daylight when you drive there.
Setting off to find the chimps
Pulling into the national park visitor’s centre carpark, we got a twinge of vehicle envy, as our Rav 4 looked absolutely tiny next to the huge safari trucks driven by guides. We checked in at the desk and handed over our chimp trekking permits and signed in.
30 permits are issued for each morning and afternoon, but we were split into smaller groups, each with a national park guide. Our group was made up of a couple of Dutch women, an American couple and us. Our guide Leticia gave us a briefing of how to behave around the chimps, and off we went up the track, excited about meeting our chimpanzee relatives face to face.
Kibale National Park has clear tracks to walk along, so we all wandered along behind the guide, who looked for evidence of chimps, stopping and listening for movements in the trees. Her walkie talkie buzzed as the different guides talked to each other about what they were seeing around them. The walk wasn’t particularly strenuous and we enjoyed being out in the forest.
And then it started to rain. On went our raincoats, and we continued looking for chimps. However, now it was harder. The noise of the rain on the forest canopy meant that the guides couldn’t hear the chimps moving. And, they weren’t moving really. Just like humans, when it rains, most chimps sensibly find a big leaf to hide under and shelter.
Kibale National Park Elephants
In Kibale National Park there are elephants. You may not be aware that there are actually two subspecies of African elephants, as well as Asian elephants that we had already seen in Thailand. You’ll know about the huge savannah type with the big ears in the shape of the African continent. The other type is the African forest elephant. These are smaller, hairier, more solitary and more aggressive.
I mean, if you hang around on big wide plains, you can see people coming from a long way away and so it isn’t that surprising when some tourists appear to look at you. If you live in a dense forest, passing tourists are going to take you by surprise. There you are, happily eating some leaves, and a group of tourists that aren’t even looking for you, suddenly appear in front of you. You can’t blame them for being aggressive.
The risk of accidentally disturbing a forest elephant in Kibale National Park is the reason that the guides carry rifles. If you find a forest elephant, they fire above it to scare it away.
The elephants in Kibale National Park also began to cause another problem during our chimpanzee trek. Big, heavy elephant feet in the forest tracks were churning up the mud. It started to become quite hard to walk in places because of the big elephant footprints. Members of our group fell around us, and we sank to our knees in mud. We became very glad of the gaiters we had bought last minute just before we left.
We walked for three hours, trudging through mud and listening to the rain on the trees. We began to think we were never going to find any. We assumed those chimps were happily sheltering together from the rain, far above the mud below.
A chimp walked in front of us. It was surreal. It just walked across our path and off into the jungle.
Then we met different groups of chimp trekkers. This was obviously where some chimps were hanging out. There was a crowd around a mother and baby hanging in a tree, but our guide wanted us to move on past those. Perhaps there were too many tourists around the baby. I’m not sure.
Anyway, we walked off at a much faster pace through the forest, to find another couple of chimps on the ground. They weren’t really hanging out though, they were clearly on their way somewhere important. They continued on their way, and we followed.
Other trekkers around us tried to get photos, armed with huge lens cameras and tripods. But honestly, it seemed to be a fruitless endeavour. The only angle we could get the chimps was from behind, and combined with the low light in the forest, the only shots we got were chimp backsides.
Imagine two famous people, surrounded by a group of journalists shooting them with cameras. They are a bit annoyed by the intrusion, and keep their backs to the cameras, every so often trying to walk away, only for the journalists to follow.
That’s a bit how it felt, except the famous people were chimps, and we were the journalists. Other trekkers pushed each other out of the way to try and get better pictures. Kris didn’t have a camera so he was right at the back.
It was a bit odd, to be honest. Don’t get me wrong, it was an amazing experience to see them in the wild, but they didn’t seem that happy to have us around. Although these were habituated chimps and used to humans visiting them, the day we went, they didn’t want us there. It wasn’t like the gorilla trekking we did later in the trip. Perhaps it was the bad weather. Many people get cranky in the rain.
Other things to do in Fort Portal
Bigodi Wetlands Swamp Walk
Several community-based projects exist around Fort Portal, the most well-known being the Bigodi Wetlands Swamp Walk, which is probably the most chosen thing to do in Fort Portal, after chimpanzee trekking. Many tourists do chimpanzee trekking in Kibale National Park in the morning, and the Bigodi Wetlands Swamp Walk in the afternoon.
While the stuff we read online and in our guidebook suggested that the tours of the Bigodi Wetlands only happened at specific times of day, in fact, there are constantly guides waiting to take you. Just pull into the site and someone will offer you a walk.
After our chimpanzee trek, we had a fantastic lunch at the Beehive restaurant (see below) which is directly opposite the Bigodi Wetlands Swamp Walk entrance. We decided to go and find more information, so wandered across the road, where several guides met us. David, one of the guides, offered to take us on the walk there and then. However, we were tired and completely covered in mud from the chimp tracking and in desperate need of a shower and a rest, so we arranged to meet him the following morning instead.
Community-Based Tourism at Bigodi Wetlands
Bigodi Wetlands Swamp walk was set up by KAFRED, a project with the aim of helping communities around the Kibale National Park, while protecting the national environment. As well as the Swamp Walk, KAFRED has helped the community set up homestays, traditional cooking demonstrations and handicraft demonstrations. Money raised by these projects have contributed to the local school and providing clean water and waste management systems.
The Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary is a really biodiverse area, particularly for birds, with over 200 species of birds and 8 species of primates. The Community Project have set up boardwalks to take tourists through the wetlands, with a 4.5 km walk. We paid 50,000 Ugandan Shillings each to David to do the walk. David was in college to become a tour guide, and working on this project was part of his practicum.
He knew so much about the wildlife, and was incredibly enthusiastic about everything we were seeing. Just after getting out of the car we saw troops of black and white colobus monkeys and red colobus monkeys. Bigodi Wetlands is one of the home of the white-spotted flufftail, an elusive bird that you are more likely to hear the call of. David did a great impression of the call, and it replied, but he didn’t manage to tempt it open.
An ode to birdwatchers
Perhaps it’s best to explain our relationship to birdwatching before you become underwhelmed by my descriptions of our birdwatching sessions. In our biologist lives, Kris was an entomologist and Kate was a mammal specialist. We studied with lots of serious birders and are definitely not of that breed. We like birds, they are pretty and some are really cool. We do a lot of birdwatching tours because we love the dedication of real birders and their ability to identify which small brown bird it is on that branch over there. But, to us, it’s a small brown bird.
Hopefully, this explains why I can’t wax lyrical on the list of birds we saw. David was educational and explained a lot, but we just can’t really remember each bird. We saw species of kingfishers, and barbets and sunbirds.
Kihingami Wetlands Walk
Another, much smaller, community-based project is the walk at the Kihingami Wetlands. It may be smaller, but it is still a great thing to do in Fort Portal. The Kihingami Wetlands is a 13km area of swamp bordered Kibale National Park. Encroached by the local tea plantations, it was set up by a tour guide from Kabarole Tours, who noticed locals chasing small primates away from their land. He realised the need for a patch of land for the local bird and primate life to have habitat.
Again, our guidebook said that tours left at certain times a day. However, we pulled into the Kihingami Wetlands Walk, someone approached our car and told us to wait, and a guide would come soon. A few minutes later, the manager of the project appeared, opened the office and introduced us to Richard and Michael. Like Bigodi Swamp Walk, these were students studying to be tour guides, doing internships at the project. The Wetlands have a small training school, helping locals to become guides. And again, our guides were incredibly knowledgeable about the local wildlife.
Kihingami Wetlands is home to various species of colobus monkey, and many birds. Again, I’m not going to be able to list them. Richard and Michael expertly identified lots of Avian species, and showed us pictures in their bird book, but honestly, we’ve forgotten them. We did see a Great Blue Turaco briefly, which was beautiful.
Our guided walk took about 3 hours, and we paid 25,000 shillings each for it. It was excellent and highly recommended. The Kihingami Wetlands Office is on the road towards Fort Portal, near the Sebitoli section of Kibale National Park.
Fort Portal Crater Lakes
Thousands of years ago, violent volcanic activity in the region created a series of crater lakes. There are over 30 in the Fort Portal region. In contrast to their extreme creation, they are now serene, beautiful lakes. There are tours to visit the lakes, including hiking tours, which might be interesting things to do in Fort Portal, but some of them also have small hotels and restaurants by the side of them.
On the road towards Fort Portal, there are several turnoffs for crater lakes. Rweteera Safari Park is less a home to roaming animals, and more a budget resort, with tents and cabins on the lake. The views are stunning. We pulled in by car and were greeted by one of the friendly staff, who welcomed us. They were fine for us to explore the grounds and enjoy the view. There is a restaurant with food and drink that you can also make the most of.
On the same crater lake, you can drive up to the CVK Lakeside Resort. This is also a stunning location, and was quieter than the Rweteera Safari Park resort. The owner said that if we bought a coffee, we could explore the grounds and take pictures. The coffee was a mere 5000 shillings so we happily agreed. There were birds everywhere, kingfishers flitting in and out of the water and a big eagle sitting watching us from a tree. As we enjoyed our coffee, lizards were basking in the sun around us.
While we stayed in Fort Portal, I think these little budget resorts on the crater lakes would be lovely places to stay too.
Nuts and Bolts
Where to stay in Fort Portal on a budget
Most people chimpanzee trekking in Uganda in Kibale National Park stay in lodges overlooking the national park. The advantage of these are that they are close to the National Park Gate, so you don’t have to get up so early. Also, the views are stunning. However, as you’d imagine, the downside is that they are expensive.
If you are doing your Uganda trip independently and you want to keep to a budget, there are some far cheaper places to stay. It also gives you good access to the other things to do in Fort Portal.
We stayed in the Westend Motel, at the edge of the town, but an easy 5 minutes walk in. As the name suggests, it’s a motel, with two floors of rooms opening onto an outside corridor. Our room was small but clean with an en suite bathroom. Nextdoor to the rooms is the restaurant, where a great breakfast is served. There’s a choice of food, including typical Ugandan breakfast products of samosas and roti.
We didn’t see that many other tourists staying there. It was largely Ugandans who seemed to be on business trips, and the drivers from tour companies. At about $21 a night, it was a bargain.
This is the place we went for coffee, build on one of the crater lakes. The view is stunning, and the staff were lovely. There are terraces overlooking the lake, and a comfortable common room for when it gets cooler in the evenings. They run hiking tours around the crater lakes. It’s a budget place, but at only $40 a night, it’s a great compromise if you want to stay in the countryside but can’t afford one of the big safari lodges.
This is also on the banks of one of the crater lakes, and is a budget resort with tents and cabins. There’s bike hire, canoeing and hiking, with a bar, restaurant and campfire at night. A tent costs about $35 a night and a cabin about $60. When we visited, there was a large group of volunteers staying there, so I’d imagine it’s quite sociable.
We didn’t actually visit this place, but I’ve since read about it. YES Uganda is a Christian project involved with empowering Uganda’s youth, including support children born with HIV. This basically means sponsoring education for children who would otherwise be unable to attend school.
They have a hostel in Fort Portal, which costs $10 for a dorm bed with breakfast, and less than $4 to camp. If you really want budget and the hostel experience, this would be a great option.
Places to eat and drink in Fort Portal
Dutchess Restaurant is owned by some Dutch people – hence the name – and is a lovely sanctuary from the quite crazy Fort Portal streets. There’s an indoor restaurant and a large garden with tables and chairs, and a pizza oven making great pizzas. We ate there twice during our stay in Fort Portal, with the friendy staff, cold beer and nice food bringing us back.
After the chimp trekking in Uganda experience, we were hungry and followed signs for the Beehive Restaurant. We were not disappointed. This is another community-based project, with the restaurant selling food and drinks to raise money for the local community, while also serving as a base for the local people to hang out. There are TVs showing football, a pool table and a pub quiz, with excellent food.
Another interesting project they are involved in is providing a bee fence. Elephants don’t recognise national park boundaries, and often come out of the forests, trampling and eating farmers’ crops. If you’ve read what we’ve already said about forest elephants, they are also not very happy when they meet people, and can be dangerous.
To try and keep the elephants within the protection of the national park and away from the local people, they have erected beehives on the boundaries, linked together. When the elephant touches this bee fence, the bees come out of the hive and buzz around the elephant, sometimes giving it minor stings.
Elephants don’t like the noise, or the stings, so they move away from the fence. That’s so clever, right? As an added benefit, the beehives make honey that the local community can both eat and sell.
This was the first time we had heard of such a project, but we later heard of more around other national parks in Uganda.
Gardens Restaurant has a terrace which makes for great people/world watching as the sun goes down. It looks onto a couple of road junctions, and you can observe the crazy traffic while enjoying a bottle of beer. We didn’t try the food there, although they do a lunchtime buffet that could be good value. There’s also a shop selling handicrafts for souvenirs.
The Forest Bar
Forest Bar is hidden off the street, and has been really interestingly set up. It’s almost in a courtyard, but the street has been disguised by trees and natural decoration. There are a couple of small bars you can sit at, and tables and chairs. I don’t know what happens when it rains. We had a beer here and the staff were lovely.
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