An Adventure Through the Pearl of Africa

 An Adventure Through the Pearl of Africa

By Katie McFadden

Two weeks ago, my sister and I found ourselves in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, in the mountains of Uganda. Breathing doesn’t come as easy while in a place so high, you’re in the clouds, and you’re not sure if it’s because of the altitude, the downward climb while trying not to slip on wet leaves and roots, or the pure adrenaline of encountering a wild animal that, while so much like yourself, has the potential to harm you.

But as you meet one, that all goes away. We quietly made our way deeper into the forest and spotted a giant male gorilla, the leader, enjoying some early morning relaxation. We sat and watched him as he watched the canopy of trees above. Before we knew it, a mother gorilla with her baby on her back, came climbing down, and met her mate. They settled in together as their eight-month-old baby put on a show for its captive audience, doing acrobatics around a tree branch, before hanging on by one arm and banging on his chest, as you’d see in a cartoon. Except this was real. We were no further than 15 feet from this family of gorillas as more approached, another mother with her four-year-old, and another. Seven gorillas sat before us, unbothered by us watching and snapping photos. Before we knew it, an hour had gone by, and our session with these amazing primates was up, or so we thought. As we got up to make our way back up the mountain, so did the gorillas. They crossed ahead of us, and we followed behind, until we came across an even bigger gorilla—the silverback. The big male’s silver fur glistened in the sun peeking through the trees, until he decided to meet the others that were calling him in the distance.

It’s indescribable to be in the presence of these wild animals, watching their natural behaviors unfold before you, hearing their grunts, making eye contact with them. And that was just the main highlight.

A few days before, we met some of their relatives, chimpanzees, who sent us on a fast-paced trek through Kibale Forest. Our first glimpse of them was a small family high above in the trees, who made their presence known by urinating, sending us fleeing to avoid a warm shower. That seemed personal enough, but we didn’t know just how close we would get. We followed our guide deeper into the jungle, and after what felt like running a 5K, we came across a family of chimps on the ground, that walked on their knuckles, only feet from us. I was grateful when one male chimp took a breather, sitting on a fallen log, scratching his hand, looking up in the trees for his family, and then turning his head to make direct eye contact with us all. There’s something spiritual about making eye contact with your closest animal relative. Aside from the fur and the way they walked, everything about them felt human.

At the end, I got even closer as a chimp nearly walked over my hiking boots. And when we thought it was over, we spotted a mother with a baby clinging to her back, moving about 15 feet from us. It was the perfect end to an incredible introduction to Uganda’s main primates.

The primates of the Pearl or Africa were the reason I went on the trip. But that was just a big highlight of this 12-day adventure that took us in a loop around the country to see all that Uganda had to offer, and as an animal lover, it was a dream. The trip started in Entebbe, with a boat ride through Lake Victoria to Mabamba Swamp in search of the Shoebill Stork, a prehistoric looking 3-foot-tall bird with a bill that looks just like a clog. We were lucky enough to find one. And that was just day one.

From Entebbe we made our way north to Murchison Falls National Park, stopping at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, where we got to see the first of the “Big 5” game animals in Africa—the white rhinoceros. Led by a guide, we were able to track a group of four rhinos, getting within 30 feet of them. They included a mother and baby, and two teenage males eating, grunting and even stopping for a quick nap. Later on, we were able to see a mom with her one-month-old baby sleeping under a tree.

As we entered Murchison Falls National Park, the sudden showers during Uganda’s rainy season seemed to bring animals close to the road. So close that we had to stop for two pairs of elephant moms and babies crossing ahead. After spotting them and a herd of cape buffalo, we had already found three of the Big 5, plus antelopes galore, and so many giraffes, the park could’ve been called Giraffic Park. We even found a dung beetle! Just Google it. It’s fascinating.

The next day, we were treated to a boat ride down the Nile River, where we got some up-close looks at herds of hippos in the water, crocodiles on the shore and elephants on land that let us know we were a little too close for their comfort, before reaching Murchison Falls, the most powerful waterfall in the world.

By the next day, we completed the search for the Big 5, spotting a group of lions on a plain far in the distance, and then the elusive leopard, even further away, that our guide somehow spotted hanging in a tree, even though it was only visible to the rest of us with a scope. And as we left Murchison Falls for our next destination, we got a closer look at a pair of young male lions crossing the road in front of us.

The trip included stays at some beautiful lodges, where we rested our heads on mosquito-net draped beds in little cottages, sometimes with wild animals greeting us as we opened the door, and electricity and hot water that operated on solar energy, when it wasn’t too cloudy. The food? Completely fresh, homecooked meals featuring fruit, meats, veggies and often potatoes, which in Uganda, they call “Irish potatoes.”  The people? Incredible. The Ugandan people are kind, strong, hardworking, and open to sharing their culture, from dances to music to a medicine man who showed some of his unconventional treatments, to skilled artisans at work, we saw how many of the people live day to day. We learned about the poverty of the country, seeing it through homes along the drives, watching kids pump jugs full of water to bring home for the next few days, and stopping by an orphanage in one village, that had 120 kids alone.

A visit to Uganda makes you realize how much we take for granted, and how good we have it in the U.S. But if you get the chance, add Uganda to your travel list. It truly was the trip of a lifetime.

Rockaway Stuff

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