Uganda – Great Apes Photo Tour with Daniel Bailey
Have you ever dreamed of embarking on an exciting adventure to the “Pearl of Africa,” where you can experience incredible landscapes, cultures, people, wildlife, and, of course, the great apes – chimpanzees and endangered Eastern Mountain Gorillas, in their natural habitats? Well, let me take you on a journey to Uganda, where I recently guided a tailor-made ORYX Great Apes Photo Tour.
Part 1: Chimpanzees
Our first destination was the Kibale Forest, renowned for its diverse population of chimpanzees. Equipped with our cameras and guided by the knowledgeable Anette, we embarked on our first trek in search of the Kanyantale chimpanzee community in the Kibale Forest. As we delved deeper into the forest, we couldn’t help but feel a surge of excitement. It didn’t take long for us to hear and then encounter the chimps.
Enfuzi, the dominant male, caught our attention with his impressive presence. Enfuzi, named after being orphaned at a young age, has thrived and risen to the top of the community. Alongside him were Ruhweza, an older male with a torn ear, and Rukara, distinguished by his grey beard. In total, there are 120 individuals in this remarkable community. We were astounded by their intricate family dynamics and the way they interacted with each other.
We witnessed a captivating display of male chimpanzees thudding tree trunks, a behaviour often associated with dominance, territorial displays, aggression, and mating. We soon discovered that a female in oestrus was the cause of this commotion. As we observed from a distance, a subordinate male tried to seize the opportunity to mate with her, leading to a chaotic scene filled with vocalizations and fervent activity.
Our second trek, guided by the wonderful Elley, presented us with another fascinating encounter. In the warm morning sunshine, the chimpanzee family found respite on a fallen tree within the lush forest. This setting provided us with a unique opportunity to capture stunning photographs of these incredible creatures. Unlike the typical challenges faced in a forest environment, where shadows and harsh contrasts often hinder photography due to dappled light penetrating through the canopy, this scene was bathed in a gentle and even glow.
Grooming among chimpanzees is a crucial social behaviour that plays a significant role in strengthening bonds within the community and maintaining the hierarchy. One notable individual in this regard is Enfuzi, the dominant male of the chimpanzee community.
Enfuzi, who has risen to the position of dominance, holds a prominent role within the group. Grooming sessions involving Enfuzi are not only essential for his physical well-being but also serve as a means for other members of the community to establish and reinforce social connections.
As Enfuzi sits comfortably, fellow chimps meticulously groom his fur, removing debris and forming intricate social bonds. This grooming ritual signifies respect, submission, and solidarity within the hierarchy. By engaging in grooming behaviors with Enfuzi, other chimpanzees reinforce their alliance and allegiance to him, solidifying his status as the dominant male.
Through grooming, the community members also exhibit their dependency on Enfuzi for protection and guidance. This mutual grooming fosters trust and cooperation, leading to a more cohesive and harmonious social structure within the chimpanzee group.
We came across Byoya, an 18-year-old male with a blind eye, accompanied by his mother and her adorable 6-month-old infant. The mother and offspring engaged in endearing grooming sessions, showcasing the tender bond between them. Meanwhile, Rukara, one of the elder male members of the community, peacefully dozed off, seemingly undisturbed by the surrounding activities.
For our final trek, we were led by the experienced Jordan, with the ever-helpful porter, Daniel, by our side. As we ventured deeper into the forest, we came across two mothers with their young infants. It was a heart-warming sight to see the little ones clinging to their mothers as they moved through the trees. Our attention was drawn to the chimps feeding in an Andaringa Tree, high up in the canopy, well over 100 meters above us. It was fascinating to watch the chimpanzees climb and scale the trees with ease, showcasing their incredible strength. Chimpanzee muscle exceeds human muscle in maximum dynamic force and power output by approximately 1.35 times. However, this peaceful feeding scene was soon disrupted by a dispute between the chimps, likely triggered by the female in oestrus and the promiscuous nature of the community. The entire family actively chased this particular female and physically disciplined her. It was chaotic, loud, and the vocalizations were deafening. Shortly after, the family settled down and relaxed, some resting on the ground while others found solace in the canopy.
It was a special experience for both my guest and myself to have the opportunity to photograph, but also to simply sit, observe, and spend time with the chimpanzee community. Highlights included having Enfuzi, the dominant male, walk past us within a few feet on the forest path, photographing the different family members, and capturing iconic images of chimps looking skywards or enjoying quiet moments of rest.
After each trek, we returned to our camp to freshen up, rest, review and edit our images. In the evenings, we eagerly savoured local gins and delicacies. The staple food of this region of Uganda consists of mouth-watering dishes such as chicken, beans, and polenta mash made from green bananas. A treat for the taste buds, as we indulged in the flavours of this vibrant cuisine.
Kibale Forest is recognized as the primate capital of the world. It is home to 13 species of primates, two of which are nocturnal: bushbabies and pottos. Between treks, we had the opportunity to take leisurely walks around the camp, where we encountered an array of playful monkeys. We delighted in spotting the vibrant red colobus, the striking black-and-white colobus, the charming red-tailed monkeys, and the olive baboons, which added an extra layer of enchantment to our adventure.
It felt as if we had stepped into a magical wonderland where every step revealed a new butterfly fluttering gracefully around us. In fact, the Kibale Forest boasts an incredible diversity of butterfly species, with over 250 recorded within its borders. The avian life in this region was equally astonishing. We were treated to sightings of magnificent birds, including the Great Blue Turaco with its majestic plumage, the Broad-billed rollers, and the Black and White Casqued Hornbill.
Part 2: Eastern Mountain Gorillas
The second part of our journey took us on an unforgettable road trip through the country, where we traversed endless green hills, vibrant towns, and charming communities. We marvelled at the beauty of the Crater lakes and were awe-struck by the sights of Lake Edward and Lake George, with the magnificent Rwenzori Mountains serving as a backdrop, forming the western border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Our route led us through Queen Elizabeth National Park, where we witnessed endless grasslands and crossed the iconic Kazinga Channel. As we journeyed further, we gradually ascended in altitude, ultimately bringing us to the spell-binding Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Here, we were filled with anticipation and excitement, knowing that we would have the privilege of encountering the Eastern Mountain Gorillas through four scheduled gorilla treks over the course of nine days.
The Gorilla treks were planned to provide us with ample opportunities to observe and photograph these magnificent creatures while also allowing us rest days in between to rejuvenate and reflect on our experiences. The dense foliage and rugged terrain of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest created an otherworldly atmosphere, immersing us in a realm where time seemed to stand still.
Each gorilla trek was a unique adventure, with our experienced guides leading us through the forest, navigating its challenging paths. As we approached the gorilla families, a sense of reverence and respect filled the air. The encounters with these gentle giants were humbling and awe-inspiring. We observed their intricate social dynamics, the nurturing bonds between mothers and infants, and the commanding presence of the silverbacks, who stood as guardians of their family units.
Trek 1: The Katwe Family
Our journey began at the Uganda Wildlife Authority Headquarters. We received our briefing and were greeted with songs and dances by the lovely ladies from the Bwindi Woman’s Community Skills Centre, blessing us with good luck. Led by Joshua, our local UWA guide, we embarked on a gentle 30-minute hike through the lush forest. Anticipation filled the air as we were about to meet the Katwe Group, one of the gorilla families residing in this ancient forest.
Our first sighting was of the mighty Silverback. We witnessed an awe-inspiring scene as he ascended a tree and fed on fresh vines. It was truly amazing to see a 200 kg creature climb a tree with such ease. The Katwe family consisted of thirteen members. The blackbacks, with their youthful exuberance, added a playful touch to the encounter. Among the family members were two adorable six-month-old offspring, captivating us with their innocent curiosity.
We had the privilege of observing the blackback up close as he fed, and our hearts melted as two females with their young offspring ventured out to greet us. The exhilaration of lying on the ground and photographing the enormous Silverback as he walked past within just a few feet will stay with my guest forever. These moments will forever be etched into my guest’s memories, who captured remarkable photographs along the way. It was an incredible first trek for both my guest and myself. Time seemed to fly by, and before we knew it, our first hour in the presence of these majestic creatures had come to an end. A huge thank you goes to our amazing Ugandan Gorilla guide, Joshua, who ensured that this first experience was nothing short of extraordinary.
Trek 2: The Habinyanja Family
As we drove to the trailhead, we prepared ourselves for the next leg of our adventure. Accompanied by John, our experienced UWA guide, we embarked on an hour-long trek to meet the Habinyanja family. We walked past tea plantations, through villages, and were greeted by curious and friendly children who sang songs to welcome us to the area. The Habinyanja family is located close to the “neck” of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. It consists of thirteen members, including two Silverbacks, two impressive blackbacks, several adult females, sub-adults, and one infant. This family showcased the intricate social dynamics of the gorilla community.
Initially, the Habinyanja family was in an open valley within the forest, basking in the morning sunshine. It provided a picturesque setting for photography as they fed on the surrounding vegetation. The sighting of a precious eight-month-old infant melted our hearts, reminding us of the vulnerability and hope embodied in each new generation. As the temperature began to rise, the family sought refuge in the shade of the forest canopy, gracefully moving into the depths of the forest to rest.
The sighting became even more incredible as two mischievous male sub-adults interacted with our group, engaging in playful behaviour. They played, charged, beat their chests, thumped the ground, and rolled in the leaf litter, occasionally throwing sticks and leaves at us. They were extremely engaging and playful, presumably honing their skills of intimidation. It was a unique and very special encounter as these young gorillas interacted with us for well over thirty minutes. We sat and lay on the ground at a safe and comfortable distance, but they would playfully approach us within a few feet from time to time. The two mischievous sub-adults provided endless entertainment. Our guide John and our trackers, Antony, Julius, and Fred, shared their extensive knowledge and passion, enriching our experience. It was particularly special to hear John state that this interaction was one of the best treks he had experienced in a long time.
Trek 3: The Binyindo Family
Accompanied by Florence, our UWA guide for the morning, we embarked on a trek to encounter the Binyindo family. The Binyindo family is located in the same area as the Habinyanja family. The Habinyanja family split a few years back when one Silverback gained dominance and started his own family group. As we ventured through the Bwindi neck, we marvelled at the proximity of the Habinyanja and Binyindo families, now two distinct gorilla families. Upon arriving at the edge of the forest, we saw the Habinyanja family feeding at the borderline with the tea plantation.
We caught our breath after trekking up a steep hillside and proceeded into the undergrowth of the Bwindi forest. After a few minutes, we arrived at the location of the Binyindo family. They were feeding in an open clearing. Under the hot sun, we braved challenging conditions. It was a great encounter, but on this particular occasion, we had an issue with lens condensation amidst the scorching sun and the humid lush greenery. Observing the family of nine gorillas feeding and playing was a truly immersive experience. We encountered the Silverback with a distinct cataract and a scarred nose. He was truly impressive. We managed to capture some great images and videos of the family, but unfortunately, our lenses couldn’t handle the high temperatures. Condensation forms on your lens when you experience dramatic temperature and/or humidity changes. The dew point was too great, and water vapor formed within the lens, trapped with no escape. After 30 minutes, this dissipated, and we could resume photographing the end of our encounter.
Yet, it was a valuable lesson learned. For future treks, it is sometimes best to carry your camera in hand, outside of the camera bag for the duration of the hike to allow for gradual temperature change. Regardless, it was special to simply sit, observe, and enjoy the moment in time with the gorillas without being solely focused through a viewfinder. It served as a reminder to be present and simply enjoy the privileged opportunity of sharing space with the endangered Eastern Mountain Gorillas.
Trek 4: The Mukiza Family
Starting our day with an early nourishing breakfast, we left Buhoma and embarked on a one-and-a-half-hour journey to Ruhija, the north-eastern sector and also the highest point (2450 meters) in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. It was a beautiful drive at sunrise, with endless views of vibrant villages, tea plantations, and farmland as we travelled to reach a new sector of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. I was fortunate to catch up with an old friend, Wilber, who had guided me previously in 2020. He gave our trek briefing, and it was a great surprise to see him in Ruhija, as we had previously been in the Nkuringo sector. It was a true embrace with a good friend that I will forever cherish.
Our final trek in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest was led by the wonderful Joy, who guided us alongside two dedicated and skilled porters. The trek encompassed a tough 7-kilometer walk, taking us approximately three hours. We traversed steep hillsides to reach the ridgeline and descended to our destination – the Mukiza family, which consisted of a staggering nineteen individuals.
As we approached the family, our lungs were out of breath, but our hearts were filled with anticipation. The sight that awaited us was nothing short of remarkable. Seven playful juveniles, full of energy and curiosity, greeted us with their spirited antics. Among them was an adorable four-month-old infant clinging to his mother, Valentine, whose birth on Valentine’s Day added an extra touch of magic to our encounter.
As we stood in awe, quietly observing their interactions, the majestic silverback gracefully walked past us at close quarters, his presence commanding respect and admiration. Feeling the gentle brush of its powerful yet delicate touch was a moment that seemed to transcend time and space. The entire family paraded before us, leaving an indelible mark on our souls. Witnessing an infant gorilla climb a tree just a few feet away from us was an unforgettable moment of pure enchantment. We were captivated by its innocent exploration, marveling at the sheer wonder of nature unfolding before our eyes.
In that moment, time seemed to stand still, where the boundaries between humans and gorillas faded away, and we were all part of the same intricate tapestry of life.
As we reluctantly left the Mukiza family and made our way back, the memories of this final trek lingered in our hearts. The encounters with these magnificent creatures had touched us in ways we couldn’t fully articulate. We were grateful for the opportunity to witness their beauty, strength, and familial bonds up close, and we carried those experiences with us as a reminder of the profound interconnectedness of all living beings.
The three-hour trek out of the forest with Joy, my guest, fellow travellers, and the porters by our side, and the enchanting presence of the Mukiza family, will forever hold a special place in our memories. It was sadly the culmination of our time with the Eastern Mountain Gorillas.
During our time in Bwindi, we were not only enchanted by the gorillas but also immersed ourselves in the vibrant culture and natural wonders of Uganda. We had the opportunity to interact with local communities, witnessing their traditions, artistry, and warm hospitality. We engaged in a cultural experience with the Batwa Pygmies.
We learned how local artists/woodworkers carve wooden gorilla masks and sculptures. My guest, who is a talented artist, learnt how to carve a wooden Gorilla mask from scratch. We visited Ride 4 a Woman, a charitable organization set up to support women struggling with poverty, HIV, and domestic violence. There, we learned how to weave, sew, and cook traditional Ugandan dishes. We also visited Henry, a local coffee farmer, and explored his barista artistry as he made coffee from bean to cup, as well as how to make local gin from bananas. We explored the unique ecosystems of the forest, waterfalls, gentle streams, and encountered a myriad of plant and animal species that call this enchanting place home.
As we reflect on our trip through Uganda and the unforgettable encounters with the chimpanzees and Eastern Mountain Gorillas, we are filled with a profound sense of gratitude and wonder. This journey allowed us to witness the untamed beauty of nature, the resilience of wildlife, and the richness of Uganda’s cultural tapestry. It is a place where every turn reveals a new marvel, where every experience leaves an indelible mark on our souls.
Uganda truly is a treasure trove of natural and cultural wonders, beckoning adventurers from around the world to explore its breath taking landscapes, encounter its diverse wildlife, and embrace the warmth of its people. This tailor-made Uganda – Great Apes Photo Tour was an extraordinary journey, forever etched in our memories as a testament to the unparalleled beauty of the “Pearl of Africa.”
“For magnificence, for variety of form and colour, for profusion of brilliant life – bird, insect, reptile, beast – for vast scale Uganda is truly the Pearl of Africa”.
– Winston Churchill
Join ORYX Photo Tour Leader, Daniel Bailey on a journey to Uganda and immerse yourself in the captivating world of the great apes. Witness their fascinating behaviours, capture breath-taking photographs, and create lasting memories in this remarkable part of Africa. Uganda truly is a treasure trove for nature lovers and photographers alike.