“Reading about pulses quickening or hearts pounding was only a metaphor for me in the past. Yet the experiences with the chimps and gorillas really do create this physical reaction…”

By Sarah Raby, Africa Adventure Director and Group Specialist, who just returned from Nat Hab’s Great Uganda Gorilla Safari. Read on to find out how Uganda surprised her in the best possible way! All photos by Sandy Shannon, Adventure Operations Manager, who was also on the trip.

I’ve been back home for a week now, in a bit of a fog as I deal with jet lag, and sift through emails and projects put on hold, feeling a bit culture shocked and adjusting to a drastic climate change as I return to winter snow.

My close-up with a gorilla! (c) Sandy Shannon

My close-up with a gorilla! © Sandy Shannon

I’ve emerged feeling much more thoughtful than I typically do after a safari. Uganda surprised me in many good ways. The close wildlife encounters with the primates are certainly exceptional, the countryside is simply breathtaking, and the people I encountered along this journey are the cherry on top!

Reading about pulses quickening or hearts pounding was only a metaphor for me in the past. Yet the experiences with the chimps and gorillas really do create this physical reaction, unlike any other wildlife encounter I’ve experienced—and there have been many! Scrambling after the chimps through the forest, we hope to catch them at a resting point where they will stop and groom each other, or where they will just laze on their backs picking at a leaf or their toes. The hour we spend with them flies by, and we’re left wanting more. It’s a good thing we have two chimpanzee treks included in our scheduled primate trips.

chimpanzee, Kibale, Uganda

One of our first chimp sightings in Kibale National Park. © Sandy Shannon

chimpanzee, Kibale National Park, Uganda

This chimp couldn’t look more peaceful, lazing on its back up in a tree. © Sandy Shannon

Back at Ndali Lodge, chatter over a celebratory sundowner floats up over the pool and toward the Rwenzori Mountains—what could we possibly hope to see tomorrow that could top today?

From Kibale National Park, we said our goodbyes to the chimps and headed south to Queen Elizabeth National Park. This more general African wildlife experience is perfectly sandwiched between active primate trekking experiences. During our Kazinga Channel boat cruise, we saw hippos by the hundreds in every direction. I was amazed that children were swimming, men were fishing, and women were doing laundry next to a herd of elephants and close to a well-worn buffalo path.

Hippos, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda

Hippo sighting in Queen Elizabeth National Park. © Sandy Shannon

Closer to town, yet still inside the park, we encountered a pride of lions feasting on a buffalo carcass, and the looks on the locals’ faces as they stopped their work trucks to catch a glimpse were priceless. Such a sighting is as exciting for them as it is for us. You don’t see these events every day, even on safari. I’ve never encountered human/wildlife interaction at such a close range. The compatible interactions seemed effortless, though I know they are not. I felt confident that my visit and our groups’ tourism dollars are helping to foster this relationship where wildlife and people are living in harmony.

lion, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda

A happy lion, after a buffalo feast. © Sandy Shannon

As we moved farther south to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, our excitement could hardly be contained. Driving in and seeing the dense vegetation was more than a bit intimidating—what was in store? I looked at a fellow traveler and said, “I feel a bit like when my husband talks me into a black diamond run when I haven’t been skiing in a few years…nervous.”

Our hikes in pursuit of the gorillas were fairly challenging but completely doable, and Chris, our own “silverback” in the group (83 years old and always smiling!), set a good pace. Our two gorilla encounters were very different: during the first, we watched a group feasting on low growth in a sunny grove with a four-month-old baby playing around its mother, and during our second, the group was at the far edge of the national park, near outlying farmland, where a female in estrus successfully enticed the young silverback into copulation. Even our seasoned Expedition Leader was thrilled by this rare sighting!

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, gorilla, Uganda

I’ll never forget our first gorilla encounter. © Sandy Shannon

Our final image in the waning minutes of our visit was a lone female sitting low in a tree who flashed us a smile as a farewell. We all agreed we could have sat quietly and watched them for the rest of the day, but we knew we needed to leave them alone to go about their business free of our presence.

I can’t wait to make my way back one day.

gorilla, Bwindi, Uganda

A lone female flashed us a friendly farewell grin as we left the park. © Sandy Shannon

Check out Nat Hab’s chimpanzee and gorilla tours to Uganda and Rwanda.