Rattling in the dense foliage stops us dead in our tracks. I can feel my heartbeat in my throat. There’s a deep grunt, the sharp crack of branches, the pounding of feet. “Don’t move,” hisses our guide, Augustine. “It’s the silverback.” We stand stock still, as the whirring of cicadas and the song of tropical birds fills the air and then Augustine waves us forwards.
I half walk, half slide down the steep track and emerge into a clearing, where Mukiza, a hulking silverback, sits bolt upright among a group of eight mountain gorillas. A mother suckles a month-old baby, giving our awestruck group the briefest glimpse.
I’m with Volcanoes Safaris in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in south-west Uganda, one of the last redoubts of mountain gorillas, on a mission to see the very best wildlife this easily overlooked East African country has to offer. A 2012 census found that 400 gorillas lived in this dense rainforest. Estimates in 2018 suggested the number had risen to more than 1,000 across Uganda and neighbouring Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, up from 680 in 2008. In November the International Union for Conservation of Nature reclassified mountain gorillas from critically endangered to endangered.
While their numbers remain perilously low, the Uganda Wildlife Authority believes the sale of gorilla tracking permits to tourists has been instrumental in helping numbers rebound. Augustine explains that without the money brought in by visitors, the work of the UWA would be far harder.
Permits don’t come cheap. A day’s tracking costs $600 (£459), with visitors allowed to spend just an hour with the gorillas. Yet watching gorillas interact and play with their young at such close quarters, it’s impossible not to sense their very human spirit.
The gorillas’ unfussy attitude to human interlopers is the result of two years of habituation. There are 14 habituated families in Bwindi, totalling around 180 gorillas, with only eight tourists allowed to visit each group every day. Visitors are told to maintain a seven-metre distance but the gorillas appear more than happy to get up close and personal, dashing within arm’s reach. As Mukiza moves off into the forest, flashing his huge backside, Augustine asks if we’ve enjoyed ourselves. I give a speechless nod as he flashes a smile.
Such animal encounters would usually be the making of a country’s wildlife scene. But Uganda’s biodiversity, with more than 1,000 species of birds and 380 mammals, means it’s possible to spend the days after seeing mountain gorillas searching for harder-to-spot creatures in parks that feel far more low-key than others in Africa.
Its 24 hours since seeing Mukiza in Bwindi. We’re speeding north, the Land Rover kicking up dust as driver Yasin pulls onto a dirt track through the Ishasha sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park. In just two hours, the terrain has gone from rainforest to savannah. A group of fellow safari-goers passes and we slow to a halt. Outside, water buck and buffalo stride through the dry bush. Yasin grins when I ask if we’ve found the elusive tree-climbing lions of Ishasha.
Fifteen minutes later he pulls up at the top of an escarpment. Jumping out, he points his binoculars towards a solitary tree and smiles. I scour the branches, before picking out a lioness lying prone on a high branch. Over the next half an hour we watch her stretch and snooze in the midday heat.
Tree-climbing lions are only found here and in Tanzania’s Lake Manyara National Park. It’s thought that they climb trees to protect themselves from tsetse flies. Aside from lions, the only other visible animals are vultures circling above. It feels different to a safari in Kenya’s Maasai Mara.
There are no other vehicles heading towards us for a glimpse. This is personal. It becomes even more so as we drive back towards the main road and a huge cat strides across the track. “Stop, stop. Leopard. Leopard!” Yasin demands silence as she saunters past, flicking her tail. She eyeballs us then slips from view.
It feels almost unbelievable that in two days I’ve been within touching distance of mountain gorillas and a leopard. Uganda has spoiled us. And it’s not finished yet. The following day, Yasin drops us off at a pontoon on the Kazinga Channel. A 40km stretch of water that connects Lake George and Lake Edward, it’s home to the largest concentration of hippos in Africa. As our pilot navigates up channel, we see hundreds half-submerged, as elephants drink from the banks.
After the past two days, I feel overloaded with wildlife, as if I’m in my own Attenborough documentary. Processing these encounters in such a short space of time feels impossible. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past three days it’s that Uganda easily holds its own when it comes to the ultimate safari experience.