Gorillas in Uganda, chimps in Tanzania

I made my ninth trip to Africa in July ’04, this time revisiting Uganda and Tanzania with three friends. We landed in Kampala, UGANDA, and spent two days there and a day in Jinja (the source of the Nile). Then we headed with our guide, Cliff Kisitu, to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, the home of the mountain gorillas. The trip took 10 hours, most of it over potholed dirt roads.

We stayed in bandas (round cement huts), which cost under $20 a night per person. (There are more upscale accommodations in the park.) The next morning, accompanied by a guide, porters and several armed park rangers, we headed up the mountain in search of gorillas. Bwindi has three groups of gorillas that are habituated to humans. Six people a day are allowed to visit a group for only one hour.

Locating the gorillas can take anywhere from 15 minutes to six hours of hiking up muddy paths and through thick vegetation, which a machete-wielding ranger hacks away.

After 2½ hours of climbing, we came face to face with Mwirima, the silverback (adult males have silvery-gray backs) leader of the Rushegura group. This group is usually the easiest to find.

Despite some awesome displays, gorillas are usually peaceful and seem most content when eating, which they do 25% of their waking hours. Bored with our presence, Mwirima ambled off, leaving us with two adult females, a juvenile and two babies. After one hour we had to leave what was one of my most exciting and moving encounters with African wildlife.

The cost of tracking gorillas at Bwindi has just risen to $360 per person. Information about permits can be found at the Ugandan Wildlife Authority (e-mail uwa@uwa.or.ug or visit www.uwa.or.ug).

Our Ugandan guide, Cliff Kisitu (P.O. Box 21777, Kampala, Uganda; cell phone in Uganda 077422600 or, when dialing from the U.S., 011-256-77422600 or e-mail clifki@ hotmail.com), can obtain permits and provide guide services. Also available to provide the same services is guide Emmanuel
(phone 077662441 or e-mail a_emmy2001@hotmail.com).

After spending a night in the comfortable Lake Hotel in Mbara ($40 a double), we returned to Kampala.

The next day we flew to Dar es Salaam, TANZANIA, and immediately hopped on a fight to Zanzibar (under $20 one way). We chose to stay at Hotel Kiponda (hotelkiponda@email.com) in the heart of Stonetown. Doubles with shared bath were $35.

The hotel can arrange excursions on the island or to neighboring islands. We used Ahmed Muharam (cell 0747-412845 or e-mail muharamahmed@yahoo.com), an excellent guide, with whom we shared the obligatory spice tour.

I took off on my own for two days on the beach in Kendwa. The Sunset Bungalows (sunset bungalows@hotmail.com), set on a gorgeous stretch of beach with turquoise water, were beautiful and comfortable. All rooms are self-contained, and the price includes breakfast. Rooms on the top of the cliff were $35 per double; rooms 20 meters from the beach were $45 per double, and luxury rooms with air-conditioning were $55.

Hotel staff can arrange all kinds of activities. I chose to do some snorkeling and then visited a village at the end of the island.

We all met up at the Zanzibar airport and caught a flight back to Dar, where we stayed at the Safari Lodge (e-mail safari-inn@ lycos.com) — $20 a double for clean rooms with A.C.

The following day we flew to Kigoma, Tanzania — the jumping-off point for a trip to Gombe, home of Jane Goodall’s chimps. I would highly recommend the Aqua Lodge (phone Kirit Vaitha at 0744 362910 or 022 2775339 or e-mail aqua@cats-net.com), where clean and self-contained double rooms could be had for $18. The atmosphere there was wonderful, and we were served dinner on the beach watching the sunset over Lake Tanganyika.

Aqua Lodge provides package tours to Gombe which include boat transportation (local boats do go to Kigoma, but their safety standards are questionable), food and a cook (there is no food available at Gombe). Park fees are $100 a day, and guides are available for a minimum fee.

For two days we hiked the forest trails. Fewer than 100 chimpanzees live at Gombe. Those who have followed Jane Goodall’s research are aware that each of these chimps has a known personal history. On the first day, we met Gremlin, with her 6-year-old twins, Golden and Glitter (the first twins to survive at Gombe), and her 6-month-old infant, Gimli.

The baby gripped Gremlin tenaciously as she moved from tree to tree searching for just the right meal. When his mother paused on the ground to groom her other children, Gimli bravely ventured a few inches away from her to stare at us. Later Gimble, Gremlin’s brother, ambled past us, and I was thankful that he was not interested in bashing us around as male chimps often do to tourists during “displays.”

On our second day we spent more time with Gremlin and her brood. Unfortunately, our guide, Jovin, was unable to find Fifi, the most famous chimp of all. Fifi, at age 46, is the oldest female chimp at Gombe and the matriarch of an amazing family, replete with several alpha male sons.

It was with a sense of deep disappointment that we packed our bags and waited for the boat to take us back to Kigoma. Suddenly Jovin came running over with news that Fifi had decided to pay us a visit at camp. We raced over to find her dangling from a tree limb along with her daughter Flirt and 18-month-old daughter Furaha (Swahili for “joy”).

As I watched with feelings of wonder and humility, Fifi and the brood climbed down the tree, walked nonchalantly past us and sat down to groom each another. I understand why Jane Goodall so loves these animals.

As our boat glided away from Gombe, with fishing boats silhouetted in the sunset, this magical place that we felt privileged to have experienced disappeared from view.

After an 11-hour “bus trip from hell” (complete with babies urinating in my lap, a defecating chicken, breakdowns and seats only 12 inches across — you get the picture), we arrived in Mwanza, Tanzania, to pick up our safari.

We used Fortes Safaris (phone 255 28 2501804 / 2571764, e-mail fortessafaris@thenet.co.tz or visit www.fortessafaris.com), which has offices in Mwanza and Arusha and does custom safaris at very reasonable prices. The prices depend on the number of people and days, what parks you go to, whether you need to rent tents and sleeping bags and whether a cook is provided. The total cost generally would be under $200 per person per day.

We camped throughout the Serengeti, experiencing baboons trying to ransack our tents, elephants wandering through the camp during the day and various antelope munching grass outside our tents at night. We were able to catch the northerly migration — what a thrill to see hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and zebras on the move across the Mara River into Kenya!

There was nothing like the hot meals cooked by Aloyce Festo after we’d spent seven hours a day with our superb guide, Patrick Shija, in the dusty plains searching for lions.

After a cold night of camping and a wonderful full-day safari in the Ngorongoro Crater, we drove to Arusha, visiting a Maasai village on the way. In Arusha we splurged on the Equator Hotel. For $75 we had a wonderfully comfortable, air-conditioned triple room. The beautiful gardens behind the hotel provided a peaceful respite to the bustle of the city, and the hotel restaurant served excellent food.

Another local bus took us back to Dar, where we stayed at the Econolodge (e-mail econolodge@raha.com or visit www.econolodgetz.com); basic, clean doubles with A.C. were about $20.

Don’t miss a wonderful Ethiopian meal at Addis in Dar on Ursomp Street or shopping at Slipway and the Kariko Market.

Coastal Safaris (e-mail safari@coastal.cc) in Dar can arrange numerous trips around the city and other parts of Tanzania. We opted for a trip to Selous. This is a large game reserve that has few visitors; as a result, the animals are more wary of humans and harder to find, but the scenery alone is worth the trip. For a pricey $450 we arranged a 2-day trip there, which included the flights.

The Selous Impala Lodge is in a stunning setting by the river. The permanent tents, with bathrooms, were exquisite, and we were serenaded by hippos throughout the night. The gourmet meals were excellent.

We did a walking safari, a boat safari and a game drive. Our disappointment at not seeing more animals came to an end when we encountered a pride of at least 30 lions, some lying in the sun and others taking their rest in the shade of the bushes. It was a fitting end to a wonderful trip.

Anyone who would like more information may feel free to contact me c/o ITN.

Pittsford, NY