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Around the World: Bwindi Impenetrable National Park Uganda
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When you think of a safari, what might come to mind first are opportunities to spot the so-called big five—Cape buffalo, elephants, leopards, lions, and rhinoceros—as you cross the savannah on a game drive in a sport utility vehicle. That sort of safari can be the trip of a lifetime, but the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park provides a very different, unforgettable experience.
Located in southwest Uganda, the park is set amid Africa's tallest mountains. Lush, green peaks tower over verdant valleys and cerulean lakes, in a setting of humid rainforests rather than sunbaked plains. It can look like a child's vision of Africa, one where you will have the chance to encounter magnificent creatures like the famous mountain gorillas.
While there are also opportunities to spot hippos and lions in the area, gorillas are the primary draw of Bwindi and the neighboring parks near the point where Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo meet. The majestic animals can reach weights of over 400 pounds and heights of around five and a half feet, when standing on two feet. Unlike other gorillas and apes, they have thick fur coats, suited to the cool temperatures of their mountain home, which can drop to freezing on the coldest nights of the year. There are only an estimated 900 mountain gorillas still living in the wild, and with about 400 of them in Bwindi, the park is home to nearly half the world's wild population.
The impenetrable part of Bwindi's name refers to the park's dense bamboo groves that make entering it slow going—a far different experience than jumping into a sport utility vehicle for a game drive. After your guide slowly clears a path for you with his machete, you will eventually come upon a family of gorillas. There's an intimacy to visiting a gorilla family, as you watch a mother keeping an eye on her baby as he learns to crawl, or a father munching on bamboo leaves and snapping even the thickest branches as if they were mere twigs.
While the gorillas are the headliners, the park is also important for its astounding variety of ferns, butterflies and birds, which your guide will point out to you.
What to Do
The main focus of your trip to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest will be the gorilla safari, but a trip here can also include a visit to a Batwa village. The Batwa pygmies are Uganda's oldest tribe and they long shared the forest with the mountain gorillas. Sadly, the Batwa people had to be evicted from the park when it was established in 1991, to protect the gorillas from the risk of diseases that could be passed from humans to them. Many of the families now live on the edge of the park, where they will explain to visitors their traditional hunter-gathering existence, their use of medicinal herbs and how they construct their treehouses.
A visit to the school and orphanage in the town of Buhoma offers another opportunity to meet some of the human residents of this part of Uganda, with donations from travelers an essential source of support. A day trip to a coffee plantation can also be arranged by many of the safari lodges here. Famous for the richness of its beans, coffee is the country's most important cash crop and you can learn how the beans are harvested, dried, and roasted before purchasing some to take home.
Many travelers combine a visit to Bwindi with a stop at another park in Uganda. Queen Elizabeth National Park, the country's most visited park, covering more than 700 square miles, provides an opportunity to experience the savannah landscape many associate with an African safari. Another popular option is to combine a visit to Bwindi with one to Virunga National Park, another home of mountain gorillas, just over the border in Rwanda.
If you have any time in Kampala, Uganda's capital, on a Friday, either en route to or from Bwindi, make sure to visit the craft market, which offers an unforgettable shopping and cultural experience. If you're prepared to bargain, you'll return home with a one-of-a-kind gift, often purchased directly from the artisan who created it.
Where to Stay
There are several safari lodges in or near Bwindi. The Volcanoes Safari Lodge is one of the most comfortable, with eight large thatch-roof bandas overlooking the green canopy of the rainforest here. Gorillas frequently approach the lodge. The lodge also operates the Bwindi Bar in Buhoma. A lively spot for a drink or meal, the bar serves a higher purpose as a hands-on training academy for local youth who want to pursue careers in the hospitality industry.
The Mahogany Springs Lodge, is a popular option as well. It is not as luxurious as Volcanoes Safari Lodge, but it is more affordably priced. While located in the town of Buhoma, the setting is relatively private.
Rates for safari lodges typically include all meals and most excursions.
John Newton is a Chase News contributor. His work has appeared in AFAR, Condé Nast Traveler, and Travel+Leisure, among other media outlets.