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Nkuringo Gorilla Camp

By Prof. Dr. Wolfgang H. Thome

(Picture of Bwindi, as seen from the Nkuringo Gorilla Camp, courtesy of Robert Brierley / Nkuringo Gorilla Camp)

I was never so happy to see a Boda Boda’ … I am sure that got you to sit up and take notice, probably thinking ‘Wolfgang, the venerable Prof on a boda boda? Surely not!’ but yes, that is exactly as it was. But let me start from the beginning of what was to become quite an extraordinary experience if not an outright adventure.

Flying in style on one of the Aero club’s (www.flyuganda.com) state of the art Cessna 208B Grand Caravans, driven by none other than their star acrobatic flier Capt. Howard Davenport, I embarked from the Kajjansi airfield one early morning, en-route to the Kayonza Tea Estate airfield. Once we crossed the Entebbe runway centre line, and after reaching our cruising altitude of 8.500 feet the flight was smooth all the way to South Western Uganda. The Kanyonza airstrip is maintained and managed by the Gorilla Forest Camp in Buhoma and Peninah Kesiime is the one who logs every aircraft in and out, which on a daily basis now picks up and discharges passengers who want to reach Uganda’s prime gorilla tracking site Bwindi in style and with ease. Flying saves visitors that crucial time, which is so important after coming all that way to see the Pearl of Africa and wanting to spend time in the parks, not on the roads. The introduction of ‘per seat charters’ or as we used to say in the old days ‘coach services’ has gone a long way to attract more passengers. The cost of flying has come down considerably, compared to having to pay for a full charter flight including empty legs in which the aircraft has to return empty or arrive empty to pick passengers.  Even locals are now taking advantage of affordable fares to fly to Kayonza, or alternatively, depending on weather, the Savannah Resort airfield in Kihihi.

(Capt. Howard Davenport in front of his aircraft)

(Capt. Howard Davenport in front of his aircraft)

Tourists using the air option find their safari operators’ 4×4 vehicles waiting for them to drive them to their camp or lodge at the fringe of Bwindi, generally within half an hour driving time.  Today an array of establishments, from very budget to very posh, can be booked. Alternatively, the camps and lodges outside the Buhoma park gate of Bwindi will be happy to arrange to pick up clients and drop them back at a cost of course.

I in contrast had made no prior arrangements to have a 4×4 standing by at the airstrip, for no other reason but to find out just how easy, or difficult it would be to get to the park and share the experience with my readers. All I knew was that I had to make my way, by hook or crook, to Buhoma, where I was to be met by my guides by mid morning to hike across the forest. Failing to do so in time would throw my itinerary into doubt as by late afternoon I was expected at the Nkuringo Gorilla Camp, also home to Nkuringo Walking Safaris, my hosts for the next few days.

The passing pickup trucks and saloons were all full, so Peninah was kind enough to arrange a boda boda to take me, and after some successful haggling I was on the way. BUT, this was so not the moment that ‘I was never so happy to see a Boda Boda’, not by a long shot.

When reaching the park entrance, an hour or so later because the bike ran out of fuel in between, both guide and porter from Nkuringo Walking Safaris were already waiting for me, and none other than Nkuringo’s lead guide Asgario was there himself, who had come across the forest to give me the red carpet treatment along the trails.

Bwindi is of course primarily known for gorilla tracking, now offering 12 habituated groups, the most in any of the gorilla range countries, but it was not for the gorillas I had come but for ‘all the other stuff’ as one operator in Kampala had put it when we discussed the trip. And all the other stuff is plenty indeed, including mountain biking, hiking, bird watching, orchid discovery and butterfly ‘hunts’, to mention but a few of the activities tourists now find readily available, over and above the gorilla tracking.

Buhoma gate

(At the Buhoma gate of Bwindi National Park)

Nkuringo Walking Safaris, the undisputed pioneer of hikes in Bwindi Forest and around the greater Nkuringo, Nteko and Kisoro area, including hikes up Mts. Mgahinga, Muhavura and Sabinyo, have built their reputation based on the quality of their guides. Lead guide and co-owner Asgario was born and grew up in Nkuringo and learned his craft and skills from own observations and also from his formal guide and tourism training while working for the Uganda Wildlife Authority.  He is joined by 6 other guides who I met in camp.

The seven of them seem to know all there is to know when leading their guests through the various trails across and around Bwindi, do the community trails around the Nkuringo and Nteko area or hike the 29 kilometres to Lake Mutanda and even on to Kisoro and beyond. They explain about birds, butterflies, medicinal and other plants, shrubs and trees along the way in a way as others introduce their friends or talk about football, with passion. Their experience and enthusiasm is evidence of how much they enjoy their work in the field and sharing their knowledge with erstwhile strangers who leave as friends.

The self guided trail in Bwindi has been closed by UWA for some time, mainly to promote the use of guides with knowledge of the flora and fauna in the forest.  Guides use the main trails, accompanied by UWA rangers who can act as a protective detail should one encounter the forest elephants which roam Bwindi.

Bwindi is an immensely varied ecosystem and biodiversity hotspot, rich in birds.  Visitors can find more than 350 species overall, including 23 Albertine Rift endemics and 14 found nowhere else in Uganda. The pickings are almost equally rich in butterflies and the park is home to some 200 including 42 endemic species. In addition visitors find plenty of orchids and can explore some of the over 400 regular and medicinal plants, shrubs and trees.  Luck permitting, you may see a few of the around 110 recorded mammals in addition to the different primates for which the park is known for around the world. Elevations range between 1.160 metres to over 2.600 metres, an indication of the terrain’s topographical altitude variations and one of the reasons the forest is called impenetrable. Bwindi, formally made a park under the then Uganda National Parks in 1991 became one of Uganda’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1994.  In 2013, as in previous years, again attained TripAdvisor’s ‘Certificate of Excellence’.

The cross forest trails are well developed, and are relatively easy to hike, never too steep and never to dull either. Sturdy boots, rain skins and waterproof gear are of course a must, especially as some sections of the trails can become slippery after rain.  It does rain regularly in Bwindi, at times with fearsome thunderstorms offloading from above, soaking unprepared hikers to the skin.

Uganda Wildlife Authority

(Source: Uganda Wildlife Authority)

The forest’s expanse is only understood, when either flying over it or seeing it from the side of Nkuringo or Nteko, where it becomes clear where the byname ‘impenetrable’ came from. 5 rivers and several smaller streams emerge from the forest, and when traversing the terrain, especially when tracking gorillas off the main trails, it soon becomes clear that thick undergrowth, steep descents to the rivers and equally steep ascents out of the many such places can take its toll. The hiking trails in contrast are clear of growth, lest for some fallen trees which however are regularly cleared off the tracks.  When starting hikes from Buhoma, the trail is wide enough for the first few miles to even use a 4×4, which of course is NOT allowed inside the forest, and not even done by UWA.

When entering the forest proper, the first sight in the tree tops was a Great Blue Turaco, which showed all its splendid colours lit up by the rays of the sun falling on the bird, before in a sudden flash it flew off. This was followed by many more sightings, as Bwindi is home to some 350+ species, a treasure cove for birders.

 Along the trails, the growth is in many places truly impenetrable.  On occasion it is more open and then revealing the steep fall of the terrain towards one of the many streams, the sound of gushing water clearly audible but not seen as the vegetation is simply too thick.

At times, hardly a ray of sunlight falls to the forest floor and few glades are found along the main trails.  Deep in the forest the silence is the loudest, interrupted only by some sudden burst of bird calls, the crackle of a tree branch breaking off and crashing down or the soft voiced explanations of the guides, pointing out another orchid, bird or plant or showing a spoor left by a mammal which must have crossed the trail. Half way across the forest are the hikers welcomed by a rather rudimentary little shelter, where some snacks can be eaten.  The guides and rangers watch with Argus eyes that all wrappings are duly returned into the back pack and NOTHING is left on the site on which some animal could choke, and that includes empty water bottles and in particular the shrink wrappers which now litter the entire country. Notably did the guides periodically bend down to pick something from the forest floor which did not belong there, and stowed it in their pockets for proper disposal outside Bwindi.

The real test of mettle and stamina though comes at the end of the hike, whether one takes the slightly shorter trail towards the Nteko side or the longer route towards Nkuringo where, after leaving the park and crossing the boundary Kashasha river, a climb of as much as 2,000 feet in elevation has to be conquered, before seeing wider tracks and roads again. From the river crossing and over a rough bridge made of timber, hikers are held in awe as there is Nkuringo rising ahead and towering above, almost as impenetrable as the forest one just left behind.

Late in the afternoon were herds of cattle, which come down daily to the river to drink and find pasture, driven up that steep escarpment.  When overtaking them, due to the width of the path rather squeezing by or through them, one better is aware what goes into a cow … yes, no further explanation needed but caution is advisable.  Shrieks of another group of hikers, following us at some distance, indicated they must have found out at their cost – and at a location where the showers were still miles off.

The climb, unlike the trail through the park which worked out as the proverbial walk in the park, does take some stamina though the guides lead on at the pace of the slowest hiker in their group, in my case at my pace, being the only one though they do take an average of 5 to 6 clients at a time.

Eventually though, the sight of eucalyptus tree clusters above and the emerging chatter of people signaled the end of the test of will and strength, and when the trail, now wider again, eventually leveled off, lo and behold, ‘I was never so happy to see a boda boda’.

About a dozen or so were lined up, to ferry those hikers who had their fill for the day, by motorbike to their final destination, the camp sites or lodges near and around the Nkuringo village.

The hardiest hikers though soldiered on, another two or three hours depending on their pace, while for yours truly it was a half hour on that boda boda, across some of the arguably worst roads in the entire Republic of Uganda.  Rocky, rutted, ruthless on the bikes but also on the passengers who got tossed about on the back of the boda boda, making me at the end of that half hour say ‘I was never so happy to be off a Boda Boda’ …

Nkuringo-Gorilla-Camp

Nkuringo-Gorilla-Camp

All in all though it was worth spending the 12,000 Uganda Shillings for the ride, make that times two for the guide and the porter too, as in our case a thunderstorm, which had been chasing us across the forest with thunder growing louder by the minute, threatened to finally catch us, and when it did, we were safely installed at the Nkuringo Gorilla Camp, where we had our orientation and tea and were able to put our feet up and replay the best moments of the day’s hike.

The staff at the Nkuringo Gorilla Camp, my base for the next few days, had lined up as we drove into the compound, relieved us of our baggage and offered a cup of tea which was much needed after the long hours in the forest when bottle after bottle of the water carried disappeared down thirsty throats. The check in was swiftly completed and then the eager staff helped all the newly arrived guests get installed in either the self contained cottages, the Virunga Terrace rooms or the tents, aptly named ‘lazy camping’ where habitual campers find all they would otherwise have to carry with them, spare blankets on the bed included. Lazy Camping is a budget option, the Virunga rooms offer a mid priced alternative and those with the addiction for something more posh, the cottages will do just fine for them. At present the camp can accommodate about 25 guests in tents, rooms and the cottages but a new two bedroom family cottage is under construction, bringing that number to eventually about 30. That one, when ready, will offer a full 180 degree view over Bwindi and will no doubt make for magic moments at sunrise, when from the valleys of Bwindi the fog rises as the sun emerges red behind the forest from its regular night stop.

That number of guests, between 25 and 30 maximum, make Nkuringo Gorilla Camp, also the base for Nkuringo Walking Safaris, still small enough to find the unique Ugandan hospitality marked by smiles galore and staff rushing off to get another cold one, or pot of tea as may apply, and yet large enough to cater for slightly larger groups who now come in growing numbers from abroad to hike this remote corner of Uganda, which is bordered by Congo as well as Rwanda all within sight and all adding to the appeal of the area. Visitors during my stay came from Spain, Austria, Germany, the UK, the US and Japan and perhaps other countries too. Sat together at the communal dining table, animated tales were told, of their encounter with the gorillas or what adventure they met on the trails, mainly to do with ‘stuck trucks and pick ups’ which needed pushing out of the mud along the main roads, if that is what one prefers to call the motorable surface.

While, and a rare compliment here, UMEME has been busy planting their poles and stringing up the wires, from Butagota towards Buhoma – the works are perhaps 80 percent complete – and from Kisoro to Nkuringo –  which is now waiting to be switched on any time soon – the roads are in places horrific and during heavy rain can be impassable. This is a crying shame for the district of Kisoro which benefits so much from tourism and also of course for the central government, which for years has been singing, like a broken record, that roads to tourism attractions must and will be done up. That tourism still prospers under such circumstances, is largely attributed to the local tourism and hospitality businesses which engage with the local population, fill the worst potholes themselves and by providing jobs and buying produce encourage the local villagers to willingly push cars out of the mud during the rainy season, giving tourists a sense of adventure rather than dwelling on the bad roads, where they were for instance, stuck overnight. Anyone gone through that will remember the friendly chorus of children shouting ‘Muzungu Muzungu’ while the adults wave hands and are less vocal in their greetings, but greet warmly nevertheless.

The view from the Nkuringo Gorilla Camp, perched on top of  the Nkuringo ridge, is simply superb, be it towards Bwindi with the Congo DR in the distance or across the valleys towards Rwanda, where the volcanoes are forming a spectacular backdrop, leaving first time visitors in sheer awe.

I of all people know of course that luxury has many definitions and at the Nkuringo Gorilla Camp the luxury came with steaming hot showers, albeit in communal but spotlessly clean facilities and the swift appearance of a pot of African tea, freshly brewed and served with the broadest smiles. It is often those little things which in our own personal views make a place and define its standing.  Nkuringo Gorilla Camp and Nkuringo Walking Safaris for sure made an impact, not just on me but the other 24 guests who stayed there during my visit. Good home cooked meals start every day with a hearty breakfast, cereals and then eggs prepared to order, lunch comprising a single dish with second helpings readily available and a three course supper, soup, main course and desert all made the dining room chatter fall silent, a sign that the food was good enough to deserve some single minded attention. No wonder that TripAdvisor comments by clients catapulted the Nkuringo Gorilla Camp into the accommodation category awarded with a Certificate of Excellence, a sign of consistently good ratings and evaluation by the TA team.

But if that was not enough, the two companies also support the local Nkuringo community, not just with jobs and purchases of vegetables, eggs and poultry, but through a recently created foundation, the Adept Foundation, which supports education in the neighbourhood, providing stipends for students attending nursery school, preschool and primary education from P1 to presently P4.

The Nkuringo Gorilla Camp was the first Ugandan lodge to attain a 100 percent carbon neutral certification, not the least for the extensive use of solar water heaters and solar electricity generation. Located at just over 2.160 metres high, the lodge provides an ideal access point for gorilla tracking and several groups are found relatively nearby, such as the Nkuringo group itself and a little further Nshongi, Kahungye and Mishaya among others. Guests staying at the camp however not only come for tracking, some in fact come exclusively for the hiking trips now on offer and the  rare opportunity to hike or bike across rural Africa, safely of course.

How this came about narrated Rob, one of the three co-owners and faithful ally to Uganda Tourism through his site www.traveluganda.co.ug : ‘It was in 2002 during a visit to Kisoro whilst chatting with two backpackers at The Virunga Hotel I said to them it had to be possible to canoe and [then] walk to Buhoma from [Kisoro] by way of Lake Mutanda. I met them later in Cairo of all places where they said they had managed to make the traverse of the lake and the forest to Buhoma. These two guys pioneered the route for all intents and purposes.

In 1996 I made my first visit to Mgahinga National Park to climb the volcanoes of the Virunga having driven from South Africa in VW Camper Bus. I made several further climbs of these volcanoes in the following years. I really loved the challenge of climbing Mount Sabinyo most especially and whenever in the locality it was on my ‘must do again’ list. Asigario was one of the UWA guides at Mgahinga although I do not ever recall trekking with him. He was aware of my role in the Uganda Travel Planner initiative and asked me to come to Nkuringo to see if I could do something to establish a presence on the Travel Planner website for what was then the Nkuringo Campsite.

A tour of the campsite as it was could been done in the blink of an eye. Those first visit pictures [I] shared with you from 2007 speak for themselves. My gut feeling after experiencing the drive in from Kisoro was that making a business work in Nkuringo was a non starter.  I could certainly help to promote the campsite on the Travel Planner website where any involvement in helping to develop the facility was not on the agenda or even discussed. 

I did stay a while longer that first visit to have a chat with Asigario warming our open hands over the embers of a campfire. I casually shared the idea of a walking activity between Buhoma and the volcanoes with Nkuringo being an overnight stop on this multiday trek. The views from the site that day were incredible even jaw droppingly spectacular. The place was very special that was true.

After the habituation of the Nkuringo gorilla group in 2004 a parallel sustainable tourism initiative other than that on the table proposed by ICGP and the establishment of what is the Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge was likely never envisaged as being tenable. An alternative activity that was to be complimentary to those coming [to] Bwindi for gorilla tracking where a pooling of skills and very little seed capital has certainly seen the birth of a sustainable tourism activity benefiting many well beyond the boundary of the forest’.

Rob, Lydia and Asgario took that leap into the unknown and succeeded beyond their own wildest dreams. Nkuringo Rising, from the Kashasha river valley up the steep escarpment but also in terms of business and acceptance by the market, today is an integral part of tourism in South Western Uganda and has brought significant improvements to the livelihood of the communities in Nkuringo, Nteko and beyond.

Surprisingly though, there are still many gaps in knowledge in Kampala and beyond of what has in recent years happened in Nkuringo and I hope that this narrative will make more people aware and get more people out of the armchairs, put their hiking boots on, shoulder their backpacks and head for Bwindi and Nkuringo as I did.

This trip was made possible through the generous support of the AeroClub (www.flyuganda.com), the Uganda Wildlife Authority (www.ugandawildlife.org) and last but not least the Nkuringo Gorilla Camp (www.gorillacamp.com) and Nkuringo Walking Safaris (www.nkuringowalkingsafaris.com), all keen to showcase what exciting new tourism products are available, from scheduled flying to hiking across Bwindi and beyond to a camp which can cater for literally all pockets. Time surely to pack that gear into a back pack and head to the South West of Uganda, by air, by bus or by car, to explore what surely has become one of the country’s primary tourism hubs. Welcome to one of the best kept secrets of the Pearl of Africa’.