Thursday, April 29, 2021

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park: The Complete Guide

With a name that conjures up images of intrepid adventure, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park offers some of the most memorable wildlife experiences in Uganda. 

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It’s located in the southwest of the country on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and is famous around the world as a place of sanctuary for endangered mountain gorillas. It is one of only four parks on Earth where one can enjoy close encounters with the gorillas, a rare subspecies that are amongst our closest living relatives.

About the Park 

Situated on the edge of the Albertine Rift Valley, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park incorporates 124 square miles of untamed montane and lowland forest. Carpeting steep ridges and valleys veiled in mist, the forest is over 25,000 years old and is also one of the most biologically diverse in the country. Five major rivers begin their journey in Bwindi, all eventually flowing out into Lake Edward to the north of the park. 

In recognition of its importance as a stronghold for the mountain gorilla and other rare or endemic species, the area was gazetted as a national park in 1991 and inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.

Bwindi’s Gorillas  

Most people travel to Bwindi to meet its mountain gorillas. There are approximately 1,000 of these great apes left in the wild, and Bwindi alone is home to around 400. The rest of the global population is divided between three adjacent parks located to the south of Bwindi, on the borders of Uganda, Rwanda, and the DRC. Bwindi was the first park in Uganda to habituate a gorilla troop for tourism purposes in 1993. Since then, many more families have been habituated so that there are now 18 groups that can be safely visited by people. 

The gorillas take little notice of their human visitors, instead continuing with daily activities including grooming, playing, and eating. To see them in their natural environment is a humbling experience, especially as many of their behaviors are so like our own. This is to be expected, since gorillas share 98 percent of our DNA.

Other Flora and Fauna 

Although the gorillas are undoubtedly the stars of the show, Bwindi supports an incredible variety of other plant and animal life. This includes 120 mammal species of which ten are primates, ranging from chimpanzees and black-and-white colobus monkeys to red-tailed monkeys and vulnerable l’Hoest’s monkeys. Other possible sightings include elephants, antelope, giant forest hogs; and if you’re very fortunate, the magnificent African golden cat. 

348 bird species have been recorded at Bwindi, and 23 of them are endemic to the Albertine Rift Valley. These rarities include the Neumann’s short-tailed warbler and the blue-headed sunbird. Many of the park’s abundant butterfly and reptile species are also exclusively found in the Albertine Rift Valley; while its plant life is amongst the most diverse of any East African forest. Botanists should look out for more than 1,000 species of flowering plant, 160 different kinds of tree, and 100 different fern species.

The Top Things to Do 

Gorilla Trekking: Bwindi’s gorilla families can be visited at close quarters through organized treks in the company of an Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) guide. Treks take place in four areas of the park (Buhoma, Ruhija, Rushaga, and Nkuringo) and are strictly controlled for the gorillas’ safety. Only eight visitors are permitted to visit each group per day, for a maximum of one hour. This means that permits are both scarce and expensive, and should be booked well in advance. In addition to being physically fit (it can take several hours to locate the troop), participants must be at least 15 years old and in good health. 

Hiking: Unlike many other African parks, Bwindi is navigable only on foot. There are six main hiking trails to choose from. Highlights include the Muyanga Waterfall Walk, which takes you along the Ivi River to a spectacular 108-foot waterfall; and the Rushura Hill Walk with its breathtaking views of the Rwenzori Mountains, the Virunga Volcanoes, and Lakes George and Edward. Keen birders should make sure to walk the Habinyanja Trail, which takes hikers past a rock in the shape of a map of Africa to the bird-rich Habinyanja Swamp. The most sought-after sighting here is the rare and elusive Pel’s fishing owl.  

Mountain Biking: If you’re passionate about mountain biking, consider exploring Bwindi’s forest on two wheels instead. Head to Buhoma Community Rest Camp, where you can make arrangements to cycle an 8-mile trail that takes you from the Park Headquarters to the Ivi River, a round-trip of around seven hours. 

Cultural Encounters: When Bwindi was gazetted as a national park, the local Bakigwa and Batwa people were forced to relocate from their ancestral homes deep in the forest to villages on the park’s boundaries in rural villages. You can support these communities and learn about their way of life by adding a cultural experience to your Bwindi visit. Opportunities include workshops in African cooking, weaving, dancing, and drumming at the Nkuringo Cultural Centre; and walks through the Buniga Forest Reserve in the company of a native guide. 

One of the most immersive cultural experiences is a walking tour of Buhoma village. During your time in the village, you will learn about the Batwa’s former life in the forest through interpretive song and dance performances. You’ll meet the village’s traditional healer, visit a local school and have the opportunity to purchase handcrafted souvenirs. At the end of the experience, toast new friends with a mug of homemade banana beer. 

Where to Stay

Accommodation is plentiful at Bwindi, and mainly located in the adjacent towns of Buhoma, Nkuringo, and Ruhija. Options range from budget campsites and community rest camps to self-catering bandas and luxury lodges. Top high-end choices include Volcanoes Safaris Bwindi Lodge and Mahogany Springs Safari Lodge, both in the Buhoma area. If you’re traveling on a budget, Nshongi Camp and Broadbill Forest Camp are both excellent choices. These camps are located in Nkuringo and Ruhija respectively. Visit the UWA website for a full list of accommodation options.

Weather and the Best Time to Visit

Bwindi’s location close to the equator means that there’s relatively little difference between seasons in terms of temperature. Instead, the tropical climate is wet and humid all year round. Annual mean temperatures range from lows of 45 to 59 degrees F (7 to 15 degrees C) to highs of 68 to 81 degrees F (20 to 27 C) though chilly nights and early mornings are common. The most important factors when planning your trip are the rainy seasons, which run from March to May and from September to November. 

At these times, access roads are often in terrible condition and the trails within the park are much more difficult to navigate. Therefore, the dry season is the best time to visit (although it’s possible to spot the gorillas all year round). 

Getting There

Entebbe International Airport near Kampala is the country's main port of entry for overseas visitors. From there, charter flights are available to Kisoro Airport (for activities in the southern sector of the park) or to Kayonza or Kihihi airflieds (for access to the northern sector). 

Alternatively, you can choose to drive to the park. It takes roughly 8 hours from Kampala, 3 hours from Queen Elizabeth National Park, and 2 hours from Kabale town. If you book a gorilla tracking tour, your chosen company should be able to arrange transport to the park on your behalf. Recommended operators include Gorilla Trek Africa and The Gorilla Safari Company.

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