The ‘Lost Chimpanzees’ of Uganda

Uganda, described by Winston Churchill as “the pearl of Africa” for its beautiful scenery, moderate climate, and stunning wildlife, had long been at the top of my bucket list of countries to visit. As the plane descended into Entebbe across the waters of Lake Victoria, I could feel my sense of anticipation growing – as it always does whenever I return to Africa, which is the ultimate travel destination for me!

After clearing immigration and customs at Entebbe Airport, it was only a ten-minute transfer to a tranquil overnight stay at Hotel No. 5 in the city’s leafy suburbs. Opened in 2018, this stylish boutique hotel offers a quiet garden setting with swimming pool, gym and spa treatments. The highlight of my stay, however, was the dinner I enjoyed at the hotel’s small restaurant.

I had expected a fairly standard menu and was presented instead with a small but spectacular three course selection that would grace any fine dining establishment. My striking starter of smoked leek with goats’ cheese, flowers, herbs, pickled onion and sourdough (see photo below) was followed by a gin and tonic sorbet amuse-bouche before the main course of turmeric dusted bream with fermented beetroot relish and passion fruit hollandaise. Not wanting to insult the chef by refusing dessert I completed the culinary experience with a lemon maple parfait with salted rosemary shortbread and curd. I can say without hesitation that it was one of the finest meals I have experienced in Africa and a wonderful start to my Uganda adventure.

The next morning, I took a light aircraft flight from Entebbe to Kasese Airstrip in the west of the country where I was met for the two-hour road transfer to Kyambura Gorge Lodge. The picturesque drive through small towns and villages also traverses Queen Elizabeth National Park, which allowed for some roadside bird watching. Uganda is a birder’s paradise with over 1,000 species and for a dedicated ‘twitcher’ such as myself the opportunity to observe vibrant red bishops and iridescent black bee-eaters up close was not to be missed!

On arrival at Kyambura Gorge Lodge I was greeted with a spectacular display of dozens of brightly coloured weaver birds nesting in a bamboo grove right next to the lodge entrance – what could be better! The lodge, fully upgraded during 2018 and 2019, has been converted from an old coffee store and processing plant to create a welcoming haven. It is located on the edge of Queen Elizabeth National Park with sweeping views of the rolling savanna, the distant Ruwenzori Mountains (the legendary Mountains of the Moon), and the sunken Kyambura Gorge (pronounced locally as ‘Chambura’).

The eight stylish cottages come with personal butler service and are open and airy with beautiful views. The lodge features a swimming pool, spa, large covered terrace for evening drinks and a spacious dining area and lounge with an interesting selection of books.

The lodge is operated by Volcanoes Safaris who, in conjunction with Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust, are responsible for the Kyambura Gorge Eco-tourism project, a series of community and conservation activities developed since 2009 to safeguard the chimpanzees and the whole Kyambura Gorge ecosystem. During their stay guests can enjoy walking safaris around the lodge to experience the dramatic landscapes of Kyambura Gorge and the Queen Elizabeth savannah, visit a reclaimed wetland, the Kyambura women’s coffee co-operative and the community cafe.

Kyambura Gorge Lodge is also the ideal location for tracking the resident chimps in the lush sunken rainforest of Kyambura Gorge. The gorge itself is a mystical and secret Eden scored 100 metres deep into the surrounding plain of the Kichwamba escarpment and is home to 27 so-called ‘lost chimpanzees’ due to their isolation from the nearby jungles of Queen Elizabeth National Park.

My ranger guide and I descended into the gorge and were immediately assailed by a cacophony of hoots, grunts and barks as we made contact with the first of the Kyambura chimps – it’s amazing how loud and vocal just two chimps can be! Understandable though when you consider that, like us, they are very social animals and live in a complex communal system.

We continued along a forest path and were incredibly lucky to come across a dozen members of the troop relaxing near the edge of the river because, when they choose to, they can move quickly and silently and almost seem to disappear into the undergrowth. I was amazed at how calm they were in our presence – the dominant males set the tone by lounging about in a sun-dappled clearing and the others followed their cue with youngsters playing in the low branches of the trees above our heads and a mother nursing a  baby nearby in a more secluded part of the greenery.

At one point we observed an intimate display of the chimps’ hierarchical society as the alpha male groomed his immediate subordinate in order to reinforce the bonds of their alliance. They were soon joined by three other lower-ranking males who formed a close huddle while mutually grooming each other.

It was a pleasure and a privilege to spend time with Kyambura’s ‘lost chimpanzees’ and I would strongly recommend the experience to anyone travelling to Uganda. Combine your chimp encounter with mountain gorilla tracking in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, game viewing in Queen Elizabeth National Park and a Nile River adventure in Murchison Falls National Park for a full understanding of why Uganda is known as “the pearl of Africa”.