Geraldine and I met through wildlife conservation work and became close friends. In addition to running a wildlife NGO, she’s also a personal travel consultant specializing in truly unique African adventures. Her trips have dazzled me so much that I asked her to write a story for OhMyExpatLife to share some of her African travel secrets with you (admittedly veering off from my usual posts about SE Asian adventures – trust me, this detour is worth it!) I hope you find this story as inspirational and touching as I do!
An Ethical Wildlife Adventure with an African Travel Insider and Conservationist
By Geraldine Morelli
A three month-old wild baby gorilla jumped out of his mum’s arms and clumsily walked toward us. After an invigorating hike through Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to see these endangered great apes, and months of anticipating this moment, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I didn’t want to get too close but I also wanted to hug him at the same time (which, of course, I would never do). We made a connection – the baby was looking right into my eyes! My heart exploded with love for these amazing animals.
That incredible, rare encounter changed my life. I am a wild animal lover and believe they are best seen in their natural habitat. I had already created a wildlife conservation charity, Wild&Free – Rehabilitation and Release, to help worldwide organisations that rescue, rehabilitate and release primates back to nature. But this special encounter convinced me to quit my career in the high tech industry to start an online travel agency – called Rare Encounters – so I could help others have unforgettable experiences with African wildlife, too. Because of that little baby gorilla, I’m helping people book trips like this or elsewhere in Africa to see its beautiful wildlife thriving in their natural habitat.
So what can you expect to experience if you go on a safari or a gorilla-trek in Uganda? As you can probably tell, I’m a passionate person, so how about I share some of my highlights of this special place with you? Gorilla trekking usually lasts a day or two, but there are some other incredible wildlife sightings not to miss, such as close encounters with wild chimpanzees in Kibale Forest. If you love animals, watching these highly intelligent primates interact with each other will absolutely electrify you.
Another memorable excursion is to take a boat safari at sunset in the Kazinga Channel within Queen Elizabeth National Park, where you’ll see hundreds of birds and elephants splashing in the water among watchful hippos while herds of buffalos relax on the embankment. What makes this really special is how close you can be to these animals while feeling safe. And of course the eye-level view of animals in the water gives a whole new perspective – beware photography enthusiasts!
If you venture closer to the Congo border to Ishasha, you will be absolutely mesmerized when you see the tree-climbing lions resting like domesticated cats on a branch.
There are also hidden gems in Uganda that aren’t as talked about, like Bigodi Swamps: you can take a guided walk through here and see an abundance of primates and bird species. Uganda is after all, home to the largest number of primate species in Africa.
After seeing all this, I was eager to also see the gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, but since what I’d already seen was so amazing, I wasn’t sure that the gorillas could be better than this. But nothing compares to seeing the great apes in person! Words really cannot do justice to my emotions about seeing the gorillas, so I’m going to let the photos speak for me instead:
And yes, after seeing all this and so many incredible birds, new primate species very close including the blue monkey, the red tail monkey, white and black colobus monkey, red colobus monkeys in this green and lush wilderness that is so different from what I had known in the savannah, I knew I’d be coming back for more as there were still many animals that I wanted to see. And of course, I wanted another encounter with the mountain gorillas. And I did go back for more!
I just got back from another trip to Uganda and it was just as amazing as my first trip. The safari experience was similar to the first one with new animal sightings but this time I explored Mgahinga National Park. Driving from Kisoro town towards the volcanoes where the trek starts is an incredible experience in itself as you pass villages with children waving at you and pyramid-shaped mountains lit by the sun rising become larger and more impressive.
The trek itself is a little easier than in Bwindi and the scenery completely different. From dense forests with tall trees, to open lands surrounded by volcanoes, the landscape is dramatic and varied. When we saw the gorillas, my emotions were as raw as the first time.
This silverback walked past us with calm confidence. Simply magnificent!
Lodge Hopping and Other Considerations
Because wild animals live in different habitats, you have to go see them where they live, which involves moving from lodge to lodge, wildlife encounter after wildlife encounter. It is unusual to go to Africa and stay in one place only. Planning a safari and/or trekking usually requires checking the sometimes huge distances to cover between points of interests: from lodges to the heart of the animal actions, organising transfers, accommodations, possible internal flights, park entry fees, permits fees where applicable, and generally making sure you are going to the best places and best times of year for what you hope to see. It is often the trip of a lifetime so it would be a shame to miss out! This is where a specialist personal travel agent really can help and give you the reassurance that you are going to have the best possible time.
I love sharing my experiences with others and help by booking trips so they can have their own rare encounters with African wildlife. I know I made the right choice in changing my career since my passion has become my work, and I am responsible for making other peoples’ experiences unforgettable, as it has been to me. It’s also wonderful to connect with people, to listen, understand their expectations, their wishes, their constraints. I’m humbled that they trust me to plan every details of their special holidays. This has made me a better person, a more inspiring mum to my children, and a happier human being.
Running a wildlife conservation charity and working in the travel industry not only means that I am very conscious about ethical wildlife tourism and therefore careful about where my clients go, but I’m also doing everything I love, everyday. My hope is to inspire people to respect and enjoy nature by sharing my experiences and my genuine emotions about this. I want others to truly enjoy their experiences in Africa, just as I have, and make memories of a lifetime, because these will always stay within you.
Now for the details:
(Photo credits: Audley Travel Company)
Tourism is well developed in Uganda and there is a large choice of accommodations in Bwindi, very close to the meeting point prior to the gorilla trekking. The photos above will give you a sense for some of the uniquely beautiful lodges in the country. In Mgahinga, you will want to stay in Kisoro, including Travellers Rest lodge where the famous Dian Fossey stayed.
We all worry a little about safety in corrupt, developing countries. But Uganda really does feel safe. People are very warm and kind, they want you to fall in love with their country because tourism plays a big part in their economy.
Regarding the gorillas, remember that those you see are a habituated group, meaning that they don’t see you as a threat and generally completely ignore you. It’s a little unsettling when the silverback walks right past you and don’t acknowledge your presence, but also quite reassuring. Professionals have spent up to 2 years getting the animals used to seeing humans. The little ones are generally very curious and may want to approach very close. Just remember big mama is right behind or beside and big daddy will be there in a flash if he feels that you threaten his family. So in a nutshell, don’t worry about them attacking you – they won’t. But do respect them, be quiet and follow every instruction your guides give you.
The permit is usually included in travel packages, but always double-check since it isn’t cheap. The Gorilla Permit in Uganda is $450 USD in low season: April, May and November. And it’s $600 USD in the other months. In Rwanda, the Gorilla permit is $1500 (a great controversial increase causing rage in the media!) but you have 30% discount if you visit 3 national parks.
Note to families
Having taken my children on most of my trips to Africa, I understand that people may want to share this experience with them and I recommend taking your little ones on safari. However, it is not possible for children under 15 to go gorilla trekking.
A little extra
Mountain Gorillas can also be seen in Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda! Whilst the former is quite unusual, Rwanda also offers stunning wildlife encounters opportunities. The gorilla permit is more than twice Uganda’s – at $1500 – but for those who like a more ‘off the beaten track’ trip, this is a great choice!
Another alternative to Queen Elizabeth National park is the beautiful Murchison Falls National park, in the north, home to the big 5.
If you’d like to know more or you want to discuss booking a trip, please contact me:
Geraldine Morelli, personal travel agent