People and primates – beyond the bucket list

When Paul Baldwin started planning a safari for him and his wife Sarah to visit Uganda and Rwanda, it was as important to him to spend time visiting local communities as it was to incorporate encounters with the critically endangered mountain gorillas.

Mountain gorilla tracking is the most popular reason for visiting Uganda and Rwanda

Mountain gorilla tracking is the most popular reason for visiting Uganda and Rwanda

Because Paul is a trustee of The Gorilla Organisation, a UK based charity that is at the forefront of community conservation, he understands more than most people the importance of supporting economic development in rural communities that live cheek by jowl with the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas.

A community art gallery near Bwindi in southwest Uganda

A community art gallery near Bwindi in southwest Uganda

The forest-clad slopes of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park lie in one of Uganda’s most densely populated regions – with more than 300 people per square kilometer in some areas – and the numbers are not that different in the Virungas, where jagged volcanoes straddle the border between Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC. As a result, conservationists have long understood that to protect these natural habitats, the local communities need to see lasting, meaningful benefits.

Where many tourists in Uganda or Rwanda are simply there to add another tick to their bucket list and see most of the country from the window of a safari vehicle or airplane, Paul and Sarah wanted to take the road less travelled. It was a pleasure to work with them to design a 17 day itinerary that wove in all the usual wildlife highlights with community-based adventure and cultural activities, as well as visits to local agricultural projects run by The Gorilla Organisation.

They tracked gorillas, chimpanzees and golden monkeys, hiked through ancient rainforests and rural highlands, and dangled high above the tree-tops on East Africa’s only canopy walk.

A chimpanzee eats wild figs in Nyungwe Forest

A chimpanzee eats wild figs in Nyungwe Forest

Golden monkey tracking offers a chance to observe an alternative – but equally threatened – primate species in their natural habitat

Golden monkey tracking offers a chance to observe an alternative, but equally threatened, primate species in their natural habitat

The canopy walk in Nyungwe is a chance to experience a bird’s eye view

The canopy walk in Nyungwe is a chance to experience a bird’s eye view

They met ancient forest tribes, learned about local crops, paddled a dugout canoe across island-studded lakes, danced with women from mountain villages, and drank freshly brewed coffee made from beans roasted over a three-stone fire. They took their time, and relished every moment.

Joining in the dancing - with the Nkuringo Women’s Group in southern Bwindi

Joining in the dancing – with the Nkuringo Women’s Group in southern Bwindi

An island on Lake Mutanda

An island on Lake Mutanda

Canoe trekking in a traditional dug-out across the lake

Canoe trekking in a traditional dug-out across the lake

A bird of prey is silhouetted in the early morning mist on Lake Mutanda

A bird of prey is silhouetted in the early morning mist on Lake Mutanda

Coffee is a major export for Uganda and Rwanda – here a member of the local community roasts coffee beans over a three-stone fire

Coffee is a major export for Uganda and Rwanda. Here a member of the local community roasts coffee beans over a three-stone fire

Paul’s wonderful photos from their Uganda and Rwanda safari are testament not only to the empathy the Baldwins felt for the people and primates of the region, but also to the time they chose to dedicate to these small but beautiful destinations in East Africa.

When someone chooses to take their time and really get beneath the skin of a country, it can make a big difference to the quality of their experience. Time affords you the chance to notice the little details – whether it’s the curl of a fern frond deep inside a pristine rainforest, the incredible engineering that goes into making a traditional wooden bicycle, or the smile on a child’s face as you stop to chat.

It’s all in the detail – orange lichen on a tree spotted on a hike near Bwindi

It’s all in the detail – orange lichen on a tree spotted on a hike near Bwindi

Time allows you to get off the beaten track and go ‘beyond the bucket list’, experiencing the more authentic encounters a destination has to offer as well as its more famous attractions.

A day hike can be made in Volcanoes National Park to visit the ruins of the original Karisoke Research Centre – where Dian Fossey made her famous studies of the mountain gorillas in the Virungas

A day hike can be made in Volcanoes National Park to visit the ruins of the original Karisoke Research Centre where Dian Fossey made her famous studies of the mountain gorillas in the Virungas

Nearby, a graveyard is filled with the bodies of gorillas who died during her research from illness or poaching injuries

Nearby, a graveyard is filled with the bodies of gorillas who died during her research from illness or poaching injuries

Digit – Fossey’s favourite gorilla who was made famous in the film ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ – was killed by poachers in 1977

Digit – Fossey’s favourite gorilla who was made famous in the film ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ – was killed by poachers in 1977

Dian Fossey herself is also buried here – laid to rest next to the cherished subjects of her life’s work

Dian Fossey herself is also buried here – laid to rest next to the cherished subjects of her life’s work

It’s a win-win situation for both the visitor, and the visited. Community-based activities will also ensure a greater share of the money that visitors spend remains within the local population. Craft sales, dance groups, village walks and coffee tours all help provide employment – but the funds raised via these activities, as well as profit-share payments from a growing number of community-owned lodges, help to fund vital socio-economic development projects. These can be immediate necessities like building a borehole for clean water access or building medical clinics and training midwives or more ambitious initiatives such as funding education or financing income generation schemes that will help alleviate the poverty so rife in these areas, over a longer period of time.

So next time you plan a safari, why not think about joining the ‘slow safari’ movement. Time may be the most valuable commodity in this fast-paced world of ours but it is a crucial factor in determining both your own enjoyment, and how much your trip can benefit the area you have been privileged enough to visit. Joining the ‘slow safari movement’ pays dividends for both the visitor, and the visited.

A member of the local Batwa community, ancient hunter-gatherers who shared the same forests as gorillas for thousands of years

A member of the local Batwa community, ancient hunter-gatherers who shared the same forests as gorillas for thousands of years 

Images Copyright: © Paul Baldwin

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About Journeys Discovering Africa

We believe in creating your perfect East African safari – whether tracking mountain gorillas or experiencing the great migration. We will work with you to craft your ideal trip, offering a customized service to ensure your safari is truly a Journey Discovering Africa.

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  • Hostel Osnabrueck

    absolutely great pictures, thank you for showing us!