Walking safari: tracking rhino, chimps and other animals on foot in Uganda

Take all the common rules of a conventional African wildlife safari:

  • Stay inside your vehicle at all times.
  • Do not stand up or extrude your limbs or head from the car.
  • Keep your windows up and lock the doors.

Now throw these rules out of the window of said vehicle, open the door, step out, and start walking! The idea of going on a walking safari in Africa may not sound very sensible, but it is an exhilarating and memorable experience that, when done right, will bring you at close range with the continent’s magnificent beasts.

In the central African country of Uganda there are plenty opportunities to roam the animal kingdom on foot. Besides magical encounters with gorillas, there are plenty of other creatures to meet while walking around their habitats. You can track white rhinos at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, some 170 km north of the country’s capital Kampala, you can look for chimpanzees in the forests of Budongo, and you can go on a full-spree walking safari in the savannas surrounding Lake Mburo closer to the border with Rwanda.

Of course, a walking safari also requires some rules. After all, we all know that our two legs cannot out-run most of our four-legged friends, and this is particularly a problem when those friends are rather territorial, protecting their offspring, or simply carnivorous and hungry. Our ranger at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary broke the rules down for us: “Stay close to the group. Do not wander off on your own. Stay behind me at all times and look closely for signs that I may make to communicate important things to you. We are going to stay downwind from the animals, so they cannot catch our scent. Should we have unexpected or escalating encounters and a rhino charges at you, try to jump behind a tree.” All of us immediately started scanning our surroundings for suitable trees. The rhinoceros has limited eyesight but a keen sense of smell. It can accelerate from a speed of 0 to 55 kilometers per hour within three seconds, and your only chance of not getting trampled if you are too close when it charges is to quickly jump aside at the last moment, as its bulky frame prevents the animal from being very agile.

“How much is a rhinoceros horn worth? How many dollars?”, someone from our group asked the ranger who accompanied us on our rhino tracking walk. “I prefer not to tell,” he replied. “The worth of a rhino’s horn cannot be expressed in monetary value. I also don’t want give the wrong people the wrong idea. Some people without a conscience may be blinded by the sum and will want to take it. I look at the rhino and see a living creature, caring for its baby like a good mother does. And I see a creature on the brink of extinction. You cannot put a price tag on that.”

We trekked into the tall grass of the sanctuary, wearing hiking boots and long pants to protect our legs from venomous snakes and scorpions. This is the only place in Uganda where wild rhinos live. Here they are protected from poachers who are after their horns which are more valuable than gold, diamonds and cocaine on Asia’s black markets. Before the 1970s there were seven hundred wild rhinos in Uganda, but by the end of the reign of dictator Idi Amin the country was starving, dirt poor and awash with guns, and most of the horned animals were being wiped out by poachers who were trying to feed their families or to make big bucks. Today, only 20.700 white rhinos are left in the wild worldwide, 21 of them living here in this in the 70 km² nature reserve which consists of grassland and some scattered scrubs and trees. I felt jumpy while closely following the ranger and the other adventurers in my group. I was not exactly prepared for a face-off with a 2.300 kg heavy animal, but then again there are few manuals that explain how to properly walk up to a wild rhino. I wanted to keep my eyes fixed on the guiding ranger as to not miss any important signs, but at the same time felt compelled to scan the environment for any imminent danger. If you are ever in shortage of adrenaline, I can recommend tracking rhinos on foot.

The ranger halted and raised his hand. He pointed at some scrubs, about 50 metres from where we were standing. “A mother and her calf. They are resting in the shade.” Need even more adrenaline? Try tracking rhinos on foot and actually finding one! “Follow me, we will have to circle around them to stay downwind so they will not notice us.” We moved to the backside of the bushes which were now obstructing our view of the rhinos. Not knowing where exactly they were and what they were doing (and if they had noticed us) added to the intensity of the moment. We continued to circle the bushes and at last the mother and her young came into view again. “You can move closer now,” the ranger gestured. Trusting completely in the expertise of the ranger to go with what intuitively felt like a very bad idea, we slowly moved towards the animals. At closer distance I was able to make out the hairs on the tips of their ears and the crevasses in their armoured skin. Their distinctly prehistoric appearance was impressive. The mother was resting, lying in the shade of the bushes to hide from the heat of the midday sun. Her calf stood close to her, munching on grass and playing around a little bit. The scene looked so peaceful that adrenaline-levels subsided slightly. It was hard to tell if the beasts had noticed us. They appeared to be looking at us, but were unfazed by our presence. We relaxed and had plenty of time to take photographs of these beautiful creatures before we circled back around the bush and walked across the reserve back to base camp.

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Our rhino tracking activity had given us a taste of the excitement that walking safaris can bring, and a few days later we set off again on foot into the jungle of Budongo which is home to six to seven hundred chimpanzees. The apes live in various communities, some of which have been habituated to the presence of humans by groups of researchers who visited them frequently to study chimp behaviour. These groups can now be tracked, again under guidance of a professional ranger. A red dirt road had led us to Budongo’s main camp, from where we entered the dense jungle in a single line, following our guide.

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She was in touch with other rangers through radio contact, but seemed to rely especially on her ears in the act of tracking down the chimpanzees. We could hear them traveling up in the trees far away, their distant hooting and screaming producing quite an eerie ambience in the dark forest. We did not see them however, and our tiring pursuit through the jungle felt endless. We had left the well-trodden paths and were now making our way through thick foliage, stepping over and under fallen trees and pulling vines and branches away from our faces. Our progress was slow, and every time the ranger showed signs of excitement indicating that we had found what we were looking for, our hopes were tempered when again the apes had outsmarted us. Two hours had passed since we had set off. It seemed like they were taunting us, and as if they were playing a cruel game on us, knowing that with their swift acrobatics they could move through the tree tops many times faster than we could struggle through the dense foliage on the forest floor. “Hoo hoo hoo hoooo!” their evil laughter echoed through the forest. I lost all sense of direction and then my sense of time. I felt thirsty and exhausted from the constant battle with the jungle which was so forbidding and secretly started hoping that our guide would just give up and lead us back to the camp. But she did not give up, and suddenly they were there: a group of about 15 chimpanzees was lingering in the trees above us, eating figs and picking parasites from each other’s backs. Occasionally, one of them would swiftly swirl down to the forest floor, and jump past us to climb another tree.

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Like when we stood close to the rhinos, part of me froze with fear – after all, even though these apes are physically smaller than gorillas, they are considerably more dangerous: they are large, omnivorous, very territorial and naturally violent. However, another part of me was flooding with awe for these magnificent creatures who are so close to us in terms of shared DNA, but who live in a world so distant and different from ours. One of my early childhood memories is watching a nature documentary narrated by David Attenborough that showed chimpanzees using small branches to fish for termites underground. Deep in the forest of Budongo, I remembered being fascinated with these inventive animals back then, and I had to pinch myself for realizing I was actually seeing them in the flesh, right here in the wild, in their own habitat. It has become one of my fondest travel experiences.

Our final walk on the wild side was to take place in Lake Mburo National Park, a many hours drive south. Its savannas and wetlands are home to zebra, impala, eland, buffalo, leopard, hippo, and hyena. It was again a red dusty and bumpy dirt road that brought us to our temporary home: Rwakobo Rock, a lodge that we quickly rated to be honeymoon material and that was a pleasant change from the military tents we had been sleeping in the nights before. This eco-friendly lodge is situated on the edge of a gigantic rock that overlooks Lake Mburo National Park. We dumped our backpacks in our cottage (“Hope you don’t mind that there is a bat living in the ceiling. Tried to get rid of it but it hasn’t worked so far,” the lovely owner of the lodge mentioned while showing us to our cottage) and practically jumped into the hammocks that are conveniently placed in various spots that boast terrific views. Such luxury! Warthogs and groups of baboons bustled around from time to time, and an African sunset delighted us with its beauty. Then we made out brilliant constellations in the skies while the night sounds of the wilderness rose up from the darkness below us. We slept little that night due to the crazy bat that called our ceiling its home, but to be fair also due to our excitement for next morning’s adventure: a guided walking safari in Lake Mburo National Park.

We got up before daybreak and drove to the park’s checkpoint where we met our ranger who was well equipped with an impressive rifle. “Follow me and stay behind me at all times. Run when I say run.” Those were pretty straightforward instructions. The ranger explained, “It is possible to do a walking safari at Lake Mburo because there are no huge animals like elephants here. There are some lions and leopards but they are rarely seen.” “Wait, what?” I said. “Hold on. Lions?” “Let me tell you,” the ranger replied. “I’d rather encounter a lion than a buffalo.” Not sure how that should count for a reassurance, we started walking. The sun was returning to our part of the world, colouring herds of clouds a deep amber. The tall grass we were walking through was moist with dew, and the pants that I had tucked away into my hiking boots quickly got soaked. The guide gestured us to stop moving. While we waited, he moved some distance in front of us and pointed out a flock of zebras. We moved closer as well, and observed the striped equids as they calmly stood grazing, looking at us but not showing any intention of running off (nor of running towards us, thankfully). We removed ourselves from the scene and continued to walk while our ranger provided us with information about the different species of trees and plants that we came across, from time to time pointing out various types of deer and antelope in the distance. We climbed a hill that was covered in bushes, and again the ranger motioned us to halt. He peeked around the vegetation, then with a hint of panic flashing through his eyes, hissed “Run! Buffalo!”

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He set off like lightning, and we were quick to follow him to safer grounds. Our hearts racing, we saw the herd of buffalo moving away in the distance. They had noticed us too, as some of them were looking up in our direction, vigilant for any movement on our side. “This distance is OK,” the ranger said. The buffalo is famous for being one of the most famous African mammals as they are ferocious in their attacks. Having dodged that bullet, we concluded our walk peacefully without encountering any other dangerous animals.

Back at the lodge, I crawled into a hammock after breakfast to contemplate our adventures on foot of the past few days. Our various quests to find rhino, chimps and other big African mammals had been exhilarating. The concept’s considerably insane edge had not worn off with each subsequent walking safari that we experienced; the sense of excitement and adrenaline levels had been sky-high at each encounter. When on a walking safari, there are no physical barriers between you and the world, and you are absorbed by the overwhelming realm of the animal kingdom. Seeing wild animals in their natural environment is always a humbling experience for me, but moving around in their very own world at walking speed brings them even closer and adds a level of intensity that is rarely matched. Feeling the grass brush past your shins, hearing nothing but the sound of your footsteps in the absence of rumbling engines, not knowing what kind of encounter the next minute will bring… it all contributes to the magic of walking safaris. Of course it remains a slightly mad undertaking, but the best adventures come to those who dare to take a walk on the wild side.

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Want to know how to organize a walking safari in Uganda?

Rhino tracking in Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary

You will need your own wheels to take you to this sanctuary. In good driving conditions it is about a 3 hour 40 minute drive from the international airport in Entebbe, or some 2.5 hours from the capital Kampala via the road to Masindi. You can book your rhino walks directly with the sanctuary and they also provide birding walks, canoe rides in search of the shoebill bird, and night walks. It’s best to book ahead. If you wish to stay the night at Ziwa, you can sleep at their lodge or camp site. All practical information can be found on their website: www.ziwarhino.com

Chimp tracking in Budongo Forest

Budongo is part of Murchinson Falls National Park in Uganda’s north-west. You will pass the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary on your way there so it’s nice to combine the two. About 600 chimps live in Budongo Forest and your chances of spotting them are good except in the period November to January (although we were there in January and did see them, with some effort). There are morning and afternoon expeditions. It is of pivotal importance that you are of good health when you go to meet the chimpanzees: as they share 98% of our DNA they are extremely susceptible to human viruses like the cold and the flu which can be deadly for them. The activity can be booked with various safari companies in Uganda, or through the Budongo Eco Lodge which is situated in the forest and where you can also spend the night.

Walking safari at Lake Mburo National Park

A four hour drive south of Kampala, the best way to get to Lake Mburo is with your own vehicle or you can rent a car with driver. The walking safari starts very early in the morning, so you should sleep at or near the park the night before. I can highly recommend Rwakobo Rock, a beautiful eco lodge through which you can also book various activities in the park including the walking safari. You are only allowed to walk in the park if you are guided by a ranger. For us Lake Mburo was a nice stopover on the fairly long drive to Bwindi where we later went to see the gorillas.

I can recommend the following companies with whom we have arranged our trips:

Red Chilli Hideaway – accommodation both in Kampala and a camp site in Murchison Falls National Park, and they can provide transportation to and from the park including a stop at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary. They have a couple of ready-made safari itineraries but can also help you to tailor-make one. We combined their Murchison Falls camping safari with the chimp tracking in Budongo. Everything was arranged wonderfully, staff was very kind, drivers were good and the accommodation was lovely.

Matoke Tours – A Dutch/Ugandan travel company with offices both in The Netherlands and in Uganda. We organized our transport to Lake Mburo with them as well as our walking safari there. Impeccable service, and again the driver was great (very safe driving and very friendly). I highly recommend Matoke Tours if you want to have a tailor-made itinerary for your trip in Uganda. We had arranged most of our itinerary and accommodation ourselves but used the services of Matoke to help out with things like transportation and arranging trekking permits. Their website is in Dutch but I am sure that they can help you out in English when you contact them.

A great starting point for more information on walking in Uganda’s beautiful nature is the Uganda Wildlife Authority which operates all of the above national parks and many others.

Some general tips for your safety when on a walking safari:

  • Never explore the wild without an experienced guide or ranger who is familiar with the environment and its potential hazards. Of course always follow your guide’s instructions and directions.
  • Only go on a walking safari in areas that have been designated as such; don’t go exploring random territories where walking safaris are not a regularly offered activity.
  • Always stay downwind from the animals you are tracking.
  • Walk slowly and don’t make excessive noise.
  • Be aware of escape routes and back away slowly if you encounter an animal that is not happy with your presence.
  • Wear long pants and tuck them in your socks. Wear high boots and use insect repellent.
  • Do not walk at night.
  • Avoid coming close to rivers or lakes; there may be hippos or crocs, both extremely dangerous species.

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