Uganda’s Gorilla Highlands

Responsible Tourism in Uganda’s Gorilla Highlands

Set amidst a landscape of dormant volcanoes, lakes and rainforest in south-western Uganda, the Gorilla Highlands is one of the most beautiful and peaceful parts of Africa’s central rift valley. Uganda straddles the equator, but the altitude of the Gorilla Highlands, including the country around Lake Bunyonyi, on central Africa’s high plateau, ensures that the area enjoys a mild, wet climate with cool nights. Bunyonyi means literally ‘place of small birds’. The many species of birds and other wildlife drawn to the fertile waters, shoreline and islands of the lake, as well as the smaller lakes of Kayumba, Mutanda, Chahafi and Mulehe make the area a wonderful destination for tourists who want to experience the natural wonders of Uganda. [1]

There are two national parks in the area, Mgahinga and Bwindi, where mountain gorillas can be found alongside other primates including baboons, chimpanzees and golden monkeys. Both parks are situated high in the mountains, where the mist-covered rainforest slopes, volcanic peaks, tumbling streams, caves, mountain and forest trails offer unrivalled opportunities for exploration and adventure. [2]

Uganda's gorilla highlands

Uganda’s Gorilla Highlands

 The Gorilla Highlands Campaign

Named in recognition of Uganda’s mountain gorilla population—a major tourist attraction and high profile focus for conservation—the Gorilla Highlands Campaign, begun in 2011 by the Lake Bunyonyi-based social enterprise, Edirisa, has over the past two years been successful in making this area of Uganda better known to tourists. [3] This is a unique initiative that has sought to promote south-western Uganda both locally and internationally as an eco-tourism destination, with the aim of protecting its landscape, wildlife and culture while also improving the economy to the benefit of the local people. [4] The philosophy of the campaign stresses tourism development that is responsible, sustainable and culturally sensitive, and which has a directly positive effect on even the poorest of people living and working in the area.

Activities include guided forest and mountain hikes, nature walks along the Sabinyo Gorge, climbing the volcanoes of Muhavura, Gahinga and Sabinyo, dugout canoeing and birding on Lake Bunyonyi, and gorilla tracking along the Gorilla Highlands trails. The five-day hike along the gorilla trail takes you south from Buhome in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, then follows the eastern edge of Lake Mutanda down to Kabale before turning west through the Echuya Forest Reserve and across Lake Bunyonyi to Kabale beyond its eastern shore. The route can be followed in either direction, in one go or in segments, with rest days in a Kisoro Hotel, the luxury full-board campsite at Nkuringo, and camping in the rural Batwa villages of Kayumbu and Lake Bunyonyi. Alternatively, short sections of the route can be completed, taking only a few hours. [5] Any traveller in Uganda, particularly when planning to explore the wilder areas of the country, should have adequate health insurance and be vaccinated against yellow fever. Ugandan medical facilities are limited, and any serious accident out on the trail is likely to require air ambulance evacuation. [6]

Lake country

Lake Bunyonyi is the jewel of the Gorilla Highlands: small compared to Lake Victoria to the east, or Lakes George and Edward to the north, but unrivalled in its beauty. Winston Churchill called Uganda the ‘Pearl of Africa’ and here on the shore looking out at the rolling hills and the neat fields and woods on the many little islands in the lake it is easy to agree with him. [7] The lake is safe for swimming and canoeing: there are no hippos or crocodiles, and a day spent in or on the water, bathing or canoeing between the islands, is a highlight of any visit to the area. Gorilla Highlands, in partnership with Edirisa, organises canoe treks for one, two or three days, with the longer trips offering the chance to visit six different islands where you will camp overnight with local families as your hosts, who will treat you to a home-cooked meal with fresh vegetables picked straight from their garden. [8]
Dugout canoes are the traditional mode of transport on the lake. They are still widely used by the local people, particularly to take children to and from school. Bwama Primary School, situated on the lake’s largest island, a former leper colony, is typical: children have to travel up to one-and-a-half kilometres to and from school, and their days begin and end queuing in the sunshine at a little wooden dockside for a seat in one of the canoes that take about fifteen pupils at a time. Larger canoes can take up to around forty pupils at a time. [9] However, there are not enough canoes on the lake, and some children miss lessons because the boats have to make several trips. Gorilla Highlands, in cooperation with Great Lakes Safari, is currently sponsoring a project to build three canoes out of a single tree, which will be donated to one of the lakes’ primary schools when finished. [10]

With special thanks to our site reader and freelance writer Sally Garfield.

1. eTN Global Travel Industry News. Gorilla Highlands: Uganda’s finest private sector tourism initiative. Prof. Wolfgang B. Thome, ph.D. Nov 08, 2014.  [accessed 04/01/15]
2. Uganda Wildlife Authority. Explore Our Parks. 2012.  [accessed 04/01/15]
3. ATC News. Gorilla Highlands project moves to the next level. Wolfgang H Tome. March 23, 2014.  [accessed 04/01/15]
4. Edirisa in Brief.  [accessed 04/01/15]
5. Gorilla Highlands. About the Region and the Project.  [accessed 04/01/15]
6. QZ. Need Private Medical Insurance?  [accessed 04/01/15]
7. New Vision. Tourism Uganda treks incredible cultural trail in Gorilla Highlands. May 14, 2014.  [accessed 04/01/15]
8. AfricaGeographic. Discovery by Dugout in Uganda. Marcus & Kate. June 7, 2012.  [accessed 04/01/15]
9. New Vision. A Boat Ride to School. Ernest Bazanye. July 10, 2013.  [accessed 04/01/15]
10. Facebook. Gorilla Highlands.  [accessed 04/01/15]