This 795sqkm Kibale national park just outside Fort Portal is made up of dense tropical rain forest, within which dwell enormous numbers of primates. If you can’t afford the lavish cost of mountain gorilla tracking, then visiting one of the five habituated groups of chimpanzees here is a very worthy substitute, not to mention a far less financially draining one. Also regularly seen here are the rare red colobus and L’Hoest’s monkeys.
Larger but rarely seen residents include bushbucks, sitatungas, buffaloes, leopards, and quite a few forest elephants. There are also an incredible 250 species of butterfly and 372 species of bird here. The park visitor center is at Kanyanchu, 35km southeast of Fort Portal.
Kihingami Wetlands Sanctuary
This eco-tourism site, set up with the help of Fort Portal’s Kabarole Tours, preserves an attractive 13sqkm valley that otherwise would have been gobbled up by the surrounding tea plantations. Despite its small size, a remarkable 230 bird species have been spotted here, including Jameson’s wattle-eye and white-spotted flufftail. There’s also a good chance of seeing red colobus monkeys and spotted-necked otters.
Local guides lead forest walks and birdwatching walks, both at 7:30 am and 3 pm daily. You can also tour a fair-trade tea factory at 9 am and 2 pm.
Kihingami is 15km east of Fort portal, just before the Sebitoli section of Kibale National Park. Book through Kabarole Tours or take any minibus heading east from Fort Portal towards Sebitoli village.
Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary
Located 6km south of the Kibale National Park visitor center at Kanyanchu, Bigodi was established by a local development organization to protect the 4sqkm Magombe Swamp that’s home to around 200 species of birds (highlights include papyrus gonolek, white-winged warbler and great blue turaco). It’s also good for spotting butterflies and primates, with eight different species here, including grey-cheeked mangabey. Three-hour guided walks depart on demand.
Other activities available include village walks, Saturday afternoon basket-weaving demonstrations, dance and drama performances, and fun interpretive meals; where your hosts share the stories behind the local-food they serve you. Volunteer opportunities are also available. Any shared taxis between Fort Portal and Kamwenge can drop you there.
With around a 90% chance of finding chimpanzees on any particular day, Kibale National Park is undoubtedly the most popular place to track them in Uganda. There’s a morning 8am and afternoon 2pm departure, and while there are plenty of hills along the trails, the walking isn’t difficult if you’re in shape. Children aged 12 and under aren’t permitted.
While you have a good chance of being issued a chimp permit at the park, it occasionally gets booked out during the holiday season, so reservations at the UWA office in Kampala are a good idea. Regular trackers get just one hour with the playful primates, but those on the Chimpanzee Habituation Experience spend the whole day with them.
Note that chimpanzees have been in the process of being habituated in the Sebitoli sector, 12km east of Fort Portal, for some years now, but permits for this group were still not being issued to travelers.
You’ll be very lucky to see chimps on a nature walk but as nearly 1500 dwell here, you never know your luck, and there’s a good chance you’ll hear some scamper off through the treetops. With frequent sightings of owls, civets, and the 12cm-long Demidoff’s dwarf galago, night walks can be very rewarding. Be aware that you’ll need to pay the park entrance fee to do one or more of these walks.
You can easily visit Kibale for the day while based in Fort Portal or the Crater Lakes, but the national park also has accommodation ranging from camping and budget guesthouses to luxury lodges within its boundaries.
Jacaranda Hilltop Guesthouse
Immersed within the tea plantations, this atmospheric colonial guesthouse is located inside the former residence of the tea-estate manager. Its simple rooms have a relaxed rural feel. Bikes are available for hire, perfect for exploring the surrounding countryside. It’s well placed on the fringes of Kibale for walks into the park, and chimpanzee tracking once they’re habituated.
It’s 5km off Kampala Rd; any bus plying the Fort Portal route can drop you at the sign.
This pleasant campsite is enclosed by rainforest but offers some attractive grass on which to pitch your tent. There are showers and toilets on-site and you can take meals at nearby Primate Lodge if you can’t cook for yourself.
Tinka’s rambling house is a relaxed, family atmosphere with just two guest rooms. It’s 6km from Kibale N.P headquarters right near the visitor center of Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, which is convenient if you’re here to see birds as well as chimps. It also offers excellent traditional lunches that are absolute feasts, reserve in advance.
Kibale Forest Camp
This welcoming and atmospheric camp sits deep in the forest with monkeys and birdlife. There are deluxe safari tents with stone floors and porches, solar power, fire-heated hot water, and even ready-made ‘lazy camping’ for the budget-minded. A safari-style restaurant and lounge occupy an attractive two-story hut.
It’s on the outskirts of Bigodi, 1km down a side road off Kamwenge Rd.
Popular for its night-time wildlife walks, this lodge has very affordable basic rooms and charming rustic cottages with outdoor showers. However, staff can be rather indifferent and meals are just so-so. Showers are heated by firewood. It’s 4km down a rough road from Nkingo, straddling Kibale Forest and Magombe Swamp.