The Kyambura Gorge (also referred to as Kyambura Game Reserve) is a sunken forest found in the North-eastern side of the great Queen Elizabeth National Park. The Kyambura Gorge is creation of great beauty that will leave you struggling to find the right words to describe it. The gorge is 16 Kilometers long and connects to the Kazinga Channel through a vast swamp. The Gorge is 100 meters deep and 1 km wide at some point with savannah grasslands surrounding it from all sides. The Kyambura Gorge is a vital source of water and food for many of the park animals during the long dry season in the savannah.
Kyambura Gorge is also known as the “Valley of the Apes” because it is home to chimpanzees and other smaller primates. The Gorge also hosts several wildlife species including water bucks, large forest hogs, elephants, insects and rare species of butterflies. The Gorge is surrounded by dry savannah plains on the outside while the inside is composed of thick tropical rainforest which receive little direct sunlight.
How was Kyambura Gorge formed?
Like any unique physical feature, there are several theories that have been put forward to explain the formation of the Kyambura Gorge. Scientists generally agree that the gorge was formed around the time when the East African Rift Valley was formed. The Rift valley was formed when tectonic movements forced two sides of the earth up while the middle section simply sunk down creating a vast valley. After this creation of the vast East African Rift Valley, other earth movements later created smaller faults among which include the Kaymbura Gorge. A second theory to explain the formation of the Kyambura Gorge is that it was formed by the river Kyambura. Kyambura River flows from the Kichwamba Escarpment and releases its load into the famous Kazinga Channel that separates Lake Albert and Lake George. According to proponents of this theory, the river was massive then and flowed with great force creating an initial valley that kept on eroding and increasing to its current size. Though the river later reduced in size, it left a massive work of art behind its former trail.
The direction to Kyambura Gorge
The route to Kyambura Gorge is the same route taken when travelling to Queen Elizabeth National Park. From Kampala city, Queen Elizabeth National Park can be reached by using the Mbarara or Fort Portal route. The Mbarara route is 420 km long while the Fort Portal route is 410 Km by road. Both these routes take about six hours of travelling. Once in the park, the Kyambura gorge can be reached from Lake Gorge or the park headquarters. The distance between Lake Gorge and Kyambura Gorge is 16 kilometers while from the park headquarters, it is about 30 kilometers.
For those who have little time to spare, a one hour chartered flight can be booked from Entebbe Airport to the Mweya Airstrip. After reaching Mweya, one still needs to travel by road to the park offices for registration and then be transferred to the gorge.
Chimpanzee Trekking in Kyambura Gorge
Chimpanzee trekking is the most popular activity in Kyambura Gorge. The Gorge is the only place where one can spot habituated chimpanzees in Queen Elizabeth National Park. According to information from Researchers, there are about 30 chimpanzees in the gorge. The Chimpanzees here have a dilemma. They have been cut off from the outside world after a 12 kilometer natural section of forest connecting the gorge to larger forests were destroyed by humans. In the past, the chimpanzees would move out of the Gorge to meet other chimpanzee clans in the forests of Maramagambo, Katsyoha- Kitomi and Murchison Falls national park. The Gorge used to be used as a transit route but due to human activity and settlement, the chimpanzees have been left stranded in the valley. They could move out of the forest through the savannah but it is too risky without the cover of trees to protect thing from predators. The tropical forest in the gorge provides enough water and fruits to feed the chimpanzees but there is a fear that inbreeding has affected the reproductive capacity of the chimps in the Gorge.
Most of the Chimpanzees in the gorge are habituated. This is the process of making the primates used to human presence. The chimpanzee habituation process can take up to 2 years to complete. Once it is complete, visitors can then be allowed to visit the chimps. The Uganda Wildlife Authority is responsible for issuing out Chimpanzee tracking permits. Chimpanzee tracking permits cost $50 and reservations can be made at the Mweya Visitor Information Centre or at the Uganda Wildlife offices in Kampala. Only 8 people may visit the chimpanzee clan per session. It is important to book permits in advance to avoid missing out especially during peak seasons of the year. You need to be 15 years in order to take part in Chimpanzee trekking.
Chimpanzee trekking in Kyambura Gorge is quite different from that in other places like Kibale National Park or Kalinzu Forest. It is more of a Gorge walk. The walk to find the chimpanzees through underground jungle and beautiful rivers is very adventurous. Chimpanzee trekking in Kyambura Gorge starts early in the morning or in the afternoon. Tracking the chimpanzees takes 3 hours but you are allowed only one hour once you find the chimps. The usual procedure is to first report to the Visitors centre at the park. From here you are driven to a spot where to enter the gorge. If you are travelling with a tour company, your tour guide will hand you over to the park rangers and trackers to lead you down the gorge. Don’t be alarmed to see the rangers with pangas/machete. They use the machete to create a path along the thick vegetation down the gorge. Once you going down the gorge, you will immediately realize that you are in an entirely different world. You leave behind the hot and dry savannah plains to enter a cool and dark world of thick forests and amazing sounds. Talking about sounds, the gorge has a remarkable ability to reverberate even the slightest of sounds. You can hear birds, primates and even hippos grunting from different directions.
There is no guarantee that you will see the chimpanzees immediately you descend down the gorge. They tend to move to different sections of the gorge. A tracker is sent ahead to locate the primates before communicating to the team about their location. Many of the park animals come to the gorge to find food and water especially during the dry season. Don’t be surprised to find elephants, antelopes and even hyenas down the gorge. You don’t need to be afraid of them because you will be moving with armed rangers down the gorge. These rangers are very experienced and know how to scare off the animals without having to shoot.
Chimpanzees are very mobile and stubborn primates unlike gorillas. They are always on the move and tracking them is more demanding. The advantage of tracking chimpanzees in the Kyambura Gorge is that they are kind of contained within a smaller and known space. Nevertheless, you still need to follow them wherever they go looking for food. Once they settle down in one place, you can spot them feeding, playing, breastfeeding and mating. This is a perfect time and opportunity to take as many photos as possible. After spotting the chimpanzees for an hour, you will be led back to the hot and dry savannah surrounding the gorge for departure.
Note: Chimpanzee tracking can be combined with a general safari to Queen Elizabeth National Park involving game drives, a launch cruise at the Kazinga Channel or a visit to the Maramagambo forest
Other attractions and things to do within the Kyambura Gorge
Forest and nature walks: The best way to explore the Kyambura gorge is to go for a nature walk. Nature walks provide opportunities to admire the natural beauty of the Gorge and its creatures – especially the tropical rainforests, birds and primates. The best way to start is to walk along the savannah edges and get a birds view of the forest in the valley. The scenery from the top of the gorge is breathtaking. You can spot the tree tops and many of the creatures feeding and making different sounds. After marveling at the gorge from the savannah top, you can then descend down to the thick forest and finally to the river. It is steep climbing down the valley but once you are down, it is an easy walk. When going for these nature walks, it is important to move along with an experienced and well-trained park ranger who is knowledgeable about the flora and fauna within the gorge. The trails for nature walks are well established but can be physically demanding for those who are not very fit.
Wildlife Viewing: Whereas Chimpanzees are the primary attractions at the Gorge, other smaller primates also call the valley home. They include colobus monkeys, vervet monkeys and the red-tailed monkeys. During the intense dry season in Queen Elizabeth National Park, hyenas, buffaloes, elephants and water bucks come to drink water from the rivers within the gorge.
Community Visits: There are some human communities leaving close to the gorge. An arrangement can be made to visit one of the homes to learn about their culture and what they do for a living. The communities are always very eager to receive visitors, showcase some of their products and share information about their culture. You can learn about how they grow and process coffee or visit one of the local craft shops. There are several local beer brewing places where you can go and take a sip of potent local gin and beer made out of bananas. You may go fishing with the locals to one of the crater lakes or attend one of the organized traditional dances.
Lodges and Hotels around Kyambura Gorge
Queen Elizabeth is a well established national park with several accommodation facilities. The lodges close to Kyambura Gorge are few but one can stay in accommodation facilities at the other sectors of the park and arrive at the Gorge early to start activities. The most popular lodge within Kyambura Gorge is the Kyambura Gorge Safari Lodge but one can also book with Jacana Safari Lodge, Engazi Lodge, Katara lodge, Emin Pasha Lodge, Kingfisher camp and Jacana Safari Lodge. Regardless of which accommodation facility you choose, your experience at the Kyambira Gorge will be very memorable.
The Future of Chimpanzees in Kyambura Gorge
Chimpanzees are very social creatures. It is sad that they have to be isolated in a valley without much contact with other chimpanzee clans elsewhere. Living in isolation is a threat to their very survival in the gorge because it decreases the chances of successful reproduction. Mating among close individuals is believed to have decreased their gene pool and this could lead to mutations. In order to ensure the survival of the chimpanzees and to avoid inbreeding, several conservation efforts have been put in place. One such initiative is the project – Kyambura Gorge Eco-Tourism. This project was started by Volcanoes Safaris and is aims at involving the nearby communities in safe-guarding the entire eco-system of the place. Among the initiatives of the project include:-
- Establishing the Kyambura Conservation Centre to train communities about the importance of conserving the gorge and animals therein. The project also started the Kyambura Community Café to train young people on hospitality and the Kyambura Coffee to help the community process their coffee. The Project even set up a playground that children from nearby schools can use to develop their skills in a variety of sports.
- Building a forest bridge that will allow the chimpanzees in the Kyambura Gorge connect with other chimp clans living in the Maramagambo forest. This has been done by planting trees along the stretch that used to connect Maramagambo forest to the gorge.
- Reclaiming the lost wetland that was being used for making bricks at the point where the gorge begins.
Volcanoes Safaris has helped set up the Kyambura Lodge other facilities which benefit the local community by providing employment. Guests who book with the Kyambura Lodge have an opportunity to plant a tree in the section connecting the gorge (and chimps) to other forests and hence contribute to the conservation of the primates. Guests can also be taken for a walk to see the reclaimed wetlands close to the gorge or to the gorge itself. Such interventions have not only helped safeguard wildlife in the area but have also benefited the local communities.