Discovering underground secrets of Kyambura gorge

During nature walks one cannot miss the primates, especially the chimpanzees. photo/Tony Mushoborozi

What you need to know:

  • Kyambura gorge is situated in the northeastern corner of Queen Elizabeth National Park, and is home to the only chimpanzees in this park. 

The way to Kyambura gorge is a lone road. After sloping through hills of Rubirizi District that are covered in banana plantations and other crop farms, your attention in caught by the expansive savanna plains in the rift valley below. The rift valley is no ordinary valley. It is a flat grassland that goes all the way to Kasese, 71 kilometres away, where the Rwenzori Mountains appear to merge with the sky. Soon the hills give way to the plains, and the farms give way to the savanna grasslands, and the winding road becomes straight as an arrow. This is Queen Elizabeth National Park.

As soon as you have left the human settlement and entered into the park, right before the section where elephants like to graze from, where they are often seen crossing the road, you make a right turn, off the highway. You enter a small dirt road with tyre tracks in the sides and a stripe of grass in middle. It is not a busy road. Here, you get to see the most beautiful grass you have ever seen in your entire life. This is not the short savanna grasslands that are ubiquitous throughout the entire national park. This is some sort of marsh even when the area is not waterlogged. On both sides of the road grows thick grass so tall you would think you are looking at reeds. 

As you drive through this winding narrow road, unable to see 30 metres ahead of you, or two metres into the sides, your imagination opens up a world of monster snakes lurking around in the thick undergrowth. Instinctively, you roll up your car windows lest a juvenile cobra shoots itself into the car. You know you are headed to Kyambura gorge but you cannot see any sign of it. Then about two kilometres into the drive, the road becomes so steep that a car engine stalls. Your destination is nigh. 

The glorious sight
After a short steep climb, you get back to the short savanna grasslands that extend to the horizons far away. But this is not what captures your attention. It is this huge crack in the earth that is almost hard to put in words. Looking at it from the viewing platform on the southern bank near Kichwamba, it looks like a deep wound on a smooth, hairy skin. While the gorge is dark green because of the thick forest that grows inside it, the banks on both its sides are brownish-yellowish short savanna from the heat of the tropical sun. 

But it is the roaring sound of the river in the heart of the gorge, 100 feet below the  ground that takes your breath away. Everything is out of place here. Nothing about the Kyambura gorge should be here, yet here we are. 
Nature is a freak. It does whatever it wants. It can put a rain forest in the middle of a savanna and no one will ask questions. Only when you visit places such as Kyambura gorge do you appreciate the importance of national parks. Just imagine that this was private property and no one was allowed here, except the owner. What a loss it would be to the rest of the nation! The idea of national parks ensures that such natural wonders belong to everyone and can be accessed at a small fee. 

If you want to soak in the Kyambura gorge beauty, all you need is pay Shs30,000 to Uganda Wildlife Authority and it is all yours for a few hours. The Shs30,000 affords you an exploration of the strange universe that is hidden in the gorge. A nature walk deep in gorge will reveal to you trees that have been so lucky not only to be completely inoculated from human axes but also to have their own river to nourish them. These trees have no predator, just like the giraffes of Lake Mburo. It would cost more money to haul a tree out of this hole than to buy it and transport it from 100 kilometers away. 
Even those that don’t have the money can see the gorge but only from the viewing platform at one of the banks of the gorge.

A tour guide stands in the foreground of Kyambura Gorge in Queen Elizabeth National Park. PHOTO/ TONY MUSHOBOROZI

Kyambura gorge is situated in the northeastern corner of Queen Elizabeth National Park, and is home to the only chimpanzees in this park. This gaping cut in the ground is also home to 332 bird species so it is a birders haven in its own right. It is 100 metres deep at the Kichwamba escarpment, it is one kilometre wide at the broadest point and runs 11km long, northwards. 
It is at the eastern boundary of Queen Elizabeth National Park with the Kyambura Wildlife Reserve. Kyambura Game Reserve was created as a buffer zone, protecting the park from encroaching human activities and also stopping animals from endangering the communities.

Kyambura has something for everyone. The adventurous can make their way through the unruly undergrowth to marvel at the untamed plant universe in the gorge, the birders will be looking through their binoculars to watch birds in their purest element, while primate enthusiasts will track chimpanzees. But that not all. You can deep in the river on the floor of the gorge and cool your body after a long day in the savanna heat. 

Tourist activities
According to several industry experts, chimp trekking is the main attraction at Kyambura gorge. You can choose to track in the morning or in the afternoon depending on your itinerary. It is not like tracking lions which must be tracked in the morning only, or elephants that must be tracked around lunch time when they slope into Kazinga channel to drink water. Eighty percent of the time, you will be able to see chimpanzees on an excursion. On top of seeing the chimps, there are chances that you will see 12 other primate species in Kyambura like the colobus or vervet monkeys.

All resevations for any excursions at Kyambura gorge are done at Mweya Visitors Information Centre. The exploration of Kyambura starts with a 200-metre winding descent down the escarpment, dodging cliffs and rocks and trees until you reach the floor. Other than chimp trekking, other excursions focus on birds, nature walks and flora and fauna.  Most excursions lasts between two to three hours, but chimp trekking can go as long as four hours. The forest consists of a thick undergrowth that you must endure on your trek. Even if you fail to see chimpanzees, which is 20 per cent of the time, the smell of tree bark and flowers and rotting trees is a combination that pleases your olfactory senses.   

Chimp trekking
The chimpanzees in Kyambura are all habituated, meaning that they are used to humans and therefore friendly to tourists. Those who have tracked them will tell you that they will often interact with tourists, coming so close that they take enchanting pictures of them. 
The gorge is a home to more than 80 chimpanzees. This activity is done in two phases; morning and afternoon. The former starts at 8am and the alatter at 2pm. Each takes between two  to four hours depending on how quickly you are able to find a chimpanzee family.

Nature walks
A nature walk in Kyambura is like no other. There is something about knowing that you are walking a forest that is below ground. You feel like you are a part of a lost world that only you have just discovered. As you gaze at those trees growing out of rocks in the rugged escarpment, you smile at the knowledge that nature is truly creative. You get to explore this hidden world, tacked away from the sweltering heat of the savanna, unbothered by the winds that blow above ground. These are pampered trees and shrubs, and the birds and butterflies flattering about are living the best life. If you are lucky, you will see chimps and other primates.