Several superlatives have been used to describe Queen Elizabeth National Park in western Uganda but the one that captures it all is ‘a medley of wonders’. This could have been with the hindsight of Kyambura Gorge, complete with an underground tropical forest!

According to Edward Asalu, the chief park warden, Kyambura Gorge is also known as “the Valley of Apes” for being home to 24 chimpanzees.

“These 24 chimps were trapped in this gorge because of human settlement down and upstream. Otherwise, they used to connect to Katsyoha-Kitomi Forest reserve and Imaramagambo Forest in the southern part of the gorge and to Kibaale National Park in the north-east down to Budongo Forest in Murchison Falls National Park.

This gorge was just a transit area of the great apes and unfortunately, these ones found themselves trapped. Luckily though, they are fully supplied by the fruit trees in the underground forest,” Asalu explains.

According to Dr Margaret Driciru, the conservation area veterinarian, the chimps that were trapped were less than 24 but they have steadily been multiplying. In fact, a new kid was born towards the end of 2016.

Kyambura Gorge runs below the surface of Queen Elizabeth National Park, which itself lies on the floor bed of the western arm of the Great East African Rift Valley.

If you cast your eyes to the rising sun along the Kyambura-Katunguru sector, a forested valley appears from nowhere. Otherwise you will never imagine there is a fault-line on the floor bed of the park.

Driciru explains that Kyambura Gorge was formed as a result of faulting during the great rift or separation of the surface area splitting during the volcanic activity age. The middle part sunk along with its forest.

The deepest part at fig tree camp is 100 metres deep. This is equivalent to the length of a football pitch. The trees underneath, may never grow taller than 100m to show up on the surface.

The river that waters the forest
“When this part sunk underneath, naturally, the water draining system from the hills of Buhweju and Bunyaruguru gave birth to a river that waters the underground forest. So, Kyambura underground forest is a river line forest that is constantly supplied. And because of the trapped moisture, the forest remains green and fruiting all year around for the pleasure of the chimps,” Driciru says.

According to Driciru, what has kept the underground forest intact is the limited access to the gorge because of sharp and deep mini-escarpments.

But also the greater part of the forest is in a protected area. There are about two access points to the gorge by the community; at Kyambura Bridge and at Kakumbagaro.

But Kakumbagaro loosely translated as if you slip up, you will roll into a bundle and plunge into the gorge never to be seen again, is a risky point and shrouded in mystery.

“The natural water draining system empties where the land is lowest. But also, there is the Omumashaka swamp that was recently recovered from the community that helps the river never to run dry. And where there is trapped moisture, a river line forest will live,” explains Driciru.

This gorge does not only aptly give Queen Elizabeth National Park its cocktail of wonders, its draining waters pouring into Kazinga Channel which; conjoins Lakes George (Mahyoro) and Edward (Ryeru), gives the park its magnificence.

Taking the plunge to Kyambura Gorge
On the morning of December 27, 2016, my wife Ronah and I chose to take a plunge on the invitation of a friend, Robert Byakutaga, who runs Kyambura Game Lodge. While at the lodge, to access the gorge, we were helped by Karegyesa, a honey collector from the gorge.

We accessed it from the community side at Omukyenkobe without the intention of meeting the chimps but to see how he is earning a living from honey collection.

We descended a little down to catch the view of the roar of the river underneath the forest and there before us, was a family of about five chimps at the centre of the gorge! Karegyesa, who was holding Ronah’s hand, whispered to her; ‘male chimps love women, if you were alone, they would have done bad manners to you’ and that marked the end of our meeting with our closest relatives; the apes of Kyambura Gorge.

Getting to Kyambura Gorge
Kyambura Gorge is 420km South West of Kampala City via Masaka-Mbarara, Bushenyi-Rubirizi road while the Mityana-Mubende, Fort Portal-Kasese route is 440km. But one is advised to go full circle for a 360 degree experience.

There are also scheduled flights by Aerolink to Mweya or Kasese airstrips.
Whichever means you use, when you eventually reach Kyambura Trading Centre, ask to be taken to the defunct coffee factory whose facilities have been turned into a lodge.

Here, a guide will help you to one of the viewpoints of the gorge and take in the wonders of this land formerly called Ryeru-Obwera! The breeze from the underground forest has a cooling effect to make you forget the excruciating journey.

Other wonders in the park
According to Dickson Katana, a tourism warden, Queen Elizabeth park is the most popular among the 10 national parks of Uganda because of the medley of wonders it offers.

It is home to the 42km long Kazinga Channel, the only channel in the African hinterland. The Mweya Peninsula, home to Mweya Safari Lodge (formerly under Uganda Hotels), partially surrounded by Lake Edward as it opens its mouth to take in Kazinga waters, offers stunning views of the park.

Across the peninsula lies Katwe Salt Lake with its backdrop of the Rwenzori Mountains. East of Lake Katwe lies several craters including the famous Lake Nyamunuuka, which was ranked No.3 among most beautiful craters of the world.

But for me, the most magnificent of the craters was Lake Kitagata as it gently lies between two spectacular depressions. Its ridge is the highest point of the park and from here the view of the park is unmatched and may be unequalled.

I felt like holding the whole wonder in my palms like a baby. So distinct and a treasure to behold! As lonely travellers through this newly created 10km crater route we accessed it from the Queen’s Pavilion along Kasese road and back to Katwe Kabatoro main gate to Mweya Peninsula. It felt so surreal, so serene and peaceful.
An early morning game drive will bring you face-to-face with the king of the jungle along the Kasenyi grazing area with herds of Uganda Kobs, buffaloes, warthogs and waterbucks waiting for your sighting pleasure.

The two-hour boat cruises on Kazinga Channel are consummate as you come face-to-face with three of the big five all at once with several bird species holding meetings at Kazinga fishing village.
After a heavy meal at Mweya Safari Lodge that sets you back by Shs75,000 per person, we leisurely drove back to Kyambura Game Lodge, along the Leopard loop. A few kilometres to Katunguru fishing village which lies along Mbarara-Kasese road, on the channel drive, we were met by a herd of elephants.

I counted 15 huge moving mountains! Without a guide, our hearts skipped a beat when one of them stumped the ground and made for our car. We were saved by a van from Prime Tours which came from the opposite direction that distracted it. Had this van not appeared, husband and wife would now be buried in the jungle.

Meanwhile, the evenings and mornings in Queen Elizabeth National Park from whichever point are stunningly glorious with the splendor of gold plated sunsets and sunrises; silhouetting flora and fauna to exquisite perfection that I will hold onto for a long time.

The wonder national park

Queen Elizabeth park is home to the 42km long Kazinga Channel, the only channel in the African hinterland. The Mweya Peninsula, home to Mweya Safari Lodge (formerly under Uganda Hotels), partially surrounded by Lake Edward as it opens its mouth to take in Kazinga waters, offers stunning views of the park.

Across the peninsula lies Katwe Salt Lake with its backdrop of the Rwenzori Mountains. East of Lake Katwe lies several craters including the famous Lake Nyamunuuka, which was ranked No.3 among most beautiful craters of the world.

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