Last updated: 11:56 AM ET, Mon November 21 2016

Great Safaris Blazes Trails in Uganda

Tour Operator Great Safaris David Cogswell November 18, 2016

Great Safaris Blazes Trails in Uganda

Photo by David Cogswell

With the African safari business strongly recovered from the Ebola scare of 2015, Great Safaris’ Dave Herbert is looking for new territories in which to operate safaris, and has set his sights on Uganda.

With tourism in Africa thriving again, some of the most popular tourism areas are getting crowded with too many Range Rovers competing to see the same wildlife. The full experience of the wilderness is obscured when there are too many people around.

“You don’t want to be on safari in a vehicle with your family and when you try to take a picture and there are four vehicles behind the lion,” said Paul Cohen, a spokesman for Uganda Tourism. “You never see traffic jams in Uganda.”

Herbert, the founder and head of Great Safaris, and a veteran of the African tourism business since the early 1970s, feels the time is right for Uganda now and has rolled out a new program for those who share his interest.

The Primates

Uganda has the Big Five (lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard and rhino), but it has some unique offerings. It is one of only three countries in the world where the mountain gorillas can be seen.  

The countries of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo intersect in that volcanic region known as the Virunga Massif, and it’s the only place where the few hundred surviving mountain gorillas live.

There are only a few hundred, and access to them is strictly limited. So crowds are not a possibility. Permits cost $450-$650, depending on the time of year, and only a few are issued.

In addition to the gorillas, Uganda also has chimps, which are less rare than gorillas, but still rare. It is possible to see both gorillas and chimps in Uganda.

“We are seeing a lot of interest in the gorillas,” said Herbert, “but we are seeing an interest in chimps as well. There are not too many places where you can see them. There’s only Lake Mahale in Tanzania and Uganda where you can really have an authentic experience with Chimpanzees.”

The gorillas are so rare and endangered that they are highly protected and it is only possible to spend an hour observing them. But with the chimps, there are no time limits.

“We are constantly trying to habituate the chimp families so they are not afraid of humans,” said Cohen, “and they will walk up to you. If they are not habituated, they will run away. With the habituated families you can sit 20 feet from them and have your picture taken with them.”

A typical chimp experience is about three hours, according to Herbert. But there can be special treats in longer visits.

“The chimp family moves around and finds a new place to stay every night,” said Cohen. “They make their own beds for the baby chimps. You can travel with them and if you go toward the end of the day you can watch them make their beds and play and put the kids to bed at night.”

Visitors can only spend an hour with the gorillas, but Cohen said the tracking process is still arduous, but easier than in previous times.

“It’s not like the old days when you never knew if you would see the gorillas,” said Cohen. “These days because the government is so anti-poaching they have rangers following the gorillas 24 hours a day. So they know where the gorillas are.”  

Increasing Accessibility of Africa

Also working in favor of the African safari trade are dynamics of the airline industry that are making Africa more accessible. The main driving force is the Gulf Carriers: Qatar, Etihad and Emirates, which are offering historically low fares to Africa.

Those carriers draw big revenues from the Chinese and Indian markets for travel to Africa. To keep their big A380s filled, they occasionally offer extraordinary fares as flash sales. The market has recently been seeing fares from Los Angeles or San Francisco to Nairobi, Kenya, for under $900, and fares from the U.S. to Cape Town for under $1,000.

“They are coming up with incredible fares, but you have to book within a week,” said Herbert. The flash sales have created a new dynamic for the way the tour operator does business.

“Before as a tour operator we put together a land itinerary and then the agent would put together a group of travelers to purchase the itinerary,” said Herbert. “Now with this fare war, the clients are grabbing these fares then coming to us to put together an itinerary.”

Also helping to fuel Africa’s current tourism boom is the fact that the country has not been featured in bad news stories in the media for a while.

“The election knocked out any news,” said Herbert, “but besides that, Africa is not in the news anymore, so people think maybe it’s an okay place to go.”

Great Safaris’ new Uganda Primate Adventure is an eight-day, six-night program, designed to be possible for time-starved Americans, or better, to add an extension for gorilla tracking. The gorilla tracking extension that Great Safaris offers is on the Rwanda side of the Virunga Massif, which is called Volcanoes National Park.

The Uganda Primate Adventure includes encounters with chimpanzees in both Queen Elizabeth Park and Kibale Forest. It’s offered at a price of $3,695, which, with today’s lowered air fares, is more accessible than Africa has ever been. And the strength of the America dollar continues to be at historic highs in relation to Africa.

Great Safaris also offers a 10-night program called Uganda Discovery Safari, which includes gorilla tracking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest as well as a Big Five safari in Queen Elizabeth National Park and a visit to Murchison Falls National Park

It’s priced from $7,995 March 1-May 31 and $8,295 Jan. 1-Feb. 28 and June 1-Sept. 30.

For more information on Uganda, see a TravelPulse Webinar on Uganda, featuring Paul Cohen.