Uphill has never been my favourite direction to walk. But on the this particular trek, as Otis Clay sang, the only way is up, baby. I’m on a relentlessly steep, well-trodden path in the wilds of Mgahinga National Park, the Ugandan side of a huge forest that also stretches beyond the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.
We’ve passed through the secondary forest – formerly farmland which was gazetted to make the national park in the nineties – and older, untamed virgin forest that has harboured wildlife for centuries. The view out to the undulating countryside and surrounding volcanoes is as spectacular as the environment we’re walking in. We’ve seen small deer hiding in the overgrowth and spotted elephant dung on the trail, and at one point, a group of trackers gave us cause to stop, take a breath and ask a few questions. A gorilla family was close by, apparently, but the trackers wouldn’t divulge where exactly, for that’s not who we’re here to see.
A golden monkey in Mgahinga National Park, Uganda © Brian Goddard/Shutterstock
While gorilla tracking is by far the most popular and sought-after wildlife experience in Uganda, on this day we’ve opted to seek out a very different primate.Endangered golden monkeys – endemic to this part of the world – can be found in the bamboo forests of Mgahinga National Park, and it’s they I am sacrificing my calf muscles for. Having started at an elevation of 2,300 metres at our lodge, we’ve already climbed around 200 metres, and by the time we finally reach the bamboo zone we’re 2,700 metres above sea level and my lungs are seriously struggling. It’s so steep, my strong female porter – the unsung hero of the jungle today – offers me her arm and hauls me up the most challenging parts. She’s short and stocky, but ascends the mountain effortlessly, putting my sweating, panting self to shame.
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As the forest changes from twisting branches and thick undergrowth to tall, elegant bamboo trees, we’re quickly told to hush. The monkeys are close, so we must keep one eye on the treetops for movement.
A team of trackers have been with the monkeys since dawn – they come up into the mountains at daybreak to find these curious creatures, then radio back to our guide as we’re walking. There’s no GPS and not a single map used – instead, the Uganda Wildlife Authority guides know these slopes like the back of their hands, and just a few words exchanged on the radio leads us straight to the family of primates.
At first I spot two right in the forest canopy, their dark, silhouetted figures moving swiftly through the treetops. Another makes itself known by urinating on one of our group as it clambers above us – surely a sign of good luck, a golden shower from a golden monkey?
Golden monkeys live high up in the hills of the Mgahinga National Park © PhotocechCZ/Shutterstock
Either way, it appears luck is indeed on our side. More monkeys appear, and as they move through the forest, we follow them to find the epicentre of their family, where there are around 60 in total, all swinging between the trees in search of food. They predominantly eat bamboo leaves, but can be partial to a spot of fruit when spring comes, and will delve fist-first into insect nests should they come across them on the ground.
The ‘golden’ in their name refers to a patch of reddish-orange fur on the monkeys' backs, which catches the light beautifully as the sun shines through the trees. Their faces are enigmatic and somewhat peculiar – the heavy-set yellow brows and furry, puffed out cheeks lend a hint of old man, the kind you’d find propping up the bar in an English country pub, real ale in hand and strong sideburns beneath a flat cap. But their character, so energetic and youthful, makes them seem almost infantile. Two tumble past me on the floor, wrestling as siblings do, and race to find an ant nest on the ground.
We spend the best part of an hour standing in one spot, just watching them interact with one another around us, completely unfazed by our presence. It feels like the forest is teeming with these creatures and that I’ve walked into a scene in a nature documentary where the cameraman has been waiting for hours for such a display.
Mgahinga National Park seen from Kisoro at sunrise © Martin Mecnarowski/Shutterstock
As if to signal the end of our time there (in order to conserve their wild nature only six visitors are allowed each day, for just one hour with the animals) a sudden thick fog descends on the forest and engulfs the monkeys in the trees. It smells of rain as we begin to make our way back down the mountain, which is a much faster trek with the promise of gin and tonics by a crackling fires back at Mount Gahinga Lodge.
Over the coming days in Uganda I visit Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and come face-to-face with gorillas, cruise on the Kazinga Channel and spot elephants, buffalo and hippos, and track chimpanzees in Kyambura Gorge. But none of these experiences quite compare to the unique intimacy of being completely surrounded by the rare golden monkeys.
Mount Gahinga Lodge is a Volcanoes Safaris property. An eight-night package starts from £7,030 based on two people sharing, including international flights, internal flights, ground transport, two nights on full board at each of the company’s four lodges, a gorilla permit, a golden monkey permit and a Kazinga Channel boat trip. For bookings contact Africa Odyssey, and for more information on Uganda, visit www.visituganda.com.