“When is the best time to come?” is the question I have heard too many a time during my 20 years in the Gorilla Highlands. “Any time is the best time,” has been my standard reply, undoubtedly valid for the core of our region with rainforests and volcanoes inhabited by gorillas. But before posting this blog, I reached out to my expert colleagues with experience in three outlier national parks:
Why did I do that? Because this text was going to provocatively run against most of the advice one can find online (“better stay away from the rainy seasons of September-November and March-May”) and I wanted to hear different opinions and expand my geographical coverage.
Charlotte Beauvoisin was the only one who responded with months to avoid; according to her, one may prefer not to come in April or November because it rains too much — but even Charlotte noted that the weather had become unpredictable. She added that bird lovers would want to be selective in terms of which months to pick because of avian migrations. Butterflies are seasonal as well, and show up when it’s wet. Always an advocate of bus users, she concluded with: “If you have a driver and a 4×4 vehicle, it is not going to matter much if it’s raining heavily. But if you are a backpacker the weather is going to have a bigger impact because you could miss one of your connections if a bus breaks down or gets stuck in a flood.”
Sarah Hall who used to manage the savannah of Akagera before shifting to the forests of Nyungwe was in agreement with me. “I haven’t been in Nyungwe long enough to comment but I always said that in Akagera that there’s something for everyone in different times of the year. The rainy season/dry season distinction is a little bit too simplistic. May and June were always my favourite time because of the beautiful blue skies and incredible cloud formations. We were seeing some patterns in certain animal movements at particular times, like elephants frequenting the south in November/December. Not guaranteed of course …”
Gloria Mwenge mentioned three months that are supposed to be dry: June, July and August. Still she concurred with me that advising anyone that August is going to be sunny might prove problematic — because needing a raincoat in August isn’t at all unheard of … Her Grauer’s gorillas advice: “During the rainy season lowland gorillas eat baby bamboo and that makes tracking them easier. A visitor will walk 30-60 min, compared to the dry season when gorillas eat myriantus (sweet fruits) located in the primary forest area and a visitor will have to walk more than two hours to reach the gorillas. It’s the most beautiful thing to happen in the forest, being rained on! By the time someone finishes the trek, clothes have dried up. Rainy season will never be reason to avoid visiting our cousins!” (Editor’s note: eating habits of Grauer’s gorillas and mountain gorillas differ.)
This is what the ladies had to say … My summary would be: it’s unpredictable, the global climate is globally a mess — and therefore supposedly rainy seasons are not worth fussing about. In our climatic zone, the term “rainy season” means nothing more than that it could rain. And when it does, it is normally intense and quick, followed by pleasant sunshine.
Tropical precipitation clears up the skies — the vistas are best in the rainy season — and keeps dust under control. In short, if I was to choose between the supposedly rainy and supposedly dry season for a visit to Uganda, Rwanda or Eastern Congo, I’d prefer the rainy season.
Nobody can tell you in advance when those two truly rainy weeks that happen every year will take place. Not worth being bothered.
It was funny to collect journalists and photographers in heavy downpour in Kampala some years ago in mid November and watch them skeptically check weather forecasts on their phones. They were meant to camp and hike but their software was promising rain each and every day. What they got in reality was a brilliant week that deposited loads of spectacular photos and drone footage on my hard disks.
In our preparation for that Press Trip we instead focused on telling them to pack warm clothes. The core of the Gorilla Highlands region lies above 2,000 metres/ 6,500 feet and is not what you would probably expect from Africa.
At my Lake Bunyonyi or in Musanze you won’t see me in shorts much. At times we would even turn on a small electric heater to warm a room up! And I don’t mind that. If I am in need of warmth, I can be in Kigali or in Gisenyi in a couple of hours. If I was ever in need of heat, I’d go to Kampala. (While Kampalans would again melt in the sweltering summer I used to hate in Slovenia, and has only gotten worse — the intensity of Central European hot months would be unbearable for most Ugandans!)
photo by Marcus Westberg