Uganda – My carefully planned year out didn’t originally include a jaunt to Uganda. It wasn’t a country on my radar. I have my friend DJ to thank for that.
On a rainy afternoon, in my hostel in Quitio Ecuador, I began thinking about what I was going to do with my life when I returned back to London. I’d be there in less than two months. There was only one more trip to make. I made a list of possible post travel options and even searched a few job sites. By the end, I was feeling very low. I wasn’t ready to go back to the real world yet. I wanted to keep travelling. In dispair and to take my mind of the looming reality, I started skimming through Facebook. It wasn’t long before I came across a post from my American/Swiss friend DJ. She’s always posting from some remote country doing something extraordinary. This time she was posing with a gorilla from Uganda. A switch flicked in my brain. ‘Where is Uganda?”, I thought. A quick internet search revealed it neighboured Kenya. The nerons in my brain went into overdrive. My African trip was due to end in Nairobi Kenya. Maybe G Adventures offered a trip to see the gorillas in Uganda that I could easily join from Nairobi. I went straight on to the G Adventures website and found out that not only did they offer a trip to Uganda to see the gorillas from Nairobi, but it was actually a continuation of the tour I was next scheduled to join from Cape Town. It seemed like fate to me. Like something I was meant to do. So with much hesitation about adding more to my credit card bill, I booked!
In some respects, Uganda is like any East African or Southern African country I went through. A large portion of its population live in extreme poverty, earning less than $US1 a day. Outside the major cities, life is basic. Houses are made of mud bricks and thatched roofs. Clothes are washed in dirty streams and laid out on the grass to dry. Villagers walk for miles to draw clean drinking water from a communal well. The woman with their waists wrapped with colourful patterned material, babies wrapped around their backs, and their heads balancing whatever goods the are transporting that day. Roadside vendors try to sell you anything from fruits and vegetables to bags full of coal. Anything to earn some sort of living. And the children, often barefoot in dirty, wrong sized, ripped clothes, always, almost without fail, wave vigouriosly at you and shout as loud as they can, “Mzungu!,” meaning white person, as you drive past.
Where Uganda differs is in its landscape. It’s lush green, mountainous hills are often referred to as the Swiss Alps of Africa. Their rich, red soil on the hills, instead of rock, allow for tiered farming clear to the top. Covering the slopes are banana trees, tea plantations, maize, cabbage, red onions, coffee and potatoes, with trees mixed in. The result is a dramatically beautiful landscape.
Our campsite base for the gorilla trek was set on the picturesque Lake Bunyonyi. On the big day, we were up at 4.30am so that we were ready for our 5.30am departure. Segal, the American marine biology teacher in our group passed me on the way to the toliet. “Arent you excited?” She said with an energetic smile. I couldn’t muster a reply. I felt my indifferent reply would only dampen her spirits. Maybe it was the fact I hadn’t had my cup of coffee yet, but there was no enthusiasm in me. For me, it was just another adventurous day ahead on my year out.
We split into three mini vans and headed out for what turned out to be a 2.5hour drive through the worst ‘African Massage’ roads of my entire journey. I use the word road very loosely here. We were really on a single lane dirt track that appeared to be just bulldozed from the side of the mountain that morning. Whilst everyone else in our van slept, I gripped on to the seat in shear terror the whole way. At one point we rounded a corner and I could see a steep hill before us. Here the red dirt road had disappeared and grey, uneven, jagged rock was in its place. “We aren’t going up there are we?” I inadvertently said aloud. Of course we were! I closed my eyes and hoped for the best. At the top, we came dangerously close to the edge at the same time the van got unbalanced on a rock. The van was tilted towards the cliff edge. The driver inched forward. One bump over the wrong rock and we were goners for sure, I thought. It was a shame I was so nervous of tumbling over the edge, because the scenery was absolutely breathtaking. We were snaking up and over the mountainside that hugged Lake Bunyonyi. As the sun began to rise you could see the blue of the lake, backdropped by the terraced hills, and a low lying mist added to the ambiance. Sadly I have no pictures of that.
Miracously we arrived at the Impentrebable Forest safe and unscathed. We were quickly briefed and offered one of three groups to join. There was some confusion between us and the national forest rangers on which group to join. They kept trying to put us into the same van groups we drove to the park in, and we wanted to be organised by physical capability. I was at first hovering unknowingly around a group that included two 70 year old Germans, and a girl in our group who had struggled during a chimpanzee trek the day before and had requested the easiest possible hike into the forest. I vehemently didn’t want to be in that group as I feared a slow pace would only frustrate me. I wanted a difficult, long trek. I wanted the full on adventure. Eventually I was placed in a group of eight that were to track the Kayhungye Gorilla Family, the largest family
According to the last census, there are only 880 mountain gorillas in the world. They are critically endangered and they only live in two small populations – the Virunga Volcanos of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo and where we were in the Bwindi Impentrable Forest. The Bwindi Forest holds about half of the population. No mountain gorilla is known to have survived in captivity outside of this natural habitat. (My theory is that since they are difficult to catch, poachers have only been able to catch one of a family at a time. This one on its own, possibly dies from saddness without its family group.) As they are fiercely protected now, only eight tourists can visit a given family group in a day. With only five family groups in the part of the forest we went to, it meant a maximum of 40 people a day could get the opportunity to see these amazing animals in the wild. If we were lucky enough to find them, it would be a great once in a lifetime privilege.
From the briefing point, we were back in the vans, for another half hour journey over dirt roads to the trekking starting point. The trek began with an hour climb up the steep incline of the mountain. Now on two feet, And without fear of falling off the side, I could take in the incredible views. We reached a grassy top at around 2,400 metres, before heading into the forest. We trekked down a narrow mud path, meandering up and down for over an hour, before we stopped again. Here, our guide told us we would have to wait. The trackers were struggling to find the group. Apparently, the family of 35 had split into two groups over the last few days. The trackers had found seven of the group but were looking for the rest. (Perhaps I should note here that two trackers are sent out two hours before us to locate the gorillas before our arrival. The gorillas can cover over 1km a day in the forest, so finding them and following them is a hard task.) After an hour of waiting and having our packed lunch sitting on the forest floor, we were told that the trackers couldn’t find the rest of the group and had gone back to the group of seven, but they had moved and had to find them again. Suddenly a moment of dejavu came over me. I had been here before. In that moment, I felt somehow that we wouldn’t get to see them. My fear was short lived, and before long we were told to move out. The gorillas were only about a half hour away.
We continued on the narrow mud trail for a bit, but were then instructed by our guide to ‘take a shortcut’ through the dense vegetation of the forest. Ducking through the thick vines, and making our own path in the undergrowth, I began to understand why it was called the Impentrable forest. Tracking through this, up and down hills, was going to take stamina and perseverance. As we continued deeper into the forest, we spotted the large fresh droppings of a gorilla. Horray, that meant they were nearby. We forged ahead. For once I didn’t care how muddy my shoes got or how dirty and torn my clothes were getting, I just wanted to see the gorillas. We scrambled over logs, fell down holes that were covered in leafy undergrowth, pulled ourselves up steep inclines. The sleeves of my shirt were getting snagged on thorns. My trekking pants were turned brown from the mud. And I was sweating profusely. I remember thinking it was a good thing I did this adventure now as in a few years I don’t think I’d have the physical fitness to do so.
After thirty minutes of adrenalin paced tracking we stopped. We’d caught up with the trackers. The gorillas were just there. We were told to leave our walking sticks and bags behind, take a last sip of water and grab just our cameras. As we were doing this, a gorilla ran past! My heart skipped a beat. “Go, go. Get up there.” Said our guide. I climbed up to the safe viewing postion and couldn’t believe it. There, sitting in a small open clearing, was an enormous silverback. They are known to weigh as much as 460lb and stand at a height of over 6ft. I was in absolute awe. A mixture of fear, nervousness, excitement and pure exhaustion ran through me. Before I could get a good picture, he moved on. Our tracking continued. When he stopped again, he was in deep vegetation. Visible, but impossible to photograph. Before I could get disappointed with our luck, he moved again and began climbing a tree. More scrambling ensued, and after some time we found a settled postion with a good view of the silverback resting in the tree, and to our luck there were also some female black backs and two mischievous youngsters in the tree. From there, we were given one hour to view them.
Time never flew so fast or seemed like such a blur, except maybe on my wedding day. It was hard to balance the minutes between taking photos and just sitting there observing them. The silverback just relaxed on the tree limbs, at times tearing off branches to eat, at others just lounging lazily on it’s back. The two youngsters were all over the tree! One slid down a vertical branch and then made its way across a horizontal branch to take a closer look at us. Satisfied it climbed back up to its sibling or cousin and they began playing. Often they were just dangling by one arm from the tree. In what seemed like minutes, our hour was up. The silverback climbed down from the tree, breaking a few branches in the process and wandered off to some undergrowth for a nap. He never seemed bothered by our prescence. It was such a magical experience and my misty, faint photos don’t capture the moment at all. I wished I had had more time. I wish I had taken less photos and observed them more. As we climbed out of the undergrowth and back on the muddy path for our two hour trek back, it started to rain. Before long I was soaked through and struggling to keep my balance on the slippery mud beneath me. But I didn’t care. I looked like I’d been through a war, and certainly felt like it, but I had just had the most amazing once in a lifetime experience ever.
**The better gorilla images are from my fellow traveller Michael Osl.