Uganda’s mountain gorillas

For 5 wonderful dayz we travelled half way across Uganda to see the mountain gorillas of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. It was a glorious experience filled with a few unexpected incidents!!

Here are a few wordz on the adventure…and a slideshow below…

 

I’m sure it is a toss up whether you go to Rwanda or Uganda to see the mountain gorillas. I forget the reason why, but we chose to go to Uganda, while my friend went to Rwanda. She swears that Rwanda is better mainly because you have less distance to travel, but I’m going to make the case for Uganda because we had a blast!  It was certainly a long journey by road and you have to break the journey overnight to do it safely. But in a sense that was part of the adventure because we passed through villages and towns and got a good view of all the different scenery – it was never boring. I think there are enough fotos to indicate that Uganda is a beautiful country – tea plantations, mountains, forest, and the regular landscape are at times simply superb.

 

 

We travelled from Entebbe to the west of Uganda where you find the Virguna Mountains near to where the borders of Rwanda and Congo meet with Uganda. We drove and drove on reasonable roads stopping the night at an average hotel in Mbarara town. The next day we travelled through Queen Elizabeth National Park without seeing any of the rare tree-climbing lions. In the late afternoon we reached Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park where we checked into Engagi Lodge. Its relatively new and is situated  on the mountain side with an impressive view of the mountain forest complete with the mist that hovers there morning and evening. The luxury cabins are situated so that you could not see anyone else, even though on the second night I think we were the only guests anyway. I’d certainly recommend staying there – great service and friendly staff. We stayed two nights and enjoyed delicious food, nice wine and wonderful scenery.

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Bwindi Impenetrable Forest was gazetted in 1942, established as a national park in 1992 and became a World Heritage Site in 1994. It covers 330 square kms of mountain forest. Most toursists come here for the gorilla trek but there are other animals to see and hikes that you can do also. As anyone who has ever considered doing the gorilla safari will know, the day pass is expensive – USD 500, non-refundable and non-transferable! So you’d betta get there on time and be healthy on the day! There are approximately 350 gorillas living in the Impenetrable Forest in 14 different family groups, and another 300 in forest areas in the Congo and Rwanda. Three of the groups in the Buhoma area of the Impenetrable Forest are ‘habituated’, and a 4th habituated group lives in the Nkuringo sector – and these are the groups that they track and allow access for the tourists.

On the day we trekked we got up early in the morning and enjoyed the morning mist with a wonderful sense of anticipation at what might be ahead. We jumped in the safari van and before long we were meeting with guide and others who would be with us for our gorilla trek. Altogether there were 16 expectant tourists gathered there that morning. We were divided into 2 groups of 8 to go to see the gorilla families. We were allocated to visit the Habinyanja or H Group – a group of 21 gorillas and 2 silverbacks. After a briefing with the guides about the gorilla trek and what was expected of us, we drove to the location where we were to start our trek. The most important task was to hire porters – we decided to take 1 porter each @ USD 10/porter. A very worthwhile investment as it turns out.

We then assembled as a group and together set off for a 60 minute walk along fairly easy paths across the hills and through a small village before we eventually descended and entered the forest. The forest is soft underfoot but there’s no path. The rangers literally cut a way through the vines for us with their machettes and the line of tourists and porters with the armed guards ahead and behind, clambered through the vines and over tree roots. The rangers were in radio communication with the trackers who had set out earlier to locate the gorillas. They know where the gorillas were last seen on the previous day and they then go ahead of us to find where the gorilla family had moved to and using the radio they guide us to their location. Fortunately for us we only had to go about 20 minutes into the forest before we learned that the gorillas were just nearby. The porters came up and we got cameras ready.

Unfortunately for me, the walk in the heat and sunshine had done me in. Even though I had taken some rehydration salts before and during the trek, it was not enough, and by the time we stopped in the forest I was seriously incapacitated – dehydrated. The guides recognised that I was not well when my hands shook as I tried to make another litre of rehydration salts. They insisted that I spent 15 minutes recovering while the rest of the group went ahead to see the gorillas. Since you only get 60 minutes with the gorillas, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to go and see them at all because they are really cautious to keep disease away from the gorillas. Thankfully, after a toilet break and more fluids, I was allowed to go down and stand with the group to watch the gorillas. Awesome!

It is quite dark in the forest and there are lots of vines, branches and leaves that block the view. Even though they insist that you stay 7 metres from the group, we were really quite close to the gorillas but separated from them by the branches and tree roots. It was really difficult to get a good photo because of the dim light and the branches, and I was quite handicapped by trembling hands and weak knees caused by the dehydration. Anyway, when you are paying USD500 for an hour of viewing, you have to force yourself on and you take fotos regardless!!
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At one stage of our viewing, a large female gorilla walked along the path we had made quite close to us. It just strolled by without any concern for us and the snapping of cameras. Most of the time the gorillas were just resting or grooming themselves and doing what they would normally do at 11 am on a September morning! One silverback was lying on its back picking and eating fleas from its fur while a baby sat nearby and chewed on a stick. Just before our viewing time ended, the silverback got up and started to move away. All the gorillas followed. We headed off too and as we went up a small incline I looked back and saw an adult gorilla sitting in a shaft of sunlight. Focussed through the tree branches it made a wonderful final shot.

It was awesome just to know that we were so close to such unique enormous primates and they were not afraid of us. It is a very special feeling to know that you have seen something so rare. We did not get to see a performance or a dramatic charge, but we were just 8 fortunate people in the jungle watching a group of gorillas resting in their natural habitat. Sublime!

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Once the gorilla viewing was over, the porters joined us and we had to move away. By this time I was really crook and to prove the point I made a spectacular vomit into the bushes. For the trek back to the road I had an arm around the shoulder of supported on a porter and they lifted, dragged, and pulled me over the vines and tree roots for what seemed like an eternity until we reached the vehicles. Unfortunately there is no photographic proof of this drama, but it was quite a spectacle!

Safely out of the jungle we returned to the ranger’s HQ to get our certificates and sign the guest book. I just wanted to get to bed and at last we returned to the lodge where I spent the rest of the day/night recovering. I was exhausted but thrilled that I’d seen what most people never see – gorillas in the green mist.

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By the next morning I had recovered and we packed up our memories and headed back along the dusty road to Lake Mburu National Park – a good place to break the return journey to Entebbe. Lake Mburo is the largest of 5 lakes in the area west of Kampala. As with many lakes in East Africa they say the water level is dropping, but its definitely not as severe as what we saw in Kenya. We stayed at another gorgeous tented camp (Lake Mburo Tented Camp or the Mantana Camp) and were almost the only people staying there. Again the luxury tents were well designed and sited so that you enjoyed the view without seeing other tents. Our morning cup of tea was delivered at 6.30 am but in fact we’d been up since about 4 am, woken by the sound of animals grazing near our tent. We stood for ages the back of the tent watching a group of 5 or so zebras grazing in the dim morning light before the sun eventually rose! It was a perfect moment. There’s not a whole lot of wildlife to see, but the beauty is that you don’t have to fight with other vans for the best viewing spot – it’s all yours.

Uganda really has to do more to promote itself and its tourist potential!! There’s a lot to see beyond the gorillas, and yet we saw so few tourists there. Anyway, here are a few fotos to whet your appetite…

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The final part of our Ugandan adventure came when we were driving back to Kampala. We were meant to have a tour of the city and then go to Entebbe ready for our flight to Nairobi, but then it emerged that there was trouble brewing and we would not be able to get to Kampala. Apparently the king of the Baganda (Uganda’s largest ethnic group) had stirred up trouble by announcing that he wanted to travel outside of his kingdom and the government was not going to allow him to travel. Protests erupted and there were riots in Kampala that lead to the death of 15 people. There is really only 1 main road to travel on across the country and we had to drive through the King’s heartland! We drove into Malaka township, successfully weaving past 3 roadblocks of burning tyres that had been left there by protesters. As we drove into the town centre a group of men wanted us to stop, but the driver wisely kept driving and suddenly the vehicle was pummeled  by a few rocks and bottles. Thankfully nothing was broken. At the next roadblock a group of protesters refused to let the vehicle pass and we returned to a safe spot in the town centre. The Ugandan security cleared the road about 30 minutes later and from there we drove straight to our hotel in Entebbe, using a dirt by-pass road to avoid Kampala.

20090911_uganda_safari_day5_0081 This smoke is the only picture we could take of the protests because it was all too fast and dangerous to flash a camera around!

Having your vehicle pelted with stones was a pretty freaky incident for innocent tourists who know nothing about the story that played out for 3 or 4 days in Ugandan politics, but it does show how quickly things can develop. As we kept hearing in Kenya, the political riots of their last election resulted in a dive in tourist numbers. Small incidents such as the riots in Kampala certainly do impact tourism negatively. BUT I’d still say, go to Uganda! Its a wonderful opportunity to see the gorillas as well as a beautiful country with friendly people and heaps of potential!

20090911_uganda_safari_day5_0004Sunrise at Lake Mburu.

One thought on “Uganda’s mountain gorillas

  1. Amazing photos Faye! Really spectacular. What a wonderful adventure. Thanks for sharing them. All the best as you return to work.

    J + S

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