Uganda: Kabale, Lake Bunyonyi, Bwindi National Park
Uganda makes a great first impression. The climate is pleasant and the countryside a patchwork of various shades of green – from light, almost translucent emerald fields, to dark, bottle green forest. Most importantly, the people are incredibly welcoming and friendly. So we were already in good spirits as we made our way west on the main road from the Tanzanian border towards Lake Bunyonyi in the extreme southwest.
Although mostly in very good condition, Uganda’s roads are frequently the subject of road works, and also terrorised by some of the most suicidal drivers we have encountered. This one was no exception. Having been gnawed at on both sides by the equatorial rains, the tarmac was reduced to a jagged strip one lane wide, along which kamikaze motorists jousted with headlights flashing.
Predictably, priority on the road is dictated by the size of the vehicle – trucks thunder along on an unerring trajectory, while lesser beings scatter before them. This survival of the fattest took some getting used to though – while Tonka should at least have ranked above the tuk-tuks and two-wheel drives, we often found ourselves chased off the road by these smaller prey.
Lake Bunyonyi is located on the doorstep of one of the very few places in the world where you can see mountain gorillas in the wild. The entire population of these gentle giants is scattered over only a few hundred square kilometres of dense forest where the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC meet. Our base for visiting them was *Bunyonyi Overland Camp* occupying an excellent location right on the shore of Lake Bunyonyi, and guarded by a friendly but disconcertingly cross-eyed policeman with the now familiar AK-47.
The only home of the gorillas in Uganda is the “Impenetrable Forest” in Bwindi National Park. Our pre-dawn drive there revealed two possible explanations for this forest’s name. Firstly, the dense mist which seems to shroud it from sight much of the time and secondly, the near impossibility of finding anyone who can give you directions to find it. Finally overcoming the latter of those issues, we were treated to a stunning view as we drove up the mountainside towards the south park entrance at Rushonga. The forest clad peaks of the surrounding mountains protruded through the mist, seeming like islands in the sky, as the sun rose behind them.
The starting point of our trek was the ranger station at Nshongi. Here we signed in and had a quick briefing – flash photography is understandably prohibited as are any visitors with infectious illnesses. Being 98% genetically similar to humans, gorillas are susceptible to most of the health problems that we are. And then we set off, accompanied by a guide and an armed soldier – while gorillas are generally harmless, guerrillas from the DRC only 3km away are not…
We were tracking the “Rweza” group which consists of 7 members, including one silverback and one very pregnant female. There are only 700 mountain gorillas left in the wild, and their long term survival hangs in the balance. Their mountain habitat is surrounded by some of the most densely populated countries in Africa, and deforestation, disease and poaching have all historically taken their toll. The need for preservation is the park's justification for the eye-wateringly high fees for visiting these creatures. At $500 per person per hour spent with them, John pointed out that these chaps charge out at more than most lawyers. But they are also probably more intelligent than some lawyers too. “Fortunately” contact with them is strictly limited to 1 hour per day, to avoid them becoming too habituated to humans. And it is worth every penny. (Particularly as we benefited from a temporary reduction in price to $350pp.)
From the moment we first encountered them, nonchalantly munching on leaves and sucking sweet sap from tree trunks, to the minute we had to say goodbye, we had a pressing sense of being in the presence of very special animals. Able to observe them from only 3 metres away, we felt mesmerised by their facial expressions and their dexterity in carefully picking leaves and bark from the trees. Unlike most animals, their eyes are deeply expressive and their capacity for empathy and emotion is vast. The smooth, tightly folded skin of their hands is also striking, as are the perfect oval nails in which each finger terminates. These hands, attached to such awesome strength, are very rarely used in anger and we only saw them moving delicately over one another and their surroundings.
The leader of this group is a massive 42 year old silverback. He weighs in at nearly 500 pounds, and apparently has the upper body strength of an entire rugby team. He was also very disinterested in us and clearly saw John as no threat to his dominance. Lying on his back, and occasionally lifting his head in between bouts of extreme flatulence, he looked every bit the self-assured head of the household.
All too soon our hour was up and it was time for the 2 hour trek back to the park entrance. We slipped and stumbled through the dense cloud forest, following a steep trail between twisted trees from which delicate orchids and vines clung. This was one of those days that neither words nor photos can really do justice to. It was an enchanting experience and one that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.