Uganda: Gorillas In Our Midst

Apr 1, 2007
2007 / April 2007

The path has served its purpose. We have walked alongside for an hour, mostly uphill, sometimes through mud and over log bridges. Now our guide gathers us together.

“This is the way,” he says, pointing into a dense clutter of trees and undergrowth. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. It earns its name.

The trackers employ their pangas — formidably long knives — to hack a makeshift route through the wall of vegetation. We follow single file, worming our way between indelicate branches, often stumbling and sliding on the uneven terrain. There are seven of us, accompanied by our guide, trackers and half-a-dozen porters. There is no fixed time limit for this expedition within the Ugandan rainforest. It could take a couple of hours or it could take all day.

Twenty minutes after turning off the path, we halt again, huffing from the effort. “We are very close,” says the guide. “Take out your cameras.” My porter, a local villager named Penelope, brings me my rucksack. I steal a swig of water, then ready my camera.

We sidle down a slope to a fresh clearing. It looks as though a tank has recently trundled through, leaving a trail of broken trees and mangled bushes. We walk on a spongy mat of felled foliage. The guide holds up his hand. We halt. He points ahead. There, 25 feet away, is a female gorilla cradling an infant.

We have found the Rushegura Group, one of three gorilla groups in Bwindi that have been socialized to accept daily visits from tourists. During the next half-hour (the maximum time we are permitted to spend with them), we follow this group of 13 animals as they progress down the hillside, destructively feeding as they go.

Nothing could prepare us for this. We feel like honorary members of the group. They accept us. Three adolescent gorillas tumble around us, playing, occasionally rolling close enough to touch (though we resist the urge — it is strictly against the rules). In the background, the massive, 450-pound silverback keeps a proprietary eye on his family.

If we overstep the mark or outstay our welcome, there is a chance that the silverback will charge. Should that happen, our instructions — easier said than done — are to stand our ground and look him in the eye as he hurtles towards us. But this group is now so used to human companionship that charges are rare. Our thrilling visit passes without incident. When our time is up, we reluctantly back away and begin the descent to our tented camp at Buhoma.

Gorilla-watching encapsulates the overall experience of a visit to the East African country of Uganda. The going is often uncomfortable, and occasionally downright tough, but the rewards are immense.

On our first day, we left the capital, Kampala, for a full day of driving, heading northwest. Along the way, we stopped at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, the focal point for efforts to reintroduce the white rhinoceros to Uganda, two decades after the species was illegally hunted into extinction. There are currently six animals in the sanctuary, including two brought in from Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida.

We walk across a soggy floodplain to find four of them — two-thirds of the country’s entire rhino population — dozing in the shade of a tree. The armed rangers take us to within a hundred feet, explaining that when Ziwa’s rhino population grows large enough some of the animals will be moved to other parks in Uganda; parks like the Murchison Falls National Park, which we reach late in the afternoon.

We are stiff and battered from the journey, the last portion of which had been on a rutted dirt road. At dusk we visit the falls that give the park its name. Here the River Nile is channeled through two narrow gorges. The falls are not as tall or as wide as, say, Niagara, but the sheer force of the water as it tumultuously powers between the rocks is absolutely stunning. From the viewpoint at the top, we are bombarded with noise, vibration, and billows of spray.

The following day we voyage by bo at along the Nile, skirting crocodiles and wallowing hippo herds. Eventually we reach a tranquil cove near the bottom of the falls (it was here that Ernest Hemingway famously crashlanded a Cessna in 1954) and tether the boat to a tree on the bank. We spend the next hour fishing, first for 8-inch-long fish to use as live bait, then for the aggressive Nile perch, which can weigh more than 400 pounds — as much as an adult gorilla. The perch are not biting today. With the light fading, we hook a large catfish instead, though it thrashes itself free when we get it alongside the boat. A hippo surfaces nearby to investigate the commotion.

Away from the Nile, we spend time driving around Murchison Falls National Park, which once teemed with wildlife. Numbers were decimated by poaching during Idi Amin’s tyrannical regime in the 1970s, but are now gradually recovering. We see a lion pride, several elephants, and large herds of buffalo, giraffe and antelope. From here, we fly south in a twin-engine Piper toward our next intriguing destination. From 8,000 feet above, we gain a bird’s-eye view of this beautiful country, which Winston Churchill dubbed the “Pearl of Africa.” Sadly, since independence from Britain in 1962, Uganda has suffered dictatorial rule, civil war and AIDS. The tourism industry is consequently far less developed here than in Kenya or South Africa; this is Africa in the raw.

Flying provides welcome relief from the challenging roads. Our course takes us over the expanse of Lake Albert, and then between lakes George and Edward. Large as these lakes are, they are dwarfed by Lake Victoria, which dominates southeastern Uganda. No visit to Uganda is complete without an excursion on Lake Victoria.

Following a grueling 11-hour drive back to Kampala from Bwindi, and a night of comfort at the five-star Serena Hotel, we take to the water by speedboat, heading for the Ssese Islands. One of these islands, Ngamba, has been turned into a sanctuary for rescued chimpanzees. We arrive at feeding time, and watch the troop squabble over bananas. The chimps are endlessly fascinating, but we can’t help recalling our special time with the gorillas in the wilderness. In contrast to those gentle giants, these apes tend to be fractious, and we must view them from behind the safety of an electric fence.

After Ngamba, we cross to Bulago Island (http://www.islandinthesun.biz), which has been transformed into an infectiously relaxed resort by a former English television journalist, Tim Cooper. After dark, we sit around a blazing fire on the beach. The equatorial stars shimmer above us. It is a perfect African evening.

The culmination of our trip to Uganda is a visit to Jinja, which lies on the shore of Lake Victoria and about an hour’s drive (in good traffic) from Kampala. The town has three claims to fame. First, it is here that the Nile flows out of the great lake, the very start of its long journey to Egypt and the Mediterranean. Second, this is the home of Nile Breweries, which produces Nile Special, the excellent beer that has quenched our thirst after long days on the road. Third, Jinja is known as the adventure capital of Uganda.

We have a catalogue of options available to us. There are quad biking safaris, mountain-bike trails, bungee jumping from a platform 140 feet above the river, kayaking, and full-day whitewater rafting trips. I opt for a two-hour horseback safari led by New Zealander Natalie McComb from her idyllic stables overlooking the Nile. My mount is a retired thoroughbred racehorse imported from Kenya. We ride through a succession of mud-hut villages, and soon acquire an entourage of local children, who excitedly follow behind us on foot, chattering in English and Swahili.

The ride culminates with a steep descent down to the shore of the river. I lean back as far as possible, bracing myself in the stirrups as my trusty horse negotiates the slope. From down on the bank, we watch and wave as several inflatable boats full of rafters approach a fearsome stretch of rapids. The first two boats flip as soon as they hit the torrent, tossing their occupants into the violent water. We wait until we have counted them all safely back in, then return up the slope, pleased that we have chosen horses over rafts.

That evening, saddle-sore from the morning’s ride, I gingerly ease myself into my seat for the long flight home from Africa. Yet I have no complaints about the discomfort. I have enjoyed every minute of my 10 days in Uganda. This wonderful country continues to provide something that many other destination s have lost: a genuine sense of adventure.


INFO TO GO

For a full overview of where to go and what to see, visit Tourism Uganda (http://www.visituganda.com). To view the gorillas you will need a permit and only 18 permits are issued per day for Bwindi. The cost is $375 (the money helps to fund gorilla conservation projects). You can apply for your permit through the Uganda Wildlife Authority in Kampala (http://www.uwa.or.ug) or join an organized tour, which will tackle the paperwork on your behalf. A two-hour cross-country horse ride at Jinja costs $46 with Nile Horseback Safaris (http://www.nilehorsebacksafaris.com). A full day whitewater rafting trip costs $95 with Adrift (http://www.surfthesource.com).

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