Alongside Rwanda and DR Congo, Uganda is fairly well known amongst travellers in Africa as one of the few locations where it is possible to track groups of mountain gorillas in the wild. While visiting my mum in Kenya, we jumped across to Uganda for a few days, so we could hopefully realise her wish to see these animals in the wild. I was also pretty keen for it.
We arrived in Kampala, after a surprisingly short flight from Nairobi… So short, that the drive from the airport to the backpackers took longer. The alternative bus trip to Kampala would have taken all night, opposed to 45 minutes. The next morning, we stopped in at the Uganda Wildlife Authority, to pick up our gorilla tracking permits. At $500US a pop, these things are reserved for the serious. There’s also only 48 permits a day (8 permits for each of the 6 families which are regularly tracked), so demand can be high.
Can be high. After purchasing a packed lunch of rice and beans, Deb and I crammed onto an old, hot bus, for an 11:30am departure. In the heat of the sun, the plastic covered bench seats combined with the already full bus to kick the heat up a notch. For the next hour, we took turns to climb over the luggage, boxes, and small children in the aisle, to step outside for a few minutes of comparatively cool, fresh air. When the time came for us to depart, the bus was nice and full, and we were sharing our seat with a brother and sister combo at boarding school in Kampala. For 8 sweaty hours, we started and stopped at numerous towns, villages, and craftily erected food vendor stalls, where the bus windows were continually bombarded with the common foodwares of that stop. Roasted bananas were the order of the day at one stop, followed by an armada of ‘bag-o-nuts’ sellers at the next, rounded out by gangs of kebab sellers, clutching a handful of bamboo sticks, with precharred meats, in each hand, sprinting towards each bus, car, or van that pulled up. Sweaty, smelly, tired, and still reeling in the smellshock after one man raised his arms to forcefully coerce his luggage from the overhead racks, we arrived in Kabale under the cover of night. Kabale is, in short, a sleepy little town, which it seems would be unheard of, if it wasn’t for the nearby gorillas. Spent the night at The Home of Edirisa, a surprisingly nice hostel set up around a museum (FYI: The All-American Cheeseburger is a 1 inch thick meat patty, between two slices of bread), then carried on at 5:30am the next morning (not fun) to get up the hill. The only option for us to get up to the NP was via special (private) taxi, which ran a solid 100,000UGS ($40US) for the return trip plus waiting time.
Demand for the permits can be high. Evidently not this day. Aside from the park rangers, and a Ugandan ecologist with possibly the best research project ever, Deb and I were the only people to be visiting any gorillas. During our briefing for the trek, our ranger/guide, Obed, informed us that if could take anywhere from 30 minutes to 5 hours of hiking the steep mountains to locate the gorilla family, and as a result we should be prepared with: 2L of water per person (we had 1L each); packed lunch (a 100g bag of peanuts, and a muffin each, purchased on yesterday’s bus); long socks, to tuck our pants into, to avoid leaches (nice one mum, wear ankle socks), and since rainforest weather is so unpredictable; wet weather gear (at least I had a rainjacket, mum. Way to not be prepared, jeez); and warm clothing (seriously mum, a long-sleeve shirt?). While our briefing was being conducted, a scouting pair of rangers moved out, to make progress on locating the gorilla family we were to hopefully meet, and our party would move toward the location that the gorillas were found to be.
Obed was joined by another ranger, armed with an AK-47, and then, them in their gumboots, us in our hiking boots, we departed. First impressions, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is called that for a reason. It’s DAMN steep. And in places, the undergrowth is very VERY thick. The walking sticks came in handy, although it took Deb a while to figure out an effective way to use hers (Sorry mum, I don’t mean to pick on you so much). But after maybe 30 minutes, we stumbled across the family. Not exactly the mammoth hike I was expecting, but I’m not complaining at all! We spent the next hour sitting alongside the gorillas, watching the adolescents play with the infants, beating their chests and slapping the ground, while the big silverback chilled at the base of a tree, letting a little growl sneak out his lips every now and then (apparently to warn the group not to stray too far), and while the mother looked after her 4 month old baby.
We were told, back at the base, to keep a maximum distance of 7m from the gorillas at all times. But they didn’t seem to get the memo. First, the young feller we first saw, sneaks up behind us while we are checking out the 220+kg silverback, and comes on down to suss us out (Effectively, we were surrounded by animals who could rip our arms off just by shaking hands). The rangers ordered a strategic retreat of a couple of metres right, moving closer to the silverback, but positioning the blackback to our side, rather than behind us. Next, a young female gorilla, sitting about 5 metres in front of me, decides she wants to play, and creeps up closer and closer to me. I’m sitting there, wondering what the @#$* I’m supposed to do, as this 200kg gorilla keeps approaching me, to ‘play’. I’m seriously considering reaching out to touch her at the point when she is 1 metre from me and still coming, slowly, when the ranger suggests I back up slowly. Probably the better option. After that, we have about 30 minutes of peace, to sit, and watch these beautiful creatures in their environment.
Watching the silverback keeping an eye on his gang, while the mother clutches her baby close, and the adolescent gorillas play wrestle the infants, I’m struck by how similar they really are to use, in their actions, and the emotions you can see in them. Sitting in the presence of these deceivingly beautiful, yet strong, primates, I’m struck by the urge to play with them, or hug them, or at least come back and study them, so I can spend more time around them. Realistically, I know that studying them would be the only option that wouldn’t involve me either going broke or losing a limb or two. But, it probably won’t happen (I’ll find something else to distract myself with, no doubt), and if it doesn’t, I know that this time I spent with the gorillas was one of the most amazing moments of my life, and hopefully Deb felt the same way.
At the end of the hour, we start the climb out, followed for 100m by the same young blackback who we first encountered, and who made the first attempt to play with us. He follows us up the hill, walking between rangers and each of us. Finally, after playfully grabbing one of the rangers legs, he is satisfied, and sees us off. His name: Kukaribisha, Swahili for welcoming.