I landed in Entebbe, Uganda and after a harrowing 40 minute drive in the dark at speeds unknown I arrived at my hotel in Kampala (the capital). What always strikes me about Africa is the complete and utter lack of personal safety precautions. Children do not sit in car seats, heck, they don't even seat belt them in rather they just flail about inside the vehicle like the rest of us. My ride from the airport was after dark and in the blackness (sans street lights) we flew down the road pretty much blind. The fact that there were copious amounts of pedestrians and bicyclists on the side of the road without lights or reflectors did not seem to slow down my or any other driver. Speed was the order of the day as was playing "chicken" with almost every vehicle we met. The fact we arrived unscathed after the ride truly amazed me!
My hotel was a local joint as all my hotels are these days. Why, you ask? I used to stay in nice American style hotels years ago when I first started traveling 14 years ago but quickly learned not only are these places terrorist bombing targets, these days, but that to get a true feeling for a country one must go local in all aspects. I usually get my info from the Lonely Planet series guidebooks as they are more geared toward the independent traveler. Although local travel can be maddening (rather frustrating and slow) at times, it is infinitely more educational in the long run and well worth the effort. And so, my first days were spent checking out Kampala. I hired boda-bodas (motorcycle taxis) to take me around town for a buck or two. Again, for a continent that likes to take it's sweet ole time in getting anything accomplished I, for the life of me, can't figure out why they all drive like a bat out of hell! I tucked my elbows and knees in as we hurled down the streets bobbing and weaving through the cars and trucks. Stoplights... what stop lights?? There are no rules on these roads!
The Owino Market was absolutely enormous. They were selling every kind of wares imaginable. I did wonder why, however, I was the only Westerner there. I couldn't help but stand out but found very quickly if I just smiled, most would smile back. With my pasty white Scandinavian skin in a sea of a thousand Ugandans I looked positively albino!
After a couple of days in the capital I set off for the reason I came to Uganda... to trek the mountain gorillas! My driver Norbert, a soft spoken, peaceful young man with a beautiful smile, picked me up in a vehicle I dubbed "The beast". A gold van that had seen better days. Alas, the beast was very good at traversing the pothole ridden roads throughout Uganda. We made our way 9 1/2 hours South West to the corner of Uganda and a small town named Kisoro. On the way we went though what's considered the Switzerland of Uganda. Some truly beautiful countryside. There were many hills with crops planted in terraces as soil erosion is a major problem in this country. As we came down the hill into Kisoro the first thing I saw were numerous tents erected by the UNHCR for all the refugees that had walked across the boarder from the DRC because of fighting. Kisoro is only a few kilometers from Rwanda and the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo). The DRC used to be known as Zaire. I'm sure you remember the Ebola outbreak. I stayed at the Traveler's Rest Hotel in Kisoro where back in the 60's, gorilla conservationist Dian Fossey used to stay. (on a side note, if you've not yet seen the 1988 film "Gorillas in the Mist" with Sigourney Weaver as Dian Fossey I would highly recommend it.) Since I was the only guest in the hotel the owner (a Dutch man) had dinner with me. He mentioned since the fighting next door had been reported in the international news most of the tourists had canceled their plans of coming to Uganda. We had a lovely meal and my driver Norbert filled me in on the next days events. I awoke early and after breakfast met Norbert for an early 2 hour drive North to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. (They don't call it Impenetrable for nothing!) At the camp I met up with the 4 other people I would be trekking with. A young American couple; she had spent a year there already in the Peace Corp and her boyfriend who had just joined her as well as an Italian couple in their 40's. Gorillas are endangered with only around 700 left in the world, about half of which are in Uganda. The other half are split between Rwanda and the DRC. As such, they only allow up to 8 people to trek each gorilla group (family) per day. Once/if you find them, they only allow you to stay for one hour. They do this so as not to stress the animals. Interestingly, gorillas have no predators, except man. I was happy there were only 5 of us as it's easier to move and take pictures with a smaller group. We hiked about 1 1/2 hours and finally caught up with the trekkers. They sent out two trekkers early in the morning to where the gorillas were seen the day before. They then trek them and radio back as to their location. Norbert had suggested I get a porter and at first I thought "Why would I need one of those?". I thought, "I'm fit, I can do it myself". I'm glad, however, I paid the $10 to get Godfrey (my porter) as not only did he carry my pack and give me a big walking stick but he helped me maneuver up and down the slippery wet lush jungle slopes. Our group consisted of the 4 other tourists, 3 porters, 2 armed guards and 1 guy with a big machete to hack through the foliage so we could follow. After reaching the trekkers they told us to leave our packs and walking sticks with our porters and have our cameras ready. Leaving Godfrey behind with my things I set off following the trekkers a short distance. They pointed they were "down there". As I looked down this huge steep hill thick with jungle so thick you couldn't see the ground not to mention the mud underneath I thought "call me crazy but isn't now when we need the walking sticks the most?" We all slid/fell down the hill and then I saw lots of foliage moving nearby.. our first gorilla! He was busy picking leaves and eating away. We were having difficulty standing upright but I got some of my best pictures from that first gorilla. We were able to get quite close, only a couple of feet away and he just sat there eating his lunch. Neither the cameras nor we the trekkers seemed to bother him.
Flash photography is strictly forbidden. Luckily it was fairly light and I got some good pics in spite of having no flash. There are all sorts of rules when one goes gorilla trekking. No pointing at them, no staring for long periods of time, no smoking or eating, no flash photography and the most important... if the silver back charges NEVER EVER run! Get down in the submissive position until he cools off!
Gorillas possess 98% of the same nuclear DNA as humans. They are usually non agressive wild animals and can live up to fifty years in the wild. They are vegetarian by nature and eat fruit, leaves, shoots and may supplement their diet with the occassional insects and small animals. They spend their waking hour on the ground but sleep in trees in nests they build themselves every night using branches and foliage. Gorillas have hair not fur. They live in a family group of 6-30 individuals led by one or two silver backs. A silver back is a mature adult male with a patch of silver (grey) hair on his back. The hair begins to turn silver around age 14 or 15. The male weighs between 300 - 485 pounds and eats up to 40 pounds of food a day. The females are slightly smaller. Both have arms that are 20% longer than their legs and they walk by using all four limbs.
We stood in amazement as we were able to see more of the family. In total we saw 6 gorillas. Two silver backs, a small baby, a bigger baby and two females. At one point I was standing in a stream to get some pictures and watched in amazement at how similar they act to humans. One silver back was on the other side of the stream and he was just sitting there with his head proped up on his fist as if he were deep in thought just like Rodin's "the thinker".
After an awe inspiring hour we had to head back. We left the family and went up another way as the hill we came down was simply to difficult to get back up. On the way up the guy with the machette was frantically hacking away and we suprised another silver back not part of the family we had visited. He let out a blood curteling scream because we had surprised him and the guy with the machette took the submissive position. After the gorilla cooled off he went on his way. We made it back to the vehicles and off I went back to the Travelers Rest Hotel. I dined with the owner again and left the next day for the long drive back to Kampala. Norbert and I stopped at many fruit and vegetable stands on the way back and I was impressed at how huge and delicious their avacados were. After a few more days in Kampala, I headed back home. Being an animal lover this definitely now ranks among the top of my list for favourite trips. There really is nothing quite like it!