Published: July 14th 2009June 3rd 2009
Sadly, my best shot
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is only 14km from Kisoro but the prices I'm quoted for transport there and back suggest it's more like four times that distance. I'm told that the road is "very bad". I find this hard to believe - though the Mgahinga mountain gorillas are currently in DRC, this is still one of only four places in the world where you can (sometimes) see these creatures. And one rule of Africa so far seems to be that governments will spend lavishly on tourist infrastructure even while ignoring the needs of local people. I grudgingly hand over the money, fully expecting it to be a rip-off.
My driver knows that I need to be at the park early in the morning so as to meet my guide for golden monkey tracking, so I'm less than impressed when he arrives at the hotel 25 minutes late. I'd paid him the night before so that he could buy fuel but he hasn't done that either so we waste more time visiting a filling station.
I then find that the road to the park is significantly worse than I was expecting. In some parts it more resembles a ploughed field.
Flowers and Mt Muhuvura
Amajyambere Iwacu Community Camp
It's certainly a dangerous obstacle course for the low-clearance Toyota saloon we're in, and there is much scraping and grinding of the underside on various large rocks. It takes us 45 minutes to reach the park.
I've opted to stay a couple of nights at a camp next to the entrance, to avoid a second transport stinging if I fancy climbing one of the volcanos the next day. A ranger drops by to tell me the golden monkey tracking won't be starting until an hour after the time I'd originally been given, so I'm able to settle in to my banda. Again, I'm the only guest.
I head to the park's visitor centre at the appointed time. As mentioned in my Kisoro blog, I've decided that seeing the gorillas would be too expensive a luxury (and would have had to occur elsewhere anyway), but the golden monkeys are more financially appealing at just $50. They too are endangered, though there are 5,000 of them left in three pockets in the region. My guide Kenneth explains that we will be visiting the human-habituated Kashingye group consisting of 41 individuals. We are joined by a gun-toting guard, necessary to protect
Some kind of sunbird
Amajyambere Iwacu Community Camp
against any forest elephants or buffalo we might encounter.
The trail is fairly undemanding but, when the sun emerges, we are soon all sweating. Kenneth's speciality is actually birding, and he's excited when we spot two rare birds early on - a dusky turtle dove and a dusky crimson wing. We also see an extremely large worm that's clearly in training for "Tremors 5".
The trail leads up the approach to one of the volcanos but, on reaching the bamboo forest, we are met by a tracker armed with a machete. He leads us off the track and into the forest, and we snake between the closely-packed stems, eventually reaching two more trackers with guns. Like with the gorillas, you are only allowed one hour with the golden monkeys. Sadly, though, this turns out to be the least productive primate-viewing experience I've ever done. The monkeys have no need to come to the ground, so most of their time is spent high up in the canopy. The bamboo vegetation is so thick that it's hard enough getting just a glimpse of one, let alone a clear sighting or photo opportunity. The bits I do see would suggest that
Amajyambere Iwacu Community Camp
they are beautiful creatures, but I spend an hour stumbling through the undergrowth, neck craned in expectation. Even the guide knows it's not been a great experience, as he tacks an extra twenty minutes onto the allotted hour. Lake Nkuruba definitely wins the title of Best Monkey Spot on this trip - and that cost nothing.
The whole group of us descends together - one tourist, one guide, a guy with a machete, and three guys with guns. In total, I've had five hours of tramping around. The golden monkeys didn't put on quite the show I was hoping for, but the landscape was certainly spectacular.
The camp is relaxing, and the following day I do nothing but read, despite the library surely being the only one in Africa in which 90% of the books are in Swedish. A crackling fire keeps the cold at bay once the sun has set, but the absence of electricity and guests means I retire before 9PM. The sunrises are red, smudged affairs and the colourful flowers in the garden attract a selection of birds.
On the way back to Kisoro, I accede to the driver's request to give some locals
With Kenneth's hand for comparison
a lift - this turns out to mean three women, two kids, and one guy all stuffed into the back seat. This extra weight is perhaps not such a great idea, as we literally grind to a halt in the first rough section of road. There appears to be a problem with the fuel line, and a passing boy is despatched to the nearest village to find some pliers, for which he is paid fifty cents. The driver tinkers, we try to push-start the car, he tinkers some more. Passers-by decided to sit at the roadside and watch what presumably is the most exciting thing they're going to see today. More tinkering, more push-starts, apparent astonishment that the mzungu
is willing to lift a finger to help. 45 minutes later, the engine reluctantly starts, and we make it back to Kisoro without further incident. Dull but possibly useful info
i. I took a (special hire) taxi to the park from Kisoro, which cost USh60,000 for a return journey (the return can be at some unspecified point in the future). A 4WD taxi will cost USh80,000 for a return but might be a better option if you have a schedule
to keep to. It took 45 minutes to get to the park.
ii. The UWA office had said that to walk to the park would be difficult because of it being mainly uphill. It seemed pretty much level to me apart from a bit of uphill at the end.
iii. I stayed at the Amajyambere Iwacu Community Camp, paying USh30,000 for a twin room with "en suite", i.e. an outdoor loo. There was no shower at all but you could request buckets of hot (or cold) water. You can book this via the Uganda Wildlife Association (UWA) office in Kisoro. Your eating options are pretty much exclusively to eat at the Camp - the food is good but the preparation takes time so order well in advance.
iv. Golden monkey tracking cost $50 ($30 for park entrance, $20 for the actual tracking). It lasted for about 5 hours in total, though in theory you should only have 1 hour with the actual monkeys. I tipped the guide 10% (of the tracking cost). As with any animal watching, there's a large element of luck as to whether you have a worthwhile experience or not.
v. One of the camp staff, Charles,
will now have left to run his own campsite near Kibale. He's charging USh10,000 per person to camp, including breakfast and laundry. He was extremely helpful so perhaps his camp might be worth checking out if you're going to be in Kibale and have a tent. The address is:
Lubega's Camping Site, next to Kanyanchu Visitor Centre, Cabakwerere Village, Bigodi, PO Box 733, Fort Portal
and the phone number is 0777295627. There is a sign post on the Fort Portal-Kamwenge Rd south after Kibale Primate Lodge - the camp is 30 minutes walk south from here, and 10 minutes walk north from Nkingo Safari Hotel.
There are more photos below