Seeing gorillas made everything OK

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February 12th 2009
Published: February 17th 2009
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Uganda travels

My first glimpse of mountain gorillas at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park made the high prices and the journey to get here so worthwhile.

I’d left Masaka a week earlier by Post Bus, having failed (twice) to see Shoebills. The Post Buses literally carry post and passengers between post offices along a route. Unusually, or so I was told, the bus I was waiting for was over 2 hours late due to a breakdown. The time was filled by a Ugandan woman occasionally striking up conversation with me: it’s not the first time in my life that I have been asked, “Are you saved?” but I think it is the first time I’ve been asked, “To what tribe do you belong?”

I had thought that I would stay for a couple of days in Kabale, but the Home of Edirisa Hotel only had a bed for one night anyway, so, being slightly paranoid about missing my slot for gorilla tracking, I decided to head straight to Bwindi. I’d read that pick-ups go from Kabale to Butagota (17km from Buhoma, the gate of the National Park) on Fridays and Tuesdays, so decided that it would make traveling easier as it was indeed a Friday. When the pick-up picked me up (!) the driver offered me the front seat, in the cab. As this would have meant one of the two Ugandans already sitting there having to move, I declined the offer and clambered in the back.

At first, I was reasonably comfortable on a seat that some guys had fashioned out of tarpaulin for me. Then, each stop resulted in more goods/luggage and people in the back. At one point there were 20 of us, sitting on various boxes, bags and sacks. To give more room, those of us along the sides were told to turn around, so that out legs were hanging outside the vehicle. I did not feel safe. After 5 minutes the truck stopped, and I was told to put my legs inside - I obviously didn’t look safe either. Sacks of potatoes are not comfortable! After five and a half hours, covered in dust, and with a series of bruises from the rail, we arrived in Buhoma and I half fell out of the pick-up at the door of Buhoma Community Camp where I had decided to stay (profits from the camps are used to support the local community). As I was going to be staying for 6 nights, I opted to stay in the dormitory.

Being at Bwindi for several days before my date with gorillas helped to build anticipation - each morning I would see people leave for their trek and return with huge grins. It was, however, nice spending more time than most at the NP - I went on several guided walks and the Village Walk.

The day arrived! I could barely eat breakfast before heading to the Ugandan Wildlife Authority office to register and to have a briefing. I really, really wanted to cough at the time when the guide was explaining how important it is for the survival of the mountain gorillas, to be in good health. The eight people in our group headed off. For around 40 minutes we scrambled up a very steep, densely forested hill. I was grateful that I had taken the advice of those I had spoken to on previous days, and hired a porter. Then ...

We were told to have a last drink of water, leave our bags and get our cameras ready!

Mountain gorillas are much more agile than I imagined. When we first saw them, they were in the trees - even the huge silverback male! They were not worried by our presence and the adolescents even seemed to be showing off, playing rough-and-tumble games - one making a path right through the group of watching humans. They continued to move downhill. We followed, with a lot less agility.

After the alloted hour, we left them and returned to base to mull over the experience and receive a certificate. This is one of the greatest experiences I have ever had.

An unexpected bonus of the gorilla tracking, was that one of the other people in the group was there with a hired car and driver and happened to be going to Kasese, which was where I was heading. She very kindly, agreed top give me a lift. Even better ... she wanted to stop off in Queen Elizabeth National Park en route to see hippos and lions.

Additional photos below
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Just across the hippo river is the DRC.

17th February 2009

Nice blog, the wildlife there looks amazing!

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