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Published: January 3rd 2009
A belated Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all of our readers!
As we are quickly realising, Uganda is a fantastic country, full of things to see and friendly people. However, for most tourists it has one main draw-card, that of being home to more than half of the world’s 700 remaining Mountain Gorillas. The Ugandan Wildlife Authority have cottoned on to the fact that the chance to see such rare and fascinating creatures is extremely appealing to tourists. To their credit, gorilla tourism seems to be run in an sustainable way and the gorillas are certainly not exploited, with each day only eight people allowed to visit each of the four groups for one hour. Inevitably, the demand for permits to visit the gorillas far out-strips supply, which in turn leads to very high prices. In fact, for the cost, you would be well within your rights to expect to keep a gorilla at the end of your trip!
Despite the high costs, visiting the Mountain Gorillas in either Uganda or Rwanda seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity and was one of the few things we identified as wanting to do before we left
home. However, organising it from the UK would have involved committing ourselves to being in a certain place on a particular date and would have cost us both arms and both legs! Therefore, we decided to take our chances and try and organise something when we arrived. Fortunately when in Kampala we managed to secure permits for Christmas Eve, for the cost of only one arm and one leg!
The permits we got were to visit a group of gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, in the far South West of the country, during our stay in the area we were based in the small town of Kisoro. Kisoro lies only a few kilometres from the borders with Rwanda and, more disturbingly, Congo (as the locals do, we deliberately drop the DR as it isn’t really a Republic and it certainly isn’t Democratic). Our journey to Kisoro involved a long bus journey from Kampala, punctuated by the obligatory 3 hour breakdown and followed by a hair-raising 80km taxi ride in the dark, down one of the dustiest roads we have ever seen. On entering the town we were slightly concerned to see a United Nation Reception Centre, but in
the cold light of day we relieved to find a bustling little town , very much carrying on business as usual, despite the troubles over the border. We saw very few tourists during our stay and we certainly provided a novelty for the locals, as white people not wearing either a blue helmet or a red cross. Sadly their tourist trade seems to have suffered badly due to their proximity to Congo, despite our experience and the advice of the FCO suggesting it is completely safe.
Having taken the wise precaution of arriving a few days before we were due to go gorilla tracking, as we feared wasting our permits due to a transport mishap, we had time to see some of the area. The day before seeing the gorillas we warmed up by going Golden Monkey tracking. Although very much a poor man’s gorilla tracking, we had an enjoyable time watching these rare monkeys leaping around above our heads. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, their dense bamboo forest habitat is the stuff of photographic nightmares and they were virtually impossible to capture on camera.
Someone wise probably once said something along the lines of things being more
rewarding if they are hard to achieve; this is certainly true of gorilla tracking. Getting to the National Park involved a bumpy 1.5 hour taxi ride from Kisoro and then it was a further 2 hour hike down a steep ridge to where the gorillas were that day. Our group consisted of five tourists, a guide, two trackers, a number of porters and couple of armed guards (we were assured these were to protect us from gorillas rather than guerrillas!)
We were fortunate enough to find the gorillas located close to edge of the Impenetrable Forest, as the small distance we did have to penetrate was facilitated by machete hacking and the, relatively speaking, sparse vegetation made them infinitely more photographable than the Golden Monkeys. Spending an hour observing these amazing creatures at little more than a gorilla’s arm’s length, was a truly magical experience that words and even our, very pleasing, pictures cannot do justice to (no matter how many we upload!) Suffice to say it was worth every cent of the seemingly exorbitant fee and is an experience we will never forget. The trek back up the ridge was understandably harder than the decent. Although far from
a walk in the park we were pleased to be fit enough to cope, more than can be said for one of our fellow tourists, who needed to be carried out by porters!
Given that there were little in the way of traditional festivities to partake in, on Christmas Day, we took the decision to hike up a nearby volcano, the summit of which represents the point where the borders of the three countries meet. It was arduous 5 hour hike up the three peaks of Mount Sabinyo, with the accent to the final peak (3669m) being solely on extremely precarious wooden ladders. Sadly the views were largely obscured by cloud and as we sat at the summit eating our modest packed lunch (a world away from a traditional Christmas dinner!) we heard the first claps of thunder. We descended as quickly as we could, which wasn’t particularly speedy down slippery wooden rungs and we were quickly drenched by a hail storm. Our decent was further slowed as the paths quickly turned to rivers of mud. After another 5 hours we made it down, soaked, but satisfied to be able to add Rwanda and the Congo to our list
of countries visited!
All in all, we have had a great few days and although far from conventional, a Christmas to remember!
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