Muzungu in the Mist


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Africa » Uganda
November 15th 2011
Published: November 16th 2011
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I was sliding down the steep, muddy hill, trying my best to avoid getting snarled in the thorn trees and vines. I was also trying not to lose control and go barreling into the seven Turks who were also making the descent.* The day was, unusually, bright and sunny. No mist, no fog. The contrast between the blue sky and the dark shadows of the foliage checkerboarded the landscape.

In front of our group, three trackers moved slowly through the dense vegetation. A scout with an impressive looking gun – to scare off forest elephants, we were told - took up the rear.

And then our little expeditionary force halted abruptly. The trackers pointed down the slope, motioning us to be silent. Just feet away from us, resting with his back against a tree, munching away on handfuls of leaves, sat a gorilla.

A real live gorilla. In the wild. So close I could have reached out and touched him.

***

Uganda doesn’t get a lot of great press. Many still associate it with the brutal period of Idi Amin’s rule (immortalized in “The Last King of Scotland”). Others might think of the horrendous acts of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group infamous for snatching young boys and making them serve as soldiers. Indeed, the LRA is back in the news because Obama has sent US troops to help rout this group that many define as a terrorist organization. Then there have been the Ugandan government’s attempts to pass some of the world's most virulent anti-homosexuality legislation, attempts that have been decried by many other governments and human rights organizations.

So Uganda might not seem like the most logical place for a holiday. But the bad press and the negative images that it can conjure belie the fact that Uganda is not only a fantastically beautiful country but also one filled with some of the kindest, most welcoming people I have met in my travels. Within hours of arrival, I found myself thinking: “This could turn out to be my favorite African country so far!”

***
I began my whirlwind tour of Uganda in Entebbe, home of the country's only international airport (which, by they way, was surprisingly easy to navigate – I was in and out in ten minutes tops, including getting my visa). It also happens to be located on the shores of Lake Victoria, source of the White Nile. I am not sure I could have found a better spot to begin my Ugandan adventures. I sat at a quiet beach restaurant, eating grilled tilapia caught fresh out of the lake and watching kingfishers and cormorants dive into the calm waters.

But the main reason I had come to Uganda was to track gorillas. So less than 24 hours after I landed, I was cramming into an early, early morning long haul bus to the country’s southwest corner. I shared a row of three seats with my new travel companions, a South African consultant and an American teacher who had recently finished a Fulbright in South Africa – seats made for beanpole people, I believe.

Just before we pulled out, we watched a car nosedive into an enormous pothole directly in front of the bus. The back wheels dangled high in the air. We hoped this wasn’t a sign of things to come on the Ugandan roads…**

During the eight-hour bus ride – and the two-hour “taxi” ride that followed – the varied landscapes of Uganda unfolded around us. I marveled at how verdantly green the country is. Perhaps living in a desert country makes you notice such things more acutely! And as we went further south, the greener and more dramatic the scenery became. By the time we reached Kisoro, our starting point for the trek, we were seeing the great cones of volcanoes rising into the sky.

We began the trek on Sunday, meeting our guide Richard – I swear every other Ugandan we met was named Richard (the others tended to be named Robert or Innocent!) – at the guesthouse. The first stage of the trek took as through the fields and villages surrounding Kisoro. We wound our way into the hills, passing exuberant children calling out “Muzungu! Muzungu! (White Person! White Person!) Hello! Hello!” The adults smiled and wished us good morning. Refreshingly, no one seemed to want anything from us but a smile and “hello” in return.

Two hours into the hike, we arrived at the shore of Lake Mutanda, where a set of dugout canoes awaited to transport us to the other side. The waters were glassy smooth, the sky pregnant with rain clouds; not a soul stirred on the lake or its shores. I felt like we were the only people in the world as we slipped quietly across the surface.

The rains that had mercifully held off during our canoe journey started to fall as soon as we set ashore. By the time we reached the top of the next hill, the sky had opened up. Luckily, we had arrived at another village, one with a school. One of the teachers came running out to open a classroom for us, so that we could dry out and have our lunches. As two of the three of us were teachers, we found the setting a wonderful peek into village life in Uganda. We shook our heads as the teacher told us that 35 kids normally crowded into that little space.

Our final stop, and our “home” for the next three nights, was the village of Nkuringo, strung along the top of a narrow ridge that provided heartachingly beautiful vistas in all directions. The full range of the Virunga volcanoes, stretching along the borders of Uganda, Rwanda, and the DRC, loomed in the distance. The dark tangle of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest blanketed the hills in the other direction. Steeply graded fields of Irish potatoes and yams cascaded away from Nkuringo itself. As I drank in these views from the lodge, my excitement grew: somewhere out in all that beauty were the gorillas.

***
It’s not like I’d never seen gorillas. I’ve been to zoos which had gorilla exhibits, even ones where I was able to get pretty close to them. But there was always a barrier of some sort. A glass wall, a trench, etc.

But to stumble on a family of gorillas in the wild, with nothing between you and them but a couple flimsy plants, is nothing short of awe-inspiring. The Nkuringo group was so habituated to human presence that they were completely unperturbed by the clutch of their strange human cousins sitting in their midst, snapping photos. At several points, a 220kg silverback lumbered through the underbrush within inches of my crouching self. He could have laid me out flat with a simple swipe of his leathery palm. But instead he focused on moving the young males and the mothers with their young ones from feeding spot to feeding spot. I held my breath for an hour, it seemed.

While an expensive endeavor (the permit costs $500 - and the price is going up), that hour with the gorillas, somewhere in the transitional forest on the edge of Bwindi Impenetrable, was worth every cent.

***
As if to mark the occasion of my first wild gorilla tracking experience, one of the Virunga volcanoes, Mount Nyamulagira, just across the border in DR Congo chose the moment of our visit to erupt. At night, after my amazing day communing with gorillas, I was treated to a fiery view of lava shooting 1000 feet into the air and a river of molten stone creeping down the forested side of the volcano.*** Another awesome - in the original sense of the word - experience.

***
White water rafting is not something I had associated with the Nile before visiting Uganda. I have lived in Egypt and Sudan, two of the main countries of the great Nile river valley, where the closest thing to rapids I have seen is the small spill of a cataract.

But when the White Nile emerges from Lake Victoria near Jinja, it makes a rapid descent to Bujagali Falls, offering some white-knuckle rafting opportunities. I had to try it before I returned to Sudan.

While there were long stretches of relatively still water, when we did encounter rapids, they were REAL rapids. I had last gone white water rafting in college, I think. And that was in Pennsylvania. Pretty tame stuff. But on the White Nile the rough and tumble was grade 3 and 4…and more (though we steered clear of the grade 5 and 6 stretches, thankfully!). At two points, our rubber raft flipped in the crashing waves. During the second flip, towards the end of our day on the river, I actually lost hold of the boat and was swept quickly down stream. I imagined what it would be like to just keep going – until I reached Khartoum! Luckily, however, I was soon scooped up.

I was quite ready for the cold Nile Specials awaiting us at the endpoint.

After my rafting experience, I can now say I have been to both main sources of the Nile, the confluence of the Blue and White Niles, and the end, where it all spills out into the Mediterranean. A wonderful capstone to my wonderful trip to Uganda - one week full of gorillas, volcanoes, rapids, and hospitable Ugandans!



*I don’t know who was more surprised to be clumped into the same group – me, finding myself with a bunch of Istanbulites or the Turks with an American Ottomanist!

**Uganda does seem to have a bad record re road accidents. Unfortunately, we saw the aftermath of two major ones - a truck that careened off a mountain road, killing several children and farmers who happened to be in the way, and a hit-and-run of a pedestrian.

***I was assured that there were no villages – or gorillas – in the way of the spilling lava. The eruption occurred in a remote corner of Virunga National Park.


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