Gorillas (and Mzungus!) in the Mist

Trip Start Aug 31, 2005
Trip End Aug 25, 2006

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Wednesday, December 7, 2005

We had booked in Kampala WEEKS ago to see the Gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable forest, for the exorbitant price of.... US$360 - our one and only splurge on this trip. There are only 3 sites in the world where you can see the mountain gorillas made so famous by 'Gorillas in the Mist' - Uganda, Rwanda and Congo. Congo was, for obvious reasons (we don't want to die!) ruled straight out. Rwanda was more expensive, thus leaving Uganda the place for our once in a lifetime experience.

Getting there was a journey in itself. Despite paying $360, no transportation is provided, and there is no public transportation into the park from Kabale. We were also down to our last pennies and so had to take the cheapest route possible, negotiating price all along the way. We went to the UWA (Ugandan Wildlife Association) office in Kabale to see what was possible - a pick-up at 8am! We boarded along with everyman and his chicken and his bag of flour, and headed off bumping along a dirt road. 4 hours later, after much arguing over price (but still getting ripped off) we were ABSOLUTELY filthy, but had arrived at our destination in Bwindi, ready for trekking the next morning. Not able to pay for even dorm accomodation there, we re-negotiated the room rate until it was at a point we could pay, and set about taking food donations off our fellow backpackers!

The next morning we were up bright and early, eager to get going and seeing the gorillas. At Bwindi there are 3 gorilla groups that the public are able to trek. Each group contains a silverback and about 20 other members. Ours was the hardest group to trek (YAY) - the Habinyinja group. No more than 8 people are allowed into see the gorillas each day, for a maximum of one hour.

Kirsty and I were in a group of a family of 5 British Indians coming back to 'daddies' birthday place. His family left for England when Idi Amin expelled the 100,000 or so Asians in the late 1970s and this was his first trip back. Also joining us was our dormitory roommate, Amber from Canada. After a quick briefing on what not to do, and trying to hold back from coughing and sneezing (no one with a cold is allowed to trek, and most of you know how my sneezing is in the mornings!) we jumped on the back of a pickup and headed down the road for 45min to the mountain behind the main headquarters.

We were given walking sticks and were pointed up a huge hill which we had to climb to get to the forest. Luckily the mother and father of our group were rather slow, so it was a slow yet pleasant climb, with spectacular scenery. After an hour, we finally entered the forest itself, which rather surprisingly reminded me somewhat of a New Zealand forest! We trekked up and under and over a small beaten path, until we finally met up with the trackers who knew the exact location of our gorillas.

We left behind our walking sticks with the various porters, 'pushers' and 'pullers' (for the Mother) and armed guards and tip-toed deep into the impenetrable. 10 min of intense hiking and sliding later, we came across our first gorilla - a mother with baby. Our guide cut back the surrounding bush with his machete (so much for eco-friendly...) and we all crowded in as close as we were allowed, with mouths open in awe, happily snapping away. We were supposed to be a minimum of 7m from the gorillas at any one time, but on many occassions we were only 2m away - so UWA is not promoting responsible tourism either! While the others closed in on the mother, I had spotted a bigger gorilla trying to climb a vine. Its weight was too much for it, and it came to a spectacular fall as I gasped on.

After about 10 min, our guides lead us away to where the main group was happily lazing around up in the trees. We spotted about 8 up in the trees, with mothers and babies playing around underneath. Altogether there were about 14 of the family around us. The babies were much more used to humans and showed off, climbing trees and playing around. On several occassions they tried to approach us, before their mother got possessive and snarled for her baby to come back to her.

There were two highlights for me. The first was watching the hugem ungraceful silverback try to climb down from the top of the tree. He obviously knew what he was doing (despite my doubts) as he managed the top without falling, and then slid much like a fireman does down his pole, down the remainder of the way. We stood at the bottom of the tree gawping.

The second 'highlight' (or possibly lowlight) was just after it had started raining. We were still standing under the tree watching a family playing when a torrent of water started pouring on our head. We instinctively looked up, and realised we were being pissed on my a gorilla! It appears that was our que to leave. Our hour was up, and very reluctantly, we were forced to head back. What a truely amazing experience!

We headed back to headquarters exhausted but elated just before 5pm. There, we had the difficult task of trying to get OUT of the park. I asked everyone and everyone, flirting and bribing to no avail. We were about to give up when the driver of the Brits who I had tried to manipulate earlier into driving us the 18km out, came running up with a big smile on his face - he had managed to convince his friend and colleague Moses to 'borrow' a car from the hotel he and his guests were staying at and gave us a ride to Butogota! We piled in the borrowed van and headed happily to town!

In thanks, we offered to pay for drinks, but insisted we wanted to try the local banana 'juice'. We headed to the local tea factory where we sat in huts outside, sipping the banana alcohol and enjoying great conversation with our new friends.

Uganda has now been officially 'done'. Next up: to try and get into Rwanda without visas!
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