We passed wide fields of green tea plantations, crops terraced on the mountain sides, and drove through the Queen Elizabeth National Park. A common site was to see men pushing bikes along the road and up steep hills that were overloaded with huge bunches of green plantains and bananas. We also continued to be amazed at the sight of women balancing several things high on their heads with ease. We even saw them balancing shovels on top of the cloth wrapped loads on their heads while carrying a baby on their back. Wow! Exhausted and with sore butts we finally made it to Bwindi. Our accommodations at the Buhoma Community Camp, that were set up by the Safari company were perfect! We stayed in the “luxury tents” with an attached bathroom and the best shower I think we had our entire trip. Our particular tent was very secluded with a deck that overlooked the lush green forest of Bwindi. It was very relaxing and romantic. The night before our Gorilla trek I was like a little kid on Christmas Eve. I was so excited to finally see and be close to Mountain Gorillas that I could barely stand it. Most people who know me well know that this has been a dream of mine since I was a little girl and watched the movie “Gorillas in the Mist”. For a long time I considered my dream job to be a field researcher where I could live in Africa and research the gorillas; to be the next Diane Fossey. I’ve read several books about gorillas and used to spend hours by myself at Como Zoo just watching and drawing sketches of the Lowland Gorillas. Now, my time had come. The next morning we awoke before sunrise to prepare for our trek. After talking to the rangers and going over the rules of the trek (like if a 500 pound Silverback gorilla charges you, don’t run!), we broke into our groups and took a van for about an hour to our starting point. We only had one other couple, an older couple from Scotland with us and we were set up to trek to the largest of the gorilla groups, the “ Habinyanja” family, which consisted of 18 members including several babies. Our drive there was along a winding red dirt road that hugged the thick green forest. Children would run to the side of the road, smiling, yelling and waving to us “Mzungus” (white people). We met with the other rangers and trackers just outside of the National Park and began our trek. The weather was perfect and we were feeling energized and ready to hike. We were told that we could walk anywhere from 30 minutes to 8 hours to find the Gorillas depending on how far they had traveled from the day before. At times groups will walk all day and still not find them. Trackers with GPS and radios set out early in the morning to try to locate them and then they radio our guide to tell us where to go. They start their tracking from where the Gorillas were the day before using marked GPS coordinates and then use clues such as broken branches, gorilla droppings, and other evidence to clue them in on where to find them. We trekked for about an hour through villages and small family farms before we even reached the thick forest.
The forest was a nice cool retreat from the hot sun and the guide informed us that the trackers did in fact locate the Gorilla group and they were not far. We were so excited to know that we would for sure get to see them, and soon. After walking in the dense forest guided by a ranger with a machete to clear our path we knew we were getting close. Our team told us to remain quiet, to leave our bags behind with our porters, and to get our cameras ready. We assumed we would be able to see the gorillas right away since they are so big, but because of the very thick vegetation and the gorilla’s dark black color we were near them for several minuets before we realized they were right there. We first saw a few females and babies lounging at the base of a tree. They were deep in the foliage so it was a little difficult to see them and photograph them. Still, the first sight of them was so amazing! We then moved on to see the rest of the nearby group. We were able to get about 10 -20 feet away from the gentle giants and watch as they went about their business as usual; eating, climbing, grooming, resting, playing.
This particular group is what they call “habituated gorillas” (as opposed to “wild gorillas” or the “research gorillas”) . The habituated gorillas are viewed by one tourist group a day for only 1 hour. They are used to seeing people and appear comfortable around them. We knew we only had an hour to watch and admire this family so we tried to soak in every moment with them. We watched some high up in the trees eating and watching us from above. One right near us kept farting really loud and super long which was cracking us up. The guide said they eat so much vegetation in a day (around 50 kilos) that it produces big round bellies and a lot of gas. Boy did it ever! There were 3 small babies that kept wrestling and playing with each other, climbing vines, and clumsily rolling all over the place. They were so fun to watch. We were also very close to 2 females, an adolescent, a very small baby (the guide said maybe 3 months old) and the leader of the group, the impressive silverback. The females and adolescent formed a sort of triangle and started a grooming chain, picking things off one another and at times eating what they found. One kept sticking her finger in her ear and then eating it. The baby was all over the place. It could not sit still and kept climbing over the very patient adults, climbing and swinging on the nearby vines, and even cuddled with the Silverback. This was so cool to watch. We had learned that the Silverbacks can be very involved, patient, affectionate and of course protective fathers. Check out the photo that Clint got of the Silverback holding the baby in his arms (one of the few photos of the Silverback because he seemed to avoid the tourists more than the others).
It was so incredible to watch the gorillas stare back into your eyes and into your camera and see them watch you with the same intensity as you to them. Their eyes, hands, expressions and mannerisms can be so similar to humans. The hour we spent with them felt like only minutes. I could have easily watched them all day long and not grown tired of it. However, I am very glad that they put such a time restriction on the viewing tourists so to give the gorillas the quiet, wild life they need. After our hour was up we reluctantly walked away from the gorillas, repeatedly looking back to get one last glance at the incredible sight of them in their natural environment. I would be very happy to return one day and spend another hour with these extraordinary animals. On the walk back we stopped for a picnic lunch along the way and took in the forest views. Children in the passing villages would run to the paths where we walked and hold up their drawings of gorillas hoping we would stop to buy them. Clint and I couldn’t resist and bought one from a little boy who had drawn what appeared to be stick figures of gorillas.
The rest of the way back is a blur. I was on a high from finally seeing gorillas and had a perma-grin and sore cheeks from smiling so much.
When we got back to our camp we went down to our secluded tent deck overlooking the forest. It was at this moment that my incredible day became even more perfect. Clint turned to me and told me how this trip has made us grow so much closer and has confirmed what he already knew; that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me. He then got down on bended knee, pulled out a ring from his pocket and asked me to marry him! I think my first response was “are you serious?” but that was soon followed by “yes, yes, yes”.
The funny thing was that I had already made up my mind to ask him to marry me that night but luckily he beat me to it since he was better prepared. When my Dad came to visit us in Thailand Clint had asked for his blessing and then in Nepal he had snuck away to buy me a ring. When I was thinking about how I was going to ask him to marry me I figured I would have to make him a ring out of grass and stems since that was all I could think of. Clint said he wished he would have waited to ask me so he could have seen that. He says he’s still waiting. After the most perfect day with the gorillas followed by the most perfect proposal from the most perfect man we then walked together through the Buhoma village talking to the local people, buying gorilla souvenirs and then stopped at an orphanage to watch their daily performance. The orphanage started after HIV/AIDS had claimed the lives of many parents, leaving many homeless children to fend for themselves. Now the children have homes, meals, education, and a place to play and showcase their talents. They dance, sing, play drums and display their homemade handicrafts for tourists every night to raise money for the orphanage. Their performances were full of energy and were a joy to watch!
They did not stop moving, drumming or singing for nearly 2 hours and showed us many traditional ceremonial dances. We purchased a few items from them and then went back to our lodge for dinner. Dinner was a table set for two, lit with a kerosene lantern, and again overlooking the serene, peaceful forest. A very romantic way to end our incredible day. We ordered glasses of boxed wine that they filled to the rim and toasted our engagement. We could not be happier!
The following morning we made our way to Kabale and then to Lake Bunyoni. An island on the lake was recommended by other travelers and instead of spending the next week of our time in Uganda taking long bus rides to get in as much as we could, we decided to take some time to relax and celebrate. To get to the island we took a dug out canoe (the free option) and painfully paddled against the wind and waves for over an hour and a half. It was a good work out to say the least. We arrived to Byoona Amagara on the island of Itambira and checked into our “geo-dome”.
The geo-dome was a straw, round hut with two single beds and no door. I was a little concerned about not having a door because of weather and critters but once we got used to it we enjoyed having the open view of the beautiful lake in front of us. The occasional lizard and spider that would enter was no bother to us. Our few days on the island were very relaxing! We did a lot of laying around and doing nothing, which was very needed after what seemed to be months of being on the go. The food was fabulous at this resort even though it took the staff on average 2 hours to make each meal we ordered. Our paddle back to the mainland was easier and filled with sunshine and the sound of school kids on the passing islands.
Back in Kabale we purchased tickets for our bus ride to Kampala ahead of time and was told to come the following morning to the same spot, which was basically a parking lot full of buses with no wheels, to catch our bus. We thought this to be a bit odd but everything is new to us so we went with it. When we arrived the following morning to see only the same wheel-less buses we asked if we were in the right place and was told we needed to go to the bus park several blocks away. It was almost departure time and we had our very heavy backpacks so we opted to jump on the back of 2 bicycles to take us to the park. This is a common form of transportation in East Africa and although it was difficult balancing with all of our luggage we were glad to have the experience. The bus ride back was long, bumpy and dusty as usual, but we made it. When we arrived to Kampala we retrieved our bags that were stored under the bus and found them completely covered in thick dust and grease. After trying to wipe them off we were both covered in dirt! We then planned to get a ride to a taxi park where we would take a minibus to Entebbe, the city closest to the airport. Two motorcycle taxis offered to take us to the taxi park and then tried desperately to convince us to instead ride all the way to Entebbe with them on their bikes. This didn’t sound like a bad idea except we had our huge, dirty backpacks with us and the price was high so we told them to just take us to the taxi park. 15 minutes later we realized we were on our way to Entebbe. We spent the next 45 minutes struggling to hold on to our bags and balance on the back of a small motorcycle weaving in and out of traffic. When we arrived in Entebbe we looked ridiculous! Our faces and clothes were covered in dirt from our bags and the road. We argued with the drivers about payment since they drove us after we told them not to but in the end we were happy to have made it there safe and fast and with no more bike, bus, or motorcycle rides ahead of us. Our time in Entebbe was brief. We were only there for one day before we flew to Cape Town, South Africa to meet Clint’s parents. Uganda will always be a special place to us, not only because it is where we became engaged but also because it truly is the “Pearl of Africa.” One day we hope to return!
Another long bus ride took us from Nairobi, Kenya to Kampala, Uganda. We spent 13 hours sitting on yet another bus and stayed awake the entire time to watch the spectacular African scenes pass by our window. Our plans for Uganda were to travel to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to do a 3 day Mountain Gorilla trek and only to stay for a week and a half total in the country. We wished we would have done a better job with our research because had we known how amazing and safe Uganda is we would have stayed a lot longer! So far we both agree that Uganda is definitely one of our most favorite countries we have visited yet. It is known as the “Pearl of Africa” and has so much to offer in terms of natural beauty and culture. There are plains, mountains, lakes, rivers and lush forests. It is home to the Big 5 as well as Chimpanzees and Mountain Gorillas. It has the impressive Lake Victoria and is the source of the Nile River (which flows North from Uganda). There are over 30 different tribes all with their own language and culture and the people that we met along the way were so open, friendly and genuinely kind. Although we had the misconception that Uganda was not a very safe place to travel we were told that it’s actually now one of the safest places to travel in all of East Africa. After spending a day in the big city of Kampala we made our way to Bwindi with “Amazing Safaris” company. This was our 4th all day bus ride in 6 consecutive days! We drove through fantastic scenery, spotted lots of wildlife, and stopped at the equator line to take photos.