S: Uganda: En route to the great mountain gorillas
May 12, 2004
After being swallowed by the mouth of the Nile, we headed out on our journey to go track the mountain gorillas. While the mountain gorillas were the magnet which pulled us deep into Uganda, all of Uganda proved to be a delight.
After our overland journey ended in Nairobi and we were officially on our own again, we had just under two weeks before we were to fly to Cairo, Egypt. While many of the overland tour companies offer trips into Uganda to visit the mountain gorillas, none of them were quick enough or had the right timing for us so we were left on our own. Luckily, we were referred to a freelance tour guide, "Marky Mark", based in Jinja, Uganda, to assist us in visiting the gorillas. (And you wondered why you hadn't seen Mark Wahlberg, a.k.a. 'Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch", in more films recently...) As it turns out, "Marky" did not bear much resemblence to Mark Wahlberg, and Dana and I aren't particularly "funky". (If this joke blows by you, be thankful you missed this early 90s rap act.)
We hired Marky to drive and guide us from Jinja, Uganda, to the gorilla park (Mgahinga Gorilla National Park) in the southwestern-most corner of Uganda. It turned out to be a wonderful decision as we really enjoyed our time with Marky, enjoyed the comfort of his Nissan Pathfinder, and experienced the wonder of watching the giant mountain gorillas in their natural habitat.
From Jinja, we drove to Lake Bunyoni, which is near the town of Kabale in the southwestern corner of Uganda. Along the way, we enjoyed the beautiful, fertile, green scenery. We passed herds of Ugandan cows which have spectacularly large horns. If one of these horns were hallowed out and used as a drinking vessle, it would surely hold several 7-11 "Big Gulps".
We spent two nights at Lake Bunyoni relaxing, reading and being lazy. The hotel/campsite where we stayed had nice little bungalows built on a hill overlooking the lake. We swam a few laps across the end of the lake where the camp sat and even tried our hands at paddling the canoe made from a hallowed out tree. Unfortunately, the canoe had a significant bow in the middle and when we both paddled on the left side (which should send you to the right), it would often head left as if pulled by a magical power. Then, at times, it would simply spin 360 degrees as if on an axis. The whole experience gave me profound respect for the locals who carry their crops to market significant distances in these canoes, and then load the crops (often a form of banana known as 'matoke') on their black one-speed bicycles and ride or push them to the market. These workhorse bikes carry loads far heavier than any Huffy bike could withstand. In fact, the billboard for "Roadmaster Bikes" used the slogan, "Any road, any load".
It was at Lake Bunyoni where I finally finished reading "The Human Stain" by Phillip Roth. This book took me forever to complete as it's written with plenty of $.50 words and long, drawn out passages. It was definitely not the read to choose for an overland trip bouncing across Africa's poor roadways.
After Lake Bunyoni, we spent two nights in Kisoro, a tiny little town which is the departure point for gorilla tracking. We also passed through Kibale, which is of note only for its "Hot Loaf" bakery where we partook of meat samosas (fried meat pies), mini "pizzas", and various cakes and pastries that were tasty though not particularly moist.
The big happening in Kisoro was the "Kisoro Crusade for Jesus" which was going on in the main grassy area of town all day, everyday for a week. They had a stage setup with a PA and alternated between preaching and gospel music throwdowns. The preaching was bilingual with a woman screaming out in the local language, then another woman repeating her in English. The phrases were simple like "Jesus is number one!" Apparently this is an annual event run by many of the local evangelical churches. Of the whites we saw in Uganda, they seemed to either be adventure/eco travel junkies, or evangelists. There is no question that the evangelists have made it to Uganda.
The only other thing of note in Kisoro was an internet cafe that had the fastest internet speeds and best computers we experienced in all of eastern Africa. Crazy in an area where very few people have electricity. The internet was apparently a satellite connection. We paid a whopping $3/hour to use it as this represented one of our more expensive purchases given that meals were often $4-5 for the two of us and our room was $7/night. Course the meals were simple, simple, simple and choice was limited. Our hotel did make a mean guacamole served with either fried potato wedges or chipate (a fried pita type bread).
I played guitar outside our hotel along the street one night at dusk and was pleased to get a bit of a crowd. I'm always a bit shy about playing, and the local Ugandans are often shy about approaching tourists, so I just sang and various locals would stop along the road and often pretend to be waiting for someone or doing something else while they listened. A mother with a small child sat down across the road and listened for the full hour. I sang the special Ugandan edition of Paul Simon's "Kodachrome", which as it turns out sounds exactly like the same as the U.S. edition.
The day before the gorillas, we took a guided village walk through the villages in the hills surrounding Kisoro. We hired a local guide, George, who spoke very good English and took us through many of the terraced farms planted along the steep hillsides. It was excellent as the hills and valleys are lush, very green and quite breathtaking with three volcanoes visible in the distance. Throughout our walk, the local children would come running towards us or scream from the hillsides, "Mazungu!!!", which means white person. Their faces seemed genuinely excited to see us though we suspect a small group of mazungus must pass daily. Their other favorite English expressions to yell were "How are you?" which often had a near singsong like quality as it echoed through the valley, and the ever popular "Give me money!" We joked that if they must yell this, it would be funny to teach this particular valley to yell "Show me the money!" instead. This would surely later be called the "Cuba Gooding Jr. Effect" on the English language as spoken throughout Uganda.
Which brings me to the point of my tale...
The facts: There are three types of larger gorillas but the largest of these, and most near extinction, is the mountain gorilla. There are only 600-700 mountain gorillas left in the world and all of them reside in the national parks where Rwanda, the Congo, and Uganda meet. Each country has set aside as national park the area where the gorillas reside and the parks are contiguous to one another. Dian Fossey raised awareness about gorilla preservation globally due to her work in Rwanda. Dian Fossey was murdered in 1985 and her story is accounted in the film Gorillas in the Mist. All three countries heavily regulate gorilla tourism and sell permits to visit the gorillas with park rangers. Our visit to the gorillas in the Mgahinga National Park is not the most popular as this park has a smaller family of gorillas (11 gorillas in the family) habituated to spending time with humans each day and only allows 6 tourists per day to visit the gorillas. Other parks have larger families and allow more tourists in a group and therefore get the bigger tour group bookings. I believe all parks only take one group to the gorillas per day, and only for one hour. The time is limited in order to limit the gorillas exposure to human diseases (which they are very susceptible to) and in order to keep their stress levels down as being near humans is of course not natural for them.
In March 1999, rebels attacked and killed a group of tourists visiting the gorillas in Uganda's Bwindi national park. Given that visiting the gorillas is a top tourist draw into Uganda and Rwanda, the governments responded by greatly increasing the security around gorilla visits. Our group of 5 tourists (the 6th was a no-show) was escorted by an armed guide, 4 armed military guards, and a group of soldiers/scouts which left 30 minutes prior to us to scout the gorillas location and "secure the perimeter" I assume. To my knowledge, there have been zero incidents since 1999, probably due to the incredible dedication to security on the part of the Uganda park system and government.
Our Lonely Planet covering all of Eastern Africa doesn't cover the Congo as it is politically unstable with rebels in the mountains. In fact, it doesn't discuss visiting the gorillas in the Congo as it states it is unsafe. That said, tour groups of foreigners are visiting the gorillas on the Congo side of the mountains and there have been no incidents to my knowledge. The primary reason is likely that getting a gorilla tracking permit in Uganda or Rwanda is both expensive and all spots are often booked far in advance. We are traveling during the low tourist season (rainy season) and were able to get a desirable date. The Congo often has permits still available for obvious reasons and can accomodate large groups at the last minute.
Although the gorilla permit indicates you leave between 8 and 9 am to go gorilla tracking, and depending upon the gorillas location that day, you may not return until dusk, we were fortunate in that our hike in to the gorillas was less than an hour. It was indeed a truly magical experience to stand 10 feet away from a family of gorillas in the forest and watch them go about their daily activities. The family we visited included a dominant silverback male that was 32 yrs. old, and an older silverback male of about 42 yrs. There were few kids (<5 yrs. old), a few teens, and a few females. The whole group was in a darker part of the wet, lush forest which made for really tough photography since flash photos are prohibited. Please excuse the fuzzy shots. The gorillas are herbivores and basically live in a giant salad bowl. Gorillas spend about 30% of their day feeding, 30% moving and foraging, and the remainder resting. The kids spent quite a bit of time playing, wresting, swinging on vines and generally making mayhem in the forest. One little guy climbed the tree super close to us to stare at Dana for a good 10 minutes while occasionally sucking his thumb.
After about 45 minutes of our hour visit, the whole family got tired of having us nearby and moved deeper into the bush. We followed separating the family from the "old man" silverback. Eventually, the old man climbed down from the nest of tree limbs above us where he'd been lazying, and crossed about 5 feet in front of us to join the other gorillas. It was awesome. He was a massive animal and completely indifferent to our presence there. Our guide proclaimed it a "good day of tracking" which it was, though I suspect everyday is proclaimed a good day of tracking.
What struck me most was how close to human these creatures are. They play, they have personalities, they use tools, they are inquisitive, they hide from humans, they can avoid humans when the choose, they are social, etc. Amazing.
A visit to the gorillas is magical, both because it puts you face to face with a magnificent group of animals, and also because it draws you deep into the heart of eastern Africa where life is simple, the people are friendly, and relatively few tourists go.
For those of you considering a safari in eastern Africa, try to squeeze Uganda into your itinerary.