Monday we flew to Uganda to trek some of the 600 mountain gorillas remaining in the world. I can’t tell you how excited Dave and I were about this stage of our trip. We both love apes and monkeys so to be able to have a close encounter with these huge beasts in the wild was pretty much a dream come true.
We got into Uganda around 8pm on Monday night and were relieved to see a driver with our name on his board upon arrival. I’ll admit we were a bit nervous, having no idea what to expect from what the South Africans were continuously telling us was the “Real Africa”. In fact, much to our surprise, very few of them had traveled any of their own continent despite multiple trips to the US and Europe, it’s almost as if they viewed it as an entirely separate world. As long as we had our pre-arranged driver though, we were feeling good. The drive from Entebbe airport to Kampala was 35 fascinating kilometers. Let me repeat, it was a Monday night, at 8pm, but the streets were VIBRANT. The whole road is lined with shops pretty much the entire way, and they were all brightly lit, with loud music, and crowds throughout. This could not have been more different from our South African experience, but also really any place we’ve ever been. It was awesome to watch as we drove and drove…until we stopped. Clearly we’d reached Kampala because the traffic was at a dead stop. For about a half hour we sat in one place with bikes and pedestrians speeding by us, often hitting our windows and saying things to us. I forgot to mention that there are NO white people anywhere as far as we can see. I mean there were some on our flight but you never see white people anywhere else really, and the word for us here is “Mbungu”. So, we’re feeling a little less than comfortable finally, sitting there like lame ducks and sticking out like sore thumbs. Traffic finally moves though and we make it to our hotel with no real problems.
The next morning we’re on the road by 6 am for the 10 hour drive to Kisoro. Our driver is a nice local, and our ride is the best example of not judging a book by its cover I’ve ever experienced. The van looks old and beaten like most cars around, but our seats are basically recliners. Huge, comfy, and with a full 180 degree recline. Needless to say, Dave and I both slept at least 5 of those 10 hours on the road, it was amazing. We were woken when we reached the equator, a first for both of us. We paid a small sum to watch a demonstration on how the water spins down a drain one direction in the Northern Hemisphere, then another in the Southern Hemisphere, and drains straight down on the actual equator. Pretty cool, but we’ve since googled it and learned there are actually basin manufacturers that market to equatorian countries to fool the tourists, so it’s likely we got got. We missed the Equinox by a few days where apparently you cast no shadow at all when you’re on the equator at noon, hopefully that’s true but we can’t attest. I don’t want to spend too much time on the drive here but it was notable. The first half was pretty smooth, and the second half took twice the time with all the road work going on. Apparently last year this time the drive took 20 hours and you had to stop overnight but they’re RAPIDLY improving the whole stretch, so it should be down to 6 or 7 hours by next year. Pretty impressive. In South Africa there were road work signs everywhere with no actual work being done anywhere. Not the case here, everyone was working hard. Other than that, it’s important I express how stunningly beautiful this country is. Especially because I couldn’t take pictures-our adaptor didn’t work in this country (something we should have considered before we did) and we had to conserve all batteries for the main event, our hour with the gorillas. Uganda is gorgeous with rich green tropical plants everywhere and mountains abounding. A couple of hours from our destination, the skies unleashed. It was the kind of downpour you don’t want to drive through and Dave and I resigned ourselves to the fact that it was likely we would be hiking through this all day tomorrow. Apparently the “rains had come” the driver told us, and they stay for weeks.
We were staying at the Travelers Rest in Kisoro, a favorite of Dian Fossey’s (of Gorillas in the Mist fame) when studying the gorillas in Rwanda and the Congo. A short distance from our hotel we passed a refugee camp sponsored by the UN for former residents of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose border was a mere 12 kilometers away. The fighting there has gotten extremely dangerous again. We reached our hotel, The Traveler’s Rest, in time for dinner but in the interest of staying healthy for the gorillas we passed and instead gnawed on the 20 granola bars we had brought all the way from America and carried for almost 2 months, for just this occasion. I’m embarrassed to say we also bought 6 1.5 liters of water at the South African airport on our way over to be excessively careful. But, the next morning we woke up feeling fine and were on our way at 6am. Praise God though-it wasn’t raining. We couldn’t count on that to last, but we were extremely relieved to wake up to that pleasant surprise.
Even though it was only 35 kilometers (20 miles) away, the drive took about 2 hours on a bumpy and windy ride. Once we got there the hike up to the briefing area already had us out of breath-scary! The altitude is pretty high, so let’s blame it on that. The briefing was pretty quick. Basically it could take anywhere from a couple of hours to late in the evening to find our family of gorillas. Other than that, stay about 20 feet from them, if they charge, crouch down and look away, and don’t do anything else stupid. Once we found them, we would be allowed exactly one hour with them. And then we were off! Our company included another American girl, two French women, a head guide, two porters, and a man with a serious gun. Two trackers were sent out an hour ahead of us to give us an edge (I could consider this cheating, but we didn’t exactly have a choice!).
Unbelievably, after only a half hour or so of hiking, our head guide got a radio call telling him that they had found the gorillas, about another hour away. That’s all!?! We were thrilled to receive real confirmation that we were really going to get to spend our hour with the gorillas, but at the same time, it might have been a little cooler to have earned it a bit more! Still, no complaints, I wouldn’t have taken what was behind Door #2 if offered!! So, we catch up with the trackers and run through the rules again. Apparently the gorillas are right in the thicket in front of us, and the trackers begin to clear the path with their machetes until we can see the first silverback, maybe 10 feet away. It was amazing. It’s so hard to alternate between trying to get the pictures and trying to soak in the moment, but he was actually out in the sunlight which we’re told is rare-usually it’s really hard to get pictures because it’s very dark and you can’t use a flash. Dave’s manning the video camera, and I’ve got our digital which, as we’re crossing a creek moving towards the other gorillas, I drop. I can’t even believe it, I’ve dropped the camera 5 minutes into the most exciting experience of our trip. I don’t even yell out, tell Dave, or say anything, I just stare off in disbelief. Finally I pull myself together to try and fish it out thinking maybe I can save the memory card and have 10 or 11 pictures of a gorilla to remember. I crouch down to try and find it and the head tracker asks me what I’ve lost, so I have to answer, avoiding eye contact with Dave. So my hand’s fishing through the water until, unbelievably, I see something glinting in a small bush, inches above the water-my camera is barely balancing above the water!! It was amazing, and VERY carefully, with my other hand ready to catch it as it falls, I rescue it from certain death. Back to the gorillas…
We spend another ten minutes or so with two more gorillas on a hill, and then machete on to find a young gorilla and then…a mama with her baby! Only two months old, it was adorable and so, so tiny. So, so tiny that I never got a clear shot at it, the mama was holding it tight the whole time. We sit with them for a little while, and watch another gorilla that we can’t actually see trying to pull down a tree. Then the mama runs off down the hill and our trackers machete some more until we see where the mom has gone. She’s joined the father, the dominant silverback in the group, and their other young child! We watch as the family of four just roll about, touching each other, grooming each other, and loving each other. Gorillas are amazing. There are another three a few feet away as well, and I finally stop taking pictures and try to take it all in, knowing we don’t have long left. Soon the head guide announces that it’s time to go so we all take our final pictures and bid them goodbye. We’ve just spent an hour with 10-15 of the last remaining mountain gorillas in the world. Wow. And that 20 foot rule was completely forgotten. We were SO close to them, and they weren’t even bothered. As it turns out there are about 3 families of gorillas that are used to humans (and 21 that are not), and we really lucked out getting permits for the largest habituated family of 20+ gorillas. We were also told when they move, they move fast, and you can’t keep up, so finding them so close to the bottom of the mountain was another stroke of amazing luck! Not to mention, when we were leaving the forest, we heard that the group tracking the other family of gorillas still had not found theirs yet. Yikes!
So, the climax of our trip was as amazing as we’d hoped. We spent an unforgettable hour with the mountain gorillas of Uganda.
The next day we tackled the long drive back to Kampala, the capital city, once again sleeping a lot, but really soaking up the landscape on the way. Once you reach Kampala, there’s not much landscape to soak up-it’s a pretty dense, busy city that doesn’t appeal to Dave or I too well, but the time we’ve spent here has been limited so please don’t form an opinion. We had decided to spring for the nicest hotel in Kampala for our last two days, a decision primarily driven by fear. The government doesn’t discourage Americans from visiting Kampala, but it does advise that we stay away from public or political gatherings. Which was all the funnier when we pulled up to our hotel and asked our driver what all the tents around the fences were, and why there were armed guards EVERYWHERE. He tells us that those are the president of Uganda’s guards and there is a huge international political convention being held at our hotel called the IPU (International Parliamentary Union) with over 5,000 officials attending. We’re not quite sure what they do, but according to their website it seems like every country in the world except for the United States is a member. This is the 126th such conference with the last two being held in Switzerland and Panama. We actually landed ourselves smack dab in the middle of the biggest event in Uganda! Amazing! So much for safety first, there are metal detectors to go through every time we enter the hotel and huge protests planned in the city for the conference. Fortunately the conference doesn’t actually start until Saturday and we leave Saturday morning at 5am for the airport, but the security had started even before we arrived. Our room wasn’t ready for some reason which was yet another stroke of amazing luck. They offered us a free cocktail in the lounge while we waited and then escorted us up to our upgraded suite, which comes with even more amenities. The Serena Kampala hotel is amazing, it’s been an extremely pleasant stay. We did venture out into the city on our one full day here to visit a market about five minutes away, and as we entered one stall from another, the owners would often say “You are welcome” as we approached which, for the first time in my life, really meant something, being in such an extreme minority!! Everyone we’ve met here has been extremely nice, and I’m sure if we’d had more days to explore the city and give it a chance it would have won us over. The country certainly did.