Friday, 5 February 2010

January...Part 3 - Gorillas, in the midst

Part 3 of a 4 part summary of January...

Our road trip around Uganda began with an early start and frantic unpacking and repacking of bags after our Zanzi trip. Fast Eddie arrived early in his Landcruiser, and we sped off through the go-down away from an overcast, drizzly Kampala. We stopped en route at a place called Mpambire, where the Royal Drum Makers make and sell African drums. When we asked Richard, the craftsman, exactly what they were called, he replied 'Drums'. So that was us told! A beautifully crafted large cowskin drum can be had for sixty thousand shillings - approximately £20. We elected to consider going back following our return to Kampala, as the idea of transporting one round the whole south west of the country didn't seem sensible. We continued from here to the Equator, for cheesy tourist photos, coffee and breakfast before plodding on down the Masaka road, passing through Masaka, past Lake Mburo to Mbarara, where we broke the journey with lunch. From here we continued to Lake Bunyoni. Arriving at around 5, we checked into our treehouse safari tent on stilts, overlooking the lake. The sun was beginning to go down by the time we got ourselves square, so after a cup of tea and a quick walk we decided to relax at the camp. After eating the worst pizza I have ever encountered, we decided to get into the tent and read to the chorus of frogs and insects that was coming from the waters edge. After deciding on an early night, I was woken by the loudest clap of thunder I think I've ever heard, and a heavy shower of rain. In a tent, in a treehouse on stilts, in a thunder storm... Safe. I decided I was too warm where I was, and being struck by lightning is one of the more exciting ways to go, so I stayed put. The next morning the entire lake was shrouded in mist. Eddie picked us up at 10, ready for the long slog to Buhoma, in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. We wound around the lake's shores, high up on the hills, affording spectacular views of the mirror-like water. Soon after leaving Bunyoni, we hit bumpy dirt track, which continued through the hills. Looming ahead in the distance was Bwindi, noticeable because of the sudden density of the forest canopy. We drove through the forest for around 3 hours before arriving at the lodge, with its spectacular view of the forest. The lodge was comfortable, although not as nice as we had expected it to be, given that it was our splurge on the trip, but nevertheless, we made ourselves at home with a couple of beers and chilled out watching the valley and the birdlife. We were looking forward to gorilla tracking so much that I don't think at that point we'd have cared where we slept.

We woke at 6am the next morning, excited, full of trepidation about the unexpected. We would have to trek through Bwindi ‘impenetrable’ forest, were warned that it would be strenuous, that we might not find the gorillas, but that it was ok, because if we didn’t, we’d be entitled to a 50% refund on the tracking fee. We arrived at the UWA headquarters at 7.30 after a slightly hairy moment where it seemed that perhaps our driver had slept in/was still out drinking and shooting pool/had decided he just couldn’t be bothered. Fast Eddie tore up the drive in a billow of dust at 7.25. Phew.

After being shown two interestingly produced videos about the gorillas , dubbed with a commentary in the Queen’s English, we met our guide, Kathy, outside. We counted two of us in our group – me and Mum. Assuming there must be more to come we waited for around 10 minutes before Kathy said it was time to go and that she’d brief us once we got closer to the gorillas. We were to track Habinyanja group at Buhoma, a group that now contains 18 mountain gorillas since the young Silverback overpowered the older silver back, who had left the group taking 3 females with him.

We drove for 45 minutes to the trailhead, where we picked up two porters, Moses and Wilson. These guys turned out to be fantastic help, not because the bags were heavy, but because we’d have struggled to keep balance carrying a load – I struggled enough with my camera – and pick our way through the steep, thick, slippery forest.

We walked for around 40 minutes through farmland, taking in the vast valley view, teeming with tea plantations, banana trees, terraces and children vying for a ‘How are you?!’ from the two Mzungus in silly hats with walking poles. The pace was slow and steady, and we had regular radio contact with the two advance trackers, who had gone ahead of us to find the gorillas, based on where they had left them the day before.

The forest edge loomed ahead, an abrupt border to the farm terrain. We entered, and suddenly the ground was soft underfoot, nervously stepping and unsure as to where the true forest floor lay. Impenetrable. We thrashed our way through branches, ferns, thistles, nettles, webs and goodness knows what else. The forest, a thicket of every shade of green and brown imaginable, pierced every now and the by the occasional shaft of bright sunlight, as the weather had deigned to be kind to us. We slipped and slid down through the trees, zigzagging round obstacles, with the help of the porters holding back and snapping branches as we moved. After 50 minutes of battling with the forest, hands and bums muddied from falling over, we met the advance trackers. Kathy then said to us ‘There are no gorillas in the forest today’… WHAT?! ‘Just kidding’, she said, beaming. We were briefed on the rules – ‘No flash photography, no food or drinks, no sudden moves or pointing, no spitting, farting, swearing or petting in front of the gorillas’ and we were off. We traversed down the slope, and up ahead, just visible through the trunks and branches, lay a black back, keeping watch over the other gorillas, amassing 13 in number, just a bit further down under the forest canopy.

They were grooming, swinging from branches, the small ones beating their chests at each other in an effort to prove their strength while the adults cuffed them round the head when they got too boisterous. It may sound like a cliche to say that we felt privileged to be there, observing them in their natural habitat, such gentle giants. There was a real sense of family and community. The silverback was separate from the group initially, being groomed by two of the ladies. One adolescent female was crouched about 10 metres from where we were. As I crouched to take a photo, she stared directly at the camera lens, and I realised that she was going to charge. I stepped back at the guide's instruction and she galumphed past us, grabbing the back of my left calf as she went, reminding me of exactly who was in charge. I know that if I had been any closer, the force would have knocked me over. Awesome.

The silverback joined the rest of the pack, who were now basking in sunlight, eating leaves, nesting in trees and rough and tumbling, taking branches down as they went. They moved down the hill and we followed them to their next nest site where they continued with their antics. It was amazing watching the interaction between the group members. They moved off again, this time through the trees rather than on the ground, at an astonishing pace. We reached a dip in the forest, needing to climb uphill to get to the next area of flat groud from which we could leave the forest relatively easily, rather than trying to negotiate our way back along the route we had come. Moving uphill was tricky, with very little to grasp, the ground wet and slippy. We reached the top of the hill and the porters moved from where they had been waiting with water. William, one of the advanced trackers, suggested we continue down the next hill into a clearing in the forest canopy, which would allow us to leave the forest through terraced farmland. We followed him through a dense growth of thistles, nettles and other spiky plants, tearing at our feet and clothes and tripping us over. We were sweaty, knackered and covered in thorns. As we started to climb through the farmland, Kathy pointed out a black back down the hill, separate from the rest of the group. We waited amongst the vegetation for him to move, out into bright sunshine, and he lumbered past us up the hill to join the group, providing the best photos of the day.

We plodded back out of the forest, in awe of what we had just experienced. Something that was really special, truly magical. I don't have the words to describe how it felt at the time, but it was definitely up in there with the top 10 things I've ever done in my life. Worth coming to Uganda for on its own.

Moses took us to his house on the way back down the hill, a mud hut with three rooms, sparse with no furniture to speak of apart from a mattress. It was very humbling, especially to know that here was a man doing a job that pays him relatively well by Ugandan standards, that had very little in the way of material possessions. It was another raincheck on just how much we overvalue possessions. We were greeted at the end of the trail by a group of children from an orphanage project who performed some songs and dances, tapping into the tourist trade in their own way. We swiftly ran out of shillings.

We headed back to the lodge for a well earned beer, to reflect on what we had just seen, exhausted but elated.

Photos can be seen here

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