After four years of working in Uganda, I finally made it to magical Bwindi Impenetrable Forest - the land of the mountain gorilla. As you might have noticed from a blatant lack of blogging, my work life has been all-consuming. So much so that I don't even have time for the typical meta-work (reflection) that I do through the One Mango Tree blog. I outsourced that to Lauranne Boyd, our newest employee. Tying myself down to $500 per person gorilla trekking passes ensured that I would get out of Kampala, and away from my laptop - for four solid days. A small [albeit expensive] victory.
Bwindi is Uganda's piece of national forest where mountain gorillas still roam - the endangered species can be found only in the region where Uganda, Rwanda and DRC intersect. Ten years ago you'd be more likely to find guerillas instead of gorillas in this area, but things have stabilized and tourism is on the rise. The huge permit fee goes towards research and conservation efforts - including community development in the surrounding areas.
Danny and I drove out to Bwindi from Kampala - instead of taking the horrible Masaka-Mbarara route, we headed northwest to Fort Portal. We stopped for lunch at Rwenzori Travellers Inn, and ate what looked like deep-fried bat carcasses (I think it was supposed to be chicken and chips). From Fort Portal the road swings south, following along the base of the Rwenzoris and flirting with the Congolese border. We drove through an eerily empty Queen Elizabeth and Ishasha.
We stayed at Gorilla Forest Camp - as luck would have it, we had the entire lodge to ourselves for the weekend. The altitude in southwestern Uganda creates an autumn-like crispness in the evenings, so we chilled out post-dinner in front of the campfire and found hot water bottles tucked into our bed. The peace and quiet made me nostalgic for autumn back at home.
Our trekking passes were good for Sunday, so we got up early and headed down to the headquarters to meet our guides. On the way from our tent to breakfast (a 2-minute walk), a monkey pooped on my head. I think it also laughed - a premonition of the day ahead, no doubt. I'd heard that tracking gorillas was a "walk in the park," so in my frenzy to pack, I only brought yoga pants and a pair of low-top Chuck Taylors. We were assigned to track the "H" group. I scoffed at the suggestion that I might need a porter to help "pull or push" me in difficult tracking situations. A couple of hours into our hike (?!) we started descending the steep cultivated hillsides. My Chucks were no match. I was instantly rendered a complete un-balanced klutz, and I fell over and over again. I even cried once. Finally, a nice porter (one hired by someone else - someone less arrogant and more practical) rescued me, and I spent the rest of the day clutching onto his hand, trying not to fall off the hillside entirely.
The elusive "H" group had decided to hang out all afternoon munching vegetation on a steep (and heavily shrubbed) hillside above a river. Danny got all National-Geographic-up-close-and-personal with the gorillas, while I clung onto tree trunks and branches and tried not to think about falling. I still managed to snap a few good shots, but I couldn't help wondering how in the hell we would get out of this precarious gorilla observing perch. The answer was a stumble-fall-crash down the hill and across the river, while our trackers hacked through thick sugar cane to create a path out of the ravine.
When we made it back to the Defender 8 hours after our journey began, I was exhausted and happy that I'd made it out with both of my ankles intact. Back at Gorilla Forest Camp we were rewarded with another gorilla sighting - another group had passed into our camp and was eating fruit near the toilet. Check it out:
When I think about the leisurely stroll that other gorillas trekkers had reported, I'm not really sure what happened. I think I get it now about the monkey pooping on my head. He was laughing so hard when he saw my Chucks that he shit himself.
In any case, we earned it, and what a reward it is to be only a meter away from a mountain gorilla. It truly was an amazing experience, and three days later, I'm finally able to walk again.