After all hell broke loose in Rawanda and Congo, there are only two places left in Uganda where one can still safely look for the Mountain Gorilla, one is the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the other is Mgahinga Park. A small group of us were traveling through Queen Elizabeth Park in Uganda (to see the river dwelling Hippos, but that is a story for another day), and decided to venture further afield to the South-Western part of the country where Uganda, Rwanda and DRC (Congo) meet. The rainforest here is the habitat range of these giant primates. Most of Uganda operates in a rather laissez faire manner and being out and about unescorted can be quite a scary enterprise. The people one encounters outside urban centers are as startled by visitors as the visitors are by them! This enterprising gentleman was carting firewood on his homemade bicycle and soon after seeing us his bicycle wandered off into the bush and fell over!
Getting from QE Park to Buhoma took about half a day by 4 wheel drive, with several pit stops along the way! A word of advice – the bushes by the roadside are friendly and the ground clean, no gas station can match that. The landscape, as one approaches Buhoma, is mostly tropical mountainous with numerous banana plantations along the way. Banana is the staple starch in the Ugandan diet and the green banana is boiled and mashed into a pasty meal called Maatoke, as flavorless and unappealing to the untried palate as Hawaiian Poi!
It is not unusual to find random wildlife by the roadside or even have to wait while the animals cross the road. We stayed overnight at Buhoma Homestead, minimal accommodations with advertised running hot water that took 20 minutes to “run” to our facilities, no screens on the windows, and an environment of pristine stillness broken by sounds of animals at night. The facility has a decent bar and prepares food to order. An early night is recommended so one is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for the long and arduous trek to “track” the mountain gorillas.
Visits to Bwindi and Mgahinga are tightly regulated by the Ugandan Wildlife Authority, are expensive and cater to a niche market of “eco-tourists”. Wilderness gorilla viewing permits can cost approximately $500 a piece! Bwindi park covers an area of 127 miles² (330km²), is home to about 400 gorillas, and is a World Heritage Site. The park has four groups (families) of habituated gorillas, as opposed to Mgahinga’s one group. These gorillas will not flee at the first sign of humans, but have become somewhat tolerant of our presence. One hears that rangers are working on habituating a second group in Mgahinga. One also hears that the gorillas in Bwindi stay solely within Uganda as most of the park is within Ugandan borders. Mgahinga is at the edge of both Rwanda and Congo, and if the Mgahinga gorillas stray into Rawanda or Congo, tourists cannot follow them. Permits to track the gorillas are precious and hard to come by. Only 24 DAILY permits are given in Bwindi (and only 8 permits in Mgahinga). Permits go on sale two years in advance! The authorities are very careful to limit the groups to adults olnly (to avoid unpredictable behavior from children), the time spent viewing the gorillas, and the distance that one must maintain when one is near them. I heard that recently twin babies were born in Mgahinga and the population has been on a slow rise since strict controls on entry into the region put a stop to poaching.
We gathered in the early morning, were introduced to our tour guides, and assigned to specific gorilla families. This meant that we (a group of 6 people) would track that particular family and we had 8 hours to find them! If the family was not sighted after 8 hours of tracking, a small part of our permit money would be refunded. Our group consisted of several guides with walkie-talkies. They were in contact with trackers who had begun tracking the family from the last sighting on the previous day. The group was rounded out with several machine gun toting soldiers – these fellas looked like they meant business! The trek was through mountainous rainforest full of mosquitoes. The sweltering heat was not helped by the relative humidity of near 100%. Everything was WET and there were no safe beaten paths, most of the way through the “impenetrable” forest was hacked with machetes by the guides. A particularly challenging bit was at the crest of an slippery incline, and a tree fallen across the most passable part! By the time we had hiked for four plus hours under these conditions (carrying our food and water in packs), we were all irritable and grousy and very wet! Suddenly we were told to hush and listen. We began to hear a rustling in the bush and saw a LARGE (9 feet or more?) silverback emit a thunderous roar and rush by (fortunately away from us) as we stood quietly with our eyes lowered in a submissive pose, exactly as instructed by the guide.
We then came upon of the rest of his family – this included several mamas, lots of babies (some nursing), and a few adolescents who were inquisitive and very extroverted (no doubt due to having seen humans daily). The guide turned on his stopwatch and told us we had an hour to quietly observe the gentle giants at play. It was like nature had given us this opportunity to see our beginnings, a male protector, several social mothers collectively engaged in looking after their babies and adolescents who were already beginning to move towards independence.
We sat quietly in the underbush and watched the family going about their business. The hour flew by in a flash, the stop watch beeped softly and we reluctantly got up and left with many a backward glance at these miraculous beings, gentle, near human and connected to us by their evolutionary history and social behavior! The trip back was accomplished in shorter time and in an introspective mood. Our party of four chatted quietly with the two young men from Germany who were working in Northern Uganda with Doctors Without Borders. Bwindi and the gentle giants had left an indelible mark on our souls.
We drove past small rustic homes with people eking out a living, growing coffee, jackfruit, bananas, and socializing and tending to their children!
As we sped back towards civilization, to a warm bath and a good meal at our fancy hotel in Kampala, Bwindi and the mountain gorillas were hard to forget. I may never go back to Bwindi again – but this is one visit that I can relive in memory and the charging silverback and the nurturing mamas with their babies flash in my minds’ eye as soon as I think of them.
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