I can hardly believe that five years have passed since my three-country safari and hiking trip to East Africa in August, 2010. I wrote about the trip’s climax – a successful summit of Mount Kilimanjaro – last fall, and thought you might like to hear about the Uganda portion of trip, in which my friends and I had one thing on our minds: gorillas!
Our three-week trip was booked through tour company Kenya.com, and it went off without a hitch. We were met by guides or taxi drivers at each leg of our journey, and the accommodations were simultaneously rustic and first-rate. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, in rural Uganda, is exactly what its name suggests: pristine mountain forest with one way in and out…and a long way from anywhere. Three families of mountain gorillas are said to live in these hills, and hearty explorers can trek to their hiding place for $500/hour! My friends Mark, Miles, and I hoped to join that short list and added a Uganda stopover onto our trip.
After several long days of exploring Kenyan game parks by van, we boarded our Kenya Airlines plane bound for Kampala, Uganda. As is common in that region of Africa, visas were required but could be purchased upon arrival with little fanfare (and paid for in U.S. dollars). Our cab driver for the evening was already waiting for us as we exited customs, and he dropped us at our hotel. It was getting dark as we rode to the hotel, but our first impression of Kampala was that it was dusty and crowded. I do remember a split-second glimpse of Lake Victoria between some buildings, but that was it.
Our hotel, Hotel Africana, was serviceable, and included a huge pool that we never got to take advantage of. The place would be no more than three stars by U.S. standards, but was probably the nicest hotel in town. My guesstimated star rating is based solely on age – the hotel reminded me of one of those 1970’s-era Holiday Inns that were seemingly everywhere at a time when Holiday Inn was the Waldorf Astoria of mid-America.
We settled in for the night and woke early. Breakfast was buffet-style and a dismal affair, although the coffee did everything coffee is supposed to do. Our driver and guide for the next three days, Matthieu (sp?), met us at seven a.m. and we set out for Bwindi – ten hours away. It took at least an hour before we left the sprawling exurbs of Kampala. What a dusty city! Political graffiti lined most walls, and Matthieu informed us that an election was coming up in a few months. Most shops we passed appeared to sell either SIM cards or tires. Fruit vendors could be found sitting on a blanket set out on the edge of the road, pineapples, oranges, and bananas proudly displayed for easy sale to any passerby.
We finally left greater Kampala and the landscape turned more tropical. Traffic thinned out and curbside vendors disappeared completely…except for these roving, bicycling banana vendors:
Matthieu pointed out various places of interest. Tea plantations were in abundance, and I made a mental note to research why Ugandan tea isn’t a mainstay at U.S. or European hotels. The answer: Uganda is prohibited from trading with first world nations as long as it maintains a billion-dollar debt…which, alas, can never be paid back provided it is banned from trading with the rest of the world. A sad and vicious circle.
Three hours outside of Uganda, the pavement ended and the gravel began. The road remained unpaved for the next six hours. Miles, Mark, and I passed the time by playing Travel Scrabble and enjoying the scenery. We passed through Queen Elizabeth National Park en route, but there wasn’t much wildlife to see, save for a few impalas. There was nary a cross street for at least an hour, although Miles claims to have spotted a dirt airstrip at one point.
The route became hillier as we neared our destination. We passed through several towns – villages with perhaps 100 people each – and we were always greeted with a wave. I once read that children in these towns have come to expect passing travelers to toss them candy from the windows of their vans…and I also read that we should discourage this behavior as it leads to tooth decay in a corner of the world where Crest and Colgate are seldom seen.
We arrived in Bwindi town, which consisted of a single dirt road with various souvenir shops, guesthouses, and a single petrol station. Children played in the street; a single soccer ball served the entire town. As with other African villages that thrive on tourism, Obama posters – often hand-drawn – were in abundance.
Our accommodation for next two nights was a step down in luxury from Hotel Africana but two steps up in charm: the tent cabins of Lake Kitandara Bwindi Camp. We were welcomed with a steaming cup of savory Ugandan tea. The lounge was protected from the elements via a thatched roof but open on the sides. As we settled in, we met a guide and driver who hailed from the U.K. He asked who our guide was and confirmed that Matthieu was one of the best guides he knew. It seemed that Kenya.com was treating us well.
Dinner was served in no time. I didn’t photograph my meal, something I am wont to do. I wish I had. It was meatballs and veggies – the meatballs fist-sized, hand-rolled, and stuffed with onions and bread crumbs. Surely one of the best meals I’ve yet tasted. I helped myself to a second portion and stuffed myself silly. Matthieu cautioned us not to stay up too late, as we had another early wake-up. He disappeared into his accommodations, exhausted from ten hours of driving on bad roads. My friends and I lingered a bit longer, taking in snippets of animated conversation. Our hearts raced when we learned that one of that day’s trekking groups was charged by a dominant silverback.
The gorillas were waiting!
TO BE CONTINUED