Speechless. Astonished. Flabbergasted. Those are just three superlatives that I can use to describe my elation at having spent an hour with mountain gorillas in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. Uganda, neighboring Rwanda, and the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo) are the only places in the world where these great apes still roam free. And I saw them.
On our way back to the park gate, we noticed a nature trail near the entrance, which in turn was just 50 yards from our lodge. I asked if it was safe for us to check out the trail on our own. What I meant, of course, was this: How likely are gorillas going to charge us from the brush, seeing as we reek of sweat and are sans guide? “It’s safe,” one of the guides responded. “Gorillas never approach the village.”
Mark, Miles, and I set off down the path, and the nature trail was simple enough. One thing of interest: We had barely walked 20 yards when we noticed a hive of butterfly activity on the forest floor. They were feasting on gorilla poop!
Despite a moment’s exhilaration over the fact that at least one gorilla had recently wandered within a stone’s throw of Bwindi town, we finished the nature walk without incident. Not sated, I enquired at the ranger station about a waterfall hike that I had read about the previous evening. I was informed that the hike left each afternoon at 2 p.m., and that it was compulsory to hire a paid guide. Mark and Miles gave the hike a miss so I signed myself up and returned that afternoon. In addition to my guide, I was accompanied by two Aussie women from the morning’s gorilla trek, and by their own guide.
We set off along the same track as the one we took in the morning. We eventually forked left, picked up a narrow trail, and began climbing in earnest. Before we could reach the falls, Mother Nature turned temperamental. With a crash of thunder, the sky opened up and the most torrential rain I have ever witnessed fell with a vengeance. I am not kidding – hot and sunny one moment, cold and wet the next.
We took shelter inside a hollowed-out tree, which offered the tiniest amount of protection from the elements. The guides were chivalrous enough to offer their ponchos to the women, but I was more exposed. I hid my backpack in the one truly dry spot, but there wasn’t room for my person as well. I don’t know how much time had passed. It no doubt wasn’t as much as I imagine, but I grew cold. I was shivering.
We kept waiting for the storm to pass. If you’ve spent any time in a humid climate you know that tropical thunderstorms seldom last longer than 15 minutes, and that 15 minutes after that there is often no sign that any rain fell at all. This day seemed to be the exception, so we finally agreed to turn back. Three minutes after we hit the trail again, the rain stopped. We were weather-weary, though, and simply headed back to our respective lodges without ever making it to the falls. Once back at camp, I ordered a cup of warm Ugandan tea, then changed out of my wet clothes. I hung them out to dry; they were still wet three days later.
I set out on a walk around Bwindi town, and was mostly unnoticed. I observed children playing, men buying petrol, women hanging laundry to dry, stray dogs wandering, and old ladies washing dishes. I dodged mud puddles in the dirt road as I strolled towards the edge of town, lost in my thoughts. The sun slowly set behind soft clouds, which hung suspended between the mountains like a blanket of fog. In the distance, the hills of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park were awash with a layer of mist. Mark had bought a “Gorillas in the mist” t-shirt from a local gift shop while I was getting ready for my waterfall hike. When he showed it to me later that evening, I couldn’t help but smile.
I am a collector of wooden masks on my travels, and I visited a few souvenir shops before deciding on a gorilla mask that I particularly fancied. As the clerk wrapped my mask in newspaper, she sized me up and bluntly asked if I wanted to sponsor her child. Not quite sure what to say, I politely declined. The twinkle in her doe eyes disappeared and was replaced by a forced smile of resignation. An awkward moment.
We woke up early the next morning for the long drive back to Kampala and the Hotel Africana. The van climbed the dusty hillside road as it left Bwindi town. We were tired but still alert enough to appreciate this sublime sunrise:
We stopped just once for lunch, and that was to stretch our legs on a deserted stretch of road in Queen Elizabeth National Park. As it happened, a herd of elephants was migrating through the fields in the opposite direction. We had seen dozens – hundreds – of elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park just one week prior, and these were the first that we had spotted since. Magnificent creatures, even when seen from afar. As with the gorillas, I hope that their future is secure.
Halfway along our return journey, the road turned to pavement but remained just as bumpy. Matthieu pointed out red flags along various stretches of roadway. These, he said, were being flagged by the UN for possible infrastructure improvement projects. We took a speed bump too quickly and something rattled alarmingly – an axle, perhaps. Matthieu grew visibly nervous, and confessed as he dropped us off for lunch that he would have to get the van serviced before we could continue the rest of the way.
The day grew frustrating as we sat in that roadside diner for over three hours with no word from Matthieu. The town seemed a dismal place – not unsafe but not overly welcoming, either. A crossroads between Someplace and Nowhere.
Matthieu returned just as we started fearing the worst. We drove the rest of the way in silence, stopping at the Equator well after dark – one of my more bizarre sights from my travels considering the late hour and the fact that the monument, a simple S/N marker, was perched on the shoulder with trucks racing past. Although the van appeared to be running fine, Matthieu drove at a snail’s pace, and was clearly nervous. Was the patch-job on his van short-lived? Was he afraid that he would lose out on his tip? Did his Coke bottle glasses mean that he had terrible night vision?
We finally arrived in Kampala, long past closing time for the restaurant at our hotel. Miles insisted that we stop at whatever establishment passes for fast food, although I had lost my appetite from the bumpy ride. The aroma of the chicken dinner that Miles purchased made me even less hungry than I already was – something of an oddity considering that I normally have a cast-iron stomach and a bottomless appetite. At this late hour, the highlight was probably Mark finding Mountain Dew for sale at a nearby convenience store. I mention this because I have never seen Mountain Dew available in a foreign country either before or since!
So the Uganda portion of our trip ended on a bit of a down note. It happens. We missed out on a proper dinner and were almost run over by speeding trucks at the Equator Monument. It happens. I was rained on, and my clothes from the previous day stunk of waterlogged perspiration in the back of the van. It happens. Something else that happens? If you are very lucky, if you have the money, if you have the time, if you are able-bodied and adventurous, and if the stars are in alignment, you may be so fortunate as to get up close and personal with Africa’s extraordinary wildlife.
May these great creatures outlive us all.