Arriving in Uganda

21 March 2013- Lake Bunyoni, Uganda

We had been walking for hours, the tracks getting smaller and the slope getting steeper and steeper until we were scrambling, pulling ourselves up through the thick vegetation. Our foot steps fell onto the tangle of plants covering the slope, occasionally falling through the network of stems and into the wet, spongy and black soil beneath. We continued higher on all fours crawling up a steep section and came across a muddy trail where the vegetation had been stomped and flatten, we followed the trail upwards, the only flat footholds had been indented deeply into the side of the soft slope. We suddenly realised that we were climbing from one giant round footprint to the next. It was hard to imagine an elephant climbing this way, but there was no doubt one had gone before us. The rain had stopped, trees loomed through the mist hanging on the slope above and a hushed silence fell over our group, the anticipation was building.

As we reached the top of the ridge we were me by the tracker, after a minute to catch our breath and calm the nerves he pronounced “Right then, let’s go and see the animal”. We exchanged an excited grin and plunged down the other side of the ridge following the tracker as he hacked a trail through the undergrowth. The tracker slowed and skirted across the slope calling out a warning, but not to us. Our hearts were pounding, just below us we made out a black furry shape between the foliage. We glanced at each other knowing this was it, a pulse of excitement flashing between us. A few more steps and we were transfixed by the brown eyes and curious gaze of a gorilla, pausing long enough to question who were these lanky apes looking me, as it climbed down a sapling barely able to support its weight.

Our gorilla trek.

We only arrived in Uganda yesterday afternoon. On our final day on Lake Kivu in Rwanda we had a wander around the village and stocked up on fruit and veg using a combination of French, English and hand gestures to gather what we wanted and find out what we were to pay. We made our way into the small city near by to find an auto parts shop, and came within a few hundred metres of the border to the Democratic Republic of Congo, we soon turned around, it’s a definite no go zone at the moment. We were not sure where the day would take us, a night in northern Rwanda or crossing the border into Uganda? On the map it looked a fair distance but Rwanda is tiny and before we knew it we were approaching the border and decided to crack on and head into Uganda and check on gorilla trekking.

The border was really quite and very easy but a bit fiddly with having to check with the police first in one building, then immigration and customs, also in separate buildings, then to the barrier at the border to be told we needed to head back to the police to get our final exit pass.  As the passenger Lisa had to get out of the vehicle and walk around the barrier out of Rwanda and then jump back into landy again about two steps later. Apparently its something to do with security? Sometimes its better not to ask.

As soon as we arrived in the small dusty town of Kisoro our first stop was the Ugandan Wildlife Association (UWA) office to enquire about gorilla permits. Everything you read says you have to book months in advance but we couldn’t really do that as we never know where are going to be that far ahead. We were prepared to pay a premium and buy a permit from a tour operator (who buy them to sell onto their clients) if need be. Not being the peak season we had heard this could be possible. Or as a last resort make the long drive to Kampala and see if we could score permits there. We heard we may be lucky and be able to get a gorilla trekking permit from UWA for the gorillas that live in Mgahinga NP (these gorillas cross the border at will between Uganda, Rwanda and DRC so they don’t book permits months in advance for these groups). This was our first plan, seeing if the gorillas were on the Ugandan side of the border.

At the UWA office Lisa asked “Are the gorillas on this side of the border?” – ” Yes” came the reply,  “Can we book permits to them for soon?” -“Yes” ” For tomorrow?!” “Yes!”.  We were both beside ourselves with excitement and less than an hour after crossing the border we booked in for the next day! The really helpful and friendly staff at UWA office patiently answered all of our questions, however strange, and as we were just about to buy our permits  told us there may be a possibility that we could fill some cancelled slots at a bit of a discount at another park to the north, Bwindi Impenetrable NP. This would require us to leave at 6am sharp for the “maybe one hour maybe two hour drive” to the southern section of Bwindi NP. We didn’t really care where we went as long as we could go on the trek and for the discount we said yes. The staff said if they could get permits at Bwindi they would drop them on their way home to our camp site and if they didn’t it meant it was back to plan A, trekking in Mgahinga at full price. We didn’t really mind either way we just wanted to go! By bed time that night we had not heard anything so assumed it was on for M NP. Just as we were falling asleep to the thumping music from town (we thought as we drove in this was small peaceful town!) the night watchman knocked on landy door and said “permits”.  We grogily jumped up and there was the UWA staff member with our permits for Bwindi!

So yesterday morning started with us leaving at 6 am in the pitch dark for the two hour drive down a bumpy dirt road. We could tell the narrow track was cutting up and down steep hills and it was a cool way to start the day, watching the sun rise, revealing the patchwork of terraced slopes we were driving through. When we arrived we had a quick pre trek brief and met the other people we were in a group with and set off with a guide, two armed guards and a porter for one of the walkers. The trek began, and it was a trek!

Straight away it started to rain, I guess a lush rainforest has to have some rain! We walked on a narrow rough track for the first hour or so with steady rain falling, which was not a bad as it may sound, it was warm and still, and we were excited. Of course how long you walk depends on where the gorillas are, we had heard its anything from half an hour to a few hours. It would have been a little bit of an anticlimax to see them near the car park, which is what sometimes happens, but we didn’t expect a whole day. Our trek was 3.5 hours, the first half on smaller and smaller trails, and the rest pushing through the undergrowth. We both loved the walk and being in the beautiful misty forest, although it was calf deep mud at times and steep at others. It would have been a brilliant day just with the walk…. but as we reached that ridge why we were there was brought home when the guide said “Give the guard your walking sticks” and told us what to do in the event of charge (don’t run!) and then said, “Right let’s go see the animals”.

What an hour! A really incredible overwhelming experience and such a privilege to see them. Our time with these giants was exhilarating and beautiful. Their sheer size. They seemed at ease with us there, with the guides making soft soothing grunting noises to them. Its humbling seeing animals observing you as much as you are observing them, especially as they are so human like in their features and gestures. Making eye contact with several was a highlight for both of us, those big deep brown eyes holding our gaze. We were surprised to have such a clear view of them and to be able to get within a few metres. One female in particular seemed to be watching us intently. As we approached she was lying in a clear bit on her back scratching her enormous belly.  After we watched her for a while she heaved herself up on her side, crossed one leg over the other and propped her head up on her hand looking at us, what a poser!

When it was time to go we were told we would head back a different, easier way. It was easier in that it was down but only slightly. It was very steep and muddy and we all spent time on our bums- a lot! Including once when Olly slid spectacularly and collected me as he headed down the slope! It took 2.5 hours to walk and slide our way down to where we started. We peeled off our very muddy and still damp clothes. Tired and smiling dreamily we packed our filthy clothes and shoes away and decided to go to a nice spot on the lake a few hours drive away, and here we are overlooking a peaceful lake.

We spent the drive reliving it all and collapsed into bed early after a massive but amazing day.

O and L

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