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Here, there, everywhere... A modest attempt at chronicling my around the world adventure over the next year (or so).

Mzungu in the mist

UGANDA | Saturday, 11 April 2009 | Views [723] | Comments [1]

the silverback!

the silverback!

after conquering Kilimanjaro and spending a night in Moshi, Tanzania we boarded a bus for the 18 hour ride to Kampala, Uganda are next stop to track gorillas. We did not have a permit to track as they can be hard to get and arrange in advance so we decided to try our luck after arriving. After about 19 hours (I was nicknamed Jesus on the bus by a few Ugandans, not sure why???)we pulled into central Kampala about 10:30am and after a frantic search for an ATM that took my card I returned to awaiting Jessica and Steve our adopted Tanzanian university student who was worried for Jess so we waited. We negotiated our two motorcycle taxis and were off to Red Chilis Hideaway, just outside of town. We arrived a little dirtier but safe but not for lack of trying the traffic in Kampala is horrible but the motorcycles thread through all the cars and trucks, it would not be the first time. After finding a patch of grass to pitch the tent we settled in for the night. The next day we caught a moto to the Ugandan Wildlife Authority office hoping for some good permit karma. We were rewarded, they had two spots open with the large family of gorillas in Bwindi Forest about 12 hours away by bus. It was for Saturday and it was Tuesday so we decided to spend another day in Kampala getting ready then leave a day early for Bwindi. 

We caught a 6:00am taxi to the bus stand in the city for the 6:30am bus to Bwindi. This was more of a local bus with more stops and not in the nicest condition. The bus was called The Gateway, we learned after the ride it was nicknamed the Gateway to Heaven. I would only change one word,  you can guess which one and where it would go! The bus also did not leave at 6:30am, but more like 8am after it was full. The conductor who we bought our ticket from told us to never relax, always watch your bags, we should have known how the bus ride would be after that warning. I will spare readers most of the details but 12+hours, one pee stop each, two potatoes, many funky smelling Africans, one broken window(hitting a truck), one stuck in a ditch, one hole in the floor where water came through when it rained and many bone jarring roads later we arrived into Butagota about 20 km from Bwindi with all of our bags. We negotiated a ride in the back of a pickup the final 20 km to Bwindi and arrived at the park gate at about 8:00pm to check-in for our camping headquarters for our gorilla track. The staff were a welcome site as they helped with our bags, gave us a lantern to light the way and welcomed us warmly. The next day we awoke late to sunshine and birds from the surrounding hills and jungle. We took our time getting up. lazed around and walked into the nearby village later in the afternoon. By bedtime we were both feeling a little under the weather (did I mention some guy completely sneezed on my face during the bus ride??) so we turned in early as we had to meet our guide and group at 7:45am.

The next day we awoke a little groggy but ready to track gorillas. I was not feeling well at all but pressed on as we got our briefing and met our guide. We began the track into the forest(less of a jungle then forest) under beautiful sunny skies. My right big toe had been damaged on the decent from Kilimanjaro so I was dreading wearing my shoes and hoping for a quick track. Sometimes it takes an hour to find the family sometimes 6, I prayed for the former. We were traking largest family of about 24 called the Habinyanja family, which means the swampy area over the mountain where they were first spotted. THe guides use advance trackers who start where the gorillas were spotted the day before. After only about 30 minutes of walking into the forest the trackers radioed our guide they had spotted the family close by. We unloaded our packs, lowered our voices and turned off our camera flashes in anticipation of reachign the group. Less then five minutes later we spotted our first apes. They were walking by us and we seemed to be less then 15 feet from them(the rules say not less then 21 feet but we were to see this was not enforced). We immediately started taking pictures and uhing and ahing as humans do when viewing such a magnificant creature. According to our guide they share over 98% of our genes which makes them very suscpetable to our germs, I was a little worried in not feeling well but I was not showing any signs yet. We moved further into the forest and started to see more of the family in the trees and breaking up branches. We stoppped to admire some younger ones who were playing around. Our family had one silverback and 3 other what the guide called majors, who took decending order from teh number one ape. After another minute of walking we encountered the biggest and best, the silverback!!! He was behind some trees at first but came out for us to see him play with an infant gorillla. We just stood in awe while digital cameras went off limitlessly. He seemed to almost pose for us either sitting up, sitting down and at times laying on his stomach looking right at us. We were no more then 7 feet from one of the strongest creatures in the world who could have easily beat the crap out of many in our group of 7 before we could flee. Fortunately, he was far less impressed with us then we were of him. He just stayed there for at least 20 minutes while we tried to remain calm with cameras in full swing. Finally, our guide said time was up(they only gave you an hour to spend with the family to limit exposure) but we would pass a few more on our way out. We stopped af ew minutes later to watch some infants play rough house in front of some females. They were having a grand time as we snapped more and more photos. The guide said the infants will sometimes get really close to humans out of curiosity but get shooed back by ever present females. It was time to leave our gorilla family and this amazing encounter with some of the last remaining gorillas on earth. According to a 2006 census there are only about 700 or so left in the wild, found in Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC. About half our in Uganda and we were viewing of the 24 families in Uganda. They only allow 24 people a day to view gorillas so the permits are indeed rare and costly but well worth the risk and investment. This is an experience that was surely a once in a lifetime for us and probably for many. Why anyone would not want to protect and secure the future of this truly magnificant creature is beyond me but there are a lot of ignorant people in the world who don't have much to look forward to, damn shame for everyone....remove soapbox.

After leaving the forest we had lunch on a rise overlooking the surround mountains with the DRC in the distance. I had forgotten about my toe but now it was reminding me it was still there so I quickly changed into my sandals for the remaining walk to the vehicles. By the time we reached our camp I was not feeling well nor was Jessica so we took it easy for the rest of the night. We had learned of another bus back to Kampala that was reportedly better then the one we took but it would require a 1 1/2 hour motorcycle taxi at 6am to reach it. We said what the heck it could not be worse and after dinner bedded down for the night with dreams of gorillas in our heads. We awoke the next morning at 5am feeling terrible, packed up and boared our awaiting motos in complete darkness. It was a clear sky with the moon out as we descended the mountain on a dirt road with rocks, packs in tow on three motos. We had picked up Jaimie, another American who was in our tracking group. She had been on the same bus we took a day later and had her boots stolen so she also threw her lot in with us for a different bus. It was a first for me to see the sunrise from the back of a motorcycle while traveling down a mountain, not a bad way to start the day. 1.5 hours later, the bus we wanted was not running (of course, we always have to remind ourselves it is Africa!)so our drivers hurried us down the road to another bus going to Kampala that they managed to stop and wait for us. We had to pay a little premium for the driver to wait but we made it on. THe bus was not much different then the other but a tad newer and made fewer stops including to pee. However, we made it back to Kampala in the daylight and caught a moto back to Red Chilis for a few nights rest before catching a bus back to Nairobi. The one thing notable we did in Kampala was book an airline flight from Nairobi to Addis Ababa, Ethopia. We just could not do another bus ride like before and the one from Nairobi to Addis is supposed to take 4-5 days!!! So we bit the bullet and man it will be so worth it.....ah!

Tags: bwindi, gorillas, uganda



I wish I had read this part of the story before sending the other e-mail. What a wonderful expereince with the gorillas!

  Marge Apr 13, 2009 3:08 AM

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