Visiting gorillas in Uganda: a long weekend

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The first prize for the Bradt Travel Writer of the Year in 2016 was a trip to Uganda to visit gorillas. Despite a slight fear of animals and no previous interest in east Africa, I entered the competition; declaring on a boozy November night with two friends that, if I won, we’d all go in celebration of S’s 40th birthday.

I didn’t win (came Highly Commended with this entry on a close encounter with a cobra), but, by the time I found out, the seed was sown, and growing into A Definite Plan. A Plan that, what with various work, family and financial commitments, would have to be squished into a long weekend in September.

So last Thursday my intrepid companions S & J and I bid farewell to our sleeping offspring and caught an unhealthily early flight to Amsterdam where we changed to a KLM day flight to Entebbe, via Kigali.

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Crossing the Mediterranean into Africa

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Entebbe airport was hot, even at 10.30pm, and – be warned – they take a photo of you there that then gets stuck in your passport. Hysterical at this discovery (it was a Bad Hair Day) I lost my mind slightly and to the bemusement of a fellow passenger drove his trolley round in circles when all he’d done was ask if I could help adjust his suitcase. We were all still laughing at this when we limped into our guesthouse at midnight, and we became quite delirious when we discovered that S had brought flannel pyjamas to the tropics, and J had ants in her bed (we bashed the lot to a squishy end with our flipflops).

That was day 1.

After 5 hours sleep, day 2 began. Thunder crashed outside as we had breakfast. Our driver arrived at 7am, doing a triple-take when he realised what he was saddled with for the next three days, and we began to try to pay him.

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Looks all nice and good, but this is 2003, and that means it’s bad.

And thus we acquired learning point one:

1) Money is a nightmare. Most tourist-related things (hotel, tours etc) are priced in US dollars. Unfortunately those US dollars have to be fresh out of yesterday’s mint. Issued before 2006? No. Bent or with a tiny tear? No. Been through a pink washing cycle and initialled? You’re having a laugh. We had clocked on to this a bit late in the preparations and had failed to change our old/dirty dollar notes anywhere in the UK. Thomas Cook refused to swap them at all for money laundering reasons. The banks said they could buy them back and then sell new notes back to me, at which I balked. In retrospect, though, if I’d known how many hours we would spend being thrown around in a 4×4 squinting with our middle-aged eyes at notes to try to identify the ones our tour guide might deem acceptable, it would probably have been worth it. If I were going again, it’d be sterling and Ugandan shillings all the way.

After a lot of faffing around with the money, we finally got going, taking a short-cut down a dirt road to avoid the highway to Kampala which was jammed with traffic. Only at this point did I have the time to really consider the map, where I acquired learning point two, which (as trip organiser) I only shared with S&J with some trepidation:

2) Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, where the gorillas live, is substantially closer to the Rwandan border and its capital Kigali than it is to the Ugandan towns of Entebbe and Kampala. We’re talking 170km instead of 440km, and a 4 hour journey instead of 8-10 hours. Just saying. You might want to consider this when you rattle along on dirt tracks after 9 hours of travelling, basically going back along the route you’d flown over the day before.

On the plus side, we told ourselves, you see a lot of Uganda (which is good). Lots of sandiness. Roadside brick stacks & ovens. Long-horned cows. Termite mounds six feet tall. Lots of bananas; some pineapples; and tomatoes stacked into towers. Village houses painted bright with advertisements (MTN telecoms, Movit hair relaxer, and a whisky brand with the eye-popping strapline: “spreading legs since conception”). Women carrying huge bundles on their heads. Children playing with sticks and tyres. Men lolling around their motorbikes. The grey-crowned crane (national bird of Uganda) and lots of slightly threatening storks. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant (high security as the First Lady was also attending an event there) and ransacked a buffet of cassava, banana plant, kalo (from millet) and shabwe (a very salty sauce). Beautiful terraces and full brown rivers.

And Bwindi, when you finally get to the mountains, is just gorgeous. Lush, green, and noisy with birds that hoop and chirp and make the incongruous, piercing beep of a lorry reversing. We were staying in a pretty lodge with a verandah looking out onto the forest. And a door on the bathroom (unlike the curtain we had in Entebbe).

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En route to Bwindi, the extinct volcanos that form part of the Virunga mountain range

For dinner we walked up to the lodge’s restaurant, had three courses (including a double helping of chocolate pancakes for extra energy) and then sat by the fire running through the list of things we had to take with us the next day. My biggest alarm was how out of breath I’d become just walking up the steps to dinner. We were already at about 1,850m (6,000 feet*), and the hills reached up high around us. I was suddenly nervous.

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Morning view from Gorilla Valley Lodge. Like Shangri-La.

On Saturday we were up again at 5.45am (this wasn’t a holiday for sleep-lovers), and walking into the forest grounds to meet our guides by 7. I was gasping again. “I’m glad I’m not the only one out of breath,” said K, an American professor who was joining our day’s walking. He was 71 and top-heavily overweight.

Possibly because I was distracted by trying to stay upright, once we set off my breathing settled down. There were the four of us, plus K’s porter (“Everyone recommends one,” he said, but we had left all our money at the camp), John the team leader, several trackers with machetes to clear the way, and two guards with guns in case of “stubborn” bush elephants (they said…). After a quick briefing, we were each given a stick, and at about 7.30 we set off in single file along the Mpororo nature trail.

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At first it was just like a good walk in any British woods. Quite muddy, with tree roots to avoid, the odd fallen trunk to straddle, and streams to cross (or slip into). It was clear why the locals were all wearing wellies. I took one for the team and was the first to fall, skidding on a slope and flying hard down onto on my elbow and bum. Everyone was reassuringly concerned, though that didn’t last long as we started to go down like skittles. We slid gently down the trail into a valley and through the clearing where the trackers sometimes camp. We were aiming to get to the place where the gorilla family we were stalking had slept the previous night.

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S enjoying the last days of being 39 in a relaxed fashion

Inconsiderately, the gorillas had not bedded down next to the trail, so after about 45 minutes the trackers got to work with their machetes and we began climbing back up the valley side. The early morning mist had cleared and the sun was showing signs of coming out. It was close and humid. We scrambled one by one through the undergrowth, pausing from time to time to regroup (K was reassuringly slow in the rear). I yelped out at a nettle sting that penetrated my trousers. S fell forward onto a stream of black ants who punished our earlier annihilation of their Entebbe cousins by biting her hard on the hand and refusing to disengage. The ground got steeper, and sometimes disappeared altogether: it was only when I failed to find firm ground with my stick that I realised I was standing on a network of roots and branches a long way above solidity.

At about 9, we began to find the stripped bark that was a sign of recent gorilla activity, and one of the trackers led us higher up the slopes to find where they’d slept. At this point we lost K, who was taken forward with his guide on the level. He also took our sense of humour with him. I can confidently say that if it had been raining I would happily have aborted the whole expedition. S had more immediate concerns, gasping out “Must eat” at regular intervals. Our tracker, Peace, waved her machete rather disparagingly at this and told us to wait a bit; we were almost at the nests. It seems a rather funny name for something that was to hold a 200kg gorilla, but it appears that before night time the family weave roots and branches together to create individual platforms on the steep ground, and line them with leaves before bedding down.

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Gorilla droppings and nest

S and I by this time did not really care, but J got into the spirit of things and crouched down to peer enthusiastically at the leaves and found a coarse white hair from a silverback. If we’d had a ruler, Peace said, we’d be measuring the balls of poo that had been deposited at the side that morning. “Sorry,” we said. “Must eat,” S croaked again and we skidded away to wedge ourselves into some roots and wash down some oat bars. S dug out her gloves.

3) Learning point three: gardening gloves are good. All the blurb recommends bringing these, and we’d agree. Once she had hers on, S was uncaring about where she put her hands, and swung around the forest like Tarzan. I unfortunately (despite sending reminder emails on this very topic the day before we left) had forgotten to put mine in my suitcase, and consequently had to risk-assess and then gingerly pinch whichever fragile stick or leaf I was relying on to hold my body weight. J had brought some gloves but had taken the brief very loosely and as they were finger-less cycling gloves with fluorescent palms decided that unless the gorillas called on her to do jazz hands or some Marcel Marceau mime demo, they weren’t of much use.

After the nests, we started to slide back downhill, still moving along the valley side. A random single gunshot made everyone freeze, but after a brief phone call (no walkie-talkies here) and some hollering around we carried on. K and his guide appeared from the undergrowth and we staggered on together, before being stopped to take a look across to the other side of the valley where the trackers were scrambling around a vertical slope. The gorillas were, apparently, near. We crashed on a little further and were halted again, and then, opposite us, amidst the leaves, we made out patches of black fur. We moved forward, taking photos frantically in case this was the closest we were going to get. And forward again.

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Several black patches here may be gorillas. Or may not.

But finally there was no doubt about it; there were gorillas all around – sometimes just discernible from agitation in the shrubbery which we then hacked towards; at other times rearing up in front of us. We were instructed to leave our walking sticks, and tottered limbless around, grabbing on to whatever we could, pausing and peering where the guides pointed. Where possible I fell to the ground, which at least gave some time to wave my iPhone camera around, with varying degrees of success…

4) Learning point four: Gorilla photography is difficult. It wasn’t as hard as I’d expected to get some definition in their blackness; it was more the practicalities of taking a shot at all. I’d deliberated hard about whether or not to take a proper camera, and decided against. Too heavy, too precious, and creates an unhealthy obsession with the best shot (while the autofocus persists on taking leaves against a blurred ground of gorilla). So I’d supplemented my iPhone with some CamKix lenses but we were on the move so often there was little time to fiddle around changing them, and the gorillas were sometimes so close there was no need for the telephoto. The tripod was quite redundant in the absence of anything reliably solid to rest it on. It was better just to look.

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Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

So for the next two or three hours we just hung out with the gorillas. The silverback dozed off and we macheted our way to sit within a few feet of him for a good 45 minutes. He occasionally looked up but was quite undisturbed. A cheeky baby gorilla crawled around him and kept peering round to take a look at us before overbalancing and rolling off. (S)he’d then come back again, each time getting just a little bit bolder. The other gorillas in the family – mothers and juveniles – kept a greater distance, and there was no doubting who was in charge, when the silverback suddenly leapt up and with a roar flew through air to deliver some admonishment. After this we all carried on moving down with them towards the valley floor, stopping from time to time for the gorillas to poo, eat and mate (twice!) (that’s an image I’ll struggle to get out of my mind).

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Around noon we were all tiring again. The sun was burning. Flies were everywhere. The forest was unforgiving. A machete swung round and (I am sure) touched my thigh. The slaughtered undergrowth left sharp sticks at leg and eye level. I grabbed onto a branch to balance and it came loose and hit me on the head. We’d get stuck in bizarre positions when one foot would get trapped in roots and the other would slide down the mud in front, and have to wait for someone else to manhandle us free from the splits. Our trousers, tucked into our socks against the insects, were filthy. K’s legs were like jelly and he was falling over more than any of us, and being so big and tall it took two to lift him up again. We had visions of the local stretcher unit (a long thin basket carried by volunteers) being called out to get him.

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Hacking through the forest

We fell together into a small clearing and were just about to move forward when one of the guides must have got just a little too close and there was a sudden roar and we all jumped. I was behind S & J and just caught a glimpse of a very fierce, very loud and very fangy gorilla storming towards us. In the extended time period that occurs when something dramatic happens, I remember observing, “Oh, I didn’t catch what they’d said earlier about what to do if a gorilla charges” (ie hide or run)**.

So I followed my instincts and hid behind S.

Who hid behind J.

Thereby quite confirming our mutual and intuitive understanding of the hierarchy of competence within our threesome.

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Our roaring gorilla. Sorry, King Kong.

This minor expression of annoyance from a mother (the gorilla had a baby clinging to her and was unsuprisingly feeling fed up at having a bunch of sweaty bald apes following her around) didn’t perturb the guides at all who shushed her away, but it did provide a fitting climax to our “gorilla habituation experience”.

It was now 1pm. The armed guards emerged out of the forest with our walking sticks. I’d not seen them for hours but suspect they’d been close at hand the whole time, making me relieved I’d not felt the need to slope off and christen my She-Wee.

5) Learning point five: However much water you take with you (2 litres each in our case) you’ll sweat it out before it ever gets as far as your bladder.

We were exhausted and starving. K was horizontal more often than vertical, crashing to the ground with agonising thumps; and his porter wide-eyed with alarm. Yet with the prospect of lunch within the next few hours, K suddenly found new reserves of energy and charged off hand in hand with his porter; crashing and thudding forwards to find the trail which would lead, eventually, to the camping clearing. There, with machetes wedged casually in tree stumps, we spread out, collapsed on the ground on our ‘African seats’ (leaves, à la gorilla nests) and wolfed down the packed lunch provided by the lodge many hours ago: cold toasted sandwiches, a boiled egg, chicken, digestive biscuits and a Rolex (the local omelette chapatti).

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It took another hour or so to make it back to the park entrance, where we were each presented with a certificate marking our achievement, and embarrassingly had to borrow money off our driver to show our appreciation of the guides and trackers.

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We all at some point wondered whether we had done the right thing by coming. Basically we had helped ‘habituate’ a gorilla family: i.e. get them more used to humans so they can be one of the habituated families that other tourists pay to spend an hour with (there are many other families still left wild). Visitors to our lodge that evening told of how the habituated gorillas had come up to them, touched them, played with them. Habituation brings risks of disease transmission, and susceptibility to poachers. But it also brings in tourism, critical to Uganda’s economy, and encourages gorilla conservation: so on balance it is deemed a Good Thing.

For us, it certainly was. We drank our beer that evening with the pride of a feat well achieved. And again the next day. And again the day after that, when, before flying out from Entebbe, we had lunch in the most amazingly-located pizzeria on the shore of Lake Victoria.

What a weekend. We had introduced some perfectly clean and ironed money into the Ugandan economy. Habituated some great apes. Killed a few ants. Fed some mosquitoes (remember Malarone!). Crossed the equator three times (we flew direct back to Amsterdam). Waved at local children (bring some pens to give away next time). And had a healthy reminder of the benefits of electricity. When the sun goes down at 6 and you’re trying to pack your rucksack in the light of one feeble bulb while the villages around you are in darkness, it doesn’t half make you think.

Uganda is beautiful. The gorillas are amazing. And Bwindi Impenetrable Forest… well, the name says it all.

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Lake Victoria from Goretti’s Pizzeria, Entebbe

  • * Altitude sickness can kick in at about 8,000 feet
  • ** For the record it is ‘stay still’
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