“Good morning this is your captain speaking. This morning our flights will feature delays… many delays. Eventually we will arrive in our final location Kihihi Uganda, but it may take some time.” Would we ever make it to the depths of Uganda and our much awaited gorilla safari adventure?
Our flight from Nairobi to Entebbe had changed several times in the lead up to the trip. Not an uncommon occurrence and it will be familiar to frequent jetsetters. Our flight plan had us flying Kenya Airways out of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi, Kenya to Entebbe, Uganda and then small plane to Kihihi, Uganda.
Our first delay out of Nairobi put us on edge. We had a tight connection with a chance we would miss our next flight. Arriving at the baggage area we rushed over to the service counter and informed them that we were likely going to miss our connection. An airport representative helped us to get to the next gate as quickly as possible. We rocketed through the multiple security checkpoints that are standard in African airports. We made it to the check in counter just in time, only to be informed that yet again our flight was delayed. We thanked our escort and processed our paperwork checking our luggage. It was election day in Kenya and the pilot was running late from the polling booth. As small compensation, the airline purchases us a beer to buy our time.
Finally, we were departing Entebbe almost 3 hours behind schedule. We boarded the Cesnar and took a 60 min flight to Kihihi in the depths of the Ugandan jungle.
As we flew over the Ugandan landscape its difference compared to our recent savanna experience came into full view. Wet tropical forested mountains replaced grasslands. The rugged overgrown landscape hinted at the adventure that was to come.
As we landed in Kihihi at the golf course airstrip, we thought to ourselves, how much golf to Ugandans play? As we deplaned, our guide Robert came over and introduced himself. He was very pleased to see us, he had been waiting all day for our arrival.
We were finally on the road to Bwindi and the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. As we drove through the villages the residents turned and watched inquisitively. Children ran to the side of the street and waved enthusiastically. It became evident that western tourism and tourists are still a novelty in Uganda. Very different to the nonchalant attitude we had experienced in Kenya.
Robert regaled stories and provided interesting information about the local villages as we continued on our hour-long drive. The lack of paved roads and pedestrian demarcation was not a new experience, after our trip to Kenya, but was still quite confronting. Robert explained that the local hospitals have seen a large increase in motor vehicular accidents in recent years. Unfortunately, this is mostly due to the increase in tourism. Many large trucks delivered produce and supplies to the lodges. The locals use Motorbike-taxis with very little safety regulations. These factors all combined to increase fatalities and critical incidence along the roads. As we passed trucks and watched children bravely walk along the roadside, which cannot be disguised from the actual roads. Our anxiety rose, we hoped we would not contribute to this unhappy statistic.
“We are here, friends” Robert proudly stated, “You are finally home.” We pulled into the gate past security and walked into the entrance Banda. The lodge manager Joselyne welcomed us and saying “Welcome, welcome, we have been waiting for you”. “Can we welcome you in true Bwindi style with a dance?” We eagerly accepted and two of the staff members performed a lovely welcome dance and song for us. We thought to ourselves, with all the “fancy” hotels and resorts we have stayed in, we have never had such a touching and warm welcome. We were introduced to our personal butler Ronald and were escorted to our Banda.
A Banda is a dwelling generally made of mud brick with a thatched roof. They are normally basic in their amenities. But these were positively luxurious. Ronald gave us the full tour and asked if we would like him to light the fire. The temperature was in the mid 20 degree celsius range so we politely declined the offer. He suggested we freshen up and make our way up to the main lodge for pre dinner drinks. As he departed he offered another welcome dance and we willingly accepted.
We had a warm shower and headed up to the main building for a glass of wine and some photo opportunities. Robert came and discussed our plans for the following day. He provided his recommendations and we welcomely accepted his guidance.
We had a delicious meal with a spectacular jungle mountain view to compliment. The meal had been best we had had to date in Africa. We sent our compliments to the chef, January who came out to thank us and then proceeded to perform another welcome dance for us. What a welcome! We were in for a treat in Bwindi, we could tell already.
We retired early to prepare for our mountain trek excursion the following day.
We requested a wake up call, which was not your standard wake up call. Predominantly because there wasn’t phone in the room. We had awoken to our iPhone alarms as usual, but it was still nice to hear Ronald walking down the path singing “Good morning, good morning, It’s time for you to rise.” Again it was the personal touch made for a special experience.
Breakfast was fresh fruit and eggs cooked to order. A few cups of coffee and we prepared ourselves for the adventure ahead. We were trekking the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in search of wild Mountain Gorillas. It was finally the time to have a Mountain Gorilla Safari of our dreams.
A short drive to the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, we met our park guide and had our briefing. They gave us two options; the easy Gorilla Safari or the hard Gorilla Safari. Of course, we chose the hard Gorilla Safari, we were informed it would be physically demanding, but the chances of quality time with a large group of Gorillas was high. The guide recommended we hire a porter from the local village to carry our bags. It is a good way to support the local community and only cost US$10. We hired two porters and set off with our group.
We were lead by a guide with a soldier with a rifle at the front and at the back of the group. The forest is a dangerous place. Giant Forest Hogs, Elephants, Gorillas and several cat species can pose a threat. Not to mention, the National Park traverses three national borders. All of which have suffered from geopolitical unrest in recent decades. Poachers are known to cross borders with a “shoot first and ask questions later” mentality. We felt much safer knowing we had armed guards to protect us.
The first part was easy, our guide talked about the conservation measures and how important tourism is to supporting the national park financially. Not long into the trek, it started to get more challenging. Clear paths turned into dense jungle. We hacked and chopped our way through intertwining vines and thorny bushes. The Impenetrable forest was living up to its name.
A group of trackers had departed 4 hours ahead of us at 6am. They were breaking ground and searching for the gorilla troop. From time to time they radioed through to our guide with updates. We could not understand their reports, but it was obvious the search was not going well. We continued on, past some beautiful waterfalls, the forest getting thicker and inclines getting steeper and more treacherous. We got to the top of a hill and stopped. “Rest here a moment” our guide suggested, “we are having trouble finding the Gorillas.” We waited and rested, as much as you can when surrounded by jungle bugs and humid heat. Our porters were not phased at all, it was literally and figuratively a walk in the park for them. Our guide returned and said, “we found them, let’s go!”
Further, into the forest we hacked, the vines and leaves surrounding us as if closing in to trap us. Traversing a ridge and another hill, we finally we made it to the tracking party who pointed down the hill, “Down there.. We found the Mubare Family” We grabbed our cameras and started down a steep embankment. We were allocated 1hr to spend with the troop and we wanted to get as many photos as possible to remember the experience by.
We tried to remember our briefing from the morning. Keep your distance, do not make eye contact and be calm. Easier said than done when we are in the moment. We were bubbling with excitement. In front of us was a family of critically endangered mountain Gorillas. A mature Silverback male named Kanyonyi, two adult females Kisho and Malika and a mixture of young adults, juveniles (2-3 yr old) and a 6 week old baby. We watched as the family munched on leaves and vine branches. The younger members romped and beat their chests practising for when they would become silverbacks. All the time their father Kanyonyi kept his distance, with a thick bush between and his back turned to us. Two of the older female Gorillas were to the left of us. They were grooming each other and watching the children from a distance. All were habituated Gorillas, which means they are used to seeing humans. But are still very wild and unpredictable. The females arose from the bedding and started to head towards the rest of the family. The tracker motioned for us to step back and let them through. We shuffled around and let them pass. The little ones welcomed their family members and continued their roughhousing.
A few more minutes passed and we all heard a rustle coming from Kanyonyi. He rose up from his bedding and turned to face us. We collectively held our breath. “Be calm everyone” whispered the tracker. Kanyonyi bounded up the hill towards us, our hearts raced, was this it? Would one of us become a statistic of Gorilla tourism. The Troop cleared a space and Kanyonyi plonked himself down in the middle, again turning his back to us. We all looked at each other and let out a big sigh of relief. Now congregated in a group our cameras we wild. The young gorillas returned to their rough housing, climbing on their father and playing a gorilla version of king of the mountain. He patiently allowed it, at one point one of the youngest climbed on his back and beat it chest to show his siblings he was king of “Gorilla Mountain.”
The guide whispered, “that’s time everyone.” the fastest hour in our lives has passed. We clambered up the hillside and back to our porters. As the euphoria of the experience wore off it dawned on us the huge trek we still had before us.
2hr into the return trip the mountain afternoon rains came in. The already challenging trek had become even harder. Several members of the group were now finding the trek extra daunting. Exhaustion was setting in and the porters were earning their money. Holding backpacks and hands rapidly turned into catching slipping tourist. As we all slipped and skated in our expensive hiking boots, our porter caught us wearing sandals made of old car tires or rubber boots. What skill and dexterity they had.
We made it back to the park gates with only minor injuries and a twisted knee or two. We thanked the guides and porter, provided some generous tips and made a couple of Facebook friends.
Robert met us and could tell we were tired and beaten. We got into the Landcruiser and headed back to the lodge. We showered and headed up to the main lodge for dinner. When we arrived the lodge manager informed us that a group of local school children had arrived to perform a song and dance for us. We walked up to a grassed area near the entrance. The children sang songs about their community and thanking us for visiting them. It was very heartwarming and we took some photos and tried some drumming and dancing (which we were very bad at). Entertainment complete we returned to our plans a couple of medicinal glasses of wine. The meal was great again and we headed back to our Banda. We did not take much rocking to get to sleep.
We arose the next morning with Sherriden sporting a nasty injured knee. She opted to stay in for the morning and Anthony set out for a walk along a nearby river. There was more to see than just a Gorilla Safari. Robert walked with him and explained more about the local flora and fauna. They then sat at the edge of the tea plantation and share stories about their lives.
After the walk, we prepared for our community experience tour. First, we met the members of The Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust (VSPT) for a tour of their Bwindi Tea Cooperative. Established in 2009 the VSPT is a non-profit foundation funded by partial donations from the Safari operation and donations from guest staying at the lodges. The VSPT aims to create long-term, self-sustaining projects that enrich the livelihoods of local communities, promote the conservation of the great apes, restore natural habitats and work with communities and institutions to reduce human-wildlife conflict.
We learnt how the tea is grown, harvested and processed. Creating white, green and black tea. Finishing off the tour with a nice warm cup of team on the deck.
It was time to leave the lodge, we walked up to the local shopping strip to meet the locals and check out some artisan crafts. We walked store to store seeing everything and meeting all the store owners and crafts people. We purchased many gifts and souvenirs and learnt about how the pieces are carved and painted.
Artisan tour complete and wallets lightened we met our next guide, Dorothy. She welcomed us and thanked us for taking the time to visit the community. We strolled past the coffee plantations, banana and pineapple farms. Our first stop was with a local medicine man. We stepped into a round hut and met a wiry old man with a bushy beard and excited energy. He invited us to take and seat so he could explain his craft. He did not speak English, so Dorothy translated. The room smelt of pungent herbaceous spice. He shared many jungle plants and their medicinal qualities. The majority of which seemed to focus on two main ailments, constipation and male ED. Even without English the various hand signals more than got the message across.
We stepped out heading towards our next stop, the Banana beer brewery, but as we departed the hut, the afternoon rain storm rolled in. It was a very heavy down pour, we madly searched for cover. Dorothy ushered us towards a nearby house. She knocked on the door and it was opened by a small child. She said “come in, we can shelter here.” We sat in the simple mud brick dwelling watching the rain fall and hearing the heavy patter on the corrugated iron. Through the rain a local man, who looked to be in his late 40’s approached the house. He looked at us sitting in his front room, with an inquisitive but unconcerned eye. As he approached the door, Dorothy introduced herself and us. We greeted each other and they conversed for a few minutes. We assumed she was explaining what we were doing in his house. He explained to Dorothy that he was also a medicine man in this community. He showed us a gourd and selection of herbs he had just picked. He was planning to dry out the gourd and turn it into a water vessel. Dorothy and the gentleman conversed some more in their language and the rain slowly abated. We arose from the simple seating in this family’s room thanks our impromptu host and headed back out on our tour. As we departed the gentleman waved goodbye. We thought to ourselves, how many westerners would open their doors to strangers caught in the rain. If a random tourist and guide came to your door, would you be ready to invite them in without any questions?
We walked a short distance to one of the local Banana Beer breweries. Yes, like the name suggests they ferment banana into beer and even distill it into a Banana gin. Dorothy and head brewer explained the different type of bananas they grow and the process they use to create the beer and gin. Of course there was a chance to sample some of her wares. As you would expect the brew tasted like a malty sweet banana drink with a slight alcohol burn. We wonder if it will ever take off as a microbrewery concept in the West.
With a light buzz on, we headed to our next stop a visit to the local Echuya Batwa (pygmy) community. The Batwa are one of the world’s most vulnerable, marginalised and threatened group of people in the world. The Batwa were forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers who inhabited the Bwindi and Mgahinga National Parks. Living in small elevated huts made of sticks and grass. The Batwa were displaced with the creation of the national parks in the early 1990’s. The Ugandan government has be condemned for their poor handling of the relocation of the Batwa. The Batwa in Uganda (today) experience systematic and pervasive discrimination from the government and other sectors of society. Their rights as indigenous peoples are neither recognized nor respected.
One of the Batwa elders met us at the entrance to their “experience” area. He played a song for us on a traditional instrument. He beckoned us to follow him and demonstrated some local medicinal bark with special invigorating properties. Finally, he took us to the example traditional village set up the community had built to show visitors how the Batwa used to live in the jungle. After a quick tour and explanation of the construction methods, the family performed a traditional song and dance and invited us to purchase some artisan crafts. We thanked the Batwa and made our way to our last stop the local community hospital.
The Kabale Regional Referral Hospital was founded in 1969 and services the nearby communities and a recently constructed nursing school. The hospital receives very limited funding from the Ugandan government and relies heavily on donations from visitors and charity organisations. It was amazing to see the number of people waiting to see the doctors, women, children and earlier with all manner of ailments. We thanked the hospital guide and Dorothy called Lucas to come and pick us up. The tour normally finishes with a walk back to the lodge, but with Sherriden’s knee injured Lucas made an exception and picked us up.
Our final stop was a visit to Bwindi Bar. The bar provides a practical training institution for local disadvantaged youths living near the Bwindi National Park. The trainees at the bar gain practical skills in food and service before they are sent for further internships at nearby lodges. This is a fantastic initiative supported by the Volcano Safaris Partnership Trust and provides many new opportunities to the local community. We ordered coffee and decided to try something on the menu called “The Rolex”. It is essentially a savoury egg crepe filled with meats, vegetables and cheese. It was absolutely delicious and a great way to end our afternoon. Robert joined us for a coffee and arranged to have cognac and wine delivered to us from the lodge. We spent some time sharing stories and laughing with the locals.
We thought our day was done, however, Robert had one more surprise for us. We could hear the sounds of children singing and chanting in the distance. As we followed their voices through the streets, we were warmly welcomed at Bwindi Watoto School. A private school, receiving no government funding. Its mission is to serve families in extreme poverty, orphans and gifted children without access to resources. The children did a number of songs and dances. They sung about the gorillas and how happy they were that we came to visit. It was then time to head back to the lodge and settle in for the evening.
The next morning, it set in, our adventures in Uganda were coming to end. We were up early for the drive back to Kihihi and our flight back to Nairobi. We said our goodbyes to the lodge staff, took some last minute photos and headed off.
We met some amazing people in Bwindi Uganda. I am sure we will never forget them, especially Robert, Ronald, January and Dorothy. We keep in touch with many via regular emails and social media conversations. After a very short time our new friends welcomed us into their community and made us part of their family. They continue to teach us about their culture. From them we have learnt, that material possessions are not as valuable as community spirit. Pride should come from working together to overcome shared challenges. That conservation can make a difference when it is embraced by a community with shared aspirations.
Thanks to our experience in Bwindi we believe more than ever, that a vacation should never end. You may have left the location, but, the experiences should live in your heart, mind and soul. It is the duty of every tourist to share their experiences with their world. We will continue to tell all our family and friends, “take the leap and book a trip to Bwindi, Uganda”. Their community would love to meet you and the Mountain Gorillas need you. Together we can help conserve this threatened species and habitat. Together, we can bring some economic stimulus to marginalised communities who are working to improve the lives of the people and environment around them. We in the first world have the money and resources to improve the world for others. Even if you are not the “charitable type”, a trip to Bwindi will give you something that will change your life forever. It will open your eyes to a different world and provide you with an experience that very few people have had.
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