Uganda: Tracking the Gorillas at Bwindi

21st January - 9th February 2002


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It was Monday morning; I had a busy day ahead of me in the city. My number one priority was to go to the Uganda Wildlife Authority office to book a permit to track the mountain gorillas at Bwindi National Park. In addition, I planned to visit Barclays Bank to cash some travellers cheques and also drop my passport off at the Kenyan embassy to arrange a visa. Françoise had to go to work at the Medic San Frontier office today, so he gave me directions from the Kalabagala district to the city centre. The Medic San Frontier office was just up the road from the guesthouse; this whole district was home to the various western aid agencies that were operating in the country. It was an affluent area; all the houses were large with well-maintained gardens, the streets quiet and peaceful with very little traffic. Security was very high profile with barbed and razor wire adorning the garden walls and signs on the gates warning any potential intruders that the property was 'electronically' protected by an alarm system.

I walked through this tranquil neighbourhood to the commercial centre of Kalabagala, from where I took a matatu to the old taxi park below Kampala Road in the city. The Uganda Wildlife Authority office (UWA) is located behind the Sheraton hotel in Jubilee Park. They told me that the next permit they had available was on February 5th and would cost US$250. There are only twelve permits a day issued for the Bwindi NP and six for the Mgahinga NP. These can be booked up to two years in advance and often the tour companies make block bookings of days at a time. I asked them to reserve that place for an hour while I went to the bank to withdraw some money. I left the UWA office and sped off to Kampala road on a boda boda and was dropped outside Barclays Bank. The queue at the forex counter was horrendous; there was only one cashier and about twenty customers waiting, a typical Monday morning at a bank. I abandoned that plan as I guessed that I would be waiting there for at least an hour and a half to get served.

I walked back up the hill to the UWA office and decided to pay with the US dollars I had with me. I would return to Barclays later in the day as I saw that I could purchase US dollars with my credit card. While I had been at the bank, only about 30 - 40 minutes, a cancellation had come in for that Thursday. I handed over my dollars and in return received my permit; I now had two days to get to Bwindi NP in the far south west of the country by the border with DR Congo. I ditched my plans to go to the Kenyan embassy today, as it was now too late to get a visa processed the same day and planned to leave Kampala early tomorrow morning.

I wasn't too sure how I would get to Bwindi, it is in the middle of nowhere. At first I planned to get a bus to Kabale or Kisoro and from there try to hitch or find a matatu to Butogota, the nearest village only 17km from the park. I checked at the post office in Kampala to see if there was a post bus going in that direction, but they too only went as far as Kabale. After a long hot day running about the city I returned to the guesthouse exhausted. During the evening I read my guidebook and to my surprise saw that there was a daily bus from Kampala direct to Butogota. It was supposed to leave sometime after 06.00 at the bus park, so I arranged for a taxi to pick me up at 05.30 the following morning.

Thanks to the anti-malarial drugs I'm taking I'm usually awake by five in the morning, so this mornings early start was not a problem. Françoise was making an early start too; he had to fly back up to the hospital in the north of the country. The taxi arrived on time and dropped me at the bus park just before six. There was the usual chaos at the gates to the bus park with all the touts trying to get me onto their bus. I eventually found the Silverline bus and bought a ticket for USH15,000. I sat there on the bus for an hour going nowhere, then another hour and another until the bus, now bursting at the seams with people and luggage, finally departed just after 09.00. It was your typical African bus journey where you could not move and the only thing you could do to keep the circulation going in your legs was to wiggle your toes. I just hoped that no one would stand on my feet!

We travelled along a good tarred road southwest over the equator and through the towns of Masaka and Mbarara. Somewhere in the bush between Mbarara and Kabale we turned right onto a gravel road and from there I was off my map. The nearer we came to Bwindi the more dramatic the scenery became. The road soon became nothing more than a dirt track as we drove around thickly forested mountains and lush green cultivated valleys; the views were stunning. As the bus passed through village after village the children would wave and shout as the bus went past, leaving a cloud of dust in its wake. Finally, ten hours after leaving Kampala I arrived at Butogota, the time about 19.00. There were eight other travellers on the bus, all of us going to Bwindi NP. We negotiated with a man in the village who had a pick up truck who agreed to take us the 17km to the park headquarters for USH25,000, which split between nine was about USH3,000 each.

It was dusk as we sped off down a dirt track to the park HQ. We hung on in the back of the pick up as we flew over the potholes and around the corners as the track twisted its way through the forest and up into the mountains. We arrived in the dark and checked into the Buhoma Community Camp Site. They had individual bandas as well as a couple of dormitory bandas, I took a bed in a dormitory banda for USH15,000 a night. The campsite was on the side of a valley surrounded by forest. The bandas were spread out down the slope towards the river with a wonderful view across the valley to the forest.

Bwindi is Uganda's most recent national park and was formerly known as the Impenetrable Forest. It covers an area of 331 sq km and is home to half of the surviving mountain gorillas in the world. Gorillas used to inhabit a large section of Central Africa until the ice age diminished the forests and left the gorillas divided into three groups, the eastern lowland gorilla, the western lowland gorilla and the mountain gorilla. There are now only two populations of about 300 individuals surviving in the Bwindi forest and on the slopes of the Virunga volcanoes, in an area where the Ugandan, Rwandan and DR Congo borders meet.

The species was first discovered in 1902 when the German officer, Oscar von Beringe, shot two of them on the slopes of Mt Sabinyo and then gave his name to the species, gorilla beringei. Hunting these gorillas became a popular pastime until 1925 when the Belgian government created Africa's first protected area, the Albert National Park. Poaching and agricultural encroachment was still a problem and it was not until 1959 that George Schaller undertook the first scientific study of these gorillas. Dian Fossey continued his work in 1967 until she was murdered in 1985 by suspected poachers. Her work was made into the famous film, Gorillas in the Mist. Gorilla tracking has proved to be very popular with tourists firstly in the Congo in the 1970's, then Rwanda in the 1980's and Uganda in the 1990's. Due to the political instabilities in Uganda's neighbouring countries, Uganda is now the most popular destination to go tracking. These instabilities unfortunately crossed the DR Congo border in March 1999 when rebels crossed the border into the Bwindi NP, kidnapped and subsequently murdered eight tourists. Gorilla tourism nose-dived and nowhere was any longer thought as safe to go tracking. It is only now, nearly three years later that tourism is once again returning with the reassurance of a large military presence in the park and at tourist campgrounds.

I was booked to track the Habinsanja gorilla family, or H family for short. There are two families in the park that have been habituated to human contact and six people are permitted to visit each family each day. The H family has been habituated since 1993. The other family is found very close to the park headquarters and is known as the headquarters group; they can be found within about twenty minutes and live on the slopes on the opposite side of the valley from the Community campground. The H family live much further out in the forest and the previous day it took almost four hours to track them down. To speed things up today, trackers had been sent out at first light to find the family and to radio back their position to the park HQ. We set off just after 08.30, four Americans, one British student and myself plus two trackers, four porters for the Americans and four soldiers to provide security. We walked along the main trail into the park for about an hour and a half until we turned off and climbed up a slope into the thick of the jungle. We had only climbed a few hundred metres up the slope when we stopped and the trackers whispered to us to get our cameras ready. The porters and soldiers stayed put and the six of us and the two trackers continued up the slope. Suddenly there in the trees was the gorilla family. We kept in a group and slowly walked up the slope until we were surrounded by gorillas, the adults lying about in the undergrowth chewing on leaves and twigs, while the younger gorillas played about and climbed trees.

We were not allowed to get closer than five metres to prevent passing on any human infections. The gorillas seemed oblivious to our presence and just carried on with what they were doing. They would look at us from time to time with very much the same expression as ourselves. There are two silverbacks in this group but we only saw one of them, the group was spread out over quite a wide area of the jungle. It is difficult to describe what it is like to see these rare and threatened creatures face to face. To look into a gorilla's eye is to look in a mirror. I think George Schaller summed it up best when he wrote: 'No one looks into a gorilla's eyes - intelligent, gentle, vulnerable - can remain unchanged, for the gap between ape and human vanishes, we know that the gorilla still lives within us.' We were allowed an hour with the gorillas before we had to go; visits are limited to an hour so as not to create too much stress for them. The trackers signalled to us that it was time to go, I looked into a gorilla's eyes for the last time before turning and retreating down the slope. As we walked in silence back to the main trail I just hoped that the local people and the world community would work together to protect these precious animals for future generations. A world without the mountain gorillas would surely be a poorer world.

I spent three nights at Bwindi NP. I also went hiking along a couple of other trails through the forest. I hiked the Muzabijiro Loop trail by myself; when I say I did the trail by myself I mean I was the only tourist. It was more like being on a military jungle exercise. Leading the way was a soldier, followed by a guide, myself and bringing up the rear, another soldier. The trail lead steeply up the mountains to the west and from the top a clearing had been cut allowing views across the forest below and the mountains disappearing into the haze in the distance. From here it is possible to see the Virunga volcanoes but they remained hidden from my view in the haze. In the afternoon, after tracking the gorillas, four of us got together to hike the Waterfall trail; there were two British students who were teaching at a school in Kampala for a few months during their gap year, Matt and Craig, and an American, Lorant who was a national park ranger. Together with a guide and the obligatory military escort, we hiked to the waterfalls. There are three waterfalls along the Munyaga River deep inside the park. The top falls are 33m high; below the middle falls is a deep plunge pool, which made an ideal spot to take a refreshing dip in the cold, fresh water.

The evenings at the campground were spent sitting around a campfire which Warren, one of the staff, was an expert at making. He would also entertain us playing a traditional, local instrument and singing. The evenings were very pleasant. At the high altitude we were at, mosquitoes were not a problem and the evening temperature just right with the fire providing a bit of background heat. It was also good to meet the other guests staying at the camp. Matt and Craig, the two British gap year students, had hired a minibus and driver to take them on a quick tour of both Bwindi and Queen Elizabeth NPs; they planned to leave the following day to visit Queen Elizabeth NP. My plans were to go to Fort Portal and visit Kibale NP; Matt and Craig's route would take me to the main road between Mbarara and Fort Portal from where I would be able to hitch a ride. They agreed to give me a lift and also let Lorant and his wife Linda hitch a ride with them back to Kampala.

Continue reading this journey: Queen Elizabeth & Kibale NP