Uganda: Part 1

It was not without a tear in my eye that we bid farewell to Sasakwa.  The sweeping green vistas from the terrace will be forever engraved in my mind.  We flew from the Grumeti air strip to the Kilimanjaro Airport and from there to Entebbe, Uganda (although to my mild annoyance, we later learned that we could have chartered direct from Grumeti to Kihihi where we would go tomorrow).  The A&K team was there to meet us and we drove one hour to the Serena Lake Victoria Hotel to spend the night.  It is a “wannabe” five-star resort on the lake complete with golf course, spa and pool area, but somehow just missed the five-star rating.  There is also a three-star airport hotel which probably would have saved some time in the car, but it was good to understand the options.  Ideally you’d skip the Entebbe overnight.  My daughter, Abby, joined us late this evening, after a nightmare reroute due to Emirates’ mechanical delay out of New York. 

It was a one hour, ten minute flight from Entebbe to Kihihi, and a 90 minute drive from the airstrip to Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp which would be home for the next three nights.  It was a beautiful drive through tea and coffee plantings on the undulating hills. Interestingly enough, 80% of Ugandan people are involved in agriculture and there was an abundance of avocados, bananas and melon being grown as well.  Winston Churchill declared Uganda as “The Pearl of Africa” during his 1907 visit because of the country’s incredible natural beauty, and his words resonated with me, a century later as we enjoyed these stunning vistas on our dusty, bumpy drive.

This A&K-owned camp has eight tents, each with two queen beds and spacious en-suite bathroom complete with separate tub and shower.  In all it is 91 steps to get up to the lodge and a further 123 steps if you are in tent 8 which is called Weaver.  Fortunately, I was in tent four which was called Kingfisher and much closer! Situated on the edge of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, the camp has lushly landscaped gardens and hedges literally dripping with white datura blossoms. 

Located in Southwestern Uganda, Bwidini is 128 square miles and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most importantly, it is home to roughly half of the world’s total population of mountain gorillas.  With only 880 left in the wild, according to the last census in 2011, this endangered primate is fiercely protected by the Uganda Wildlife Authority. It was the opportunity to see the gorillas in their natural habitat that had brought us to this remote place, and to realize a longstanding dream.  My fascination with primates I imagine goes back to my anthropology studies in college, and having seen the orangutans in Borneo, I was more determined than ever to get to Uganda. Gorillas share 98.4% of our human DNA, and live in groups in the forest.  Just 24 lucky visitors are awarded permits to enter the park per day, and these permits (which cost $600 per person per day), are highly sought after and often the basis around which an entire itinerary is planned.  Needless to say, our spirits were high as we settled into our camp for the night and prepared for the early start tomorrow for our first of two days tracking the gorillas in the forest.

A lot of care went into the packing for this part of the expedition and I’d practically memorized the advice in the A&K pre-trip material, plus had the input from friends who’d done the tracking in the past.  Items that were new to me, like thorn-proof pants (which felt like they were made out of a canvas tent) and gaitors to protect you from ants crawling up your pant legs were a part of my kit together with usual suspects like bug spray, waterproof hiking boots and rain jacket.  Because you are usually able to get quite close to the animals, the long telephoto lenses were swapped out for 16-35mm 2.8, 50 mm 1.2, and 135 mm 2.0.  We planned to shoot video on a Leica Q, mounted on a gimbal to steady it. 

We were issued walking sticks and it was a five minute walk to the UWA headquarters.  We had a general briefing, outlining the park rules and the 24 of us were split into three groups and introduced to our ranger, Rita, who would guide us through the day.  We would be tracking the Habinyanja group today, comprised of 19 gorillas.  It was a 35-minute drive to the village from which we would set off, and there that we had the opportunity to engage the services of porters (cost is $15/day plus tip– worth every penny) who carried our backpacks and camera gear.  The Lodge insisted that we bring four bottles of water per person which seemed like overkill to me, but trust me, later on, we were happy to have it.  My porter was called Pasco and only five minutes into the hike up a steep hill in the mid-morning sun, I was all too happy to have his hands on my hips, literally pushing me up the hill! He also helped me ford little streams, descend down slippery slopes, and always there encouraging me to take a sip of water.

There is a very clear line of demarcation as to where the farmland ends and the forest begins.  Only 10 steps into the forest, one immediately understands why it is called impenetrable.  There was no trail whatsoever and Rita had a sickle and was slashing vines and giant ferns out of our way. She was in touch via walkie talkie with a pair of trackers, James and Basil, who had been out in the forest since 7 a.m. looking for signs of where the gorillas would have nested for the night and thus working out where we might encounter them today.  This part of the process is very unpredictable and we’d heard tales of it sometimes taking all day.  We were very lucky though – about 45 minutes into the hike, Rita confirmed that the trackers had located the group and we hiked another 20 minutes to meet up with them. 

At this point, we had to leave our porters, walking sticks and back packs and just take cameras for the final 50-meter track to where the gorillas were.  And then like magic, we spotted the dominant male, called a silverback, due to the silvery white hair on his back.  Estimated at 450 lbs, he was seated, chomping away on leaves while cheeky teenagers frolicked around him.  Mothers with tiny babies clinging to their backs meandered by.  We were instructed not to touch them, but the rules do not apply in reverse – a curious male grabbed Abby’s ankle which gave her quite a startle! We followed them into a little clearing where we all crouched down with camera shutters clicking away.  We saw a total of eleven members of this group.  Two young blackbacks (immature males who have not yet turned silver) were causing quite a ruckus and this got the attention of the silverback who suddenly charged them and punished them despite the mother’s whimpers! This all happened so fast and we were positively frozen in our places, awed by the silverback’s authority. 

Their hands and ears are astonishingly human and the mother was cradling her baby just as we would an infant.  Most of the time we were about 10 feet away from the animals, although occasionally, one would walk right past you and brush up against your leg! I reminded myself to put the camera down from time to time and just “be” with these magnificent primates.  The one hour passed like nano-seconds and almost as if on queue, they scampered off into the forest.  We retreated in a euphoric state to find the porters, somehow immune to the heat, the briars, and the perspiration running down my back.

We stopped on the edge of the forest to have our picnic lunch and recount impressions of what we’d just seen.  It was beyond awesome! We were back at the lodge by 1:30 p.m.  which I felt was very lucky – I’ve heard tales of trackers sometimes not returning until after dark. A hot shower and chilly glass of wine were my top priorities and we then set off for a “community walk” to explore the local village. We visited a distillery making moonshine out of bananas, and hiked up (as if we needed more hiking) to a Pygmy tribal encampment known as the Batwa people. Known for their small stature, they were formerly forest dwellers, but were relocated when Bwindi became protected. Their homestead was very humble with tiny thatched huts.  We were welcomed with singing and dancing. 

Back at the lodge, we wrestled with intermittent internet access and downloaded photos, oohing and ahhhing over each other’s images.  The photography had been challenging due to low light and lots of thick brush under the forest canopy, but we managed to get a few good ones.  Rita had deemed this one of her best days ever with the gorillas because of how interactive they were and for me, it was one of the best days of my life!

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