The ride to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Buhoma village in the south-western district of Kanungu, home of Uganda’s mountain gorillas, is as beautiful and experiential as it is long, winding and never ending. It offers refreshing snapshots into the lush greenery and tranquil life the Ugandan countryside, away from the hustle, bustle and dust in Kampala.
On the road to Kanungu, one zooms past kilometres of beautifully-terraced hills, a hallmark of the agricultural practices in mountainous parts of Uganda. The large expanses of free land testify of an uncrowded country life. The delicious treats from the local communities at various trading centres are a good switch from the Kampala French fries– the favourite pit stop being Lukaya town in Kalungu district.
A tourist can travel to Bwindi by air to Kihihi airfield and then take a 30 minute drive to the forest. It is the fastest way to get to the reclusive primates, albeit at a higher-than-normal cost. One can also hire a a chauffeur-driven tourist vehicle. Or take a bus to Kihihi or Kanungu town and then hire a cab or Boda Boda to Buhoma.
My travelling party to Bwindi was a group of enthusiastic Ugandans eager to embrace the government’s recent call to support the local tourism industry. We were keen to experience what foreign tourists spend thousands of foreign currency to partake of.
Gorilla trekking is one of the most sought after tourism activities in Uganda. However, locals have not always been as enthusiastic. To encourage nationals to enjoy what is often described in the tourism brochures as a thrilling experience, the government reduced gorilla trekking fees for locals to a paltry Shs250,000 (about $68) compared to the $700 paid by foreigners.
So when I woke up on that cold June morning ready to take to the mountains to see the creatures that are closest to man, I was energised. Well-energised by the morning cup of coffee that I had at Trackers Safari Lodge, which overlooks the towering Rwenzori Mountain ranges.
But like many things I had taken for granted, including not doing sufficient exercise well in advance of the long trek, I had also assumed my fashion boots were ideal for the exercise. After switching them for a pair of gumboots I rented from Trackers Safari and a walking stick, a waiter at the restaurant pointed at the top of the mountain and said, “You’re going to walk further than that.”
Of course I laughed. Who was he kidding? Me? Climb that mountain? Never. I told him I had requested to be included in the group of trekkers that would only do 30 minute stops. Yet I had to see the mighty silverbacks. This, after all, is why I had braved the 14 hours from Kampala to Bwindi. So, curiosity got the better of me and I joined the bandwagon of trekkers going all the way to the gorilla habitat.
The daunting journey began at Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) camp into the jungle-like Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
With each step, I started to regret my lack of exercise. Why had I even accepted to come? I was slowly losing my breath. No, I was really losing my breath. Or possibly my life!
There is no clearly marked out path. The trek route has been left as natural as possible. Trekkers have to find their footing by pushing aside shrubs, tree branches and bushes, taking big rock climbs and wading through streams of water.
Three hours later, we had not seen even a rabbit. But we had to keep going. As if that was not enough, it started to rain heavily, complete with lightning and thunder in a place that was already slippery. I promised myself that I would not fall.
But before long, I landed flat on my face. Not once, not twice. I lost count. The rain didn’t stop, not even when we finally reached the top. After 5 hours, we were finally at the top of the mountain where the gorillas had been located by an advance team.
There it was, a family of five gorillas, one male silverback, 3 females and a baby. One female had only one eye. We all scampered for the one thing that we probably should not have, our phones to take pictures and record videos. The gorillas took us on a hide-and-seek game around their environs.
From up in the trees where they were picking and chewing on leaves and tree brushes, they kept eyeballing us from the side. With each step that we took closer for a better picture, they moved further and further into the thick forest. Down the slopes they would go and we followed only for them to climb back up the mountain. When the male silverback moved, all the females followed closely. Ditto when he stopped and sat.
Suddenly my energy levels rose again. I had finally conquered my fear. I was face to face with the great silverback and his family. Now you may wonder why anyone would go through all this just to see gorillas that they have already seen at the zoo. After that gruelling long walk up the mountain, deep into the forest, with no chance to stop or turn back, when you finally reach your destination, you understand why a marathon runner celebrates at the finish line. It is the gruelling walk, the near tear feeling, the moments of surrender that make the lifetime excursion worth while.