Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda
Ibo Island was not an easy place to leave. I could have easily spent more time there, especially on the reef at the lighthouse with all the fish and coral. But leave we did, flying to Pemba, overnighting there and then flying to Entebbe, Uganda on Sunday morning. Our flight was via Nairobi, Kenya and we worried about El Shabab or whoever are the most recent terrorists responsible for the killing at a university in northern Kenya. However, the security at Nairobi international airport is among the slackest we have seen!
Very different entering Uganda. At Entebbe international airport we are fingerprinted, have our photos and temperatures (Ebola concern) taken and our bags are not only x-rayed, they are also subject to a hand search. I guess when your neighbours are Rwanda to the south, Congo to the west and Sudan to the north you get a bit paranoid!
From Entebbe we fly to Kihihi, in the south-western corner of Uganda, and then drive on yet another horrific road to Bwindi National Park. The Ugandan country side is very green, mountainous and cultivated in elaborate terraces with banana, tea, coffee and various root vegetables such as cassava and sweet potato. No one goes hungry.
We are up early our first morning to start a 2 1/2 hour hike straight up on a muddy track into an area know to be inhabited my mountain gorilla. David, our guide, is in radio contact with three trackers who set out ahead of us to locate one of the family groups. The last hour we leave the track and bushwhack through dense jungle. We hear the gorillas grunting before we see them.
We find them lounging in the bushes. One large “silverback” male, several adult females, a couple of infants and one newborn who is just over a month old. We’ve been instructed to not get closer than 20 feet but, because we happen on them rather suddenly, we end up much closer and they don’t seem to mind. One of the females, with her infant hanging on to her belly, walks so close to me I can feel her fur brush my arm. Later, I end up a few feet from the male. When he makes some aggressive moves I’m instructed to stand very still. This is a moment I have been dreading since the beginning of the trip, but when it happens I am surprisingly calm. Even when David, the guide, grabs my arm and pulls me behind him, I don’t feel worried. Maybe this is because the gorillas exude a very chill vibe.
We are only allowed to spend an hour with them and it is up much too quickly. The long hike back down is quiet as we all process the experience we’ve just had. For some in our group the gorilla encounter has been on their bucket list for many years and they are in awe. For us, it was something we added on to our trip when we realized we would be in the neighbourhood and would have time. We are also in awe!!
We return to Mahogany Springs Lodge, where we are staying, to rest our legs, with the help of Emily, the in-house masseuse. A staff member shows up to take our muddy boots for cleaning. At dinner that night we swap travel and gorilla stories with a group we have been traveling in tandem with for a few days: two Brits, Jan & Phil, and an Aussie, Ian.
As is the case with many of the lodges/camps we have stayed in, Mahogany Springs is close to a village and provides philanthropic support for the locals, particularly the school. We spend a morning in the village. The school children sing, dance and delight us with their enthusiasm and joyfulness. We wonder how they can be so happy with so little and they inspire us with their optimism. So much so that they even get me up dancing! It ain’t no cha-cha-cha Lena, but maybe I can teach you some African dance moves at our next lesson?
A visit to a pygmy village is a bit strange and Craig worries that they are being exploited by tourists ogling their exoticism. But they too are joyful and seem genuinely happy to see us, particularly after we buy a few of their trinkets.
The village medicine man, in his hut full of fragrant herbs, including one that he says works just like viagra, has a poster of Barack Obama on his wall. The ancient and the modern meet in central Africa!