Gorillas in Uganda: a lifelong dream fulfilled…

MVI_1012Sitting in the airport café, Ruth says to me “Don’t you think it a bit ominous there is a black out in an international airport? Too true – aren’t airports supposed to be secured against such things? Isn’t’ an emergency generator supposed to kick in at some point? I pondered the effects this might have on the control tower, but before I had time to dwell on this point, a loud “fuck” echoed across the café.  We both glanced across at a well-dressed white businessman typing away on his laptop in the booth next to us.  No – surely not!  But yes – there it came again: “Fuck”!  Or was it “farck”? No – definitely “Fuck” with a long drawn out American vowel and the volume to match.

To skip the funny story and go to the best bits click:

The gentleman in the suit kept typing away as if nothing was amiss and answered his phone briefly, talking in a business like manner at a normal volume. No sooner had he hung up when the “FARK” burst from him again. The Kenyans at the bar were pretty amused by this and did nothing to hide their stares.  What did they make of this? Is Tourette’s purely a Western affliction?

To make the scene a little more interesting, another white American on the table opposite started having an “Eric” crises on his mobile!  “I will never speak to Eric again!  As far as I am concerned I don’t care if I never say another word to Eric for as long as I live.  I don’t ever want to see Eric again!”  He may as well have been using the intercom – but of course, there was no power.

I glanced at Ruth and said: “This is quite surreal.  I think this is going to be quite an adventure”.

Ruth and her partner Sterling had treated me to a weekend at Tsavo East National Park.  It was now half term break so I invited her to join me on my adventure to see the gorillas.  We had snuck out of school a little early to get an afternoon flight from Nairobi to Entebbe.

So here we were in a dark airport enjoying a Tusker and trying not to stare at the unfortunate man with the copralalia tic, when the other guy answered a call.  “Hello?  Hello?”  he got gradually louder…..”hello?  hello?  Who is this?  Hello? I cant hear you? Who’s calling?”…….. After a few moments of this increasingly loud one sided, pointless blabber, Ruth in her delightful dry way leaned over and shouted “Its fucking Eric, innit!”

I laughed so much!!   Wicked!  Yes – it was definitely heading towards a memorable adventure!

Somehow, despite the black out, we left Nairobi on time and flew without incident to Entebbe where we got a taxi to our backpackers and had our evening meal in the dark (yes – another blackout).

The next morning a taxi took us to Kampala to catch the 7:00am bus to Kabale in the southwest, near the border to Rwanda. Well that was the intention. We arrived at an empty bus station to be told the bus goes at 7pm. Not to be deterred the taxi driver took us to the main bus station where he said we would have more options. It was busy and hectic and as soon as our little white faces appeared out of the taxi, we were mobbed by touts trying to persuade us to take their bus.  Our taxi driver took charge and delivered us to a bus that was guaranteed to leave at 8:30am.

The bus was a bit grotty and battered and Ruth pointed out the bald tires.  She said “I would never get on a bus like this in Kenya!”.  Quite funny really, considering the bus actually had Kenyan number plates!

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We boarded the bus and made ourselves comfortable, and entertained ourselves watching a mum changing her baby then getting her two older children into school uniforms. Once dressed they exited, never to return.  Over the course of the next hour a few more people got on the bus, fell asleep for a while then also got up and left.  I began to get a little curious about our departure time.

I got off the bus and had a long conversation/argument with the tout who had sold us our ticket. Yes the bus would be leaving very soon!  The engine was running and we were ready to go!  So back on the bus and more entertainment as people got on, had breakfast delivered to them then got off again.  Sellers also came on and in the time we waited for this damn bus to fill up properly, I could have completely refitted my entire kitchen, decorated my bathroom, updated all my electrical household items and lined my classroom with posters of the alphabet and multiplication tables.

By 11am we were getting a little fractious but then a miracle!  The bus started to move.  But not far.  We moved out of our bay and made room for another similar bus to reverse into our spot.  Then every single person got off our bus and onto the other one.  I got off the bus and had another argument with the tout – accusing him of lying about the departure time!  He smiled ever so sweetly and explained to me that petrol is very expensive in Uganda so they have to wait for the bus to be full, including the holds underneath.  I laughed at him and said the engine had been now running for 3 full hours, filling the cabin with fumes and burning money.

Eventually when several bags of avocados, old wheels, chain saws, odd bits of metal, luggage and heaps of odd shaped boxes had been loaded, we pulled out of the bus station and headed out of the bustling, congested Kampala and hit the open road.

IMG_0811Uganda is much busier than I imagined, with a population of 35 million people in a country that is not much bigger than the state of Victoria in Australia.  We passed village after village and needless to say we made many stops.  At each stop piles of sellers would mob the bus – either clambering aboard and squeezing up and down the aisle or jumping up and down at the windows on either side.  There were handfuls of curious looking meat on sticks, live chickens, large pancakes, fruit, nuts, soft drinks, boiled eggs and other unrecognizable food items being waved in our faces.

The funniest stop was the official toilet stop.  It was by the roadside and at first I could not make out where we were supposed to go!  But it was ladies to the left and men to the right with not many bushes or tall grass to hide procedures.  Oh well!  When in Rome!

After a long bumpy 9 hour drive we arrived after sunset in Kabale, found a taxi and headed to Lake Bunyoni Overland Camp.

We were in for a treat!  It is a wonderful place.  The Lake itself is quite spectacular, being the 25km long, 7km wide and very, very IMG_0816deep – supposedly the 2nd deepest lake in Africa, free of bilharzia and therefore safe for swimming (although I have since heard otherwise – oops).

Ruth and I had a chilled out day, waking late, having a leisurely breakfast and meeting 2 wonderful recently married Ozzies from Kunanara, off on a year long honeymoon.  Estrelia and Matt joined us for a canoe on the lake and a beer on one of the islands. After our success canoeing to the island, we made plans for a pub-crawl by canoe, but the damn things had a mind of their own!!

The following morning we left at 5:15am by minivan to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.  We soon realized our idea to catch a nap on the 2 hour drive was impossible due to the incredibly bumpy rough tracks we traveled on through farmland villages and into the mountains to get to the main park entry where we had our briefing and were split into our gorilla family groups.

Our group was 6 tourists: 4 plus us.  Our lead guide was a lady, plus we had two other guides, more as guards, as they carried weapons.  We had to go back to our vehicles and drive another 40 minutes to get to our starting point at a different part of the park.  First there was an hour of steep walking up the side of the mountain through farmland before we got to the actual beginning of the national park.

Entering the forest one could understand the term “Impenetrable” in the name of the national park.  It is thick jungle, hot and sticky and we walked for about two hours before we found the trackers who had left earlier in the morning to find the family.

I cannot begin to tell how the experience was seeing the gorillas.  I was in total awe and very emotional the whole time.  I guess maybe because it was something I had always wanted to do but never imagined possible, yet here I was. I was filled with awe at the sheer magnificence of the gorillas and being so close to them, but I was also filled with a deep heavy sadness.  These beautiful creatures have dwindled down to pathetic numbers in an even pathetically smaller space on this planet. The whole park is only a mere 330 square kilometers for about the same number of gorillas – making up half the population of mountain gorillas in existence.  It is nothing!  Especially once you see how much the gorillas eat and how much of the forest they use.  They make a new nest every night for themselves, pulling down branches to shape their beds.

My Photos

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driving through farmland to get to the forest

walking through the edge of the farmland

the forest meets farmland

into the forest

final briefing before we meet the trackers

the trackers lead us to the family

our first sighting - a young 8 year old female

the mamma of the group

a youngster

Myshala the silver back

Front view of the silver back. We are quite close and he does not seem to really mind

I am a little in awe of how close the trackers bring us to the silver back

Finally he had enough of us and moved off

We followed the family as they crossed the swamplands

Mishaya in the swampland

Can hardly believe this is happening

The gorillas make a new bed (nest) for themselves each night.

back to the village

The farmlands encroach on the forest

Litte ones everywhere

the long drive back to Lake Bunyoni

I spend a lot of emotional energy encouraging kids to raise their awareness of many different issues relating to animal welfare across a range of areas from the plight of animals in entertainment, captivity, zoos, farming, pet trade, scientific experiments, product testing and generally trying to open their minds towards a more compassionate outlook.  Yet here I am in the jungle, having paid a lot of money to disturb a family of magnificent, intelligent creatures whose habitat is slowly being destroyed around them.  I am not sure now how I feel about this.  Its better than visiting a zoo (although mountain gorillas cannot be found in zoos) but how much better is it really?   Certainly Dian Fossey would not have approved of these visits.

My Video

The gorillas are habituated, meaning trackers spend a long time getting them used to their presence, visiting them every day for about 2 years before they are ready to receive outside visitors.  Once a gorilla family is considered habituated, tourists are taken to see them for a maximum of one hour.  Tourist groups are kept to a maximum of 6 and one group per day visits one family for one hour. Therefore in peak times it is necessary to book your permit well in advance.

It sounds like a lot to pay $500 to see gorillas for one hour, but I can tell you it is sufficient.  Towards the end of the hour I really felt we were intruding and bothering the gorillas and I was relieved when they finally walked off and we did not follow them.  They were exceptionally patient with us hovering around them, taking photos, filming and nattering away. The hour is intense and really you don’t need longer.  Also it can take anything up to 6 hours of trekking through thick forest to actually find them.

My Tips

You can take a fully booked and planned tour to see the gorillas or you can do some or all of it yourself like we did.  Tour companies can only take you to the park, they cannot go with you on the gorilla tour – only the Ugandan Wildlife Authority trained guides can take you to see the gorillas.  The advantage of a tour company is they will organize everything, including accommodation and private transport.  However it is a very long drive from Kampala to Kabale, regardless of who you go with.  I met people who took just as long to get there as I did on the public bus.

If going to Bwindi,  seriously consider flying to Rwanda instead of Uganda.  Bwindi is very near the border.  The bus from Kampala to Kabale is long, hot, rough and stops a lot!!  If you take the bus – be prepared that the departure time at both ends is FROM 7am – which means anytime after 7am when the bus is FULL.  (Usually about 11am)

Otherwise take the POST bus from the main Post Office in Kampala or Kabale.  It departs 7am punctually every day except Sunday.   You need to book a day ahead. The only downside is that it stops at every post office to pick up post.  We returned on the Post Bus and it was fine.  It took 9 hours and is an interesting journey.

I highly recommend Bunyoni Overland Camp.  It is truly a wonderful place to stay, just 9 km from Kabale on a beautiful lake.  Contact Ivan to ask for advice on any aspect of your trip. Ivan can also arrange your gorilla trekking permit and a private vehicle from either Kampala or Kigale if you don’t like the idea of a public bus. Ivan’s cost per vehicle one way from Kampala is $250 US (7-8 hours) and from Kigale is $120US (2 hours).

Our COSTS

Going to see the gorillas is not cheap, however you do it.  Here are our costs, per person, traveling with two for 4 nights, 5 days.

Return flight Nairobi to Entebbe with Uganda Air

$278

Visa for Uganda, at the airport

$50

Taxi from airport to Entebbe Backpackers

$9

One night accommodation Entebbe Backpackers: twin room $40

$20

Taxi Entebbe to Kampala

$20

Bus Kampala to Kabale 25000 UGX

$10

Taxi Kabale to Lake Bunyoni Overland Resort 20 000 UGX

$4

3 nights accommodation: twin tent (large and comfortable) with breakfast $40 per night ($20 each)  They give a packed breakfast for the trek & for the bus back to Kampala

$60

Gorilla trekking permit (discounted for April & May – usually it is $500)

$350

Return transport to Bwindi $150 for the vehicle which waits and returns

$75

3 meals with beers at the Lake: about 50 000 UGX/meal for two

$30

Taxi Lake to Kabale

$4

Bus Kabale to Kampala

$10

Taxi Kampala to Entebbe

$20

Accommodation twin room with ensuite and breakfast: $40

$20

Evening meal & lunch next day plus several beers

$20

Taxi to airport

$10

TOTAL

$990

A permit costs $500.  I paid $350, which is the reduced price for April & May – the quiet season. Note that if you are an East African resident or work permit holder, there is a cheaper rate, but you need to remember to tell them when you order your permit.

Our taxi driver in Entebbe was excellent. His name is Paul and his number is: +256 788 456 565  Tell him Karen gave you his number.  He speaks excellent English and has a very good car.  He can also assist in arranging accomodation and other visits in the area, such as to see the chimpanzees on the Ngamba Island on Lake Victoria or to Murchison Falls.

I researched a lot of deals for seeing the gorillas and the cheapest I received was from Red Chili Hideaway, a recommended backpackers in Kampala.  They offer a full 2 night, 3 day package (excluding drinks) for $1350 from Kampala.

 

2 Comments

Filed under ADVENTURES, Nature, Uganda

2 Responses to Gorillas in Uganda: a lifelong dream fulfilled…

  1. Judy Williams

    Totally in awe of this adventure, I would have been scared stiff on those buses and roads. So glad you did it.
    Love
    Mum

  2. Don Williams

    Great stuff Kaz, and I love the way you edited the video into interesting vignettes. It works very well and if you want a different career you could do well in wildlife travel documentaries. It’s wonderful that you actually did get to see gorillas after wanting to do it for so long.
    Love
    Dad

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