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Gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda
Trekking to see the mountain gorillas was an ambition I finally realized earlier this year. I went to Uganda and Rwanda both to check out the changes and upgrading of accommodation in the country and to visit the famous gorilla parks. To accompany me I managed to persuade two good friends to come with me as guinea pigs and paying customers.
We started the journey west of Kampala in Kibale, which is home to chimpanzees, black and white colobus and fifty different species of butterfly. From here we drove south to Queen Elizabeth National Park where we were initially busy exploring smelly caves occupied by thousands of fruit bats – not for the squeamish. On an extensive afternoon game drive we saw an elephant, eleven lions chasing a buffalo and a pair of eagle owls.
From Queen Elizabeth we moved further south to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. We stayed here in a simple but comfortable tented camp set on a hillside looking directly over the rainforest canopy. Seeing the mist drifting from the treetops and not being able to see the forest floor due to the density of the vegetation made us realize that trekking to see the gorillas the next day was not to be underestimated. We went to bed early and sober.
We were lucky. It only took about 2-3 hours before our trackers found the gorillas. It was wonderful. Having witnessed so many amazing sights all over Africa, I wasn’t sure that seeing the gorillas would live up to all my expectations. I was wrong. Nothing could have prepared me for being so close to a 440 pound male, known in gorilla parlance as a “silver back.” As an inquisitive little baby came within a meter of me, I tried to move away as our guide had taught us earlier to avoid the chance of infection to the gorillas. I wasn’t
quite quickly. The mother rushed at me, grabbed the baby and bared her teeth at me. I avoided eye contact and waited for the pain. Fortunately it never came.
The hour with the gorillas felt like ten minutes. It was a real privilege to have seen them. I was sometimes scared, excited, scared. That night we went to bed late and much less sober.
The next morning we went further south. On arriving at Mount Gahinga Rest Camp we were told that there had been a mix-up with our permits and that we would be crossing the border into Rwanda to see the gorillas instead. The Virunga Mountains are dissected into three by borders. The Parc des Virungas (Djomba) is in the Congo. The Parc National des Volcans is in Rwanda and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is in Uganda. A little concerned that traveling to Rwanda was not our original plan and we had done no research, some alarm bells went off. However, we spoke to our driver John Mugabwa, in addition to some customers in camp who had just returned from there about our concerns, and read. We discovered that the park has been open since July 1999, having been closed during the civil war. The area was stable and the Park was under protection from poaching and land-starved locals. We unanimously decided to go.
It was one of the best decisions we made. The familiar gorillas in Rwanda are those studied by Diane Fosse and made famous in her book and the film about her life “Gorillas in the Mist”. Our guide Francis has worked with the four familiar gorilla families for over twenty years, and he worked with Diane Fosse for most of her time in Rwanda. The trek to the gorillas here is much easier than in Bwindi, usually taking only forty minutes to an hour. The vegetation is thinner, which makes for easier viewing and the opportunity to take great photos. It was a treat when two of the babies started just rolling around in front of us playing in the sunlight. Between the group more than 180 and more frames of film were run away in three minutes. Seeing the gorillas for the second time, in such a different place is something I would recommend to all potential visitors.
With only 600 mountain gorillas left in the world and with so few permits issued each day, I feel incredibly privileged and lucky to have seen them. Although seeing the gorillas is likely to be the highlight of any trip to Uganda, the country certainly has a lot more to offer. With snow-capped mountains and crater lakes covered in lush vegetation, it is an African country like no other.
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