Deep in the heart of an Ugandan rainforest lives one of the most endangered animals on earth. Travel to remote Bwindi Impenetrable National Park to track the magnificent Mountain Gorilla.
The crazy courtyard cockerel has got his timing totally wrong. It's just gone 4am in Kabale, still three hours until sunrise, but this demented chicken already thinks it's daybreak. He seems intent on waking the entire town with his ear-shattering call. In the distance, a fellow fowl cock-a-doodles back and it's clear that any further sleep is now out of the question. Cursing, I make a mental note to have chicken for dinner tonight.
Situated in the south western corner of the country at 2000m above sea level, Kabale is Uganda's highest town.
Surrounded by majestic mountains and tea-growing estates, Kabale falls into the Kigeza area, often referred to as 'the Switzerland of Africa'.
It makes a good base for some superb hiking with spectacular views of the Virunga volcanoes, lakes, forests and fertile terraced fields. It's also a good starting point for an experience that no nature lover or wildlife enthusiast would want to miss - a trip to the famous Mountain Gorillas
at Bwindi National Park.
A thick mountain mist has descended on Kabale's dusty streets and a few early risers pedal their bicycles in the eerie predawn light. I've spent the past few days relaxing at a nearby lake, chatting to the friendly locals and browsing around the colourful shops. Now it's time to pack my bags for the journey out to Bwindi, home to half of the surviving Mountain Gorillas in the world.
If you're travelling through Uganda without your own transport, one way of covering the 120 kilometres from Kabale to Bwindi is on the back of an open transport truck. But these are invariably crowded to capacity and the road is long and bumpy. So if you are accustomed to some semblance of safety and comfort, rather splurge and hire a private taxi for the four hour trip.
The scenic drive from Kabale heads up a steep pass and the view below is astounding. I look down on mist-shrouded valleys, fertile fields and tea plantations. The rutted road twists and turns through the mountainous rainforest and green terraced hillsides. It's turned into a beautiful day and we drive past women and children who smile and wave as they walk to work with hoes slung over their shoulders.
After a short stop to buy sweet yellow bananas from a thatched clay hut, we approach the small town of Butogota. From here onward, the road really falls apart. It's a steep and rocky 17km to the park's headquarters at Buhoma but somehow the taxi makes it in one piece.
There are several types of accommodation in the Buhoma
area, ranging from luxury tented camps to basic camping sites. I'm on a budget so I book into the Buhoma Community Campground where accommodation is in comfortable four-bed bandas.
Mountain Gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, formerly known as Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, has been proclaimed as a World Heritage site.
The park covers 331 sq km and is one of the last remaining habitats in the world for the endangered Mountain Gorilla. After the 1999 kidnapping and murder of eight tourists, Gorilla bookings at Bwindi slumped and the visitors stayed away. But since then, security has been significantly upgraded and every group is now accompanied by members of the Ugandan army equipped with AK 47's. The Gorilla trips are now more popular than ever and it is important to book in advance.
At Bwindi, there are two Gorilla families that are habituated to humans. Once you join a tracking group, the chances of sighting the Gorillas are excellent, although it may take up to several hours to find them in the rainforest. The Gorillas are very prone to catching human sicknesses
so children under 15 years old and anyone with a cold or illness is not allowed to join a tracking group.
The Mountain Gorilla is a highly endangered species and only about 600 are still alive today. Almost half of these live in Bwindi and the rest around the area of the Virunga volcanoes in Uganda, Rwanda and Congo.
The Gorillas are primarily vegetarian
and survive mainly on a diet of fruits, shoots, stems and flowers. In the wild, they can live up to 50 years old. They communicate using a wide range of facial expressions, gestures and vocalisations. The Gorillas exist in groups led by the male silverback and after rising at dawn, spend their days resting and foraging for food. As evening approaches, the silverback chooses a sleeping spot and each Gorilla gathers vegetation to prepare their nest for the night.
Gorilla Trek in Bwindi National Park
The day dawns clear and cool with wispy strands of pink cloud drifting over the mountain top. Excitement mounts for the meeting with our ancestors and after a briefing from our guide Richard Magezi, we enter the rainforest and cross the Munyaga river.
There's a very good reason why this area was formerly known as the Impenetrable Forest.
In occasional clearings, dappled sunlight breaks through the thick green foliage but in other places it is so dark it seems almost like night. We continue in silence, listening to the birds and watching red-tailed monkeys leap around the treetops. It's like walking through an enchanted forest and the green beauty of Bwindi takes my breath away as fragile blue butterflies float around my head.
We soon leave the main path and head straight through the thick vegetation, tripping over roots and tangled creepers while clutching onto vines and thorny trees for support. 'Make sure your pants are tucked into your socks because there are lots of nasty ants around,' warns Richard. Our guides use machetes to clear a path but it's tough going and we battle our way up the steep mountainside, often stepping ankle deep in mud. 'The brochures I read didn't say anything about how hard this would be,' gasps an out-of-breath American woman, leaning on her stick.
After two hours of slog and sweat, we pass several areas of flattened foliage and piles of dung which indicates we're on the Gorilla's track. 'When we find them, there must be absolute silence and everyone must keep at least five metres away,' says Richard. 'We will have exactly one hour with the Gorillas and not a minute more otherwise it becomes too stressful for them.'
We turn a corner and suddenly there they are. In dense dark undergrowth, the male silverback is sleeping against a tree. Two baby Gorillas play wrestle
on the ground and bump into the silverback who wakes up with a grunt. The gentle giant looks in my direction and although I'm just a few metres away, he seems unperturbed by my presence and turns his attention to the babies at play. Then he gazes back briefly and almost seems to smile.
An adult female emerges from the bushes with an infant on her back and the whole family are now on the move. We beat through thick undergrowth and find they have all climbed a giant strangler fig tree in search of food. The silverback is resting in the branches while the other pick leaves and emit grunts of contentment and the loudest flatulence I've ever heard. The next moment we all scatter to avoid a stream of urine falling from above.
All too soon, our 60 minutes are up and Richard tells us it's time to leave. Despite the dark conditions which are not conducive to good photography, it's been a thrill to meet these amazing creatures in the wild.
The next day I pack up and wait for my ride back through the mountains to Kabale. A brief thunderstorm has abated and ribbons of mist rise from the trees, cloaking the upper canopy of the rainforest in shifting layers of white. The last few claps of thunder subside, leaving the forest silent except for the rhythmic chirping of insects and the gentle rush of a stream.
I look out across the great green wonderland.
Somewhere, deep in the mist-shrouded rainforest, the Gorillas are at play.
Copyright © Jeremy Jowell. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without the permission of the author is prohibited.
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