The main reason we came to Uganda was to see the magnificent Mountain Gorillas who share 98.4% of DNA with us, humans. They are a critically endangered species due to poaching, victims of wars, human diseases, and loss of habitat. Much effort has been made to ensure their conservation. There are only about 800 gorillas of these species and they are all located in the border area between Rwanda, DR Congo and Uganda. They were studied by Dian Fossey and then made famous in the movie “Gorillas in the Mist”. Because of her involvement in this cause she was later brutally murdered. She was not in favor of the gorillas being in contact with humans, but years later after her death the “Dian Fossey Foundation” changed its opinion on the matter. Nowadays for US $ 500 humans can spend one hour with these amazing creatures and that’s why we were in Uganda.
There are two places in Uganda where you can experience this close encounter. The most famous is Bwindi Impenetrable Park where six families of gorillas are habituated. Per family of gorillas, 8 humans are allowed to visit them, making 48 permits per day. That is the fact, the truth is that getting one of those permits is not an easy task for an independent traveler. Since many months ago we had been trying to get our hands on 2 permits. We had called and we had emailed the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) but there was never a reply. Once in Kampala we made our way to their headquarters and we were immediately told there were no permits available. After much begging, persuasion and a second visit to their office they “found” some permits available but for weeks ahead. They said that if we wanted it for anytime soon we should get a “package” from a travel agency. They even gave us the names of the agencies. The package includes the permit, accommodation and transport, and costs more than US $ 1000 per person. We really wanted to see the gorillas but not at that elevated price. They proceeded to explain to us that the travel agencies have the right to buy as many permits as they wish and they can do it 3 years in advance. We told them we thought it was outrageous and it was a monopoly, and incredibly the employee replied: “we have to protect Ugandan businesses”. Silly of us to think that the mission of the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) was to protect the wildlife with the US $24000 they get daily from tourists who purchase the gorilla permits for Bwindi only. We both were angry and disappointed that we might not get a chance to see the gorillas after all. What a coincidence, previously in the day I had a glimpse at a local newspaper, and it had an article of the corruption regarding gorilla permits and how some employees and senior officials had just been suspended from their posts pending an investigation as they were favoring certain businesses. Before leaving the UWA I did not waste the opportunity to mention the news article to the employee.
We were not giving up! We knew that there was another habituated gorilla group that we had a shot at visiting. They are located in the Virunga Mountains a chain of volcanoes in between the three countries of DR Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. In the Ugandan side the park is called Mgahinga National Park. Travel agencies rarely have an interest in this permit as there is a catch: this gorilla family, the Nyakagezis, moves freely through the three countries so there is no guarantee it will be in Uganda. If gorillas are not seen, then most of the money has to be refunded to the client. Uganda is not a big country for African standards, but Mgahinga is in a remote corner and not easily accessible. We called the park’s office directly and they were very nice. They told us that the gorillas were currently in Uganda and that there were two permits available for 5 days later and that we did not have to pay until the actual day. Woohoo! All we had to do was cross our fingers and hope the gorillas were not interested in crossing borders this week and get ourselves to South West Uganda, or as Winston Churchill called it “the Pearl of Africa”.
First we had to get from Kampale to Kabale. This would be our last long bus ride in Africa, and probably our most memorable one. They told us it would only take six hours, we knew better. The bus was not so nice but it was the only daytime bus we could find. For some reason 95% of the long distance buses in Uganda travel by night. For obvious reasons we refuse to take night buses in Africa. Boarding the bus was chaotic, much pushing and shoving. I could understand the conductor telling everyone not to take seats 17 and 18, and something about muzungus (whites). Those were our seats. It turned out we were the only ones with seat numbers and a seat per person. I can only guess that it was because we paid more than the locals. In this case I did not mind because we got our own seat, not half a seat or a third of a seat. The bus was fully loaded people even with many people standing up in the aisle. Even as we pulled out of the station and had gone several blocks people kept getting on the bus. I could see from the window how they were hanging from the bus, and even like that more people kept trying to get on. It was our last long bus journey in Africa so I didn’t mind. Tony was in the aisle and people were almost on top of him but he would protest and since we were “VIP” the conductor would tell them to move.
We had not gone far when a motorized police officer stopped the bus. How could he not with people flying out from the door? He made about 30 people get off and minutes later he came on the bus. He made a speech and said that the Government of Uganda cares for the security of its people and will not let them die in any more bus accidents, that no people were allowed to travel standing up and more importantly that this bus had two damaged tyres and he had ordered the bus driver to go change them before we continued the journey and that the passengers should make sure he did that. I was impressed! But the Ugandans were unimpressed, they starting giving out to the police officer and telling him that he was delaying our journey… I couldn’t believe it! Once the driver started the bus again I honestly thought we were going to a station to change the tyres. We did go to a station but only to get gas, the tyres were never changed. I told Tony we should insist to the bus driver to change them, but he thought we should just go with the flow. I agreed, the Ugandans would probably kick us off the bus and we would have to say goodbye to our shot of seeing the gorillas. All left to do was bless ourselves and pray.
We did arrive, 3 hours later but alive. The road was not in the best condition either and we did see a couple of accidents. We stopped at several towns to unload passengers and load more and the bus would be overflowing through the door. I had to take a toilet break in one of the towns and when I came back I was unable to go back to our seat, I was one of the passengers hanging from the door for some minutes. After much negotiating and brute force Tony standing in our seat was able to pull me by the arms as I climbed over people. We got stopped by the police at least 8 more times but nobody was taken off the bus or was the driver obliged to change the tyres. I guess his negotiating skills are very good…What a ride!
One of the observations we have made during our innumerable bus rides in Africa is about the beauty of African babies. About half of the women in the buses have babies with them, that is a lot of babies. In the Western world this would mean a nightmare trip, there is nothing worse than going on a long plane ride with a baby nearby. Well in Africa it’s not like that, all babies are so well behaved. We do not understand how but they are all very quiet and don’t cry. The only time we had baby trouble was when Tony gave his seat to a German woman with an infant who did not have a seat. Not only did he cry all the way, but he threw tantrums, started kicking me in the face and I had to give him my cookies as he started yelling when he saw me eating. African women are doing something right and they should teach it in the West.
We thought the worse was over but it was far from that. It was too late to travel to Kisoro, the gateway to Mhaginga. We were told the next bus was at 3 am. No thanks! It was only 75 km from Kabale so we had no concerns about time. At that point we did not know how remote in Uganda we were. Besides the big bus at 3 am, there are minibuses that travel to Kisoro and “special hire taxis”. We learned that there is only one minibus and it takes about five hours to fill up with passengers each time and it had just left. We also learned that the taxis take seven passengers where only four fit, so we were not willing to go with them. We tried hard to negotiate a private taxi but they wanted too much money from us. Really, we were not being tight, but we refuse to be ripped off by so much. For the 75 km ride they wanted about 50 Euros, in Africa, in a very old beaten car…No way! Next day we would have to pay $1000 for the gorilla permits so we could not afford to just give money away. So we started hitchhiking. We have never ever done that as we know the risks implied but we were left without a choice. Many trucks were willing to take us, except no one was going to Kisoro, as it appears to be an even more remote location.
Just when we had given up and were heading back into the town centre a driver in a new car asked us if we were going into Kisoro. I had my doubts as we did not know how he knew we were going there, we had stopped hitching by that point. He told Tony that it was his hometown and he was going to a wedding. He did have a suit hanging in the backseat and shiny shoes so Tony told me to get in. He agreed to take us for about 15 Euros. Just in case, I was prepared to fulminate him with 100% DEET insect repellent spry, the only weapon I had. The road out of Kabale was excellent, in top condition. I thought we would be there in less than an hour. Halfway the road stopped, there were barely dirt tracks the rest of the way. We had a dose of very strong “African Massage” as they call it. The trip did take more than two hours. When cars came the other way we would have to stop as we would be under a big cloud of dust unable to see anything around us. Locals in Kisoro told Tony that they have been neglected by the government and they have been asking for this road for 30 years and only now they have started it. They said that the rest of Uganda calls them “Rwandans” as they are incommunicated from Uganda and closer to Rwanda. Bosco turned out to be a very nice and intelligent guy. He really was going to a wedding, when we arrived his whole family was waiting for him in their suits and gowns outside their house. He told him he had to take us first into town, he did, and he did not want to leave us until we found a hotel that was suitable. We insisted he go and get ready for his brother’s wedding. A suitable hotel we never found. But no problem, hakuna matata, tomorrow was gorilla day and that was all that mattered.
The next day we would drive 10 km to Mhaginga Park for our gorilla adventure. As expected we took 45 minutes for 10 km as the way was very bad and same conditions to the Rwandan border, which we went to after seeing the gorillas. The border at Cyanika is very quiet as there is not much traffic through there being so inaccessible. The South West of Uganda is astoundingly beautiful. Many lakes, hills, mountains, volcanoes, and crops in terraces make it a delight for the eyes.
We visited the Nyakagezi Gorilla Family along with 5 other tourists. Because it is so hard to get to Mhaginga and because of the uncertainty about the location of the gorillas not many venture there. Basically anyone that shows up in the Kisoro office can get a permit within the next few days. However it is always better to call in advance first to inquire if the gorillas are in Uganda.
There was a guide and two armed guards that led our trek. Two trackers armed with machetes to clear the way had left before us to locate the gorillas and radio us. About an hour later we were with the Nyakagezis. The trek was a bit uphill and not so easy for a few, but Tony and I had no problems, except with the occasional nettles poking my nose. Fortunately that day the gorillas were at the middle of the mountain as sometimes they can be at altitudes of over 4100 meters. Once we got close to the gorillas there was no trail except for what the trackers had cleared off with their machetes. They were not gorillas in the mist, they were gorillas in the clear! They were just adorable, big, tall and fluffy! We saw at least 9 members of the family including the chief silverback and the babies. It was a humbling experience to see these giants so similar to us from a few meters away.
I am glad I saw them but I think Dian Fossey was right, they should not be in contact with humans. I would not do it again. Tony and I both came to the conclusion that invading them was probably not right. Although they are very pacific beings it was obvious we do cause them much distress. We would go after one and then he would hide, then we would turn around and follow the tracker who would cut our way to get to the other one and then he would hide also, and so on… When they were sleeping we would all surround him and take pictures, then he would turn around to sleep on the other side, and then we would move to the other side, until he got tired and angry and would go hide. One got really angry and made a big noise like a loud bark and charged us, but not intending any harm. They could easily crush us if they wanted.
Imagine if a group of 8 strangers came daily to your house and followed every move of the family members for an hour. Would you like it? I certainly would not! I just witnessed one of the most amazing creatures on earth and agree that everything has to be done to ensure their conservation and contact with humans is not one of them, as they are very susceptible to human diseases. We should have been wearing face masks at least, I am guilty as charged. I only know all this now after having the briefing, seeing them and post research. Gorillas are incredible noble and intelligent creatures. We should all learn form them.
All the photos are uploaded here