Tuesday, August 21, 2007

"Mama, this is Africa"

It's what the driver of the Honda-Civic sized car said to me as the 8th person (and her baby) got inside.

What, pray tell, was I doing in a car full of Ugandans, dust and body odor? Bouncing down one of the worst dirt roads in Uganda, listening to Voice of America radio on a 50 mile, 3.5 hour drive trying to make my way to Kisoro, to track gorillas. "But didn't you sign up for a safari that came with a private vehicle", you ask? Why yes, I did.

Long story short (is it really possible with me?), the 4x4 my guide was driving broke down 2 hours into the trip. We had to use a combo of taxis and matatus (14 passenger vans filled with 23 people that regulary smash into each other and kill people in Kenya) and free rides to make it, which we didn't and that left us scrambling for another permit and extending the safari by 2 days. It's been both a drag and a memorable experience.

On a good note, I did get my mzungu in the mist moment - twice!

The first tracking was to Mgahina National Park. 3 hours of hiking to find the family... once we did, we got to spend an hour following them, oohing, aahing and taking photos. As you see in this photo, I obviously didn't clear things with the gorilla's agent before snapping this picture. (the gorilla is the tiny black blob over my right shoulder) On a bit of a gorilla high, our group of 5 started walking back down the mountain - the Virunga volcano range really that is shared between Uganda, Rwanda and Congo.

We didn't even notice the first drops. But then the rain came down in a deluge, a deluge I tell you! For 1.5 hours we walked in the rain. Every time you thought it can't rain any harder, it did. At the end, I was up to my ankles in running brown water, trying to make it to the car. All this for a monkey? Oh yeah.

After a night of drying my shoes by the fire and securing a second permit - having been thrown off schedule by our delay - I was tracking again, this time at Nkuringo in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. This time, we found the gorillas in only 30 minutes - but they were hiding, well really just trying to take a nap, deep in the forest. Despite the name, the forest is penetrable, but it ain't easy. Our guides hacked away at the bushes to reveal Posho, who stared at us while we stared at him.

Not content with spotting only one gorilla (a Dutch group at our guest house had seen a group of 18 the other day - a feat not to be repeated by us) we went searching for the others under the branches and over the vines. No one tells you about the ants. You know they're there when they bite you.

Moving on. We see two silverbacks, Safari and Kisoro. I'm busy trying to take still pictures of them and don't have the video camera on which is a shame because we get charged by another gorilla. In the time it takes me to mumble "oh jesus", hit record and cower by a tree (about 2 seconds) it's over. It was scary hearing the screeching and crashing through the bush coming from the side, but in the end it was all for show - and to show us who is boss. Again the hour goes quickly.

Although it is more expensive to see gorillas in Uganda than neighboring Congo, the Uganda Wildlife Authority really does a good job of working with the local people to recognize that the tourism the gorillas bring can have a positive impact for the surrounding communities.

To those of you thinking about traveling to Uganda, I would encourage you to do it! It's been great and I wish I had more time here but I've got people to see and things to do.

Coming soon... thoughts on transportation and the Boomu Womens' Group!

Miss K

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