Mountain Gorilla Tracking and more…

 

My Uganda Adventure

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Situated in the geographical heart of the African continent, Uganda has so much to offer. It is known as the pearl of Africa, with stunning landscapes from mountains to grasslands, majestic waterfalls to the trickle that is know as the source of the Nile.

Its people are colourful, friendly and very social. Over 80% of the population of Uganda are subsistence farmers, living basic lives in small village communities which are dotted throughout the country on hillsides. Predominantly a Christian country, English is the official language taught in schools, though a myriad of local dialects are heard in the villages and towns. There are also so many children with something like 50% or more of the population aged under 19 years of age.

Mountain Gorilla tracking is of course the highlight, the real reason we visit Uganda. The gorilla tracking experience in Nkuringo is sensational. The gorilla families that have been habituated over the past several years are accustomed to people visiting them in the forest and they enjoy the interaction. Typically a family claim an area of around 30 square kms as they roam and forage for food on a. Daily basis. Therefore trackers keep an eye on their location on a daily basis, which can vary greatly, so each day is different. The hike to track the gorillas can vary from around 2 to 7 hours, depending on where they are on any given day.

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The Nkuringo family group that we tracked, consists of 12 members which includes 2 Silverbacks, one being the leader of the family group andthe second one is in training to either take over the group eventually or else he will leave the group to set up his own family. There is a baby that is less than 1 year old and also 2 other young ones. The family all enjoy interacting with the infants in a very social environment. Sometimes you can be very lucky and find the gorilla family out in the open tea plantation when they have finished feeding. We came across them after a two and a half hour trek down into the valley of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. The trek starts from the park headquarters at the top of a ridge at around 2,800 metres above sea level which looks directly down into the mountainous forest below. We descended around 800 metres, passing a few small farms along the way down to the valley floor and into the Bwindi forest, then along the valley floor on tracks that had been freshly cut by the gorilla trackers that went out early in the morning. They knew where the family of gorillas were feeding the previous day, so the chances were good that they were not too far away. The gorillas do wander up to kms per day, but tend to stay within their own territorial area, not impeding on another gorilla family’s territory. Our small group of trekkers was accompanies by an experienced mountain gorilla guide and 2 armed guards. We also had the option of hiring a personal porter to carry our backpacks and assist with the climbing, this proved to be very helpful on some of the difficult terrain.

Once we were approaching the family of gorillas we could hear the grrrr of the scout gorilla letting the group know that we were nearby. One final push through a dense slope up I spotted the back of a female feeding, then another up in the tree with her baby, then the loud crack of a branch as another gorilla fell to the ground nearby. The more I peered into the dense forest, the more movement I could spot. The main Silverback was very close in the bush just ahead, he appeared to be resting while the others were feeding nearby. We were fortunate to have found them in the first valley and did not have to climb up and over into the next one. A short distance away the forest opens up to a clearing and have found the second Silverback feeding on the edge of the clearing. He was not too concerned by our presence, however once he decided to move to a more favourable spot to feed, he made it perfectly clear to us with his body language and a grrr that we must move out of his way, so he can pass.

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We do not argue with a 250 kilo gorilla. He was then ready to let his family know that feeding time was over and that they should all now rest, with a few taking positions in a small bush clearing within our clear view. Here they lazed about to digest the food, playing with the baby and interacting with each other. They were not concerned about having a small audience. Only 8 people are allowed to track the gorillas at any one time and are permitted 1 hour to spend with them. Even though we should not get within 7 metres of the gorillas, they can approach us, so we had the delightful experience of being only about a metre away from them for quite a while. We are intrigued by these incredible creatures as we share almost the same DNA. The similarities of behaviour are intriguing to witness.

Regrettably our time with the gorillas had come to an end, so we began our steep ascent back out of the forest and the valley. The afternoon was bringing with it dark storm clouds, so the race to beat the rain was on and we lost, however the adventure continued. Having left the forest, around half way up, the sky opened in a deluge lasting almost an hour, however we had just come across a small, basic mud and home on the hill. The woman who lived there welcomed our group into her one roomed home, chatting and laughing with our guide, guards and porters until the rain subsided with tiny rivulets of water seeping into the mud floor of the house, however the tin roof and mud walls remained resilient to the downpour. We were welcomed back to our lodge in Nkuringo with a warm fire, great food and nice wine. The night sky also allowed us to view the fire coming straight out of the 2 active volcanoes that we could see across the valley in the Congo. What an exceptional day!

The mornings from our lodge rewarded us with a picture perfect view of pink skies and soft clouds embracing the Virunga volcanic mountain range on one side with the flat plains of the Rift Valley beyond and the mist covered Bwindi forest below on the other side.


In 1993, when the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest became a National Park, the government relocated the Pygmy forest dwellers, the Batwa people out of the forest in order to protect the dwindling mountain gorilla population, which numbers around a mere 700 in total today. The Batwa people did not hunt the gorillas for food as they regarded them as another group of Batwa also living in the forest, however they were hunted for sacrifice. The Batwa were nomadic people foraging for food in the jungle, erecting small temporary shelters having mastered the art of starting a fire with friction in the damp forest. They also built shelters high up in the trees, these were for the children to be kept safe while they adult searched for food during the day. Most plants had either a medicinal or nutritional purpose that the Batwa people had become knowledgeable with. Today they are trying to educate the next generation with the way they lived in the forest so their unique heritage and culture is not lost.


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There are other tribes of people in the northern part of Uganda that have very recently been discovered, still living very primitive lives, never having seen other people.

Following our experience with the mountain gorillas of Uganda, the next day a small group of us trekked with our guide to his village home, where his mother had a pot bubbling away on an open fire with delicious smells wafting from it. While lunch was cooking we were guided through the families subsistence farm, munching on sugar cane the whole time. Beans and potatoes are staple foods with each family growing enough for themselves. Tomatoes, cabbage, yams, onions, bananas, pineapple, coffee and sugar cane are also grown in plentiful quantities. Our delicious lunch, served outside in a communal bowl consisted of a bean, onion, cabbage and potatoe stew which we helped to cook by chopping the onions and cabbage and storing the pot.

The following day we departed our lodge in Nkuringo, walking around 10 kms along tracks that led through open farms, villages and rolling hills. At one point the track took us past a local primary school and all the children started running to follow us, some of who have not seen a white face before. The track ultimately led us down to a beautiful lake where waiting for us were dug out canoes made from eucalyptus logs. The 3 hour paddle across the lake was restful and peaceful with the chance to snooze, daydream and gaze while the local fisherman did the hard work of paddling. Arriving to Kisoro we were whisked away to the Virunga Volcano National Park for a hearty meal of the best steak I have ever had. With 2 nights in our Eco Lodge, the next day will be tracking the Golden Monkeys up into the primary bamboo forest, a very different landscape, though mountain gorillas do also roam the bamboo forest, they enjoy bamboo as well. The golden monkeys are unique to this area and as all monkeys, keep you entertained easily for the hour we had with them.

After returning to Entebbe with a short flight, our tour had now ended and I am armed with lots of photos and stories to share with my family and friends of my up close and personal experience with the Mountain Gorillas of Uganda. An exceptional adventure!

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