Kisoro, Uganda, South Africa
Kisoro, Uganda to Rwanda and back
Day 17: 14 August 2002 8:30 pm
The group leave to see the mountain gorillas at 7am in a state of excitement in the back of a pickup truck.
Up at 5:45am and packed everything up. We are not staying another night in
this room. Then it was into the back of a pick-up truck for the 12km drive
on another terrible road to the Ugandan border. After stamping us out, we
turned up at the Rwandan border and waited for it to open. Now I imagined
uniformed officials in a ramshackle hut but no, this is Africa, so two guys
casually rolled up in a pick-up and opened a window ’round the back of a
Luckily as we are British, we didn’t have to pay for our visa but Aussies
had to cough up a whopping $60. We would have to pay $15 to reenter Uganda
and an additional $20 when we reenter Kenya. We were a bit miffed that we
did not get a transit visa for Kenya originally as this would have saved us
$60, but our original itinerary stated that we would be in Kenya for eight days
and a transit visa is only valid for seven. You are allowed to cross back and
forth between Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania on a single entry visa, but not
outside of these countries.
Then we were off for an adventure of a lifetime in Rwanda, flying past the
stunning volcanoes of Parc Nacional Des Volcans, accompanied by an armed
convey of soldiers. Everyone was so excited, but I also felt distinctly
nervous. This was one of those few moments in life that you really have to
make a conscious effort to savour every moment.
After an exhilarating ride, we picked up our permits (an unimpressive bland
tissue paper thin document for $250) and drove up to the National Park for
our “Gorillas in the Mist” experience.
Gorillas are the largest primates on earth yet there is only one mountain
gorilla to every 10 million people on the planet. For more than a century
big game hunters and poachers pursued gorillas and now due to loss of
habitat and war they are one of the world’s most endangered species. Yet
gorillas are peaceful vegetarians that like to lead a quiet life in family
Dr Diane Fossey was one of the best known gorilla researchers. By learning
to imitate gorilla sounds and gestures, she could communicate with them.
She was sceptical as to whether tourism should be encouraged, but this now
seems to be the only way to save the mountain gorilla from extinction.
Groups of six people are taken to see four different habituated family groups.
Our guide, Fidele, took us to see “Group 13″, a family with seven members (1
silverback, 3 female, 1 juvenile and 2 babies). We climbed up through dense
vegetation with a troop of armed soldiers and a guy with a machete way ahead
of us clearing a path for us. We were warned about the stinging nettles –
in Africa insects and vegetation are twice the size of anything back home –
the nettles were the size of my palm and stung like red hot needles even
through my trousers.
Silverback ready to charge
Soon we were in a clearing, almost boggy with reeds waving in the breeze and
I thought I had stepped into a “Wildlife on One” documentary. I could
almost hear David Attenborough as we turned a corner and stumbled upon a
baby and two females. The silverback was lurking in the bushes. It was
superb conditions for taking photos as the gorillas were not under the
canopy but out in the open, feeding.
I was enthralled by how human their hands and feet were, the way they
scratched their arms and the babies’ inquisitive glances. We lurched around
to the silverback’s domain but he decided he wanted to go through to the
clearing but the only way was past us. He charged forward and I ran for my
life – I was terrified. You do not realise their immense size until a
silverback stands on all fours. He took a swipe at the guy with the machete
before settling down to his meal of what appeared to be giant thistle. I
gave him a wide berth after that. He would pull up a thistle and then munch
the roots before stripping it down to a stem that looked like celery.
During our hour with the gorillas we were never less than 1 or 2 metres from
them. We had a truly magical time and it was worth all the hardship, hassle
and money. We tipped our guide $2 each and returned to the park office. By
this time my face was black with dirt and I had a screaming headache.
Everyone was dehydrated.
Mother and baby
The park office has interesting information boards with news about the
family groups. In May of this year, poachers kiled two breast-feeding females
from the Susa group and abducted one baby. The other baby was rescued, but is
traumatised and is being cared for by the park. Park officials suspect that
the baby was stolen to order and will be sold abroad to a zoo. After being
privileged enough to sit with these gentle creatures, I hope that the
tourist dollars will help protect them. Even heavily guarded, the mountain
gorillas are not out of the poachers’ reach.
By the time all the group arrived back, it was too late to return to Lake
Bunyonyi so we had to stay another night in Kisoro (this time in the safety
of my tent). On the way back to the border, I thought we had been shot at
when there was a loud bang as a tyre blew whilst we were travelling at
50mph. The driver should be commended for being able to control the pick-up
and he brought it safely to a stop. Unfortunately, Roberta and Beth decided
that they had had a near-death experience and started telling morbid tales
of people they knew that had been mutilated or died in various car,
motorbike or farming accidents. Needless to say we all told them to shut up.
Positives: It really is a once in a lifetime experience – I would encourage
anyone that visits East Africa to see the gorillas.
Negatives: Dehydrated, covered in dirt and battered to death in the back of
a pick-up truck, but who cares – I was charged by a silverback.