Gorillas in our Midst – Uganda

Gorillas in our Midst

Julie, Judith and Annette chatted over my head in Luganda, the soft Zs sounding like rustling palm fronds in an afternoon shower. Other African languages seem staccato and harsh, like pounding drums, whereas Luganda whistled and hissed. Sometimes an English word popped up like a twig surfacing from Bujagali Falls. The women giggled and whispered to me their dreams and ambitions while they tugged at my hair, strand by strand, then paused to ask, “We’re not hurting you, are we?”

After six non-stop hours of weaving and braiding, my scalp resembled a cross-section of massively tangled telephone wiring. Chris, my husband, emerged from his book for a sneak preview. “I don’t think I recognize you anymore.”

We were sitting on his daughter, Kate Fuller’s front porch of her rented house for the hairweaving session. It was enclosed by a brick wall with a guardhouse from which the gardener, Charles, could peer out on the dirt road in Kiwatule, a suburb of Kampala, Uganda. But in Africa, walls mean nothing. Howling dogs at midnight, men hammering on rooftops next door, crying babies and crowing roosters defy stone walls.

Two days ago, we jetted for eight-and-a-half hours non-stop from Heathrow to Entebbe. No skyscrapers, no twinkling city lights signaled our approach, just velvety March darkness ushered us toward the landing field.

Ravaged by civil wars in the eighties, continuing insurrections in the north, ever present malaria and AIDS, Uganda isn’t at the top of most travelers’ destination list. I didn’t have any doubts as we walked across the runway tarmac: I was going to love this country. Soon, I would be relishing the red clay soil which would cling to our shoes and clothes when we walked through Kiwatule. The rich aroma of freshly ground coffee beans would permeate the kitchen when Annette Kizza, Kate’s housekeeper, whipped up our first home-cooked meal: a sticky-textured matoke (mashed bananas) with red groundnut sauce.

Although Kate was the main reason why Chris and I were standing in a visa line at Entebbe airport, trying to brush away swarming gnats which no one else seemed to notice, we were also eager to see the mountain gorillas. Over half of the 650 remaining mountain gorillas in the world live in the Uganda’s Impenetrable Forest.

Kate was the perfect person to show us around. Her gently curling golden locks frame soft hazel eyes that belie an iron will to protect fragile ecosystems. Her business card reads: “defending liberty and pursuing justice”. She’s a lawyer advising non-governmental agencies on environmental issues.

When we balked at the $250 gorilla tracking permit fees, Kate put her wily legal skills to work, “Just think, you’re bettering the mountain gorillas chance of survival.”

“If not our own,” I thought. For two to six hours, we’d track the gorillas, hiking through uncut brush and muddy slopes. Kate seemed to think her seventy-three year-old father and his hill-challenged wife could manage, but first we had to reach Bwindi National Park, located in the southwest corner of Uganda, bordering Rwanda and Congo.

Hairweaving in Kiwatule was more my speed. “It will look really good,” I assured Chris who stared skeptically as Julie swept the Medusa swirl of braids into one brioche of a knot. Just then, Kate pulled up to the gate in her second-hand Pajero, the 4×4 that would carry us the 500 kilometers from Kampala to Bwindi National Forest. Moses Mukasa, Kate’s part-time driver and trained accountant, boasted to us during our drive from Entebbe to Kampala, “I was the first person to meet Kate in Uganda. That was at Entebbe Airport. She had fifteen pieces of luggage and two cats.”

“In Kampala, the definition of a good driver is an aggressive driver,” Kate explained as Moses negotiated the red dirt, potholed road past makeshift fruit and vegetable stands, ornate, pillared stone houses still under construction, cows and grassy roundabouts that led us to Kampala’s city center. Bank buildings, churches, a Bahai temple, mosques and the Sheraton Hotel vied to dominate its ten-hill skyline.

“I thought it would be a good idea to ask Moses to drive us to Bwindi. I could do it, but if he drives, it would give me a chance to enjoy the scenery.” Kate suggested.

On the Road: Hippos and Honeymooners at Mburo Lake

In the next four days, I’d know why Winston Churchill called Uganda “the Pearl of East Africa”. Even a month wouldn’t be long enough to explore Uganda’s varied landscape. Our route would meander through farmland to grassy plains and marshes emanating from Lake Mburo. We’d drive past women and girls carrying everything from yellow plastic water canisters to full-size bed frames on their heads. Here, farmers use hoes rather than plows. We’d traverse Ankole cattle ranchland, then climb steadily into the crater-lake studded eucalyptus forest before turning westward, heading for the mist-laden highlands straddling Congo and Rwanda where gorillas still roam at Bwindi National Park. Bujagali Falls, site of a controversial dam project and the source of the Nile River at Lake Victoria would have to wait for another day.

Soon after we left Kampala, the radio station crackled and faded. This trip wouldn’t be like the neatly arranged package-safaris Chris and I had booked in the past. This time we were on our own. I regretted not having stashed a few music tapes in the backpack but we had the essentials: plenty of water, flashlights and mosquito repellant.

Lake Mburo, situated about 230 km southwest of Kampala, would take us four hours driving time along the well-paved national highway. A cloudburst spattered our windshield as we unceremoniously inched across the Equator.

We slowed at Mburo National Park’s lone guard station, not another 4×4 in sight. We had the park to ourselves as the sun set low over the grassy plains. Two zebra leapt out of the high grasses to cross our unpaved path. A family of mongoose scurried by in single file. Then a crested heron, Uganda’s national bird, flapped its wings, flustered by our approach. As soon as we reached camp, we dropped our packs and sped over to the lake for dinner with the hippos.

“There’s supposed to be 500 hippos in Lake Mburo,” Kate told us and we were eager to see some of them.

The papyrus-thatched, open air restaurant perched on Lake Mburo was nothing extraordinary in itself, but lolling there at night beside the black, still waters, lit only by stars, was nothing short of romantic. A honeymoon couple from Miami approached us as Moses snapped open a Bell beer. Kate, Chris and I opted for the competitor, Nile Beer.

“What a great choice for your honeymoon!” I commended them while nearby hippos grunted in shallow waters under the stilts. The couple nodded in that quietly bemused and abstracted way that newlyweds do. They shyly asked for a ride back to the campsite. Guardians had discouraged their return on foot because roaming buffalo or hippos could prove fatal.

In the morning, we ventured out in a motorized rowboat. We counted five or six bloats of ear-twitching hippos. Leaving the game park, we shared the dirt road with a procession of Ankole cattle, their long horns barely grazing our side-view mirrors. Gradually, the plains faded and the hills commenced. At a balmy seventy-five degrees Fahrenheit, the air was cool and clear. The sun shone brightly. Our troubles had just begun.

We discovered the oil leak at a filling station in Kabale. Kate quietly cursed the garage mechanic back in Kampala who had assured her that the Pajero was roadworthy. “He told me the leak was fixed!”

The Less-Traveled Road to Bwindi

We poured another canister of oil into the engine and crossed our fingers before setting out for Bwindi National Forest.

“Are you sure this is the right road, Moses?” Kate asked plaintively.
“Katie, Katie,” Moses chided, “Yes, this is the right road.”
“The only trouble with Moses is that he’s ALWAYS right.” Kate had warned us.

The volcanic peaks of neighboring Rwanda and Congo loomed over the horizon. A wrong turn could have easily led us into either one of these two countries.

We were on one of the right roads – the less-traveled one. The next seventy kilometers promised to be slow going as we bumped over unwieldy rocks and protruding tree roots. The Pajero guzzled oil faster than we could pour it in.

We lurched into Buhoma Community Campgrounds by nightfall. Then came the rain. I trudged despondently down the mud-caked slippery steps to our banda, a thatched round hut with simple cots.

“Even the gorillas don’t like the rain,” Kate commiserated. “Last time I saw the gorillas in the rain, they just sat and did nothing.”

By dawn, the rain subsided and when I exited the banda, no clouds blemished the horizon. We hurried through breakfast to meet our guide at park headquarters.

For me, the moment of truth was approaching. Could I do this? Kate spoke of other unprepared, improperly-shod tourists who had barely made it through the mud. Chris would be one of the oldest visitors to Bwindi.

As we selected hiking sticks at headquarters, my forgotten fears resurfaced. An image I hadn’t thought of for years, the glowering gorilla in a childhood wildlife picture book, flashed before me. That photo literally used to make my teeth chatter. Finally, the old silverback and I would meet face-to-face.

Richard Magezi, our guide advised us, “Whatever happens, stay still, don’t look the silverback in the eye if he should charge.” The silverback, the elder and group leader, which can weigh up to 400 pounds, looks fierce, but rarely does he charge. Mountain gorillas, unlike humans, may make a lot of noise and thump their chest, but they don’t kill or maim.

Richard, who’d been studying the two habituated gorilla groups (M and K group) for the past seven years, took his role as protector seriously. “It takes a year to two years to habituate a group of wild gorillas to humans,” he said. Then he covered the ground rules: no flash cameras, no talking, no sudden movements, no walking sticks when we approached the gorillas.

“Are any of you sick?” he quizzed. “Tell me now because once we start hiking, I’ll find out anyhow.” A cough or a sneeze can be just as deadly as a bullet for gorillas who have no immunity to human germs.

No one answered.

“Good, let’s go then.”

Our group consisted of two professional trackers, Richard, six porters, three Swiss tourists, Chris, Kate and myself. Six observers per gorilla group is the maximum allowed per day.

“We heard the gorillas last night,” said one of the Swiss hikers. For this reason, the trackers began our strenuous journey on the manicured front lawn of the Abercrombie and Kent’s luxurious campground. Trackers must return to where the gorillas were last sighted. From there, they follow the gorillas’ calling cards: broken branches and fresh dung.

From A&K campsite’s backyard, we stepped into the jungle. One tracker hacked away undergrowth with a machete. The second carried a rifle for predators (animal or human).

“This should be fun,” I joked as I searched for firm footing in a mass of slippery roots and creeping vines. I was glad to have worn gloves and long pants in spite of the heat.

The sun intensified and the upward climb promised no respite. I knew things were getting dicey when my porter slipped through the roots to the forest floor (and he lives here!). From then on, we all took turns tumbling. We paused to swig water, trying to ignore the loudest sound in the jungle – our own panting.

“They’ve sighted them!” The word whispered back to us.
“Move quickly! Red ants!” another urged. Suddenly, I felt a dozen stinging bites shooting up my legs. Thick socks and ankle-draw-stringed cargo pants couldn’t keep them out. I unzipped the above-the-knee zipper and crushed the marauders before they could do more damage.

Uganda mountain gorilla
Had the gorillas planned it this way? There was no time to whimper. We had one last hill to climb before reaching the idyllic clearing. Several young gorillas hung from trees and the mighty silverback, the leader of this 22-member group, noted our arrival by grunting to family members, running his roll call.

The ominous-looking silverback scrutinized us, then turned his attention to a six-month infant which he gently cradled in his arms before handing it over to an attending female. Other gorillas ripped bark from eucalyptus trees. Two juveniles rollicking and wrestling in the brush captured my attention. One climbed a tree, then tumbled when his weight broke a branch.

The clearing was very peaceful, shafts of sunlight illuminating the forest floor. The silverback snoozed for a while before he signaled the group to leave. He safely escorted them, one by one, past the non-threatening humans. We watched the last gorilla disappear into the foliage. I guessed this was as close as we’d ever get to Eden, red ants and all.

Richard, who sees the gorillas every day, appeared equally pleased with the encounter. A true scientist, he’d been studying us, right along with the gorillas. He nicknamed Chris the silverback of our group.

“Why do people kill gorillas?” we asked.
“In the Congo, soldiers have been known to kidnap babies to sell, or in some cases, they kill gorillas for the fun of it,” Richard explained.

That’s why the tally of 650 mountain gorillas worldwide can change overnight. In neighboring Rwanda, gorillas sometimes get caught in traps set for other animals. These sobering facts made our encounter all the more precious.

Much later, after a four-course gourmet meal at the Abercrombie and Kent Gorilla Camp, we ambled out of Bwindi park grounds. The famous mists rolled in and swaddled the surrounding hill tops. We were feeling tired, but pretty good about being here. Ignorance can be bliss because the next day at this time, the Pajero would have gasped its last breath and we’d be stuck on the road somewhere between Mbarrara and Leontonde.

Moses, who was ‘always right,’ proved it one last time by convincing the ‘good Samaritans’ who towed us that “the foreigners were in security” i.e. armed to the teeth.

When I finally did unpack my bags – a week later – in Paris, I unfolded my clothes that still carried the scent of Uganda’s rich, red earth. Likewise, Uganda had seeped into my pores for keeps.

Chris Card Fuller’s blog can be found at: Paris and Beyond