Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is a pretty apt name for a Central African jungle that is at times so dense you can only see the head of the person a few steps in front of you. The first part of the hike was fairly easy going – a well-worn gently sloping path under giant trees took us into the forest but we soon veered off track and then it was bundu bashing time: a machete-hacking, slippery, steep, vine-scrambling adventure that had our band of eight camera-clad trekkers full of mud, sweating like cold beers and gasping for breath.
We felt the gorillas before we saw them. A piece of bark dropped on my head and I looked up to see a black blob in the tree above us – the source of the rainfall of bark, leaves and twigs showering down on us. Before I’d had a chance to get my camera out the blob lowered itself down the nearest tree trunk like a firefighter going down a pole and disappeared into the forest. The big mountain gorilla spotting moment was over in a few seconds.
Flying halfway across the African continent to equatorial Uganda, driving for 10 hours on potholed roads and battling through thickets of stinging nettles was luckily not going to amount to just a few seconds of gorilla sighting. Just ahead of us, up another bum-clenchingly steep ravine, we panted up to where the rest of the Bitukura gorilla group sat – the huge silverback, munching away nonchalantly like a serene giant Buddha, a mother and her tiny teddy-bear-like 10-month old baby with shiny button eyes, an adult female who walked through our group to get to her eating spot, thrillingly brushing past my leg as she passed and some other adults and juveniles clambering around in trees and rustling through the bushes all around us.
This is what we’d come all this way for – to spend an hour with these creatures who share 98% of their genes with us – a group of gentle vegetarian giants whose mannerisms and features are sometimes so human like you can’t believe they’re animals. With less than a thousand mountain gorillas left on the planet, which are only found in three places (Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo), the chance to come a few metres from the apes while they go about their daily business is pretty unbeatable as far as wildlife experiences go. We clicked away, taking thousands of photos and shooting breathless videos as silverbacks walked within touching distance and the baby took a few waddling steps, transfixed, in awe and losing all sense of time before our guides almost had to physically remove us after an hour.
Tracking mountain gorillas was the highlight of a week-long overlanding camping tour with Nomad Adventure Tours through Uganda. Along with a bunch of South African travel bloggers, I bounced around in a huge truck called Marilyn for 1500 kilometres with a bunch of Poles, a few Swedes, a German and two Zimbabweans – our indefatigable driver, Servius Mahara and a master of comedic timing guide, Norman Lova.
The trip wasn’t only about gorillas, though. Uganda is a spectacularly beautiful country of wonderfully friendly people, and even though we only had a few days, we managed to squeeze a lot in. After a night in Kampala, which is safe and easy to get around, although traffic choked and dusty, we drove for a day heading south west and stayed at one of the best campsites I’ve ever been to: Lake Bunyonyi Overland Resort, on the shores of serene Lake Bunyonyi, where our tents were pitched a few metres from the water. Sunsets on the lake were those perfect African ones, where you have a cold beer in hand (the Kenyan Tusker was my choice), sit on the deck and watch the sky turn from apricot to pink to bruised purple. When we weren’t gorilla tracking in Bwindi, a two-hour drive away, we were swimming in the lake, getting felt up by an 87-year old woman in the village for suitability as African wives and visiting a local orphanage called Little Angels (where I taught a maths class to a group of the cutest kids, and had my hair braided into an extremely painful hairstyle by dozens of little hands).
From Lake Bunyonyi we had the most scenic drive of the trip, past banana plantations (I’ve never been to a country with more bananas), coffee trees and rolling hills of sparkling green tea plantations in Bushenyi, till we came to the top of a plateau and looked down at a flat savanna peppered with acacia trees: Queen Elizabeth National Park. Our two days here were spent game driving (spotting buffalo, elephants, olive baboons and Ugandan kob, which look just like impala) and tracking chimpanzees in Karinzu Forest Reserve, a short drive out of the park.
While you have about a 95% chance of finding mountain gorillas when you go tracking in Bwindi, you have an 80% chance of seeing chimps in Karinzu, which means there’s a chance that you could hike for hours and not see anything. The chimpanzee permit is much lower than the mountain gorilla one ($75 as opposed to $600) so it was a gamble worth taking. The Karinzu reserve starts right next to the road, so we got dropped off by a minibus, took a few steps down the verge and were suddenly plunged into forest. No sooner had we gone a few steps before we heard the unmistakable ear-piercing shrieks of chimpanzees. They were tantalisingly close, but because they were hunting a colobus monkey, they were moving fast through the trees, and we had to trot to keep up – getting swatted by thorny vines and branches as we went bundu bashing for the second time in Central Africa. By the time we’d caught up with them, we were covered in bloody scratches and sweat patches – a real Rambo-in-the-jungle look. Chimpanzees are rather large – larger than you might think – and even more human like than mountain gorillas and our first glimpse of one, about 20 metres away from us in the dimness of the forest, looked disconcertingly human, standing on his hind legs and using a stick for scraping ants out of a nest. Unlike gorillas, chimps don’t really sit around much like perfect wildlife models – they spend most of their time up in the trees, so we did a lot of neck craning and zoom lensing. Even though you don’t get the surreal closeness that you do with the gorillas, chimp tracking was incredibly exhilarating.
A week in Uganda wasn’t long enough to see all of this amazing country, but it gave me a taste of the landscape of mist-shrouded crater lakes and 50-shades-of-green jungles. I will be back.
To give you more of a sense of the trip, check out this video made by Joseph C Lawrence.
Overlanding in Uganda to track mountain gorillas
Nomad Adventure Tours offers a six-night, seven-day camping overlanding tour of Uganda, which costs from R9450, excluding the mountain gorilla permit, which costs around $600. You can travel to Uganda independently and hire a car (or take public transport) and organise the permit yourself but it’s much easier to do an overlanding trip where all you have to do is set up your tent, bring lots of music and books for the long drives and make new friends in the truck.