A Visit to the Relatives
New Years Eve and three of us headed to the far south western corner of Uganda next to the Rwandan and DRC borders.
Hans, Russ and I had taken up the option of a side trip to see the mounain gorillas, so with Thiemo, we left early to avoid the traffic congestion of central Kampala. The others were to stay in Kampala for another day and then move to a campground in Jinja and await our return.
Peak hour traffic in Kampala was like peak hour in other places - chaos. After nearly running over a cyclist who fell off his bike right in front of us, we were well and truly awake. We passed along the western edge of Lake Victoria but rarely got a glimpse as the lake is fringed with wetlands full of high papyrus reeds. The couuntryside was now much more tropical and the air humid. We passed through a village whose specialty seemed to be three legged stools with woven seats, and another whose roadside stalls sold nothing but woven floor mats. Yet another sold drums - the beating variety, made of carved out tree trunks with goat skin stretched across the top. We crossed the Equator for the thhird time and stopped for a muffin and REAL coffee at a cafe there (we'd left so early we'd skipped breakfast in anticipation). Everywhere were people still collecting water from wells and carrying the plastic water drums on their heads. Every second truck was (over)loaded with bunches of bananas while individuals carried up to 5 huge bunches on their bicycles to the nearest village. There was no riding - the bikes were pushed with huge effort up steep hills and it was all the owner could do to stop the bikes and their load getting away from them downhill. Other bikes had whole pigs lying across the seat behind the rider. They were probably on their way to the open air butchers who hung the carcasses and skinned and butchered them by the side of the road.
The type of cattle in the farms changed alarmingly - cows unique to Uganda called Ankoli Cows have the biggest horns we have ever seen on any cattle anywhere. Driving past them on the road was an exercise in not upsetting them in order to avoid a big hole in the side of he car!
Fruit and vegetable stalls were in abundance with the goods arranged in pyramids on the rickety wooden benches. To match the tropical climate, we bought sweet pineapples annd admired the mangoes, papaya, enormous jackfruit. Alternate piles of pink and yellow sweet potatoes, still beautifully arrannged, were the sole offerings at some stalls.
The road got steadily worse as we drove towards Kabale near the Rwandan border. The road became a pothole slalom course yet again with the road slippery from the overnight rain. Buses travelling at speed slid sideways towards us with alarming frequency. We averaged less than 60 kph on a tarred road! Mountain streams meandered through the surrounding countryside, simply beautiful with thick lush grass, emerald in colour, with dairy cows and tropical crops. In Kabale, we found ourselves caught in the middle of traffic and crowd chaos - a service station actually had diesel and further, had it cheap! There were hundreds of people with plastic drums and a confusion of cars all over the road, all trying to fill up. To get out, we had to back out while trying to stop a similarly backing bus continuing to back into us!
Out of town we drove up a dirt road hugging the mountain with a sheer drop to an amazing valley on one side and a cliff face on the other - oh yes, the road was really only a bit more than one car wide as well... -Along the road were small quarries with locals chipping the blocks of stone into gravel with hammers! But as we reached the top we saw a magnificent lake, Lake Bunyonyi, in front of us. At about twice the altitude of Lake Victoria, it was almost perched in the sky, and on the other side we saw clearly the volcano Karisimbi which straddles the border of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We were told it was mostly swathed in cloud, so we were lucky to have such a wonderful view of it.
As it was New Year's Eve, we opted at camp to have the buffet dinner (at the huge cost of about $8 per person). The campground was superb with manicured lawns and gardens to the lake edge - and hot showers...
Next day was a much shorter drive of only 4 hours to Bwindi Impenatrable National Park. Again we climbed high on narrow seldom used roads and enjoyed the views. However our progress was halted when we came across a tall eucalypt tree across the road, blocking our way. (There are as many eucalypts here as in Ethiopia and parts of Kenya being used for reforestation.) Out with the snatch straps and a pull with the landie and we cleared the road.
The demarcation between the farmland and the National Park is sudden. One side of an imaginnary line stretching up the hillsides is cultivated and on the other side is thick, dark rainforest. We drove through the forest, surprised by the lack of obvious wildlife. We glimpsed only the tails of two monkeys disappearing into the gloom.
The next day was relative visiting time. We had booked to do a gorilla trek inn the Park. The rules are incredibly strict: no more than 8 people in a group; no closer than 7 metres from the gorillas; nno touchhing the animals; no more than an hour with them. And no guarantee of seeing them - no refunds - and the trek could be anything from an hour up to 10 hours to see "your" family. And then you have to trek back.
So we met up with our guide and the rest of the group - and there were 9 of us (rule no 1 broken...) There was some confusion about how we were to get to the start of the trek - one minute we had to take our car, then not, and then we shared a van with some others in the group. We drove quite a long way, then trekked up a mountain through small villages on a very narrow track about 30cms wide. One mis-step and you could slide on the mud all the way to the valley, unless a banana tree halted your downward progress! Two people couldn't do the steep path and turned back. At the top we looked over the rainforest then plunged into the thick of it. Fortunately we had to push our way through the undergrowth for only about an hour before the family was located. Three or four individuals looked at us for a short while before taking off into the two metre high bushes all around us, so we continued on. Next sight was two gorillas, a young male and a youngster wrestling each other. They were having a marvellous time and were completely uunconcerned by our presence (we were no further than 3 metres at any time from them - rule no 2 gone). After they had exhausted themselves, it was into the tall tree part of the forest, where the Silverback and some females and children were resting. One young one charged us and touched some of us on the legs (rule no 3...). The youngsters played. The female fed her baby and old man Silverback just sat and watched them and us. After about 2 hours (rule no 4...) we left for the trek back.
The experience was wonderful. It was a long trip to do - about a thousand extra kilometres and three extra days - but worth every bit of it. There was no way we could come all this way to Africa, to Uganda, and not see the gorillas. We are glad we came.