getting lost and making friends in gorilla country

RWANDA, Uganda As the dirt road narrowed and the truck nearly bottomed out for the third time in as many minutes, I turned to Chaz.

RWANDA, Uganda

As the dirt road narrowed and the truck nearly bottomed out for the third time in as many minutes, I turned to Chaz.

“Have we taken a wrong turn?” I wailed.

“This can’t be the way to a national park!  I mean, at least 24 tourists go there every day, for crying out loud!”

It was December 21st, and we were attempting to reach Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park from Kabale, a paltry distance of 100 kilometres.

After three hours, the odometer depressingly displayed a progress of 60 kilometres.

To be fair, I had been warned. Back on Bushara Island I had mentioned that we were going to go to Bwindi to see the endangered mountain gorillas.

There are only around 650 of these left in the wild, and they are found in a small area, which includes bits of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“You are driving to Bwindi?!” the restaurant manager exclaimed worriedly when I told her of our plans.

Seeing my wary, questioning look, she back-pedaled hastily.

“It’s very nice … and the road is somehow OK.”

The ‘somehow’ was the worrying part.

For example:

“Hello so-and-so! I have not seen you for a few days, how is your wife?”

“She is somehow OK, now she is in the hospital with malaria.”

As far as I can tell (and without a background in linguistics), “somehow,” when used by Ugandans, means “not really at all.”

The unfavourable road conditions were confirmed by the man at the gate of the floating bridge, which marks the beginning of the Bwindi road.

“It’s somehow OK,” he told us reassuringly, smiling from ear to ear. Thank goodness for the battered white 4WD truck, courtesy of the African Community Technical Services.

We finally reached the park at 5 p.m., a mere five and a half hours after setting off from Bushara.

That we got there at all was a bit of a miracle really, given the state of the road and the lack of consistent signposting.

Several times we met forks in the road and were forced to choose a path at random, rattling along at the blazing speed of 20 kilometres per hour until encountering a local who could confirm (or contradict) our decision.

Dusty, hot and thoroughly tired, we pitched our tent at Buhoma community rest camp and settled in for the night, speculating the length of the hike we’d have to tackle the following morning before hopefully encountering the gorillas.

Of course, 6:30 a.m. came much too quickly, and after a quick breakfast we walked 50 metres down the road to the gorilla trek staging point at park headquarters.

There we were met by our guide, Benson (“like Benson and Hedges” he joked, “but it’s true that I don’t even smoke!”) and four other hikers.

Due to the Ebola scare of early December, tourists were thin on the ground and around a dozen had not shown up for the trek, forfeiting their $500 permits.

Usually tourists are allocated to one of the three habituated gorilla families in this part of Bwindi, but we were able to choose the group we most wanted to see.

“Which family is the biggest?” I asked Benson. “And, actually more importantly, which is closest to where we are now?”

Benson replied that the answer to both questions was Group ‘R’ (apparently most tourists have trouble pronouncing Rushegura.)

The family itself is presently made up of 15 individuals and the rangers had left them the previous night at a spot around an hour’s hike away.

“Of course” he hastened to caution me, “the gorillas don’t make appointments with us and may have moved during the night.”

As we were to find out, they had most definitely moved.

We had barely set off down the road when Benson’s walkie-talkie sputtered and crackled, producing a garbled message.

Shaking his head, he pulled out his cellphone and used it to contact the rangers and clarify the message.

Gravely, he turned to us.

“The rangers have been tracking the gorillas and have located the position of the family. They are 50 metres into the forest from here. We will now leave all of our belongings except for the cameras and continue on to see them.”

I dropped my bag as if it weighed a ton.  “Benson, I am so glad we’re finally here!” I exclaimed.  “I’m exhausted. I didn’t think I was going to make it!”

He snickered, which just goes to show that some (admittedly facile) humour is indeed cross-cultural.

We shuffled into the forest single-file, cameras at the ready. Suddenly they were there. Gorillas!

At first we only had a clear view of one, sitting on top of a pile of vegetation. He was methodically chewing his way through handfuls of leaves in much the same manner as I would set into my third helping from a Chinese buffet.

It was a magical (yet familiar) sight.

A loud rustling came from the forest at our backs, and Benson carefully cut a path with his machete for us in the direction of the sound.

We awkwardly stumbled through the branches and onto a grassy trail where gorillas galore awaited us. Mothers, children, teenagers and the head of the family — a massive silverback — were scattered about, calmly munching on greenery.

Benson shone in his guiding duties as he quietly relayed to us pertinent gorilla information while paring back any leaves, which obstructed our view.

He was also careful to keep us at a distance of at least seven metres from the gorillas so as neither to startle them nor to unwittingly pass on any human viruses to which they are susceptible.

Good as he was, Benson couldn’t prevent the gorillas from approaching us, and while we backed up, a curious one ambled over to me and put its hand on my knee.

We looked at each other for a moment, gorilla and I, then it (he? she?) wandered away. I started to feel overwhelmingly dizzy, then remembered to let out the breath I had been holding.

The rest of the hour passed in flashes: a youngster beating its chest, a mother nursing her baby, the silverback calmly surveying his domain. Too quickly it was over, and we were back at park headquarters.

Benson presented us with gorilla tracking certificates (he almost didn’t give me mine, saying that it was because I had been so close to collapsing on the arduous journey) and wished all of us safe travels.

Rattling and bouncing our way back along the road, Chaz and I excitedly discussed the gorilla visit.

We became so engrossed in the conversation that we (OK, I) stopped paying strict attention to the sparse signposts.

I took a sharp right at the only village with paving, and seconds later stopped in front of a sign which proudly read “Bwindi: 40km.”

Perplexed, I backed up to where a group of men and women had gathered on the side of the street.

“Is this the way to Kabale?” I asked.

A middle-aged man detached himself from the group and approached the open car window, briefcase in hand.

“You are going to Kabale? Yes, it’s the way. I am also going there, may I come with you?”

Grinning at our shrugs, he hopped into the back seat. The truck was immediately mobbed by people.

“These ones are also going on the same road,” he explained, gesturing vaguely.

“Will you allow them?”

“Umm … I guess?”  I ventured hesitantly as men, women, children and 300 kilograms of rice found room in the back of the truck.  (In my defence, I didn’t learn about the ACTS policy forbidding such precarious transport until a few days later.)

Off we drove, and along we bounced. 

Occasionally there would be a knock on the roof of the truck and I would stop, letting off a person here, two there.

Each time they came to the window and tried to pass me money as transport fare, I shook my head and said, “No, no! Merry Christmas!”

Jaws flew open and eyes lit up.

“Merry Christmas, Mzungu!” they replied and walked away happily, some waving at us in the rear view mirror until they disappeared from sight.

Thus the Mzungu (“white person” or “foreigner”) Christmas taxi was born and continued down the somehow OK road, holiday cheer and goodwill buoyed by a not-to-be-forgotten hour with gorillas.

Christine Purves is a Yukoner now working in Africa.

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