Overland Tour Part 7: Uganda and Rwanda

Hi everyone!

We made it to the border with Uganda early in the morning and proceeded through with only one hiccup. Some of the members on tour bought an East African Visa at the Kenya departure point and the Ugandan officials wanted to deny entry as you must obtain the visa at your point of entry, not upon departure. They relented after delaying us by several hours with their bureaucracy and we were finally on our way. We made it to our campsite outside of Kampala as the sun went down. It had rained on and off all day so all of us upgraded to the dorms (only $4 USD extra) for the night. As with so many other days we have had on this truck trip we had dinner, a few drinks and then headed to bed due to exhaustion. The long days on the truck take a lot out of you. As bad as truck days are, we reminded ourselves that trying to make our way by local transport would take three times as long and be infinitely worse.

The next day was our third long truck day in a row, but we would arrive at our base camp for our gorilla trek so it was all worth it. Uganda is a stunning country, I spent most of the day looking out the window in amazement. It is one of the most lush and visually beautiful countries we have visited. When we finally arrived to our camp we were tired but excited as the next day we would be the first group to head out on our gorilla trek. We made sure to go to bed early as we had to leave very early the next morning.

We had breakfast the next morning at 5:00 am, where we also packed a lunch to bring with us on our trek. We were picked up promptly at 5:30 to drive the 2 hours to the start of our trek. The drive was even more beautiful than the previous day as a blanket of mist covered the landscapes in the early morning hours. As the sun rose and hit the mist and the rolling hills it made a breathtaking scene.

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We arrived to the starting point of the trek and waited a short while before being briefed by one of the rangers. He welcomed us to the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and explained the do’s and don’ts for trekking with the gorillas. I will highlight them below:
1) You are not suppose to trek if you have any respiratory or gastrointestinal illness as the gorillas can catch these illnesses from you. Despite this several members of our group trekked while ill. I understand it was a long time spent driving to get to the gorillas, it was expensive, and arguably it was to be the highlight of the trip. However, there is the aspect of being a conscious traveler to be considered, which means one needs to seriously consider the health of these critically endangered species over ones own desires. Are pictures worth risking causing harm? I would like to think if I was sick I would make the right decision to stay behind, but luckily I didn’t have to make such a tough call. It is something to keep in mind if you plan to trek the gorillas.
2) You cannot touch the gorillas, but they can touch you (but you shouldn’t put these images on social media if it happens because it makes conservationists angry).
3) You should avoid looking the gorillas in the eye as they interpret this as a sign of agression, you are to avert your eyes and act submissive. You were allowed to look at them through your camera lens or LCD screen.
4) If you can’t finish the trek for any reason you can either turn back, or they can organize a stretcher team from the village to carry you with a starting price of $300 USD. If you wanted a porter the minimum price was $15 USD.
5) When taking pictures the flash must be turned off.
6) You will only have one hour with the gorillas once you reach them. You are only permitted one hour as any longer can stress the animals, and they want to limit the interaction for a health stand point for both us and the animals.

The rules aside we were informed there are 6 groups of habituated families of gorillas in Bwindi and each group of tourists would visit a different family (it takes two years for the staff to habituate the animals enough for tourists to visit). Finally, each group would be accompanied by two men who carried rifles in case we encountered forest elephants who were known to be aggressive, or in the worst case scenario in which one of the gorillas became overly aggressive.

Having been briefed we met our guide and guards and started our trek. Each family of gorillas have 2 trackers that set out early in the morning to find their nests where they slept the previous night, and then track their location from there. The trackers are in radio contact with the guide and instruct him where to lead us to find the gorillas. We were 8 in our group and moved efficiently through the dense rain forest. The hike was relatively easy, (compared to all the hikes Chris and I have done) we hiked for 1.5 hours and then stopped for a rest and to wait for our group of gorillas to stop moving, then another half an hour and we were at the gorillas. Our family of gorillas was called the Bikingi Familt and were 11 in number, with the youngest baby in all of the families in Uganda at 3 months of age.

When we arrived to their location we took a few minutes to get ourselves ready for our one hour with the family. Once ready I was pushed to be the first one to follow the tracker. He cut through the brush until he revealed a gorilla sitting a few meters from our location. He inched closer and closer and encouraged me to follow. As soon as I reached the trackers side the gorilla lunged at us. I think my heart stopped. The tracker acted quickly by making the noises the gorillas make to communicate and smacking his machete at the brush close to the gorilla. As I tried to remind myself to breathe the tracker broke into laughter and explained the gorilla was a juvenile male and was just playing. He noticed the look of terror on my face and said it was absolutely fine and I better start taking pictures. I reluctantly did so and captured the juvenile still in a crouched position towards us. A minute later he had one last lunge at us before taking off into the bush. My heart was hammering in my chest still, what a rush of adrenaline! The size of the animals and their intelligence makes for a very intimidating combination.

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After the juvenile left we noticed one gorilla hanging out in the trees having a snack. You had to be quick with your camera as they moved very fast and you could miss a photo opportunity easily.

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The trackers then pointed out a mom, juvenile, and the 3 month old baby that is the youngest of any of Ugandas babies. We spent a very long time observing them. The mom was relaxing and being groomed by the juvenile while keeping a close eye on the baby. The baby was just as our babies are at that age; inquisitive, playful and active. When it tried to move too far from mom she would snatch it up and place it back on her belly, where she would rub its back in a soothing way. I can’t really describe what it was like to watch, they are so alike to us it seemed like people dressed up in suits playing a prank on us (it would be a very expensive prank). I couldn’t stop staring at their faces, the expressiveness was captivating. You could see their level of intelligence in their faces and actions. It was difficult to capture pictures as there always seemed to be a branch in the most inopportune place, but this forced us to stop and observe which was a beautiful thing. After a while the juvenile scooped the baby up and took off into the bush, the guide joked it was a good babysitter for mom to have a break! A few minutes later mom took off after them.

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Our next spotting was two blackbacks who were relaxing under some bush. They had their heads resting in their hands looking positively bored. I cracked up watching them, between Tiana and I we managed a few good shots (check them out below). As we moved position to get a better look one of the blackbacks stood up on his hind legs, beat his chest, and thrust himself forwards under a different bush. The sound of him beating his chest was totally unexpected; we thought it would be hallow sounding but it was more high-pitched and sounded like a woodpecker, ‘pop,pop,pop.’ I am so glad we were able to witness that.

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We moved a bit further down the bush to a cleared area and the guide told us to train our cameras ahead of us because a 16 year old silverback was going to pass. Instead of just walking on when he reached the clearing he turned and faced us straight on for several minutes. We were all frozen, he was built solid and much larger than I expected. These were definitely our best pictures of the day. He decided to sit down right in the clearing and break branches from the trees and have a bit of a snack. Our guide couldn’t stop reiterating how lucky we were as usually the silverbacks are elusive and don’t come into the open. We snapped pictures like mad as he sat utterly nonplussed by our presence.
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After 10 minutes or so (time seemed to both speed up and slow down simultaneously) the guide pointed behind us and said the alpha silverback of the group was going to pass behind us. He too decided to stop for a snack, so we were trapped between the two silverbacks. Some of our group moved to photograph the alpha silverback while some of us stayed with the younger one. Not two minutes after some of the group moved the young silverback got up and started walking directly towards the group of us that remained. We all panicked (I grabbed Nat for dear life) and grabbed each other and pulled one another out of the way (including the trackers). As soon as we moved the silverback passed by not inches from where we stood. He wasn’t aggressive in any way so really there was nothing to be fearful of, but his presence commanded respect and none of us wanted to upset him. For the second time that day my heart was in my throat.

Our group then moved to the alpha male where we were told it would be the last pictures of the day. The hour passed in the blink of an eye and we tried to enjoy every last second. The alpha silverback was spectacular, he was in a perfect position for pictures. Check the one I snapped of Chris with him!
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We said our goodbyes to our gorilla family and began to make our way out of the forest, stopping quickly for lunch on the way. Before we reached the car park we had our ‘graduation’ ceremony where we received certificates for having successfully trekked the mountain gorillas. We took cheesy photos to complete the experience!

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The two hour drive back flew by as we reflected on what we had just experienced. We were blown away by the scenery along the way and stopped to take pictures. The photos below don’t even come close to doing justice to the scenery but I thought I would share them to give you an idea of what the countryside looked like.

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We fell asleep immediately after dinner after our long and exciting day. Chris and I had nothing planned for the next day so we took the opportunity to sleep in. We meant to have a relaxing day by the lake (our campsite was amazing), but we looked into our visa for India and realized we had a very short window to apply for it. Our relaxing day turned into a stressful day battling with the intermittent wi-fi and power outages to complete our applications. Chris managed his that day, but I had to wait until the next day to finish as everyone returned from their day trips and made the Internet impossible to use. It wasn’t as relaxing of a day as we hoped but we were relieved to have our applications completed.

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The following day our group of 8 headed to Rwanda for a day tour. Driving into the country we could not believe how beautiful and clean it was. The previous day was the last Saturday of the month when every member of the country (including the president) are required to do a massive clean up of the entire country. On this day no tourists are allowed to enter the country. There wasn’t a single piece of trash to be found, it was a stark contrast to the rest of Africa. It was a full day excursion where we visited a church, ‘Hotel Rwanda,’ the place where the 10 Belgium soliders were killed during the genocide, and finally the genocide museum. It was a deeply moving day that opened our eyes to the horror that took place in the country. I recommend a visit to Rwanda and these historical places to everyone.

The following day we headed back to Kampala where we overnighted for one night, and then made our way to Jinja for one night. When we arrived to Jinja some people went white water rafting which was meant to be spectacular, but was out of Chris and I’s budget (and interest). We spent the day at the bar overlooking the Nile River reading our books and enjoying the down day.

The following day we made our way back to Kenya which I will cover in my next post, along with a wrap up of our time in Africa!

Cheers!

*We booked our tour through African Overland Safaris, the Adventure Travel Division of Tshokwane Safaris, on behalf of Africa Travel Co. We experienced incredible customer service and were fully satisfied with the price we paid and the information we were provided about the tour. Find more information at: http://www.african-overland-safaris.com OR http://www.tshokwanesafaris.com.