Coming face to, er, fart, with Uganda's Mountain Gorillas
By Marie Javins, GoNOMAD TRANSPORTS EDITOR
"Ugandans must have bladders of steel," I thought, shifting anxiously every time the decrepit old "Silver" bus hit a pothole in the dirt road. I'd boarded the bus at six a.m. in the Ugandan capital of Kampala.
It was now after four. Stops were only long enough to allow passengers time to embark or disembark, and sometimes the bus took off with a passenger hanging from the door, scrambling to get both feet solidly through the bus entrance."You pray for a flat tire," a tour guide in East Africa told me later, "just so you can pee."
He was right, and fortunately flat tires occurred with astounding regularity.Our flat-tire-du-jour took place shortly, in a rural semi-village next to a tiny teashop with a doorless pit toilet out back. I visited it with relief.
I was in Uganda, on a decrepit bus from Kampala to Butogota, to see twelve of the three hundred mountain gorillas in nearby Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Rainy season had come early this year, turning the usually-passable dirt road into a pit of mud. Our projected ten-hour bus ride had turned into a painful thirteen-hour journey.
Still, I was pleased with the bus. Although it was old, slow, and uncomfortable, it was still cheaper than traveling with an organized tour. Initially, I had looked into organized tours out of Nairobi, in neighboring Kenya. But information was difficult to find, and outfitters too expensive. The guidebook alluded to vague possibilities of public transportation, but concrete evidence had come from a Kampala backpacker's hostel website (backpackers.co.ug). Yes, there was a daily bus from Kampala to the village of Butogota. From there, I'd have to hire a pickup truck taxi to drive me the last seventeen kilometers to Bwindi National Park. Excited, I caught an overnight bus from Nairobi to Kampala, and winged it from there.
But gorilla tracking takes more than just a bus ticket. I needed one of the elusive
$250 gorilla tracking permits, of which only a few were issued every day.
I had e-mailed ahead to the Uganda Wildlife Authority requesting a permit
for October 3, but I'd heard nothing back. Permits used to be booked up
months in advance by tour operators, but since the tragic murder of eight
tourists in 1999, fewer sightseers were making the trip.
I made it to a shared cement "banda" at Bwindi's "Community Restcamp"after my long bus trip, and early the next morning, headed to park headquarters. I joined five other tourists. We were given walking sticks and a briefing.
Luz was our guide. He was accompanied by two expert trackers, three porters (I carried my own bag), two armed guards, and one Ugandan university student whose job it was to precisely record everything the gorillas did. Ugandans have great pride and scholarly interest in their gorillas. Gone are the days of indiscriminate poaching and trapping.
instructed to follow along, looking quiet and non-threatening. If a gorilla
charged us, we were to kneel down on all fours and submissively look at
the ground. "And pretend to eat grass," I added silently. That
was what Dian Fossey, author of "Gorillas in the Mist," had
Our trackers led us up a dirt road for ten minutes, then took a startling right turn into a dense jungle of mud and undergrowth. I wondered now at the wisdom of not hiring a porter.
It was the "impenetrable" bit of "Bwindi Impenetrable Forest" that should have tipped me off. The rain, mud, and vegetation was impenetrable enough, but the massive slopes complicated the trek. I leaned heavily on my walking stick, poking it into mud and putting all my weight on it as I propelled myself up jungle hills.
I was just beginning to wish I'd brought some sort of gardening gloves to help pull myself up vines, when we turned and started to hike downhill. Our uphill escapade had been in vain, and we returned to the road. The trackers followed the gorilla trail to the left of the road this time. Later, I suspected that the trackers had deliberately taken us off-course, to give us a taste of tracking, so we wouldn't feel cheated at having missed our chance to wallow in mud.
Group "M" was only fifty feet from the road. We all left our sticks against a tree and got our cameras ready.
"Look, he's mating," said Luz.
Excitedly, we all crowded forward to see the dominant silverback at work.
"That's it?" I thought. The silverback sat passively, a bored expression on his face.
The flattened female gorilla under him looked more like a gorilla-skin rug than a living mountain gorilla. I'd expected noises or at least movement. Perhaps we'd just seen the end.
We had. The silverback -- presumably they're named for the silver stripe adult male mountain gorillas develop -- stood up and casually strolled away. He seemed to be utterly oblivious to our presence, but more than likely considered us no threat to his group of twelve.
His name -- which I've forgotten -- meant "sleeps a lot." But Sleeps-A-Lot didn't sleep today. He posed for a bit, taunting my high-speed film as I realized that even 1600 was not fast enough for the low light. Then he joined his family up in the trees, where they searched for berries.
We couldn't see much of the gorillas, and I was getting worried. The permit guaranteed us an hour near the gorillas, but not within sight of them. If the gorillas chose to stay in the trees for the whole hour, that was their prerogative and our tough luck.
Perhaps, I thought, we couldn't SEE the gorillas, but we could certainly hear them.
"FZZZZRRTT!" The silverback let one fly.
"BRRRRRZZZT!" So did the female he'd been squashing earlier.
We spent forty minutes listening to gorilla farts.
"Do they always do that?" I whispered to Luz.
He nodded. "They are vegetarian."
Funny, Dian Fossey never mentioned gorilla gas. Maybe she was so accustomed to it that it didn't merit so much as a mention.
Finally, the gorillas descended. The biggest, Sleeps-A-Lot, was about half my size and the others were small and squat. Their funny shapes didn't impede their agility, however. The gorillas -- for the most part -- gracefully propelled themselves earthwards by using branches and vines. They seemed to exert no effort at all. A few of them were less graceful, and nearly plummeted to the ground. It was gorgeous to watch -- twelve fat little apes descending as one.
"It's been one hour," said Luz. Reluctantly, we plowed through the mud back to the road.
I was dreading tomorrow's bus ride back to Kampala, and asked around to see if there was any way to get to the town of Kabale today. It was not on the Butogota bus route, but was just three hours drive by private car. From Kabale, it was only a six-hour bus ride over paved roads to Kampala.
Two Spaniards with a private tour minivan were headed that way. I caught a lift with them, and an early bus whisked me to Kampala the next morning. I'd saved four hours of travel time, and arrived in Kampala in time for lunch.
I finished up "Gorillas in the Mist" on the bus, and worried when Dian Fossey mentioned her irritation at gorilla tourism. Primates are stressed out by strangers traipsing up to them and snapping photos, it seems. But Fossey, I thought, was wrong to discount gorilla tourism.
In the early '80s, there were 242 mountain gorillas left. Today there are over six hundred spread out over southwest Uganda, northern Rwanda, and part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is surely due to public awareness and gorilla tourism. At $250 a visit, plus ancillary income from visas, hotels and transportation, the mountain gorillas were a resource worth protecting.
the mountain gorilla be a species doomed to extinction in the
same century in which it was discovered?" Dian Fossey had asked this
disheartening question in her book. The answer, thanks to Dian Fossey's
and gorilla tourism, was no.
within Uganda (no internet sites): Kampala to Butogota/Bwindi
or Kampala to Kisoro/Mgahinga: daily bus leaves at 6:30 a.m. or
when full, from Kampala city bus stand. 15,000 shillings ($9).
9-13 hours. Kisoro is also served by share-taxis.
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