Gorilla Viewing in Uganda
Gorillas of the Bad Gas: Coming face to, er, fart, with Uganda's Mountain Gorillas
By Marie Javins
"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 had shown up at the UWA's Kampala office at the crack of dawn on a Monday morning, and had been delighted when they'd had a permit waiting for me. The e-mail system DID work -- they just hadn't bothered to inform me.
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.
We were 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 done.
Perhaps the grass-eating had been discredited as overkill, or perhaps the guides had just gotten tired of being laughed at by tourists. We were sent off gorilla-tracking without these vital instructions. We set off down a dirt track. Troops drilled to our right, behind some brush. That was the "invisible army" I'd read about. Security had been tightened after 1999.
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.
"Would 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 work and gorilla tourism, was no.
Uganda Wildlife Authority
$250 for gorilla tracking permit, $15 for national park entry fee. UWA books permits for Bwindi and Mgahinga parks. Mountain gorillas can also be tracked in Rwanda. Congo gorillas are currently off-limits.
Uganda Tourist Board
for info on hotels, travel agents, tour operators.
Getting to Uganda
No direct flights from the U.S.A. Fly via London on British Airways or connect from Nairobi on Kenya Airways (Buses, with "Akamba" being the most popular ($15-25), travel several times a day between Nairobi and Kampala. The trip can also be done in sections by share-taxi, with a switch in vehicle at the border.
Transportation 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.
Kampala to Kabale: 6 hours by frequent daily buses or share-taxis on paved
road. 12,000 shillings ($7). 6 hours.
Kabale to Butogota/Bwindi: 3-4 hours by infrequent, unscheduled share-taxi
(unreliable, not recommended) or private car on dirt road. 120 km. Price negotiable.
Kabale to Kisoro/Mgahinga: frequent buses. 5,000 shillings ($3). 3 hours.
Bwindi: two upmarket tented camps and a lodge, which are booked through travel agents and tour operators. The Community Restcamp" bandas (cabins)and campsites can be booked through Uganda Wildlife Authority. Kabale: White Horse for mid-range budget, Sky Blue Hotel for backpacker budget, no website, telephone 256-486-22154
Gorilla tour operators:
Abercrombie & Kent
Other activities in Uganda:
Chimpanzee sanctuary trips to Ngamba Island: gctours.co.ug