Category: Bwindi, Uganda.

Uganda: Bwindi, Where Gorillas Come First

Mike Ssegawa

Travelling is like falling in love. You can get swept off your feet by a new place you’ve visited and in the process, build an attachment to it never to be forgotten. Having been to Bwindi in Kisoro last month for the first time, I can conclude I’m in love.I am not a well travelled person. Travel is one of those subjects I am not comfortable talking about because apart from Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia, I have not visited any other place outside dear Uganda. For me, Arusha is the most beautiful town in East Africa and Maasai Mara the most sacred animal sanctuary. But Bwindi is the place I fell in love with nature.

I grew up listening to stories about apes, like the clever monkey, the “cannibal” chimpanzee, and the “rapist” baboon. All these apes are interesting animals to watch and available in Uganda. I grew up fighting monkeys that raided our crops; at 10, I saw a chimp at the Uganda Wild Life Centre in Entebbe when my school took us for a tour, and baboons spoilt my appetite on several journeys made along Jinja-Busia road on my way to Kenya. Yet, it was the gorilla I have paid the most to see, and for that, I am not about to let go.

Not that I parted with the $500 for the gorilla permit foreigners buy to have an opportunity to look at one of the world’s endangered species. And as a Ugandan, I didn’t pay the Shs150,000 locals and East Africans are charged to spend less than one hour with man’s cousins. Opportunity struck when Nshonga Gorilla Sanctuary in Bwindi was opened to the public for the first time last month. After a 10-hour drive to Kisoro’s chilly hills, memories of a 19-year-old who entered Nairobi for the first time in June at the start of the millennium came flooding back. Like then, I had only a T-shirt on and no jacket in my bag, ignorant of the fact that the place I was going to was very cold compared to central Uganda, a place I was raised and could walk shirtless even when it is raining.

On that fateful day in Nairobi, the temperatures had gone down to 16 degrees, and while people in Europe could be laughing out loud, for me it was too cold for comfort and I had to buy a jacket on the street. Now in Nshonga, Rubuguri Parish in Kisoro District, the same cold bit my body. Without a jacket or warm clothes, I was left with no option but to put on all the shirts I had in my bag. When I looked outside the window, the village boys were playing football shirtless and small children barely wore anything on them. That’s how relative life can be.

That evening, we spent the night at Gorilla Safari Lodge, where the Tourism Minister, Kahinda Otafiire, was also a resident. This man is full of jokes, but not even laughter sent the chill away. I was relieved when a fireplace to warm our bodies was hurriedly set up at the minister’s request. The next day, we woke up at 7:30a.m and prepared to intrude the gorillas’ privacy (the guide said they don’t enjoy people’s company). Reaching the forest’s entry point, there was a sea of foreign and local press. When the guide received the notification on his walkie-talkie that we were free to start on our journey, every one of us (about 30 journalists) dashed into the first part of the forest and stopped at about 200 metres for the briefing.

Kisoro, where the forest is located, is a hilly place. The people there are farmers and make use of the hills and valleys, right.

In Bwindi, the gorillas seem to be more important than human beings; at least their interests come before those of human beings. “If anyone wants to ease themselves, use the toilets here because we cannot allow you to leave your excretion in the deeper forest since it could contaminate the gorillas,” the senior warden, Pontius Ezuma, said. The second rule was, “If you have any contagious disease, please stay here, because we don’t want you to pass it on to the gorillas.”

Our guide, Benjamin Bayinda, who seemed to enjoy every inch of the forest, promised to give us more briefings about gorilla trekking along the way, but first we were warned not to give the gorillas any foods, and each one of us was encouraged to go up with a stick. “You may leave the stick behind at your own risk,” another warden joked. Some did go with their sticks. Others didn’t give heed to the advice. Two rangers with guns went ahead of us, and the third came behind the group. That’s how much protection we needed. Not your ordinary forest!

This forest is not that different from the rain forests you may have been to. As a little boy, I spent four years in Lwanunda, a village four miles out of Masaka town. There, I experienced the pleasures of the forest, but most of them had traces of human activities.

We walked miles to collect firewood, but it was not about the firewood; rather the fun – despite parental warnings that those forests had misambwa (ghosts) – it excited us. We ate fruits, played gogolo (sliding down the hill while sitting on a banana stem), swam in the rivers, swung on the climbing plants of the forest and chased monkeys. This is what I recalled as we trekked mile after mile through Bwindi. The more we went into the forest, the deeper and larger than life it seemed – Bwindi Impenetrable is about 330sq km. Its paths are still fresh, and as I said earlier, loggers or charcoal burners must want to visit this forest. Nothing is touched, save for the Batwa people, who still prefer to hunt animals, among which are gorillas, for food.

The sound of River Nshonga, which runs through the forest down to Lake Edward through Lake Albert before it joins the River Nile on its way to Egypt, made the quiet forest alive. As we walked through, the guide told us to remain silent since the forest had several animals like elephants that detest human intrusion and would defend their territory at all costs. That warning fell on deaf ears. One hour of walking and the gorillas were nowhere in sight. I had not seen any elephants either. And yet, the paths were slippery.

I was wearing the shoes I bought for my friend’s wedding, and here I was, stepping in the mud like the pair cost me a few shillings! We crossed river after river, jumped stream after stream, stone after stone and fallen trees along the path. Then we started seeing elephant dung, a sign the elephants were not far from us. At some point, the guide stopped us. “This is where we met a group of gorillas,” he said, showing us the side of the river which looked like a playing field for the animals. He said, “We named the group Nshonga, because we found it on Nshonga River.”

The weather in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is so cold; in the evenings, the whole forest is engulfed in fog

It was time for new instructions: When we meet the gorillas, make sure you keep a distance of seven metres. This is to protect both the gorilla and you. Leave the sticks behind. Gorillas will think you’re out to attack them and they will go out to defend themselves. Remain in a tight group. Don’t drink or smoke. Keep your voices low. Do not run or turn your back on the silverback. Don’t keep eye contact with the gorillas, especially the silverback.

“Do you need to know why it is so important to keep the rules? Well, gorillas however much they resemble human beings, are still animals. This particular group of gorillas has just gone through a habituation process. It has taken the wardens two years to familiarise them with human contact,” Bayinda said. He added that the gorillas would do their best to fight, ignore and distance themselves from people as much as they could, till after habituation, apart from the silverback charging whenever it senses a new person, all this is to protect its clan.

Bayinda told us Bwindi was declared by Unesco a world heritage site in 1994 and the forest contained half of the world’s about 720 gorillas. In Nshonga, the habituated group has about 34 gorillas, with three silverbacks and eight black backs. Every gorilla unit is led by a silverback. A male gorilla becomes a silver back at about 14 years and a black back at about 12. After a long lecture in “gorilla-tactics”, we moved on, this time expecting the animals to be in the vicinity. But no, we had more miles ahead. We had been told that we were using a track with a lot of bird species. I wasn’t interested in birds, though I saw very few of them. The guide also told us that forest kobs were in plenty. I saw none. Tracking gorillas is not a thing for the faint-hearted.

Three hours into the forest, I started to ask myself why I had come. I was afraid I would fail to reach the place gorillas had relocated to that morning. My heart was skipping, but I moved on. I was looking forward to something special, so I persevered. Sometimes the only way up was to dig one’s fingers into the soil to find a firm root, holding on to trees or the person above to pull you. Somewhere between the hills, we could hear the female colleagues we had left behind groaning. Despite their falling several times, they made it.

The forest continued far above our heads, and the river, we could see, was nowhere near its source, at least for me to declare, “This source has been discovered by Mike Ssegawa”. After three and half hours of nonstop trekking, the guide announced that the gorillas were close by. We were divided into three smaller groups of 10. “The gorillas hate to see many people at once,” the guide reminded us. The first group went up. The rest of us sat on the stones, waiting for their 15 minutes of gorilla-love. Seven minutes later, Warden Ezume said there was a strong smell of gorillas. I didn’t smell anything however. And he was surprised. Two minutes later, he got a signal that the gorillas were on their way down in our direction. We had to change positions, to give them the right of way.

It’s nice being a gorilla in Bwindi. Then, I heard the first gorilla sound. One girl shouted, “There it is”, but I didn’t see a thing, though the trees were shaking about 100 metres away. Minutes later, I saw black animals disappearing into the thick bush. It was my first glimpse of the gorilla, but I told myself if this was what I had come to see, then it was a raw deal. As I thought that, I think the gods of Bwindi got angry and without any warning, sent a heavy downpour. I did not have a jacket on me. And my camera was not well protected, not forgetting my non-safari shoes which until now I had managed to safeguard from severe damage.

When the guides said my group was next, I was taking refuge in one of the wardens’ raincoat. But I had to go and see the gorillas and went into the rain. And without minding my already wet clothes, Italian leather shoes, or even camera, I went close to the animals. Not seven metres away, but three. It was a fulfilling experiencing.

Now that I had seen the gorillas, I had nothing to lose. Even if it meant walking back to the hotel naked. The young gorillas played around the trees as the silverback ate grass, unmindful of being watched as the cameras clicked. It was like Paris Hilton on the red carpet. We didn’t watch the gorillas for only 15 minutes like the others, ours was like forever. No one minded how wet we got. The gorillas too enjoyed our company. I like looking at pregnant women, but the site of a pregnant gorilla I saw eating a local herb, ebbombo, was fabulous too.

After everyone had quenched their thirst, we left, stepping into the river at will, falling like no one cared. All we wanted was to return to the place we would find some warmth. Funny though that no one remembered the rules. We turned our backs to the gorillas and they didn’t mind us. We walked down at a speedy pace, this time in groups. The sun briefly found its way through the forest, and just after colleague said, “Wow, this forest is truly gifted by nature”, another downpour ensured, ensuring that we exited the forests not bothered anymore about how wet we were.
I had fallen five times. But who was I not to fall? After all, one would imagine military generals most fit, but General Otafiire got his share and he left the forest limping and I didn’t! We looked around for our driver, rushed to the hotel, and got into the shower room, where I thought about my achievement of the day. I looked through the window at the forest before me, which was now covered in fog. I thought about the gorillas inside the forest feeling the cold.

I imagined what I could do if I was asked to do the trekking once again, this time, to offer them a fire for warmth. Then I remembered that a cold forest was their part of their life. When I could not see the trees anymore but the fog, it felt like I had left a friend behind in the mist. Trekking had made me connect with the forest, and of course, the gorillas. The impression is not going away any time soon. Bwindi, I am thinking about you.

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Category: Bwindi, Uganda
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