What started as World Bank open day ended up into a 3 days, 2 nights vacation for participants of the Q & A about national parks, reserves & wildlife in Uganda. Join us as we share our
with you as we were counted apes for a day in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
I, with my travel partner, Amir Wamala started the 10 hour’s trip, to the home of the great mountain gorillas in the Bwindi impenetrable forest in the South Western Uganda. This was my first time to go visit the gorillas. I was full of enthusiasm and “reckless exciting feelings,” but Not Amir. This was Amir’s second encounter with the mighty apes
At the strike of 6 am, we set out on the journey. As the sunrise splintered the skies, along with the beautiful sceneries on our way, one could notice, people from all walks of life headed to work while children rushed to schools.
We cruised from Uganda’s capital Kampala through Wakiso to Masaka. At Kayabwe, we had a moment of wonder of crossing from theNorthern Hemisphere into the southern one, at the Equator.
We had a coffee break and body stretch at Ankole Resort in Ntugamo District. The road from Ntugamo to Kabale was filled with gazes of the striking hills, and farms filled with the majestic long-horned cows that browsed the dry lands. It was a dry season.
The more we drove away, the more we were greeted with breath taking sights and sounds of this Western part of Uganda. Through the meandering tarmacked highway, we got a welcome stare from the Kigezi hill in to Kabale town.
Kabale district is home to the Bakiga people and home to the current Prime minister of Uganda, Dr Ruhakana Rugunda.
On arrival into the town, we headed to Bunyonyi Overlanders for lunch, a resort just 8kms out of Kabale town. While here, we enjoyed a relaxing afternoon at the sundeck, the beautiful view, as others guests took part in boat rides on the second deepest lake in Africa, Lake Bunyonyi. Watched the Islanders come and go.
Our next stop was at the Uganda Wildlife Authority’s (UWA) offices in Ruhija sector. This turned out to be a 1-½ hours off-road ride journey. Hemmed in the impenetrable forest itself on either side gave us perplexity and excitement at the same time. Along the way, we came across a number of white and Black Colobus Monkeys as they swung from one tree to another. Astounded by God’s work of creation.
Upon arrival at the UWA offices in Ruhija, Mr. Sunday Ndiakunze & Mr. Geoffrey Nfitimukiza; the warden tourism and accounts clerk received us. The UWA team here gave us a briefing about our next day but as inquisitive as I was, the big question was popped, why was this place called Bwindi?
“It is the Batwa people(pygmies) who gave it the name Bwindi; it means, a place of darkness,’’ replied Mr. Sunday. This moment filled my thought with what to expect the next day; ‘’Darkness at noon.’’
From UWA offices, we headed to the Gorilla Mist Lodge our home for 2 nights. The excited staff welcomed us and gave us a briefing about lodge. Off to our cabins we were led. What a view it was from the balcony of our rooms. We were marveled at the beauty of Mother Nature.
As nightfall came, we were served a buffet dinner. After a day of traveling, good food would do us good. It was full house with interesting guests from Mexico, Japan, France, and USA. Of course we represented our beloved Uganda. To our amusement, the tourists were delighted by the fact that we (Ugandans) actually track gorillas because the photos out there show foreign tourists only.
After the 3-course dinner, we sat down around the bonfire for a chat with some of our newly met global friends about this great country, Uganda. The cold wind pierced through our skins and one by one, we sneaked to our rooms. The next being a long day, we need to have all the rest we can get.
5:30am, wakeup call. Very important to be up early and get all set for the day. Backpack? Check gloves? Check. Boots & socks? Check. Raincoat? Check. Warm clothing? Check.
6:30am continental breakfast served for guests that are checking out or going tracking. We need the energy so we consumed it diligently. Oh lastly we had to get some packed picnic lunch and very importantly lots of water.
7:00am we drive to the clerk’s office to register our participation in the tracking of the day. We then converged with the rest of the trackers of the day for a brief from the guides.
Ms. Sharon Nemigisha the reservation manager, told an enthusiastic group of tourists about the mountain gorilla’s existence in Bwindi and Virunga national parks. It was a jaw dropping moment when she said that half of the world’s population of mountain gorillas is found in Uganda. That is, over 500 gorillas out of global 880 gorillas. The Mgahinga alone is home to over eighty gorillas. Unbelievable! Of the 33 gorilla families, 14 families were well habituated. Lowland gorillas are found in Cameroon, Congo Brazzaville & South Africa
What’s interesting is that 25% of the revenues from the sale of permits are trickled down the community for development projects, for example up grade of feeder roads in the villages hence making movement easy. Most areas are accessible by vehicles.
Temporarily water tanks have been constructed encouraging the communities to harvest water since the area is blessed with unpredictable weather. Schools, hospitals, churches have also been constructed under this fund.
Apart from the gorilla trekking/tracking, one can indulge in community walks, bird watching, nature walks, participate in The Batwa experience, mountain biking, hiking at the Buhoma falls with a spectacular view of the 30m drop at Buyaga.
There are over 160 species of trees, 120 species of mammals, 104 types of ferns, over 200 butterfly species (flights in colors). 358 bird species are in TT areas in Buhoma and 24 are endemic in the Albertine Rift valley from the Murchison to Tanganyika area. Migratory birds are seen during the rainy season.
The Batwa people have lived in the impenetrable forest until in the early 1990s, when the government of Uganda allocated them land so they get out of the forests. They were also given goats & sheep so they stop hunting in the forest.
In 1991, the Bwindi Impenetrable forest was made a UNESCO heritage site. It was discovered that in Bwindi, pigmies, gorillas and chimpanzees lived in harmony. The Uganda Wildlife Authority is a government body responsible for preserving the impenetrable forest.
At 7 O’clock, a group of trackers head into the forest to first track the gorrillas and give us updates on their location.
The law enforcement team gets to stay in the forest for 6 to 7 days monitoring on a daily basis and report to the veterinary doctors in case a sick gorilla is found. Their presence makes it safe for the tourists to track the gorillas. They also help in the habituation process by following them on a daily basis for 2-3years sometimes-even 5years. It’s said that the silverbacks are sometimes stubborn making it hard to habituate these families.
The actual tracking can be challenging for those that are not in shape. So one has to be prepared for this hiking adventure. There will be no refund in case one could not follow through for this reason. But there is an option of resting and going on with the tracking or hire an African helicopter that would cost you a minimum $300 depending on your height and weight.
In case one couldn’t follow through, an armed guard would escort them back to the briefing point where they will be interviewed to find out if they were properly treated.
In case one has diseases like, diarrhea, cough & flu, they are prohibited from tracking because they are contagious. This is to prevent transmission of diseases from humans to gorillas. All they have to do is go to a recognized hospital and get a medical form that they will present for 50% refund.
8:30am we set off for the tracking and our family for the day was the Uruzogo family that is made up of 19 members.
After a 30 minutes’ drive to the starting point, dazzled by the mist in the forest, we stared at the forest wondering what it had for us to conquer.
At the starting point, trackers advised us to hire potters to carry our luggage, gives us walking sticks to help us maneuver through the hills. After getting communication from the ranger guides in the forest already, our guide for the day Albert Marahi led us through the exotic smelling hills as we moved as fast as we could to get to the gorillas.
As time passed by, some of us slowed down. ‘’At one point I almost gave up but thanks to one of the tourism police guards Omoding, he kept encouraging me to take rests as I gasped for air. I looked back at how much distance I had covered and missing out on the gorilla experience, I pushed on one breath at a time.
Finally I made it. We got to see my first gorilla. It was so rewardingly amazing at its sight. Guess what, it was a silverback, the head of the Bakwate family. It was beyond belief that we were 5 meters away from a mountain gorilla. You should have seen the look on our faces. Teary eyes, jaws dropping, perplexed and bewildered faces of the tourists. This was worth the hiking.
And as we followed the gorillas around, Amir armed with his camera, captured every moment. Click after click was all you could hear. However the guides warned us against use flashlights of the cameras since they scare the gorillas to charge against the tourist.
The whole group was ecstatic and moved with the guide’s lead. The wild scents from the gorillas, a heavy doggy smell it was. Putting that aside, we got to learn a lot from our guides: Albert, Felix and Lawrence for the next 2hrs. We followed them as they moved around and the little juveniles played. We were all hoping for a moment a gorilla would walk towards us and touch our hands. Yes it happens sometimes that’s why they ask tourists to put on gloves. But that fantasy wasn’t fulfilled
We were able to see 3 silverbacks, 5 adult females, 3 juveniles and 3 sub adults. The oldest being 28years, Bakwate and the youngest being 3months. It was born during the Easter season.
What you need to know about gorillas.
We sat down with Mr. Twinomujuni Felix and Mr. Lawrence Ndungu – yangu, the rangers in charge of Uruzogo family that day. Lawrence told us that gorillas are named according to places they are born, seasons, body features and behavior. For instance Bakwate got used to people easily, Paasika (which means Easter) was born during the Easter season. He said the family name, Uruzogo, came from the Uruzogo tree that they feed on in this area.
A silverback feeds on about 25kgs while a female adult consumes 15kgs to 18kgs of food every day, 99% being vegetable (leaves, stems, fruits) and 1% termites for protein plus mineral salts from dead wood. They feed throughout the day, constantly on the move in search for food and sleep in the night.
They build nests every night since they don’t stay in one place. It’s these nests that help the rangers trace where they are the next day. Gorillas can live for 35 to 50 years and give birth once every four years. They have a gestation period of 8 ½ to 9months like humans but only get to have 4 babies in a lifetime.
Between the ages of 6 8years, they normally move to another family for marriage but it is not a must. Although the black-backs stay with the family, it’s the dominant silverback that impregnates the females in the group in most cases. The others males only access the females during hibernation giving 85% offspring to the dominant male. There are multi male and single male-headed families.
This family in particular resides around the Nyakasheniju area of 4.27km radius. Gorillas at times fall from the trees especially in fruit trees or are struck by lightening. They move due to lack of protection.
We were able to visit the nearest trading center and had more chats with Lawrence and Felix. Interesting evening it was as we reminisced about the whole tracking experienced. The community members take part in the tourism activities by signing up for work as potters that carry the backpacks to make tracking easier especially for the elderly. Women weave baskets and other handcrafts which tourist buy to support the locals. Community walks are designed trails for the tourists that bring them up close with the community.
The tribes around the Bwindi forest include the Batwa, Bakiga, Bahororo and Bafumbira. Activities include traditional healers visit, blacksmith visits and school visit. The funds collected from these activities by the sub county are apportioned to schools, smiths and healers depending on their contribution. We were not able to visit the communities but hope to return soon and plan on partaking on some of the community activities.
At sunset we embarked on our way back to the lodge where we had a one on one chat with Mr. Sunday since we intended to set off early the next day. A very intelligent, experienced and resourceful person when it comes to gorillas. He told us about Mt. Sabinyo, a spot where the Virunga National Park, Mgahinga National Park and the Volcanoes National Park can all be viewed.
The main human activity here is farming. Its only here where the chimpanzees are seen living in harmony with the mountain gorillas. An amazing sight as they share the same tree when feeding and interacting. The chimpanzees are however not habituated. The chimpanzees can also be found in Kibale National Park, Budongo forest and Kyambura gorge in Queen Elizabeth National Park.
He was exultant we chose to come to Bwindi for tracking and that we were the ambassadors of domestic tourism. It was our duty to share our experience and convince Ugandans to visit the gorillas.
The numbers of tourists is limited to 8 per family per day. On this very day, we were 42 in number in Ruhija sector alone, so we were divided according to the families available. The tourists are limited to encourage ecotourism. This helps to avoid vegetation destruction.
‘’At Rushura Hill 1916m above sea level , one is able to view on a clear day the Rwenzori National Park, lake Edward, Queen Elizabeth National Park, the Virungas and some towns in DRCongo at a platform built for viewing by UWA; at Rwomunyonyi Hill, one is able to view ¾ of Kabale District’’, said Mr. Sunday.
There is habituation experience for 1 day where tourists head out to the field with the rangers to the group that is being trained. Currently, one group at Bikingi is going through the habituation process. They get to spend the whole day with the gorrillas as the rangers carry out the familiarization. Be well prepared because there are no routes marked out since you are going to maneuver through tough vegetation and rocks making tracking complex.
Because they (gorillas) are not used to humans, they tend to be violent. You get to learn firsthand what to do when they behave in a certain way for example eat the vegetation like them to make them believe that you are harmless. This experience to habituation of gorillas costs you about $1500 for a four-hour session.
Mr. Sunday said Ugandans should come down to enjoy what people fly 1000s miles to enjoy. During the low seasons, which are between the months April, May and November, Ugandans pay Ugx 150,000. The rest of the months the rates stand at Ugx 250,000. We don’t see why one should fail to track gorrillas really. One can choose to fly or drive to Bwindi.
We conclude by thanking Uganda Wildlife Authority and World Bank for the wonderful experience accorded to us. Awesome memories we will carry with us and the big question now is, why don’t you make a date with the gorillas this September? We will gladly host you.
Our next destination is in the North Eastern Uganda, KIDEPO VALLEY National Park which has been ranked 3rd best safari park in Africa by CNN. It the most rewarding wilderness destination to visit. Let’s explore Uganda!
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