Feeling quite the cultural contrast landing in Kampala, Uganda after five weeks of travel through Scotland and Wales.
Intrepid Travel shall accommodate us for the next week along the way to trek, with hopes of spotting mountain gorilla families. Pretty nice having a guide waiting for you at the airport. He drives us to a luxurious hotel room that throws travel exhaustion into a distant memory.
The days of our budget, backpack travels in five-dollar, cement bedspring rooms, with worms dropping from a soaked thatched ceiling are becoming a distant memory as well.
An element of stress hangs over us, as Uganda has just locked down two provinces due to an outbreak of Ebola. Of course, we know neither what province we are in, nor how it influences the route to our onward travels. The social stress of meeting the other six travelers in our tour group tomorrow night at dinner has us thinking as well, since group travel is not our preference. Forget about it. Bring on the wine and aged ribeye steaks to enjoy tonight on our private veranda!
Over dinner and drinks the following evening, we chat, laugh, and feel fortunate to have a cool group of fellow travelers and guides. Eight people of varying ages from 23 to 77 represent four countries: United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and the United States. We pile into two large Land Cruisers that twist, bounce, crawl, and skid over boulders, ruts, mud, and water for the greater part of each day.
Once we pass over the equator line and into smaller villages and towns, small children jump, laugh, dance, and wave with excitement at us.
The road ventures through lush, mountainous greenery full of wildlife. Even the long-horned cattle carry an exotic sense of worldly mystic.
Giraffes, impalas, zebras, and warthogs graze on land with only one natural predator, the elusive leopard, while baboons and monkeys entertain themselves.
Our group hops onto a boat tour of Lake Mburo National Park, where water buffalo lounge and hippos graze daily on the lake bottom, only to emerge at night to graze on land.
They attack humans with more lethal precision than any other mammal. Therefore, walking at night to yet another luxurious “hut” requires an armed escort.
Meanwhile, our tour group grows familiar with each other. We share a basic common characteristic of love for travel and exposure to diverse cultures. We also share the feeling of scrambled internal organs from day long bumpy rides.
A long day of travel brings us to a three-night stay at Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge, located in the mountains of the southern section of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
Drums pound while a group of singers and dancers perform traditional welcome rituals. Staff welcome us with open hearts and give each of us hand massages while we listen to instructions and amenities.
Yes, amenities, like terrace views, a fire lit in your room nightly, laundry and boot cleaning gratis, and coffee delivered to your door at four o’clock in the morning before an early morning tour. Spoiled, Marilynn and I no longer feel any sense of guilt, as we are now members of royalty.
Show time, baby! A two-hour drive brings us to Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, home to more than half of the world’s mountain gorillas. Located in the Virunga region of Uganda, it is Uganda’s smallest park and borders the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda. After another drum, song, and welcome dance, our trek begins up the mountain to spot silverback gorillas.
Guides lead us up a mountain while we huff and puff and take many breaks. They communicate with scouts via cellphone who track the gorilla families. After two hours of trekking, the sky explodes into an hour-long pouring rain, zapping out any cellphone communication. The group begins to lose hope of sighting gorillas, and how could you take photos in a downpour?
Onward we trek, through mud and bamboo shoots recently cut with machetes as the guides trailblaze. We find an area of destroyed bamboo, where the gorillas slept last night. And then, like magic, the rain stops and a massive silverback, named “Mark,” the largest of the silverback males in this family, sits in the mist and snaps thick bamboo canes with little effort, feeding on the shoots.
Our group vies for position, a few oblivious to sharing strategic spots with others, but all of us get opportunity to snap photos of this rare sighting of three silverbacks. Mountain gorillas cannot survive in zoos. To see them, you must go to their habitat.
I am shocked at how close we can get to these majestic creatures, who could snap your torso without effort. Males can weigh up to five hundred pounds. Tour groups are strictly regulated and limited to eight people.
Everyone must wear masks to limit exposure to disease, both from us giving it to the gorillas, and from them giving it to us. They permit a pulling down of the mask from a certain distance if not facing the creatures. Gorillas are more similar to humans than to chimps. They share 98% of our gene sequence!
This population has made a comeback up to 1600, thanks to conservation efforts. Currently, the government is in the process of paying residents for property surrounding the area in order to set aside more land for the gorilla population to grow.
Adolescent gorillas run past, while young babies hang on to their mother. The gorillas chew leaves and bamboo while staring at us, obviously habituated. Part of the viewing protocol includes not looking them in the eye, and not wearing any bright colored clothing.
We get to spend one hour with this family, often on the verge of tears witnessing this extraordinary event in silence, hearing only the sound of gorillas chewing and snapping bamboo.
We trek down the mountain in high spirits of disbelief. Wow. We will not forget this. Back at luxury lodge, the group eats, drinks, and revels in this special experience.
Finally, a free day tomorrow! Some go on another, smaller gorilla trek, others walk through a Pigmy village, but Marilynn and I opt for a tea tree oil massage and a break from social activity. Life is good.
Our final day involves a long ride that passes through the Rwandan border, where they screen us for Ebola as well as covid prior to entry.
Then we visit the Genocide Museum in the major city of Kigali. Life is not so good. Not the best way to end a trip, but as our guide said, “It’s good to know the people’s history.”
From April 7th to July 15th in 1994 during the Rwandan civil war, the Hutu militias brutally killed the Tutsi minority ethnic group, as well as moderate Hutu and Twa ethnic groups. They killed an estimated 800,000 Tutsi, and over two million displaced as refugees.
Graphic photos show parents tortured, raped, and eventually killed, often in front of their children, who they also maimed and killed mainly with machetes, hoes, and clubs. Over 500,000 women raped, many by HIV infected men, some left to die slowly, others beaten to death. Hoards of people thrown into latrine holes and stoned until they made no more sounds. They also buried people alive.
The world was shocked, but no country intervened to stop the killing.
It makes you wonder if we as a human race are not as advanced as the mountain gorillas. I spoke to a man here at the bar in our final luxury hotel stay last night. His leg maimed; both of his parents were killed in front of him. He said it was a miracle that he survived. “You have to keep on living and enjoy what you can enjoy in life,” he hugged me as I fought back tears. “What else can you do?”
Thank you, Abundant Universe!