Wednesday, June 29, 2011

to see gorillaasssssss...............

We're up and excited to be on our way to Bwindi, one more sleep and we get to (hopefully) see the gorillas!The restaurant packs us a paper bag with muffins, fruit and water to take with us for breakfast, yummy.
We go outside just before 7am to wait for our driver to take us to Bwindi to see the gorillas. About 7:15am the doorman asks us who we are waiting for and we tell him Abacus Tours and he says ‘here the come now!’ A Landcruiser pulls up, the driver hops out and introduces himself and apologises that our intended driver is unwell so he was called at 3am to take his place. By now the doorman has loaded all our bags into the car. The driver hands me the phone and the man on the phone apologises for not being there and says he hopes to catch up with us on Wednesday. I thank him, wish him well but am thinking does it really matter if he drives us back to Kampala on the last day or not…
So off we go. More crazy traffic and now we get to see the

area in the light of day. I have never before seen the level of poverty that surrounded us. The only bitumen road are the main ones, all the off roads are all dirt. People were walking with yellow plastic containers to collect water, the roads were riddled with the biggest potholes I’ve ever driven on, the driver would often have to drive on the other side of the road to avoid them or get off the road altogether.
Having said all that though, every person we saw was well dressed, the men all wearing trousers and a dress shirt, the women all wearing long skirts and blouses, all the children were either dressed similarly or in school uniform.
There were many car wash places where they would clean the cars and motorbikes using little more than a plastic bowl filled with soapy water. Considering the country has an 80% unemployment rate it means that they have a job.
The level of pride in what they had was obvious. Men were constantly wiping the red dust off their motorbikes, the women would sweep leaves from the dirt in from of their homes. All along the road there were
goats and cattle (with the biggest horns I’ve ever seen!) tethered up to the roadside to graze. Even though everyone is poor, nobody steals the livestock. I found out later the cost of a cow is about 350,000 Schillings, a goat 100,000 and a chicken between 10,000 and 20,000 depending on the size. 1 us dollar is between 2300 to 2500 schillings, depending where you go.
There were lots of schools and a lot of kids get the chance to go, but we saw a lot that weren’t in school, mostly working in banana plantations or looking after livestock.
There is no electricity out of the city and no running water. So it’s candles and kerosene lanterns for light, they cook over open fires and walk up to 5km for water.

About an hour into our drive it turns out we are in the wrong car! Fortunately the couple he was supposed to have picked up were doing a
similar trip to us, it made a few odd things he said make sense. Because he was called in at the last minute, he didn’t have the names of who he was supposed to be taking and off course we had no idea who was picking us up.
After many phone calls between the 2 drivers it was decided to meet up at the equator where we were all meant to go and then switch cars.
So we sit back and enjoy the trip.
About 11:30am we get to the equator and have just enough time for a few photos and then our driver pulls up in a Pajero. As he pulls in we see a big thick stream of oil coming from his car, then when he stopped, all the oil just pours out into a pool under the car!
He comes and introduces himself as Francis and says the bolt must’ve come out and he will walk a little way up the road to find it, surprisingly (not) he doesn’t find it, so, what now we think?????
By now all our bags have been loaded into his
car. It is decided that we will continue onto the lunch destination with the other couple (a nice couple also on their Honeymoon from Spain, Alex and Elena) with the first driver. Our new driver will come with us to the next town, get dropped off, buy a bolt and some oil, go back to the equator to fix his car and meet us at the lunch point.
So back into the car again and away we go.
We get to Mbrara for lunch at about 1:30pm. It’s a big town but looks much like a bigger version of all the other towns we’ve gone through. Lots of people, bicycles, motorbikes, cars and buses. Lots of car horns as everyone overtakes or to get pedestrians out of the way. Where we have lunch is actually a motel as well as a restaurant. There are other tourists who stop there with their drivers, and the menu caters very well for said tourists.
As we are nearly finished lunch Francis arrives with the car, but where he has pulled up we all see lots of water now sitting under the front of the car - at least it’s not
oil we’re thinking! Francis says he will get the mechanic at the Shell servo next door to have a look at it, next thing we hear is the car not starting… He says there is a leak in the radiator and they will weld it and then we will be good to go.
The other couple leaves with their proper driver in their correct car, and we wait, and wait, and wait….
We sit and watch the world go by, only stopping our boredom by people watching. We notice there a lot of military people coming and going and there is one man who looks more like a civilian than a soldier that everyone salutes, figure he must be fairly high ranking.
He and his posse return again for dinner, so we feel reassured it’s a good place to eat!
At 5pm Francis says he will go check on it, and then we see him driving off down the road! Being optimistic we figure he is taking it for test drive, when he’s still not back at 6pm our optimism is beginning to wane. We phone his office and explain what has happened, about 10 minutes
later he re-appears saying the car is no good and we need to wait for a replacement car, the best news is that it is not coming from Kampala but locally. Obviously their idea of locally is not the same as ours as it gets there just before 8pm!
Finally we are on our way; Francis hopes to be there by midnight and the driver who brought the new car (a Subaru) is driving. The road gets worse and we get pointed out the view of the National Park we are going to with the 2 lakes on either side, I’m sure it would’ve looked beautiful if it wasn’t night time.
Eventually we are in the Bwindi National Park. But the roads are the worst we’ve ever seen since being in Uganda, it’s almost as bad as driving in an empty creek bed. We go forwards a bit and then reverse and go a different way. Eventually I ask if we are lost. Francis says no, the roads are just too bad to travel on. I don’t really believe him, but what can we do! We see
armed soldiers patrolling the area which makes the whole experience seem even more surreal.

Eventually we pull up to a hut and the driver yells to the house in their own language. I don’t speak their language but I’m confident he’s saying ‘please tell me the way to the Ranger Station’. We hear a voice yell back and then we are on our way again. We get not more than 50 metres down the track and the road splits left and right. Next thing we are reversing back to the hut and the driver is yelling out again. A man comes out and yells directions waving his arms around A LOT (it’s now about midnight so I’m guessing not all the waving and yelling was in relation to directions!). We are again on our way!
Finally at 1:45am we arrive at Buhoma Lodge! We are welcomed by Susan and Victor and a couple of extra staff who have obviously been woken up and gotten out of bed to greet us! They are so wonderful, cheerful and helpful it makes you feel very humble.
Our bags are carried up many many many stairs to reach the dining area.
They insist on us having something to eat and after walking up more stairs to our room and settling us in, they bring up soup and rolls.

It is a tent arrangement . The bathroom even has one end of the roof open so you can see and hear everything from outside and a big bathtub!
So finally we tuck ourselves in to our bed that has been warmed with hot water bottles in anticipation of our arrival and fall asleep immediately even though we are so excited for what tomorrow brings.
We are up early as we need to be at the Ranger Station by 8am. We have breakfast (Victor is quite concerned when we turn down a large cooked breakfast) pack our bag with the lunches they have prepared for us and it’s a short 5 minute walk to the briefing point.
We watch a bit of gorilla video until everyone is there and then we get our first briefing where it is explained the circumstances in which we may or may not receive any of our permit fee ($500 USD) back.
1. If we have a cold or are unwell and we do not depart we get 50% back
2. If we do not see any gorillas we get 100% back
3. If we get half way and realise we are physically unable to complete it we get nothing back
4. If we have to be helped out because we are physically unable to go on, we get zero back and must pay someone to carry us out
5. If an elephant is sighted or fresh elephant tracks are found then we will be turned back immediately and 100% is refunded

Then we get
our second briefing from our guide whose name is Gud. He tells us how far to stay away from the gorillas, what to do if they approach us (if possible all group together but otherwise do nothing and stand very still), he again goes into our health and suitability to complete the trek. He also gives us the information on the porters, trackers and armed escorts that will be with us.
Then FINALLY we’re away! There are 3 families over our side of the mountain that are being tracked (there are 30 families in total, only 7 are tracked at a time, and only 5 are visited each day - 3 on the northern side and 2 on the southern side) and to get to ours we need to drive about an hour to the start point. In our group of 8 (there is only ever 8 in a group) there are 4 Danish girls and an American couple.
When we arrive at the start point we are given walking sticks and a porter if we chose to have one. We did and his name was Moses, he didn’t speak much English but he tried his best.
The Danish girls went off in a hurry, the guide kept telling them to slow down but they didn’t so we ended up calling them the Gazelles! The first part of the walk was okay, it was uphill but was on a track and it was probably better quality than some of the roads we’d been driving on! After about half an hour or so of nice pathway we moved onto thinner tracks that turned into even thinner trails, still a lot of uphill but some flatter areas. Then it all changed…
The thin tracks turns into steep, really steep mountain goat trails. They were muddy and slippery and I was really glad I had a stick and had brought my Army bush boots with me - they were heavy and a pain in the butt to have to wear on every flight because of their weight, but was well worth it in the end, they gripped in and were great. Even so, the porter held my hand all the way

down! Tim bought hiking shoes before we left, and even though they were comfortable, didn’t really offer the same sort of grip that I had and combined with the fact that he didn’t have a walking stick either, it is to his credit that he didn’t end up on his backside and slide all the way down!
About an hour and a half or so after we started walking, we finally saw the first gorilla! It was the most amazing and surreal thing, my legs felt a bit wobbly (not sure if it was from the hill or excitement!) and we were all lost for words - even me! We were very lucky in that we saw them from a distance first so the first 15 minutes or so weren’t counted towards our hour that we’re able to spend with them.
Our porters and all the trackers but one stopped here and after giving up our walking sticks we ventured further down the hill with one tracker and the guide. We saw a family of 12 and at one point they were all around us, just eating, sitting, playing and carrying on as though we weren’t
there. A couple of times the Silverback gave a bit of a growl just to let us know where we placed in the scheme of things but apart from that they weren’t bothered. There were a couple of young babies in the group and they were climbing the trees and playing, absolutely adorable.
We were advised to bring Aeroguard because of the mosquitoes but we were so excited we forgot to put it on, even though it was in our bag. We didn’t remember until we were smack in the middle of the gorilla family and suddenly there were thousands of mosquitoes around us! Damn, damn, damn! But we managed to suck it up, build a bridge, harden up etc etc etc….
At one stage I had a gorilla walk past me not more than 30 - 40cms away from me. I became a post and didn’t move. Fortunately the guide was constantly telling us to move here or go there so he told me what to do. It was a little intimidating having such an animal so close but it was also the best experience you could have.
All of a sudden our time was up
(the guide started counting down when we had 11 minutes left - the one hour policy is strictly enforced), so before we knew it we were back with our porters and trackers ooohing and aarghing about the experience. We were going to have our lunch but it started to sprinkle with rain so our guide suggested we postpone lunch and get back before the rain hit.

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