Captivated by a Gorilla

Mother and baby mountain gorilla

By Penlope Nankunda

We always boast to the world about what we have in our backyard through such campaigns as the ‘Gifted By Nature’ on CNN. But how many Ugandans have seen the amazing natural features our country offers? Yet we listen in apparent boredom as an excited tourist tells of his encounter with a mountain gorilla.

I recently went along when Great Lakes Safaris, a local tour and travel company, took their employees to a retreat to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, the home of the world famous mountain gorillas.

My experience

When I arrive at the Great Lakes Safaris office on Ggaba Road I meet Angel, Winnie, Noel, Gerald and David, with whom I am going on the trip. As I look around the office, one thing catches my attention; the company statement. It reads: “Great Lakes Safaris: Where the journey into the world begins!” What a way to describe this trip.

I am about to embark on the journey of a lifetime; to meet and commune with our “ancestors.” You would think that for such an event, everything around me would be on alert. I thought the birds would be up early, singing their encouragement. I thought the sun would release her golden rays to escort us on our south-western journey, but this was not the case.

An early morning shower announced our trip, as if getting us ready for the rainforest. I hail from Kabale but I have no idea where the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is. A colleague at work says it is spread through the districts of Kanungu, Kabale and Kisoro. Why have I never known this?

nvision2We set off after a ‘powerful’ prayer from Gerald, the in-house priest. By the time we hit the Masaka highway, I am battling with sleep but I am determined to discover the difference between the journey to Kabale and that to Bwindi. The Equator is a definite must-stop-and-see. A four-minute stop here has us scrambling to have the unique experience of being both in the northern and southern hemispheres at the same time. The area caretaker rushes out to demonstrate an experiment but we are short of time and can only spare a second to sign the visitor’s book.

Our journey progresses well but in Ntungamo, instead of heading south to Kabale, we drive to Rukungiri town from where we take the Ishasha Road. It is bumpy all the way from here. The true safari has now begun. Already, I can hear the birds chirping their noisy welcome. The small children along the way seem to be fascinated by cars. They run after us and wave like their lives depend on it.

The road soon becomes a thin strip in the side of a steep hill. It snakes down the hill and you get the feeling that any wrong move will have you falling off into the river down, down in the narrow valley. We seem to be racing against the river but it soon catches up with us at the Mitano Bridge. Here, we enter Kanungu and continue our journey to Bwindi. We arrive at 6:02pm. The place is absolutely amazing. There is no mistaking it. A rope attached to two wooden posts and strung across the road, acts as the gate into the park. After we have signed the gateman’s book, we are allowed in. We drive straight into the forest. The lodging facilities blend well with the forest that you can just drive past your accommodation.

Great Lakes Safaris usually recommends lodging facilities to their clients and this was an opportunity to see how good the services at their partner lodges are. For this trip, four lodging facilities offered complimentary accommodation packages to our team. Gorilla Forest Camp offered a twin room for two nights full board. This is where Winnie and Angel spent their two nights. Noel, David and Gerald spent the first night in the Buhoma Community Rest Camp run by the locals. Their second night was spent at Lake Kitandara Bwindi Camp. Buhoma Homestead offered a twin room full board for two nights. This is where I opt to stay. I am welcomed by Praise and Solomon, two nice-looking Bakiga, who offer me a cup of tea and a snack. I decline the offer, preferring to freshen up first. The cabins are absolutely beautiful. The floor is covered by huge reed mats and the bed looks and indeed is comfortable to sleep in. The furniture and decorations are simply breathtaking. The bedside lamp has a shade made of banana fibres and colourful baskets decorate the walls. There is solar lighting. So if you are looking for a “raw” African adventure with no modern amenities, you will not quite get it here. There is a flush toilet at my disposal and a hot shower. And they provide a hot water bottle for the cold nights! What more can one ask for?

Early morning, we gather at the Uganda Wildlife Authority Bwindi headquarters, register, get walking sticks and group up for the pre-trek briefing. We are told that the habituated gorillas we are to visit are in three families; Rushegura, Mubare and Habinyanja. We are then split into the three groups and the briefing continues. I am in the Mubare group with Gadi as our ranger guide. He explains that our family had been three hours’ walk away the day before.

He tells us that gorilla trackers have gone ahead to find the family and they are to let us know as soon as they find the gorillas. Meanwhile, we begin our trek through the forest. Three armed guards are to escort us. One goes ahead of the group while two remain at the back. At no point is any of us to either by-pass or fall behind them. We take a porter to carry Winnie and Angel’s bag since it is heavy.

We begin our trek. Gadi is excited because few Ugandans go trekking and it is rare to lead a group without a muzungu. As we begin climbing the Bwindi Mountains on which the forest is located, Gadi explains the rules. We are not to leave anything in the forest except our footsteps. We are not even to drop banana peels in the forest. He especially cautions us not to run in case a gorilla charges at us. Instead, we should stay still and follow his instructions to the dot. The dos and don’ts are so many; I would need a whole newspaper to explain them.

The long and short of it, is that the trek is difficult. Because we cannot walk straight up the mountain (it is too steep), we have to zigzag our way to the top. You cannot count the number of left and right turns you make before reaching the top of the mountain. Here we rest a bit while Gadi contacts the trackers to find out if they have found the gorillas. They have not had any luck so far so we continue our trek down the other side of the mountain. Later, Gadi contacts the trackers who say they have located the Mubare family. They give him directions and we follow suit.

We go off the path and head into the bush. We seem to be moving around aimlessly but luckily for us, Gadi knows the forest like the back of his hand. As we struggle through the thick undergrowth, I understand why the forest is called impenetrable. When you try to force your way through, the bushes trap you and pull you back. Gadi points out elephant dung. Elephants! And here I was beginning to think I was safe. I guess the guards are armed for a reason.

At some point, the trackers have to come and cut a path for us to go through. From where the trackers are, we can hear branches being broken and bushes torn apart. Gadi informs us that those are the gorillas feeding. The group we are visiting is a family of 10 with two infants. The silverback, which is the dominant male and leader of the family, is called Ruhondeza. He is huge, fierce and weighs in excess of 200kgs. We have to drop everything we are carrying and take only our cameras.

Gadi parts a few bushes and there is Ruhondeza. He is so handsome you cannot capture it on camera. He takes a glimpse at us with apparent boredom in his eyes and goes on eating. He is chewing on a branch with the relish of a seasoned sugarcane eater. What a sight! This is Ruhondeza, the king of the Mubare family. Ruhondeza means “the lazy one”. And true to his name, he just lies around doing nothing.

The bush in which we have found the family is so thick, you can only see heads. About five metres from Ruhondeza is a female feeding with an infant. She is either shy or she has been warned to stay away from us. As soon as she notices our approach, she picks up her baby and sneaks off into the bush.

We can see another huge black male feeding in the bush just below where Ruhondeza is. Gadi says the male is a blackback called Kanyonyi. He sits there soaking up the attention but Ruhondeza has other plans for his family. He suddenly jumps up and drives them further into the bush. Now we can only make out shapes.

Ruhondeza is really big with huge long arms. Actually, an arm of his looks like a large tree trunk. Gadi says it would take one slap from him for you to breathe your last. We definitely have to be very careful. Ruhondeza also has a large grey hairless strip across his back. It is like he is wearing a huge leather belt. The hair on his back also looks grey. I guess that is why he is called a silverback. The other gorillas are completely black. I guess, again, that is where the term “black beauty” originated.

Gadi and one of the trackers cut a path for us to follow the gorillas deeper into the bush but the more we follow, the deeper Ruhondeza drives the family. He is determined to keep the family from us but we are also determined to see the gorillas upclose. We go deeper into the forest and see Kanyonyi sitting alone by the side. He is not shy. Infact, I get the feeling he aspires to be a ‘male model’. He cuts all sorts of poses for our cameras; sitting there looking coy; lying back and then turning to stare into the camera; grabbing some branches to chew on. At one point, he even poses for a “nude” photo with his bits out for all to see. Gadi quickly points this out saying it is a rare occurrence. But before we can take pictures, Kanyonyi crosses his legs as if to say: “that was for your eyes only.”

Before long though, Kanyonyi is bored with our attention and runs off into the bushes. We turn back to Ruhondeza but he is taking none of that. He makes deep scary grunts. We are told this is the warning before he charges. Gadi quickly ends our visit and we have to find our way out of the bush. We later have a picnic lunch at the top of the mountain on our way back to the camp. When we get back to “civilisation”, we have a graduation ceremony where we are handed certificates of the Uganda Wildlife Authority for trekking. It is all very rewarding.

After this trip, I conclude that the gorillas are not exactly in my backyard. But then again, you do not find gold in your backyard, do you?