Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Uganda
Vincent and I jumped in the jeep around 9:00 a.m. on Sunday and prepared for the day long drive to the Volcanoes Mgahinga Lodge. Buhoma (where I had been staying) and Mgahinga are actually quite close as the crow flies. However, there is no road through Bwindi National Park so the trek to Mgahinga was long because we had to drive us around and through the edge of Bwindi Forest to reach Mgahinga and the volcanoes bordering Uganda, Rwanda and Congo. Now Vincent had told me the roads were going to be a little rickety, but in his true understated style, Vincent did not reveal the full extent of the “rickety nature”. As we climbed up the twisty, rocky road through the forest the road turned from rocks to mud. I watched in sheer admiration as Vincent maneuvered the jeep around hairpin turns that were more mud piles than road. This was after all, a rain forest, and the road had clearly taken a beating from all the wet weather.
As we bounced up and down around corners through the forest, we passed huge trees, hanging vines and lots and lots of people wandering down the road in their Sunday best. Uganda is a very religious country, and Sunday is the one day that most people do not work. As a result, many of the villagers get dressed up and walk to the homes of friends and family. Anyway, the villagers whose farms and towns border the Impenetrable Forest were out in force in their colorful Sunday finest.
In addition to winding through the forest, the drive took us through lots of hillside farms adjacent to the forest. As we reached the opposite side of the forest from where we had come, we ran into some armed guards. Vincent pulled over and we found out that the gorillas were about a hundred yards off the road. We looked up the hillside and sure enough, we could see the tops of the heads of the folks tracking the gorillas. They had had to hike all the way to the top of the forest (where I had trekked) and then down the opposite side. Yowza. I am not going to say anything about my hike after seeing what these folks had to go through.
Anyway, we continued on our way and passed a number of black and white colobus monkeys, a duiker (a little mini antelope like animal), grey cheeked monkeys, hoist monkeys and lots and lots of kids by the side of the road smiling and waiving as we drove by. At this point, I was becoming pretty used to the idea that I was on parade so whenever we passed a group of children I immediately started smiling and waiving back at the little ones. The kids get so excited as you pass by and immediately start yelling “Hallo. Hallo. How are you Muzunga?” I am not sure what I am going to do when I go back home, and I drive down the road and everyone just ignores me.
As we climbed a hill, we suddenly came across some kids flying down the hill on wooden bikes. I had seen a couple of these bikes, but had yet to see any kids actually riding them. These homemade bikes are made entirely of wood, have a layer of rubber coating the wheels and even have a suspension system. Anyway, I asked Vincent to slow down so I could take a picture, and he called out to the kids to race up the hill and come back down. The kids seemed thrilled that I wanted to take their picture so back up the hill they went as we waited and then watched as they flew down the hill right at us laughing and smiling. It was fabulous to see kids making their own entertainment.
So after the short break, Vincent and I continued along paralleling the forest on one side of the road and farmland on the other. We finally reached the edge of the forest area, passed through the guard station and then pulled over. I could see the line where the forest ended and the farming villages took over. After years of encroachment by villagers, the government of Uganda has become very active in protecting the forest and preventing its further destruction.. It was quite stunning to see the line in the sand so to speak. In addition, the volcanoes were now in view. Although it was a bit cloudy, there was no mistaking the flat top of Gahinga and the clear volcanic point of Muhabura.
We hopped back in the car and as we began our winding drive through endless villages I was provided with countless images of villagers going about their daily chores. I saw goat herders young and old, women working in the fields and men hanging around in groups “planning” (which I believe is a code word for doing anything possible to avoid working), and more people than I could count walking along the side of the road carrying just about everything imaginable on their heads. The predominant objects being carried today were firewood and jugs of water gathered by men, women and children. This after all was an area where electricity and running water are virtually unheard. Some of the water is gathered from safe wells and other is gathered from … well just about any source they can find. These folks must have the intestines of concrete. It was also interesting to see that many of these “poorer” folks were not taking the day off.
We finally reached the main paved road from Kampala to Congo, and Vincent immediately noted that we were “back to civilization”. I turned to Vincent and asked him how long it would be before he stopped for a newspaper. He immediately laughed. This had become a bit of a running joke between us. Vincent loves to keep up on world affairs and before we were even out of the Kampala city limits the first day of my trip Vincent was stopping at a little stand to buy his “New Vision” newspaper. Every day after that he would stop the jeep, call out “New Vision” and buy a paper. The problem was that once we reached Bwindi, there were no papers. The fact was that Bwindi was so remote, by the time the buses reached the area, the news was out of date so it appeared that no one even bothered to deliver papers to the area. (And internet is unheard of so electronic news is really not possible so the only outside access was cell phones, which were everywhere.) The poor guy was lost without his news.
Anyway, Vincent advised me that in about 50 kilometers we would reach Kisoro and that would be his chance to buy his little slice of heaven. So we continued and suddenly Lake Bunyoni came into view and was simply spectacular. Little islands dotted the lake, and this was apparently another home to the Batwa or pygmies. Enterprising folks had built lodges on the islands and the Batwa would ferry people around the islands and to the lodges. The lake was surrounded by terraced hillsides where local villagers farmed. It sort of reminded me of the Himalayas. Tough going, but the setting was gorgeous.
Anyway, we drove along in silence for a while and then Vincent warned me that the next few kilometers may be a little slow because the road was under construction. Sure enough. The road immediately went back to a rocky, uneven thoroughfare. We bobbed and weaved around machinery and road crews working on a Sunday no less. Vincent told me that the road crews get no days off because of the dire need to get Uganda’s infrastructure up and running. Maybe they should put all those men to work sitting around “planning”. That should help the problem.
We continued on the very rough road, up and down over hills and around corners and then finally we hit the home stretch and reached the village outpost of Kisoro, which is the main access village to Mgahinga National Park. This place was a boom town compared to the little villages we had passed through since leaving Buhoma. We drove by the usual street fare, markets and mass of humanity walking the roads, but as we approached an intersection, something new. There was apparently an outdoor church revival going on complete with singers. Vincent slowed down, but did not appear inclined to stop so I did not say anything, but from what I could hear, the singing was African spiritual music and fabulous.
We made a quick stop at the local “7-11” (not really …. more like a three side wooden store front with an open front … but it was the closest thing) so Vincent could pick up his paper … but oh no … the bus had not delivered any papers that day. Vincent was rather disappointed that we were still “cut off”. So, we continued on and just after we had stopped for the paper, we passed a huge field with a sign that read “UNHCR NYAKABANDE RECEPTION CENTER”. Vincent told me that this was a refugee center. Whenever there are problems in Congo or in Rwanda, refugees are housed in the field. Large tents are erected and there is running water and bathroom facilities. The area was huge, but fortunately was not in use at the present time.
We turned off the main paved road and headed up the hill on yet another rocky, dirt road (ah how I’ve missed you my friend) and through more ramshackle buildings and farm fields until we saw the sign for the Volcanoes Mgahinga Lodge. By now two of the volcanoes, Muhabura and Gahinga were up close and personal and truly spectacular. Both Muhabura and Gahinga split the border between Uganda and Rwanda and as a result, the animals including the gorillas move back and forth between the two countries. A third volcano,Sabyinyo, aka the Big Molar, straddles Uganda, Rwanda and Congo.
Anyway, we bounced up and down and around on the road and past more waiving, shouting children for another half hour until we finally turned into the lodge. I was greeted by the smiling staff, given a glass of passion fruit juice and shown my beautiful banda. Now the Volcanoes Mgahinga Lodge is a little more remote than the other three lodges. As a result, this one had no running water so the lodge had an eco toilet (in which you dump ash after you have done your thing), a big canister of water with a tap for washing and a manual shower (hot water was poured into a large hanging bag with a shower head when I wanted a shower). Other than these minor differences, which was really no problem at all, the place was gorgeous.
After getting settled, I went to the main lodge to find … yep I was the loan guest. Four people just departed that morning. Geez … I was beginning to get a complex. Vincent told me not to worry. I would have lots of company in Verunga in Rwanda. Anyway, I found myself a fabulous lounge chair in the sun room, grabbed a cup of tea and looked out at the volcanoes. The view was, as was the norm for the Volcanoes lodges, simply stunning.
I got up and opened the door to the main lodge and spotted Vincent lying on the couch completely exhausted. I snapped a photo of the moment and gave him a hard time about it afterward. He just grinned and said “You caught me.”.
By the time the sun went down, the staff had a fire going in the main lodge. Because we were at over 2,000 meters, it was very cold at night. I ate dinner by candlelight and called it an early night as Vincent and I had to set off by 6:15 a.m. for Nkuringo, which is part of Bwindi Forest. (Unfortunately, the gorillas in Mgahinga National Park had slipped across the border into Rwanda in May and as a result, we had to drive back to Bwindi for more gorilla treking. This time, however, I would be treking on the opposite side of the forest from where I had been in Buhoma and much closer to the end of the forest.)
I crawled into my bed warmed by hot water bottles (truly a devine touch) and crashed. Next thing I knew it was 5:15 wakeup and time for gorillas. After a large (and I mean large) breakfast, we set off back down the bumpy road towards Bwindi. Once we reached the main village of Kisoro, we took a left down a different road than we came in on and wound our way through the now familiar farming villages and past waving children in their uniforms on their way to school. Each school uses different colors for the uniforms so it was a really colorful display as the kids walked to school (no school buses here).
The road veered to the left and we soon found ourselves on a very muddy, bumpy road bordering hillside farms. As we veered yet another hairpin turn we came across the first of what would be many landslides. Apparently, Uganda has a very rainy “dry” season and the hillsides were saturated. At one point we came across a slide where a significant portion of the hillside was missing. Apparently 9 people had been killed in the slide earlier this year. It was huge and he consequences of the fallout were still very evident as rocks and mud and uprooted trees still littered the side of the road and the valley on the opposite side of the road.
We continued on and began to wind our way up the hillside on the bumpy narrow road and suddenly a beautiful lake came into view. Vincent told me it was Lake Mutanda. We wound around the lake and up and up the mountainous hillside and suddenly we were high above a valley shrouded in mist and fog. How very appropriate. Vincent and I looked at each other and he said it before I could get it out … “gorillas in the mist”.
We reached Nkuringo at 8:00 and I met my guide and two treking partners. Two guys from Israel, who turned out to be jerks. (Didn’t tip, showed the guide little respect and kept barging in front of me once we found the gorillas. The trackers took care of the problem though and made sure I had a good spot for viewing whenever we moved on to a new group.)
Anyway, I selected two porters (the cheap Israelis did not hire any porter and left a whole group of men standing there without a pay day), grabbed a walking stick (or my third leg as Vincent called it) and then my guide Sabo, the two porters, the two Israelis and I set out down the hill, through the tiny village of Nkuringo and down through the valley past the local school, which looked like Beverly Hills High compared to Victory School in Buhoma. The hike was turning out to be a walk in the park compared to the previous hike in Bwindi. We crossed back and forth across a stream and eventually we turned into the forest and headed up the hillside through very thick brush and a very narrow overgrown path. However, we no sooner got going than the guide advised us that the trackers were just ahead. Really? We had only been hiking for about an hour.
The trackers advised us the Shongi family was just ahead. We hiked through thick brush and ivy and the trackers made the usual series of loud noises and grunts (mimicking the sounds the gorillas make) to signal our presence. All of a sudden a young Silverback was in front of us. He looked up and made huge grunting, roaring noise, lunged towards us and bared his teeth. WOW! Hello to you too. The trackers immediately began making this grunting noise which mimics the gorillas language and signals that everything is OK. The young guy backed down and went about his eating. Geez. Teenagers!
Now a little bit about Silverbacks. When males are born they are all black and become known as “blackbacks” around the age of 8 until the age of 12 or 13. Once they reach full maturity, the hair on the male gorillas turns silver and the males become “junior” Silverbacks with the dominant male remaining in charge until its death. Silverbacks can grow up to 5′ 10″ and weigh over 400 pounds. The dominant Silverback is the only male that can mate leaving the other Silverbacks to wait their turn and fight it out to be the dominant male once the big guy dies. The junior Silverbacks are known to “cheat” and mate with the females in the group and when this happens, the dominant Silverback will boot out the “cheater” and the female who then go on to start their own family. The male that is forced to leave may also “poach” females from other families in order to grow his family more quickly since females will only bear 5 to 6 babies in a lifetime. (Females have the same 9 month gestational period as humans).
We watched the feisty Silverback eat some bamboo shoots and thistles before turning and moving up the hillside. (As I mentioned before, gorillas are vegetarians and eat primarily bamboo shoots, thistles, and leaves.) We did not see any other gorillas, but we could hear them all around us, including a number of gorillas grunting and letting out loud bellowing noises, and we could see the branches moving. Unfortunately, the brush and trees were very dense, and the gorillas were hiding under the underbrush. It was going to take some work to see these primates today.
The trackers moved up the hillside and beckoned us to follow. It was very slick going, and extremely hot and muggy, as they cut a swath through the brush for us to hike up the hillside. At this point, I did not have my porters with me as they are required to stay behind once the gorillas are spotted so I was on my own navigating the steep terrain. We slid down gulleys over vines and brush and hiked steep hillside falling down more than once. We were muddy and wet, but finally after a great deal of effort we were able to maneuver into position to see a female, the same juvenile Silverback and a young blackback eating. We no sooner got into position than the three moved out of view. Damn this was tough today.
The trackers then decided on a different tactic. We could see a lot of movement near the top of the hill so the trackers led used their machetes to cut through the thick brush and us up, up, up we went. Suddenly success. We moved along a ridge and the dominant Silverback, a female and another female with a youngster in the nest came into view. All right! Now we were in business. We stood and watched the gorillas eating and the one female seemed to lose her appetite and pay more attention to watching us. Now I know how these primates feel when we invade their territory. She followed our every movement until hunger got the best of her.
We watched the Silverback in the distance recline and munch on leaves. Suddenly, he decided to make his move. He got up and lumbered towards us. Just as I was about to take a picture, the obnoxious Israelis moved right in front of my camera. Thanks ass*oles. The trackers saw what happened and immediately took matters into their own hands. One of them grabbed my hand and literally pulled me in front of the guys and told them not to move. Unfortunately, the moment had passed as the big guy was lumbering past us so I could only get his backside. Oh well. It was still a spectacular moment.
The guide gave us extra time with the gorillas since we had such a hard time locating them, but before I knew it the time was up and we were treking back out of the bush. We stopped to have some of the packed lunch and gulped down some water before we continued on, As we walked, my legs began to feel like lead. I was exhausted from the hour of chasing after the gorillas. It had been a very, very strenuous trek after all.
We trudged down the hill, back and forth across the river, past the school and back up the hill through the valley and into the village. I was absolutely soaking wet from the heat and completely exhausted. Once back at the starting point, I laid down on the ground and needed help from Vincent to stand back up. I was done in.
I downed two bottles of water and then told Vincent I needed to stop in the village because I had promised a woman running a tourist shop that I would come in to see her wares when we drove out. Sure enough as we made our way to the village, the woman was there waiting for me. I ended up buying a gorilla sculpture and wanted a little carved hut, but did not have enough money on me. The woman insisted that I buy both and just leave the money at the lodge and she would have someone pick it up. Wow. These folks are so damn nice and trusting. What a lovely country. (It definitely helped that I was with Vincent, who knows literally every Ugandan … or so it seems.)
So with some souvenirs in hand we got back in the mighty jeep and who do I find, but my two porters and my guide Sabo. They had asked Vincent if I would mind if they got a ride to Kisoro and he assured them I would not care (which of course he was right). So the five of us headed back towards Kisoro and our final destination, Mgahinga.
We took a shortcut at the recommendation of Sabo and passed through another mountainous farming region and watched as villagers stood precariously on the sides of hills working bean, pea and potato fields. We passed by more slide regions and washed out roads and we watched the sky grow darker and darker. Uh oh. It looked like a huge storm was brewing and we were driving straight for it. It only hoped we were out of the slide region when it hit. However, as luck would have it, we couldn’t beat the storm and all of a sudden the skies opened and huge hail started hitting the jeep. I watched as villagers in the fields ran for cover and people along the side of the road grabbed anything they could to protect themselves from the onslaught. It came down in torrents. Fortunately, the hillside held and we emerged from the hillside farming region into the outskirts of Kisoro and the end of the storm.
As we drove towards Kisoro, however, the scene was somewhat different that the usual mass of humanity. Instead, I saw huge numbers of women carrying enormous sacks on their heads, men cycling along with huge bunches of bananas hanging from their bikes, people dragging pigs, people carrying baskets of chickens, women with large pots on their heads and on and on. Now I have seen all of this before, but what distinguished this was the shear number of people. I soon learned it was market day in Kisoro. Really? Yep. Cool. Sign me up. I asked Vincent if we could stop and he of course agreed.
We soon reached the main road in Kisoro and let our companions out and said goodbye. Just as the guys were shutting the jeep door, a flash of yellow and gold puttered by me on a motorcycle. What the? Holy crap! It was my holy grail!
For the past week I had cracked up more times than I could count as I saw Ugandans wearing every form of and variation of U.S. t-shirt. I saw a young child in a Kansas City Chiefs tattered t-shirt. I saw every form of Disney shirt known to man. I saw a guy wearing a red shirt bearing big white letters spelling Canada. Texas A&M, Stoneybrook, Oklahoma. Florida A&M and even the FBI also made an appearance on the backs of Ugandans. However, the one thing I had yet to see was someone wearing a hockey jersey … until now. There it was on the back of a very young woman. An old yellow and black Pittsburgh Penguins jersey and to make it even more special it was a Mario Lemieux jersey. Stop the jeep!! I could not jump out fast enough to try and grab a picture and as luck would have it, the young woman had parked her motorbike and was walking in the opposite direction. I could not believe it! I snapped a quick photo and laughed for the rest of the day. I am certain the young gal (a) has no clue who the Pittsburgh Penguins are; (b) who Mario Lemieux is; or (c) what a hockey game is. It was a classic moment and no greater evidence that all of our second hand and unsold clothing ends up in Africa. The only thing better would have been if it was a Vancouver Canucks jersey. It was awesome.
Anyway, after my brief moment of nirvana, Vincent dropped me off at the market while he set off to find a … newspaper. The market turned out to be fabulous. I walked into the huge open area and immediately ran into every kind of stare. I guess it is rare for a Muzunga to make an appearance on market day. Nevertheless, this did not faze me in the least. I wandered around and smiled. I passed mounds and mounds of shoes being sold by men, women hawking t-shirts (no hockey jerseys), women making soup, women selling fish, women selling palm oil paste (used for both cooking and as medicine), women selling brightly colored cloth and on and on it went. It was fabulous. Everywhere I looked, women were dressed in beautiful clothing and headdress. I felt very undressed in my muddy boots, pants and gaiters and very sweaty t-shirt. Every now and then a particularly brazen person would corner me and try to sell me something I did not need. I even had one old guy try to sell me a pair of men’s shoes. (Geez did I look that bad?)
After about an hour, it was time to leave. My feet were killing me so I wandered out the way I came in and found Vincent waiting for me. He was thrilled to have two newspapers, and I was thrilled to have seen the gorillas, a hailstorm, a hockey jersey and a pretty cool market.
Once back at the lodge, I put my feet up and relaxed for the afternoon, had a lovely massage and enjoyed a drink with Vincent and the staff in front of the fire and some fabulous locally grown nuts (they taste like the freshest peanut butter you can imagine). We were heading to Rwanda the next day and Verunga National Park. I was thinking about enjoying a quiet morning before we took off when Vincent suggested I go hiking in the morning in Mgahinga National Park to see the Golden Monkeys. Uh. I kind of wanted to rest. Vincent assured me it would be a short hike so I thought what the heck. I could do an hour or two and then get cleaned up and relax before the quick one hour drive to Verunga.
So the next morning, I grabbed a couple of bottles of water, left me rain gear since it was a sunny morning and I would be only gone an hour or two and headed 200 meters straight up the hill to the park entrance accompanied by a gal from the lodge. By the time I got to the entrance I was already winded. Geez, this altitude is a bit of a killer. I walked around the visitor’s center, met my guide “Allen ” (prounounced Alain) and was given a quick briefing about the Golden Monkeys, a rare subspecies of the blue monkey. I would be allowed one hour with the monkeys and was not to eat or drink in their presence (same rules as I had been told for the gorillas). Allen told me the monkeys had been located about 2 hours away the day before, but as yet the trackers had not located the monkeys today. Uh come again? I thought this was only going to be a quick 1 or 2 hour hike. I told Allen this and she looked at me like I was nuts. I told her I had not brought a lunch and had only brought 1 litre of water (for gorilla tracking they require you to bring 2 liters). I could tell Allen was not happy and she turned to the gal from the lodge who had escorted me to the park and proceeded to give her what I interpreted
to be a scolding in Swahili.
I was beginning to think this was a really lousy idea, but didn’t have the heart to back out so I ignored my exhausted state and charged ahead when Allen motioned for me to follow her and our armed guard (to protect against forest elephants and buffalo). I grabbed my walking stick and got up. It was about 8:30. We trudged up a well marked trail and to my utter despair, the trail went straight up. Good God. So for the next two and half hours we hiked up, and up and up and up. I had a spectacular view of the Volcanoes, but the combination of the thin air and my tired legs just about did me in. I was having a very difficult time catching my breath. However, I have never quit anything and wasn’t about to start now. I cursed Vincent as I struggled to catch my breath. I could have been reclining on a a chaise lounge back at the lodge with some tea and biscuits, but nooooooo. I foolishly thought this was going to be a quick hike.
We finally reached the bamboo forest, the known habitat of the Golden Monkeys and the area leveled out somewhat. Thank goodness. By this time, Vincent had called Allen wondering where we were. I told Allen to tell him he was in trouble.
Anyway, another fifteen minutes of hiking and we found the trackers who advised us that the Golden Monkeys had been spotted just ahead. The forest of bamboo was so thick it was very hard to see. I could hear the monkeys and see the trees rustling, but I could not make them out. We wandered down the some hill through the bamboo and suddenly I could see them overhead. I made sure not to stand directly under them (they will pee on you or worse) and squinted against the sky to make out their shapes in the trees. This was going to be hard viewing unless the little guys came lower.
We moved around through the bamboo trying to follow the monkeys and finally a couple of them obliged jumping down low and swinging on the bamboo stalks. One little guy came very close to me and started munching on the bamboo. I could see his reddy brown coat tinged with some yellow highlights, but for the life of me I could not figure out why they were called Golden Monkeys. It seemed to me the better name would have have been Copper Monkeys.
As I watched, two others swung down to some lower branches near where I was standing and I watched them alternate between eating and playing. Eventually my patience paid off as more and more gathered on lower limbs. Suddenly, my guide got very excited and pointed out that the large dominant male was walking on the ground a hundred feet or so away. I looked in the direction she was pointing and sure enough, there he was. And he was indeed huge. He entered a clearing giving me enough room to catch a picture before he jumped up on a branch and climbed high into the trees.
At this point Allen advised that my one hour with the monkeys was over and it was time to hike back. The only good news was that it would be all down hill. We made our way out of the bamboo forest and started the trek down the hill. As we walked, Allen pointed out forest lilies and a variety of other plant life. We even saw a humongous earthworm (at least a foot long and an inch wide). The bad news. Clouds had formed overhead and thunder rumbled in the distance. I was praying it didn’t rain until we got back down.
The trek down hill seemed very, very long, but in reality it took about an hour and half to get back down. So my lovely little one to two hour hike ended up taking over five hours. I was very happy to see the Golden Monkeys, but by the time we got back to the park headquarters it was 1:40. I was exhausted. Vincent was there to greet me and he was a little wary. I told him it was NOT an easy hike and left it at that. We drove two minutes down the hill to the lodge just as it started to rain. I limped to my banda, had a nice hot shower, changed, packed up and headed into the lodge for a quick lunch. It was time to move over the border into Rwanda.