After several hours following paths through the trees, Wilbur took a message on his radio, paused to unsheathe his machete, and veered from the path to hack through the thick scrub of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. We had little option but to follow, as I finally understood why the jungle had got its name. We had come in search of the mountain gorilla, and Wilbur had just received word that we were close.
Fewer than a thousand mountain gorillas remain in the world, inhabiting a thin strip of territory stretching across Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); the survival of one of our most iconic relatives is precariously balanced.
The opportunity to trek the East African mountains in search of the gorilla is the privilege of the very few, and consequently one of the world’s ultimate ecotourism experiences. Each of the few dozen permits available each day across the region costs $500. This allows you one hour with the gorillas, should you find them at all. In dollars-per-minute terms, this is probably the single most expensive activity I will ever undertake.
The gorillas are a big tourist draw, but the hefty price tag plays a crucial role in restricting the number of visitors who come to this remote corner of the Rift Valley in search of their own ‘David Attenborough moment’.
This octogenarian British broadcaster famously recorded a calm and professional to-camera piece, while being groomed by an enormous gorilla directly behind him. The permits and the attendant tourism also generate vital income for local communities, helping to ensure their essential support for conservation.
Rwanda is a popular place to trek the gorillas. Permits are also available over the border in DRC, but groups tend to stay in Uganda or Rwanda and take a hurried day trip over the border. Most popular is Uganda, closer to the region’s hub at Nairobi, offering two separate gorilla national parks: Mgahinga and Bwindi. But there is far more to Uganda than just the gorillas.
Kampala, the dusty capital, offers little for the passing tourist, bar a chance to stock up on necessities at the shopping malls and markets. But out in the beautiful countryside, you will pass fields of sorghum, corn and bananas in rich, red soil. At road-side truck stops you can fight the crowds for barbecued skewers of meat and corn on the cob swimming in grease, salt and flavour.
Beautiful Lake Bunyoni’s glass-like water perfectly mirrors an empty, cloudless sky. Boat trips on the lake in the early morning are peaceful, with it ringed by an ethereal mist. We spent long, lazy days on the lake shore swimming in the cool waters.
Hiring a dugout canoe, we paddled frustratingly in circles. We finally mastered the frustrating art of ordering of food at Ugandan restaurants by placing our orders a full two hours before we wanted to eat.
But Uganda is justifiably famous as an adventure sports capital. Jinja, sitting at the source of the Nile at Lake Victoria, is kitted out for the adrenaline rush. Although somewhat diminished following the completion of a dam, this remains one of the premier whitewater destinations in the world, and running the Nile rapids in rafts or kayaks is still the most popular pastime. The really crazy can dispense with a boat altogether and brave the rapids with flippers and a body board.
At Jinja, a new arrival on the adventure scene is jet boating. An enterprising Kiwi powers tourists up and down the river at high speed, demonstrating the craft’s agility by turning it on a penny, and its power by driving it up small rapids. Back on terra firma you can take a quad bike tour through the surrounding countryside, going off road, over jumps, and stopping in villages.
But it was after a long, pre-dawn drive into the highlands from our base at Kabale that I embarked upon the activity that had really brought me to this part of the world. We were introduced to our guide, Wilbur, and armed guard. I still don’t know whether he was guarding the wildlife from us, us from the wildlife, or us all from another type of guerrilla altogether.
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