African Adventure: In Search of the Mountain Gorilla in Uganda

A mountain gorilla in Uganda. Flickr/ Rod Waddington
A mountain gorilla in Uganda. Flickr/ Rod Waddington

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.

Uganda has been in the news for all the wrong reasons in recent years. The high-profile Kony 2012 campaign brought long-running insurgencies in the region to the world’s attention. It has also received notoriety for debating parliamentary bills that would punish homosexuality with the death penalty.

Violent suppression of anti-government riots hit the headlines in 2011 and, in many Western minds, the country still lives in the shadow of Idi Amin’s demagoguery, as portrayed in the Last King of Scotland.

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.

A mist settles over Lake Bunyoni's glass-like water. Photo by Alex Jones
A mist settles over Lake Bunyoni’s glass-like water. Photo by Alex Jones

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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