Last night’s soccer that saw Bayern Munich finally take the Champions League crown in their third attempt in four years made me reminiscent of last year when a disappointing night was followed by an unforgettable day.
I was not going to go see the gorillas. I was not going to fork over the 500 USD to hike through the forest for a slim chance of disturbing apes in their nap. But my travel companion insisted: ‘Trust me on this one.’
So on 18 May I board the Bismarckan overnight bus to the remote town of Kisoro, a few miles from the fabled Virunga mountains. In my backpack: A slip of paper granting me one of eight spots in the group that would go visit the Bwindi Nkuringo gorillas two days later.
We arrive in Kisoro at 4 in the morning. After a brief consideration our tired limbs convince us to go and find a guest house. We leave the Virunga Hotel a few hours later to find a driver that will take us the final 25 or so km to Bwindi, the Impenetrable Forest. There is no public transport. The guy the Golden Monkey Guest House across the street recommends wins the bid thanks to the best price and the persuasive powers of the charming Golden Monkey owner.
With Bayern Munich and Chelsea battling out the Champions League final all the way to penalties the night again is short. Before sunrise we pack the lunch packs we had ordered at the city’s only coffee shop and get into the car.
The rule says that if you aren’t at the park by 8 the group will leave without you and your 500 USD will blow up in smoke. So we are a bit anxious. But the only accommodation available at the park is about 100 USD per night – money we are not prepared to spend. While we drive along the serpentines the fog slowly lifts and gives way to awe inspiring views of the lake and the mountains.
We reach Bwindi in time and meet our fellow wanderers. They are two American women and a French couple with their grown-up daughter.
Before we head out the guide gives us an introduction:
– Early in the morning rangers had set out to find our group. They would inform our guide via radio where to go until we managed to catch up.
– There were no paths in the park which meant going cross country – luckily I had put on a long sleeve shirt and was wearing my trusty walking shoes.
– Our goal was to see the Nkuringo group and only the Nkuringo group. If we came across another group we were not allowed to go anywhere near them as only a fraction of the more than 800 apes in the Impenetrable Forest was accustomed to humans.
– To protect us from unruly gorillas and forest elephants are would be joined by two armed guards.
– Once we were with the group we wouldn’t be allowed to go closer than 2m. However, should a animal come towards us we were allowed to stay put.
– Anyone with a fever or any other sign of a cold should step forward now. To protect the apes they would not be allowed to enter the park.
– Oh, and we might walk all day and never find the gorillas. In that case the next walk we’d book would be 50% off. But that’s why we came here and not Virunga: no borders and almost guaranteed sighting.
Before be set out we are handed walking sticks and encouraged to hire one of the porters waiting outside the office. They might not only prove useful for carrying our bags but help along the steep climbs. Only one of the Americans decides to pick up on the offer.
After less than half an hour we turn off the narrow path onto a field clinging to the side of the mountain. This is more than just steep!
The farmers greet us with broad smiles. They are wearing gum boots – just like the rangers – and are moving up and down the slope seemingly without effort while we on our walking sticks struggle and decide more than once to get down on all four or slide on our arses to avoid taking a dive.
It’s good, moist, reddish brown soil. You understand why the farmers are skeptical about leaving such good soil to the National Park and the gorillas. Uganda’s population is exploding and farming space rare.
After another hour of slipping and sliding we get to a group of trees. The guide bids us to leave sticks and backpacks behind. We follow suit. Suddenly, slightly above me to my left I see him lounging among the leaves: the male is watching us completely unimpressed. After a few minutes he gets bored, gets up and makes his way down the hill.
We follow carefully.
And then we’re right in the center of the group: A baby is sleeping in a tree. A young male is watching another playing. We hear branches break around us, munching and occasional grunts. The rest of the group is eating and resting in the trees around us.
We sit still and watch and listen. One of the babies starts putting on a show, climbing and swinging a liana. All the while the older one is watching intently. The baby keeps coming up to me to touch my knee. He puts his finger in his mouth to taste what strange thing I might be. When he gets more and more bold the guide asks me to retreat – who knows what germs I’m carrying…
As we crawl back up the mountain through the fields we learn that we’ve been lucky: We met the group just outside the park and thereby saved ourselves a fair bit of hiking.
So would I do it again? Was it worth it? With only a few hundred of these majestic animals remaining, in some of the least stable countries in the world seeing gorillas in their natural habitat is a once in a lifetime experience. 500 USD is a lot of money. But if you know that Ugandans themselves also pay 250 USD and if you see the rangers’ struggle to secure the gorillas’ home it seems money well spent.