I had seen the films, knew of Idi Amin, and recollect the atrocities, but that was about as much as I had focused on Uganda until the opportunity came to go and see the gorillas of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in the south-west of the country. Seeing and being in Uganda was a hugely pleasant surprise. Seeing the gorillas was a truly uplifting experience, everything I imagined and more.
Uganda has had its fair share of bad press over my lifetime but today it deserves all the positive press that, now I look, it is getting. The country gained its independence from the UK in 1962. It is about the size of the UK or Oregon at 241,038 square kilometres or 93,072 square miles, the main language is English, the main religion is Christianity, life expectancy is 54 for men and 55 for women, and the population is 37.5 million. It is one the youngest nations in the world with half the population being children. Winston Churchill described Uganda as ‘Africa’s pearl’ and deservedly so with beautiful countryside; 26% is rivers and lakes. Much of Africa’s largest lake, Lake Victoria, is claimed by Uganda. It is also the fruit basket of Africa growing huge quantities of bananas, wonderful pineapple and superlative avocadoes! The grey-crowned crested crane is the official bird of Uganda, which has 11% of all recorded bird species in the world with 1060 recorded. Indeed, it is the number one bird country in Africa. Most important of all it is home to half the world’s mountain gorilla population with 480 of the 880 counted in the 2011 census. Only two other countries have mountain gorillas, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo where there remain major challenges to the gorillas’ survival. There are apparently no mountain gorillas in captivity because their habitat cannot be re-created. That is a real thinker.
When I jumped at the chance to visit, I heard a lot of stories about long hikes through very dense forest, up hills and down into deep valleys. The need for thorn-proof trousers, gaiters and tough walking boots caught my attention too, as did stories of ripped trousers and bleeding legs. I did begin to worry about my fitness in the heat and humidity too. Consequently, quite a bit of research and preparation went into planning for this adventure and for about 15 days before departure I cycled an hour every day in a feeble attempt to build up the leg muscles. That was all well and good but before my arrival into Uganda, I attended an A&K Advisory Board event in Tanzania where every minute is planned and the planning involved plenty of sitting and eating but zero exercise!
I pick up my story arriving into Entebbe Airport from Tanzania, the scene of the famed rescue of hostages of a terrorist hijacking in July 1976, still Uganda’s main airport but no longer the capital. That is Kampala about 45-minutes down the road. Entebbe Airport is a UN hub with lots of aircraft and vehicles in evidence. From there we headed to the Serena Lake Victoria Hotel, about an hour’s drive. It says it is a 5-star hotel; it is nearly with its lovely views over Lake Victoria but it just does not cut it for 5-stars. It was perfectly adequate however and we had a very comfortable overnight. There are closer options but not as nice. It was with our driver Ben and at the Serena that the friendliness of the Ugandan people began to manifest itself. Everyone, and I mean everyone, was exceptionally friendly and proud of their nation and this continued throughout our time in Uganda.
Next morning, back to Entebbe and a one-hour flight to Kahihi, the gateway to Bwindi and gorilla country. Even as we were landing, the countryside was very agricultural and attractive. For me, as a photographer, it looked like a dream. From Kahihi, it was about a 90-minute drive with Arthur, our driver, to Bwindi and the Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp, the last building inside the park before the wilderness of the park took over. As a result, there are occasions when the gorillas come to camp. The lodge sits 91 steps up from the track, excellent practice for what lay ahead. There are eight tented, en-suite rooms each with two queen-sized beds and spacious bathrooms with a shower and a bath. The furthest away, with the best view, was a further 123 steps above the main dining area! It was time for a late lunch, lots of questions and some serious preparation for the next day. Everyone was nervous – it was the stories, the recommended equipment and, frankly, the idea of sitting at very close proximity to 450 pound animals with zero protection!
After a restless night, we were dressed and ready for breakfast at 7. Everyone had what they felt was the right gear in terms of thorn-proof wear, gaiters, boots etc. The last ingredients were sticks and off we went, down the 91 steps to the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) Centre. There, the lucky participants (only 24 visitors are awarded permits each day at $600 per person per day) were gathering in a waiting room watching a video about the gorillas. Once everyone was present, we were summoned to the lawn outside the building and given a very eloquent talk by David, the Head Guide, about the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Park which is 331 square km and a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park was established in 1991. The speech, which you will soon be able to hear on a video in the making, was very informative but humorous too. Most thought provoking was how seriously they take protecting the gorillas and how proud they are of them. Consequently, within the boundaries of the well-being of the gorillas, they are very accommodating to visitors with questions, photography, social media etc and they really are at pains to encourage all visitors to enjoy their time and tell the world about their experience to encourage others to visit.
From that general gathering we were split into three teams of eight, one for each of the three main habituated gorilla families, the Harbinyanja, the Rushegura and the Mubare group, and assigned to our UWA Guide, in our case Rita, a very well-spoken, lovely lady but with military training. Rita told us more of the gorillas we were due to visit, explained more about the shape of the day, explained the two guards with AK-47 rifles – part anti-poaching protection from the old days but more for wild elephant encounters where they would be firing in the air to divert them away from us. Our first day was to be spent with the Harbinyanja group (19 gorillas) which would involve about a 40-minute drive and then a walk to the forest, where we would communicate with the trackers James and Basil, who were in the forest looking for the gorillas nesting site from the night before and then tracking them in order to take us to them. Some key points were made:
We share 98.4% of our DNA with the gorillas, which means they are susceptible to our ailments and diseases so nobody feeling unwell is allowed to go into the forest and a 50% refund will be given.
No food or drink in front of the gorillas. Both can be consumed away from them. Everything, trash, food, crumbs etc must be taken out.
If you require the loo, P No1 requires speaking to your guide to get instructions, P No 2, requires the same but a supervised 30 cm, or 12-inch, hole needs to be dug and filled in.
Trousers to be tucked into socks and gaiters worn to deter ants coming up your legs and giving you ‘free services’ or make you dance ‘like Mr Bean in the jungle’!
Once we reach the trackers, we go forward to the gorillas with one guard and the UWA guide, packs, food, drinks, walking sticks etc all left behind. Make sure to take your gloves with you however as I learned!
Nobody knows how long it will take to find the gorillas, it might 20-minutes or five hours or more.
We get only one hour with the gorillas.
Do not touch the animals, even if they touch you. You can look them in the eye unless threatened, in which case cower. Do not run away unless told – the mostly likely reason will be wild elephants.
…what was omitted is that another reason to run might be accidentally disturbing bees or wasps. Then everyone needs to run like hell and keep running. If you are allergic, do your homework before going and if you decide to go, your epi-pen needs to go forward with you and be with you at all times. You may have only one hour with the animals but you might be parted from your gear for twice that or more.
The drive round the mountain was wonderfully scenic with tea, coffee and banana plantations basking in the morning light. I was dying to get out and take photographs but the focus was on getting there. On arrival we met our porters. They cost $15 per person per day plus about a $10 tip. They are wonderful people from the local community benefitting from the gorillas survival. We used one porter for our lunch and water (2 litres per person) and one each for personal packs including cameras etc. Do not feel bad about their size, they are very fit and strong! They were very helpful in every way, carrying everything, pushing and pulling up and down the hills as required. Soon we set off.
First down hill, then up some serious hills to the edge of the forest. There we stopped while Rita talked to the trackers who had found the gorillas. The view onto the forest showed a defined boundary of cleared farmland and then a wall of forest. It reminded me of the forests in the Lord of the Rings, such a stark contrast, you have a real sense of ‘entering the forest’. There are markers which make it very clear that nobody is to cut anything beyond them. It was decided to climb further up the hill before entering the forest. To be honest, this was the tiring part of the day because once in the forest, yes, there were undulations, but we had to move so slowly as they cleared a path, that it was not that tiring.
In all it took 45 minutes to reach the trackers. This was finally the moment for us all. We took cameras from packs, left sticks and everything else and went forward about 100 metres and suddenly there before us, in deep forest was a huge 450-pound silverback, named Makara. He was breath taking. Soon he moved on and led us to the rest of the family. This continued for about 20-minutes until the group stopped and began to relax and play in front of us. The trackers cleared an area for us to sit and tried to clear some of the forest so we could see and photograph better. In fact, apart from the darkness of the forest from a photographic point of view, it worked very well and we were able to sit there while the family played around us, sometimes touching and prodding us and whizzing past us as the young played their games. There was one alarming moment where Makara came forward in a flash. He moved with awesome speed towards some youngsters but toward us too with a lot of noise. He pinned a youngster down, seemingly in punishment, he squealed for some time before being released. Things settled down and we could not have asked for better quality time with them. Rita chatted with them reading their mood all the time but the hour passed quickly and soon we were headed back to our porters. We walked out of the forest, had something to eat and drink and then back to our vehicles.
It had been a magical time. You have to pinch yourself remembering you have actually done it and spent time with these remarkable, beautiful and wonderfully characterful creatures. We had seen them so easily in terms of the trek and their proximity when we found them, and yet their very existence and survival has been such a struggle. It played on my mind.
Back at base, now we had seen them, we had a lot more questions for Rita. There is a little award ceremony where each participant is given a certificate and encouraged to put it on their wall to tempt others to come. It is people coming to see the gorillas that funds and ensures the gorillas survival.
The 91 steps back to our Sanctuary were a little more testing on the return but our day was not done. A few reviving drinks and we were off on a tour of the community. Lessons on moonshine making from bananas; discussions about the local tea, coffee and honey (which I try to collect from each country I visit).
Then, another climb to meet the Batwa pygmies who live above the town. For 4,000 years they were hunter-gatherers living in caves in the forest, but were moved out becoming conservation refugees to ensure the well-being of the gorillas. They used to hunt and kill them, not for poaching reasons but because they disturbed the animals they were trying to hunt. They also added to the risk of disease to the gorillas. Now they try and lead their traditional way of life, but visits to the town for extra food and education for their children are new realities. We spent an hour with them talking and seeing their tiny houses – adults are about 5ft. The eldest were about 70-years old but did not really know their ages. Their average life expectancy is only 28, but many do not survive beyond their 5th birthday. This visit began to shine light on some of the rest of the story to the survival of the gorillas.
Our final stop was the Ride 4 a Woman Centre which is a shelter for abused women. It was founded in 2009 and began with renting out bicycles, then maintaining them. Now it teaches sewing, weaving and helps with micro loans for other new projects. Needless to say, much of the funding has come through tourist donations or purhcases.
Day Two brought the same routine but everyone felt much more confident, except perhaps me. This was not because of the gorillas but because from initial viewings I had done poorly with my photographs. I had under-estimated how much light there would be and gambled too much with a lower ISO instead of pumping up to 1600 ISO or more and ensuring a workable shutter speed. The gorillas were also more restless than I had expected; they don’t just sit there. I was determined to do better! We went through the same preparation process meeting our new UWA guide Boaz and a new set of porters because we would be walking directly from the UWA Centre.
At first the trek was a doddle. It was a slightly worn track with the odd bridge and even a Tarzan-like moss covered vine to swing on. Again it was not long until we met up with the trackers and were pulling out our cameras to leave our packs with the porters. This part of the forest was much damper and mossier with attractive streams running through it. The walk to where the gorillas were was very short and soon we were amongst them.
The forest was even thicker so a clear view was even more difficult and the sky had clouded over so there was even less light making it through the forest canopy. This was the Rushegura group, also 19 gorillas. We were close to them but very much amongst thick forest. They were more mobile so we kept having to gather ourselves and move with them. I did not sense we were disturbing them; they just seemed on a mission and were grazing actively as they moved through the forest either in the trees or on the floor.
We did have some magical moments of proximity to the silverback and some of the black backs (tomorrow’s silver backs). About 40-minutes into our visit, Boaz machete’d into a bees nest and the word went out – “run”! We ran, we stopped, we were told to run more and further and faster. This was uphill in dense forest! Poor Boaz was stung three times but the rest of us escaped. The amazing part of this rather frightening moment was that many of the gorillas seemed to move with us. We were always amongst them. Once things settled down I reverted to take some last photographs. I heard voices whispering to me, looked up, and there, right beside me, so much so only half fitted into my wide-angle lens, was a big black back just sitting there next to me. That will be my lasting memory, my magical moment, my moment of utmost respect for these wonderful creatures.
There was some more time but then the family moved on and Boaz explained that we could not retrace our considerable path because of the bees so we headed down the hill and turned right. This was a big trek in very thick forest, which demonstrates that you just don’t know how your day will turn out. We had no water, no food, no sticks, just cameras in very undulating, wet and slippery ground for about an hour’s trek trying to find our team. Everything was fine, we were in no danger but it added to the experience. Today, for me, was even more magical and more of an adventure and I felt I had understood the gorillas better, felt more confident about being close to them and yet respected their space. We headed back to our Sanctuary for lunch and some relaxation.
Before we could truly relax, we had one more visit to make to the local hospital, which A&K supports and is run by some truly dedicated doctors who have built it up over time. First we saw the admissions process, then the childrens ward, the psychological ward, the general wards, the operating theatre and finally the pre and post-natal wards. In each place there was a huge gorilla in some form, a model or a mural. These, along with numerous plaques on many of the buildings dedicated to this donor or that, lead me to ask Dr Birungi Matahunga, Public Health Executive Director, what the relationship between the hospital and the gorillas was. He laughed and sighed and explained to me that until recently the hospital, which was clearly doing so much good in the community, was 95% funded by tourists to Bwindi as a result of the gorillas. They had been trying to reduce the reliance on this but that figure still remains at 70%. He explained that they work hard to make sure the people realise the relationship and the value of the gorillas to the community through their representations around the hospital and in community meetings and he feels the people do understand.
For me, it completed the circle of the story of the gorillas. To allow the gorillas to survive (they were poached for meat, for their hands and heads for mostly European trophies, as well as infants being taken as pets, and suffered massive habitat loss for farming) major upheaval, change and challenges had to be overcome but this community, which is so proud of its gorillas and is now so fiercely protective of them, is also seeing concrete benefits from their survival.
So how do I feel and how do I describe the experience? Frankly, it is hard to describe and I think it is a very individual and personal experience, just as the gorillas are each their own person. You are on edge because of the forest and the fact that there is really no protection if something went wrong with the big boys and yet you feel as if you are spending time with characters, families and individuals and that is charming, amusing and relaxing. It is certainly not like looking at a lion or wildebeast or buffalo. It is infinately more personal and a much greater sense of achievement. Although one would like to stay all day, it feels right to only stay an hour. To every emotion there was a balancing one. Take lots of photographs but do not forget to put the camera down to watch, enjoy and appreciate. For me, it was important to understand the story and close the circle of the survival of the gorillas and how that worked with the local people. I feel that such a circumstance has a much better chance of success if it works for all and to me, that seemed to be the case in Bwindi. It seemed like a happy place where things were working. If I went again, I might try and do a day, then a rest day when I would like to make use of the morning and evening light in the community and local landscape as well as meet the Batwa etc and then do a second and even a third day to see all the groups. Best seasons are June to September and December to early April. This was truly a memorable and moving experience which I would recommend to anyone. I am so heartened knowing those mountain gorillas exist there, doing well and being so well looked after, while also benefitting a community which has chosen to embrace their care.
Photographing the mountain gorillas in Uganda is far more challenging in every way than Rwanda. It is more physically demanding in terms of topography but more importantly there is far less light due to the thickness of the forest and, at times, you feel as if you will never get a clear, uncluttered, leaf-free shot. You do not need long lenses but you need fast lenses. At most I would take a 70-200 f2.8 for detail shots of faces, hands and feet but even at 2.8 you could struggle. I was often at ISO 1600 to 2500. I did not take a 70-200; I took a Canon 135 f2.0 and my 16-35 f2.8 which found good light. I also had a 50 mm f1.2 and should have brought my 24mm f1.4. Take two bodies so you do not have to mess around swapping lenses. I didn’t ask if a porter could come in all the way with me to be an assistant, I would guess the answer might be no, but the guide and the tracker are very helpful to hold cameras. A camera that has a single point spot or pinpoint focusing square is helpful to really capture the eyes or even eyelashes. NO FLASH ALLOWED AND NO TRIPOD OR MONOPOD – the gorillas think they are weapons. You could take them into the forest but not forward to the gorillas.
I wore and used the following:
Baseball cap – no real sun issues, any hat will work. Dull colours are best.
Shirt – A proper shirt not a T-shirt, to put distance between skin and shirt so insects cannot bite through.
Trousers were Men’s Paramount Peak II Convertible Pants by North Face – in my experience these were durable enough to withstand any spikes there were.
Gaiters were Seeland Crieff WP Gaiters, good and hardy and worked very well.
Boots were Men’s Condor LCX Hunting Boot by Le Chameau, great ankle support but soft and supple and strong and waterproof. Socks should be sturdy but not overly thin or thick.
Backpack for cameras was a previous version of the Simms Dry Creek Backpack. Great for keeping water and dust out! The lodge supplied a backpack for lunches and water.
Gloves – good thorn-proof gardening gloves like these are best. Keep your gloves with you at all times.
Stick – supplied by the lodge, good sturdy wood and worked well!
I promised I would put a word in for these wood carvers who made the only masks with a smiling gorilla! Their shop is called Unique Shop and it is just yards away outside the park gates!
When you realise the value of life, you dwell less on the past and concentrate more on the present.