Continuing south towards the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, we stopped off first at the Maramagambo Forest to check out the famous bat cave with its colony of roosting fruit bats. The cave was warm and smelly from piled-up guano but we were able to get very close to some of the bats hanging upside down, cleaning themselves and (the males, anyway) showing off their outsize genitalia. We also saw the big, well-fed looking rock python that hangs out in the cave to take advantage of careless bats. Walking back to the jeep, we came across a gorgeous blue-breasted kingfisher and some black-and-white colobus monkeys jumping about in the trees near the parking lot.
We gradually climbed up into the mountains to Bwindi. At dusk we arrived at Gorilla Forest Camp located within the national park and were once again delighted by the quality of the accommodation and level of service by the staff. Eight deluxe, spacious tents dotted the forest surrounding an open-air, thatch-and-timber bar and restaurant. Up here in the mountains it got cold at night, due in part to the dampness from being in the clouds, but tableside charcoal braziers kept us warm as we dined. This time instead of grunting hippos keeping me awake at night it was a persistent frog outside the tent that sounded like a loud ray gun from an old sci-fi movie.
We awoke to cold mist and then pouring rain on the drive to begin our gorilla trek on the other side of the mountain. In 2005 only 24 people a day were able to get permits to search for the gorillas in Bwindi, so we considered ourselves lucky to have such a rare opportunity despite the nasty weather. We walked through mud and weeds before entering the dense forest where a guy with a machete hacked through the thick, slippery vegetation to clear a path for us.
Happily, the rain stopped just as we reached a clearing where this group — the so-called Habinyanja group — of two dozen gorillas was hanging out at the time. We were able to get within ten feet of some of the group, which included two male silverbacks with their large cone heads and pot bellies, some moms with babies wrestling and tumbling in the weeds, as well as one youngish male who made repeated bluff charges towards Dennis. That same gorilla dug around in his big open nostrils, examined the contents and proceeded to munch on the morsels he had found. Many of the big males slapped their chests to make loud popping sounds. It was captivating to watch these creatures at such close range. Their ears look just like ours, and they have huge hands powerful enough to strike a man dead with a lazy swat. After an hour we had to move on, and after a long walk back to the car, drove on to camp. We went out for a late afternoon bird walk and came across yet another primate species — the delightful L’Hoest’s monkey.
Drama of a Different Sort
Back at Gorilla Forest Camp, at dinner we heard what at first I thought was firecrackers very close by, but after it repeated several times one of the guides with another group of people said it was gunfire and we all needed to evacuate the restaurant post-haste. We snuck out through the kitchen and went to a safe room in the back of the camp where we hunkered down for a couple of hours until we were told we could safely (but quietly) return to our tents. Apparently a soldier had gone crazy after finding his girlfriend with another man and went on the loose in the forest with a machine gun. He remained at large all night so I didn’t sleep too well, even though they assured us the camp was well protected.
The next morning at breakfast we heard a final two-round gunshot that indicated they had captured the guy. We had scheduled another day of gorilla trekking and a lot of extra soldiers were around, ironically, to put us at ease.
Gorilla Trek #2
This gorilla trek was tough going. Initially we walked through a sparsely populated hillside village planted with bananas and coffee. The coffee blossoms had the sweetest aroma, almost like gardenias. We hiked up and up and up into the hillside. This time the vegetation was even thicker and the trail was very slippery and rocky, lined with stinging nettles on one side and a sheer drop-off on the other. The porter we had hired to carry our heavy backpack of camera equipment helped hoist me up some incredibly steep stretches on several occasions.
We found this smaller group — the Mubare group — in the shade and hidden in the bushes as thick rain clouds rolled in, so our views today were not good. But it was interesting to see “gorillas in the mist” and this time a young male charged at me a few times. Each time I would just turn away and look really meek and he backed off. It got my heart pounding to see this big hairy creature coming at me! However, this group in general was more subdued, the big silverback nicknamed Sleepy looking at us with a rather nonplussed expression on his face, examining his big bratwurst-like fingers.
On the way back down the mountain it was even tougher going as we slipped on mats of ferns and unstable rocks, not sure whether there was really any solid ground beneath the vegetation. The whole thing made Croagh Patrick in the west of Ireland look like a walk in the park.
On our final full day at Bwindi we went birding on a forest track and came across 14 new bird species, and this time there was a bonus: the third and final group of gorillas in the park that just happened to be crossing the trail as we headed back to camp. We managed to get photos of this group’s silverback and a mom with an infant riding on her back and were delighted by this “free” gorilla sighting.
Our Final Primate Encounter
After flying back to Entebbe, we spent one day on a boat trip out to Ngamba Island in Lake Victoria. This tiny island is a rehabilitation facility for 39 orphaned chimpanzees and also serves as an education center for these endangered primates. We learned, for example, that 3,000 chimps end up on the dinner table each year in Cameroon — that’s the total number of chimps that exist in the wild in Uganda. They are threatened not only by the bushmeat trade but also the pet trade, logging and human settlement. Did you know that these fascinating creatures show the same emotions we do? They laugh, cry, show surprise, play, tickle one another, shake hands, throw temper tantrums and kiss.
We arrived just before feeding time and went to the viewing platforms where juveniles and adults are kept in separate “communities.” One juvenile male threw stones at us — a fine how-do-you-do considering that the caretaker was simultaneously tossing fruits and vegetables to the chimps. In the adult community, several chimps held out their hands for fruit or pounded the ground in front of them as if to say, “Right here, bro. Now!” Some of the animals were real gluttons, gathering up handfuls of carrots and sneaking off with the booty. Two old chimps sitting next to one another munching on bananas and eggplants looked like construction workers on the job site taking a lunch break. Hilarious!
We bade a sad farewell to Uganda, which we found to be a fabulous place for the birds and wildlife, friendly people, gracious service to tourists, comfortable lodging and great food.