I have seen the mountain gorillas. Gorilla tracking is one of Uganda’s main tourist attractions and when I was living in Kampala I could not but make the trip down south. And what a trip it was! It involved lots of rain, mist, mud, having our car pushed up some hills by a bunch of friendly villagers, an eight-hour long hike through the forest and some very impressive primates. That is even without mentioning stunning lake views and some interesting history lessons about events in the region. Oh, and there were also two zebras…
Only a few gorillas left
There are about 1,000 mountain gorillas left in the world, 600 in the Virunga mountains in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo and 400 in Uganda. Their small numbers are the result of poaching, loss of their natural habitat by rapidly expanding human settlements and the damaging effect of diseases. In Uganda, the gorillas reside in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, a name that in itself already invokes respect. Not so impenetrable obviously as we spend quite some time penetrating into the heart of the forest. Two trackers had left before us to find the gorillas, who move around in groups but typically less than one kilometre a day. Our guide had been a ranger for 18 years and had unlimited knowledge of these fascinating creatures.
Gorillas were first described in 1903 and there are three common types: the endangered mountain gorillas and then the eastern and western lowland gorillas of which there are still quite a lot roaming the globe. The mountain gorillas became famous partially because of Diane Fossey. Fossey was an American researcher who studied the mountain gorillas in Rwanda extensively. She was also an activist against poaching and supported conservation. In 1985 she was mysteriously murdered in her house in Rwanda. Nowadays the gorillas are quite popular. Money from tourism supports conservation so to make this possible. Part of the mountain gorilla families are habituated, which means they are used to having people around. This process can take up to two years and starts with just a few rangers or trackers spending time with them. Once the gorillas are sufficiently used to having Ugandans around, the rangers start bringing a few muzungus (white people) to, as our guide explained, let the gorillas get used to the difference in colour.
So we walked and we walked, deeper into the forest. At last the guide spoke the words: ‘we are here’. Because the forest is so dense, I was still not seeing any gorillas, but apparently they were right around the corner. And they were, even during the briefing we heard them rustling the leaves and once we turned around the corner we saw the enormous silverback enjoying Easter brunch with his family. Looking at his hands grabbing a branch you realise how impressively large these animals are. They weigh up to 200 kilograms and a silverback can reach a length of two meters. But all they usually do is sit and eat their vegetarian meal. Which does not include tea by the way. The guide explained that to create a natural boundary between the forest and the village, tea is being grown in between. This provides money for the villagers and keeps the animals from destroying their other crops because ‘gorillas and forest elephants do not take tea’.
Tales of murder
After some shameless open-mouth staring we said goodbye to the gorillas and moved on to Lake Bunyonyi. Of course not before hiking another four hours in the rain, getting stuck on a hill to the lodge, having ten smiling villagers push us up the muddy hill (and the next one) and enjoying a lovely warm shower, meal and fire in a beautiful lodge on the border of the forest.
Lake Bunyonyi is the deepest lake in Uganda and has 29 islands. Taking a boat ride we learned a little bit more about the history of the region and its cultural traditions. Such as abandoning unmarried pregnant women on a tiny stretch of land with some grass and half a tree to punish them. They were left on Akampene Island, also known as Punishment Island, to die and could only be saved if the man that knocked them up was brave enough to come and collect them. Even then, the woman could never return to her family as the shame would be too much in a culture that had a strong taboo on pre-marital sex. The practice of sending the woman to the island was abandoned in 1941. Fleeing to another village was not necessarily recommended as nearby the tradition was to throw the pregnant woman of a waterfall. In the same region, one of the largest cult killings in history occurred in Kanungu, when more than 500 people died inside a church that was set on fire in 2000. But other than that, the Lake Bunyonyi area is mainly gorgeous, with its lush green hilly surroundings and the island of the governor of Bank of Uganda where zebras, waterbuck and Ugandan kob can be found…