Uganda’s endangered Mountain Gorillas
Written by Nick Maes
It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed when first entering the rainforest. This secretive, primeval world, with its dark, brooding vegetation wreathed in tendrils of mist, is alive with incessant insect chatter and shrill birdsong.
Ominous rolls of thunder make it even more atmospheric; this is, after all, raw nature at its best. In early morning light the habitat looks gunmetal-grey, but it changes like quicksilver into verdigris as the sun rises. Streams of moisture float skyward as if the forest is breaking a sweat.
There are two main routes to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest: a ten-hour car ride through the flat Lake Victoria Basin, three hours of which are spent on dirt roads climbing and descending the eastern ridge of the Albertine Rift Valley; or a flight from Entebbe taking little over an hour, followed by a 40-minute land transfer at the other end. If you can spare the time, take the slow road: it’s a great introduction to the country, and parts of the drive are exhilarating, revealing views across the Congo jungle and a distant volcano in Rwanda.
Of course most people make this journey to see one special creature: the critically endangered mountain gorilla. According to recent World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) figures, only 782 of these magnificent creatures remain in the wild, of which 302 are in the Bwindi rainforest.
Only 18 tracking permits are issued each day, limiting access to the three regularly visited gorilla packs to six tourists each. After an early morning briefing by the chief warden, it’s time to set off. Guards, guides, and porters give the expedition the feel of a Victorian safari. The discreet guards are a modern measure introduced in 1999 to keep poachers at bay – a 2006 survey had seen a gorilla population increase of up to 6% – so they are a welcome addition.
After an hour’s easy hiking on forest paths, the going gets a lot tougher when the chief guide begins cutting a passage through the dense undergrowth with his machete. The ground underfoot is like cake – rich, moist, and soft, the colour of cinnamon – although the topography is challenging. Mad scrabbles along ridges filled with tree ferns and thorns are followed by scrambles down perilous slopes through bramble thickets and beds of giant nettles. It’s exciting stuff that requires a good basic level of fitness.
Bwindi’s other fascinating residents soon make their presence felt. Packs of blue monkeys skitter through the treetops while the ghostly, unnerving cries of elusive chimpanzees echo around the vegetation. At the other end of the animal spectrum are incredibly large sapphire-blue butterflies flapping languidly through the sticky air. Occasionally, blocks of light drop through the overhead leaf canopy like pillars of sunshine, encouraging butterflies to rise like kaleidoscopic confetti in shades of orange, yellow, and white.
It can take several hours to reach a gorilla family group – but every strenuous minute is worth it. Once there, if you’re lucky, you’ll get to within one or two metres of these huge hairy primates. Babies, like glove-puppets, stick inquisitive black heads out of the undergrowth while their mothers gorge on leaves. It’s an endearing scene.
The undeniable power of the silverback – or dominant male – is mesmerising and somewhat daunting. No-one – neither gorillas nor tourists – are left in any doubt as to who the true king of the jungle is. Even so, the urge to reach out and make some sort of physical or even emotional contact with these amazing ‘cousins’ of humankind is hard to control – and totally forbidden. The trek back to camp (most of the local accommodation is tented) seems to take very little time. Try to stay at the Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp, a luxurious take on camping, where a deep, hot bath with spectacular views of the rainforest will await those lucky enough to be staying there.
Four hours north of Bwindi is the Queen Elizabeth National Park – a vast savannah reserve covering some 2,000km2 studded with euphorbia and acacia trees. Journeying through the landscape is like being on your own private safari – you’ll see little other traffic except perhaps the occasional truck heading for the Congo – providing plenty of scope to spot gazelle, snakes, red colobus monkeys, olive baboons, and countless birds.
It’s readily apparent that the Mweya Peninsula and surrounding landscape is great safari country. Lake Edward and the Kazinga Channel are filled with hippopotami, while crocodiles languish on the foreshore ever ready for another bite. On land, warthog, buffalo, giraffe, waterbuck, and elephant saunter through a landscape that may not have changed much in millennia. Of course, this scene wouldn’t be complete without a sighting of lion – hopefully you won’t be disappointed.
But the noisy residents of nearby Chambura Gorge are likely to give you the biggest thrill. Chimpanzees are easily tracked down with the aid of a knowledgeable local guide, thanks to the chimps’ spine-tingling screams and whoops echoing through the narrow, deep, forest-filled crevasse. Intriguingly, the accompanying sound of drums isn’t made by human hands but by chimps beating tree roots: a deep bass timpani that resounds through the undergrowth.
Stumbling upon a pack of chimpanzees feeding, shrieking, and tumbling through trees is a heart-stopping moment. Like encountering the gorillas, meeting up with our other not-so-distant relatives in their natural habitat rates as one of the wonders of the natural world.
The Ugandan Drums
Uganda, like many African countries, has a rich tradition of drumming. One of the most popular local drums is the ngoma, an instrument typically used by the Bantu-speaking peoples throughout East Africa.
Although ngoma is simply the Kiswahili word for drum, it can also be applied to specific dances, rhythms, and social events. But it’s the Buganda people of Uganda who have a particular affinity with these drums; some believe the Buganda invented them, and consequently they’re still fondly thought of as the children of ngoma.
Traditionally made of hollow wood and covered at each end with animal hide, they’re played in groups of up to seven instruments. The largest, a bakisimba, makes a booming bass sound; the empuunya is slightly smaller and makes a higher-pitched noise; the nankasa is smaller and higher still. The engalabi makes the highest-pitched noise of all and most closely resembles the original ngoma, with a lizard skin head fixed by pegs at one end of the slender drum.
Their uses are varied. Originally they would have been a means of communication, warning of danger and the like. But it’s as an instrument of ritual and ceremony that they’re particularly famous. Drums became synonymous with royalty, and not just in Buganda, but in the monarchies of Ankole, Bunyoro, and Toro too. The sacred drums played at births, deaths, marriages, and coronations had specific names according to region: mujaguzo in Buganda; bagyendanwa in Ankole; and mirembe in Toro and Bunyoro. Often highly decorated, they became the physical and aural embodiment of royalty.
Drumming wasn’t the sole preserve of royalty, though; it’s still used extensively in traditional worship and healing rituals – and no Ugandan dance would be complete without the ngoma drums beating out the rhythm.
Beach holidays aren’t usually associated with a landlocked country. But the little-visited Ssese archipelago off Uganda’s shore on Lake Victoria changes the preconception.
This group of 80 islands was devastated by sleeping sickness in the early 20th century, forcing an evacuation of the entire population. Indeed, some linguists believe ‘Ssese’ is a corruption of ‘tsetse’, the name of the fly that carries the disease. Now, however, all is peaceful and people have returned.
Take a ferry from Bukakata on the mainland to the Ssese’s biggest island Buggala, then it’s an hour’s bumpy ride to Kalangala, Buggala’s main town. Some of the bird squawks that resound here are quite startling, like an electronic ring-tone from a mobile phone – a natural irony, as this is a peaceful place to which to escape. Solitude and quiet are easy to find here. Fine sandy beaches are likely to be deserted; perfect if you want nothing more than to read and relax, although the area is also good for casual rambling – and bird-spotting. For anglers there’s also the allure of game fishing, in particular for Nile Perch. But if you fancy exploring, take time out to find a small ruined stone building half devoured by jungle. It’s all that’s left of a house that Speke built on his legendary expedition (to discover the source of the Nile in 1856), and a truly evocative spot.
Accommodation in the area is simple. However, what it lacks in stars outside its hotels and guesthouses is easily made up for by real stars, of the astral variety, at night. Luminous green fireflies flicker like sparks from a bonfire and mysteriously blend into the stars overhead – stupendous!
This actual-size handprint of a gorilla (right) is from Franklin Park Zoo, Massachusetts. A fully-grown foot measuring over 40cm (shown next to an adult human’s average foot) is too large to print actual-size in Oryx. Their big toes are opposable, helping them to climb, and manipulate objects.
Critically Endangered is the highest risk category assigned by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List for wild species. Critically Endangered means that a species’ numbers have decreased, or will decrease, by 80% within three generations. The Cross River Gorilla, found on the border between Nigeria and Cameroon, is the most endangered of the African apes, with numbers estimated at just 280. About half of those live between Nigeria’s Cross River National Park and the recently formed Takamanda National Park in Cameroon.
Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp is nestled deep inside Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. This eight-tent camp is wonderfully atmospheric. Built on a flat ridge in the forest, the camp has an unrivalled location, which gorillas actually visit 4–6 times each month.