Of Ponies and Gorillas
This story enfolds on the flight from Frankfurt to Seattle. The flight attendant offered me a drink and when I ordered a Mimosa she asked if I was from Dϋsseldorf. Many years ago I would have answered with a Yes, but today I was returning from an adventure in Uganda.
Most people, including myself associate Uganda with gorilla trekking.
And that is absolutely true – as I’ve now experienced – but there is so much more to this ‘Pearl of Africa’, as Winston Churchill called it.
I arrived at Entebbe International Airport and was whisked away to a comfortable guesthouse, where I met up with the other travellers in my small group. After a good nights’ sleep we returned to the airport for our small plane transfer to Kihiihi, the closest town to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park – home of the endangered Mountain Gorillas. This 2-hour flight gave us a great perspective on the rolling green hills that make up most of the country, and it saved us a long and bumpy drive!
At Kihiihi airstrip we were met by Moses, our guide and driver for the next week. Moses is a typical Ugandan – friendly, generous and incredibly proud of his country. After devouring a sweet and juicy locally grown pineapple, the six of us piled into our trusty safari van and we were off – headed to the fabled Impenetrable Forest in search of those remarkable apes. Our genetic cousins hold a special allure, and the thought of coming face to face with gorillas got even me excited to hike through a dense rain forest and up the side of a dormant volcano!
The trek seemed daunting, as it can take anywhere between one and eight hours, depending on where the gorillas are located on the mountain. Would the hours on my exercise bike pay off? Would I be able to keep up? Would it all be worth it? There was a nervous anticipation amongst our group, but the soothing rain and a couple of G&T’s soon had us relaxing around the fireplace before retiring to our rustic, yet comfortable rooms to rest up for the big day ahead.
After a hearty breakfast we donned our hiking gear – rain jacket, gators, garden gloves and walking stick, and off we went to the National Park’s headquarters to meet up with our trekking guide and porters. Each guide leads a group of up to 8 trekkers to one of the habituated gorilla families. Scouts go out at first light to find the gorillas in the forest and relay their location to the head guide via two-way radio.
Our group set off to find the Mubare family, consisting of about 10 gorillas.
Thankfully I had hired Laban, a porter who helped me up and down steep hillsides and across small streams. Laban lives in the local village and knows the mountain like the back of this hand, which was always stretched out just at the right moment to prevent me from tripping or slipping. ‘Portering’ is sought-after work, and even though these keen helpers rely solely on tips from visitors, it often makes up more than 20% of their monthly income. They’re on a rotation system – a great motivator to take good care of ‘their’ visitor and to protect the gorillas and the habitat. The porters are the eyes and ears on the ground and report any suspected poachers to the authorities, which has resulted in the gorilla population increasing to over 1000 individuals at last count.
After a two-hour hike through the dense jungle we heard the gorillas vocalizing and we knew we were getting close! After some serious bush-whacking through what seemed like an impassable wall of foliage we were rewarded with an unforgettable encounter with Kanyonyi, the Silverback and his family, who we found peacefully munching away on the lush vegetation. One teenager approached and sat down about 4 feet from us, curiously observing us with her gentle brown eyes. Two youngsters were playing in the trees – the original Jungle Gym – while the Silverback was taking a nap in the undergrowth. These great apes were so relaxed, and I felt very much at ease around them… until one of the ‘toddlers’ fell out of a tree and landed on the Silverback. He didn’t take well to such a rude awakening and gave a loud and fierce mock charge. I quickly hid behind one of the guides, thinking that was probably the safest place. They calmly stood their ground, and Kanyonyi retreated to continue his nap. Phew!
All too soon our visiting hour was up, and we headed back. Luckily the rain held off long enough for us to get some awesome photos with the gorillas – but then the rain forest lived up to its name and it started pouring with a vengeance. By the time we got back to the lodge we were tired and drenched, but exhilarated. After a hot bath and relaxing foot massage my energy was restored. It was an experience and achievement I won’t soon forget.
I can highly recommend Gorilla Trekking to anyone who can presently climb 2 flights of stairs and is willing to do a little exercise in preparation for the trip.
Of course there is so much more to Uganda – with game reserves, lakes and rivers that are home to a wide variety of wildlife and birds.
We visited Queen Elizabeth Park in search of tree-climbing lions, took a boat cruise on Lake Albert, home to a brilliant breeding colony of Pied Kingfishers, and explored Murchison Falls – where the Victoria Nile River surges through a narrow gap over a massive drop.
During the trip I learned that Moses, our guide is married with two young kids. He also supports his elderly mother and has adopted his late brother’s teenager, whom he is putting through university. We both enjoy birding, and he showed me many species I hadn’t seen before. It surprised me that Moses did all of this without binoculars!
When I asked, he told me that they had been taken from the vehicle while it was parked at a rest stop along the road. With all of his commitments, Moses could not afford to replace them. Well – I just had to do something about that, so we passed the hat around soon had the makings for a new pair. Moses couldn’t have been more touched when we gifted him with ‘new eyes’. It will always be one of the highlights of my Ugandan adventure – right up there with meeting the gorillas!
But I digress… flying at 38.000 feet above sea level, about halfway through my 40 hour / 4 flight marathon journey home from Uganda – that’s what those points will get you 😊 – I asked Margarete, my Polish/German flight attendant why she thought I was from Dϋsseldorf. She told me that during one of her first flights a passenger had asked her for a Pony. When she said that they don’t allow animals over 8 kg in the cabin, the passenger laughed and explained that when you order a Pony in Dϋsseldorf you’ll get a Mimosa. Who knew!