Home Services Portfolio Proofs Blog

Monday, May 16, 2022

African Adventure 2022: Gorilla Trekking

Despite an early bed time, our 5:30am wake-up came early. It was nice getting a good night of sleep for once, but we both felt like we could have used a bit more. Following a quick shower, we headed up to the lodge for breakfast and our 6:30am departure.

Breakfast was yet another incredible meal. We each had eggs cooked to order. I chose a cheese omelette with a side of bacon, and Kari chose a medium fried egg with a side of sausage. We also had toast, fresh fruit, juice, and müsli. It was an awesome spread to get fueled up for our hike to see the gorillas.

After breakfast, we jumped in the jeep with Michael to begin our ~1 hour drive to the briefing point of our gorilla trek. The drive took us over some pretty rough terrain with the road seeming to get worse as we went along. We encountered kids walking to school, men caring for their goats or cows, and women walking to obtain water from the river or other supplies. Even though the sun was just starting to rise, there was a wealth of activity.

Along the drive, we chatted with Michael a bit about life for those who live in the area. One thing we found in common was with the schools; albeit only slightly. Michael explained that there were four levels of school: kindergarten for ages 3-5, primary school for ages 6-12, secondary school for 13-18, and then university. The government pays for school up to secondary school. Anyone wishing to go to secondary school needs to pay to go to a private school. As a result, there is an approximate 40% drop out rate following primary school. This was actually similar to my high school experience, where I started freshman year with 600 other kids and graduated with a class of 360. Pretty wild when you think about it. For the ~20% of the population that goes to university, the government also assists with paying for school for those with the best grades. Based on this conversation, it would not be hard to imagine that Uganda is home to a fair amount of inequality, even if you only consider education as a metric.

Eventually, the road turned onto a better road, and Michael was able to go a bit quicker. It was still a fairly rough dirt road, but it was vastly improved over the first half of the ride. It was also pretty clear when we got near the entrance to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park as the area became more built up to cater for tourists wanting to see the gorillas like us.

Upon arrival at the ranger station, we noticed a group of dancers (the gorilla women group) performing in a nearby field. The gorilla women group is designed and run to empower women to obtain skills. It seemed like a pretty good cause. Following the dance, we proceeded to meet with the guide, Augustine, to hear a briefing on what we were about to experience. It must be fairly common to use porters as we got pressured to use one for our trip. We politely declined as our packs were full of our water and food, which we are perfectly capable of carrying. He then described the Ugandan helicopter and its cost. This is the method where they carry you down into the jungle to see the gorillas and then back up again for the low price of 300 USD. We also learned that we were the only people in our group to go find the Nkuringo family group. This is on top of our having the run of Chameleon Hill Lodge for a couple days solo. Pretty wild!

After the briefing, we loaded back into the jeep with Michael and Augustine to head to the start of our trek. It took about 15-20min on the dirt roads to get to where we were set to begin our trek. In addition to Augustine, we had Didias and Gotfried as our rangers to escort us with rifles should something bad happen. Didias took up the front and started to guide us down the steep hillside into the valley below with Gotfried taking up the rear. It took us close to an hour to get to the bottom as we navigated the steep, slippery hillside. Kari and I both fell onto our bums at least once with several other slips and slides. Thankfully, we managed to make it down in one piece a bit in awe of the ease with which our guide and rangers made it down.

Augustine had us wait by a field of tea plants as the trackers were in the process of funneling the gorilla family closer to us. As the gorillas got closer, we could see the foliage move around them. Augustine also had us move down through the tea field, leave our bags, and put on our face masks to get closer to the gorillas. Given we share a decent amount of genetics with gorillas, it is possible for us to spread disease amongst each other, including COVID. With these part of the last remaining mountain gorillas on the planet, it would be real bad if we got them sick.

As the gorillas moved closer, we tried to find good spots to watch without getting in their way. One of the silverbacks, a couple of the females, and some babies wandered right below us in the river bed. We crossed the river behind them to look for a spot to see them eating. we ended up right behind a mother and baby. The mom was gently grazing while the baby swung from the branches, nibbling on leaves a little higher up in the trees. Augustine called us over to see a different set of gorillas behind some foliage. As he cleared some of the foliage back, one of the silverbacks didn't take too kindly to Augustine and his proximity to his baby, so he did a bluff charge. It looked real enough that I started moving towards Kari to get her out of there. Thankfully, tensions de-escalated and the family went back to grazing. We watched as the baby couldn't decide if it wanted to eat or play. One thing for sure is that it was likely annoying mom.

Eventually, the little family moved further down the hill to join the rest of the family group. Augustine had us follow behind and found a spot for us partially surrounded by gorillas. We watched the moms carry their babies, nurse their babies, and graze in relative peace without the little ones. The babies were swinging all over the place doing a combination of eating and playing. You might think that they wanted to give us a bit of a show. We stood and tried to soak in the moment surrounded by gorillas. We even had one small gorilla get really close to us before crossing between myself and Augustine to go be with its mom. It was pretty cute.

Before too long, it was time to start our hike back up the hillside to the jeep where Michael was waiting for us. We tipped the trackers and reclaimed our packs to start the ascent. Given we are still at ~2,000 meters and the hill was quite steep, we were in for a pretty solid workout to get back up the hill. Didias tried to carry Kari's pack before she realized what was going on and asked for it back due to it having her water and food. Probably the only real bummer was how obvious the group was at trying to extract money from us in the form of tips. I knew I was running low with what I brought for the trek, so I wasn't super keen of their tactics. Oh well. The journey back up seemed to take about as much time as going down likely due to the various stops Augustine had us make. Some of the breaks, I was thankful for; others, not so much. During one of the breaks, a woman carrying a load of sticks on her head and a bag under her arm came down the trail passed us. Given how much we struggled to keep our balance without anything on our heads, it was rather impressive to watch.

Back at the top, we loaded into the jeep for the ride back to the ranger station for a small ceremony and to say our goodbyes. Augustine presented us with some certificates of achievement, in the hopes we will spread the word for more tourists to come. While I hope many more people get to see the gorillas, I also hope they get to remain wild and left relatively alone. We humans are pretty good at exploiting things until we lose or destroy them. I hope that doesn't happen to the gorillas. When I tried to give the tip, it had a small rip, so they did not accept it. Such a bummer that is the case. Good thing I had a little left that they accepted.

Once we said our goodbyes, we loaded back into the jeep with Michael and started our journey back to Chameleon Hill Lodge. We had not eaten our packed lunches yet, so we were starting to get hungry. On the drive, we saw some younger kids walking back from school and more people out and about. The "smooth" dirt road quickly turned into the "bad" dirt road. Michael did well to maneuver the vehicle along the torn up surface. In the small village near Chameleon Hill Lodge, Kari noticed signs on homes. Michael explained that the government is planning a road works project at end of year to pave the road. As a result, some of the buildings near the road need to be demolished. The government did provide money for folks to relocate.

At the lodge, we went to sit on the lanai and eat our packed lunches. Tommi, the cat, came to say hi and purr/beg for our food. He is cute, but we know better than to actually feed him. Too bad we cannot think he is excited to see us as the only guests of the lodge. Oh well. Agnes also came by to take our meal order for dinner. Tonight, we are having sweet corn soup, steak with rice and veggies, and some banana flambé. It sounded delicious!

While we waited, we went back to the room to do some laundry, shower, and relax before dinner. It has been a big day, and it is nice to get a little relaxation time.

When dinner time rolled around, we made our way up to the lodge from our cottage. We chatted briefly with Michael until Agnes called us in for dinner. It was as good as, possibly better than, we imagined. This was also our first meal without our furry friend, Tommi, hanging out and saying hi. It was a bit sad. After dinner, Agnes took our food order for breakfast and the packed lunch for tomorrow. She also talked us through what to expect from our activity, at least a bit. The big takeaway was our guide wasn't coming until 8:30am with a 9am departure. We get to sleep in! She also helped convert four $50 notes to a bunch of $5s and $10s to help with tipping. I'm not sure why HSBC thought we wanted so many $50 notes. Oh well. Agnes came through! She also called out some of Kari's dietary things without Kari asking. She is an absolute legend!

With the knowledge of a slightly later waking time, we chose to relax a bit before heading to bed. We are looking forward to our next day here!

No comments:

Post a Comment