For many Westerners, Uganda will always be associated with former brutal dictator Idi Amin and his complicity in the 1976 hijacking to Entebbe of Paris-bound, Air France flight 139. While this history is hard to forget — and it shouldn’t be forgotten — there is much to appreciate in this lovely East African nation.
The pearl of Africa
Slightly smaller than Oregon, Uganda hedges the equator. In “My African Journey,” Winston Churchill called Uganda the “Pearl of Africa” for good reason. It is here that the lush West African jungle weds the arid East African savannah.
Sharing borders with Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda is home to 46 million people in 56 tribes, 17 of which are the dominant Bantu and Nilotic groups. English is Uganda’s official language with Swahili widely spoken.
Uganda possesses the world’s largest number of recorded bird species encompassing half of all African species, hundreds of butterfly types, big five game parks, 100 different mammals and of course, the mountain gorillas of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park — my main reason for traveling to Uganda.
Arriving to Entebbe
As I arrived to Entebbe, admittedly my thoughts returned to that tragic day in 1976, when my French-speaking mother was glued to our television set.
Shaking off those thoughts, my guide Daniel Kikemu, the DK of Nairobi-based, DK Grand Safaris, and I drove an hour to the massive freshwater Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake and main reservoir of the Nile. Also bordering Tanzania and Kenya, Lake Victoria has a 2,000-mile coastline, 210-mile length and a 150-mile breadth. Its size is surpassed only by Lake Superior.
Arising early the next morning to gray skies, rain and lightening, I wondered about our onward flight.
Kihihi, the gateway to Buhoma
Though 40 minutes late, our nine-passenger 208B Caravan flight southwest to Kihihi departed with three passengers and warnings of potentially significant turbulence. Inflight the skies cleared and vistas were verdant for miles.
Kihihi is near Queen Elizabeth National Park and the DRC border. Here three weeks before, Californian Kimberly Endicott was kidnapped with her driver then released several days later unharmed. Coincidentally, our driver Balamu saw them entering the park that day as he was exiting with his guests.
With a population of about 20,000, Kihihi contains mainly corrugated-roofed brick and mud houses. Motorcycles and bicycles amble the main road with Fred Flintstone-era, brakeless scooters on rough-cut wood wheels.
We were headed to Buhoma, the tiny town nearest one entrance to Bwindi. The 90-minute ride alternated from dusty to lush.
In Buhoma we checked into Mahogany Springs Safari Lodge. Enormous suites, shaped as boma — traditional round dwellings — are perched atop hills with evergreen views amid rushing sounds of nearby Munyanga River.
Batwa Pygmies and dancing with cigarettes
The next afternoon Daniel and I met up with Simon, a local who also speaks Batwa dialect. Balamu drove us up a series of hills to a small enclave of open-air huts. Two Batwa Pygmy elders, their wives, sisters, brothers and several children greeted us.
Batwas previously lived inside Bwindi and had been resettled by the government to their current location. They were friendly and welcoming. As Simon translated various questions I had, Daniel showed ballroom dance videos on his phone to the kids who watched transfixed.
After awhile, the women went about their business until one started smoking. Then all the women started smoking. The men joined them, then everyone commenced dancing with their cigarettes, part prop, part pleasure token. I had heard Batwas were known for their love of tobacco. While a partially unhealthy activity, it was enthralling watching such uninhibited, communal joy.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
One of the richest ecosystems in east Africa and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bwindi contains over 200 butterfly species and 120 mammal species, including half of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas.
There are only two remaining habitats for mountain gorillas: at Bwindi and Virunga Massif, a region of eight volcanic mountains that span Uganda, Rwanda and DRC. It was in Rwanda’s Virunga that Dr. Dian Fossey documented one of the longest primate field studies. Today there are just over a thousand mountain gorillas, a number that’s increasing due to conservation.
Following an early morning breakfast, Balamu drove us to the park entrance. We were briefed in detail by our trekking guide Goreth, whose pearls of wisdom included tucking pants into socks to avoid ever-present empazi (fire ants) and wearing gloves to avert sharp bush thorns.
To locate gorillas, trackers trek at dawn to find their roving sleeping nests and eating areas. Using walkie-talkies, trackers advised Goreth where to ascend with us.
Groups are limited to eight guests. When I went there were only five, Goreth, plus two additional trackers carrying pangas (curved-shaped machetes deftly used to hack through seemingly endless lush vines) and two camouflage-uniformed escorts toting AK-47s.
There are 19 habituated mountain gorilla families. The process of habituation takes about three years. Losing their fear of humans renders gorillas calm and relaxed. We tracked the Mubare family, the first clan whose habituation started in 1991. The first trekkers came in 1993.
Starting at 3,600 feet above sea level, we ascended to 7,800 feet, each of us with a porter that carried daypacks and who often pulled us up very steep inclines or saved us from falling.
Surrounded by extremely lush, verdant rain forest, trackers made good use of the pangas. Several times I nearly tripped as my feet got tangled in a seemingly endless series of twisted vines.
Other trekkers availed themselves of bamboo walking sticks, but my sense of balance required I stay hands-free. After about two hours of steady steep incline, the trackers abruptly stopped. Hearing twig-snapping sounds indicated gorillas were nearby. Moments later, three adult gorillas came into breathtaking view 15 feet away, nonplussed by us as they brunched noisily on twigs.
Continuing upward through drizzling mist, we came upon a Silverback. This magnificent, barrel chested creature had intensely expressive features and was nearly 6 feet tall, weighing about 400 pounds.
An hour later, we found a female and her 2-month-old infant clutching tightly to her chest (infants clutch mothers’ chest or back until fully weaned at 3- to 4-years-old). Viewing this, it was easy to grasp our 98-percent shared DNA.
After a brief lunch we began our descent. Once away from the gorillas, trekkers could speak in regular voices, but did not, overwhelmed by the majesty of what we had just seen.
The lesson learned
Traveling in Uganda generally, and gorilla trekking in particular, is an experience like no other. While wonderful, it requires patience and acceptance of a completely different way of life.
Fortunately, responsible tourism is having a significant positive impact on conservation efforts and Bwindi’s surrounding communities. And seeing mountain gorillas thriving in their natural habitat is a life-changing bucket-list experience that will never be forgotten.
Uganda, the best way : From SFO, connecting service to Entebbe is offered on KLM, Delta, United, Turkish and Emirates Airlines.
Safari guide : DK Grand Safaris, Daniel Kikemu and his team, provides custom safari packages including all lodges, meals and domestic flights for all budgets throughout Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and Zambia. In the U.S., call (604) 838-7736 or (604) 209-9505 or see www.dkgrandsafaris.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Julie L. Kessler is a travel writer, attorney and legal columnist based in Los Angeles and the author of the award-winning book “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com.
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A Silverback munches on a twig as he stares at the trekkers. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)
Beautiful vistas make clear why Winston Churchill called Uganda the “Pearl of Africa.” (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)
A Batwa pygmy village elder lives near Buhoma. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)
Mahogany Springs Safari Lodge in Buhoma offers comfortable accommodations. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)
Our Bwindi trekking guide Goreth holding a panga and uphill two of our trackers. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)
An enormous Silverback meanders through the fertile rain forest. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)