Tracking gorillas in Uganda - 1995

The trip to Uganda was prompted by a desire to meet a mountain gorilla face to face . Also the terrain where they live offers enjoyable walking.

Fri 28 July

The trip out was a tedious overnight journey with a stopover in Cairo where efficiency was a scarce commodity.

Saturday 29 July

Camp on the hotel lawn Arriving mid-morning was unusual, as was finding ourselves camping on the front lawn of a big hotel. We put up the tents and ate a lunch very competently cooked by David, our cook, on a charcoal fire. We had Vervet monkeys running past and climbing in the trees nearby. Also we were surrounded by many dragonflies, with transparent wings bearing two rich brown bands. Whilst taking photos of these dragonflies the autofocussing of my camera ceased working, which did not seem a good omen.

After lunch we went for a walk in the adjacent Botanical Gardens in hot and humid conditions where we saw Colobus monkeys having their afternoon nap in the tall trees. These monkeys are not daft: on our return from our walk, Joan and I fell asleep in the tent and had to be wakened for the first briefing.

Sunday 30 July

Our lorry The next day we were up at dawn and off for a long journey. The main road proved to be a mix of some blacktop with dirt roads in good condition. I was surprised to be travelling through large areas of rain forest trees; I had pictured Uganda as a country more given over to agriculture. We finally arrived at Kibale just in time to put up the tents in long wet grass just as night fell. There was a shelter on site for cooking and eating, so conditions were good.

Monday 31 July

Dung beetle at work In the morning we were up before daybreak to go to track chimpanzees. However, only two of the seven guides turned up. We wasted a long time doing nothing before the organising guide was persuaded to take a triple-sized party himself. This seemed a recipe for disaster, but we did actually make contact with a troop of chimps that had installed themselves in the top of a very big tree and were foraging happily. It was hard to see much, although getting tape recordings of their intermittent alarm calls was easy. The most interesting part was watching dung beetles packing and trundling away the chimp dung. I took some photos of this curious procedure. None of our party took a direct hit while this was going on!

Matoke We returned for lunch then had a quiet afternoon wandering around on our own. We spent some of the time in a small tree-house, which was a good place in the very hot conditions.

Late in the afternoon we went for the "swamp walk". This was enlivened by thunder, lightning and solid rain. The fact that the second half of the walk was partly over logs half-submerged in liquid mud seemed quite in keeping with the general effect. We saw a good number of various sorts of wet monkeys in the trees.

Dinner was based on matoke (boiled mashed green bananas) which we had bought during our journey here. In the evening, after dinner, a local dance troupe turned up and did a performance for us by the light of paraffin lamps.

Tuesday 1 Aug

Chickens and matoke on bike A moving-on day with a prolonged stop in Fort Portal for buying provisions in the local market. Near our lorry was a bicycle being loaded with a huge pile of matoke and two live chickens. We took a photo and were asked for a cigarette in exchange: we gave a small amount of money. It was only when an argument broke out and the watching crowd howled with laughter that we realised that the tip had gone to a passer-by who was holding the bike while the real owner loaded it.


The Equator Some way south of Fort Portal the we crossed the Equator. Someone had painted a white line across the road and set up two huge concrete "zero" symbols on either side of the road. We stopped to take some photos. One of our group offered to take a photo of Joan and myself. Joan recoiled from this suggestion until she realised the pose was to be of us standing in opposite hemispheres shaking hands across the divide. It is good to know how people feel about you.


Hippo We reached the Queen Elizabeth Park by early afternoon. The drive in produced a good view of a herd of elephant. There were quite a few other animals including a brief glimpse of a giant forest hog. When we arrived at the camp-site we were surprised to see two hippo grazing in the middle of the camp in broad daylight.

Camp notice We set up our tents and I began to do something about trying to record hippo noises, which is something I had always wanted to do, so I had brought a small tape recorder with me this year. Sadly my project seemed doomed to failure since the camp was on a hilltop well above the level of the lake and, since it was buffalo country, prudence dictated that placing the recorder was limited to areas close to the camp.

Wednesday 2 Aug

Up before daybreak to go on a game drive in our lorry. Before we left I saw a large mongoose-like animal by torch light on the rubbish tip. During the drive we saw kob, buffalo and waterbuck. The extremity of the drive took us to a kob mating area, which was quite interesting. Each buck had a defended territory quite close to his immediate neighbours and the does sauntered through the different areas sampling the wares.

At this point our lorry began to play-up with a failure to get any fuel feeding through; and this in an area with absolutely zero traffic. The lorry kept going in fits and starts and finally got us back to camp. There Leonard, our driver, got on with repairing it from the comprehensive set of spares he carried. We had a quiet afternoon, with some good close views of warthog to amuse us. Last night's tape recording had been a fiasco and there was no real point in repeating it.

At 5pm we were taken to a cruise boat on the lake. It proved to be very good. We went around the edges of the lake very close to the bank and we saw lots of birds, many hippo including some yawning nicely for their photographs. We also saw a few elephant.

Late that night we had something of a commotion when Fran, our tour leader, discovered by particularly direct experience that the loos had been overwhelmed by columns of foraging ants.

Thursday 3 Aug

Ants eating tuna with chili sauce We had a good look at the ants after breakfast before we set off. Also I took a photo of a nice sign saying "Take care of hippos". There was a minor game drive to start the journey and then a dog-leg drive across country to Kabale. There we had a minor shopping session at the market before going to the White Horse Hotel overlooking the town to camp on hotel lawns again. The hotel was vast, palatial and empty. However they still sold iced beer, so that was OK.

Friday 4 Aug

David and Fran shopping

The major shopping session was today. It took some time, but eventually we got rolling on the drive to Bwindi. The last 92km of this was on a special park road, begun with a strange short section of special road crossing a bad swamp. The road into the mountains was surprisingly steep and precipitous and stayed quite interesting for the whole of the drive to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.


Campsite There we had a small sheltered camp-site which was to be home for the next few days. (A delightful site, but one that became the location of a massacre of tourists in 1999)

The site sloped steeply down from a little cooking hut to the bottom where there was a little enclosure formed by a hedge to give a shower area. There one could pour water from a jerrycan into a basin and have a shower of sorts. The field was surrounded by plants which gave it a very sheltered air. The strong slope meant that on the downhill side there were dramatic views out across the river valley to steep rain-forest clad slopes with mist washing through the tree tops. Altogether a really nice place to camp.

Sat 5 Aug

Waterfall above bathing place The first of our three groups went off today to try and find the gorillas. (Joan and I were to be in the third group) The rest of us set off a little later for a walk through he rain forest to some waterfalls. It was a pleasant walk and, by the time we got there, the icy-cold water in the waterfalls was very welcome to cool us down and to wash off the sweat.

It was just after the bathe, while I was drying, that I had a bizarre experience. This one was even more bizarre than the incident in Indonesia last year. I became aware that I no longer knew the names of anyone in the group; other than that I seemed to be quite normal. I said nothing and settled down to walk back while waiting, expecting that the memory would return when jogged. While I walked back, I spent some time trying to think what time-span the memory loss covered and whether it involved anything other than names. Have you ever tried to list the things that you have forgotten? I did manage one check: what is the name of Dan's partner, who I first met some six months ago. This task I failed. I got back to camp still totally unable to remember names and decided that the thing to do was to look at the list where we chalked up the beers and soft drinks for which we owed money. To my horror the list appeared to consist of total strangers, apart from Joan and myself! It was one of most truly weird experiences of my life.

We had lunch. The others were keen to hear from the returning gorilla party, but I was partly in a little world of my own, wondering where all this memory loss was going to finish up. I suppose I did not miss too much since the returning party was sworn to secrecy until all three groups had had their gorilla trip. The one thing that needed no saying was that the gorillas were very close, since the party was back some hours before expected.

In the afternoon Joan and I went for a quiet walk along by the river below the camp. At the first stop I explained to Joan what had happened. She fairly quickly suggested the anti-malaria tablets (Lariam™) might be the problem. I realised that both incidents, here and in Indonesia, had coincided with my second anti-malaria tablet. However the memory loss in one case and the blackout in the other seemed rather less than parallel events.

We finished our walk and, back at camp, I found I was slowly linking up names and people; it was hard to say whether this was learning afresh, re-linking or recovery. As the day progressed I got progressively better at it. The other bit of good news, on a different level, was that I got the camera autofocus going again by the simple process of applying a little brute force as assistance, after which it set off under its own steam once the blockage was freed.

Sun 6 Aug

Local long-horned cattle Today Joan and I went with three others and a guide on the so-called Forest Walk, which is a well-kept trail though the rain forest. It leads to a river which forms one of the boundaries of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. We stopped by the river to eat our lunch and took some photos of villagers on the other bank bringing their cattle down to the river to drink. The cattle had immensely long horns and are of a type one sees frequently in Uganda.

We got back in time for lunch, having passed a troop of baboons a few yards from our camp site. The afternoon was spent very quietly, partly since we had a fair bit of rain and partly because there were no guides available for afternoon walks. This is quite a feature of Uganda: I think they should set up some systems where these guides get no wages if absent, a small retainer for turning up twice a day and real payment only when they took a party of clients. It is quite infuriating when you have gone part-way round the world to get there and the bloody locals cannot be bothered to turn up for work. Especially since local laws forbid you making unguided trips.

Mon 7 Aug

Our big day today. We were away by 8 o'clock after some fuss over a woman from another camp site trying to get us displaced from our booking (made more than twelve months before). A steep walk up the so-called Forest Loop and then into the trackless forest. There was some consternation when our two trackers reported that the gorillas seemed to have vanished. We set off tracking them. The ground was covered mostly by interlaced bushes very similar to large raspberry bushes, overshadowed by rain forest trees and lying on uneven ground covered by stones and rotting timber. It was quite slow going.

After one or two hours of pushing through this vegetation on steep terrain, we still seemed to be nowhere near any gorillas. I had come close to deciding we had totally lost out when the trackers announced that the gorillas were ahead (I have never yet discovered how they knew). It was a case of action stations. The porters dropped back, only the two trackers stayed with us and we pushed forward carrying only cameras.

Glimpse of gorilla in undergrowth It was then whispered that we were among the gorillas. There was nothing to see but the "raspberry bushes" in the gloom. Some five minutes went by with nothing more than slight rustling noises. Then we actually glimpsed a couple of square inches of black fur. It looked like being a big deal! Gradually things improved. We got a little glimpse of something than could have been a hairy face. Then a snapshot view of a female with a baby balanced on her back. Finally a move to get us near the silverback (the big male group leader) who was sitting immersed in bushes.

Suddenly our luck changed dramatically. The silverback moved away from us then, amazingly, climbed into a tree. (This is something that adult gorillas rarely do.) He was now in full view in the tree, although a little way off. I was struggling to get some pictures. There was very little light indeed and what there was came as a strong backlight against the sky! However our winning streak progressed. The silverback came down and moved back nearer us. He sat down with his back to another tree and started to eat the branch of berries he had just plucked from the tree. We changed position and now we had the gorilla just below us and fully visible in his upper half over the bushes perhaps some 7-10 metres from us.

There he stayed until our ration of one hour's contact had elapsed, which meant some 20mins of viewing. During that time I twice replaced the film in the camera as I shot frame after frame. Conditions were impossible, even with 400 ASA film. My camera shows the settings in the viewfinder and the shortest exposure I ever saw was 1/15 sec. I knew this might mean no usable pictures so I just kept shooting lots of frames and trying to keep as steady as possible. The gorilla had a cloud of flies buzzing around him and I was to see, some weeks later, that some films actually showed the flies as streaks due to their movement.   [Click here for some photo suggestions]

The gorilla showed about as much interest in us as he did in the flies. Sometimes we heard other gorillas moving close to us, although we never saw them. The troop, we knew, had 16 members. From time to time our gorilla would catch a noise and look with a momentary interest in the direction of the noise. One baby gorilla put in a short appearance and did some rather incompetent tree-climbing.

Then, all too soon, we were told our hour was up (measured from first contact). We withdrew to meet up with the resting porters and slowly made our way back. We stopped to eat our lunch on a hillside thickly covered with trees and then started on the long walk back. We were pretty content with what we had seen. Finally we arrived back at camp, soaked in rain, to have lunch. The others had been waiting in some puzzlement since we had been several hours longer than them.

Looking out across Zaire After lunch a rather unwilling guide was conscripted to take a party on the Forest Loop. Russell had been waiting to do this walk, so he and I went with the guide. Shortly after the start the heavens opened. I had a small umbrella and Russell had an anorak. The guide settled for just ignoring the rain. We marched almost without stops, but through very spectacular scenery, up and around the tops of the local hills. At one point we were looking out over Zaire and the view was great through the clear air between the moving wisps of cloud and mist. Taken as a day it ranked strenuous, but one of those that make being born and living seem fully worthwhile.

Tue 8 Aug

Up fairly early to pack camp, then a drive to Kabale to get provisions and souvenirs. But first we had a stop at a tea factory. It was more interesting than expected with lots of drying devices and tea everywhere looking like finely chopped grass cuttings. The most unexpected feature was a sort of fermentation stage when the crushed and chopped leaves spent two 40min periods in a bed an inch or so deep with air rising through them. The leaves were actually becoming warm to the touch as they fermented. Soon after this they were dried in a tunnel kiln which put a stop to any further interesting rotting.

At lunch time we stopped on a fine lookout point on a mountain road. The lunch was as good as usual, but all the utensils ended up covered with a thick greasy oil from some pilchards. Sadly this was the day when my name came up on the dish washing rota!

The journey on to Lake Bunyoni should have been a very quick one, but we again had a problem with a fuel line on the truck, which made us quite late arriving. The campsite was steeply sloping at the edge of the lake. After getting duly installed there was a little matter of two lots of washing up to do. The day had seemed a little dull after its predecessor. The main redeeming feature was the evening frog noises at the lake; the reeds were full of frogs that pinged gently all night. The noise was like items of china being tapped together.

Wed 9 Aug

Today was for going out on the lake. We went in a fair-sized motor boat. The lake was beautiful with rich fertile fields and woods around it. We stopped at one island where there was a large residential school. Now visits to schools are a recurring theme on Explore Worldwide holidays; although they are not the most interesting part. In this case, despite the beautiful surroundings and buildings my memories are of the constant pursuit by scrounging adolescents.

David's special lunch We then went on to a more fruitful visit on a park-like island which left happier memories. After a pleasant time wandering around the island we returned to base for lunch. This was really excellent. David always gave us good food, but here he had made up his mind to give us some beautifully decorated and delicious avocado salads.


Dugout canoe Afterwards we had a quiet afternoon before I went out with Fran and Leonard in a dugout canoe for a tour around our end of the lake. The canoe was very unstable and we spent our time yawing from side to side. The main aim of the trip was to look for otters, but we did not see any.


Thu 10 Aug

A delightful start to the day when we went out at daybreak for a tour of the lake shores by dugout canoe. I went with Joan and Angela and they agreed not to paddle so, despite the instability of the canoe, just one person paddling could anticipate its antics and get it to go where intended. The conditions were cool, bright and slightly misty.


The birds, particularly kingfishers and herons, performed well and we thoroughly enjoyed our hour and a half on the lake.

Afterwards we packed up and set off. We had the final one of our provisions expeditions in Kabale, then we set of in earnest for a long drive back. By night we got as far as the town of Mbarara, where the second university of Uganda is located. We set up camp in the grounds of a hotel on the edge of the town. Happily our loss of the sylvan life was compensated by being back in the realms of iced beer again.

Fri 11 Aug

David with drums

A day of travelling. As we progressed we ran into rain and had to have the side screens of the truck rolled down for the second time (the first had been the day of the swamp walk). There were some stalls selling drums and wooden chairs beside the road. They made interesting stops. We reached Kampala and spent an hour and a half having lunch and visiting a book shop while the rain continued. From there we continued back to the same hotel at Entebbe where we had spent our first night in Uganda.

Sat 12 Aug

A drawn-out day. Really the holiday was over now and this was just a bulwark against us missing the flight home. Another group had arrive to take our place and said that the hot weather and drought was still continuing in the UK. We had showers. There was lunch at the golf club. We visited a zoo nearby and saw some Blue Turaco in captivity. Earlier Stan, our bird watcher, had been very keen to spot these in the wild at Bwindi. I could see why he was so keen: they look just like Dodos! The rest of the day was spent idling in the hotel grounds and the Botanical Gardens. In the late evening we were moved to the Lake Victoria Hotel for a rather poor meal, courtesy of Air Egypt, although the hotel was nice. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, we got bussed to the airport and into the departure lounge at 2am.

Sun 13 Aug

The day saw us back to Long Whatton again by its end. There was the stopover in Cairo with its attendant Air Egypt happenings. Who would have thought of collecting all the passports from the passengers of a large modern jet and then trying to give them back again to the correct owners? Or of giving the passengers a courtesy breakfast with enough prepared for only two-thirds of them?

So, home again and work tomorrow.



A truly delightful trip. Good work, Explore, and many thanks to Fran, David and Leonard.

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