Sunday, September 16, 2012

the torture of trekking gorillas in Uganda

The third leg of my vacation took me to Uganda.  As soon as I saw the landscape from the airplane window, I felt a sense of familiarity, as Uganda’s topography is very similar to Rwanda, albeit a bit less hilly.  Kampala is like Kigali on steroids, and I got great enjoyment out of seeing it through the eyes of my sister-in-laws who seemed in awe of the number of people, the amount of traffic, and the level of chaos as we traveled through the city.  We spent three days total in Uganda, two days traveling from Kampala to the Southwest corner and back again (each ~12 hour trips) and one day with the gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.  The roads in Uganda are not kind, but I will say that they have the art of speed bumps perfected.  One bump is apparently not sufficient in Uganda so they have "quints" as we affectionately named them, which are 5 speed bumps in a row.  Yes, they make for a very unpleasant ride.  Not only do they have "quints," but there are sections of road that have speed bumps spaced every 25 meters or so!  It's over-the-top and absurd in so many ways.  
Our eco-lodge was magnificently placed one hour off the main road, through a series of switchbacks set into the side of the mountain, with sheer cliffs off to the one side and not a guardrail in sight.  It was clear to us why our driver wanted to arrive before dark and before any rain had a chance to fall.  The road was precarious at best and downright nauseating at other times.  It was quite magnificent!  (see photo above) Our lodging consisted of a permanent tent with three single beds, a nice wrap-around deck with chairs, and a lovely stone-encased bathroom.  Considering our beyond-remote location, we were pleasantly shocked to learn that not only did we have running water and electricity (provided from a generator), we had HOT water!  The entire facility was just darling and the staff made us feel most welcome and “at home.”  
 I have several friends who have done the gorilla trek in Rwanda and some were blown away by the experience and others felt luke-warm about it.  All of them considered it to be a rather easy hike, requiring minimal effort.  After my experience, I quickly decided that THAT describes Rwanda gorilla trekking and Uganda is NOT Rwanda.  To say that the experience was the most physically demanding endeavor I have ever put my body through is probably as accurate of a statement as I can make.  It was brutal at times and not overly enjoyable.  There were times when there was no path at all to follow, other times when the path was the width of my foot and a cliff fell off to the side, other areas that were wide open, and other times where the jungle was so dense that I could barely keep track of the people around me.  Some of the forest was welcoming and the underbrush was soft and bouncy, and some of the forest was not so hospitable and was filled with spiky trees, thorns that seemingly reached out and grabbed my arms and legs, slippery moss, hidden booby-trap holes (that I fell into more than once) and bugs that swarmed around each of our heads in what can only be described as a brutal effort to suffocate us or drive us crazy at the very least. 
a view of an entrance into Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
Three hours into the hike, I honestly thought to myself that NOTHING could make the trek worthwhile, and I am still considering whether or not that was a true statement.  The jury is still out.  When we finally approached the family we were tracking, we saw the giant silverback.  He was 200kg+ and is the largest of all of the silverbacks in Uganda.  I have to say that the encounter was surreal and captivating.  As we watched him, he watched us and for a while I got lost in the moment.  We spent most our allotted hour with him (each tracking group only gets 1 hour with a gorilla family, so as not to intrude in their world too much), and spent just a few minutes with other members of his family – a young toddler who was very playful, and a female.  Our guide said that it was not a great encounter because of the dense vegetation, but I thought it was spectacular that we got to see a silverback! 
an "after-the-trek" photo op
After our time with the gorillas, we had a quick picnic lunch and then began the equally long and arduous trek back to where we began the journey.  I honestly did not know whether to cry or collapse when we finished – I was elated, and somewhat dazed. But we made it!  We each got gorilla trekking certificates for our accomplishment, and were congratulated for conquering the task-at-hand and not being conquered by it.  I wasn’t sure whether I had really dominated anything, but at least I finished and was still smiling.  I rewarded myself with a 90-minute massage back at the eco-lodge, and although it was a bit unconventional, it was absolutely glorious after battering and abusing my body all day on the hike (AND it only cost USD$15!)  
After a 12-hour drive back to the airport in Entebbe, my sister-in-laws and I realized that after three very different voyages spanning the mainland of Tanzania as well as the island of Zanzibar, and then ultimately Uganda, it was time to say goodbye.  They were headed back to the USA and I was headed to South Africa for the final 10 days of my vacation.  It was exceptional to share Africa with my sister-in-laws and have them experience a piece of my world.  Our time together was extraordinary and I will forever cherish the memories in my heart. 


  1. aww you are such a sweetie! and you did dominate! I love you!

  2. Sounds exciting, and exhausting!

  3. It was awesome! Thanks for writing about it!