The Masai Mara gave us a good introduction to the local wildlife in East Africa but there was one animal missing; the mighty mountain gorilla. Coming face to face with a mountain gorilla in its natural habitat is one of the ultimate African experiences and one that we were keen to undertake. There are thought to be less than 700 of these magnificent creatures left in the wild, which are all found in a small area shared between Uganda, Rwanda and The Democratic Republic of Congo – making them a critically endangered species. To put this in perspective there is only one mountain gorilla for every 10 million people on the earth!
Tourists have been visiting the mountain gorillas since the late 1960s whilst creating some much needed income for the local tourism industry, however constant political instability has made it difficult for tourists to visit the national parks consistently. These gentle giants are our closet living relative sharing 97% of their biological make up with us making them highly susceptible to catching human infections, so only a small number of permits are issued each day. This combined with the high demand for gorilla trekking permits makes them a rather difficult and very expensive animal to see in the wild.
We were lucky enough to secure permits to trek a family of 11 mountain gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. An early start was in order as we had to drive 2 hours to reach the base of the misty mountains in the national park. After a short briefing (where we were informed about the rules of gorilla trekking), we started making our way through the forest. It was certainly a tough hike that involved going up a step hill for a considerable distance, slipping down the other side and making a bridge out of rocks to cross a flowing river, all the while our guides used machetes to cut the thick undergrowth out of our way. After the river crossing, we were informed that if we could handle another 15 minutes of intense trekking, we would reach the family that we were searching for! With our motivation at a high, we set of on the most challenging hike of our lives; the terrain was almost vertical, covered in slippery vines and undergrowth, teeming with thorns and required such extreme maneuvers to navigate that Matt split his trousers!! After the 15 minutes were up we were told that the gorillas had moved on and that we would need to ascend the hill for another 20 minutes to reach them.
Three hours after our trek began we were feeling shattered – and to be honest – suffering from low morale, when our guide suddenly said “stop! the family are just around the corner”. As we made our way carefully around the bend we could see a glimpse of black amongst the vegetation, our first gorilla! It was a young male eating his lunch and we were only 5m away from him. To prevent the gorillas from becoming too habituated, humans are only allowed to spend one hour a day with them. As our hour progressed, we saw a total of 8 gorillas including a 230kg silverback lazing around in a tree and another young male having a feast right in front of us. The highlight of our experience however was the female towards the end, which was only one metre away from us and happily lazed around while we admired her and clicked like crazy with our cameras.
Once our hour had ended it was time to make our way out of the national park. Thankfully we didn’t have to return the same way we came and instead we took a fairly easy, downhill route for just over an hour before arriving a the edge of the forest. Our driver was waiting for us there and returned us back to camp where we had a well deserved shower and a few beers. We are so grateful that we had the opportunity to see these majestic creatures in their natural habitat. Such an amazing experience! We would encourage anyone who is traveling to East Africa to pay a visit to the mountain gorillas, and although expensive, it’s worth every cent! Not just for you, but for also for the gorillas as 100% of the permit costs goes towards the conservation of the animals. We took hundreds of pictures, but here are some of our favourites from the trek. Please enjoy!
Undoubtedly the most lovely lake in the country, Uganda’s Lake Buyoni is a large irregular shaped lake dotted with islands and surrounded with intensely cultivated land. As only small groups could trek the gorillas at one time, our group stopped at the lake for four nights. Our first day was spent in the mountains with the gorillas but when day two arrived, we went in search of an activity to pass the time.
Enticed by their slogan “African kids are cute but ours are cuter”, we decided to pay a visit to the local orphanage which also doubles as a school catering for over 200 students aged up to 9 years old. As we walked through the village to make our way there, we met an elderly lady who after greeting us both with a hug and trying on our sunglasses, showed us how she grounds sorghum by hand to make porridge for her grandchildren.
When we were done chatting with the locals we continued to the orphanage, where we met the 26 year old project leader who started the charity to help his community after been sponsored as a child himself. He showed us to the year 4 classroom which seemed very basic compared to Matt’s classroom back home. We spent some time sitting at the back with the children while they finished their English lesson, then it was time for Matt to dust off his teaching skills and lead the maths lesson (with some help from his trusty assistant Hannah).
After maths, it was playtime where the kids insisted on braiding Hannah’s hair and stroking Matt’s blonde arms and beard. They thought his fair-coloured hair was fascinating. They then performed a song and dance for us before sitting down to their lunch: a glass of milk and a slice of bread. We were given the opportunity to sponsor one of the children which would have been great as we could meet the child and get to know him/her but as we are currently self employed travelers we wouldn’t make very good sponsors. We would however definitely love to support this project more once we get ourselves set up back home as the great work they are doing is really clearly benefiting the community.
A Day Trip to Rwanda
Many travelers are unsure about heading to Rwanda given its brutal past but there are many reasons to visit this beautiful country, so we decided to travel there for a day while based in Lake Buyoni. As you most likely know Rwanda suffered deeply during the 90’s when the country was struggling with a civil war between its two main tribes the Hutu and the Tutsis. A total of 1 000 000 people were maliciously killed and tortured when friends and neighbours turned on each other in what can only be described as genocide.
Our first impressions of Rwanda was how quickly it appears to have gotten back on its feet and achieved a feeling of safety and security. A guilty international community that stood back and watched as Rwanda sunk has contributed a lot financially to help the country rebuild itself and this certainly shows as the capital Kigali was one of the cleanest and safest cities in Africa that we have visited. The most encouraging evidence that the country is healing is how nobody is referred to as Hutus or Tutsis anymore instead everyone is simply Rwandan.
We started our tour of Kigali with a visit to the Kilgali Memorial Centre where we learnt about the history of the two tribes and the steady build up of events that led to the genocide. As our visit progressed the displays became more powerful including videos where survivors shared their terrifying stories and photos of massacred bodies lying in the street. As if we weren’t already feeling overwhelmed by the horrific events been described in the exhibition, the final display was a series of rooms filled with large photos of innocent children who fell victim to the killers machetes, clubs and other causes of their deaths. Display panels described their age, final words and memories, making for a very upsetting atmosphere that left us wondering how people can turn into such savage animals. Outside the centre, there are a series of mass graves where hundreds of thousands are buried, many unidentified as entire families and generations were murdered all at once.
As we continued our tour of Kigali, it was difficult to imagine the carnage that took place there in 1994. Roadblocks were set up at strategic points trapping thousands of innocent Rwandans who were slaughtered and hacked to death on the spot.. People fled to churches for sanctuary but the killers followed them there. We visited one church where 10 000 innocent people were killed. As we went inside the church we were confronted with all of the victims clothing led out on the floor, a truly staggering amount of clothes. Many foreigners took refuge in the Hotel des Milles Colliness during the violence. The movie ‘Hotel Rwanda’ tells the heroic story of the thousands of people who lived in dire conditions at the hotel during the 100 days of madness. We went to the hotel for lunch and had a look at the memorial in the hotel gardens.
As we drove back to Uganda that afternoon, we had plenty of time to consider the genocide and how (as the memorial centre simply put it) “That by July 1994, Kigali was dead”. Buildings were ruined, dead and decaying bodies littered the streets and dogs had to be shot as they had acquired a taste for human flesh. Yet today there appears to be no obvious signs of the horrific events that took place. Kigali is a well developed city with good infrastructure and happy people. We’re sure that on the inside there are many scars, but for now they remain well hidden making Kigali an excellent place to visit. We look forward to watching this country grow and recover further as time goes on.
All good things must come to an end and so eventually we had to leave Lake Buyoni and make our way back towards Kenya. It took us three days to complete the journey spending a night in the nations capital Kampala and one night relaxing by the Nile river in Jinja. Obviously we couldn’t cross the equator without stopping for the compulsory one foot in each hemisphere photo but other than that, it was a fairly uneventful trip back to the border. Our journey will now continue back through Kenya, we promise to update you shortly.