By Steven Odeke
When somebody mentions Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in south western Uganda, the first picture that pops into your mind is the mountain gorilla, right?
Well, it happened to me as well when I checked the plan we were to follow alongside this year’s Miss Tourism contestants.
The contestants were to film part of their boot camp around tourist sites like Murchison Falls National Park, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Kibale National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
While other parks have a lot to offer in flora and fauna, Bwindi is synonymous with the endangered species of mountain gorillas. The park boasts of half the world’s population of Gorillas (approximately 400).
But that is not all about Bwindi. A first-time visitor will appreciate the beauty of this park. As soon as we drove through the Buhoma entrance at Bwindi Forest, we were struck by the piercing chills amid tall trees of over 1,000 species.
You may have heard that Bwindi forests can be cold in the mornings and evenings, but when it is cold in Bwindi, it is really cold. Our knuckles popped. We froze.
Bwindi town in Buhoma
Nothing inside the vehicle could warm us up as we drove to Ruhija village, east of Bwindi. The village is just outside the park boundary and is home to three gorilla groups namely Bitukura, Oruzogo and Kyaguriro.
The road to this village is rocky and almost impassable when it rains. The journey takes close to two hours. It took us three hours because we could not easily navigate through the muddy and water-logged road as our mini-bus was not elevated enough. Whenever we encountered a deeper water-hole and the driver laboured to beat it, the girls would disembark from the bus, lest it rolled down the valley.
The baboons that patrol the roads seemed familiar with vehicles. When they saw our vehicle, they retreated to nearby trees and cliffs not in fear, but to give way and after, resumed their road patrol. The colobus monkey that rarely touches the ground just peeked through the tree branches as if in acknowledgement and then resumed its leaf-eating.
As kilometres raced under the bus, the journey got tedious since we had driven all night from Murchison Falls National Park in Masindi and accessed Bwindi through Queen Elizabeth National Park via Ishasha.
We were awed by the sight of mist-covered hillsides blanketed by this old diverse forest. The home settlements down the forested narrow valley and the rising Virunga volcanoes, in a haze, were such a marvel.
Our evening at Ruhija was not hospitable enough as the wild rains sent us huddling around the only furnace at the Gorilla safari Lodge overlooking the valley forest and volcanoes, where we pitched camp for the night. The good thing is, we were all bracing for the one activity you just cannot miss out on while at this park. We were to track gorillas the next day.
By 8:00am, we were at Ruhija tourism zone outpost getting briefed about the trek. We were to keep at least seven metres away from gorillas to avoid disease transmission between us and them.
A silverback gorilla. Bwindi is home to many gorilla groups, each comprised of about 19 members
We were warned not to run for our lives when the gorillas charge at us, but stand still and look down. I must say, chills swept down my spine at the mere mention of a gorilla charging at us. Really? We should not run for dear life?
After the orientation, we were each given walking sticks and off we went into the forest to start our search. On our way, Uganda Wildlife Authority ranger Job Nahabwe, who led us in the tracking, showed us the Olea tree species that gorillas love for their fruits. We also saw the thorny Rubus specie, Momodica trees, Urea hypsoldendron and the Rytigimia tree species known to be medicinal to human beings.
Even after encountering a huge heap of their faeces abandoned on the leafy ground, 30 minutes later, we had not seen any gorilla. But the varied melodies of the birds and the swinging monkeys up in the trees served as a precursor of things to come.
We abandoned our walking sticks along the way because we had to penetrate deeper down the valleys past a rich population of flowering plants, various tree species and ferns.
Time check: 10:37am and Eureka! we finally found a gorilla. The unique black and silver gorilla at Katonvi area of Bwindi was seated on the leafy ground like a retired elderly citizen in his compound, counting his ducklings. Its black cub huffed around, playing by its dad just like a human child basking in a treat.
The other individuals revelled in their breakfast, breaking branches and picking leaves, only that there was no drink to escort the digested foliage. This silverback we found is called Rukina and heads the Kyaguriro troop made up of 19 gorillas.
It felt great being close to Rukina and his troop who were grunting and belching, signalling contentment at whatever meal or dessert of fruits they were having. And that sealed it for us in Bwindi.