Quick Access to Animals
If you are really stuck for time in Kampala or Entebbe and don't have time to go up country but want to see animals then you can go to the protected wildlife sanctuary in Entebbe. It has a beautiful botanical garden park and has a number of African animals that are protected (and get quite close to) such as Lions, Zebras, Giraffes and many more. You can also buy lunch and sit on Lake Victoria. It is a great way to spend an afternoon.
This beach is definitely a highlight of any trip to Entebbe. Most travellers go to Entebbe because it is close to Lake Victoria but they usually stay sheltered away from the local scene which is fine but you are missing out not only meeting interesting locals but seeing a local slice of life. There is a beach that is fairly well known around Entebbe called Aero Beach (located near the airport) hence the name and it is a really cool spot to hang out for a day. It has place to relax, sells bbq food and cold drinks and has volleyball nets etc. There is an airplane on the beach which adds to the overall vibe and has funny statues of famous people from around the world. The beach is usually full of local families and couples but don't let that put you off. If you want a local experience and good fun, Aero beach is for you.
Gorilla spotters eager and reporting for duty!
Chances are that the morning you go gorilla trekking, you'll experience a whole range of conflicting emotions, which are likely to include the following:
1. Am I really paying good money to get up this much before dawn?
2. How can I possibly have spent this enormous amount of money on a single day's activity that has no guarantee of success?
3. Having had a good look at the impossibly dense vegetation and daunting terrain, I now know exactly why it's called 'Bwindi Impenetrable Forest', and it doesn't fill me with great confidence.
4. How can I possibly have spent this enormous amount of money on a single day's activity that has no guarantee of success?
5. What happens if a silverback charges me?
6. Worse still, what happens if I don't see a silverback at all?
7. How can I possibly have spent this enormous amount of money on a single day's activity that has no guarantee of success?
And so on ...
Rest assured (although given the gruelling hike ahead, 'rest' is probably entirely the wrong word to use in this context) that you are about to be privy to one of the most unique wildlife experiences, and frankly some things are priceless, so hang the expense!
At the time we visited (March 2013), gorilla trekking cost an eyewatering USD500 per day per person in Bwindi. The only way to feel positive about a number this large is to realise that this represents a 33% discount on the cost of gorilla trekking in neighbouring Rwanda (USD750 at the time) and the saving is certainly persuasive, although you need to factor in the Ugandan visa fee (USD50 at the time) and the cost of transport into Bwindi. Rates are also lower in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), although this depends on your appetite for risk, as at the time of writing, this was not particularly stable part of the world.
If it makes you feel any better, the 'success rate' on gorilla treks is reported to be over 90% because the trackers keep such close tabs on the gorillas. However, these are wild animals that roam freely in their natural habitat, and, as I've said, there's no absolute guarantee of success. How you would cope with this disappointment, I simply don't know, but maybe that small risk of failure adds a certain piquant thrill to the experience.
Gorilla conservation dancers at Nkuringo Lodge
If you're lucky enough to be staying at the wonderfuly hospitable Nkuringo Gorilla Lodge, the kids from the local village will visit in the late afternoon to do a 'gorilla conservation dance' for the guests.
Be warned that you will be invited to join in - yet another opportunity for me to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that this white woman can't dance!
Usually I'm not wild on this sort of thing, but it's executed with charm and good humour, and even if I have my doubts as to whether the money they collect actually goes towards the gorillas, it doesn't feel particularly exploitative.
You're never too young to learn photography!
Kids love photography - and especially the immediacy that the age of digital photography has brought.
I won't deny that it takes an act of faith to allow a child loose with a camera (particularly an expensive one), but we have learned that after a few stiff lectures about the consequences of abusing the camera, they have repaid our trust. And whilst we wouldn't allow then to run wild with the cameras all day, in short, supervised bursts, you can gain an intriguing insight into a child's view of your trip.
The cardinal rule in our family is that you're not allowed to use the camera unless you have the strap around your neck and fingers must be kept away from the lens on pain of death. There are also some practical challenges that need to be mastered - such as the fine art of 'counterbalance' when our skinnymalinks of a Small Son is using the 'rocket launcher' lens!
I am fascinated by the fact that both have learned the discipline of selecting what they want to photograph, and composing their shot so that they do their subject matter justice. When we return from a trip, they are allowed to select a limited number of their (and other family members') photos for printing that they can then put in their own photo album as a personalised record of their holiday.
What happens if I can't hike any longer?
By now, you should have got the message that gorilla trekking is not for the faint hearted, and that it requires a certain degree of physical fitness and mental determination.
I should qualify this by saying that you don't require Olympian levels of fitness, but you do require both mobility and endurance. We were allocated to the gorilla group that was furthest from the muster point, which required a hike of 3.5 hours to get to the gorillas, and 3 hours back and although I have a fairly high level of fitness, I found it tough. The paths were as well maintained as could be expected in a pristine montane rainforest, but the going was tough, and some of the section were extremely steep and muddy, requiring some scrambling.
So what happens if you feel as though you can't go on? Well, your options are frankly limited. The trackers stop every so often to allow you to rest, but there's a limit to the number of breaks that they can allow as this holds back the other members of the group and may compromise your chances of finding the gorillas. If you really get into trouble, then there is the possibility that one of the trackers can accompany you back to the starting point, but this is not an option that they are likely to entertain lightly.
In the worst case (for example, where someone has broken a limb or suffered a heart attack) they can radio for help. Under such circumstances, they will probably put together a makeshift stretcher like the one pictured above (which we came across soon after we entered the forest) and porter the injured person out of the forest to the point where they can be medically evacuated by vehicle or helicopter to hospital. The price tag of such an intervention are huge (of the order of thousands of USD) and you'll sign a disclaimer before you start trekking, accepting responsibility for these costs such such a situation eventuate. Thus, you need to scrutinise your travel insurance to make sure that you're covered for this sort of accident and be absolutely sure that you have no pre-existing conditions that could invalidate your insurance cover.
I would therefore urge you to take honest stock of your abilities before you commit to gorilla trekking, and perhaps do some hiking in the period leading up to your trip to build your fitness. If you have a medical condition that may compromise either your mobility or your endurance, then think twice about whether this is really a sensible decision for you.
Nip across the equator
Uganda straddles the equator, and it doesn't take much imagination to guess that the cheesiest photo opportunity is to take a picture of your loved ones with a foot in both hemispheres. But as this has been consigned to the family photo album, I'll spare you that ... :)
Queen Elizabeth National Park offers just such an opportunity, and if you take the photograph facing north, then you can also secure the dramatic backdrop of the Ruwenzori range, which lurks ominously on the DRC side of the border.
Just bear in mind that although this is a main road, it's still in a national park, and as we'd been photographing lion barely a couple of kilometres away only a couple of hours earlier, we were glad to be with a game ranger who was on the lookout for - and equipped to deal with - carnivorous natives!
How close can you get to the gorillas?
Nothing prepares you for your first sight of gorillas.
Our first glimpse was of this pair of young gorillas - probably only a couple of years old - who were playing on a large fallen branch. Their 'rough and tumble' game was enchanting, but curious in that it seemed to be conducted in slow motion that struck me as the visual equivalent of hearing a 45rpm record being played on 33 1/3 speed. In general, gorillas move in a languid, unhurried manner, and the strangely slow nature of even youngsters' play lent an otherwordly quality to the experience.
The sight was even more striking because the gorilla group had gathered in a sunny glade by a stream, and after several hours of trekking throught the dark forest, the contrast of the bright sunlight and vivid green vegetation was dazzling.
These gorillas are habituated to people, and will therefore allow you to get very close provided that you proceed with caution and in strict accordance with the instructions from your guides. There are clear rules which dictate how closely you can approach the animals, although obviously if the animals choose to approach you, then you have no control over this, and will be advised to stay still. On occasion, the gorillas actually touch visitors, and although this didn't happen in our case, it must be a absolutely aweinspiring experience.
The limits on how close you can get to the gorillas are dictated both by safety considerations and - more importantly - minimising the risk of the gorillas catching human diseases, to which they are sadly highly susceptible. Important though we think we might be, there are arguably too many humans - and certainly far too few gorillas - in the world, and to put the health of the remaining few at risk both selfish and is irresponsible. For this reason, at the pre trek meeting, you'll be asked to confirm that you're not suffering from any infectious diseases (particularly broncial infections).
Book your gorilla trekking permits well in advance
Only a small number of gorilla trekking permits are issued per day - I speak under correction, but I think it's 24 for Bwindi - so in order to avoid disappointment, you'd be wise to book well in advance, especially if you're visiting in peak season.
In quieter periods, people who just turn up can apparently get lucky, but if you have gone to the considerable effort and expense of getting to what is a pretty remote location, I'm not sure that I'd take the chance. Backpackers with more time on their hands might be able to hang around for a few days until spare permits are available (assuming that there are backpackers who can afford this expense), but if you're on a tight schedule, then this is unlikely to be practical.
Some tips on photographing gorillas
Let's be blunt, gorillas - along with black bears and black birds (which seems to be every second species in outback Australia) - are a bugger to photograph.
Firstly they're black, and have dark brown eyes, so there is very little color contrast for your camera to pick up on. As a result, even photos that are perfectly composed and in focus can look wrong, because the image is of one large, homogenously black shape with little other definition.
Secondly, gorillas live in dense forest, where the light is subdued, and even when they venture out into open areas along streams and rivers, the weather is frequently overcast, which makes for often dim light conditions.
Experienced photographers will doubtless be able to endlessly tweak exposure lengths, aperture widths and all sorts of technological bells and whistles to overcome these challenges. But what does that mean for rank amateurs such as myself who belong to the 'point and fire' school of photography?
Well, firstly, try to photograph the gorilla where the light is best - ideally when the light is catching its eye to highlight the contrast.
Secondly, if your camera is on an automatic setting, it will lengthen the exposure time to compensate for poor light conditions. In layman's terms, this means that the photo takes longer to be taken, and thus, you need to keep very still to avoid the picture blurring. This is one instance where a tripod would be a great help, but is unlikely to be practical in this context. In the absence of a tripod or other support, then a trick worth trying is to take a deep breath in and then hold it as you take the photo, which tends to steady your stance.
However, for most, the most straightforward solution is to simply take as many photos as possible, which will hopefully maximise your chances of taking a few decent snaps - if you fear that your bear encounter may be fleeting, then also consider using the sports photography function (if your camera offers this) which will take many photos in very swift succession. Take heart from the fact that professional photographers often take literally hundreds of shots in order to produce a single photo that is worthy of publication, so you shouldn't be ashamed of adopting the same strategy. This is where digital photography is such as blessing for amateurs and professionals alike, so just be sure that your camera is armed with a photo card that has a high storage capacity.
In the interests of relationship maintenance, just make sure you weed through your photos in order to select the best few before inflicting 300 out-of-focus snaps of a blurred black gorillalike shape in the undergrowth on your friends and family!
Just when you thought that you were done ...
The hardest part of our entire gorilla trek was the last long slog up through a seemingly vertical potato field, which had been bad enough on the way down,but was infinitely worse on the way back.
As an aside, potatoes (confusing known locally as 'Irish potatoes') - grow very well in South West Uganda, probably because of the cool upland climate.
By then we were tired and sore, and after nearly three hours route march, the initial euphoria of our time with the gorillas had subsided. The only way I made it to the top of this slope was by chanting the mantra, "I HATE POTATOES" under my breath!
Beautiful papyrus swamps line Bwindi's rivers
The tourist literature on the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest focuses almost exclusively on the gorillas, with passing reference to its glorious steep ridges covered with dense montane rainforest. So it comes as something of the surprise to discover that Bwindi hosts other very different ecosystems which offer their own unique wildlife spotting opportunities.
Papyrus swamps are among my favourite ecosystems because they almost guarantee stellar bird spotting - and, if you're lucky - an amphibian or two. Quite apart from the twitching opportunities, I am also enchanted by the beauty of the papyrus itself, growing in massed ranks with its photogenic foliage heads swaying gracefully: it's not hard to see why it's so beloved by landscape architects.
The steepest fields you're ever likely to see
The steepness of some of the fields that are cultivated in the corner of the world where Rwanda, Uganda and DRC meet boggles the mind and speaks volumes as to the shortage of available agricultural land to feed a hungry population.
Take this random example, which is by no means untypical - and yes, those specks are women actually working these vertiginous fields. Given the choice, I would never venture onto this steep a slope without a safety harness, let alone work there all day, but if there's no other land available, you have no choice.
Homemade greenhouses hug the valley slopes
Providing a sustainable source of sufficient fuel and building materials to support the local population is a major challenge throughout the developing world, and never more so than in upland rural Uganda.
Harvesting primary forest is an unsustainable option given how long indigenous forest takes to regenerate, and also sows the seeds for human/animal conflict. Given that the animals (in this case, gorillas) are by far the biggest moneyspinners in the country, this is clearly an equation that is - for once - weighted in wildlife's favour, so local communities need to seek alternative solutions.
In this case, unfortunately the only viable option is fast growing alien species that generate biomass quicker than you can scratch yourself ... enter the ubiquitous eucalypt. These homegrown nurseries have been established to cultivate sapling trees that are then replanted in areas that have been cleared.
Admire volcanic ash exposure in the Rift Valley
Please bear with me, as (bless me Father, for I have regressed) this is another of these 'recovering geologist' tips ...
South West Uganda straddles the Albertine Rift (in plain speak, the left hand fork of the Rift Valley) and is still, in volcanic terms, extremely active. As recently as 2002, Mount Nyiragongo in neighbouring DRC blew its top - engulfed much of the city of Goma and it's airport runway in the process - and the entire landscape has been forged by the explosive and opposing forces generated beneath a continent that is physically being ripped apart (any political analogies are of course utterly unintended).
My advice is that is you drive down into the Rift Valley, you should resist for a moment the unfolding spectacle of the lake system that had the likes of Livingstone, Stanley, Speke and Burton completely bamboozled, and instead focus on the exposed outcrop on the right hand side.
Each of the thin layers represents the ash fallout from an individual volcanic eruption, and if nothing else, you have to be impressed by the sheer volume of dust - let alone lava - created by these eruptions. One of those occasions when you just have to beblown away by the privilege of being a a bystander to witness the spectacle of plate tectonics in action.
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