Gorillas in the Sun

Day 1, 10th April 2021, Flight Berlin-Brussels-Entebbe

The new BER airport was ghostly quiet. It was our first time there since its very delayed opening. The place was considerably more tasteful that the old Russian-sector Schoenefeld airport which it replaced.

Our first stop was Brussels as we were flying Brussels Airline. The paperwork for Covid testing, locator forms and sworn statements about something or other, all seemed to be in order but I suspect they couldn’t care less as we were just in transit. We were soon off again. We were in Business Class but based on lots of real business experience, I can report that the food was excellent, the movies were also good, I watched The Maltese Falcon for the hundredth time, and the lay-flat seat promised a good sleep on the return home.

We arrived late in the evening at Entebbe and were met by our driver, Joseph, in our own 4×4 safari jeep. There were dense clouds of mosquitos everywhere. Our overnight was under a lot of mosquito netting in Hotel No.5, Entebbe.

Day 2, 11th April 2021, Entebbe to Kibale NP

There were thick clouds of mosquitoes in the tropical garden outside our room and drifts of dead and dying ones in the corridor. We breakfasted on the full-Ugandan on the veranda, sheltered from very heavy rain. A full-Ugandan breakfast is much like a full-English breakfast but with maybe some avocado thrown in. After breakfast we drove through the outskirts of Kampala and westward through some hilly country. There were endless markets in the towns a villages with the natives sporting their finest Sunday clothes on their way to and from church. The roads here were mostly paved but with giant potholes causing trucks and motorbikes to swerve from side to side. The shops were mostly a bit home-made and constructed from locally fired red brick with roofs sloping away from the road giving them a faintly wild-west appearance. Other buildings were made from sticks and mud and usually with corrugated iron roofs although some are thatched. Large red termite mounds sprout all over the landscape. Between the clusters of shops and workshops were the lush tropical agriculture based mostly on bananas and tea growing in the thick volcanic soils. Long-horn cattle and goats hang out on the verges.

We arrived at our destination which was Crater Safari Lodge. This region has many large volcanic craters filled with water. This is a particularly nice one and our thatched cottage was perched on the rim. There were other cottages in a similar style nearby but there were no other guests so the whole place including the main lodge were ours. Such is the remoteness of these places, the electricity comes from a solar panel, battery, and inverter. The hot water is also solar-heated. H had to be restrained from attempting to boil a kettle using the battery.

Day 3, 12th April 2021 Chimpanzee Tracking in Kibale NP

We had an early start from Crater Safari Lodge to drive to Kibale National Park. After a briefing from the AK47-armed female park warden, we set off into the forest to find some chimpanzees. After a couple hours crashing through the relatively flat but boggy jungle, we came across a largish family hooting to each other high up in the trees and we did our best to capture decent photos. There were also plenty of baboons.

After the chimp tracking, we were shown around a traditional community outside the park and met some of the village people. A scary experience for all, I’m sure. There was a lady of middling years who roasted some coffee for us over a fire. Then there was the well-respected village doctor who seemed to specialize in terrorizing unloved neighbours using a chimp skull and a rattle. He also peddled various Viagra-like potions made from trees. We also sat down with the local banana beer and banana gin Braumeister. Unlike H, I sampled both but worried about the safety aspects of it for a day or two. We returned to Crater Safari Lodge for the night.

Day 4, 13th April 2021, Kibale NP to Queen Elizabeth NP and Bwindi Impenetrable NP

Leaving Crater Safari Lodge, we drove very lumpy red dirt roads through the Kigezi Highlands. The rain was torrential most of the day. Through the rain we could make out mostly banana trees, tea plantations and brick kilns. We entered the Queen Elizabeth NP, crossed the equator and saw Maribou storks, buffalo and elephant herds but mostly at a distance in the now grassy landscape. We drove on southwards over the Kazinga Channel causeway which connects Lake George and Lake Edward.

There is something a bit odd about the roads in this part of the world. Mostly the roads are very rough dirt and mud tracks but sometimes there are nicely paved sections. On these paved sections they put big bone-rattling speed bumps every hundred metres or so and sometimes even real sleeping policemen manning spiked checkpoints. Dirt roads and paved roads have about the same level of discomfort.

We arrived at our next accommodation, Gorilla Safari Lodge, on the edge of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

We were the only guests again. The rainy season and travel restrictions are keeping people away. Uganda is classed as low risk for Covid by the German RKI, the only country in Africa, which is part of the reason we are here. We expect to avoid quarantine at both ends of the trip. There is still a lot of paperwork and testing though.

On the slimy steps leading down to our cottage, H took a tumble. There were bruises and loss of dignity for the Memsahib, but the show could continue. The staff lit fires around us while we had dinner on the veranda.  It gets cold here at night because of the altitude.       

Day 5, 14th April 2021, Gorilla Tracking in Bwindi Impenetrable NP

We had breakfast brought to our deck. It was misty which was appropriate for gorilla tracking. We dressed up in our gorilla tracking gear which was a layer of 50% DEET, Permethrin-treated shirts and pants, thick socks, boots and gaiters. Bush hat, waterproofs, sweater, water and lunch were stowed in our backpacks.

The drive to the Bwindi Impenetrable NP gate was a 4×4 challenge. There were three others to be in our group, all French. After a briefing on what to do if you get your arms torn off by a silverback and hiring our porters, we drove a bit more to get closer to where the trackers expected the gorilla family to be. We had two park wardens in our vehicle along with the obligatory AK47’s in case of trouble. The walk began with a near vertical drop of a few hundred metres through mud and bush. Then there was a river to wade, followed by a near vertical climb of a few hundred metres through mud and bush. I lost track of how often this was repeated but it went on for hours. The porters carried our bags and did some pushing and pulling on the bad bits. On one treacherous section, H whacked her porter over the head with her heavy walking stick. The poor lad had blood dripping down his face and a subdued expression for the rest of the trip. H said it was an accident. Hmm. We had been expecting mist and rain and cold, but the weather turned out to be perfect for this kind of thing.

On one particularly steep descent through waist-high bush we could see some trees about 50 metres below us were shaking. The advance-party trackers had found us a gorilla family. It was hard to say how many, maybe about 20, as they were now all around us munching on leaves and sticks. Mostly they ignored us but one blackback rushed by me pushing me out of the way. We stayed for an hour with the silverback eyeing us suspiciously from under a tree. The trek back was even harder with deeper rivers to cross and big venomous snakes in the undergrowth. H gave her damaged porter a tip he could comfortably retire on.     

We dropped the park wardens and their guns off in a nearby village and had a long, rough dirt-road trip through spectacular tropical mountain scenery with waving children and colourfully dressed local women carrying bundles of sticks on their heads. Our next stop was Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge perched 2100 metres up with big views of the volcanoes of Rwanda and the Congo. The weather here changes every five to ten minutes with sunshine and clear skies followed by thick fog, heavy rain and lightning storms followed by sunshine and clear skies. Utilities, even in this expensive place, are not so reliable. There is some solar power and, rarely working, grid-power. The tap water is undrinkable, and the heating is wood fires that need to be kept going by the butler. The lodge Wi-Fi was only available in the lobby area and was not so good. We travel with a Pokefi box which connects automatically to whatever signal is around and this gave us a better but patchy service.  We were the only guests, again, in the entire lodge.     

Day 6, 15th April 2021, Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge

This day was my 65th birthday and the main reason for us being in Uganda. Thank you, Heike, for this enormously expensive pressie. Judging by the soreness of my muscles, this might also have been the last time I am fit enough for gorilla-bothering, so the timing of this trip was ideal.

This was a day for resting-up and watching the changing scenery out of the window. Our butler kept us supplied with food, wine and firewood.  The lodge kitchen staff made me a birthday cake and sang Happy Birthday followed by a native birthday dance.

Day 7, 16th April 2021, Bwindi NP to Entebbe

After an early morning Ugandan breakfast called a Rolex, we drove a long way on scary, muddy mountain dirt roads to the airstrip at Kisoro. A Cessna flew us over Bwindi Impenetrable NP to another airstrip at Kihihi and then back over the Equator to Entebbe.

We had some time to spare in Entebbe before our flight home, so we went to the Uganda Wildlife Conservation Education Centre, better known as Entebbe Zoo, for a private tour. We got to feed bananas to a giraffe from the back of a truck and feed peanuts to the chimpanzees.

We also needed feeding and H found a nice-looking place in Kampala called Le Chateau Brasserie Belge. We had Nile perch. The reason for choosing this was that in 1978, on my first ever business trip, I had Nile perch in the New Stanley Hotel in Nairobi, Kenya.

We had a proper Chaos Travel experience when just before our check-in in Entebbe our Covid PCR tests had not arrived and were six hours late. There was a lot of shouting and our driver eventually got test results on his phone which he got printed at a copyshop. We checked in with this along with other paperwork needed for Belgium and Germany. Soon after check-in we got another message from the testing lab saying the first result had some wrong information on it and they had sent more certificates by email. As all the results were negative and as we had no chance to print anything else, we ignored this second one.

Day 8, 17th April 2021, Brussels, Berlin

Our flight to Brussels was overnight and we changed planes to Berlin in the morning. At Berlin Airport we got ourselves retested just in case the Ugandan lab had completely screwed up. In fact, we got tested twice. Once with a rapid Antigen test and once with a PCR test. Feeling smug we arrived home and the best thing was our local health authority said we had no need to quarantine in Germany.