Saturday, 10 November 2012


In a near forgotten past and in a life before children, there was a young girl who wandered without bags under her eyes but with a bag on her back. Here she returns to notes she made while visiting the gorillas in Uganda

Excited is not the word. I cannot sit still. It is not the thought of the bus journey - although that promises to be eventful – it is the thought of what waits for me the other end.

My bus finally arrives. Thick smoke coughs and curls from it as it teasingly passes me to turn around. Crabbing its way up the hill with its chassis out of line, I wince. 

In case anyone in this small Ugandan village dares to sleep at daybreak, it trumpets, letting all know it has arrived. Revving its sick engine and signaling impatience, I board, ticket in hand, eagerly hoping for the allocated seat it foolishly promises. 

The driver, seated on a cushion, is barely able to see over the huge steering wheel. As he grins, he sings, and it becomes clear to me that somewhere along this journey of his, a substance is involved. I want no part of his trip, and yet seeing no other alternative, head down the coach and into the-out-of-control stench of body odour that surrounds me. It is retchingly real until the bus hastens to lurch forward. Thankfully, most of the windows are broken and a natural air conditioning kicks in to override the stagnant hum.

I claim the seat I’m thrown toward, falling hard against its torn leatherette. It skids with me, and barely buffers my body as we glide along the metal frame it is stacked against until I regain whatever I can: balance, seat and pride. 

Meanwhile a beat now accompanies the driver’s lyric and as the bus picks up speed, it gains momentum with the quavers and crotchets of the tempo. We sway as we wind upward, and as the sun hits me through the shattered windows, I realise quickly that sleeping is out of the question.   

As the morning and the miles pass, we stop at many scattered villages picking up more and more people, setting down only a few. A bus that probably seats about 60 now carries easily over 90 passengers. Sweltering together, fresh sweat stains compete with dried stale ones. 

A mother sits down on a crate in the aisle beside me. She has a vacant look about her and I ponder: boredom or fatigue? Her twin babies of about five months old, barely held, both cry loudly. They must be hot, for each is dressed in peach silk and petticoats, bundled up in lace frills, buttons and bows. These delicate dresses betray their forms, for chunky limbs splay out, wriggling in all directions.

The mother sighs and neither looking up nor asking, plops one of the babies on my lap. The bundle takes one look at me and realises that if she had nothing to cry about before, she certainly has something to cry about now, as this person gazing down at her, who cuddles her in, is not only unfamiliar, but is the wrong colour. She screams louder and then promptly falls fast asleep, one tear remaining caught between cheek and nose. I smile at her mother, who for the first time looks up. She chuckles, now cradling a sleeping twin. We zoom along the melting road under the blazing sun.

After seven hours or so the driver’s singing stops. The ceaseless noise; that of a back-to-back tape, which has played its way to the very edge of my pain threshold, has finally blistered itself in the process. The peace lulls me into a false sense of security, for it is only another half an hour before the tarmac runs out to be replaced by a bumpy mud track. Steering his toy at the very same speed, overtaking cars and carts on blind corners, and driving dangerously close to pedestrians and livestock, we continue.

It is becoming dark as we fly over the biggest pothole yet. A pothole which would act as catalyst for an almost comic chain of events if I wasn’t so bloody tired: I leave the seat and the seat leaves its frame.  I squeeze the baby who wakes and screams again. Her hands and arms reach out to find her mother and sister, whilst underneath my seat the furious clucking of a chicken joins in the commotion. 

Eventually my numb body collects its dusty pack from the underbelly of the dilapidated bus. Doing so I catch a whiff of what the driver is lighting up. Momentarily I return to 13.5-hours earlier, and say a silent thanks for getting me here in one piece.  Here is where exactly? Looking around it would appear that I’m on the outskirts of nowhere.

I wake early to both the stifling sun drenched canvas and the orchestral song that is the Ugandan highlands wildlife. Peeking out of the tent I pitched in complete darkness the night before, I face hills completely covered in eucalyptus trees and bamboo. Camped in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, home to the mountain gorilla, I wonder if there are any eyes out there reciprocating my gaze from under the leafy canopy. I throw on some trousers and boots, wanting to explore the village just outside the park entrance.  I don’t get particularly far. 

Sat outside the first banda, a mud hut with a straw roof, is a young woman who looks to be in her early thirties. Her children play in the road.  One runs in the opposite direction pushing a tyre along as he goes, by poking a stick through it. The other approaches me as I walk towards his village.   

He yells to me: “Eh Muzungo.” Translating as ‘white person’ he alerts the whole village that I am approaching, although I know that isn’t his intention. He is excited, that is all. “Jambo.” As he says hello, he reaches out his hand to me. I wave and take it. We walk a little to where his mother sits on the ground, her bare feet in the dust. She smiles and looks serene. Her name is Mabel and she owns the restaurant. She is willing to cook whatever I would like - as long as it is chicken - and for a very reasonable price too. She talks about her twins who are six years old. She makes me a bowl of rice and peanut sauce for breakfast and won’t accept any money. 

In the afternoon I put my name down on the list for a gorilla trek, and then delight in the creek below the campsite, which brings welcome relief from the heat. Assortments of butterflies flutter by. Some rest right beside me, basking on the rocks before shifting to the shade, playing hide and seek with the light. Monkeys make the treetops rustle as they swing between the branches above. I jump at their occasional screech.

Mornings meander and then afternoons. Evenings are spent at Mabel’s restaurant chatting to other backpackers who share their incredible Bwindi gorilla experience. I anticipate my own as a relaxing week drifts by.  I get to the end of the book I am reading and pass it on to Mabel, who tonight is making chicken in bean sauce with spaghetti. A ranger passes and stops in for his dinner, unable to resist the inviting aroma. He tells me that my name is now at the top of the list. Ah tomorrow!

It is early; I excitedly stumble to the meeting point. My daypack is heavy, full of water and sterilising tablets. The guide Steven, myself and the three other backpackers, now all introduced, chatter on route to the Suzuki. The jeep only goes in one direction and that is up. Hills turn to mountains and my ears pop many times in acknowledgement. The more we climb the less we speak. After a 30-minute drive we leave the - rendered useless - vehicle and begin to hike. The forest covering provides a dappled shade but the sun is already bearing down. It adds to the weight of the pack. 

There is no pressure to rush. The peaked terrain is rough and loose.  Vertically we are clambering, clearing cloud. And then almost out of nowhere we stop the ascent and find ourselves heading back down. Sometimes surfing, certainly sliding, in fact it is easier on my bottom. Not only have the knees buckled, but a whole new set of muscles are being used. My legs feel alien to me.     

We meet a cold stream cutting through the mountains. On the other side of it our path is to resume its northward tack. We wipe reddened faces, mop sweated brows and replace hats full of cold water on our already wet heads, before following Steven’s upward zigzag, carefully picked out with his tracking skill, and carefully cleared with his machete. We cautiously grip whatever we can to help us up.

The density of the forest camouflages its many dwellers but it is obvious they are here. Every so often the trees shake as a bird or a monkey launches or lands. Every minute sound is magnified. I am trespassing. Trespassing through a forest, which for the most part lay untouched as the property of the wildlife.

Excitement energises exhaustion. The tension is incredible. We are getting close. We find ourselves staring down at a fresh pile of dung, lying right in the middle of the forest floor. The sheer size of it leaves me wondering about the size of its creator, and then almost immediately, we hear him. His low grunt. He knows we have come, and I feel he knows exactly where we are. Steven begins to grunt in return, sounding identical. Steven sweeps back some greenery and points into the blackness. All I can see is something shining pink, and wait, bamboo being shoved into what I now make out to be a mouth. The wet pink becomes a nose. The rest is a black mass.

Steven pushes forward, carefully clearing some of the bush blocking our view. We move in together, keeping low and close. This is the silverback ‘Kacupira’. We have found the family of three. He sits, chomping on bamboo, his Buddha like stomach falling over his feet. 

He doesn’t seem bothered that we’ve arrived. On the contrary, it is almost as if he begins posing for us. Steven urges us to get closer, and to take photos, but I feel that I am close enough, and besides, I cannot hold the camera steady. 
Kacupira is now becoming very vocal, I am no expert but it sounds particularly aggressive to me. Steven reassures Kacupira, and then us, that it is okay. He tells us that this magnificent silverback would like to pass us. I wonder if there is enough room through the confined space that we have all squeezed into. We huddle, and we look down at the ground. The agitated grunting, human and gorilla, continues.

Kacupira gets up on all fours and as he does so, I witness a power that his shape if not his size has at first betrayed. He passes right beside us. So close, I can hear his breathing. So close, I can smell his entirety. So close, I can clearly see that he has a hand missing. So close, I could stretch out my arm and touch him. So close, that his dried stump could so easily touch me. Steven’s smile reassures me. Sure enough he doesn’t go far, for he just wants another patch with more food to chew on.

We follow him round and in doing so catch sight of his partner. Shy, she has kept her distance and even now is certainly keeping her baby well out of view. We watch her, intrigued. She does the same. Suddenly Kacupira jumps out right in front of us. He settles down to continue eating where he can be easily observed. It is a signal to his female to move back. I am not sure if that is to protect her, or, to gain our full attention again. Either way, he has it. 

He has it for another twenty minutes before it is time to begin the three-hour gruelling trek back to the jeep again. On leaving, I privately thank Kacupira for his time. Feeling privileged I wish him farewell.

Later on, eating chicken at Mabel’s, with her boys playing around my feet with cardboard cut out cars, I sit and share my incredible day with her. It is yet another gorilla story. You would imagine she’d be sick of hearing them, but tonight she listens intently, smiling and laughing, and living the rich experience, which is on her doorstep, through me. 

It should be noted that a few years after this wonderful experience, guerillas far less human than the animals wreaked havoc on this peaceful beauty spot in the southwest of Uganda. They hi-jacked many American and British tourists who were there doing exactly the same thing as me. Mabel’s restaurant was used for their head quarters and Mabel, along with several of the back-packers and locals alike was tortured and raped and murdered in a blood bath of political massacre. This story is dedicated to them.