From Kampala to Fort Portal

I spent almost a month volunteering in the tiny town of Fort Portal, which is one of the most western points of Uganda. My home stay was about 10 kms out of town, so it was even more out in the sticks than Fort Portal itself. It was so relaxing and peaceful there…nothing but fresh air, lush forests and a view of the Rwenzori mountains. Absolute paradise.

I don’t think Fort Portal generally ends up on anyone’s travel itinerary for Uganda, but if you find yourself there, be sure to brave the food stalls on the street (and ask for a rolex….trust me it’s not a watch), visit The Gluepot for beers and pizza and make your way to Mountains of the Moon resort for a swim and hot shower especially when hot showers are otherwise in short supply.

I think it poured rain every day that I was there, but I wouldn’t say it was a hindrance or even a nuisance. It was sunny and hot most of the time; you just had to get used to periodic bursts of rain and thunder which made you duck for cover under a tree, in a shop or a stranger’s home should you be nearby. As a result, I experienced more than my share of boda boda rides in a downpour as well, which never seemed to phase the boda drivers who drove up and around each bend, with almost no visibility. How I’m here today is beyond me, when I think back at some of those trips.

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Gorillas in the Mist

I can’t adequately describe how amazing the gorilla trek was in Bwindi Impenetrable Rainforest National Park, which is about a 6-hour drive from Fort Portal. The park is one of only two places left in the world where you can see the 600 or so mountain gorillas that remain in the wild; accordingly, you can feel how important the gorillas are to the local economy the closer you get to the area. Of course this industry is big business for the region, but thankfully it always felt that caring for the gorillas and protecting their habitat was a top priority. On the day of the trek, the few dozen tourists were given a brief rundown of the hike and a crash safety course. There were about 10 or so gorilla families in Bwindi with anywhere from about one to three dozen gorillas in each. We were told we could hike anywhere from two to seven+ hours through rough jungle terrain just to track the gorilla family we were assigned to. And if and when we did manage to meet up with our family, we’d only get about 30 minutes to interact with them…from a safe distance of seven metres away.

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We were tracking the Rushegura family, which had 19 members – one silverback, a ‘vice president’, half a dozen moms and teenagers as well as two babies. There were seven of us in our group, plus a guide, two porters and of course, the obligatory military escorts with AK-47s. Military men were everywhere and actually made me feel super safe, despite my strong aversion to guns. We were told that they were there to protect us from other animals in the jungle – the occasional elephant, chimpanzees, baboons – and my personal fave – the slim chance of encountering Congolese rebels. The head military officer actually said at the briefing …

“Don’t worry everyone, our army has a large presence throughout the country and most notably at the nearby Congo border in order to keep our country safe, which includes the locals, tourists, and wildlife. The last time rebels came into this part of Uganda was in 1998, when they killed all of the tourists here at Bwindi, so it’s been quite a while. No need to worry. Please feel safe and free”.

Whaa?? I think I peed right then and there.

Usually each gorilla group has a tracker go up the mountain really early in the morning and track their whereabouts based on where they were the previous day so that the guide knows in which direction to take the group. And they can sometimes move so quick and far that even that doesn’t always help. We took a ton of water, packed lunches and braced ourselves for a difficult trek through the thick jungle.

To our surprise (and relief), we found our gorilla family in less than 30 minutes, before ever stepping one foot in the rainforest. We literally hiked up one hill, rounded a corner and there they were. We also didn’t need any of the tracker reports on CB radio since we just had to follow the yelling from the poor local farmer who was giving shit to the Rusheguras who were destroying all of his banana crops. I felt bad for the old guy but it was hilarious (and great for us) that we stumbled upon our group so quickly in all their glory…eating, playing, swinging in the trees, and yes decimating his crops.

The second I saw the first gorilla, my knees buckled. I got to within about five or six metres of the massive vice president, Kabukojo, who happily ate away while looking directly at me with not a concern in the world. Aside from their occasional and nonchalant glances and our camera frenzy (and of course, my whispering “I love you” to every gorilla that looked at me), both parties went about their business.

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I took a ton of pictures and videos but also made sure to put my camera down and just take it all in…seeing their faces and fingers in our human faces and fingers, their grunts of conversation, the massive 300kg silverback named Mwirima, the newest baby Kibande, apparently named after the farmer who half loves/loathes him, and the playful teens that felled every tree one by one just to eat the marrow of the branches…not even the bananas. It was truly surreal, and gave me such a new appreciation and respect for these beautiful, gentle creatures.

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Since we finished the trek so early, we managed to fit in an amazing rainforest/waterfall hike later that afternoon with another guide and of course, two new military escorts with AK-47s. On the way back we got caught in a torrential downpour but since we were about two hours from our lodge we could do nothing but trudge on, play and enjoy the rainforest experience.

The hot shower, victory beers and great meal with my friends that night were a great end to probably my best “bucket list” adventure to date. Years later, I can close my eyes and still see the vice president chomping away and glancing over at me as if nothing was out of the ordinary. I’ve met a lot of amazing people while travelling who I think of occasionally and wonder how they’re doing. The Rushaguras are no different. I hope they’re well, thriving, and tearing up another banana patch in delight.