In search of the Uganda mountain gorillas on a bicycle

 

“If you are going to your tent now, mind he hippo” told me the friendly Italian who, impressed by my bike journey, had invited me to a beer. I leaned over the balcony of the restaurant and sure enough a huge hippo  was happily munching grass just outside my tent. Nothing for it but to wait until hippo finished its meal whilst I continued my conversation about bike travels in Africa with Alco the Dutch cyclist also staying at the campsite.

Hippos come out of the water at night to feed. One of them found its way to my tent!

I was at one end of the Kazinga channel in the West of the country, very close to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Kazinga Channel is a beautiful stretch of water joining Lake George with Lake Edward.

Close to the DRC border

Only three days earlier I had been in the Channel with Ngozi, a friend from London who had come to Kampala to join me for a few days. The channel is full of life – hippos and elephants everywhere. So much wildlife that I was like a child not knowing where to look, going from one side of the boat to another I wanted to take it all in, fix it in my memory forever .

We saw dozens of elephants at the Kazinga Channel

My encounters with wild life in Uganda started right on my first day when camped on the lawn of the beautifully landscaped gardens of a hotel I had a whole family of  blue balled monkeys greedily eyeing my bananas and not going away even when I tried to scare them off.  Monkeys  here don’t scare off easily, it was funny to see big lorries having to stop after noisily blowing their horns to get a family of baboons off the main road without success. I quickly got used to seeing them on the roads each time I went through  wooded areas and was happy to see that they didn’t pay any attention to me.

The monkeys didn’t pay any attention to me but people, in particular children, came running to the road to call out mzungu (White skin) and wave as did street sellers. Stalls selling fruit and vegetables where easy to find, as we’re the chapatti makers in the bigger villages. Chapattis in Uganda are not like the ones we get in Indian Restaurants in the UK, they are thick and oily and made with egg. I loved those gigantic  pancakes cooked in a griddle by the side of the road. The ready access to food made me feel at ease and relaxed.

Fruits and vegetables everywhere

The number of cyclists on the road also made me feel at ease. I saw bikes everywhere heavily loaded with everything imaginable charcoal sugar cane, maiz, mattoke (green bananas). The country is very hilly and the roads are a constant rollercoaster so I often saw cyclists pushing their bikes up the hills, their bodies nearly parallel to the road on the steepest ones.

Walking up hill

It didn’t take me long to come to terms with the fact that there would not be flat riding in Uganda, the ups and downs were constant. I have mixed feelings about hills, on the one hand I do find them hard to climb but on the other the hilly terrain makes the landscape more interesting and Uganda is a truly beautiful place. I was happy to know that I would be sharing its beauty with a friend.

Ngozi arrived in Kampala with her bike excited and apprehensive and after a day’s rest we were ready to go. She had never toured before and had to get used to her loaded bike and I had to get used to being with someone else. Together we had to find a rhythm that would suit us both. It wasn’t long before we found it – a good breakfast, some cycling, lunch of delicious avocados and chapattis by the side of the road, usually in a village, more cycling and at some point in the afternoon deciding where to spend the night.

Leaving Kampala

Being with someone who had never toured was like having a mirror put in front of me. I think nothing of the drop toilets and bucket showers found in the cheap guesthouses that are my staple accommodation, of camping in dusty police stations, of the uncertainty that fills each one of my days on the road. Seeing Ngozi’s reactions made me realise how used I have become to this way of life, how much I have changed. Living with uncertainty is no longer the challenge it used to be.

Where will we sleep tonight?

Not all is uncertainty though, I knew I wanted to go on a game drive and when best to do it than when I had someone with whom to share the experience with. It was really nice to  visit Queen Elizabeth National Park with Ngozi, to have someone to turn to when seeing a leopard sleeping in a tree, elephants walking by the water or hippos sunbathing.

An exciting moment: A leopard!

But then it was time for Ngozi to return to the UK and when I crossed the Ecuator for the third time I was on my own. The awareness that it would be months before I saw the familiar skies of the Northern hemisphere again hit me. For months to come the Southern Cross would become familiar company in the night.

Crossing the Ecuator for the second time with Ngozi
Third crossing of the Ecuator

It felt right to start this new phase of my journey crossing the National Park on my bike, first in a tarmaced road and then through 74 Km of dirt road. I was quite nervous when it came to riding the later. I had been told to be careful with elephants and  buffaloes that are abundant in the area as they are known to charge. And indeed there was a lot of evidence of their presence,  piles of dung and heavy footprints where everywhere. I keep on listening for them and was delighted when I reached my destination without any close encounter.

Elephant dung everywhere, luckily no elephants!

The ride was memorable, clouds of white butterflies feeding on the elephant dung took flight as I passed by and enveloped me, savanna, thick forest, monkeys, impalas…So much nature and wildlife all around me. At times I felt I was disappearing in the middle of it all, it was as if I was becoming part of the forest, the savanna, the river.

Wildlife everywhere I looked

The forests in Uganda are incredibly lush and their impossible slopes they provide sanctuary to the mountain gorillas, an endangered species, according to the last published census there are only 880 left in the world. How could I be in this country and miss out the opportunity to pay them a visit!?

To get to one of the only two surviving populations I had to get to the remote Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, climb steep gradients in dirt roads and then walk for hours into the forest. I knew I would find the ride too hard but was more than ready to push my bike for hours to get there so I was delighted when a local told me about the tea trucks that go to the very remote mountain villages to collect tea from small tea growers. I made up my mind: Foxtrot and I would find a way to get a lift in on one of the tea trucks.

The two of us waited patiently outside the Kayonza Grower’s Tea Factory and when the truck going in the right direction left the factory we managed to get on it. When empty of tea, the trucks provide transport to people from the remote mountain hamlets and settlements. Villagers and their possessions came on an off the truck in each of the hundreds of stops it did along the way.

Foxtrot settled in the tea truck

All around the red earth road, in impossible slopes, villagers  were clearing the forest for cultivation, carrying jerry cans of water, picking and carrying tea. On the lorry I was trying out my newly acquired local vocabulary to the amusement of my travel companions who laughed heartily, holding their sides, each time I uttered a word.

Going through the forest in the tea truck

It was unreal when the following day I found myself tracking the gorillas in the forest. The light was filtering through the huge tall columnar trees with bare trunks and a crop of leaves at the top. There was not a square centimeter that was not covered with some sort of vegetation. We crossed swampy terrain, climbed up and down incredibly steep slopes following the rangers that were opening the way through the forest with their machetes.

The encounter with the first gorilla was unforgettable, Kabandize a young male was lying down looking at us with lazy eyes that seemed to be saying “Oh bother, here are the humans!”

Oh bother, here are the humans!

Not far from him was Rukara, the silver back and leader of the group with the oldest female in the group and her baby, a delightful one year old.

Tindamanyire with baby Bajurizi

The gorilla group kept on moving fast through the forest and with the trackers hacking away at the forest with the machetes we followed on their path. After one hour with these incredible creatures we said goodby to them and turned back the way we came.

I spent one magical hour with the mountain gorillas

The feelings of the experience stayed present and I knew I needed time to let it all sink in. I turned my back on Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and reached a small island in Lake Buyonyi. Swimming in the second deepest lake in Africa (900 mt) surrounded by bird song and knowing that no hippos would come to my tent was the perfect ending of my time in Uganda.

19 thoughts on “In search of the Uganda mountain gorillas on a bicycle”

  1. What a gorgeous smile you have in the forest watching / with the gorillas.
    Another beautiful and generous account of anther African country.
    So much adventure that becomes “normal” xx

  2. This is beautiful to read, Blanca!
    So glad to read about your travels and experiences. Thank goodness it seems less hostile than some of the countries you have visited!
    Love travels with you. Xxx

  3. Uganda sounds wonderful and avoiding hippos and sleeping big cats much more fun than guys with rifles – though I was a bit taken aback by Ngozi wearing a jumper and big jacket at the equator. Loads of love, my fabulous friend.

  4. As always an incredible adventure unfolding that we can only start to imagine how it is in reality…… I can’t comprehend how brave you are on this adventure but your posts seem so amazing that we are truely blinkered by our perceptions in life and you are opening up the door for us to enter and turkey experience so much ….. I wish I was as brave to take that step … x

  5. Another wonderful blog Blanca!
    I was in Kunming, China working this weekend and had morning off so I went cycling to visit a famous lake. I felt very uncertain of sharing the bike lane with mopeds and at the same time happy to have a bike lane. I was happy to have a guide as to how to get there and to have courage to cross the busy road – of which the right of way was not immediately apparent. You do all this without a guide, and with long stretches on your own (including sleeping in a tent). This from the cafe in Hong Kong where we met is such a courageous and liberating experience your are having. Inspiration.

  6. I’ve thought about you cycling through areas where there are wild animals all around. How amazing you are Blanca! Love reading about your wonderful journeys and the adventure you are creating. I hope to follow in your tire tracks one day! X

  7. Blanca, I smelt and heard uganda through you. Brillant description. Thank you. Its interesting you recognise how confident you have become. I would be a quivering wreck. Stay safe and happy. L xx

  8. Another wonderful blog. I love your photos. The comment about living with uncertainty resonated with me. We should all be more open it it and understand how resilient we are and how much our fellow humans can help and how wonderful nature can sooth us.

  9. Hi Blanca !

    Big congrats for this trip ! And good luck !

    Im actually preparing a similar bike trip, and am willing to travel through Rwanda too. I searched for info about the Gorillas Trek, and all I found is that it cost 1500$ to go and see them 😮
    Did you find a way to see them without paying such an insane price ?

    Also, Im really very grateful for all the info you post here, as I am currently planning my trip, and you have a nice amount of recent info in here ! Thanks a lot ! 🙂

  10. Hi Blanca and congrats !

    Planning the same trip (with small differences), so Im really grateful for the ton of information you are giving on this blog !

  11. Magical post Blanca, thank you. I never stop smiling when I read your updates. Great to hear about your time with Ngozi too. Xx

  12. So happy for you to have found and spent some time with the gorillas! How wonderful and exciting! Go well, my friend, and have many my adventures such as these! xx

  13. Hi Blanca. I’m so enjoying reading of you solo adventures in East Africa. I too saw the gorillas in Bwindi. But was not travelling by bike that time. You are planting some seeds in my brain for future travels. Thank you, Michelle

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