GUARDIAN Uganda has had a bad press for too long – reaction to my recent visit was predictably cliched, homing in on guerrillas and gorillas. I guess this is the only place on Earth where a country’s reputation is held to ransom by terrorists and primates – Joseph Kony (of The Lord’s Resistance Army) and Dian Fossey’s charges have a lot to answer for. It’s time to set the record straight, as there’s much, much more to the very heart of Africa.
Tour guides generally leave me cold – in my experience they’re either too gushing or stale. So on discovering that I’d got a driver-cum-guide my heart sank. Lawrence, I soon discovered, was nothing short of a genius: amiable, diplomatic, omniscient about Uganda. The Far Horizon – the company that handled my ground arrangements were simply faultless.
Getting to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest from Entebbe takes either 80 minutes in a light aircraft or 10 hours in a car with Lawrence. I did it the slow way and loved every second. After six hours on tarmac, we’d reached Kabale and then took the dirt road ascending the eastern edge of the Albertine Rift Valley.
The rainforest first appeared as a distant grey silhouette; it was only after turning the final bumpy corners that it hit me. Primeval, dark and awesome, it was clouded in parts by mist. The stuttering of birds, chatter of insects and ominous rolls of thunder made it even more atmospheric. I was mesmerised by its prehistoric charm.
And I was equally thrilled to be checking into the Gorilla Forest Camp. I’ve visited dozens of places that claim to be luxury safari camps – shorthand for scrappy tent, non-existent shower and several hundred dollars a night. This place was the real thing. Huge tents with polished wooden floors, vast comfortable beds and enormous bathrooms that were beautifully designed – it has bags of understated style.
Early next morning, I was up for a rendezvous in the park headquarters. I wore knackered jeans, walking boots and a tatty shirt. I looked like a penniless wandering sannyasi beside those who had spent a fortune on brand new safari gear: crisp white shirts, khaki waistcoats with any number of pockets, wide brimmed hats and trousers with special zips and strings. It was like being in a Morecambe & Wise safari special.
Only 18 gorilla-tracking permits are issued each day – six each for three groups. I was in H group. We’d be hiking longer than the others, although it’s pot luck as to which group you’re assigned. A steep climb through farmland and scrub brought us to a ridge that looked across a forest-filled valley and hills beyond. We headed in and immediately spotted a troop of blue monkeys. No one else in my group was interested; they had a messianic fixation on just one thing – gorillas.
You don’t need to be particularly strong to engage in this trek, but stamina is essential. Before long, our guide left the paths and took to hacking through undergrowth – it was a Boys’ Own Victorian adventure, pure fantasy that was completed by the presence of four porters and two guards brandishing guns. Porters are optional – although why I’d need anyone to carry my packed lunch and a bottle of water is beyond me – but the guards are obligatory. AK47s aren’t used for scaring off animals. These chaps were there to protect us against other human beings. Bwindi saw trouble six years ago when two rangers and eight tourists were killed by a group of armed Rwandan rebels. But times change, as do political climates and perhaps the armed presence should now be scaled down.
The canopy overhead occasionally let in great blades of light. Frenzied butterflies – like so much fitful confetti – sparkled in the sunshine. One beast was the size of an open Filofax, sapphire blue and angry monkeys. I got dive-bombed by a butterfly with attitude. Another – black with red markings, textured like velvet – was easily able to cover my open hand.
Fungus is everywhere: long, curly, orange-striped ribbons; tiny white nodules; murderous looking brown jellies; and green platters stuck on to trees. Lank, straggly lichen, mosses and ferns grow from everything, never-ending creepers hung in readiness for Tarzan; I couldn’t have hoped for more. The magic of the forest is in the detail.
It took four and a half hours of trekking before we reached our mountain gorilla family. Two black babies poked their heads up first from the succulent undergrowth like quizzical glove puppets. A mother lay cocooned in vegetation gorging on all she could eat. The silverback – a magnificent creature – sat like a hen-pecked old man as the kids clambered over him. But as I understand it, all these wonderful, bushy innocents get to do is eat, shag, fart and groom. Don’t misunderstand me, it is lovely to see them in their natural habitat – and this is my point. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is over 25,000 years old and one of the most bio-diverse spots on the planet; the mountain gorillas are just one small part of it. This might sound like heresy to the converted, but for me the rainforest was the real star of the show.
After 10 hours of trekking, I was happy to get back to base. I had the best candlelit bath of my life, piping hot water up to my chin, gin and tonic in one hand, fag in the other and open walls leading on to some of the best scenery in the world.
Queen Elizabeth National Park is a few hours’ drive downhill alongside the Congo border. It is an enormous place stretching over 2,000 square kilometres. My five-hour journey through its savannah and scrub was like a private game drive – we encountered only three lorries and saw masses of wildlife. Red-tailed colobus monkeys and olive baboons hung out in trees, Ugandan cob, wart hog, bush and waterbuck, elephant, hippo and buffalo were everywhere. The lions would do Trafalgar Square proud. It’s enough to turn one into an Atten-bore.
Mweya Safari Lodge is ideally set in the middle of all this and a useful base for any number of game drives, boat trips along the Kazinga Channel, bush walks in Kyambura or my favourites: chimp tracking in Chambura Gorge and a visit to the bat caves.
Nikons are de rigueur, but it seems to me that most tourists spend way too much time looking at animals through a camera. I’d recommend investing in good binoculars and leave photography to the professionals. Snaps of lions the size of pinheads never convey the excitement back home. Enjoy the live spectacle and a buy a decent wildlife book at the airport instead.
The Chambura Gorge is a wonderful split in the earth’s crust, virtually invisible from the savannah and stuffed full of greenery. The trekking is nowhere near so arduous as hacking through jungle but just as exciting. Almost immediately, we heard an extraordinary, screaming crescendo of chimpanzees. The massive, jarring noise is, quite frankly, unnerving – we couldn’t find the blighters though. After walking further, the menacing sound of a bass drum accompanied by whooping from the canopy echoed through the forest – the chimps were beating a flying buttress root.
We eventually found two large males tumbling and swinging from a tree and had a grandstand view. These grunting, dexterous, agile, creatures were archetypal and for my money much more interesting than the gorillas. They started to feed and then let rip again, a spiralling shriek that got louder and higher, more intense and giddy. All the chimps in the neighbourhood joined in the cacophony, becoming so excited and high-pitched that the noise might well have been ecstatic.
Lawrence put me on to the cave; I’d see fruit bats and perhaps a python. His understatement didn’t prepare me for what I was to find. The cave mouth was as wide as a pair of semis and three metres high; its smell, decidedly hamsterish. The scene inside was astounding. One and a half million Egyptian fruit bats clung to every centimetre of wall and ceiling, it was rock made of writhing flesh. As I entered the gloom, thousands of agitated creatures swirled around me. A two-metre monitor lizard sulked away into the darkness past a gargantuan python wedged into a crevice. The overblown, spoiled reptiles have the pallor of obese children fed on a diet of burgers.
Ndali Lodge is situated in a part of the world that the gods have obviously spent some time on devising. Its perched on the rim of a long-dead volcano – a huge lake sits at the bottom of one flank and a view to kill for stretches out on the other side. This is an extraordinary place, with the feel of an equatorial English country house, sultry and entrancing. Teas on the lawn and languorous communal suppers seem to stretch on forever. It was the perfect antidote to all my gung-ho adventures, a dreamy bolt hole in a fabulous country in the heart of Africa.