Penetrating the Impenetrable Forest

Sunday we went for a hike with a local guide and the standard side-kicks of a policeman and a park ranger. We keep being told that the armed ranger or policeman needs to be along in case there are elephants though how an elephant would maneuver through the Impenetrable Forest we’re not sure. We were fortunate that it was the clearest day we had experienced since arriving and the panoramic views were superb. At one point we could see the dormant volcanoes in Rwanda and the Great Rift Valley as it coursed up through the Congo. Indeed the trail we were on ducked briefly into the Congo.


Monday night we felt transported back to Lord of the Rings again as the sheet lightning was so prolonged and vivid it seemed as though the eye of Sauron was radiating out at us. Because we are up in the hills, the thunder and lightning really feel personal.


Rachelle and Thea have desperately missed their friends and usual routines of school, soccer, youth group, etc. but overall have coped with the enforced family togetherness. Doing grade 11 and 8 by distance education has been challenging for them. Our internet access has often been slow and sporadic. They have had to work in diverse, often noisy environments ranging from cramped hotel rooms to the cervical cancer screening room at Nyanga District Hospital (when there was no clinic on), and in 35-degree heat in the house at Karanda. It has been difficult to get into a groove and the four of us compete for access to the one laptop (Paul and I have found that providing written material/tables is one avenue for us to help out at the hospitals). Nonetheless the girls are making progress and I hope learning things from our various excursions, observations, and conversations. Their teachers have been flexible and understanding for the most part. Thea and Rachelle have also formed some friendships when possible. The high school girl who passed the note to Rachelle and who we gave a couple of pens and a Canada pin to in return gave Rachelle a lovely basket she had made. The activity both Rachelle and Thea have listed as their favourite in Uganda so far – building the mud hut – was the least enjoyable for me. They say it was the first time they really felt a part of something and that they had made a contribution.


Wednesday afternoon we had a tour of CIBC – Community Initiatives for Biodiversity Conservation. It is run by a local guy who obtained a degree in agriculture and returned to set up a training centre. He is raising tilapia, pigs, and chickens and growing a wide range of fruits, vegetables, and oyster mushrooms as well as harvesting honey. It is particularly impressive when you realize his only farm vehicle is a motorbike, all his outbuildings are constructed without the benefit of power tools, and all the harvesting is done by hand. His goal is to teach farming to alleviate poverty, hunger and malnutrition. Some of his clients are single mothers and others are people who used to hunt in the forest and no longer can. We had supper there. Millet bread has a texture akin to dirt and the girls renamed it millet gloop but otherwise we enjoyed the eggplant, tilapia, mushroom, cabbage, potato and banana dishes. Stopping by the Bwindi Bar for brownies was an additional treat.


Thursday morning, we got a call as we were walking down to breakfast that two permits for Gorilla Tracking had come available. When we were organizing to come to Bwindi the thought of gorillas had not crossed our minds. It was only on arriving here that we were alerted to the possibility and it became one of those “well we are here so it seems silly not to take the opportunity” things.  Lori was booked to teach that day so couldn’t go. They are strict in enforcing the rule that children under 16 can’t go so Thea couldn’t go either (despite the fact that she is taller than Lori and Rachelle and has way better endurance than the others in the group we ended up with). So Rachelle and I raced back, quickly changed, grabbed some water (but didn’t have enough time to get breakfast or put together a lunch) and headed to the meeting point.


It ended up being quite an epic day as we clocked 18km and 7 hours penetrating the Impenetrable Forest tracking the gorillas. At one point we had climbed most the way up a ridge when we were told the gorillas were on the move so we had to back-track across a river valley, forcing our way through the Impenetrable Forest. A true “hacking through the jungle” experience (and therefore not really low impact). Later on Rachelle had to stop me from sliding down into the ravine as there was nothing for me to get a hand hold on when I slipped. We did eventually reach the gorillas but it was not the peaceful sitting watching them at rest and play experience that you might imagine. It was more crashing through the Impenetrable Forest as they were trying to get away from us. At one point the Silverback charged straight at Rachelle and another gorilla crashed past me almost knocking me down. So it’s hard to know what to think about the whole experience. It appeared quite stressful and disturbing for the gorillas and we can’t imagine that it is good for them to be chased through the forest every day. It is my understanding that there are a few families of the now over 400 gorillas in the park that are “habituated” to human contact but I was left with the feeling that, if sentient, they would be thinking “Do you mind? I’m trying to have a crap here!” Others have reported a less intrusive experience. While it was amazing to see them in the wild and so close we have to admit to being ambivalent to the whole experience.


Another concern is that the park states that 20% of the (very large amounts) of money charged for the permits goes to the local community. However not a single group we have spoken to here has stated that they get government support. We have been told that there is a “process” to apply for money but no-one has ever been successful in jumping through the hoops. All the more concerning given that the creation of the park to protect the gorillas displaced the local Batwa and created many of the social and health problems the many volunteer groups are trying to manage.


We were very thankful that evening for the Thanksgiving meal the guest house provided. There were hospital staff and visitors from five countries and we all had much to be thankful for. We were particularly thankful for the drive home we got as the daily deluge had kicked in after supper.


We have mostly managed to avoid being caught in the daily deluge. Yesterday, however, Lori was taken on a hike up the local river valley just as the heavens opened. It rains a lot here. 1.4 to 1.9 METRES per year. But we are told that only 2 hours from here there is drought. It is hard to believe that 3 short weeks ago we were begging for rain and now we are quite done with it (we were relieved to hear Karanda has had some rain). The contrast of abundance and paucity is a theme here: from the contrasts in the weather to the contrast between the tourist lodges (and our own very comfortable accommodation and abundant meals) to the mud huts and shanties of the local population. Much for us to be thankful for.

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