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Uganda: where dreams come true

“For magnificence, for variety of form and colour, for profusion of brilliant life — bird, insect, reptile, beast — for vast scale — Uganda is truly “the Pearl of Africa.” Winston Churchill wrote these words in 1908 and quite remarkably they still ring true today.

Since I was a little girl I dreamt of visiting the forests where mountain gorillas lived. I didn’t only dream about it, I obsessed over it. All I wanted was to be Diane Fossey and spend my days amongst primates but life’s twists and turns took me in other directions. For years I imagined the incessant shrill of the cicadas interspersed with the calls of monkeys and mangabes and the way light might filter through the canopy. I dreamt of the rising mist that shrouds moss-covered trees and I imagined families of gorillas living in that mist.

You might think then that with such high expectations, Uganda had the potential to fail these self same but thankfully it did quite the opposite.

The best kind of road block. This was the very first gorilla we saw on our second hike. It sat blocking the path like this for five or ten minutes and we had to wait patiently for it to move before we could join the rest of it’s family gathered in the forest behind.

Uganda is a country of extraordinary beauty with dense forests, snow capped mountains, expansive lakes and savannas. It’s a friendly nation and it’s teeming with wildlife. My guests, Paul, Erica and I, hiked to see the gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park that even in the name summons a sense of the adventures it promises and ultimately delivers on.

Erika, Paul and I kitted out for our first trek. This level of cleanliness didn’t last long.

The highlight for all of us was finding these iconic apes. There is a startling familiarity that is felt when a gorilla and a human lock eyes. They are so human and yet not quite and we are so gorilla and yet not quite. The result is a bizarre insight or sense of what it might be like to be the other.

The largest Silverback in Uganda, who is also renowned as the most laid back.

Spending time with the groups felt as if we were among friends. Mothers nursed their babies as the silverback munched noisily beside them. Youngsters scrambled up trees and played rough and tumble, jostling between the adults dotted around the squashed vegetation; some resting, some grooming, others feeding.

A silverback and one of the group females rest together in a clearing created by their sheer weight on the vegetation.
It’s impossible to deny our lineage when you see the eyes of a gorilla.
A youngster suckles from its mother. The young only become fully independent from their mother’s at about 7-10 years old.

On our second day, a female walked right up and sat in front of me with her 3 month old baby hugging her large chest. The little youngster peered at me inquisitively, sun falling onto it’s face and close enough for me to see the intimate detail of its brown eyes, whiskered lips and human-like ears. After resting and feeding there a while the mother then wandered right past Erica sitting beside me, the gorilla’s baby scrambling up her side and onto her back, before they meandered into the forest.

A 3 month old bay, the youngest of the Rushegura Group.

I also had some minutes alone with the largest silverback in Uganda. He comes from the Rushegura group, which was the very first group of gorillas to be habituated in the country. This animal commands your attention just with his sheer size and presence. To watch them move is to marvel at the intimidating.

A male silverback feeds on the plentiful vegetation. This particular male is missing a finger that he damaged during a fight.

We were also lucky enough to see a group of our closest relatives, the chimpanzee, in Kibale National Park. We got a habituation permit, which allows you to spend the day with a group of researchers who trail the chimps in the area and record their day-to-day behaviour and movements. Despite the sighting being difficult from a photographic perspective with the chimps high up in the trees, it was fantastic.

A male chimpanzee rest in the canopies of the trees. A downpour the night before left the forest floor drenched and the chimps decided to avoid the mud below. You can see two nests on either side of him. These nests are made new by the chimpanzees daily and are used to rest in.

We watched some of the bigger, dominant chimps chase less dominant males through the canopy screaming and swinging from one branch to the next. We watched them grooming one another, napping and feeding their young as great blue turacos weaved though the trees amongst them shouting their distinctive call. The forests are also teeming with other wildlife and we were spoilt with sightings of primates such as the red colobus monkey, red tailed monkey, black and white colobus, Olive baboon and the shy L’hoest’s monkey.

A male chimpanzee flees from a more dominant male. With the expression on his face it’s hard to tell if he’s terrified or thrilled.
Chimpanzees are incredibly social, loud and mobile apes. Spending time with them is sure to provide some interesting behaviour.

Although we chose not to visit these on this trip, other gems include Murchison Falls, Uganda’s largest park, which is home to elephants, buffalo, crocodiles and hippos as well as the gorgeous falls forming part of the Nile River. Queen Elizabeth National Park also has a strong leopard population and is famous for its tree climbing lions that rest in the reserve’s massive fig trees on hot days. But if nothing else, you need to visit for a taste of the local gin made from bananas.

Tasting local gin made in the contraption photographed behind me. I really tried to like this drink. My face says it all!

Women and children from the local community dancing. The clothing as well as the people and culture are incredibly vibrant.

A young girl, assumedly with her sibling, picks tea in the plantations at the base of the mountain. It’s in the hills above that the gorillas live. Thankfully the communities are receiving greater financial support and resources due to the amount of gorilla eco-tourism and research money coming into the area. The result is less human ape conflict as the communities see the value of keeping these apes alive more clearly now.
Light breaking through the canopy of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The stuff dreams are made of.

This photo is possibly my favorite of our entire trip to Uganda. Captured on our last day; it is exactly as I took it, completely unedited, which I love because it looks the total opposite of that. It looks fake, almost too good to be true. It represents a moment where my breath caught because I remembered that life is capable of creating in a way that’s even more beautiful and more unreal than I imagine in my wildest dreams. How surprising for the real to be more unreal than you imagine. How wonderful!

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