March 27, 2008

Details, details: Lowdown on tracking Bwindi's Nkuringo band

One more Uganda post, then I'll take you to another piece of the planet. Tell me where you want to go.

Megan from New Zealand, who'll be tracking the Nkuringo gorilla band in July with her brother, sent an email asking for more details about the hike and trek itself. Happy to oblige with both trek details and other info that Uganda travelers might find useful or interesting. This post will be long, but I'd rather give Megan more than less:

-- First, Megan's going to Bwindi in July, which is good news. July should be dry. Bwindi's rainiest months are March through May and September through November, when hours-long downpours are common. Besides potentially finding some dirt roads impassable, sliding and sloshing around in wet boots on a Bwindi mountainside would, I think, detract mightily from the trek experience. If you have a choice, go to Bwindi in a dry season. You may still get rain -- we got hosed down by a rain shower at the end of our hike -- but it'll likely be short and not a complete buzz-killer.

-- The jumping off point for Nkuringo band treks is Kisoro, a town that sits near both the Congo and Rwanda borders. The drive across Uganda from Kampala to Kisoro takes about 11 hours. I don't know how you're traveling, Megan -- we hired a private driver from Churchill Safaris, an outstanding tour company that I highly recommend -- but whether you travel by safari vehicle/Land Cruiser as we did, or by bus, you're looking at a roughly 11-hour cross country road trip. The buses cut that time down a bit -- but only because they go way too fast.

If you travel by bus, the buses leave Kampala (a city that grows on you -- you'll like it better on Day Two than Day One, even better on Day Three, and so on) about two in the morning. In a country where road travel is dicey on its best day, you might want to avoid bus lines like Gateway, Horizon and Baby Coach, ubiquitous, but with sketchy safety records. Each time one of these buses tore by us our driver, Ronnie, would offer some variation on this theme: "The drivers take drugs. We know this. Not so much alcohol because it makes you weak at the end of the day. The drugs make them hyper all the time, and it makes them feel the bus is a very small car, like this one." The buses are seriously overloaded. We saw a few Gateway and Horizon bus drivers make moves that left me thanking God I wasn't one of their passengers. Ronnie would just shake his head and say, in disgust, "Look at this bus!"

I'd read or heard that the safest buses are the postal buses that leave from Kampala's main post office. I asked Ronnie about this and he said, "Not the big ones -- it's the same drivers as the other companies. Safest are the smaller, 29-seater buses."

The safest road travel option in Uganda is to hire an experienced driver from a reputable safari or tour company. Churchill is top-notch. I asked Ronnie (also top-notch) to name a few other good companies, and he recommended Matoke Tours, Access Uganda Tours and Acacia Safaris. There are, of course, others. (One company that has a spotty reputation among travelers I've encountered online is Volvo Tours. I asked Ronnie about them. His response: "I've never heard of them.")

Uganda's gorillas won't hurt you, but its drivers might. They're crazy. I felt safer in the jungle with its wild animals than I felt on the highway with its wild drivers. Hire somebody who knows what he's doing then relax, to the extent possible, in the back seat. (Self-drive? I wouldn't do it. And I'm no rental car weenie. I've rented and driven myself in lots of places, including the Jordanian desert, but I wouldn't try it here.)

-- They may be wild behind the wheel, but Ugandans are among the warmest, most gracious people I've ever met. Dana and I felt welcomed from the moment we landed to the moment we left. To a man, every Ugandan we encountered in our nearly two-week sojourn welcomed us in his or her fashion, either by ignoring us -- and I mean that in a good way; they let us just blend in -- or treating us as friends, guests and equals. I've experienced this totally benign, stress-free interpersonal vibe in only a handful of countries around the world, and it's a lovely treat for a traveler.

-- On your drive across Uganda, you'll pass through many villages and see stunning scenery as you near the mountains. You get an up close and personal look at Ugandan village life. If you've hired a driver, take advantage of the 22 roundtrip hours you'll spend with him and ask questions about everything you see. You'll learn much, and your driver will appreciate your interest in his country and its people.

The road is smooth and paved until Kabale, where it turns into a rough, rutted, red-dirt ribbon for the final 80-kilometer push to Kisoro. The road twists and winds up into the mountains and is in such tough shape that those last 80 kilometers take about two hours to cover. When our Land Cruiser's wheels rolled off Kabale's pavement and onto the Kisoro road's pocked dirt, Ronnie grinned at us in the rearview mirror and said, "We call this road 'the REAL African massage.' " The stunning mountain scenery, which gets better the nearer you get to Kisoro, and roadside life going on in the villages you drive through take your mind off the twists, turns, bumps and ruts. Gorgeous landscape.

-- Trek day: Unless you're staying in the new lodge near the Nkuringo trailhead, scheduled to open sometime in 2008, you'll wake up in Kisoro about 5:30 AM to prepare for a 6:15 departure from Kisoro town to the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA)'s Nkuringo headquarters. (If you're staying at the Traveller's Rest Hotel, Kisoro's best and the place where Dian Fossey came to hang out when she needed human companionship and a break from her beloved gorillas, don't count on the "wake-up knock." Ours never came. Not that I needed it; anticipation woke me at 3 AM.)

The trailhead is about an hour's drive up a thin, twisting unpaved mountain road from Kisoro, and drivers leave Kisoro town by 6:30 to ensure your arrival at UWA's Nkuringo office by 8 AM, when you'll gather, with the other travelers lucky enough to have scored gorilla permits for that day, inside the office for a "briefing." A ranger will welcome you and go over the "gorilla rules" (see earlier Uganda posts). Bring your passports with you on trek day, as the UWA checks your gorilla permits against your passports to confirm your identity.

After the briefing, the ranger will ask if you'd like to hire a porter to carry your backpack (which, at a minimum, holds your camera, lunch and a few bottles of water). The cost is $15 per porter. I recommend engaging a porter for a few reasons.

First, the trail is extremely steep in places, and it's at those places if nowhere else that you'll be glad to have nothing bulky either pushing you downhill or impeding your uphill effort. Second, the 15 dollars you pay the men (and women) who work, usually part-time, as porters mean a great deal to the local mountaintop economy. There isn't much opportunity for people living near Nkuringo to earn income from the gorilla trekkers, because, once beyond Kisoro, there are really no tourist services or shops. Putting 15 bucks into the hands of a few locals felt good and was appreciated. Third, the porters are cool people. Ours, Enock and Jeffrey, were delightful, and we enjoyed their company.

Before you set off on your trek, the ranger will offer you long walking sticks. These came in handy, especially on the steep downhills and for what I call "poling and flinging" yourself across the small stream you'll encounter on your hike. (If you've hired a porter, he or she will help you over the stream, picking the best boulders to leap onto and holding you by the arm so you don't fall in.)

The Nkuringo office and trailhead sit in a stunning setting high atop the Nteko Ridge. The peaks of the Virunga Mountains (which you can see from Kisoro) rise on one side and the deep, blue-green, unviolated forest of Bwindi Impenetrable sits across the ridge on the other. You are five miles from the Congo border, and much of the Virunga-side landscape surrounding you sits in Congo.

Your trek starts with a downhill hike and, if you leave the ridgetop on the same trail that we did, you'll be driven from the UWA office about 10 minutes up the road, toward Congo, to the trailhead. Your porters will likely drive in your safari vehicle with you (with your backpacks on their laps -- they get right to work as soon as they're hired...), and a UWA vehicle will carry the ranger/men-with-guns (see previous posts) contingent that will accompany you into Bwindi.

Earlier in the morning, scouts with walkie-talkies will have left Nteko Ridge to head for the place where the gorillas were seen last the day before. The scouts look for clues -- broken branches and limbs, dung -- to the gorillas' present path and location. The head ranger traveling with you will have a walkie-talkie, and he'll communicate periodically with the scouts, who tell him where to guide your group. The scouts actually locate the gorillas for you, then your ranger leads you to the site.

This advance scouting means that most trek groups reach the gorillas' feeding site within 2-3 hours. We'd walked for about 2 1/4 hours when our chief ranger, Augustine, took his walkie-talkie from his ear and said, "They have found them. We are going to the place where you will get your cameras ready."

The hike itself is a physical challenge, but if you're reasonably fit with no significant mobility issues, you should be fine. The uphill climb at the end of the day is, for some, the most difficult part of the trek. Dana and I are runners and in excellent shape cardio-wise, and we both handled the hike with relative ease.

The four young Swedes we were traveling with also did well, but they were neither as nimble nor as quick as we were, and they tired more frequently. That was a price they paid for not having hired porters. (And their packs were massive -- definitely not daypacks, but backpacks holding all their travel gear; not a good idea -- bring a collapsible daypack with you to take on this hike, and stash your luggage/travel pack at your hotel or in your driver's vehicle on trek day.) The other two people in our group of eight were gents from Antwerp in the 60-70-year-old range, and they had an awful time. They were gasping for breath and sweating from every pore, had difficulty negotiating the hillsides and rocks and limbs of the trail, and had to stop every few minutes. Our entire group had to stop frequently and wait for them to catch up. We didn't much mind though, as the rests gave us a chance to revel in the incredible scenery.

The gorillas are often found at the bottom of the ridge in a forested valley, so your hike consists of 2-3 hours of serious downhill through jungle that's sometimes quite dense, then 2-3 hours of serious uphill when you leave the valley and hike back up to the top of Nteko Ridge. Again, if you're in reasonably good physical shape, you'll find the hike intermittently challenging but eminently manageable. (And always thrilling and gorgeous.) Not including the mountain drives between Kisoro and Nkuringo at the beginning and end of the day, our trek day was about seven hours long. We started down the trail toward Bwindi a bit before 8:30 AM and regained the top of Nteko Ridge about three o'clock in the afternoon.

You'll be climbing over rocks and boulders, pushing aside branches, avoiding stinging nettles and other burr-like plants, and stepping over thin lines of ants that march across the trail here and there. Keep your eye out for ants because if they get into your shoes or up your pant leg, they're hard to remove. The ranger in the lead will warn the hiker behind him when he sees a line of ants, and each hiker passes the message to the hiker behind.

We wore hiking boots and were glad to have them. But the Swedes all wore good quality sneakers/running shoes and did just fine. The key is to have good traction and ankle support. (The rangers, porters and UWA guys-with-guns all wore shin-high rubber galoshes. I don't know if they wore anything else under them.) Because your feet might get wet if it rains or if the stream in the valley is swollen and rushing, you might want to carry an extra pair of dry socks. Be sure to bring a foldable rain poncho, a hat to keep the sun off your head and ample sunscreen. You're in the forest much of the time, but there are plenty of places where you're exposed on a hillside to the blazing, equatorial sun. I brought gloves to grip branches and limbs, but we didn't use them. The Belgians wore gloves and never took them off. I'd stash a pair in my pack, just in case.

Much of the hike is through an area that is not technically part of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, a national preserve. The UWA allows farmers to cultivate this contiguous land, and you'll pass through several farmsteads, stumble upon grazing cattle and pecking chickens, see patches of terraced fields, and find plantings of coffee and bananas.

You'll know the real Bwindi when you see it. It rises from the valley floor and faces Nteko Ridge, and it's a series of rich, utterly untouched mountain humps that host the thickest, lushest stand of forest you're likely to ever see. "That is the primary forest," said Augustine, as he gazed at it with what I interpreted as love. Bwindi is primal and deep. The world as it must have looked before man reshaped it.

When the scouts find the gorillas and radio the news to your ranger, he'll lead you to a spot close to where the gorillas are feeding and tell you to "leave your packs and get your cameras ready." If you've hired porters, they'll stay with your packs. You bring only your camera with you as you walk into the trees to meet your gorillas.

You'll spend an amazing hour, and it will pass too quickly. At some point during that hour you'll find yourself forgetting that these animals are wild. You'll see them as a family -- maybe even as family...

When the hour is up, your ranger will whisper, "It's time to go," and you'll leave the clump of trees and begin your hike up and and out of Bwindi, perhaps stopping, as we did, to eat lunch on a sunny hillside.

We ate the cheese sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs the Traveller's Rest had packed for us on a sunny knoll a few hundred feet above the patch of forest we'd just left and watched and listened as our gorillas ate their way through the trees, which rustled and swayed below as our friends lumbered loudly through the brush, climbed trunks, swung on branches and tore off satisfying fistfuls of fresh, green leaves.

This will be my last Uganda post for a while. Let me know where you'd like me to take you next.