Our month-long trip was really created around two set dates that we had picked to go chimp and gorilla trekking. These two activities were magical and unforgettable days that I would recommend everyone traveling in the region plan on doing! We bush-whacked our way through athick jungle in an attempt to keep up playful chimps bounding around in the canopy only to come across one hiding in the bushes 3 meters away from us. We stood within 10 meters of a silver back gorilla and watched one of his mates groom him as their three youngsters play in the trees almost directly above you. You can’t get that anywhere else.
Most people who go chimp and gorilla trekking organize it through a company based in Uganda- you can do this on the relatively cheap. The reason for this is that you need to reserve permits for these activities well in advance of your arrival to Uganda. It is MUCH EASIER to reserve and pay for these permits in advance through the tour companies, they provide you with reliable transportation throughout the country, and figure out your accommodation for you.
If this is your first time traveling in East Africa we would HIGHLY RECOMMEND GOING WITH THIS OPTION! Navigating the bus system and the bureaucracy that is the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) is frustrating and takes the patience of a saint or the arrogance of someone who has been living in the region for a while and doesn’t understand why they would pay a someone to do something that they’re pretty positive they can do in their own. In other words you have to to be an overconfident moron to try to do this on your own.
But if those overconfident moronic tendencies are strong in you (as they are in us) please continue reading!
Step 1: Reserve your trekking permits.
The UWA only allows a certain number of people to trek with their primates on any given day- this is to minimize the disturbance to these habituated primates. It is recommended that you make these reservations at least a month in advance. So we picked our days based on our roughest itinerary and emailed the UWA. 1 week later-no response. We tried again- no response. We called- which was expensive- no one picked up. We called once a day- sometimes someone would answer and put us on hold. By the time a human started talking to us we we usually had precious seconds before we ran out of phone credit and the call was cut off. So every phone call was a race to write down a helpful email address or name before the clock ran out! The process of confirming our permits for the dates we wanted took about three weeks.
Payment: Gorilla trekking permits cost $600 for foreigners as of January 2014. Chimp trekking permits in Kibale were $120 per person. We were told that we had to wire money to the UWA office. Had we been doing this from the U.S. we probably could have gone directly from our American banks, but we were in Tanzania. This meant we had to take out MASSIVE amounts of cash from the ATMs in a short amount of time- an activity that our banks certainly looked twice at. (We also lost a fair amount of money on ATM fees.) We then had to convert it to US dollars (at another loss because of the miserable exchange rate), and find a bank or company that would let us wire the money. Various Banks, Western Union, and MoneyGram branches gave us different requirements for going about this transaction and the
transaction fee’s were usually about $100. Some wanted us to convert the money to Ugandan shillings which we couldn’t do in Tanzania because $720 equals 1,800,000 Ugandan shillings- and no one in the world has that many Ugandan shillings lying around. Others wanted us to open our own bank account which we didn’t have time to do. Other’s said it was simply impossible to wire money to the UWA because it was an organization and Western Union and MoneyGram only wire money to individuals. In the end we agreed that we would just visit the UWA office in Kampala once we got to Uganda. (When we arrived there we were told that the only way to have wired money to the UWA would have been to wire it to a friend living in Uganda who would have physically brought it to the office- well yeah why hadn’t we thought of that??)
The UWA office in Kampala- As soon as we walked into the office we realized we were the only solo travelers in the office filled with tour operators. This was about the millionth indication that we had made a terrible mistake in assuming we could organize this safari by ourselves…
Contrary to what we were expecting, the UWA office was a fully operational office that was the home base of eight UWA officials working behind their desks that held up fully functional internet-using computers and telephones. And contrary to our assumptions that all the workers were both blind and deaf thus had missed our million phone calls and emails these workers were functioning with no visible disabilities. We met the woman we had failed at making email correspondence with multiple times- a young, energetic, attractive Ugandan woman who spoke PERFECT English- who helpfully informed us that the price for trekking had been raised by $100 just this past month (happy new year). If only we had been able to pay in the year 2013- if only we had had that Ugandan friend. We got extra money out of a nearby ATM and changed it to USD- because this Ugandan organization would not accept Ugandan shililngs. To be fair, $600 was 1,500,000 Ugandan shillings, and that is a cumbersome amount to have to handle. After convincing our cashier that no we had not brought our own tape to mend the tiny tear in our $50 and perhaps she could let us borrow some from the tape dispenser sitting on her desk we were FINALLY holding our trekking permits in our hand. It had only taken us 2 months and a couple hundred extra dollars to make it happen.
Kibale Forest (to see those rambunctious chimps)- this one was easy. Get yourself to Fort Portal using the easily accessible buses coming from Kampala and catch a bus heading past the Kibale Forest entrance gate. Getting home, your best bet is to hitch a ride with other trekkers or just wait by the side of the road for the next bus.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest: get yourself to the Bwindi Backpackers head office in Kabale, Uganda. You’ve got to make a reservation at this backpackers and they offer a shuttle that gets you into the park, to the backpackers, to your trekking point, and back down again- for a perfectly reasonable price. Take them up on this- there is NO better way to get into the park. Well, actually, I kind of hope there was a better way to get into the park. And below is why:
Our shuttle was set to leave at 4:30pm. We were waiting in the office by 3:30pm (which was very un-east-african of us. No one is early here!). Turns out our vehicle was going to be carrying one other traveler, a cook, and all of our food- so we had to wait a good hour to load everything and everyone. Among our precious cargo was a jackfruit that we had purchased because it was the size of a small child and only cost $2 and we had never tried one before. We wanted to give Sir Jack his own seat, the extra passengers made this impossible.
Promptly at 5:30pm we set off. One hour of working our way up the mountainous roads into the forest our land cruiser got overheated and had to stop. Looking utterly perplexed, our driver climbed out of the car and under the hood to see what the problem was. Mike climbed out a few minutes after and quickly noticed that their was a tank that was leaking water (Mike more specializes in canoe maintenance so bear in mind this isn’t really his field). Our driver sent a kid running down the hill into the nearby village to bring back some water which he poured into the tank. The leak was still there, but we had water again. We continued to climb.
About half an hour later the engine had surprisingly overheated again. The driver checked that tank and, wouldn’t you know it, the darn thing was empty again. At this point the sun was setting. He sent for another jerry can full of water and refilled the tank. This proved to be not enough of a solution because about 20 feet down the road the car just stopped. We were right next to a tiny village that was perched on the side of a cliff. On car was right on the wrong side of a blind switchback- any cars whipping down the hill wouldn’t see us until the had cut the turn too wide and had pushed us off the cliff. The sun had set.
Our driver popped the hood once again. This time he was joined by about fifteen men from this village, most of whom I will assume had never been under the hood, or behind the wheel of a car in their lives. But nonetheless they all dug right into that core of the vehicle. It was a mess of flashlight beams and hands flailing around. A hose that I’m sure at some point served some vital purpose in those inner workings was flung over the popped hood. At this point Mike got out of the car and asked the driver when another vehicle would be coming for us.
“Only when we have completely failed.”
Mike got back in the car that had been surrounded by the other residents of this village. Now that the sun had set they were tapping on our windows and requesting that we turn the interior lights on so that they could “keep watching us.”
A man dropped a bag of flour next to the car and scurried off again. The driver reported he was going in search of superglue. This would be the miracle recipe that would patch the leak and save our car.
About half an hour later our driver announced that he had called for another vehicle.
We heard this new car before we saw it- a bass-bumping monster careening around these moon-lit hills. This new driver jumped out and started transferring all of our belongings into the trunk of his white sedan that read “good luck” over the license plate. He proudly introduced himself as a DJ first, a driver second.
So we squeezed in, leaving our old driver and the cook to fend for themselves. We made our way up through the hills even slower than we had been going before- having to navigate the dirt road paved with boulders and pot holls proved more difficult in a sedan. It was pitch black outside- we knew we were driving next to some perilously steep drop offs but we couldn’t see them therefore they did not exist.
At 11:30pm we arrived at the Bwindi Backpackers- a full four and a half hours past our original ETA. There was no electricty, there were candles. There was no food, but there were big comfy beds. So we snuggled down into our bunk beds to try to squeeze every second of sleep in that we could before rising at 5:30 am the next morning to trek with the gorillas. So far, the Bwindi IMEPENTRABLE Foret was living up to it’s name.
[Things to bring/wear- long pants, long socks that you can tuck your long pants into, gloves (you can also rent these for a fee), long sleeves- this forest is a prickly thing. And probably a camera.]
Despite the combined forces of the universe conspiring against us we finally get to see the gorillas. Our trekking group included, among others, a Swiss oboe player/magician who could imitate any and all bird calls and to the terror of our guides set money on fire. It was a wonderful day- a beautiful walk up and down massive hills along a path that finally descended into a dense and lush jungle. Then as if on cue the gorillas materialized by the side of the path. It is an impossible experience to describe. And that’s why the gorillas are the pictures, they are not the story. The story is one of sweet sweet victory- over the incomprehensible inner workings of the UWA, the multiple banks and ATMs that tried in vain to stop us from extracting large amounts of money, and the terrible road and poorly functioning cars. Over the safari ants, the prickly bushes, and the forest that billed itself as “impenetrable”. We penetrated!