We were headed for Kisoro, a village a little north of Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, which is in Uganda. Rwanda raised their fee for a gorilla permit to Volcanoes National Park a few years ago, and it is now about twice as expensive as a permit from Uganda.
Uganda was not very far away, and we soon pulled up to the Cyanika Border Post.
As an American citizen, everywhere in Africa that I had visited, I was able to get a “visa on arrival,” meaning that I did not have to apply for a visa in advance and have it in my possession already when I was ready to enter the country. This is because our passports (and other countries, too, but not all) are “secure” in the sense that our identification and authentication procedures are reliable – there is a high certainty that what my passport says is accurate and another country can rely on it. Visas can be purchased at airports and most land crossings. Uganda, however, required advance application and a letter of approval.
I had filled out the application while I was in Kenya, and paid the fee online. Two days later, I received a letter of approval via an email with a link to my documents. I wrote down the number of my application and letter of approval and put the note in my passport for safekeeping. I didn’t print the letter because I didn’t have easy access to a printer and I figured that the number would allow the border immigration officers to pull it up on their computer screen. When it was time to fly to Kigali and join the tour, I went with confidence.
Well…it turned out I had overestimated their system’s capability to share data. The immigration officer was not able to pull up my documents. That possibility simply had not occurred to me. He also didn’t speak English, but luckily Jacob speaks Swahili and was able to serve as translator as we considered the options.
Considering the options was also an over-estimation because really there were only two options: I could stay in Rwanda and miss the gorilla trek, or I could produce a letter of approval. Eek! The immigration officer was very nice, apologized, but was firm. No letter, no entry. There was an office across the road from the immigration office that had a computer and a printer. The immigration officer sent Jacob and me over there. The man working at the desk was very gracious and allowed us to use the computer. I had to access my Yahoo email, find the email, open the link, and pull up the pdf. Printing was also a struggle – it took a while to get the link to find my document file, and to print the pdf, but the humans prevailed, and I was allowed to enter Uganda. Whew!
Even though the distance was short, Uganda looked different from Rwanda. It didn’t seem as open. The people were nice, but not as outgoing – less likely to wave. More shy in some ways.
We arrived at our hotel mid-afternoon, and were taken on a nature walk. Nature was right there with us, because it was pouring rain, and I mean pouring!
We walked back to the hotel, where we congregated in the bar for a post-walk warming-up. Lynda, my roommate, is a beer person. I’m allergic to beer, so I was looking for wine, but had to settle on a whisky and Coke. The bar didn’t stock wine or liquor, but they would send someone to buy it for you, and then supply soft drinks, water, juice, etc. In this case, hard liquor was the available choice, and a small bottle turned out to be $30. The cost was so high because it was an American brand that was imported.
While we were gathered, the Prime Minister of Uganda and his entourage appeared. It turned out that the owner of the hotel was related somehow to the prime minister, so he stopped in on his way through town. One of his assistants kept suggesting to us that we should ask for selfies with the PM. The PM was a friendly guy, and probably would have been disappointed if he didn’t have people making a fuss over him. I’m sure his assistant was trying to score points with his boss, too.
After the Prime Minister departed, Jacob called us together to talk about visiting the mountain gorillas. We would go in different groups – Lynda, Lily, and Patrina; Shelley and me; and Rosemary and Nancy. Jacob said the trek was strenuous, but that there were usually paths that were easier, and some of us would be taken that way. My nose was a little out of joint – I don’t think of myself as needing an “easier way,” but, in the end, I had to admit he was right.
We were all up and away before dawn, driving to the place where we would start. Our driver would walk with us up the path toward the ranger station. It was not a long walk, but it was rough because the path was covered with small rock – not small enough to become a cohesive surface, but not big enough to provide steps – just big enough to turn unexpectedly when you put your weight on them.
Mgahinga Gorilla NP, where Shelley and I were hiking, is the smallest of Uganda’s national parks, but it is home to three Virunga volcanoes: Muhavura, which has a lake at the top; Mount Gahinga, with a swamp-filled crater, and Sabinyo, where the three countries meet (Uganda, Rwanda, and DRC.) Muhavura is the tallest at 13,540 feet/4,127 meters. The other two are between eleven and twelve thousand feet. Mgahinga Gorilla NP has only one “habituated” gorilla group, which means only eight visitors per day. The gorillas would get off easy today.
“Habituated” means that they are accustomed to human visitors. The groups are generally monitored by the same scouting rangers because, like many animals (including humans,) the gorillas have habits that are knowable and relatively predictable – where they eat and where they sleep in particular.
Volcanoes NP in Rwanda has two volcanoes and ten habituated gorilla groups, while Virunga NP in DRC has the “Mountains of the Moon,” the active volcano Nyiragongo, and six habituated gorilla groups.
When Shelley and I got to the ranger station, our driver headed back down the hill, and we waited there for the porters and another tourist group. The porters arrived, but the other tourists did not, so Shelley and I were the only visitors.
We set out, taking a wide path around the hill, through the local farms, being careful to step on the paths between the fields and not through the farmers’ fields. The idea was that we would walk slowly uphill by going around the mountain, and then – when we were near the gorillas’ location – going uphill more directly.
This was the easy part. It was very wet, the soil was very dark and rich, and the grass-covered paths were slippery to walk on, but they were comparatively level. I did okay climbing over the rock walls that bounded the fields, yet I was feeling it already. Several times during that hike, I would repeat to myself Nietzsche’s quote: “That which does not kill us….”
The guide, a park ranger, was in touch by radio with the “scouts,” the men who located the different groups of gorillas. The scouts had located the group we would visit, and would keep track of them, so our job now was to get there.
The trek was arduous, and my legs were tired. When we turned uphill, the wet grass made it hard to climb upward. I was jealous of the rangers and porters – they did this all the time and it was just another day for them!
We were getting closer, though, and that gave me some energy. The guide indicated that there was a hole in the ground, under the grass, so jump over this place….
I tried to jump. I didn’t have a lot of energy in my legs, so naturally, I landed exactly where he said to avoid. I started to fall in. I grabbed at the grass. Luckily, they grabbed my arms to stop me from falling. I kicked my legs to try to climb out of the hole, but there was nothing for my legs to get a foothold. They just swung in empty air below the grassy ground. I was unnerved a little by that. I had no choice but to stop struggling and let them pull me up. As soon as I could get my knees on the ground, I was able to get to my feet and scramble up the hill away from the hole.
I got over the fall almost immediately, because we were there! One of the scouts came to us and showed us where they were. I counted eight. They were spread over a large area, eating fruit from the trees growing there. The “kids” were now looking at us and showing off by jumping around the trees and swinging from the vines. It was an amazing sight.
One scout waved to me to come over to where he was standing, near a large silver back who was sitting, contentedly pulling the small, fruited branches from the tree and munching them.
Eventually, we had to leave. It would have been fascinating to spend a whole day watching them. But, they were human enough that they wanted privacy, and they retired from view.
Hiking down was easier, and seemed shorter, as it always does. We stopped to have some lunch, and to get a group photo.
We all compared notes, sitting in the bar, and relaxing after a strenuous, but satisfying day.