Several weeks ago, two other researchers and I took a break from our projects and went on a 10-day vacation. For me, leaving the country was also a necessity given that my research visa papers haven’t been processed yet; it is this research visa that would allow me to stay in the country for more than three months at a time. I took Richard’s camera along (which I use for the chimpanzee photography), aware than I might regret another 10 pounds in my pack but hoping the high-quality pictures would be worth it.
We started off by driving to Queen Elizabeth National Park about 90km south of Fort Portal. We avoided the most visited area of the park where the boat rides and most of the game drives are, and headed further southwest to Ishasha. Named for the nearby village, this sector of the grasslands is known for its tree-climbing lions. We did our own game drive that afternoon; although it was a bit less comfortable since we weren’t riding in the standard safari pop-top land cruiser, it was neat to be driving ourselves and seeing all the wildlife from our own car. It was also surprising how much we saw outside of the park gates, before we were required to pay park fees. The highlights were big herds of Ugandan kob (an antelope similar to impalas) and topi
(another kind of antelope), but no lions unfortunately. That night, we stayed along the Ishasha River, which creates the border between Uganda and DRC in the park. The night was far from still, punctuated by nearby hippo grunts and hyena yelps; we were reminded to be cautious should we venture outside the cabin at all. The next morning was rainy, unfortunately, but we met up with a Wildlife Conservation Society worker David knew who was heading a project tracking lions with radiotelemetry. Despite the rain, we were treated to a rare off-road outing, and did manage to track one lion. After about three hours of driving, we headed back to the Ishasha river and walked along the Ugandan bank taking pictures of hippos.
That afternoon, we kept driving south, and the drive proved to be anything but smooth. First, we took a short cut off the main road to save some time, but the rough terrain ended up costing us time and money: once we reached tarmac again, the car seemed reluctant to accelerate, and the engine gave off a pungent burning smell. We pulled over, and found we must have hit a rock that busted a hole in the gearbox, and all of the oil had drained out. Fortunately for our cameras, but unfortunately for the injured car, southwest Uganda is rather mountainous, and we can now testify to the difficulty of driving uphill with an engine that refuses to accelerate. There was no mechanic until our destination of Kisoro another 40km away, so we had no choice but to keep driving and just keep our pace slow. Things were going well, until we reached long stretches of road under construction. It seemed most of the roads cut into the mountainsides were built to accommodate one lane, and they were being widened to allow for two lanes. As it was, there was often only one lane open, and the workers holding red and green flags allowing traffic to pass incrementally were surprisingly casual and ineffective—more than once, we had to pull over onto wet tar because of a truck coming right at us. Even with the flag-wavers doing their job well in theory, there are inherent risks in driving through an active construction site that seemed to be overlooked. At one stretch of particularly steep mountainside road, there were several bulldozers uphill clearing rocks. These rocks were falling down onto our stretch of road, where a couple other bulldozers were working to push the debris further down the mountain. A fairly significant job for the flag-wavers, then, to communicate with the bulldozers and the car drivers to make sure no cars were driving by as rocks were falling down. Well, it didn’t work for us: we were the last in a line of cars driving downhill of a bulldozer, and before we passed it started pushing down rocks right in front of us. Luckily I noticed and stopped in time, and when I yelled to the flag-waver that they had to be more careful, he just gave me a non-emphatic wave and continued to give me the green “go” flag. We did finally arrive to Kisoro, a town about the size of Fort Portal, in the very southwest corner of Uganda. After a frustrating day, we treated ourselves to a nicer hotel, which paid off with great views of the Virunga Mountains.
The next morning, we took a taxi to Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. We were too late to climb Mt. Muhavura, the largest volcano in the park, but we did hike up Mt. Gahinga. The name means “small pile of stones” in the native language, but at 3474m Gahinga is anything but that. The hike up wasn’t too challenging, although a bit steep at some parts, and since the trailhead was at 2500m it only took us about 3 hours. We were accompanied by a guide and an armed guard, whose job was to scare off any buffalos or elephants we might scare along the way. According to our guide, each mountain in the park has a different vegetation composition on the slopes, and Gahinga has the most extensive bamboo forest. Different from the giant clumps of bamboo I saw in the DR Congo interior, this was a dense expanse of smaller stalks that was amazing to walk through. The visibility at the peak was initially poor due to cloud cover, but while we were eating lunch it cleared up and we had a great view of the swamp that occupies the extinct caldera. All three peaks in Mgahinha Gorilla National Park (Gahinga, Muhavura, and Sabinyo) lie on the Uganda/Rwanda border, so views across the swamp were also views into Rwanda. On the hike down, we diverted off the trail in the bamboo forest and tracked Golden Monkeys for an hour. Golden monkeys are an endangered species only found on the
slopes of the Virunga volcanoes, and their cute, puffed-up cheeks immediately coined them my new favorite species of monkey. It really paid off here to have Richard’s camera, given the very low-light conditions and the dense bamboo stalks that made focusing difficult. It was a great day in the park, finishing off with an exciting moment right in front of the visitor’s center where we did scare a buffalo just off the trail.
The next day our car was fixed and we drove the 15km to the Rwandan border. We had a bit of trouble getting the car across because we didn’t have all the necessary paperwork that no one new we needed, but eventually we got our passports stamped and continued on our way on the right side of the road. There were several striking differences between Uganda and Rwanda, even right across the border. First, there were tons of people walking on the road. Driving felt almost like a video game: although the roads were in good condition and we didn’t have to dodge many potholes, we really had to pay attention to avoid hitting people. Second, most of the houses seemed to be in pretty decent condition: many of the roofs were tiled, which I’ve never seen in Uganda, many of the tin roofs were brand new, and it seemed like almost everywhere had electricity. The rolling hills and lush green terrace agriculture, while unfortunately reminiscent of the scarce native forest that remained, also provided quite a picturesque landscape. We only drove the 30km to Ruhengeri that day, which is the large town that serves as the base for most gorilla treks. We found a nice coffee shop where we relaxed most of the afternoon, and then drove about 15km further towards the Volcanoes National Park gate where we’d start our gorilla trek the next morning.
Luckily, the weather was clear the next morning, and we arrived at the park gate at 7am to find out where we would be tracking mountain gorillas. Good thing we were reminded that Uganda and Rwanda are in different time zones, or we might have been an hour late to our 7am meeting at the park gate. We had another great view of the volcanoes: we saw the same four peaks visible from the Ugandan side, plus two more: Visoke and Karisimbi, both lying on the Rwanda/DR Congo border. Karisimbi is the tallest volcano in the Virunga chain at 4507m, tall enough to be snow-capped, and it was on the slopes of Karisimbi we tracked our group of mountain gorillas.
Mountain gorillas are one of four subspecies of gorilla, and with an estimated population size of about 800 individuals they are critically endangered and the second-most endangered African ape behind the Cross River gorillas. There are no mountain gorillas in zoos—all captive gorillas are lowland gorillas—so there are only four places in the world where you can find them: Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Mgahinga National Parks in Uganda, Virunga National Park in DR Congo, and Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. At Volcanoes National Park, there are a few different groups, and each tourist party is given a different group to track. We were fortunate enough to be paired with the largest, the Susa group. The Susa group is also apparently one the hardest to reach, sometimes requiring 9 or 10 hours of hiking up the volcano’s slopes to find. After only about an hour and a half of trekking through the farmland on the volcano’s lower slopes, however, and just inside the national park’s stone boundary, we met up with the trackers who had been following the gorillas since the early morning. We didn’t know we were so close to them, actually: we were steadily walking uphill when all of a sudden a huge silverback comes out of the dense bamboo forest to investigate the disturbance. And when I say huge, I mean it—being used to seeing chimps in the jungle, I was taken aback at how massive an adult male mountain gorilla is. This encounter was the beginning of the hour we were allowed to spend with the group, and we were going to take advantage of every second given how expensive the gorilla permits are.
We moved to a clearing where we found another silverback, about 6 or 7 females and juvenile males, and 3 or 4 infants. We spent most of our hour here, mesmerized with the silverback’s menacing protective glare and the infants’ innocent roughhousing. According to park regulations, we weren’t allowed within 7 meters of the gorillas, but our guide wasn’t strict at all about that limit: if the gorillas decided to move closer, we didn’t move at all. One female even came up behind me, and before I realized she was there she pushed me out of the way to get by. Not that I was very startled: she wasn’t nearly as large as the silverbacks, just a meager 350 pounds or so. In fact the size difference between the adults and infants is one of the more impressive features of mountain gorillas: infants are born as light as 3 pounds, and the silverbacks can reach 500 pounds. It was definitely one of the more awesome single hours I’ve spent.
The next day, we drove another hour across Rwanda to Gisenyi, a town right along the DR Congo border and on the northeastern shore of Lake Kivu. We stayed at a lakefront hotel, paddled on the lake for an hour or so, and watched the fleet of local fishing boats cast off to spend the night dragging their nets. They mostly trawl for a small minnow-size fish they call sambaza, which we sampled that night at dinner. They were surprisingly tasty, although I felt a bit guilty knowing that I was helping to fuel the inevitable overfishing effort.
The next morning, we drove to the DR Congo border, where the road crosses into Goma just south of the Virunga chain. The Virunga Mountains have 8 main peaks, and 6 out of the 8 are extinct volcanoes. Two, however, are active, and they are both in the DR Congo. The southern peak, Nyiragongo, is just a few kilometers north of Goma (my best picture of it is actually from last year, when I flew into Goma in November on my long-winded trip back to Kinshasa). Nyiragongo is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, and its main allure is a dramatic lava lake inside the caldera. We had planned on crossing into Goma, where we would be picked up by a guide from the national Congolese park service to drive us to the trailhead. Unfortunately, we got to the border and found that our visa applications had been lost, so unless we wanted to pay $280 to purchase visas at the border we couldn’t enter the DR Congo. After lodging our futile complain with the Virunga National Park service, we settled on driving back to Uganda, where there was another border which only charged $50 for visas at the border. So, we drove back to Kisoro in Uganda, and the next morning drove the 15km to the DR Congo border. We crossed the border and met our transport: an unnecessarily large, old military truck. It was a very uncomfortable 3 hour drive: it was very dusty, very bumpy (the truck didn’t have any shock absorbers), and the build of the truck itself reminded us that the road wasn’t completely safe. We were travelling in North Kivu province, where most of the remaining Congolese rebel groups have remained. Indeed, we stopped at the Virunga National Park headquarters on the way, where we were informed that their current objective was securing their borders. Accordingly, infantry stations were scattered every few kilometers along the road.
We finally did reach the base of the volcano in one piece, and after organizing our rental equipment, porters, and guards, we started up the mountain. The hike proved to be somewhat challenging: the terrain was not consistently steep, but a long stretch was a tedious balancing effort over loose volcanic rock. And, though the peak was not an intimidating height (3470m), climbing 1500 vertical meters in 4 hours without any altitude acclimatization left me feeling pretty exhausted. When we reached the rim of the caldera the view was obscured by clouds, so we retreated to our cabins to rest and wait for the weather to clear up. We did get a glimpse of the lava lake while it was still light out, but by far our best view was after dark. I have to say, I consider myself an adventurous type, but sitting on the rim of a volcano looking down at flowing, molten rock was something I never thought I’d do.
In between squalls, we stood completely absorbed on the caldera rim, entranced with this fabled image of a gateway into Hell and fighting the instinct to admit we really shouldn’t be here. Finally, a more severe rainstorm pushed us back to the relative security of our cabins for the night, although I couldn’t help but imagine how fitting it would seem if the looming form of Charon emerged from the red-tinted mist.
We woke up early the next morning completely enveloped by another cloud, which denied us any further lava sightings. We descended the volcano in about 2 and a half hours, clenched our jaws and abdomens for another 4 hours of tense driving, and found ourselves back in Uganda that evening for a large meal and sound sleep. The next day was a full 9 hours of driving back to Kibale.
For me, now, it’s back to cold showers and spotty electricity. It’s been relatively constant this whole past week, actually, until just several days ago when an ill-fated monkey shorted out a main cable. I’ve uploaded a full set of pictures from my trip to my Picasa page, and I hope you enjoy looking at them as much as I enjoyed taking them.