February 21-23, 2016
We bit the financial bullet and booked gorilla tracking permits for Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (BINP). It was a lifetime dream to spend time with these (generally) gentle giants but one that’s been toward the bottom of the bucket list given the likelihood of traveling to the western edges of East Africa. Then, we moved to western Kenya, and the limitation was primarily economic. We saved our pennies and made the decision to track in Uganda on a trip to Rwanda. We chose Ruhija for a couple of reasons. One, it was close to Kabale, and we were dependent upon locally available transport. Two, the highlands of Bwindi usually mean the gorillas can be found in relatively open areas where the canopy is not as dense. Three, Ruhija is only 25 kilometers from the section known as “The Neck”, where black bee-eaters are known to nest from January to March. We made arrangements to stay at Ruhija Gorilla Friends Resort Campsite, which was a phenomenal decision. Don’t hesitate to contact the manager, Clemensia, at +256751619725. She’s delightful.
We arrived to Kabale at 8:00 AM after taking an overnight Simba Coach from Kenya. There is only one shuttle/vehicle that travels to and from Ruhjia daily. It arrives in town about 9:00 AM and leaves around 2:00 PM. The driver is incredibly friendly, but his English is poor. His Kiswahili is only marginally better. However, simple phrases like the name of the campsite gave him all he needed to know. If you want to reach him, his mobile number is +256758537239. It was a long drive. About 3 hours later (including stops), we arrived in Ruhija. The drive itself was stunning. We climbed steadily into the mountains and slowly, the cultivated grasslands began to give way to banana plantations, which then gave way to tea plantations, and then forest. Dark, deep, dense forest. The stark delineation of Bwindi could not be missed.
There is a gate at the forest boundary, but because we used the public shuttle, we were not charged the standard vehicle fee. After about 20 kilometers on the windy dirt road, we arrived to Ruhija, which is a charming little village. All of the buildings are made of timber, and it feels like a perfect caricature of a theme park. It’s set on the spine of a sharp hill with the road riding the crest. We checked into our safari tent, unpacked a bit, and met with Saul Ampeire, who was to be our birding guide. He informed us that the rains from the day before had thankfully knocked down the dust after over three weeks without rain. He warned us though that the rains could holdover and create come less than ideal scenarios for birding due to lowered temperatures. We continued to talk over dinner, which was a delicious roasted chicken in a Ugandan sauce with fried potatoes. I’ll say it now: The food blew us away given the price and location. We expected food that would get us by. We really looked forward to breakfast and dinners. Lunch was packed each day, as our activities would prevent us from returning to camp. Tired from 24 hours of travel, we called it a night.
The following morning, we drove over to The Neck in search of black bee-eaters. Indeed, as Saul warned, the temperatures were cool, and the sun failed to come out all day. The usually busy and active bee-eaters were shut down for much of the time as they sat at the very tops of the forest seeking warmth. Two active nesting sites were found in which a bird was incubating eggs in both. However, they did not leave their roosts until the very end of the day. As we started our search, we scoped out a two-kilometer stretch of road where Saul suspected we’d find active nests. As aforementioned, we successfully located two. We spent all day patrolling this range and enjoyed great encounters with a male bar-tailed trogon, which was a lifer for us.
The day’s low light made for tough photography, but the cooler temperatures made for a very comfortable experience. We also found our very first male emerald cuckoo not more than 50 feet from the trogon and at eye level (though further into the dense forest). Great blue turacos and black billed turacos also let us know of their consistent presence through their barks, grunts, and scaws. At a small swamp, we found two African black ducks, which are an area specialty, and the blue on their wings is quite beautiful. Finally, at around 2:30 PM, some of the cloud cover burned off, and the incubating bee-eaters emerged from their nests.
They allowed for some decent photos given the conditions before the rain began to fall heavily beginning at 3:00 PM. This made for an interesting ascent back to Ruhija over the suddenly very muddy and slippery road. In fact, the road is impassable for up to 10 months of the year, with January and February being the exceptions. The surrounding scenery is stunning in this part of Uganda.
We made it back to camp in time for a delicious supper of Nile Rice (a Ugandan stir fry/fried rice with vegetables and tilapia). It was delicious, and the dessert of crepe-like pancakes topped it off. We went to bed with hopes that the afternoon rain would blow over during the night to reveal a dry and brighter day for our gorilla tracking.
I awoke at 5:00 AM to the sound of soft rainfall and was not pleased. I was afraid it would only grow in strength, making our track and photos nearly unenjoyable. I was proven wrong when after about 45 minutes the rains ceased and the clouds began to part. We enjoyed our Spanish omelets, toast, and bananas but were distracted by the coming attraction. We packed our gear and were escorted through the village down the road to the Ruhija park office about two kilometers away. Here, we submitted our permits and waited to see if other trackers would arrive. After about 35 minutes a group of four Europeans arrived, and we were ushered into the briefing gazebo. Here, we learned the history of the park, were told the dos and don’ts with the gorillas, and were provided a few tips. Joyfully, it was announced we’d be searching for the famous Bitikura group of 19 members, with four of them being silverbacks and two of them being juveniles.
The hike was not easy. It was about 40 minutes of up and down over slick and often narrow passages along ravines and drop-offs. We arrived to the gorilla area and setup our camera gear…our one hour had begun. The sixty minutes went by way too fast. But in the midst, our encounter was unimaginable. We saw three of the silverbacks, including the 38-year-old founder of the family. We came upon a group of about six, including a three-year-old resting, eating, and sleeping under a group of trees.
Slowly, they departed and spread out through the undergrowth. Two females moved only a few meters away and began to play and wrestle with each other. At one point, they were no more than one meter from us before calming down to eat. Activity was all around us, and while these two were a joy to watch, we left the Europeans and with two guides, explored more of the surrounding hillside to find other gorillas. We found a group of four in trees, a mother with a very small baby (perhaps no more than a few months). She was very shy and did not allow us to view her well at all. The tracking itself once we moved off trail was very challenging. The only path was the one cleared by the guides as they slashed and pulled the vegetation this way and that. Every step was on slippery, itchy, and sometimes spiky undergrowth that was strewn upon steep terrain, ditches, and burrows. We likened it to walking in the snow. One step we were on top, the next three feet deep.
Another real highlight was watching the three-year-old playing in a young tree and swinging up and down. When he landed, he beat his chest like the larger silverbacks, sat down, and stared at us for a bit. It was a fitting way to end our hour.
Just as we were climbing out, we spotted the dominant silverback far below with only his head emerged from the vegetation. He looked at us and then departed for a deeper recess of the forest, showing us his namesake as he grunted away. Truly magical.