Delving into the depths of the jungle where mountain gorillas roam, we had found southern Uganda’s Bwindi National Park.
Uganda is known as the Pearl of Africa. We arrived on our Africa tour by a G Adventures truck which picked us up in Nairobi, Kenya. It had taken us one week to drive and camp across the highlands of Kenya and Uganda to reach Lake Bunyonyi, the second deepest lake in the world. Hidden amongst the high ranges, the lake is 2000 metres above sea level and very peaceful with no wind. It is a great base before our early wake-up to find the gorillas.
At 4:40am I awake to the crocking of frogs echoing across the black water. We begin our drive up the steep hillside roads. Thick, haunting fog is squeezed into every mountainous corner. Sections of the mist look like ballet dancers swirling on top of the glassy lake surface. My heart smashes against my skin as we drive over skinny, dirt roads cut into the side of the mountain range.
The sun slowly begins to greet us, breaking the coldness of night with shining radiant rays bouncing over the mountain tops. After a three hour drive we reach Bwindi National Park, home to the greatest concentration of mountain gorillas in the world. The eco system is shared by three Africa countries: Uganda, Rwanda and Congo.
We followed a trail into the jungle with our guide and two armed rangers listening on the radio transmitter to hear if the trackers had spotted our primate family. Trackers look for each family by searching for them from the last place the families had been seen the day before. After two hours of jumping over fallen tree trunks and thorn bushes, we received the muffled call over the radio that the trackers had spotted our gorillas - the Mishaya family.
The G Adventures guide pulled out a machete and started hacking a path down the steep mountainside. We followed as we went on all fours crawling under hovering branches and tangled vines. A few metres away sat a majestic silverback gorilla stripping layers of sugar cane with his strong hands. He noticed us in his space and let out jungle grunts. The females were shy and hid behind vegetation.
The baby of the family looked at us with playful eyes and did not mind our cameras clicking rapidly to capture his fluffy, small face. He climbed a skinny tree with ambition and a brave face. He reached the top and his weight made the vine loop to the forest floor. This didn't stop him though; he attempted four tree climbs and each time the branch would break, sending him back to the ground.
Eventually the family allowed us into their bubble, letting us move with them further into the jungle. My eyes widened as we watched them go about their daily tasks of eating, swinging and sleeping. It was humbling to see their happy, free faces in the wild.
The people of Uganda are extremely friendly and a number of images of them imprint themselves on my mind. A naked child sitting on the roadside drawing lines in the mud. Families peaking out from corn fields yelling "abazungu" (white people) with big smiles and excited waving hands. Bicycles cruising past with bundles of sticks, hay and wooden bed frames balanced on the back. Mud houses with sticks sunken in the walls scattered in clearings amongst the bush.
Our journey to the gorillas had taken us through small villages and dense cities. We had travelled across the equator line into national parks filled with elephants, hippos and leopards.
Being here I start to slip away from my New Zealand reality. The sights of young children breaking rocks for money in the blistering midday heat make me realise how fortunate we are to live in New Zealand. We gift bundles of bread, fruit and bouncy balls to roadside children. Each time it doesn't feel enough. A part of me will stay in Uganda with the memory of a pot-bellied small child carrying a heavy water container, taking my palm as we walked a dusty road in silence hand in hand.
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