We’re flying south over Uganda, at an altitude of seven thousand metres, when our pilot starts to descend. Below us the River Nile snakes its way through lush green vegetation, shimmering in the equatorial morning sun as it churns up white froth around the scattered islets and cataracts that obstruct its course toward the Albertine Rift Valley.
My clients, a veteran Hollywood producer and his son, are glued to their windows in anticipation of buzzing the legendary Murchison Falls. I have visited Murchison on many occasions, but this is the first time I’m seeing it from a bird’s eye view. Here the Victoria Nile forces three hundred cubic metres of water per second through an indestructible gap only seven metres wide, before flowing calmly westward into Lake Albert. Our Cessna 421 descends to less than a thousand metres over “Devil’s Cauldron” whereupon we’re able to pick out individual crocodiles on the banks, waiting patiently for the chance of a meal. Murchison never fails to deliver.
I am a gorillaphile (strictly platonic, I can assure you), the result of a career in gorilla conservation spanning two decades that took an immense toll on my life and steered me in directions I could never have foreseen. For the past six years I have been taking travellers over mountains and through jungles, trekking gorillas in the Albertine Rift.
Whether it’s organising a human caravan before setting off on expedition by foot into the jungle - enlisting the services of local porters, security guards, chefs and a priest - or making sure the helicopter arrives on time, I take care of it. And I have been fortunate enough to trek with some interesting people: celebrities, movie producers, company CEOs and polymaths. There’s no better time to get the benefit of a genius’s mind than after he or she has spent an hour with the gorillas.
Uganda is a country very close to my heart. She is rich in culture and biodiversity, and has abundance of wildernesses within half a day’s drive of the capital: woodlands, acacia savannahs, vast dry grasslands, swamplands, high-altitude afro-montane forests, evergreen forests, lakes the size of countries, and lush, primordial rainforests where chimpanzees and gorillas have lived for eons. The bird life is second to none. More than 1,100 avian species range through Uganda, which is more than three quarters of all the birds ever recorded in sub-Saharan Africa.
I own and operate my own company in Kampala, Gorillaland Safaris, which holds no assets but a website, and incurs no overheads. Thus I have the freedom to scale my safaris up or down, according to my clients’ needs. I take tourists who want to visit Great Apes in their natural habitats, and experts who are searching for a rare sub-species in a remote habitat.
Typically my safaris are with couples, sometimes groups of four, whom I accompany by car into the Albertine Rift for four or five days spent tracking primates in primordial forests, and staying in sublime eco-lodges. Spending long periods in remote locations with people you don’t know can be a stressful, especially if they’re passive aggressive types who blame every problem in Africa on their guide. Usually the combination of rare fauna and flora in far flung places, and my tireless wit, are enough to keep the road journey lively. “Name the ten countries with just four letters.” That can keep a car full of clients occupied for hours. “OK, now the five countries ending in ‘L.’” Few jobs offer more satisfaction.
But few are more disappointing. Like a soldier on the front line, I can go for months without seeing any action. During the lean times I try to relax with my mates at the Corner House in Ntinda, a suburb of Kampala. Ambition is a sore subject but the conversation is always stimulating. Then, as the funds diminish, my life partner Kigongo and I must find ever ingenious ways to survive, staying at home, eating just rice and beans and feeding the dogs fishmeal. Nevertheless, in times of drought I know I am still learning, yearning, going deeper, and that this will ultimately make me a better safari guide. And I am reassured by the fact that, however challenging, I live in the one place on earth I always yearned to be, the heart of Africa.
There is untold magic in these forests. I can remember once years back trekking through the Congo side of the Virungas, Africa’s oldest national park. My friends Popol and Gapira were taking me to see a gorilla group whose incumbent silverback had recently been shot and killed by soldiers. These days this is a rare occurrence, and I point it out simply to show how unpredictable gorilla behaviour can be. Uniquely, after the death of the previous silverback, a wild, un-habituated, ex-lone silverback had subsequently assumed leadership of what was a group of habituated gorillas (those familiar to human presence).
As we approached, he became quite agitated and refused to allow us any closer, yet he could not convince the other gorillas to flee. He screamed and beat his chest and thrashed about the vegetation like a demon. Eventually we gave up our pursuit and sat down in a dried-up riverbed, a sunny, meandering rift through the otherwise pristine afro-montane forest. All at once the gorillas began to emerge from the trees and cross the riverbed, just a few metres ahead of us: large, black, shaggy, charismatic mammals that moved silently and stoically like shadows. They wanted to see us. It was the very first time that I felt their kinship.
Following a 50% hike in the price of gorilla permits in Rwanda this summer to $750, trekking Mountain gorillas in the Congo, which costs only $400, has become popular again. The Rwandese were fond of saying Congolese gorillas emigrate across their border because they feel safer on their side of the volcanoes. Now gorilla tourists are headed in the other direction, for the cheaper tracking fees. While these do seem like high prices to pay for park permits, sadly there are just too few gorillas in the wild, and their habitats too fragile to charge any less.
My driver Patrice and I have made countless journeys across East Africa together. But our favourite direction out of Kampala was always due west. Few places can thrill like the Congo. On one occasion we took the journalist, Geoff Carr, to meet a tiny, isolated population of gorillas in the Congo, thought to be a unique sub-species. Once across the border the road took us up a steep, 900-metre incline, to one of the highest Rift Valley escarpments. There we parked the car and climbed to the highest, Mount Tshiaberimu.
Camp Kalibina, at 3,000 metres, took two and half hours to reach. It was an arduous climb and at times the incline seemed too steep to overcome. The last of our expedition arrived after nightfall, and gathered around a blazing campfire. “Are they a unique sub-species,” asked Geoff, who was writing a piece about Great Apes.
“Whether they are or not,” I explained, “Mt Tshiaberimu is still a conservation area of great scientific importance. The relative isolation of this gorilla population makes it is a vital reserve in the gorilla gene pool.”
The next morning, with a light rain falling, we set off downhill on our gorilla trek. After an hour tramping through the forest, the scent of decay and fresh growth bursting from every footfall, we found them foraging in a bamboo forest, a small group consisting of a Silverback, mature female, adolescent female and infant male. Compared to the other sub-species I’d encountered, if indeed these are another sub-species, Tshiaberimu gorillas are somewhat diminutive.
Typically, while the adults busied themselves elsewhere, the youngsters paid us their full attention. On this occasion, however, I noticed something quite odd. The female was more interested in Patrice than anything else, tugging at his clothing and looking him up and down. A ranger tried to discourage her, but every time she retreated she was accosted by her younger brother, a third her size, who goaded her to return. She would then apparently pleasure herself, before charging back to grab Patrice by his trousers. To cap it off, she tried to follow us when we left, and it took a good deal of effort to dissuade her. In my twenty years observing gorillas, I’d never seen anything quite like it.
It is possible to visit the Mt Tshiaberimu gorillas by arrangement with the park authorities, the Institute Congolaise pour la Conservation du Nature (ICCN), though permits are rarely issued. This has more to do with the lack of demand, than the fragility of the ecosystem. The Trek I did with Geoff is one that anyone can do and was well worth the physical effort. However, if and when Tshiaberimu becomes a popular destination, ICCN would be wise to seriously limit the number of permits available – there are only 21 gorillas on that mountain.
Some wildlife encounters no one wants to experience. The Tumbu fly, one of Africa’s few remaining man-eaters, is a case in point. It derives its scientific name Cordylobiaanthropophaga from the Greek word for ‘eater of men.’ Hardly a safari goes by when I don’t return scarred by this creature.
Unbeknownst to you, as you sip sundowners on the lodge veranda, this insect is laying up to 300 eggs on your drying clothes in the service area out back. If not properly ironed (yes, that’s why they iron them), your smalls may have a nasty surprise in store for you when you next put them on. Once the eggs come into contact with your skin, the larvae hatch and burrow into your flesh where they feasts on you until adulthood, about three weeks later, after which they abandon you for the life of a Tumbu fly.
One time on safari with John and Margot Paterson, an good-natured couple from Queensland, we were seated by the pool in a remote lodge in Serengeti when I noticed a boil-like contusion on John’s side. It was a Tumbu fly alright, nesting in his torso. No worries. I told him to apply some vaseline to it and the larva would soon wriggle out for air, whereupon he could remove it with a pair of tweezers. After he returned to Australia John wrote, “The most interest generated by far has been the tumbu fly story. I will dine out on it for many years.”
Whether it’s helping a client overcome the notion, let alone the experience, of an insect that lays her eggs in a human host, or the trauma of falling into a pit latrine, sense of humour is a big part of my job. Often locals have the last laugh. I once guided fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg and her husband Barry Diller into gorilla country. Their entourage included half a dozen male associates from the industry. After they had all arrived on the tranquil shores of Lake Kivu, and were safely in their hotel suites, the receptionist declared, “Never before have so many men checked into so few rooms!”
Safaris are not always a laugh. Fortunately, mishaps tend to occur before the client arrives. Once in early 2008, Patrice and I found ourselves in a very tight situation. We had been lolling about Kampala between jobs, getting rusty, and I decided we needed to hit some big open country. Our plan was to drive a thousand kilometres to visit my schoolmate at his lodge in Tarangire National Park in northern Tanzania. Once there, over a succession of sundowners, we’d pick his brains about quality safaris and the best wilderness experiences.
Our route would take us past Lake Victoria and through the Rift Valley in Kenya, stopping overnight in Nairobi before continuing to Tanzania. Now, I’ve always prided myself in staying abreast of local politics, yet somehow, as we set off at dawn on Wednesday January 16th, three weeks after the Kenyan elections, I failed to anticipate what we were heading into.
It was an election strongly marked by tribalism, as the KANU Kikuyu incumbent Mwai Kibaki attempted to fight off Luo challenger Raila Odinga and his Orange Democratic Movement. At least 1,500 people were killed and 300,000 displaced during the rioting and bloodshed that followed.
The fact that we encountered only on-coming traffic along the typically busy thoroughfare should have been cause for concern. But we continued blithely on. The only other traveller we met, crossing the border at Busia, told us the road was passable but warned, “Up to and beyond Kisumu you should garland the car with leaves and branches, indicating your support for Odinga. But you had better throw them away before you reach the Rift Valley. That’s Kibaki country.”
Within a few kilometres we encountered a gang of surly Odinga supporters, gathered around a stack of burning tires in the middle of the road. We were travelling in the company’s brand new Land Rover Discovery III, Patrice’s pride and joy. As he tried to steer it through the gauntlet of angry youths, they began to beat and rock the vehicle, brandishing rocks over its shiny black flow-coat.
In desperation, and with the zeal of an ODM activist, Patrice began to chant, “Kibaki must go! Kibaki must go!.” I too chanted, even louder: it was all we could do to stay alive, or at least save the Landy. Eventually they let us pass, but along this slow and treacherous road to Kisumu we would encounter a dozen more roadblocks, manned by increasingly drunken and ornery gangs of youths. Every one was a white-knuckle ride as we tried to determine the right speed and attitude needed to proceed. It was a wonder we made it to Nairobi alive that day.
Gorilla tracking is regularly listed as one of the “50 things to do before you die.” Spending time with your hairy mountain cousins is certainly a gratifying experience. I never tire of it. Having visited the easternmost (Bwindi) and the westernmost (Cross River) gorilla habitats before I was ten years old, I’ve made it my life’s ambition to trek through every one of them. I normally take clients to Bwindi in Uganda and Volcanoes in Rwanda, but if it’s safe we can visit any number of gorilla parks across Central Africa. For instance, I’ve just prepared a 10-day itinerary to trek gorillas in Dzanga-Sangha Reserve in the Central African Republic, which includes three days in the forest living and hunting with a community of Baka pygmies.
Trekking gorillas in not an exact science. As they move around the forest at will, a trek can sometimes involve hours of arduous climbing in difficult conditions. When the movie producer and his son trekked up the steep slopes of Mt Karasimbe in Rwanda recently, they threatened to abandon the trek several times. They were however speechless when after a three-hour walk we finally found Suza Group. The gorillas were in a glade in the Hagania forest. It had begun to rain, which compelled them to hide under bushes and trees in order to avoid getting too wet, and remain stock still as we wandered between them. It took me a moment to notice that one female was nursing infant twins. Maybe it was the strain of the climb, but I was moved to tears when they both gazed up poignantly at me from her arms. No other animal looks at you that way.
When people ask me if I will ever go home, my usual response is, "And where exactly might that be?" Growing up as I did, at more than thirty different addresses on four different continents, ‘home’ is an abstract idea. A tenth-floor council flat in North London was once ‘home’ for twenty years. It had a breathtaking westerly view, and I would stare out the window and imagine a herd of wildebeest stampeding over the dark horizon to rescue me.
One gloomy winter's night in 1991, while I was riding the number thirteen home, a job ad in The Guardian caught my eye: "Digit Fund seeks UK director to set up a London office." The Digit Fund, the ad explained, had been established by the American anthropologist Dian Fossey for the protection of Rwanda’s Mountain gorillas. My heart skipped a beat. Could this be my ticket back to the Bright Continent?
I applied straight away. The fact that I’d already cut my teeth working as a fundraiser for a number of London charities, and had a background in Africa, worked in my favour, and I was called to interview. It was time to rent Gorillas in the Mist. Few prospective jobs come with a feature-length Hollywood movie. But I could not have known, as I watched a DC 3 descend between the majestic Virunga volcanoes with Dian Fossey (Sigourney Weaver) on board, that twenty years later I would arrive at the same airfield aboard a helicopter chartered by the movie’s producer. Time paints a bigger picture.
Uganda, my adopted country, is experiencing a transformation at 50. So am I. We have much in common. An auspicious start squandered by decades of abuse, emancipation, then a long period of painstaking recovery, which ultimately led to the reemergence of new and exciting opportunities, have made us what we are today.
Oil is this country’s greatest new opportunity, manifest by the platforms along the eastern shore of Lake Albert that I catch sight of as our Cessna climbs steadily towards the Mountains of the Moon. The pressure is on to harvest the Albertine Rift’s rich oil reserves. How long before the platforms number more than the species of large mammals?
Will the biodiversity survive the bonanza? Conservationists are working closely with the government and the oil companies to make sure it does. Certainly less reliance on charcoal could have a positive impact on a country that has seen its forest shrink dramatically over the past 40 years.
Or will the nation succumb to the ‘resource curse’ that has frittered away the wealth of many other oil rich nations? The oil reserves are not predicted to last more than thirty years. What then?
Uganda must handle all her natural resources with care. The livelihoods of many depend on it. The country has seen annual tourism revenues double in the past five years to $800 million, which is not far off what the oil will earn. No surprise there, as she offers a wealth of unique attractions, especially in the Albertine Rift Valley, one of Africa’s richest areas of biodiversity. A number of fabulous new lodges have been built and infrastructure is improving all the time. And she is a gentle, graceful nation, despite her troubled past. Her citizens are some of the friendliest and most hospitable people you will meet in Africa.
A much shorter version of this article was first published in The Guardian