Brenda and Brent, Dan and Merrilee - Bwindi

The Ugands trip report is now spread over 6 pages. If you want to look for a particular part of the trip, follow one of the links in this list:
route to Bwindi

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park - Gorillas

From Kibale (6) we headed south and west, heading for Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (7).

As usual, we birded and generally gawked along the way.

This route was often on back roads, almost all unpaved, almost all challenging. As usual Johnnie took his time and kept us from bouncing around too much in back. His Toyota Land Cruiser is not the most comfortable of vehicles, so this could have been a much more difficult drive if we hurried.

The light blue line across the middle of the map is the Equator. Fortunately for the heat intolerant Victoria natives on this trip we are at 1100 metres elevation and had fine weather for the entire trip - give or take a couple of rainy days. No intense heat, no intense sun, almost no mosquitoes! Pretty fine weather.

people on the road Early in our trip, while heading through some back roads to connect up to the main highway down to Queen Elizabeth Park, we stopped at a wetland to do a little birding and people watching. On these back roads we were almost the only vehicle.

While the guy on the right is actually riding his bicycle, the guys on the left are pushing theirs, each loaded with Plantain bananas, up the hill. Each stem weighs about 50 pounds and we have seen bicycles loaded down with 7 stems.

Bicycles are almost exclusively male transport in Uganda. We only saw local women cycling twice.

market day This is the market in the town they were heading for.

These bananas are too hard to be eaten without processing. The edible kind we are used to are called apple bananas here. The plantain bananas are cooked into a form called Matoke which forms one of the staples. They can also be ripened through a process of burying, then put into a hollow log where they are stomped to drive the liquid out. The liquid is collected and fermented into a wine. It can also be distilled into a banana rum. We saw wine and rum production facilities in Bwindi. Both appear to be legal.

This is a local collection centre. Bananas are collected here, then transported to Kampala by truck.

While most of the activity appears to be plantains for Kampala, there are a lot of people here enjoying the fine weather and having a bit of chit chat. Very sociable people, with no one in a hurry to get anywhere except the birders in the green Land Cruiser.

the equator I knew you wanted to see what we looked like, so here we are at the equator!

Dan, Merrilee, Brenda, Brent.

All wearing binoculars (even Brenda) and all carrying cameras!

And all having a great time.

Brenda's true nature burst through - having spent a lifetime in the civil service at the federal and provincial level, she felt obliged to straddle the issue.

push scooter We stopped in a small town, possibly Kikarara, for lunch.

The town was big enough to have electricity and the small restaurant even had a television playing music videos. Our lunch was the toughest bit of chicken I have ever tried to eat. Probably expended more calories trying to rip some flesh off the scrawny little bird than it produced in food.

This guy was plying his trade around town - an even cheaper form of transport than a bicycle. He went back and forth several times, often with a load in his basket. In a few craft stores they sold small toy models of this scooter.

Alfred's home Finally we made it to Buhoma, right next to the Bwindi Park headquarters. We stopped for a few minutes at Alfred's house - clearly sign posted as Twitching in Bwindi.

Twitching refers to what happens to a birder when he (the affliction is shared by both sexes, but displayed somewhat more freakishly by males) hears there is a rare bird in the area. Alfred is a facilitator extraordinaire.

That is Alfred's wife in the doorway of his house.

If you feel a twitch coming on, the phone number is 077 869 744.

While we spent most of the day travelling, we still managed to see 71 species of birds. At the end of the day, our total of species seen in Uganda had reached 275.

Gorilla trek, the briefing

Gorilla Trek

While the Chimp trek was a nice walk in the forest, the Gorilla trek was a pretty strenuous hike.

This is our group, getting briefed by our guide - the guy in the forage cap third from the right.

Five of the seven trekkers are shown - from the right: Dan, Merrilee, the guide, a Russian trekker, the woman in hat and brown shirt is from San Francisco, a porter from the back, and the man in the hat the other part of the San Francisco couple. I am behind the camera and Brenda is lost somewhere.

All the young locals are porters - they carry our day packs up the hill. In some cases, they carry the trekkers up the hill as well.

This trekking for Gorillas is not an inexpensive deal. You pay $375 US each for the permit and you pay extra for the porters. The basic fee pays for the guide and a small group of soldiers. Soldiers have accompanied trekkers since a group of trekkers and their guide were captured (then killed) by rebels from the Congo back in 1999. There have been no problems since then, but it is nice money for the soldiers so they continue the guard duty.

You can just see the beginning of a building in the upper left corner. Made from locally manufactured clay bricks, this will be a 5 room school. It was financed by a wealthy American (is that right, Alfred?) with a $25,000 donation and is being built by the locals. Alfred pitched in for a bit one day. Alfred is the current chairman of the local community association.

banana wine distillery The lower portions of the valleys around Bwindi are farmed. This valley has a lot of banana plantations at the upper levels, just below the peaks where the forest remains. The peaks and interior valleys are in the park.

We stopped along the way a couple of times to look at local farming systems, as well as this distilling operation. We were told it is legal to distill the banana wine into banana gin.

Very primitive tools in use: old oil barrel sitting on rocks, fire under the barrel, copper tubing collecting the fumes which go through a bucket of water to cool them and condense out the alcohol.

the trail to the top The gorillas move around the park. Each day trackers go out to find the habituated groups and radio back their position to the guides. Today our target group of gorillas is on a hilltop about 350 metres. Here we are above the agricultural fields, almost to the top of the hill. The trail is steep, but not difficult.

You can see Merrilee closest, with Brenda farther back and Dan beside her. You can see all the porters as well. They kept close in case we had any problems. While we are working hard I don't think any of the porters broke a sweat all day.

You can just see the valley floor at the top of the picture. It did not rain that day, but it was humid and overcast all day. The name Bwindi means dark place because it is often overcast. Again, it is the effect of the trade winds hitting this relatively high hills that produces the cloud forest effect.

mountain gorilla Well, we made it to the top and were guided to the gorillas.

Just like the chimps, the gorillas appear to spend most the day eating. Unlike the chimps, the gorillas appear to prefer the leaves of this much smaller tree.

He has torn a branch with these smaller leaves off and is preparing to eat them. He seemed to ignore the mature older leaves, preferring the smaller leaves on the branch he is holding. It could be the branch is a vine that grows in the tree, or just new leaves. [While looking through the African mammal guide, after looking at the entry for Bonobo, a small ape closely related to both us and Chimpanzees, I reread the entry for Mountain Gorilla. It turns out their diet consists of Galium vines, wild celery and a few other plant species. So, this Gorilla is eating the Galium vines in this tree, not young leaves.]

He puts the end near his hand in his mouth then pulls on the stem, collecting all the leaves. He then chomps for a few seconds before swallowing. While chomping he is looking for and then breaking off the next branch with these smaller leaves. They appear to go through a lot of leaves in a meal. You can watch a video of a gorilla stripping young leaves from a branch here.

This group was silent the whole time we were with them.

mountain gorilla That is not a beer gut, that is a leaf gut. With the amount of food these guys eat every day, they need a rather large stomach.

You can just see the silver colour on the back that gives rise to the popular name Silverback for the older males.

Johnnie and Alfred did not accompany us on this trek. Alfred was one of the people who habituated one of these groups of gorillas (there are 3 or 4 habituated groups for tourists, 2 habituated groups for research). Habituating is a pretty scary ordeal. You find the wild group, approach, then sit down and just look at the gorillas. They will challenge - charge - to try to find out the nature of the problem you present. You have to do nothing - just sit, look, and hope they don't decide to actually attack. Eventually the big male in the group decides you are harmless. Once this has been done often enough, and it takes a long time, the guides can start bringing tourists around.

Medicine Man After the Mountain Gorilla trek we did a village trek - including a visit to the local Medicine Man. Quite a few local plants are remedies for common illnesses - or are claimed to be. This medicine man showed us a number of different plants and told use their uses.

We also did a tour of the local banana wine production facility, which was right next to the banana gin production facility but appeared to have different owners. We got to sample the banana wine - about what you would expect. We were offered a chance to sample the banana gin, but having tried locally produced high test moonshine in other countries I declined. Apparently, excess production goes to Kampala where it is distilled again, and sold commercially. The local stuff is bottled and used on special occasions: weddings and the like.

pygmy dance, crafts We ended the day at the Pygmy folk dance and crafts area. These are three of the Pygmy children, eager to get into the dancing but not sure exactly how to do it yet.

The Pygmys lived in the forest until the 1970's when the government lured them out with offers of land. Until then there were living a hunter-gatherer existence based on fruit, plants and animals found in the jungles in this area. Now they have farms and put on dance displays as well as make and sell crafts.

Dance displays like we saw can be arranged through Alfred's community association. Short videos of the dances are here, here, here, and here.

What with Gorillas, Medicine men, banana wine and Pygmys, today was not a bird watching day: we saw only 10 species, 4 of which were new. Had Johnnie and Alfred come along on the Gorilla trek we might have seen many more birds, but perhaps less of the Gorillas.

Bwindi area map The next day we headed into the forest to do some birding. This is Alfred's home turf and he did a great job of finding the birds.

On this map of the area, we stayed at the Buhoma Campground right by the Park HQ. Our hike today was along a road through the forest, probably south toward the town Nkuringo. We regularly met people (mostly women, mostly barefoot) who each day walked the 11 kilometres through the forest to the market in Buhoma.

While we have this map here, it shows the location of the Ruhija rest house, where we headed the next day and spent two nights.

African Broadbill This is an underside view of an African Broadbill. This is a 5 inch bird that was sitting on a branch about 80 feet up in the forest.

Alfred found it, recorded its call notes, and played them back. This encouraged this male bird to do it territorial display flight - a very short, fast circle during which the wing feathers make a strange sound. An amazing experience.

Easy walking but very difficult birding. Without the skills of Alfred and Johnnie we would have been hard pressed to see much of anything. As it was, we saw 71 species in the jungle in 4 hours, 35 of them new. Johnnie and Alfred were expecting to spend the entire day in the forest, but we had to spend a little time that afternoon at the Internet reconnecting with people back home. Could we have doubled the number of species had we spent all day - probably.

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