Bwindi Impenetrable Park was established in 1991 and is managed by the Uganda Wildlife Authority which is tasked with the conservation of the area. The park is home to about 340 critically endangered Eastern Mountain Gorillas, almost half the world’s population.

In order to visit the gorillas, one must buy a very expensive ($600USD) trekking permit from the UWA months in advance. The permit is good only for the date, gate, and person indicated on it, which means that if anything in your plans changes, you’re out of luck. Furthermore, no one feeling ill or visibly sick will be given entry either, permit notwithstanding. For these reasons, spending this huge amount of money gave us great pause but we took the plunge and bought permits for one day. At the time, our agent strongly suggested that we buy permits for two days but we refused. Her rationale was that if we didn’t get to see the gorillas one day, we had better chances of seeing them with two treks. For anyone thinking of buying permits, that reason is nonsense: you will see the gorillas almost guaranteed. We didn’t know that at the time of course and when we changed our minds a few days later, permits for the area were all gone! Our agent managed to get us permits to a different area of the park from where we were staying which meant a very early (4:30am) wake up and over two hour drive to get there but we took them anyway. We are not at all sorry we did and actually think it worked even better for us this way.

For our first (far away) trek into the Ruhija area, the wonderful people tending our lodge woke up early to outfit us with waterproof covers for our pants, walking sticks and boxed breakfast and lunch. Upon arriving at the meeting area, we were divided into groups of eight. Three gorilla families here are habituated to humans and thus able to be visited. Each group of 8 people visits one gorilla family for one hour of the day, that’s all that is permitted. Two trackers follow each of these three gorilla families all day, every day, from when they wake up to when they bed for the night. The trackers make a note of where the gorillas bedded down before leaving them for the night and must get back to this place before the gorillas begin their next day in order to not lose them. As the group of people is about to set out on their trek, the guide radios the trackers for their location and then guides the group to that place. This method makes seeing the gorillas an almost certainty. The group is also accompanied by an armed guard since in 1999, Congolese guerrilla fighters abducted a tourist group, killing with machetes and clubs over half of them before releasing the others. The armed guard is really just for show I think since he’s only one person, but better not to dwell on these facts as you’re about to set out.

Before starting on your trek, you are presented with the choice of hiring a porter to carry your stuff for you. We were carrying so much water (heavy packs) that they did come in handy but if you don’t carry as much, a porter isn’t really necessary. Most of the people in our group didn’t hire any. There is another way of looking at this though: jobs are hard to come by in this area of the country. Some of these porters walk a couple of hours every morning to be there when the tourist groups arrive. Those that are not hired are dismissed for the day as there will be no other tourists; dismissed without work. Paying for a porter is providing a source of income for that person if nothing else. Plus they are super nice and helpful when pulling an out-of-breath tourist up a mountain. However, once close to the gorilla family, porters must stay behind and allow for the group of tourists to continue the trek on their own so it happens that the toughest part of the hike is done without their help.

It is not called the Impenetrable Forest for nothing.

Walking in here was exhausting!

This might be the toughest hiking we’ve ever done. It is oppressively humid even though we visited during the “dry” season and the average elevation is over 6,000ft which makes it hard to breathe. There are no paths as the group is simply advancing toward the gorilla family wherever they might be. The advice is to bring a waterproof jacket (leave it), good walking shoes (make that heavy duty boots), gloves (absolute MUST), and 3 liters of water per person (half a liter is more than enough). The hardest part of the trek is that the ground isn’t really there. The ground seems solid until you step on it and fall thru to a stream below which you hadn’t even heard, that’s how thick the cover is. The trees have spikes, thorns would be too gentle a word, so grabbing hold is inadvisable. I literally clawed my way up and probably slowed our group down considerably

but we were well rewarded as suddenly there we were, right next to the family.

female gorilla just chilling

Silverback Gorilla, head of this family


yawns are contagious

Can you believe that these beautiful creatures have been killed to make their hands into ashtrays? Don’t you just want to reach out and touch it?

I do, but we didn’t. That would have been completely inadvisable, not to mention against the rules. Visitors are supposed to stay 7ft away from the gorillas at all times. That’s a truly difficult rule to follow though as finding a solid place to stand is almost impossible. The gorillas take up the best spots! Sometimes being able to stay put means being quite close to them. Plus they move around with no regard to the rule. The distance is meant to provide a safety zone for the gorillas. Since we share over 97% of their DNA, that makes them vulnerable to human diseases; particularly airborne ones, which is the reason for denying entry to ill persons. It has been determined that 20% of natural gorilla deaths which have occurred in the area are due to illnesses transmitted to them by humans. While tourists such as ourselves bring a much needed source of income for the villagers, we also bring diseases from all over the world which threaten their very livelihood from said tourism. The best we can do is abide by our guide’s directions.

Male young gorillas are called Blackbacks. This guy will become a Silverback soon and he will either have to challenge the patriarch of the family or most likely, leave in search of his own family.

Blackback gorilla

The Ruhija trek was very difficult and getting good pictures of the gorillas almost impossible with all the vegetation in the way.  It was so thick that we didn’t even notice the gorillas trekking alongside at times:

What our feet looked like after the trek.

The boys loved this trek as it was a rugged adventure, just up their ally. I loved it too but had to take a two hour nap once back at the lodge. It certainly was beautiful and as hard as it was, I would gladly do it again.

Our next morning, we didn’t have to set out as early and were able to have a good breakfast at the lodge since the Buhoma area was right next door. Once again, we hired a porter mainly to help me out. I was still exhausted from the previous day’s trek and seriously doubting my ability to follow the group on this second day. I was thoroughly surprised when this day’s trek was the easiest walk we’ve ever done! Turned out that this gorilla family had made their nests the night before quite close to the park’s entrance and we only had to jump over a small stream to get to them. When we arrived they were just lazying about in their nests, not ready to come down just yet.

Our guide instructed us to stand under the trees and wait for the gorillas to come down. After about half an hour of standing around, craning our necks out to look at the gorillas overhead, I asked the guide if it wouldn’t be better to stand aside as it seemed to me that we were the obstacle impeding the gorillas from coming down.

He told me to stay exactly where I was. I think he did it on purpose. Seconds later, I wondered how the rain could penetrate such a thick canopy until I realized that was no rain: I was being peed on by a gorilla! I chose to take it as a lucky omen. As soon as the shower stopped, they began descending.

Some stopped to pose for pictures. Isn’t he handsome?

As soon as they were all on the ground, they began walking toward the stream. The Silverback brought up the rear of the column as if to protect his family from this group of hairless paparazzi.

Once at the stream, they settled down to groom each other.

While the adults looked at us with boredom, the babies were very curious.

This guy is only weeks old but with a head of hair to envy.

There was a sense of peace and contentment in the group. The kids played and climbed then upon falling, would run back to their moms for comfort, which these ladies never failed to provide.

Can you feel the love in that gaze?

Everything happens under the watchful eye of the big guy.

Our group of tourists was so affected by the privilege of sharing the gorilla’s day that there were some tears shed and the boys declared that they will never again visit a zoo. While the benefits of a good zoo can be debated, one thing is an absolute certainty: free animals exude a sense of happiness that is not present in caged ones.

Going on two gorilla treks only intensified our desire to be able to enjoy such privilege again some day, may it be so!

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In Entebbe, we boarded such a tiny aircraft that the in-flight meal consisted of the pilot handing a Tupperware full of mints to the passenger sitting behind him while saying: “pass it back”.



We flew into Kihihi which is a city of 20 thousand people where we were picked up from the airstrip by our own personal driver.

Kihihi’s only fuel station

Kihihi is located only 10 miles from the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, there is a refugee camp located here for the Congolese who have fled the violence in their country. I asked our driver if there is conflict between the citizens and the refugees. He was genuinely surprised at my question. He answered that they are the same people, they are brothers, how could they not help them when what the refugees want is safety for their families? Were we all that enlightened, what a world this would be.

Although less than 25miles away, the drive to our lodge took almost two hours as this is a volcanic (hilly) area and the roads are made of dirt. We passed a couple of tiny villages on the way, if they can even be called that. People here mostly work the land as there is nothing else around. Our driver explained how no one here goes hungry since fruits practically grow themselves by the side of the road such as pineapples














and of course, bananas.



The poverty is overwhelming nonetheless. Children walk hours down the mountain to fetch water from the stream. EVERY DAY.


That is, when they are not walking to and from school.



Even the tiniest kids make the hours-long trek in order to go to school. We saw them by the side of the road in the darkest hours of the morning wearing their crisp uniforms, carrying their lunch in plastic bags. Our driver, just like all others we encountered, drove like a maniac! We had to wonder how many of these kids get run over and hope it is none. That’s one thing about Uganda, no one seemed willing to talk ill about anything that had to do with the tourist industry since their livelihood depends so heavily on it.

Another widespread occupation here seemed to be brick-making. These men are piling bricks up to form a hollow tower


which they will then cover with mud.



A fire will be set inside the structure to cook the bricks before carting them away in bicycles such as this one.



We were surprised at how strong the women are, carrying heavy loads on their heads as if they were simply fancy hats.


When we arrived at our lodge, a tiny 5ft woman placed Fernando’s 40lb backpack on her head and walked us down to our bomas (cabins). We stayed at Volcanoes Safari Bwindi Lodge

view of the lodge from the mountain

which overlooks Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and is located so close to the mountain that the gorillas sometimes come by to mingle with the guests. This did not happen while we were there but the lodge’s manager, Jocelyn, still made sure that we were accompanied to our bomas every night by a guard just to be safe.

Yep, that’s the big not-so-secret: we came all this way to trek for Mountain Gorillas! This area is home to the 880 Mountain Gorillas left in the world, no specimens of which are kept in captivity, at least not legally. If you’ve ever seen a gorilla at the zoo, that was most likely a Western Lowland Gorilla. Mountain Gorillas are a subspecies of the Eastern Gorilla and are critically endangered meaning they have not a high, but a VERY high risk of becoming extinct soon.  Of these less than 900 gorillas left in the world (can’t wrap my head around that), almost half live in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Visiting the gorillas was terribly expensive but completely worth it and we’d do it again in a heartbeat if given the opportunity.



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From Kenya to Uganda

Before coming to Africa, we knew next to nothing about this continent. After all we’ve seen, now we know next to next to nothing; but at least we know our preconceptions have all proven wrong. I don’t know why, when traveling, it always surprises me so much to find cities, shops, cars exactly the same as I am used to where I live. It’s as if I know with my conscious mind that of course these things are common everywhere but then there’s a tiny unenlightened tenant in the corner of my brain that goes: “whooaa”.

This is what Nairobi looks like from the air:

That big stretch of savanna you see in the background is Nairobi National Park, a 45 sq mile reserve at the South edge of Kenya’s capital city.

It is surrounded by an electrified fence in order to keep wild animals and people separate but that doesn’t always work. Lions sometimes escape the fence and then panic ensues in the surrounding population. The lions leave the park usually following prey like warthogs and suddenly find themselves in the midst of an apartment complex. Nairobi’s population has been growing greatly and conflict between these two resident groups has intensified in the last decade. During these encounters, it is usually the lion who fares worse. As if that weren’t bad enough, the Chinese, as part of their aid to Africa, are building a rail line straight thru the park in order to connect Mombasa with Nairobi. While the rail line is expected to alleviate traffic, one can only sigh at the thought of its effect on the wildlife. Unhappiness with Chinese people, be they entrepreneurs, tourists, or poachers, is a common thread thru the African nations we visited. Mombasa Road is the main thoroughfare in Nairobi and divides the populated area from the National Park.

We didn’t actually get the opportunity to visit Nairobi: we were here three separate times but only to take connecting flights. During one of these trips, we had to spend a night in a hotel since our next flight didn’t leave until the following morning. It was an odd experience. Kenya depends heavily on tourists for its income and thus can’t afford to be thought of as “dangerous”, therefore it takes incredible precautions to provide safety for travelers. For instance, our escort from the airport to the hotel was not allowed inside the airport, we had to walk outside to meet him. He then walked us at a brisk pace for about 5 mins away from the mob of people waiting outside the airport doors simply to separate ourselves from large groups of people. Here we waited for what seemed to be forever for our driver, we found out why it took so long the following morning since we then had to do the entire process backwards. Drivers are not allowed near the airport. In order to pick up or drop off passengers, cars must go thru a checkpoint. All passengers must exit the vehicle and walk thru metal detectors. The car is inspected by security personnel as well as all luggage passed thru big scanners. One waits for the car to pick one up again on the other side of the checkpoint. The car will drop you off far from the airport itself and then you have to walk thru a tunnel and another checkpoint (with its luggage and people scanners) just to get inside. Once the luggage is checked (going thru yet another scan) you walk thru (you guessed it!) another scan into the waiting area. At check-in, you and your hand luggage will be scanned once again before you walk out on the tarmac to your plane. Here, you will be subjected to one last scan with a hand held device before climbing the stairs to your airplane. Pilots, flight attendants, and even the personnel bringing in the food trays are scanned as well, no one goes un-scanned.

While driving us to our hotel the previous night, which was only 10 mins away on Mombasa Road, we went thru about 5 checkpoints with humongous cameras with blinding flashes. Our guides explained that these are meant to see into the innermost corners of every car. They gave me a headache. Our hotel was surrounded by a 10ft fence and our car scanned with mirrors by AK47-wielding guards before being allowed inside the gate. Once inside, dogs sniffed our vehicle before they allowed us out. Our luggage was sent thru a scanner at the steps of the hotel and we also had to walk thru one before entering. Hallways in the hotel had doors not only at the end points but also midway which were unlocked with our key-card and guards could be seen thru our windows walking on the roof. While we never felt even the tiniest bit unsafe, we did feel a little sad about the need for this extreme security. However, everyone in Nairobi was wonderfully kind to us. Next time, we will be staying a bit longer to get the real Nairobi experience and visit Nairobi National Park where our guides assured us, Cheetah are so plentiful, they even climb on top of your cars!

From Nairobi, we flew into Entebbe, Uganda on the banks of Lake Victoria: Africa’s largest lake, second only to Lake Superior in the USA.

Unfortunately again, we didn’t get much of an opportunity to visit Entebbe as we were led to our very cute hotel for the night and picked up early the next morning for our connecting flight to Bwindi. Security measures in Entebbe weren’t as strict as in Nairobi but still more than we’re used to which again made us sad. Turns out that Entebbe is the departure point for bird-watching tours in Uganda which has been named bird-watching capital of Africa: over 600 species have been recorded here. Our tiny hotel had a huge tropical garden where people would assemble to begin their tours. We have a newfound respect for bird watchers as they require enormous amounts of patience and a very steady hand to be able to photograph those flighty beings! Our pictures were mostly blurs.


We came all the way to Uganda in search of a much, much larger animal though and we were not disappointed.

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The Great Migration

Although the Masai Mara is “Big 5” territory, the main attraction here is the Wildebeest Migration. Zebras migrate along with the Wildebeest but the Wildebeest are so numerous that the Zebras are hardly noticeable among them.

The Wildebeest spend their lives moving in a big circle from the Serengeti in Tanzania, to the Masai Mara in Kenya, and back again. If they live long enough to complete the journey that is, as predators follow them every step of the way.

You know who else follows these guys around? Tourists! Contrary to what Africa documentaries might lead you to believe, you won’t be alone out here.

No worries, this place is humongous and there is simply no way it can ever feel crowded.

The Mara river cuts the Masai lands in two sections and lodges are located on both sides of the river. Going across is not allowed. Whichever side your lodge happens to be in, that’s the side you’ll stay on. Good thing animals don’t follow human rules and there are so many of them, they are impossible to miss. The Wildebeest don’t all cross the river at once, they do it in groups and so there are many crossings to be seen every day for a few weeks. The trick is being at the correct bend of the river at the right time to witness it. Guides will park their jeeps early to get a good spot.

Others start crowding in soon enough. There is a lot of waiting involved and everyone here wants to have the “best view”, thus fights occasionally ensue. Sometimes a latecomer will squeeze in between two other parked jeeps and stop just a few feet ahead blocking visibility for those who had been waiting for hours. Yelling, cursing and engine revving follows. Eventually someone backs down, someone moves, someone leaves. It’s all part of the adventure!

Wildebeest are very skittish.

Even Elephants will scare them away from the water.

Having so many people scrambling to see them tends to frighten the Wildebeest away from the river. After waiting for hours, it would happen that a group about to cross would bolt away frightened by an aggressive driver. Our guide, Jackson, would get mad and complain that the Warden from the opposite side of the river didn’t keep those drivers under control. I wonder if drivers on the other side complained about us in the same manner.

As Wildebeest begin gathering, vultures do the same undoubtedly waiting for the tragedy about to unfold. The Wildebeest would mill about for hours,

growing in numbers

until the itch to cross would overpower one of them. As soon as that first one jumped in,

the others would follow.

Eventually there would be so many jumping in that even hippos would get out of their way.

We were lucky: we were able to witness three separate river crossings, each one completely different to the others. The third one took us entirely by surprise. It was our last afternoon here and we were coming back from our foray into the Serengeti. Jackson stopped the jeep at the river’s edge for a sundowner. We all got off to stretch our legs and take pictures of the river while Jackson went looking for a tree. The opposite bank of the river was deserted and there were no other cars around.

As we looked at the hippos below us, these guys came out of nowhere and began gathering.

We were all struck dumb watching. As suddenly as they appeared, they began jumping into the water.


This mother and her calf swam with all their strength.

They hadn’t seen who was waiting right below our feet.

The current was too strong for the calf and it began calling to its mother.

As if on cue, the crocodile slipped noiselessly into the water and fast approached.

The mother was frantic on the bank of the river calling for her calf.

It only took a few seconds.

We were frozen in place watching the drama unfold below us. Jackson must have gotten worried at our lack of noise and he came over to see what we were doing. When he saw the Wildebeest crossing he began screaming at us to get into the jeep. See, getting down from the jeep at a crossing is forbidden. We didn’t get down at a crossing though, the Wildebeest began crossing at the place where we had already gotten down. Same thing, screamed Jackson and ushered us into the jeep. Just in time too as the guards came around at precisely that moment. We could still hear the mother Wildebeest calling for her child as Jackson drove us away.

He stopped the jeep a bit farther off but by then, the Wildebeest had stopped crossing and the river had become a Crocodile fest

while the Hippos looked on.

Being witness to the Great Migration was an incomparable privilege and one which we won’t soon forget.

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A Masai Village

The camp we stayed in, Kichwa Tembo (Elephant Head) is located on land leased from the Masai. As in the Kruger, we spent an afternoon visiting a Masai village to learn how their people live. We picked a few hitchhikers on our way to the village.

Our guide during this visit was the chief’s son.

We had a welcome song from the village women

and then a welcome dance from the village men. This dance is quite funny for tourist eyes. The young Masai jump up as high as they can while emitting sharp cries.

Whoever jumps the highest earns first pick of the young women. The boys kept up with the Warriors surprisingly well.

When a young couple weds, it is the bride’s responsibility to build their house out of sticks and mud. Houses typically consist of three “rooms”: sitting, bedroom

and a small room to lock the calves in for the night.

The Masai are herders, they drink the milk AND the blood of the cow. They only take a few spoonfuls at a time by inserting a sharp spear into the cow’s carotid artery and then sealing the wound with a paste made of a special herb which grows all around their village. Cows are integral to their lives. So much so that they regularly conduct raids on other villages in order to steal their cows. Of course they are also sometimes the victims of such raids. It was described as great fun though so one has to wonder if the ultimate function of these raids is simply sport.

The village elders are in charge of building the fire, it is a responsibility only they can assume.

The young bride is given fire and she must keep it alive inside her home and never let it die out.

The Masai people are polygamist and also practice genital mutilation: both male and female circumcision. This is usually done during a ceremony once the young man turns 14. Our guide didn’t elaborate on the age a girl has to be to undergo this atrocity.

For a man to become chief, it was customary for him to kill a lion whose mane then becomes the chief’s headgear. This lion was killed by our guide’s father back in 1971.

However, our guide let us know that this custom is no longer followed as the Masai have learned that a live lion is worth much more in tourist money than the mane of a dead one on the chief’s head.

Apparently, polygamy is on the decline as well. Our guide was educated at a western school in the city where he met his wife. When I asked him if he was planning on getting a second wife, he looked horrified. He replied that Kenya has an overpopulation problem and the young people are being educated now to understand that there is no need to have such large families.

The Masai build fences surrounding their villages with sticks and stones to protect themselves from predators. The young men take turns mounting guard during the night in case a lion, leopard, or hyena manages to get in.

One common thing we’ve learned about people in Africa is that they don’t seem too concerned about predators. Elephants though, do scare them.

This village visit was much more enjoyable than the one in South Africa and it all has to do with the children. Masai children were running around and playing during our visit.

The ones who were curious enough about us would come over to say hello but none of them were forced to perform for us. That small thing made all the difference.

We found the Masai people to be extremely gentle and hospitable. They played as big a role as the animals in making us fall in love with the area.

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