Of gorillas and men! (Kisoro, Uganda – KM 18,075)

“Do not ride bicycles in the Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP)! Please, take a taxi”, she implored. “Once, I saw a lion, he jumped on a cyclist and argh!”, she added for dramatic effect. Agnes had rented us a spotless and spartan room for 15,000 shillings in her small guesthouse and was doing her best effort to dissuade us from taking the public road from Katunguru to the Ishasha gate inside the QENP. She planted the seed of a doubt but the machine-gun carrying rangers we spoke to at the Queen Elizabeth pavilion did not bat eyelid when we shared our intention, so we hopped in the saddle and waved at impalas and warthdogs frolicking in the tall savannah grass.

We were heading south towards the Rwanda border, from Fort Portal, at the foot of the Rwenzori Mountains, down into the Albertine Rift Valley and up into the Kigezi Highlands. On the way we hoped to meet the indigenous Batwa pygmies, hunters and gatherers who have depended on the forest for shelter, food and medicine. There were strong hints that their recent history was a harrowing one, we were about to find out how tragic.

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Hello.-How are you?-Fine, thanks. How are you?-I’m fine.-What do you carry? Milk?-It is not there.-Oh! Empty. Where are you going?-I go near-by.-Goodbye!-Bye! Finally away from the main road, leaving Fort Portal on the Ndali-Kasenda crater lakes road. Kabarole Distict, Republic of Uganda.

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One of the many crater lakes of the Bunyarugura Volcanic Fields. Kamwenge District, Republic of Uganda.

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Volcanic cones and bananas some 30 kilometres south of Fort Portal. Kamwenge District, Republic of Uganda.

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Let’s talk dirt! Agnes and grandson Solomon send us back to the road with a stern warning about lions, elephants, hippos, and the list goes on. Kasese District, Republic of Uganda.

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Myopia, astigmatism, blinding sun and sweat all work against me as I send our location to our families’ email boxes and social media platforms through our InReach SE—btw you can always see where we are by clicking on the “our location” button at the bottom of this page. It is automatically updated every four hours. I look all business here but a moment later I also hung from the sign, happy to cross the equator once again. Rukiziri District, Republic of Uganda.

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The largest land mammal—with the cutest tail of the animal kingdom—, even a young one, is a breathtaking spectacle. QENP, Rukirizi District, Republic of Uganda.

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An excited truck driver stops to look at an elephant bull…and gets charged! A few minutes before Pierre had stopped in the same spot to take a photo of the young mastodon and had also been charged! Lesson learned: when you see elephants don’t stop! QENP, Rukiziri District, Republic of Uganda.

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Elephant-damaged trees on the mainly flat and undulating Ishaka-Kasese road. QENP, Rukiziri District, Republic of Uganda.

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Lunch break on the 910-m high Lake Edward. Men are preparing their nets, hippos are munching on lake-bottom grass and children are following the strange visitors. Kisenyi, Rukungiri District, Republic of Uganda.

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Meeting with an “occupied” boda-boda on the way to Kihihi. Kanungu District, Republic of Uganda.

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Wooden bicycles are all the rage around here. Kanungu District, Republic of Uganda.

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Tea fields and the mountains of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) beyond the Ishasha river. Small land owners sell tea leaves to the Kayonza tea factory and get USD1 for 10kgs of leaves. Remember to buy fairly traded goods whenever possible. Butogota, Kanungu District, Republic of Uganda.

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Fresh coffee berries drying in the midday sun. Butogota, Kanungu District, Republic of Uganda.

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Boys from a local orphanage gather firewood. “Mzungu! Give me my money! Give me my sweet!” Kanungu District, Republic of Uganda.

Despite the remote setting, south-western Uganda is the country’s prime tourist destination, thanks to the mountain gorillas that roam the dense forests of Bwindi Impenetrable and Mgahinga Gorilla national parks. Bwindi Impenetrable boasts 30 groups of the rare primate of which 10 have been habituated for tourism. Gorilla licenses are sold weeks, months and years in advance. For 600$US a person can spend an hour in the presence of a silverback, his harem of females and young. This design is replicated in the near-by national parks of the Virunga volcanoes—Mgahinga Gorilla (Uganda), Volcanoes (Rwanda) and Virunga (Congo) ensuring millions in revenue for the three countries and the survival of the charismatic primate, not counting the other mammals, species of birds, reptiles, butterflies and trees that are also protected by the national parks.

What is less known is that these forests were inhabited for millenia by the Batwa people, until they were kicked out in 1991 for the creation of those national parks. The semi-nomadic Batwa were not compensated or given any land and became landless squatters on the forest edge. They continue to suffer ethnic prejudice, discrimination, violence and exclusion from society. A glimmer of hope is the effort by organisations to help the Batwa help themselves out of poverty. In Buhoma we had a meeting with the well-established Batwa Development Program (BDP).

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We checked-in the first guesthouse we came across to avoid the 4PM downpour. The moldy concrete block, with no power sockets and rusty pipes, was deserted except for ants, malarial mosquitoes and a small rat that munched on our avocadoes one night. The first night we asked if we could eat something since the sign said “accomodation, restaurant and bar”. It took 20 minutes to establish with Brian (the receptionist) that chicken was possible, a whole one. A further 15 minutes and Brian showed up holding a cute strawberry blonde hen looking at us with a kind air before she was thrown in the kitchen. Another 15 minutes and Precious (the manager) came to us and announced that the chef had just buried a family member and could not come to cook our dinner. “For whites we don’t use untrained cooks”, she explained. The chicken was saved! And we cooked for ourselves for the remainder of our stay. Why we did not go check-in somewhere else? Laziness and frugality, I guess, plus they had beer! Buhoma, Kanungu District, Republic of Uganda.

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One morning we followed our guide Levi up into the rainforest to the Batwa Experience, a chunk of old growth bordering Bwindi Impenetrable NP bought by the BDP for the Batwa community to teach their children—and tourists—about their ancestral nomadic lifestyle. Elders are welcoming us to their “home”. Kanungu District, Republic of Uganda.

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We are shown traditional fire making, hunting methods, shelter building, ancient worship, medicinal plants and honey harvest. Kanungu District, Republic of Uganda.

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At the end of the last “hunt” we are given a small “antelope” as target, and a bow and arrow. While I am a clumsy first time shooter my partner hits the target twice. Apparently his private all-boys college gave archery lessons. Little did I know I was riding with Legolas! Kanungu District, Republic of Uganda.

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A small patch of dense forest above the cultivated valley. Competition over the limited natural resources remaining…competition between people, and also competition between people and wildlife. Kanungu District, Republic of Uganda.

After a moving day spent between joy—the Batwa’s affection for their forest life is contagious—and sadness—for it is gone forever—Elifaz told it like it is: “We were rich in the forest, we had everything we needed, our children were never sick, we would go back in a heartbeat”. So, if you come to visit the gorillas please stay an extra day and meet the people who are paying a dear price for the survival of the mountain gorilla—a species, along with the chimpanzee, which they never hunted. And beware of private distasteful “pygmy experiences”.

The old Buhoma road crosses Bwindi from Buhoma to the Nkuringo park gate and it was an atrractive option until we talked with the Uganga Wildlife Authority (UWA) rangers. It would be 40$US each for the park entrance fee, then 30$US each for not one but two armed rangers to walk along—in 1999 tourists were kidnapped in Buhoma and murdered with machetes by a Rwandan guerilla group hiding in the nearby DRC—and they added being paid once a month so a hefty tip would be welcome. We needed over 150$US to cover 14 kilometres! We stuck to plan A and set out on the winding and steep road on the park’s northern edge, up to Ruhija and down to the Kabale-Kisoro road. Maybe we could be in Kisoro for Christmas!

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Another initiative to help the Batwa help themselves. Kanungu District, Republic of Uganda.

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When the tea plantations stopped and the forest appeared we knew we were in “the neck”, linking the Ishaha Gorge to the main part of Bwindi Impenetrable. The 5km section was a quiet slug, with people bringing bundles of tea leaves to parked trucks below and climbing back with tomatoes, onions, soda and gin. A lady offered us a couple of mangoes. Presents are far and few for the mzungu and we felt the Christmas spirit creeping up on us. Kanungu District, Republic of Uganda.

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Morning in the tea shed. The family came and peeled a huge batch of “Irish” potatoes and asked to cook them on our XGK stove, which we did. When the spuds were ready they offered them all to us! We ate 5 or 6 and left the rest. “This man wants to tell you about his problems, he is my father”, the eldest son announced. The man was hoping we could sponsor one of his 10 children to attend school. We are asked for anything from solar panels to clothes and money—my favorite is “give me your bicycle”—so this was not surprising. What is hard for me to wrap my mind around is how people, with limited resources of cash, land, food and space, opt to have such large families. Uganda has one of the highest birthrate in the world with 6.6 children born, per average, to each woman! Kabale District, Republic of Uganda.

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In Kenya bicycles were not allowed inside all but two or three expensive national parks and we are loving the public roads inside Uganda’s national parks and reserves. From Ruhija it climbs to 2,600 metres, to the bamboo zone, where we see duikers, birds and mountain elephant tracks. Kabale District, Republic of Uganda.

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The “Rolex” is a filling snack: an omelet with cabbage and tomatoes rolled inside a hot chapati. Four of those make our Christmas morning breakfast. Kabale District, Republic of Uganda.

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Lake Bunyonyi and its lush terraced hillsides. People walk along the newly upgraded Kabale-Kisoro road in their best clothes. We have no photos of them because most women are too shy and most men too business-savvy! Kisoro District, Republic of Uganda.

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After the Echuya Forest Reserve, where baboons sit by the road bored, we come in full view of the Virunga volcanoes. Mt.Sabinyo (3,634m), the westernmost, sits at the meeting point of Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC. Just above Kisoro is Mt.Muhavura (4,127m), the highest. Kisoro District, Republic of Uganda.

Many days on the road in Uganda end, if we are lucky, with a bucket of water, a warm beer and little food. On Christmas afternoon we rolled into Kisoro and reached the Golden Monkey Guesthouse for some outstanding festivities: hot shower, change of clothes, cold beer, gin&tonic, chicken burger and fried bananas, and a wifi connection to our friends and family. Joyeux Noël!

A few days later we followed the Batwa Development Organisation (BDO)’s young director to a Kisoro suburb so we could listen to the newly formed Batwa Music Club, a traditional music group BDO is hoping will help preserve the culture and bring income and purpose to the community. The music was excellent but the outing gut-wrenching. Evidences of alcoholism, domestic violence, malnutrition, disease and depression were laid wall to wall in the small slum. The little kids, covered in soot, with murky eyes and distended bellies, got the better of us. We crossed a line we have rarely straddled during all of our travels and told the BDO’s director “let’s go buy some posho”. Fifty kgs of cornmeal and one kg of soap was our modest contribution to this urban Batwa community, way short of a forest!

A happy new year to you all. May the new cycle bring you what you need. J+P xox

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The Land of a thousand hills! (Kigali, Rwanda - KM18,635)
Go West! (Fort Portal, Uganda - KM 17,685)
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3 Comments

  1. Hi Nomads,
    It’s nice to see you images and stories from Uganda.
    I wish you a happy new cycling year!!
    Best regards
    Stephan in Windhoek/ Namibia

    • Hi Stephan! Thanks for your good wishes that we’re returning right now to sender: all the best for this new Cycle! Man, you covered soe grounds since our last encounter in Sudan’s Bayudah Desert! We’re looking at your blog photos to catch a glimpse of what the future might have in store for us…schuss!
      https://stephan.schniegler.de/

  2. Justin Ross Coleman Jan 03, 2016, 22:16

    Wow. Such beautiful images J and P. It’s been a long time since I last saw either of you. Road blessings for 2016. Lovely to see people free like you are. Aloha. Justin.

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