By Bruce Murray
I was visiting with a friend the other day who reminded me I had not told him of my experience viewing gorillas in Uganda, Africa. Well, here is the story.
Several years ago I was working at a small hospital in Jinja, Uganda. It was hot, tiring and emotionally very difficult work. Ten days into the project we decided it was time to take a break and spend a few days exploring the country.
Three of us hired a car and driver and travelled across Uganda from east to west. Along the way we visited game parks, saw lions sleeping in a tree and took a boat tour in Queen Elizabeth National Park and viewed many different animals native to the area. Our ultimate goal was Mgahinga Gorilla National Park — the home of Uganda’s famous mountain gorillas in the far south west corner of the country.
Once there, we settled into our lodgings, which were a surprise in I had a queen size bed (covered by a mosquito net) inside a canvas tent —which was situated on a wood platform and covered over with palm fronds on a wood frame. The plumbing was modern, but located in a little room connected to the tent. But, open to the environment from shoulder height up.
Supper was chicken, rice and vegetables cooked over an outdoor charcoal fire. The next morning after breakfast we gathered together with a few other tourists in the park information building, where we watched a video on interacting with gorillas. The main message was don’t try to touch them or bother them in any way. Although they are vegetarians they are very powerful animals and can hurt you if provoked. We were then divided into several small groups and assigned a guide, a “push me pull me” porter and an armed guard to travel with.
Our group was just the three of us
that were travelling together. We travelled by road for a few miles and were then dropped off by a river at the bottom of a small mountain and were told the group of gorillas we were going to observe was at the top of the mountain and we were going to hike up there. The trail was narrow and steep and after a few minutes the purpose of the “push me pull me” porter became evident.
He did what the name implied. He would either push from behind or pull us up the steeper parts of the trail. It was hot and very humid and after about two hours of climbing this mountain I began to feel unwell. My companions were both much younger than I and were fairing somewhat better, but were also feeling the strain.
When we stopped for a quick breather I was struggling to get my breath and collapsed and fell over backwards. Both my companions were doctors and when I said I was unable to go on, they both agreed it would be unwise for me to continue. They later told me they were quite concerned, as my lips had turned blue indicating I was not getting enough oxygen.
I insisted they continue on with the trek and so our guide radioed headquarters to send a vehicle to meet me at our drop-off point down the mountain where we started and sent me back down with the armed guard as an escort. The trip down with the guard proved to be quite interesting, as I got the chance to visit with him and learn more about him, the area and the people living there.
English is the official language of Uganda, so it was easy to talk with him. I was very interested to know why we required an armed guard — especially one carrying a fully automatic AK-47.
The official answer was to protect us from elephants, but he finally acknowledged the real reason. He pointed across the valley a few miles and said, “That is the Congo.”
* To be continued