In East Africa, the Virunga volcanoes region is home to the last mountain gorillas. As a safeguard, ecotourism now makes it possible to have a moving face-to-face with these great apes. An exceptional report from Figaro Magazine.
Kabale, finally … 430 kilometers from the capital of Uganda, the city, one of the oldest in the country, heralds a change of scenery: terraced crops and papyrus fields on fertile land dotted with lakes. On the way back, we will discover this little African Switzerland by following, not far from there, the curves of Lake Bunyonyi, whose virgin waters of crocodiles and bilharzia are populated with crayfish. Another hundred kilometers and we will reach the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, which stretches over 331 square kilometers at the foot of the Virunga volcanoes. We’ve been driving for four or five hours, slowed down by potholes and a passing of ramshackle trucks and buses to and from neighboring Burundi, Tanzania or neighboring Congo and Rwanda.
Billboards praise the classic sodas and mobile networks – we can’t escape them – until one of them calls out: “Can’t wait more to meet you”, we read (“Je ne can’t wait any longer to meet you ”) … The hook bar the photo of a silverback gorilla posing thoughtfully on his colossus forearms. Here, the targets of yesterday have become the mascots. A living great ape now pays more than a dead monkey. And then, who would still want a gorilla’s hand as an ashtray? “To say that before, in the villages, the gorilla symbolized bad fortune”, breathes Georges, our guide.
Fascination of travelers
The fascination of travelers for this touching mammal makes Bwindi in any case the national park which today generates the most resources in the country. The story of this success began in 1997, when a first family of gorillas was approached in the Bwindi forest. Objective: to accustom the animal to the presence of humans in order to start a viable ecotourism activity, for monkeys as well as for humans. Supporting the local population by involving them in an income-generating activity is then, for the “International Gorilla Conservation Program”, the only way to bring them to reduce the pressure it exerts on the forest.
As we move west, vehicles are getting scarcer. We pass men bent on their bicycles loaded with bunches of still green bananas, women in colorful boubous who walk, heads erect and high under their bundles of wood. The day is fading, so much so that we arrive at dusk. The shreds of mist evaporate in the darkness.
The driveway to Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge, our two-night haven, is lit with candles, and a smiling committee greets us. Gary, the manager, a jovial South African from Kwazulu-Natal, made the introductions. Innocent will be our “butler”, Oliva our housekeeper. A fire crackles inside a solid volcanic stone building. After 1000 meters in altitude, the evenings are cool. To the right the dining room, to the left a large living room, sofas stuffed with cushions. Other employees are busy, there are 48 in all. All young and from neighboring villages.
Dawn rises on a royal panorama highlighted by a crown of volcanoes
The construction of the Clouds took only a year to render more than perfect. The fruit of a partnership between The Uganda Safari Company (the TUSC, which also manages, via Wild Places, several lodges in Uganda) and the African Wildlife Foundation, the Clouds offers Bwindi the flagship that was missing for the reception of travelers in quest for emotion, nature but also charm and comfort. From astonishment we pass to delight by discovering the rooms. There are eight, eight small houses scattered around a botanical garden. A fireplace as a separation between the living room and the bedroom. The king size bed, cozy (and heated by a hot water bottle), promises a restful sleep.
Dawn rises over a royal panorama highlighted by a crown of volcanoes in Uganda.
Dawn rises on a royal panorama highlighted by a crown of volcanoes. Myriads of birds chirp in the branches, composing a singular symphony. At 6.30 am, we descend to the village to validate our precious “gorilla permit” ($ 600 each) at the office of the “Uganda Wildlife Authorit”.
In a small room, Augustin gathers the lucky eight of the day (not one more, that’s the rule) who will meet the Nkuringo family, one of the most interesting, because one of the largest. With the birth in 2008 of twins (a rare occurrence for the species), the family now has twenty-one members including two silverbacks. Thanking us for contributing to the preservation of the species, the ranger specifies that “20% of the sums collected for this adventure are used to finance community projects.” Patients in the group? If so, we will have to give up: the gorilla is far too fragile to be exposed to human germs. “The encounter with gorillas is not guaranteed”, warns Augustin, before adding that “over the past three years, they have not. have never missed an appointment ”.
Suddenly, a low growl breaks the silence …
A steep track descends towards the forest whose dark foliage drapes the relief. Very quickly, we congratulated ourselves on having hired a porter for the day, as it is true that this forest, a dense jewel, is impenetrable. With a machete, the rangers open passages. The porters parent our slides and the guide follows the progress of the trackers in his walkie-talkie. A branch stripped of its bark, and still wet excrement are all clues that they will know how to interpret. The canopy rustles. Many species live there. Chimpanzees in particular, and the very rare forest elephant …
Vaguely desperate, we have been progressing for four hours in this vegetable labyrinth when, finally, we see the trackers. “They are there,” Augustin whispers before a final reminder of the safety instructions: no flash, silence, calm and, in above all, to prefer an attitude of submission to flight. We leave our bags there, as food can create unfortunate incidents, and follow the trackers with beating hearts.
Branches creak here and there, in all directions. A furtive shadow passes behind us. Suddenly, a low growl breaks the silence, a grayish hand with fingers like sausages pushes aside the foliage where the dark face of a big silverback is framed. The group freezes, the emotion embraces us. Joy more than fear. He watches us for a moment, then, disillusioned, sprawls out on the floor. Behind him, a small shaggy ball with shining eyes prances in the branches. A female strokes her baby’s cheek. Further on, the second silverback sends a fluttering flick of a younger and turbulent male who begins to pound his fists on his chest. In the forest of Bwindi, for us, that day, time stood still …
Visa (50 €) at the Ugandan Embassy in Paris (01.56.90.12.20 and http://ougandafrance.ifrance.com) or on site at Entebbe airport.
Jet lag: more 1 hour in summer compared to Paris, more 2 hours in winter.
Vaccine against yellow fever and antimalarial treatment recommended.
Power adapter: indispensable.
Change : the Ugandan shilling (€ 1 = approximately 45,070 SKU).
Gorilla permit: accessible to over 15s, it is valid for one entry (the meeting with gorillas does not last more than an hour). To be reserved several weeks before departure ($ 600 per person).
Specialist in high-end tailor-made travel and great connoisseur of Africa, Tselana Travel (01.55.35.00.30 and www.tselana.com) has concocted a 9 days / 6 nights program including two nights at the Emin Pasha Hotel with breakfasts on arrival in Kampala (with a guided city tour) , transfer by small plane to the Bwindi forest, 2 nights at Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge with full board, Gorilla permit and end this beautiful adventure with a 2-night stay with full board at Mihingo Lodge, in the Lake National Park Mburo. From € 5,327 per person on departure from Paris on Air France in economy class including taxes, ground transfers and entry into national parks. Note: by opting for a transfer to Bwindi Forest by car, the cost of the trip will be lower. The journey is long (count 10 hours by road via Kabale), but punctuated by interesting scenes of everyday life.
In Kampala, the Emin Pasha Hotel (00.256.414.236.977 and www.eminpasha.com). From € 220 per night in a double room with breakfast. This boutique hotel with twenty or so perfectly equipped rooms is a charming oasis in the heart of the bustling capital. Terrace, swimming pool, cozy lounge and spa.
At the edge of the Bwindi forest, the Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge (00.256.414.251.182 and www.wildplacesafrica.com). Count € 338 per person in a double room and full board. Eight volcanic stone cottages, with a large terrace and scattered around a botanical garden. For each of the “houses”, a Ugandan artist has painted exclusive canvases which give extra soul to the decoration, which is already very neat. The main building, also with several fireplaces, houses the dining room, the library lounge, a shop and the bar.
In Lake Mburo National Park, the Mihingo Lodge (00.256.752.410.509 and www.mihingolodge.com). From 260 € per night per person in a double room and full board. The only place in Uganda that offers horseback safaris! In a private reserve on the edge of the national park, this lodge built on a rock offers a 180-degree panorama of its environment. Ten comfortable safari tents set up on wooden platforms. Restaurant, library lounge, shop and swimming pool. Power supply by solar panels. The lodge contributes to the preservation of leopards and hyenas (financial compensation to breeders to dissuade them from poisoning the predators of their livestock). Note: 80% of the lodge’s employees come from neighboring Ankole villages. The lodge also promotes local crafts through its shops in Kampala (www.bananaboat.co.ug).
● Want to take action?
At Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge you will see a performance of traditional dances by the children of the Nkuringo Orphans Group (inabondfoundation.org/the-nkuringo-orphans-group/). The association takes care of about fifty orphans (deprived of their parents by AIDS and other tragedies). Your donations are welcome!
● The magic moment
Before dinner at Mihingo Lodge, a detour on the platform below the bar allows you to observe a group of bush babies. Funny little animals with round eyes, whose cry evokes that of babies (hence their name).
● The crush
For the Friend aGorilla program, set up by UWA (Uganda Wildlife Authority). For the modest sum of $ 1 per year (or more according to your wishes), you become the virtual “friend” of a gorilla and help save the species. On the dedicated site (www.friendagorilla.org), photos and videos allow you to follow the evolution of the animals. Six families are presented, including that of Nkuringo.
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