AS dawn breaks over the rough red dirt track that clings onto the mountainside, the scene dramatically unfolds. Thick mist lies like a morning blanket over the treetops and the hillsides have been moulded into terraces forming a rich patterned tapestry.
In the distance high peaks frame this idyllic picture, some of them based in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. Children run along the side of the road carrying water containers, women are setting out to spend the day working the fields, babies on their backs and hoes in their hands. All the while our minivan slowly edges closer to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, the home of the Mountain Gorilla.
Now I will admit I shed a tear, all right I cried my eyes out, when I first watched Sigourney Weaver take on the role of Dian Fossey in Gorillas In The Mist and was fascinated seeing David Attenborough get so up close and personal with these amazing animals. Now the reality that it was my turn just hadn’t sunk in.
Flanked front and back by armed men, to scare off dangerous forest elephants, our small group of eight made our first steps on slippery mud paths into the dense undergrowth of the rain forest. It’s a hard slog but nothing can prepare you for your first face to face encounter with an adult silverback. His enormous frame sits amongst the bushes, his eyes cast a glance over all of us. He beats his chest to assert his dominance, sending vibrations through the ground. It is terrifying yet exhilarating.
'Over 259,000 victims of the violence in 1994 are buried in mass graves here. The pictures, personal accounts and video of the atrocity are sobering, the children’s room particularly harrowing'
Other members of the group are sleeping, not worried at all by our presence. One female with friendly eyes looks as though she is giving us a half smile before reaching and stretching her leg in the air, as if posing for the camera. Close to her, a young male rolls over within three metres of us. Further up the hillside, the old man of the group, ‘the peacemaker’, keeps an attentive watch over us. He is balding and moves slowly, the scars of life evident on his face, but he is still impressive, even in his elderly years.
The hour with the group passes too quickly, but it is an honour to have been welcomed and see these magnificent, gentle animals in their natural habitat. The day has been exhausting, the mud will eventually wash out, but I don’t think any of us will forget this utterly magical encounter.
We are camped at a spectacular campsite on the edge of Lake Bunyoni, tents on wooden platforms over the water, sheltered under tree canopy. Beds and electricity provide a little bit of luxury. There is opportunity during the stay here to visit the local orphanage, spend some time with the children and join in with dances during playtime, which is heart-warming.
It is also worth crossing the border into Rwanda to take a trip to the Genocide Memorial Museum in Kigali. Over 259,000 victims of the violence in 1994 are buried in mass graves here. The pictures, personal accounts and video of the atrocity are sobering, the children’s room particularly harrowing.
Of course, a trip to East Africa wouldn’t be complete without a safari in search of the Big 5 – elephant, lions, buffalo, rhino and leopard. As you enter the Masai Mara National park, in Kenya, its vastness is clear, stretched as far as the eye can see. Plains of grass, tinged brown by the sun and lush green acacia trees dot the landscape. The rough dirt roads add to the impending sense of adventure. Within a short time, we spot a lone lioness being chased by a few grumpy buffalo. It is interesting to see the tables turned. The park is teeming with wildlife including, zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, gazelles, antelope, monkeys and my favourite, elephants.
It’s almost easy to forget that this isn’t wild, that it’s really just one big staged safari, but the carcasses and bones that litter the landscape remind you this isn’t Disney, this is real, wild, Africa.
Lunch is a stop at the Mara River, filled with crocodiles and hippos. As the sun beats down we enjoy a picnic, a stone’s throw from deadly wild animals and not a fence in sight. A walk closer to the water and we stand on one of the crossing points for the annual migration. Aside from the hippos grunting in the water, all is quiet and calm. A completely different scene from the thousands of thundering wildebeest and zebra hooves kicking up the dirt, fighting for their lives, that is often shown in documentaries.
Rhino and leopard still elude us, though. It was hoped a visit to Lake Nakuru National Park would complete the tick list. It is much smaller than the Masai Mara and famed for its great lake that is turned pink by flamingos. However, we are in for a treat. One of our group spots a dark shape hiding in the long grass through binoculars. It’s a rare black rhino.
On the lakeshore, pelicans float in the shallows. Maribu storks wade slowly for food, their reflection casts a mirror perfect image in the still water. Buffalo wallow, cooling off from the midday sun. Unfortunately, most of the flamingos have migrated.
Our driver, Steve, gets a tip off and we race to another part of the park. In a clump of bushes by the roadside, six lion cubs are resting in the shade. Suddenly, they decide to make their way out of the thicket, clumsy on their oversize paws. On the other side of the road, a male lion lies with three lionesses. His head is magnificent, sporting a thick golden brown mane, but when he stands briefly, his body is skinny. He is apparently on his honeymoon during which males forgo food for other pleasures. Our desperate search for a leopard though is to no avail.
You won’t get five star luxuries on this tour but what you will get after a day in the wild is the chance to share stories around the campfire, under the stars, beer in hand (though it may not always be cold). Our safari cook, John, surpassed himself night after night with an array of exquisite food cooked over coals.
The surprises don’t end there. “Be careful if you get out to go to the loo in the night,” our guide Chris warned as we had just set up camp on the shores of Lake Victoria. “Hippos come up to graze here at night.” Scouring hedgerows for chameleons is another night time activity. After long days driving through the countryside on bumpy, dusty roads, ridden with potholes, senses overloaded by sights and sounds, there is no better way to sleep than under canvas, to the tune of bullfrogs and crickets.
Don’t expect room service, but do expect to find a Masai warrior outside your tent armed with a bow and arrow, just making sure the wild animals don’t get too close.
Sarah Poole went on a 14-day Gorillas and Game Overlanding tour with Africa Travel Company www.africatravelco.com/index.php.
Cost: £425 plus US$400 land payment, includes transport, accommodation and 3 meals a day.
She flew from direct to Nairobi from Heathrow with Kenya Airways for £545. www.kenya-airways.com.
Price of the trip excludes Gorilla Trekking: A permit currently costs US$500 plus a permit handling fee of US$60-100.
Visas: You will need to buy visas for Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda (if you choose to travel to the memorial museum). Current visa costs: Kenya, U$50 (only payable once); Uganda, US$50; Rwanda: Free for UK Citizens but you will need to pay another US$50 to re enter Uganda.
Masai Mara cultural village tour
Masai Mara hot air balloon ride
White water rafting
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