The journey to Kisoro was long but it came with many redeeming and not so redeeming features.
The Ugandan landscape is breathtaking, a patchwork of history as well as being a very fertile landscape with much of it showing agricultural use. There are many rainforests and rolling hills in Uganda, a vast contrast to the plains of Kenya. There are also a few mountains with signs of volcanic activity which is more noticeable as you edge closer towards Democratic Republic of the Congo formerly Zaire.
As we drove towards Kisoro we were to pass through a stretch of road skimming the border of Rwanda. My travel companions started to get jittery, the stretch of road we were on the Kabale-Kisoro Road was where, EIGHT WESTERN tourists, were kidnapped, raped, tortured, and butchered by their Hutu kidnappers in an horrific act of revenge against Britain & America in 1999. Four Britons, two New Zealanders and two Americans were amongst the dead. To lift spirits songs were sung along the lines of “Rhinestone cowboy”… Yes we really knew how to pick the best sing along songs and to do them in notes that would’ve confused the African dogs.
As we came out of this stretch of jungle engulfed road and back into the open greens of Uganda, it was apparent that some of the locals on the remote outskirts do not favour “white” people or tourists. I was looking out of the window of our truck as we passed by, my fellow travel companions still jittery and the locals were making death threats to intimidate us by running their hand across their throat as a sign to cut our throats. Me being me smiled and waved. I wasn’t going to be intimidated. The outskirts of Uganda are incredibly primitive. We passed a haunting and prominent building that is dedicated to Dian Fossey. For those who may not know, Dian Fossey was an American primatologist and conservationist who undertook extensive studies of mountain gorilla groups from 1966 until her 1985 murder. The film Gorillas in the Mist is based on her life and works with the gorillas and some of her methods depicted in the movie would prove very useful.
We reached Kisoro late afternoon and Hayley and I paired up to head to our cabin. I was still ill and Hayley figured, I was the only one who didn’t find her sleep issues a nuisance. Once settled, we headed for the main communal area, where drinks were flowing. Despite drinking a lot of Kahlua whilst on antibiotics, unlike everyone else, I ended up retiring early as I just wanted to sleep. Drinking wasn’t having any effect on me whatsoever. Needless to say, I would be woken with a hell of a start the following morning.
Around 6am, Hayley and I were woken by a loud banging and something or someone on our cabin roof and the camps dog barking and growling like mad outside. Unsure what was going on we initially peered out of the curtains to have a look. I then decided to be brave and go outside, unsure of what I was to be confronted with. This banging continued and so did the barking. It was only when I looked up to where the dog was looking, whilst it continued running up and down the length of our cabin, I darted back in to grab my camera, much to Hayley’s bemusement.
Our rude awakening was down to a Black and white Colobus Monkey…
This monkey was having a lot of fun winding up the camps dog. The monkey would run one end of the roof and peer down completely unphased by the dog, barking, jumping and snarling and then run the other end, as if to say ha ha you can’t catch me. Needless to say we were very much wide awake and as it was a beautiful morning, we headed off for breakfast and I was to be checked over to ensure I would be fit to see the gorillas.
The reason I needed to be checked over and deemed fit, is because if I was still deemed infectious/unfit, I would not be permitted as the virus can be passed from me to the gorillas. Here’s the science bit to explain as it is pretty complex.
Humans and gorillas share approximately 98 percent of their DNA. This close genetic relatedness has led to concerns that gorillas may be susceptible to many of the infectious diseases that affect people. A virus that causes respiratory disease in humans has been linked to the deaths of wild mountain gorillas. Transmission between humans and apes which has been shown to be relatively easy. Research on great apes has shown that they are extremely sensitive to infection with human respiratory viruses. For example, the common cold virus, which is also a coronavirus, is known to infect gorillas and chimpanzees. The veterinarians of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, who monitor the health of the gorillas and treat individuals suffering from life-threatening or human-caused trauma and disease, have observed an increase in the frequency and severity of respiratory disease outbreaks in the mountain gorilla population in recent years.
Acute and fatal respiratory illnesses known to have come from humans have occurred in habituated groups of wild chimpanzees with morbidity rates varying between 34% to 98% and mortality rates between 3% and 7%.
According to Gorilla Doctors, an international veterinary team providing medical care to ill and injured gorillas, the most effective measure for the prevention of the introduction of SARS CoV-2 virus (or any pathogen) to gorillas in Rwanda, Uganda and DRC is to minimise direct and indirect contact between gorillas and infected people.
That just covering the gist, if you look at this years pandemic of COVID-19 (which is a mutated version of SARS CoV-2), you can see why there is concern over the safety and preservation of these magnificent creatures. What I had was an upper respiratory infection or as we call it a chest infection/viral infection. I was potentially more of a risk to them, than they were to me and with Gorillas being endangered species, it is critical to ensure I was not going to be a risk.
The good news is I was given the all clear. Now it was to prepare for the early morning start the following day. More rest would be needed and I had to be ready to go at 4am.
Those of you who know me well, will have seen the following photograph on my business cards, a wall in my home, on my phone’s screen saver and on my social media profiles. This photo of the sunrise was taken at 05:00 am as I walked up the Bunagana Road towards the Zaire border. There was a last minute change to our plans to enter the Rwanda border and instead we were to go through the Congo to Mount Virunga.
It wasn’t part of the original plan to enter the Democratic Republic of the Congo. However walking up the Bunagana Road was long and at that time of the morning, it pretty warm and thriving with bird activity. The African Dawn Chorus. It is very picturesque and you have a sense of calm, whilst at the same time nerves.
As we reached the border, our guide Justin tells us to wait behind this barbed wire fence that marked the border as he headed into this cabin to sort all our permits and meet with the Virunga National Park Rangers who are to transport us up into Mount Virunga.
I noticed as we crossed into Zaire, that on the borders were, whilst despite some of what I saw was attributed to disease, illness & lack of medical assistance, there were locals with deformities from genocide using makeshift disability aids (at 24 I’d say I was pretty naive to this). This was something I would get familiar with when I returned from Africa and a family member who had just finished working on the set of the film Blood Diamond would open my eyes to the atrocities inflicted upon the people of the Congo (a widespread problem in Africa). Tour companies will always aim to show you the best sides of country, rather than the raw authentic reality/the bigger picture.
I called home to let my parents know about the change in plan. “Don’t worry” I misguidedly attempted to reassure my late father as he swore like mad down the phone screaming at me to get out. “We have three armed bodyguards with AK47’s.” As you can imagine that doesn’t fill any parent with confidence.
Once Justin had sorted out the permits and we’d had a chat with our rangers, we board the 4X4’s and travelled to our next destination. Mount Virunga!
My travel companions were looking out the front of the 4×4’s we were in and commenting about how gorgeous the view was. I was looking back and I’d clocked the heavy presence of the UN forces, I knew instinctively this wasn’t a good sign. To be fair we were all excited about the prospect of seeing the Gorillas, but I was getting a very unsettling feeling from seeing the UN presence…