October 05, 2005

to penetrate the impenetrable



Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda

I have been to the middle of nowhere, and it is not the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. It is, rather, where you go when your teenage taxi driver takes a wrong turn en route to said impenetrability and continues for half an hour unawares.

I was first made aware of our misdirection when the top of my head smacked into the roof of our car. I'd splashed out on a private ("special hire") taxi to Bwindi, public transit being chancy-to-unavailable except on market day, and somehow contrived to fall asleep despite the humped, fissured, rocky dirt road that winds along ridgetops and steep hillsides, past glorius views of the Western Rift Valley, the cloud-shrouded Ruwenzori, and the Virunga volcanoes, along terraced fields and stands of eucalyptus forest, during the (theoretically) 3-hour journey. But when I woke, the road was no longer dirt. It wasn't even, really, a road. Barely even the idea of a road; more of a wide grass walking trail, very uneven - hence the wakeup bump - segregating raw jungle from small semi-cultivated fields and banana plantations.

I gently suggested to Isaac-the-driver that this couldn't be right. (Thinking: "I know they call it Impenetrable and all, but this is ridiculous.") Isaac bridled but eventually, with universale male reluctance, agreed to stop and ask directions. "Of who?" I thought, but indeed, round the next bend, next to a small igloo-like structure made of mud and strips of bark, there they were; a woman and five children, dressed in colour-drained rags, staring at us amazed.

Information was exchanged. A clearing was found, a little ways on, in which to turn around. We drove past the (now more amused than amazed) family and rattled back up a road I wouldn't have taken a 4WD down, much less a battered Corolla; vertiginously steep, narrow, twisted, uneven, and incredibly bumpy. Eventually, as I offered silent prayers of thanks to Toyota engineers, two parallel strips of dirt emerged from the grass; then the grass meridian vanished; and finally, thirty minutes' drive and maybe 12K after turning around, we were back on the proper route to Bwindi.

To give Isaac credit, he did drive with ferocious skill. If only his navigational abilities were commensurate. Or his negotiating skills; I later learned that he'd severely undercharged me, which may explain his failure to turn up today for the agreed-upon return leg.

The nearest town to Bwindi is called Butogota, and even more than most small African towns, it's like something out of the Wild West. A single wide street of blasted dirt runs between two rows of storefronts, concrete blocks with tin awningss. The store I entered sells big sacks of wheat and beans; bags of salt, sugar, and tea; soap (in long unwrapped bars), candles, baking soda, matches, toilet paper, paraffin - and that's it. No chocolate, no sweets, no biscuits, no baby food, no Vaseline, no lotions or powders, none of the other usual array of colourful disposables found in most African shop-stalls.

The bottle shop next door sells beer, Coke, and water. There is a post office; a police station; a hand-cranked gas station; an immigration post (it's right on the Congo border); a hotel/bar, with pool table; a few dry-goods type stores, J. Nkrumah and Sons and such by name, with shadowed, indeterminate contents; and, in the town's one concession to the 21st century, an MTN mobile-phone airtime-voucher stall. There are two secondary schools, one Muslim one Christian, and a bunch of one-room primary schools. There were fewer than a dozen vehicles. But for them, the MTN store, and the banana-tree backdrop, we could have been at the Texas-Mexico border a hundred years ago.

The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is a national park in remote southwest Uganda, on the Congo border. It is best known for being home to half the world's mountain gorillas (the others are fifty K south, in the Virunga range of volanoes that straddle the Uganda-Rwanda-Congo borders.) Bwindi means "dark". The Dark Impenetrable Forest - it's like something out of a fantasy novel, isn't it? I mean, Mirkwood's got nothing on this place.

where even the epiphytes have epiphytes

Bwindi is rainforest, not jungle. Rainforest is dominated by enormous canopy trees, fifty metres high, that soak up almost all the sunlight - hence "dark" - and means the undergrowth, though still extremely profuse, is push-your-way-through rather than hack-your-way-through, though Bwindi verged on the latter in many places - hence "impenetrable" - far moreso than other African montane rainforest I've seen. (Mount Afi, on the Nigeria-Cameroon border, and the Vumba in eastern Zimbabwe.)

From the park gate, you can see the forest rising high across a steep ravine. It is an incredible wall of thick, tangled green, interrupted only by the thin pale strips of canopy-tree trunks. Only trees are visible, a vast, looming, endless mass of them; no trails, no clearings, no landscape features; only this utterly opaque arboreal shield.

Within, the forest is so violently, densely fecund that even the greenery has greenery; roots and branches are covered by moss; vines hang on vines; the very stones look like verdant hillocks. Clouds of pure-white butterflies scatter as you walk. Birds hoot, monkeys ook, water burbles. It's beautiful.

On the way in, en route to the first three-hour hike1, the sky was bright blue. Mindful that they don't call it rainforest for nothing, I asked at the park gate if it might rain later. "No," the guard assured me, "I guarantee." I decided not to double back to the village of lodges and curio shops just outside the park for my raincoat, and pressed on. You see where this is heading.

I was assigned a guide and two guards with Kalashnikovs. Overkill, for a maybe 7K walk, you'd think - but in 1999, forty tourists were kidnapped here, and eight murdered, by members of one of the Congo's innumerable warlord militias. Since then security has been high. LP calls the Uganda military presence here "invisible", but it sure didn't look that way to me when we passed a troop going into the forest. "To find snares set by poachers," my guide helpfully explained. I smiled, nodded, looked at the dozen soldiers' light machine guns and bulbous RPGs, and disbelieved.

In perhaps-not-entirely-unrelated news, the Ugandan papers have of late been full of reports that the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group of eye-popping barbarity that has terrorized northern Uganda for two decades, has just moved its base from the Sudan to easterns Congo - although they are believed to be hundreds of miles north of Bwindi.

The main trail we passed the soldiers on runs straight through the forest to a market at the Congo border, some two hours' walk. I asked if I could go see it, but only local villagers are allowed to pass through the park to the market, and I'm sure my guards weren't keen on escorting an unpredictable mzungu there, and that was all a moot point because the government had ordered the market closed this week to contain a cholera outbreak.

Cholera, machine guns, gorillas, a divinely inspired army of atrocity, the Dark Impenetrable Forest - I mean, if I can't get story material out of this place, I ought to hang up my thriller-writer keyboard now, no?

1I didn't go gorilla tracking at Bwindi; that's planned for next week, in Rwanda, if there's a permit spare, and at US$400 a pop it's too expensive to go twice. Also I feel kind of lukewarm about the whole idea. I mean, primates cool and all, but I'm not that big a wildlife lover, and $400 seems like a lot of money to stand near a bunch of apes for an hour. But I guess it's one of those if-in-the-area obligatory things, and everyone I meet raves about it, so I guess I'll try to go.

before, after

A quick catchup of the rest of my time:

From Jinja I went to Kampala, which is a pleasant if uneventful city compared to Nairobi, where I stayed in the very grimy Hotel Sun City but ate well, shopped at fantastically cheap and well-equipped suburban supermarkets, and saw THE DUKES OF HAZZARD, of all things. From Kampala, an EMS Post Bus took me to Fort Portal, an even more pleasant town set in the foothills of the Ruwenzori, tea plantations and seas of green-starburst banana trees and limpid crater lakes and cool limestone caves, plus a very good restaurant with a bar showing Premiership football.

I did not trek the Ruwenzori, which I felt less guilty about when I stopped off at my next destination, the luxury Mweya Lodge in Queen Elizabeth Park. (My policy is a week or two of roughing it, then two weeks of luxury.) This glorious situated lodge is on a peninsula between Lake Edward and the Kazingi Channel waterway, and from its balconies, in theory, one can see the Ruwenzori. In fact I only twice caught glimpses of their snowstreaked slopes. In rainy season, you see, they are caught up in cloud 23.5 hours of the average day, and the appeal of climbing up and down steep slopes of mud and slippery rocks with nothing around but mist to look at it is very limited. I'll come back in the dry season, some year.

From the Mweya Lodge's balconies one could, however, see a ridiculous amount of wildlife, without even getting up. Banded mongooses, warthogs, and (by night) hippos roamed the grounds; and across the Kazinga Channel, on the shore, herds of buffalo, occasional elephants, masses of hippos, several crocodiles, and ridiculous amounts of birds watered. On an afternoon launch ride up the channel we saw all of the above up closer, plus spotted hyenas; on an early-morning game drive through classic African savannah, with a very nice British couple doing a similar rare splurge, we saw teeming herds of antelope, thousands of them. No big cats though. They're there - in fact, Queen Elizabeth is the only place in the world where lions, for some reason, climb trees - but wildlife numbers are still recovering from Uganda's war years. Leopards are plentiful, of course, like everywhere else in Africa, but like everywhere else in Africa they're also basically invisible, though I did see a tawny blob high in a faraway tree at one point.

I hitched a ride with a super-nice Dutch group to the ugly and busy but well-located town of Kabale, from which I caught Isaac's taxi to Bwindi via parts unknown; and now I'm some 9K from Kabale, at the ridiculously beautiful Lake Bunyonyi, surrounded by green terraced hills, 2000m above sea level, one of Uganda's two real backpacker hangouts (the other is Bujagali Falls near Jinja). Tomorrow - or the next day, if I feel lazy - Rwanda.

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