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Visiting Uganda's Endangered Mountain Gorillas

04/11/2011 01:42 pm 13:42:32 | Updated Jun 11, 2011

Although my flight touched down at Uganda's Entebbe airport at around 3 a.m., the country's position on the equator ensured that within seconds I was engulfed by outrageously humid air. My only previous experience with that kind of heat was the all-encompassing stickiness of Hanoi in July. Lucky for me, I was able to contemplate the finer points of this comparison over the next eight hours. For what seemed like an eternity, I rode in a sweltering bus bound for a remote patch of jungle near the Congo border.

What the journey lacked in speed was compensated by astoundingly lush vistas. As the road wound for hours through banana and tea plantations, the fronds of the banana trees were dotted with the bright headscarves of women working in the fields. As we lurched along, many of these headscarves, without fail, were joined by a waving hand and a shout of "Jambo!," the local greeting. Men in the villages also greeted us with a "Jambo!," while hordes of smiling children ran behind the bus shouting -- you guessed it -- "Jambo!"

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Local Kids Relaxing Post-"Jambo!"

I traveled to Uganda to visit the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, a nature preserve that is home to roughly 300 Bwindi gorillas, half the world's population of critically endangered mountain gorillas. The government actively monitors the gorillas in an attempt to reverse the damage that poachers and guerrilla warfare have caused to the population.

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The government is also keen to look after visitors since insurgents executed eight tourists in 1999. All gorilla tracking expeditions are guided by a series of knowledgeable park rangers who serve on the frontlines of the battle to ensure the safety of the remaining gorilla population. Park rules permit 24 people per day to hike into the mountains in search of one of several family groups. Once discovered, the humans are allowed to stay with the gorillas for just twenty minutes and must remain still and quiet.

Due partly to its remote location and partly to pockets of insecurity in the region, Bwindi attracts just a fraction of the visitors that pour into neighboring Tanzania to visit the Serengeti and the Ngoro Ngoro Crater. If you're looking for a ritzy Serena lodge or an Abercrombie & Kent luxury camp, Bwindi probably isn't your place. Rather, the park offers travelers a much more rustic and authentic experience. Accommodations in the guest camp are very basic. Dinner is "plucked" daily from the group of chickens that parade across the camp's dusty yard. If you'd like to observe the process by which a squawking chicken becomes an entrée, you need only sit in the yard for a few hours and watch the chef go about his day.

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The hike in search of the gorillas can take as long as 12 hours and requires the use of machetes to hack open a trail through the forest. My group was lucky: after a mere four hours through muddy and difficult terrain, we discovered a group of fifteen gorillas, including a silverback and a newborn. As I moved quietly toward the gorilla family, I took in the view, intent on making the most of my time with the group. My serenity was immediately shattered when I was stung on the head by a massive wasp. With just twenty minutes to visit with the gorillas, I allocated 2 minutes to quietly curse and spent the remaining 18 minutes in awe.

Observing the gorillas in their habitat is a transformative experience; the reality of their endangerment becomes tangible. The Ugandan government's preservation efforts, albeit limited by resource-constraints, have helped to protect the remaining population. Upon returning back to camp at the end of our long hike, our guide presented each hiker with a "certificate of achievement" for completing the hike. Those travellers lucky enough to have visited Bwindi know that the true achievement is measured by the ongoing efforts of the Ugandan government and park employees to protect the mountain gorillas.

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Sadly, No Certificates of Achievement Are Given at the Equator