Financial Times - One for the road
August 15, 2009

The political instability in central Africa has stunted the growth of tourism in Uganda, despite landscapes to rival those of neighbouring Kenya or Tanzania. Safari vehicles are uncommon enough that children wave frantically when they pass. The hospitality is heartfelt, as in many of the world’s war-weariest nations. George, the driver who picked me up from the airport and guided me for the next five days, had served in the army and, like everybody else I spoke to, longed for an end to violence in the region. “It doesn’t matter if we are poor or have nothing,” he told me, “as long as we have peace.”

When tourists do make the effort to visit, it is usually to see the endangered mountain gorilla that is found only here, in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Rwanda. Most tourists fly from Uganda’s Entebbe airport straight to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park – but they are missing out. The 12-hour drive is a chance to witness rural Ugandan life, and the opening of two new lodges has made the journey as comfortable as it is rewarding.

From the airport, George and I headed towards the capital, Kampala, before swinging west on the main tarmac road. Traffic was heavy. There were Red Cross trucks; long-distance “Swift Safaris” buses; open lorries with morose cows off to the abattoir; motorbikes (carrying four men); bicycles (balancing silver milk churns behind the saddle and bunches of bananas on the handlebars) and men and women walking that slow, energy-conserving walk of those who know about all-day walking.

On the map, the latitude decreased until our first stop at the equator. Here, an enterprising local fabricated the Coriolis effect, whereby water draining from a sink is said to spin in different directions either side of the equator. I watched in wonder as he managed it using tin dishes on top of oil drums, knowing that the true effect is too subtle to be visible on such a small scale. Even so, he had me taken in. I couldn’t fathom how he had done it, as I sipped sweet spiced tea at the Equation Café.

The road rose and fell with the soft contours of the landscape. As we veered towards the banks of Lake Victoria, fishermen held up their catches – tilapia, Nile perch and catfish – hoping to make a sale to passing motorists.

We turned down an inconspicuous, red clay road to spend the night at Mihingo Lodge, built high on a small hill, or kopje. Between the boulders, 10 tented bungalows with thatched roofs and stilted decks face south to Lake Mburo or east to Lake Kacheera. The dining area overlooks a nearby water hole and a telescope is positioned to focus on visiting eland and impala.

After a good sleep, George and I continued west. There were swamps of fine papyrus and longhorn cattle grazing on hillsides covered with stubby acacia. On the verge, butchers hung sides of cows on ropes while marabou storks strode around picking up scraps in their clacking beaks. Close by, women piled up tomatoes and sweet potatoes in small pyramids, while others sold hand-woven baskets, loofahs and sacks of charcoal. They took shade under the scarlet canopies of flame trees.

At the hilltop town of Mbarara, we filled up with petrol again – even though we’d barely used a tenth of a tank – since many of the forecourts were posting “run out” signs. As the attendant finished up, he violently rocked the car, explaining that it allowed him to pump more fuel into the tank.

Through the rolled-down windows of our vehicle, a group of women sold us a bag of fried grasshoppers and four skewers of roasted goat meat. Then they reached into the car to touch my hair – to see how it felt, George said. He said Ugandan women all want straight hair. On our way, I had been pestering George to translate bumper stickers in Luganda, Swahili and other local languages. The next one read, “All the good fortune God gave to the white people.” “Like your hair,” George said.

Kabale, the last town before the border, is lined with banks and money transfer offices, seminaries and ministries. We turned north on a slow-going dirt track to Bwindi. The land seemed to crumple. There were terraces chopped into the steep slopes, bearing beans, cassava and sorghum. Mist swirled like apparitions, as we approached 2,000 metres above sea level.

Our final destination was Nkuringo where a new hotel, Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge, sits high on a ridge. Each of the 10 stone cottages has a private butler but I chose instead to while away my hours in the hotel’s lounge with views as uplifting as a hymn. To the west were Congo’s rippling green valleys and looking south, towards Rwanda, was a row of pert volcanoes including Nyiragongo that smokes by day and glows orange by night.

Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge has opened up this part of Bwindi. Until now, the nearest hotel was a few hours’ drive and visitors had to wake before dawn to join the gorilla trek by 8am. Now it is a five-minute stroll from your room. The next morning, we met at the Uganda Wildlife Authority Office. A maximum of eight visitors can join a safari but our group was just three: myself and an enthusiastic American couple.

It can take a whole day to find the gorillas but we were in luck. By noon, the forward trackers radioed back to say they had found the group.

My first glimpse of the Nkuringo family was the broad shoulder of a blackback called Bahati. I saw his fingers, darker than mine but similarly wrinkled on the knuckles, with scuffed cuticles. There was the sound of shoots breaking and a deep chesty sigh. He moved off through the foliage and we quietly followed.

Up in the trees, we found Kasotora and her playful six-month-old practising gymnastics on a branch. Safari, the formidable chief silverback, was close by stripping branches and chewing leaves.

The hour passed unbearably fast. To minimise stress on the animals, visitors are only allowed 60 minutes with the gorillas but it is the most intimate of wildlife encounters. I still remember Bahati’s sigh; it could have been my own.

Michelle Jana Chan travelled with Bales Worldwide (