We were staying in the village of Buhoma, which is the most northerly access point into Bwindi. A walk in the forest is a must. The cost of taking a guide seems extraordinarily expensive until you realise it is not only the guide who comes with you, but two guards armed with automatic rifles. One to walk ahead of you, the other to take up the rear. Why armed guards? I hear you ask.
Herbert, our excellent, knowledgeable guide explained that it is possible that we may encounter roaming elephants, baboons, chimpanzees and even some unexpected mountain gorillas. All of these could
pose a threat to life and limb, so in such an instance the guns would be used to fire warning shots to scare the creatures off. He also explained that the first footpath we were taking is used by villagers who are walking to their village some 13 k away. They have special permission to use this route through the forest in order to avoid using their normal route, which is dangerously close to the border with The Democratic Republic of The Congo and various ruthless and lawless gangs who operate from there.
He told us that the situation had been particularly bad some twenty years ago, when tourists as well as local people had been attacked, kidnapped, and/or killed in this area. Armed with this alarming – if now apparently historical – information, I did wonder whether the armed guards were really just to frighten off chimpanzees.
Let it be said now that nothing untoward happened to spoil a wonderful walk through this ancient rainforest.
We have been in Uganda long enough to have noted that three non – indigenous species of trees dominate the landscape. Namely, eucalyptus – brought here from Australia, banana trees from South America, and a species of fir tree from Canada. Eucalyptus, although it provides cheap timber, and re-grows once the trunk has been felled, needs a lot of water. Our guide told us that the once plentiful stream in his village is now completely and permanently dry, as a result of extensive eucalyptus planting, particularly close to the edge of the stream.
Needless to say, you will find none of these species in the forest, nor mango or avocado, which are also non – indigenous plants. Instead there are majestic tree ferns, and massive trunks of mahogany and other native trees that tower above you, providing lots of shade. Impenetrable is the word. You can see that beyond the path, it is a mass of vegetation. The path itself has a complex pattern of tree roots and iron ore rocks, which have been polished to a gun-metal patina by many footsteps traversing them.
There is a lot of controversy about the Batwa people, the indigenous hunter/ gatherers who populated this forest in the past. Because they had no modern legal rights to the land, they were removed and now live in the villages on the outskirts of the forest. As pygmies, they seem to have become a curious side-show on the one hand, and the object of ridicule on the other, their way of life destroyed. We did not take up the option to ‘go and see them’.
We turned off the main track to follow a tortuously narrow track which went deeper into the forest, leading us to three successively more impressive waterfalls. You want to look up, but you can’t, for it is far too treacherous underfoot.
The variety of fungi was amazing. There were silver mushrooms like tiny iridescent pearls. There were mushrooms that looked like that last circle of a Werther’s Original before you decide to crunch it rather than suck it. Others were like those gaudy fluorescent buttons you find on children’s clothes. There were some like those poached egg sweets you can get from a traditional confectioner. Others looked like frayed circles of linen that have been in contact with something rusty. Some seemed to be coated with white, fine icing sugar, with a drop of coffee on top.
On the way back from the waterfalls, we were lucky enough to see several red-tailed monkeys, which first crossed the path in front of us, then disappeared into the thick undergrowth. And the butterflies! They seemed to congregate in sunlit patches – huge numbers of blue, yellow and white butterflies mixed with multi-coloured brown, red and black ones, as well as huge swallow-tail emerald green ones, edged with black, dancing in their hundreds in a well – orchestrated semblance of a blizzard. I had to tread carefully to avoid stepping on any of them. It felt like I was a character in Bradbury’s ‘The Sound of Thunder’ – don’t step off the path! The eco-system will be destroyed!
What a privilege it has been to visit such an amazing place. Next time we have vowed to save enough money to take one of the gorilla-trekking options, which currently costs $600. per person. It has been described as the most awesome wild-life experience you can possibly have.