A North American trucker wouldn't consider walking down this muddy road, much less driving a big rig on it. Just a regular day in Uganda.
One of the trip's brilliant highlights was our upcoming visit to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Great name, and as it turns out, quite apt. The drive was one of the worst yet, the rock-filled and rutted "road" at times little better than a jungle path barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass without kissing mirrors. The constant battering turned breakfast into fruit-shakes in our bellies, and eventually even our mighty Toyota Land Cruiser could cruise no longer, suffering a snapped suspension.
In a mountainous jungle in the middle of nowhere.
If this happened to you, what would you do? With no cellphone coverage.
Levan didn't seem at all concerned. He simply slowed down, the sound of metal grinding on metal with each bump jarring, car parts scarring, sparks likely flying. Then around the next curve appeared a small group of huts and tin shacks. One of which was a mechanic's shop. Naturally. Levan backed up, within two minutes the rear was jacked up, a broken shock tube removed. There was no running water here, so what were the odds they'd have a replacement rear suspension part for a 90's Toyota SUV? 10 minutes later the shock was somehow repaired and reinstalled.
The resourcefulness and ingenuity of Ugandans is inspiring.
We arrived at our lodge, and despite the Canuck blood flowing through our veins, the altitude made it shockingly cold for an African August, and we cozied up to the cracking fire in the stone hearth in the great room. Another delicious dinner, then off to bed to rest for the big day. We had a our own cozy bungalow, with a patio hanging over the verdant valley. It’s unfortunate we arrived just before sunset and left just after sunrise without much time to just enjoy the scene. But Kong was waiting. And if I'm honest, the thought of meeting the king of this jungle, on his own turf, made me a little nervous (pro tip; don't read Micheal Crichton's Congo, a novel involving killer gorillas, before visiting the Impenetrable Forest).
While there wouldn't be a cage protecting us, having a couple guardians armed with AK-47s provided peace of mind. The ensuing trek was easily one of the hardest of my life. and definitely one of the most amazing, memorable moments it's been my good fortune to experience.
It took a few hours to climb and descend and climb and descend
Bwindi's surprisingly steep and often slick hills, our target gorilla family playing hide-and-seek in one of the planet's most dense and impenetrable landscapes. But then our guide finally gave the signal, and I heard the first wondrous, thrilling grunt.
We ended up less than 10 feet away from dark beasts that seemed so intelligent, so similar to us it was almost eerie to observe them go about their daily routine.
Only allowed to stay for 60 minutes it felt like 10 passed before we had to leave. I could have stayed for days, watching as the mother held her baby just like Canadian mums hold theirs, while brothers teased brothers and the father reclined into his easy chair with snacks (forest celery instead of potato chips, but the occasional fart proved we're more alike than most humans might know. Or admit.).
Little did I know our adventure was far from over.
It's difficult to describe how steep, rough and impassable the terrain is within the jungle of Bwindi, but there were times when I would fall 10 or 15 steps behind the person in front of me, and the entire group would simply disappear, swallowed into the emerald wall. I could still hear them, crashing through the branches and vine-slicked undergrowth like stumbling neanderthals, but my eye couldn't catch a single movement so thick was the curtain of vegetation everywhere.
The going went from tough to risky. And then the path simply disappeared. The guides pulled out their machetes and began hacking a path, only later admitting this was the first time they'd attempted to traverse this area. Ever.
Our pace began to lag, and soon one of the guides was literally hauling a Spanish mother over ever log, up every steep step. Her husband was wearing leather sandals, and the jungle enjoyed pulling his feet out from under him every hour or so, the thick vines at least cushioning his fall.
What felt like many hours of brutal hiking turned out in fact to be many hours, as the sun began to set and our water bottles ran dry I looked around and realized that as far as the eye could see there was nowhere for a rescue helicopter to land.
Cursing myself for not packing a flashlight (we were supposed to be back for lunch!), I caught sight of an unnatural break in the foliage... a dirt road! With Levan standing beside our Land Cruiser, what a heartening view for his flagging crew!
He later told us the Spanish family we were hiking with was quite wealthy, had also trekked the previous day, and complained that hike was "too easy." So today the wonderful guides has striven to ensure there were no such issues. Everyone in our group looked beat -- but not broken 🙂 -- and each perhaps enjoyed a brief flash of pride for having been tested by the Impenetrable Forest and passed.
Thanks wholly to our machine-gun-toting guardians.