Mzungus in the mist

27 March 2007 

I had paid a lot of money to have a close encounter with a gorilla; and there one was, barely two feet away.

My own two feet in fact, perched behind this animal several steps behind in the evolutionary scale, who just happened also to be driving the bus this morning.

He had all the manner and aggression of King Kong though without the compassion or cute girlfriend, and had similar contempt for road users as Kong did for pilots.

The sound of shattering glass and a side mirror being removed: “Cyclist,” says the guy sitting next to me, with casual disregard. 

The driver’s response is to slow down marginally (perhaps to avoid a pothole?), veer towards an approaching bus, flash his high beams, hang his arm out of the window and give the other driver a ‘high five’. Cyclists 10 points!

Ok, maybe calling him a gorilla is unfair. Gorillas, after all have advanced social habits.

To clarify: It’s shortly after 6am and myself and fellow Australian Peter are sitting in the front seats of a local bus, heading south-west from Uganda’s capital Kampala towards the mystical Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, in search of a glimpse of the world’s few remaining mountain gorillas, and, for the next 11 hours, a comfortable position in which to sit. The former, I had been assured, I had a high chance of finding.

A missionary doctor and veteran of this route sitting behind me takes time between mouthfuls of banana to explain it is fairly common to hit people in this bus. “Usually the driver checks his side mirror and if the guy’s still twitching, he’ll just keep driving.”
“But if the guy has just been hit with the side mirror???”

The erratic driving continues for 11 hours, stopping only for lunch and several roadside toilet breaks. He swerves towards gravel roadsides to avoid expansive gravel potholes and only narrowly misses a woman with a child tied on her back; he speeds past tankers of kerosene going up hills, and tankers of petrol going down them.

From my vantage point behind the front seat I can see the dashboard, and while the speedometer doesn’t work, the horn certainly does. He uses it unapologetically and enthusiastically, especially when passing through quiet towns. He has a more powerful ice-cream truck novelty horn, which he uses when goats, cattle and other road users need an extra incentive to get the hell away from the road, perhaps not realising that its sound usually attracts children.

And the dangers of the bus ride aren’t limited to people outside it. Tourists and locals have been drugged and robbed on this bus. “We get them from time to time in the clinic,” says the doctor, who runs a local clinic in Bwindi. “One guy thought he’d lost his mind - but it came back after four days. He’d even seen the gorillas, but he couldn’t remember them.”

The doctor has substantial local knowledge, and points out interesting sites during the bum-jarring journey. Look! There’s the mansion of the former health minister, whose ministry was investigated after problems accounting for USD$45million in international healthcare funding.

This township was depicted in the latest James Bond film, and that valley down there is site of the Kunungu massacre in March 2000, when 800 cult worshippers were killed after resenting that the millennium had arrived and they were still in Kunungu – quite far from heaven.

The doctor is Scott Kellermann; he visited Bwindi in 2000 to carry out a health survey on the Batwa pygmy tribes and returned a year later to establish a 25-bed health clinic which now caters to some 25,000 community members including the displaced pygmies.

“Come over for a visit,” he offers. “We’ve got plenty of interesting diseases, most of them contagious.”

I promise to pop in later, but, after safely arriving, my first priority is to get reacquainted with my bum muscles, and then I need to check into to my modest accommodation. The Buhoma Community Rest Camp is the cheapest alternative to sleeping in a gutter or making your own nest in the forest, which the gorillas do nightly. It is much more affordable than the nearby Gorilla Forest Camp, which charges $USD560 – even if it pays its local staff only the barest of wages, making them reliant on tips and branding such resorts the sweatshops of the new millennium.

But my dorm has all the creature comforts I paid for. During the night I get attacked by biting ants. I change to a bunk above a Canadian removalist and the slats promptly break. He has removed himself from underneath me by the time I wake up in the morning.

I take an early breakfast. March and April may be the low season due to impending long rains, but there are still plenty of travellers, and gorillas are not the only attraction: Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is one of the world’s best bird-watching sites, and a Dutchman I meet is about to take a tour with Uganda’s most famous birder, Alfred the Bird Twitcher, who has seen more than 850 birds out of the country’s rumoured 1000.

Positioned in the centre of Africa, Uganda attracts birds from all its four corners. There are 2000 or so species of birds on the continent.

“I heard there was 3000,” says Peter, who’d been told so at a zoo in South Africa.
“Ahh, then you must have been talking to a splitter,” says Rob. “I am a lumper.” He then talks passionately about the two distinct ways of classifying birds which divides the birder community. I feign comprehension while I split my toast into burnt and edible sections, and lump sugar into my instant coffee.

At 7:30am we’re due at the ranger hut to start the gorilla trek, but Peter has confided to having “a small problem”. He has diarrhoea. It’s only a minor bout, but it could have serious implications for all of ape-kind. Due to sharing about 99.2 per cent of human genes, gorillas are particularly susceptible to human illnesses, and are routinely afflicted with colds, flus, dysentery, and TB. They also enjoy getting drunk on forest fruits, though luckily don’t share the gene for hangovers.

Tourists are specifically told not to trek if they have any contagious illnesses, and can get a partial refund on the permit fee. But we’re backpackers on a budget, we’ve paid our USD$375 permits, and we reason that any amount forfeited could otherwise have bought a lot of chapatti breads and local beer. I think carefully for a moment then advise Peter to “take a tablet and don’t shit in the woods”. The fate of the world’s remaining 700 mountain gorillas now hangs in the balance due to a dodgy roadside meat skewer.

Bwindi has about 350 mountain gorillas, and there are four gorilla families that can be tracked, three of which live on this side of the forest. There is a fifth group in the Mgahinga National Park, which borders Rwanda and D.R. Congo – the only other countries where you can see mountain gorillas (their lowlands relatives number in their thousands and are the ones you see in zoos). 

The groups are anywhere between a 20-minute stroll or, as Rob the twitcher had yesterday discovered, a four hour hike – not that it bothered him: “We’re all Calvinists in Holland, so we don’t believe in reward without punishment.”
A maximum of eight people are allowed in each group each day, the places are strictly regulated by the Uganda Wildlife Authority and often booked out months in advance. Today we are five people trekking to the Rushagura gorilla family, which has 15 members, including one dominant male silverback and some babies. “Try to remember life before the gorillas,” says Rob, and already I remember being a whole lot richer.

Aside from Peter and myself representing Australia, there is a Californian lady who will spend the next few days trekking with gorillas in Rwanda and making a pilgrimage to Dian Fossey’s grave, and a Belgian couple on a second honeymoon.

We commence walking down a dirt road into the forest, our guide in sporadic radio communication with trackers who have started where the gorillas were last seen yesterday, and are now following a trail of nests, poohs and broken shoots to find them. Two armed guards with casually slung assault rifles are with us.

The guide veers into dense bush. Extremely dense. ‘Impenetrable’ is clearly no empty boast. We climb under vines, over roots and through scrub, going up hill and then down, surfacing back on the road after half an hour, about 30 metres from where we first left it. The trekkers have located the gorillas in forest on the other side of the road.

We immediately begin communicating in whispers, and the Belgian guy takes a pee in the bush. I hold on – I’m not sure it’s a good idea to so brazenly mark my territory when there’s a 200kg large, hairy, smelly mammal in the vicinity – and I’m not referring to the Belgian.

Leaving the track again, we battle through a 25-metre tangle of vines, branches and camera equipment, and suddenly a collective gasp. There’s one, a small female. And another in the tree: a juvenile.

And then they are everywhere, crouching, scratching bums and grunting at each other. Yep, there was not one trait from our group the gorillas couldn’t mimic perfectly.

For our part, our distant relatives give us only the barest acknowledgement: A short, hollow glance in our direction, before getting back to their important daily business of cuffing each other over the head, yawning and dispatching gorilla-sized turds. It feels just like Christmas.

We become aware of the sounds of heavy grunting and breaking trees, and the silverback of the group ambles towards us. Mwirma is his name, it means Darkness. Now the guide grunts and breaks down trees so that we can get a better look. Mwirma is an impressive unit. Bigger, hairier and more intimidating even than the girls in Melbourne nightclubs. He picks his teeth with a shoot, and trundles across a narrow trail in front of us, barely three metres away.

We are allowed an hour in total with the group. But after 35 minutes, the entire lot scamper with surprising agility up a huge tree out of sight. We know they’re up there because branches keep shaking, and leaves shower down, amid sporadic downpours of urine. That, I suspect, is the silverback defining his territory for the Belgian. They don’t come down till after our hour is up, but the guide allows us to stay a few extra minutes to see them slide down the trunks and vines and dissolve into the forest. After an hour and seven minutes, the show is finally over.

Back on the dirt road we debrief. No-one has been able to take decent photographs due to the low forest lighting, and no flash photography was allowed. The Belgian woman says the experience was “even better than seeing the koalas in Australia”.
I choke. Spending my childhood falling asleep to the sound of koalas rooting in the backyard, I find it hard to identify with her sentiments. For far less than USD$375 I’ll happily arrange her a close encounter with a koala, and for the entire night! 

With the experience over barely two hours 37 minutes after it starts, I walk back to my campsite. It’s 11:30am. What to do with the rest of the day in Bwindi? The tiny village comprises a selection of small huts straddling a red dirt road and curving around a hill. I decide to take up the good doctor’s offer to visit the clinic, stopping at a stall en route to buy a souvenir gorilla t-shirt. On the back it says ‘Mzungus (white people) in the mist’.

Before he finished building the Bwindi Community Health Centre three-and-a-half years ago, Dr Kellermann would treat patients under a big tree. Now he has 150 outpatients a week, an X-Ray machine which runs out of a container, an almost finished surgery, and modest staffing including  a dental nurse called “extraction” Jackson.

While malaria accounts for up to 600 patients a month, alcohol-related injuries are also common. Uganda has the highest per capita alcohol consumption rate in the world, and it is a particularly common affliction of poverty-stricken communities such as Bwindi. A village tour shows where and how locals ferment and distil bananas to make a range of wines and spirits. The ‘gin’ is higher than 40 per cent and a 500ml bottle sells for about USD$2.50.

Dr Kellermann treats the odd gorilla-related injury too, mainly inflicted upon hapless and scrawny guides, who are somewhat vulnerable against the might of a gorilla. Surprisingly there are not many gunshot injuries, despite guerrillas of the Congolese variety patrolling just over the next ridge. In 1999 they kidnapped eight tourists from Bwindi and killed them. A close encounter with the wrong type of gorilla.

The Batwa Pygmies were evicted from their hunter-gatherer existence in the Impenetrable Forest when it became national park in 1991. The 2000 or so now live miserable, foreign lives in seven settlements around the community, and the doctor visits them on site whenever he can.

Opinions towards them vary among the other communities, but they seem for the most part fairly derided. “They’re lazy and have no brains,” offers Richard, the barman at the Gorilla Forest Camp. Richard also thinks that women aren’t strong people because “they don’t dig”, and that Idi Amin wasn’t such a bad person: 300,000 Ugandans dead, but “he left a lot of military barracks which President Museveni is now using against our neighbours.”  What a legacy!

A cultural village tour is an enlightening way to visit the local communities including one of the pygmy settlements, and some proceeds go towards the villages visited. Lotta, a Swedish doctor in Uganda for a conference on HIV, joins our tour. She sighs relief when the traditional healer we visit confesses he does not have any medicines to combat HIV.

He does, however, say that most of his clients suffer from either bad spirits, or brain illness. There is a simple test for the former: The patient rubs a certain leaf under their nose, and if they are possessed, they will start babbling nonsense language. Lotta takes some, and momentarily we fear she’s possessed. But she’s just speaking Swedish.
Leaving the healer, Lotta is most excited about the prospect of seeing real life pygmies. “Never in my life did I think I’d see pygmies!” she exclaims in anticipation. Indeed, she seems far more interested in seeing the pygmies than the gorillas.

But when we arrive at their settlement – consisting a hut and a semi-circle of tables selling handicrafts at identical prices, she is a little disappointed. “They’re not that bloody small. And no bones in the nose either!”

I ignore the hand-woven dolls of women and giraffes with zebra stripes, and instead buy a mobile phone carved from a lump of wood. It is almost as bulky as the third-hand Nokia I bought in Zanzibar. This wooden phone has 16 numbers on it, including ‘11’, and ‘2’ twice. The fact it doesn’t work, doesn’t matter, since there’s only one place to get reception in Bwindi, which is on a platform specially constructed next to the church.

The pygmies also sing for us and invite us to dance. At less than 1.5 metres, I have to be extra careful not to tread on them. I am a very clunky dancer. Our guide explains they are singing songs welcoming us and about their appreciation and joy of living in settlements, and of the need to preserve conservation and the current government.

“They don’t really believe these songs do they?” we ask the guide. “They are very happy to live in our community and to eat our food,” the “19-year-old and still single” guide curtly replies.

But Dr Kellermann tells a different story. The pygmies’ whole way of life was evicted with them from the forest in 1991, and they have no skills or history of cultivating and farming land. They are dirt poor.  The doctor is trying to educate them about earning and saving money, but they are foreign concepts in a society whose language has no future or past tense. The same word they use for vehicle is used to describe any metal object, and yet they have 11 different noun types. French has two, and German three.

The doctor is therefore seeking assistance to set up a cultural centre for the pygmies, though he does not have the energy to do so himself. And time is running out. With an average life span just more than 40 years, there is little more than a decade before the last pygmy with recollection of life inside the Impenetrable Forest will die out. Children under five have a mortality rate of 50 per cent – compared to 18 per cent in the rest of the community, and pygmy women are cross-breeding frequently with people outside of their pygmy settlements. The pygmy men apparently have, ahem, little to offer.

The government is addressing the problem by increasing the cost of gorilla trekking permits to $USD500 from 1 July, of which a miniscule fraction – about $USD 2.50, is supposed to go to local communities. Two further gorilla family groups are being prepared for habituation, which will increase the number of groups open for human visits.

Meanwhile there seem to be few official plans in the pipeline to address the pygmies directly, though the cultural village walks still hobble along, and Doctor Kellerman keenly raises the issue of their dwindling civilisation with anyone eager to listen, or better, donate.

So while government action and international tourism have seemingly ensured the survival of the world’s last 700 mountain gorillas (notwithstanding a potentially imminent mass dysentery outbreak), the future of 2000 Batwa pygmies, formerly of Bwindi’s Impenetrable Forest is far less certain.

And even though their health concerns are now being addressed courtesy of the good doctor, the fact that almost everyone else seems far more interested in the preservation of something 0.8 per cent less human than they are, must be a bitter pill to swallow.