After two weeks in Uganda I was starting to get itchy feet. It was time to get back on the road and back to the trip. Upon leaving Jinja, Delilah was full of a mixture of new friends. Simon and Anna, an Australian couple who had a knack for duelling with shoes; along with Madi and Sam two girls doing volunteer work in Uganda. The expansive sugar cane fields around Jinja soon gave way to the urban sprawl of Kampala and its traffic. On the outskirts of the city we found the Red Chilli Hideaway a delightful backpacker hostel situated on a hill overlooking the swamps around Lake Victoria. Here I was re-united with Richard who arrived with a bag of gifts for Delilah. Sadly, due to the incompetence of the UK postal system a number of parts including the shock absorber hadn’t arrived in time. We took a day around the hostel to prepare ourselves and finalise a plan for the rest of Uganda. On the morning of the 10th December we set off early to get our permits for gorilla trekking from the Ugandan Wildlife Association. Thereafter we set about using the back roads to escape early morning Kampala traffic as the main roads were completely gridlocked. I was also determined to introduce Richard to the delights of Ugandan rolex. Soon we found ourselves deepest darkest Kampala; where a perplexed street vender was confronted by two Muzungos demanding rolex and avocado. He didn’t have the necessary ingredients for a rolex but this did not phase him. Disappearing into a nearby store he soon re-surfaced to conjure-up some variation of Rolex in a bag.
Satisfied with our breakfast we found our way back to the ring road where we saw an albino perched upon the back of a Toyota pickup. Throughout East Africa they still face a tough existence due to the prevalent culture of witch doctors. Without meaning to sound derogatory, they do hold a very striking, mystical and somewhat frightening appearance. Continuing on we headed off down the road to Fort Portal where we encountered the G-wagon (an overlander truck) that had left Red Chilli’s before us. Other than that it was an uneventful drive through tea and sugar plantations dotted around the Ugandan countryside. We arrived in Fort Portal at around 3pm to grab a quick lunch and supplies for camping over the next couple of days. Our aim for the night was to meet up with Eva and Linda at Lake Nyamirima. Whom we’d met at Red Chilli’s through Simon and Anna. However, our Sat-Nav decided to take us on a three thousand mile detour. Thinking this was a simple glitch we set off south-west on the main road. Just outside town the Rwenzori mountains, the tallest mountain range in Africa, rose before us marking the border with the DRC. When our SatNav tried to take us through thick forest and a river we realised the error. So we had to make an abrupt U-turn back to Fort Portal to a rough corrugated track that took us through small local villages. At sundown we finally mounted the rim of the crater to set up camp and admire the peaceful surrounds of the lake.
In the morning after a casual start we left with Linda and Eva going South down more rough track where we hoped a river crossing was still intact, allowing us to rejoin the main road. After one particularly deep rut a gentle and familiar rolling bounce re-appeared. The Monroe shock had suffered a similar fate to its sister. Insufficient travel for two inch lift springs had simply pulled it apart. In Kasese, whilst stopping for lunch and fuel, we were able to find a mechanic who welded the Old Man Emu shock we had broken in the Danakil depression back together for little more than five pounds. During this time a large thunderstorm had rolled-in scattering bolts of lightning and heavy rain. The quantity of water soon flooded the road. Streaming across the tarmac in a muddy torrent. Within thirty kilometres we’d cleared the storm and arrived at Simba camp on the edge of Queen Elizabeth National Park. Anticipating another downpour we hastily set up our tents before bumping into the G-wagon again. That evening the other overlanders introduced us to a game called ‘cards against humanity’ a highly inappropriate game for Africa, which strangely made it all the more enjoyable.
An early start the following day brought us to the gates of Queen Elizabeth Park around sunrise. Cloud from the rainy season left the park doused in a strange ethereal light for most of the morning. Passing Antelope, Kudu, buffalo we headed out to the shores of Lake Edward. Sadly instead of finding lions as we’d hoped we discovered a local settlement where groups of children chased us between mud huts yelling: “Muzungo, muzungo!” Beating a hasty retreat we returned to the green plains of the park set against the distant silhouette of the Rwenzori mountains. The North-Eastern part of the park felt empty so we headed South-West towards Lake Edward. On the road along the Kazinga channel we were suddenly inundated with elephants emerging from the bush. I immediately shut off the engine, slowly rolling to a stop in front of the matriarch. She was not impressed and slowly started walking towards us making a deep, unnerving rumbling noise. This was enough to kick us into gear, turning the engine on and backing away to a safe distance. Satisfied we were not a threat, more elephants piled out of the bushes and across the road in front of us. A large bull followed up the rear, sauntering along making a real show of his size. Whilst the other elephants made their way down to the river he kept watch over us. He suddenly trumpeted making fake charge before turning to disappear into the foliage. As quickly as they’d arrived they had gone.
Time was running out on our day pass and we still wanted time for the Southern tip of the park famous for tree climbing lions. Driving south elephants began appearing everywhere whilst giraffe, Richards favourite animal, remained illusive. A sharp eyed Linda suddenly spotted some lions hanging out in a tree.. All four completely comatose but frustratingly we couldn’t get any closer than a few hundred yards. Around 2pm the call was made to stop for lunch at the Ishasha river camp. This break allowed us to get out the high-lift jack and re-adjust a dislodged spring that had come loose due to the broken shock. The manager of the lodge, warned us about the condition of the road between Inshasha and Buhoma. Concerned about our one remaining rear-shock absorber he was insistent about finding us a replacement so phoned around his friends to see what could be done. The option to deviate to Rukungiri or Bushenyi was swiftly ruled out as we needed to be in Buhoma the following morning for Gorilla tracking; made all the more poignent by the ‘no-refund’ policy of the Ugandan Wildlife Authority. Unfortunately no-one had a solution, which meant our one remaining rear shock-absorber had to last one hundred and forty one kilometres of terrible mud track until Kabale. With four hours of daylight remaining we cut our tour of the park short and headed on towards Buhoma gate.
As predicted the road deteriorated quickly and another looming thunderstorm threatened to make conditions worse. The rain held off long enough to let us reach the gate shortly before sunset. We retreated into our rooms before the storm broke showering lightening and booming thunder, which resonated throughout the surrounding hills. We braved the sheets of rain and flooded streets to look for dinner. In the darkness flashes of sheet lightening lit up the Bwindi Impenetrable forest on the adjacent hillside giving it a dark and sinister appearance. Shortly up the road we found a small corrugated house advertising food. We dived into its dry confines settling around the candle light of one table to enjoy a fortifying meal of matoke and beans. By four o’clock in the morning the rain had begun to subside. In the light of day the forest still loomed large but held a very different appearance. We were given our briefing and met the rest of our group before setting off up the hillside into the thick primary jungle. The Gorilla group we had been allocated was the smaller Mubare group consisting of a young silver back, Kanyonyi, and eight other females. The group had previously been led by Ruhondeza, Kanyonyi’s father, until a clash with another gorilla group caused them to lose a large number of females. Out of frustration Ruhondeza volunteered for early retirement amongst the coffee and banana plantations around the edges of the forest leaving his son Kanyonyi to take control. In order to regain the former glory of the group he’s taken to attacking other groups and taking their females. The park rangers hold high hopes for the group predicting they will bear many baby gorilla by next year.
A three hour trek brought us to a large sprawling plateau covered in thick vegetation. Vast trees hung above us as we navigated our way through the maze of tall grass and bushes. We soon came upon the trackers who’d been following the group throughout the morning. This was it, a quick water break and they slowly started leading us through the tall grass. The lead tracker pulled aside a large clump of grass to reveal a family of gorilla happily lounging about munching on vegetation. Other than the frantic click of cameras there was silence. Soon the hulking mass of the silverback appeared. Haunched over on his fists he fixed Richard with a fearsome stare. This was enough to make Richard take a few steps backwards. With that Kanyonyi sat himself down and continued to keep an eye on us all. Sometime later he began talking with the females around him by emitting a grumbling noise and pursing his lips. It all seemed very sweet and innocent until our ranger informed us we might be so lucky as to see them mating. After witnessing two very flatulant gorillas mating the last thing I felt was lucky. This quickly erased any romantic sense of ‘gorillas in the mist’. The remaining forty minutes was spent staring at the back of Kanyonyi as he went to hide in a large bush. Sadly for something that had started off so promising we were generally disappointed by the encounter. Seeing the wild mountain gorilla so close was definitely special but whether it was worth five hundred US dollars for just an hour was debatable. Perhaps it would have been had we seen a larger group with baby-gorilla and more silverback. Nevertheless we were happy we had done it and so we headed back down the hillside into the valley.
We arrived back at Buhoma gate later than we’d hoped so we made a plan with Eva and Linda to delay our departure until the following morning. This proved a wise decision as the road around the Bwindi Impenetrable forest was awful, making progress very slow. The views through the mist and over the valleys below were stunning helping distract from the road. An hour and a half into the drive and a large rocky section caused the rear of the car to begin bouncing uncontrollably. This did not bode well at all. The Old-man Emu shock that had outlasted the other two shocks and pulled us through northern Kenya and the Danakil depression had finally succumb to African roads. This left forty-eight kilometres to cover without any rear shocks. It had broken within its housing so we thought it best to leave it in place to provide at least a little shock-absorption. To control the bounce driving became incredible tedious and frustrating. With a huge sigh of relief we eventually made it through to the tarmac on the south side of the park. It looked like we were home free, cruising down the last twenty-four kilometres of tarmac to Kabale. However, a strong smell soon filled the cabin and looking in the side mirrors we realised we were dumping diesel all over the road. Not removing the broken shock absorber had proven a major error as it had snapped off and speared the fuel line and filter. A crowd soon gathered to witness our humiliating breakdown. Fortunately the driver of a pick-up took pity on us and pulled over to try and help out. A pack of cigarettes we’d bought for officials at borders proved useful in winning us friends. Amusingly in true T.I.A. (This is Africa) fashion they all stood about smoking right next to the large quantity of diesel spread across the road. The damage clearly needed the assistance of a mechanic so the driver offered to give me a lift into town for a nominal fee. Without much choice I agreed and left Richard, Eva and Linda on the roadside to look after Delilah.
With limited success, I tried to strike up a conversation with the driver. “Is that an Ibis?” I enquired. “No, that is a bird” he replied bringing our conversation to a close. Thankfully the ride to town wasn’t very far and he dropped me outside a local garage. Inside I met the brilliant and very understated Nico. Even for Africa this was one of the most relaxed men I’d ever met. He took the pummelled fuel filter with him and re-appeared an hour later having repaired it. We jumped in a taxi and headed back to Delilah and the others. Upon our return it appeared Richard and the girls had befriended half the village. Nico set to work hooking up the repaired fuel filter to the car. Initially the engine didn’t start resulting in some nervous waiting and tinkering by Nico. Then…. with a huge roar the engine erupted into life. Hugely relieved, we didn’t waste any time in getting the car back to Nico’s garage so he could affect more permanent repairs. Richard, Linda and Eva grew tired of waiting so I agreed they should scout ahead for accommodation near lake Bunyoni and I’d come along once Delilah was fixed. Supposedly no welding could be done the following day due to power cuts so Nico worked until 8pm on a Saturday. Building us some custom made shock-absorbers that were a hybrid of our broken OME shocks and the standard Toyota shock absorbers. Supremely thankful for his help and diligence in getting us back on the road, I paid him and slipped into the night to meet up with the others at the Bunyonyi overland camp.