Uganda Travel News

FOLLOWING THE JULY MASSECRE of group 4, life at Karisoke slowly returned to a semblance of normalcy. Army and David visited the gorillas every day. Ian returned to the darkness of her cabin.One suspected poacher was held in the Ruhengeri prison; at least one other fled to Congo. But there was no place from the loss of another five gorillas from the group Dian had studied for yesr, no way of replacing five more gorillas lost to the population.

On August 5 Bill left with Nemeye to resume the gorilla census in the Eastern half of the Virungas. The first camp was situated in the saddle between the muside crater and Sabyinyo’s western flank. Nestled in a thick blanket of bamboo, it was excellent location with permanent water. Sabyinyo’s multiple peaks were backlit by the first morning light. One drawback to site was made clear on the first morning when our breakfast of tea and honey was interrupted by the blare of loud music. The offending radio was held by the man in a string of thirteen smugglers, each carrying newly purchased goods from Rwanda. A few minutes later, fifteen men approached from the opposite direction, each bearing a fifty-kilo sack of coffee beans on his head. In this way we learned that the muside-Sabyinyo trail was a major smuggling route openly condoned and encouraged by Rwandan authorities who benefited from both ends of the trade. The coffee was purchased from sources in Congo and Uganda, where local currencies were nearly worthless at that time, and resold by Rwandan entrepreneurs for a handsome profit in Kigali. Meanwhile, the smugglers used their Rwandan francs to purchase commercial goods in Ruhengeri- radios, bicycles, corrugated tin roofing – that were not available across the border in their own countries. A startling image of Rwanda as a regional economic power house began to emerge over morning tea, as groups of up to seventy-six smugglers would pass in a steady stream over the following days.

Thoughts of the smugglers highway disappeared within minutes of our leaving camp under the watchful eyes of two local zamus or guards. Climbing west, we found fresh dung almost immediately. The gorillas could not be far away. Nemeye smiled and announced that this large, multilobed bolus was left by an even Virunga resident; an ngurumbe mukubwa, or giant forest hog. Fresh furrows indicated where it had been digging up roots just before we arrived. Perhaps a solitary old boar, its souvenir pile of steaming dung was as close as bill would ever get to that elusive five-hundred-pound tusker in all his years in Africa. The dark cover of bamboo and vernonia gave way to more open habitants as bill and Big Nemeye climbed higher. Slight Hypericum trees lined the muside crater rim, their willow like branches and yellow flowers lifting and falling with currents of wind that flowed over the summit. Farther West, dozens of smaller craters and an equal number of deep gashes along parallel fault lines recalled to a more violent volcanic past. Over the next several days, this narrow six-mile stretch of low-lying terrain yielded thirteen more gorillas in two small bands.

After watching Sabyinyo at sunrise and sun set from camp, we next turned East to tackle that most difficult of all the mountains. Twenty-six days of extreme effort later, we had counted another twenty-seven gorillas in four widely dispersed groups. The gorillas on Sabyinyo spent most of their time feeding on the herbaceous vegetation that lined its deep canyons and ravines. On many days we could cover no more than a single canyon, as sheer walls blocked passage to the next and forced us to retrace our steps to the point of entry. Often, we could see where the gorillas had used their natural four-wheel-drive to scramble over a precarious ledge to reach the next canyon, leaving their upright cousins behind.

Vegetations, too, was a problem on Sabyinyo especially the bamboo thickets that covered most of the mountain below 9500 feet. Easy to traverse under the baste of conditions; a natural die-off had turned much of the lower bamboo zone on western Sabyinyo into an impassable tangle of dead stalks and vines. The lush greens of the Virunga forest gave way to dried yellows and browns. Our boots kicked up clouds of dust. Heavy poaching in the area had also caused most of the elephants to flee, removing nature’s best bulldozer and trail maker. Nemeye and bill took turns hacking their way to higher ground with machetes. One day, Bill’s impatience with slow progress through this clutter drove him to crawl up and over the interlaced bamboo thicket. This natural trellis was a precarious perch for someone his size, but he gave a self- satisfied smile to Nemeye as he passed him over head. The smile lasted for another ten years until the fragile canopy broke and bill crashed about fifteen feet to the ground, where he impaled his neck on a broken shaft of bamboo. Nemeye rushed forward, his dark eyes a mirror of concern as bill carefully removed the three-inch shard.When only a small amount of blood leaked out of the wound, Nemeye’s eyes softened and a smile appeared. Kneeling on the forest floor, we shared the African ritual of laughing at disaster narrowly averted, laughter that is even stronger when the disaster is brought on by one’s foolishness.

Strong bonds form during a census. For seven to ten days at a time the tracker and researcher are each other’s rescue team, co-workers on counts social support units, commiserates in the rain, dinner companions, and tent mates. On Sabyinyo’s long census days we would also entertain each other with songs. Big Nemeye’s tastes tended toward the religious and patriotic, while Bill favored an electric mix of Western folk, rock and show tunes. One day ,Bill was working his way through the score of Oh what a lovely war!, a musical of mostly antiwar parodies sung by soldiers in world war 1.As he sang “when This lousy war is over”, Nemeye recognized the tune from “what a friend we have in Jesus”. He seemed pleased that there might be some hope for Bills salvation, and especially happy to find a song they could sing together. Nemeye added his religious lyrics in Kinyarwanda to Bill’s secular version, blissfully unaware of the incongruent content of the new duet. The tune became a daily favorite for the rest of the census.

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