Uganda Travel News

As more and more tourists came to see the gorillas, their dress–or lack thereof-was a steady source of entertainment. One visitor in five seemed to arrive without any rain gear at all, though some apparently thought that they could walk through the dense vegetation under an umbrella. Few tourists brought sweaters or vests to wear under their rain gear to fight off the cold. There were no guidebooks to Rwanda’s high mountain regions in those days and, despite our warnings to tour agents, visitors failed to appreciate how cold and wet the Equator could be at ten thousand feet during the rainy sea- son. Dozens of women appeared in short dresses; one complemented her skirt with matching shoes with two-inch heels. A hardy minority of both sexes hiked through the mud and nettles in sandals. Among those who did wear rain gear, there was a marked preference for bright yellow and orange colors that seemed to attract the younger gorillas. So, too, did the diversity of visitors and the variety of their appearance. Bill was convinced that the arrival of the white apes provided a daily dose of gorilla entertainment.

Siafu! The word was always shouted and visitors quickly understood its meaning. We had learned the hard way that driver ants were much more common in the bamboo zone than at the higher elevation of Karisoke. Several times a week we would stumble on their bivouacs, disturbing their military columns and triggering an instant attack. As smaller worker ants remained in formation, half-inch-long soldiers with oversized heads would swarm over any foreign body, their sharp mandibles primed and ready to pierce our skin, more disturbing, they would often wait to bite until they had climbed up our legs or dropped into our shirts after we brushed an infested branch. The result was the siafu strip: a rapid shedding of shirts and pants to brush off the ants, if possible, or unhook them, if they were biting, before they could inflict any more damage on the body’s more sensitive parts. There were times when it was an advantage to wear less clothing.

Tourists did not have to remove their clothing in order to bond with each other. The shared experience of spending time with a free-ranging family of mountain gorillas was sufficient. Sitting around the fire, drinking hot tea at the end of the day, visitors recounted stories of the gorillas. Many said they felt like a gorilla by the time they arrived at the group, after crawling over logs and through the mud. Then other recollections of their trek through the Virunga forest would come to mind. The smell of the vegetation and rich, rain-soaked earth. The silverback’s musty scent. The taste of wild celery, the sounds of unseen creatures. The skill of tracking and the thrill of discovering night nests. Finding warm dung and knowing it meant the gorillas were nearby. The childlike joy of getting wet and dirty. The physical exertion of climbing and slipping. Even the sting of nettles and ants. Visitors to the Virungas came alive in ways that Bill had never seen in East Africa, where tourists were carried though the wilderness and past the wildlife in zebra striped minibuses and protective Land Rovers. Gorilla tourism was completely different: an intense physical, sensory, and emotional experience. It would be a few more years before the term ecotourism was coined, but in late 1979 we were already seeing the attraction of entering the forest on foot and meeting animals on their own terms in the Virungas.

VISITORS ALSO PROVIDED a distraction for Bill, though he was generally happier when they didn’t spend the night at the base of Visoke. He liked being alone with the mountains, their sounds and silences. The clean air and cold temperatures at 8,800 feet combined to heighten all senses and clear the mind. Sometimes the senses were preoccupied with nagging knee pains, or the mind with thoughts of never-ending challenges. But time to think without external distractions was a luxury that Bill greatly appreciated.

For the purposes of the MGp, the steady flow of visitors was encouraging. Local employment was on the rise, both around the park and in nearby Ruhengeri. The old Hotel Muhavura was renovated, as were several local restaurants, to serve visitors on their way in and out of town. The growing number of foreign tourists also increased revenues and political support for the park service in its battle against the MINAGRI cattle project, which was now on hold, but not dead. Gorillas became a hot topic of conservation among resident expatriate visitors, many of whom returned from a day with Group 11 to become effective conservation advocates in their various roles as government advisors and technical assistants. They were an important group

of insiders.

Yet increased visitation had its downside, too. Bill had lobbied for limits on the number of daily tourists, suggesting that six was the optimal group

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