Having cycled 7000km through eight countries, one would naturally presume the closest we would have come to a fatal encounter would have been on a bicycle. Nevertheless, as we descended down a mountain path towards Bwindi Impenetrable forest with nothing but a handbrake in what can only be described as a “tin can” its fair to say we were all petrified that this five month trip was going to come to a premature finish. Luckily Charlie’s expert engine braking and my back seat driving got us down the treacherous hills in one piece and we are all still here to tell the story.
The last week has been one of the most exciting and exhilarating weeks of the trip so far. We’ve visited the highly endangered mountain gorillas of Bwindi, toughed the “land of a thousand hills,” interviewed ex poachers and crossed into our eighth country. However, before I tackle that I must retrace our footsteps to leaving Rwanda and the tough road north towards the Ugandan border.
Waving goodbye to Kigali and the luxury of beds and a swimming pool, the four of us began to meander our way out of the city, a continual weaving in and out of cars and motorbikes, gasping for oxygen and dodging every mode of transport known to mankind.
The following day we nonchalantly crossed our seventh border into Uganda when I had a flashback. It was five months ago; the four of us were sat in a classroom with a mock scenario of an African border crossing. An actor sat behind a wooden desk in full khaki, a plastic AK-47 on his lap and a pair of aviators on his head. He demanded for us to pay a bribe before he took Charlie hostage and Wadi tried to redeem the situation insisting he had connections at the British High Commission. This common misconception made me laugh, not only due to our naivety but also due to the endless contradictions that we have encountered over the past four months. Whether it be from the armed local who got into an ATM booth with me and politely asked if I could spare some change or the endless individuals who have put four tired and sweaty cyclists up for the night, we have been met with nothing but kindness and generosity over the last four months.
On arrival to Kabale we received a pleasant surprise. Having planned to pitch our tents outside a kind locals house, a common theme that we have become entirely reliant on, we were informed that there was a huge lake just 5km off the main road. As we pitched camp by the side of this beautiful lake I realised how powerful spontaneity can be. Although at times our organisation may have been lacking over the past few months, its moments like this that have made the trip so special for me.
The next day Charlie and myself were completely ecstatic as our 1989 Land Cruiser with orange racing stripes and a roof tent arrived in the car park. Having been to Bwindi before and explored its water logged roads and lively wildlife; Charlie’s one piece of advice was to drive the last section through the park as cycling would be near impossible. Popping the hood we were guaranteed by the rental company that this was “Africa’s most reliable car,” a statement that turned out not to be entirely true. As we meandered through the Ugandan countryside towards Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, the hard shoulder now a 100ft overhang and the once rolling hills an endless mountain jungle, we came to the realisation that our breaks were no longer working. Luckily after an hour under the bonnet we managed to get “Africa’s most reliable car” up and running enough to descend down to Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), our hosts in Bwindi.
We arrived at CTPH just before nightfall and were greeted with a surprised face that didn’t seem to know who we were or what we were doing. Panicking that I had dragged everyone 200km off the route for nothing, I began to explain who we were and after twenty minutes of intense discussion I luckily concluded that I had misunderstood our lovely host not as the “chief” but as the “chef!”
The following morning we met Alex, the real “chief” at CTPH, an intelligent and dedicated guy with a real passion for the gorillas and their future. Alex talked us through their role at Bwindi. One of the highest threats to mountain gorillas is that their DNA is 98.5% identical to that of humans. This makes the species highly susceptible to human diseases, a common problem that saw the death of a gorilla a few years ago. As a result, CTPH dedicate much of their time and money to educating the surrounding communities on hygiene and on how to prevent the gorillas from entering the community. One of these programs is known as HUGO, a group of local volunteers who have been educated to live in harmony with the animals and understand the benefits that they bring. The HUGO member’s roles include peacefully preventing gorillas from entering the local communities and improving living conditions so that the gorillas are less susceptible to human diseases.
After a quick lunch where we were introduced to and over indulged in Uganda’s infamous Rolex (an egg chapatti filled with ham), we were lead into one of the local communities by Alex. Alex had organised for us to meet a couple of reformed poachers to talk about their experiences. Both poachers offered a fascinating insight into how their livelihoods had been impacted when Bwindi was turned into a National Park and how they were forced to find an alternative means of income. Although there is still a lot to do, CTPH have done an incredible job in educating the community in the benefits of conservation. This also includes donating goats and crops as an alternative to poaching.
During the last few months one of the most common questions we’ve been asked is what inspired us to cycle 8000km through Sub Saharan Africa whilst simultaneously filming a documentary. Although it’s incredibly hard to pinpoint an answer, of which there are many, the four of us were hugely inspired by the documentary “Virunga.” It explores the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and how it has impacted the mountain gorillas in the Virunga National Park, one of the two remaining habitats. Needless to say that the morning we woke up to track these infamous creatures we were like a bunch of seven-year-old kids at Christmas.
We met with our incredibly friendly guide, Boaz, just after sunrise and after a quick briefing we were lead into the bush with very little knowledge of what to expect. Having never entered a real rain forest I was instantly taken aback by its beauty. The trees reached as high as I could see with only the odd dash on light penetrating the dense leaves and vines. We followed closely behind Boaz who cut his way through the forest with a huge machete. After a couple of hours of weaving through the dense bush, crawling under tree trunks, wading through rivers and climbing up and down huge valleys, we reached the pack of gorillas we had been tracking. Having only seen photos and the odd clip of gorillas I was immediately blown away at their size. Standing three metres away from these truly majestic animals was terrifying. We were very fortunate to come across a large family including two silverbacks (the alpha males) and even a four-month-old baby.
The last week has been fascinating in many respects and we've been incredibly fortunate to spend so much time in such a beautiful place and with such interesting people. However, It's now time to get our heads down once more and finish the last 1500km to Nairobi and our last filming locations, Lewa and Borana.