Fulfilling a Dream

Overland Travel in Africa

I’m in Uganda on the last day of an overlanding expedition with Nomad Tours and Marilyn is the truck we’ve all grown attached to. Out of character for a girl who likes flying solo, I’ve joined a group of travellers to fulfill a long-standing African dream, gorilla trekking in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

My trip started a week earlier in Entebbe on the edge of Lake Victoria. It’s hot and I shed layers of clothing while seeking out a driver to take me to Kampala. This is a distance of 35 kilometres, yet the journey takes 2,5 hours through peak traffic! Windows down, I welcome the sounds and smells of Africa as we weave through trucks, bicycles, goats, people. Stevie, my driver, chats away giving me the lowdown on a country I’m meeting for the first time. By the time we arrive, I’m suitably seduced.

“I’d always had the misconception that overland trips were all about raucous drunk students with no appetite for the environment. I was wrong."

I’ve booked a Boda Boda tour of the city with Walter’s Tours (www.walterstours.com). Boda Boda is the term given to motorbikes and the hop-on hop-off option takes us around sluggish traffic to the many attractions. Amongst them Idi Amin’s Torture chambers, the Royal Mile, Gadaffi’s Mosque and numerous local markets.

That night, smug with African pride, I join the rest of the group - South Africans, Polish, Swedes and a German, all aged between 25 and 70, with professions ranging from moviemaker to dentist. We gather around a cluster of tables and break down international barriers over local beer. We know we’re about to share in a great adventure!

The main focus of the trip for all of us is Gorilla Trekking, something I’ve wanted to do for longer than I remember. Logistics are great and travel options limited to top-end luxury or joining a tour such as this one. I’d always had the misconception that overland trips were all about raucous drunk students with no appetite for the environment. I was wrong. They are actually about like-minded people seeking extraordinary experiences in a safe and structured manner.

Travelling this way, I soon realize, brings friendship, fun and affordable access to remote areas that I could not visit on my own.

The trip from Kampala to Lake Bunyonyi takes most of the day, broken only for a photo opportunity as we cross the equator. Lake Bunyonyi is one of the deepest lakes in the world and home to 29 islands. It has calm dark waters, idyllic for swimming and kayaking and offers one of the prettiest campsites I’ve ever seen. We set up for a three night stay.

A very early start and the big day has finally arrived. Kitted out with walking sticks and briefed by our guide John, we learn that there are only about 800 gorillas are left in the wild, with Bwindi home to about 400 of them. Visits are capped and there are never more than 24 people on the mountain at any given time. Permits need to be bought well in advance and there is a chance that you won’t see the gorillas.

We venture into the forest, taking an established path for the first hour before turning into dense vegetation, which is cut back by machete as we go. After three hours of heavy walking through muddied undergrowth, ferns and fungi, under a canopy of tall trees and with a sweat and breathlessness to match, I catch my first glimpse of a gorilla and all but the joy of the moment is forgotten. The time with the gorillas is limited to an hour and we stay with them as they move towards a clearing in the trees. A few metres away, I watch the sweet interaction between a baby and a silverback.

Dust underfoot and hearts aglow we continued our tour of Uganda, visiting a local community, spending two nights at the Queen Elizabeth National Park on the DRC border for game viewing and chimpanzee trekking in Kalinzu Forest. Eating street food in remote villages, we circle back to Kampala and on to Entebbe for our respective flights home.

My experience in ‘the pearl of Africa’ had bonded me to the value of travel companions, long bouncy road trips in a truck called Marilyn, sleeping under canvas and even the fun of communal bathrooms. The more rustic nature of my trip turned this into an emotional pilgrimage - one in which I not only fulfilled an African dream, but realised that travel should be brought back to basics and that an overland trip is a wonderful way to do that.

Travel Tips

  • Pack padlocks - the vehicles have lockers for your belongings and you can use the extra one to close up your tent. 
  • Carry cash - there are no ATMs and most places don’t take cards.
  • Good walking shoes and long trousers with socks tucked in is recommended. A rain jacket is a must.
  • It’s important to have a good level of fitness. 
  • I took a porter at a cost of US$10. The porters are from the neighbouring village and this is an important part of their income. There are 50 on rotation, which means they only work a couple of times a month. My man Valdi carried my backpack and took my hand to guide me through the slippery steep bits. I don’t think I could have done it without him.
  • When you find the gorillas, take the photos you need, then put your camera down and simply enjoy time in their company. Don’t live it through a lens.
  • My trip was booked with Nomad Tours (www.nomadtours.co.za) who cater for an older set of travellers. Their comprehensive itineraries offer the option of camping or accommodation.
  • The best time for gorilla trekking is between June and September, with March to April being a low season. My visit was in February, quiet and rather perfect.