We drove through the town of Kisoro, arriving just after what must have been a very substantial rain storm. The streets were running with water – knee deep in some places. People were picking their way through town trying to stay somewhat dry while balancing goods on their bicycles or their heads. It was a chaotic, colorful scene.
We had another hour and a half drive from Kisoro to our lodge. The area we drove through seemed less developed and more remote than anything we had experienced so far. There was less agricultural development due to the steepness of the landscape, and the hills were packed ever more tightly together.
We finally arrived at Clouds Lodge around dusk. This beautiful lodge is perched at the very top of one of Bwindi’s hills, surrounded by forest. It is community owned, and employs its staff from that same community. The clouds were in fact present, swirling just below us on the mountainside. I was warmly welcomed by the staff and escorted into the lodge for a quick briefing. This had to go in the books as the best briefing ever, as it was accompanied by a complimentary hand and arm massage from the local spa staff.
The main lodge is airy and light. It has several fireplaces for cool nights and is full of couches that just beg to be curled up on with a book or a drink. The bar is at one end, while the elegant dining room is at the other. It has a veranda around 2 sides, with fantastic views of Bwindi and the Virungas beyond. Every day is a different view depending on how clear it is or where the clouds have landed, but every day is beautiful.
My room, or perhaps I should call it a villa, was just down the hill from the main lodge. It had a porch with another tremendous view and was surrounded by flowers and trees, with its own little garden in the front. Once inside, I found an enormous sitting room with those same welcoming couches and my own fireplace. The bedroom was as light and airy as the sitting room with an enormous bed, and access to the same pass through fireplace. The bathroom was large and luxurious with a shower.
Meals at clouds are fantastic. In the mornings, I enjoyed custom made smoothies with mint and ginger, muesli and a cooked breakfast (essential when trekking!). Lunches were hearty but not too heavy; things like salads and fishcakes. Dinners were sublime; three course affairs with expertly executed dishes with surprisingly creative sauces and desserts that I couldn’t resist.
My second day of trekking could not have been more different from the first. The ranger station is only a few minutes walk from the lodge, and is much smaller than the Buhoma area. There is only one group to trek to see from here, with a total of two groups in the Nkuringo area. There is a small village and shop area outside the ranger station.
Nearly all of the trekkers wisely hired porters this time (see why that is important here). We began our trek from the ranger station. Trekking from Clouds to the gorillas is downhill, which is unique. It also means your return trek is uphill! The trail is very good for most of the way, and you don’t reach the forest until you hit the valley floor and pass by the tracker’s camp – about an hour into the hike. We once again lucked out with the weather and needed sunscreen rather than rain gear for our hike.
The gorillas were obviously comfortable with our presence and continued their feeding without interruption. One blackback came and sat directly in front of our group. He had a small wound on his left hip which he almost seemed to be showing us. Our guide confirmed that this family does in fact show the rangers and trackers any injuries they have in the manner we were witnessing. After he gave us a good, long look at his wound, the gorilla moved on to feed some more.
We enjoyed what felt like quite a long time of uninterrupted viewing of the gorillas as they moved around the clearing feeding, as well as the fun of two juvenile gorillas playing up in the trees. The group finally started to move off and as we still had time left in our hour we were able to follow them further into the forest for a bit more observation. At one stage, the silverback slapped the ground two times not far in front of me; I could feel it through my feet! This behaviour is considered to be one that prevents conflict between and among groups.
The final and most exciting part of the day for me was when one of the blackbacks (named Karibu – thank you in Swahili) sat nearly at my feet to feed. Because of the dense vegetation, I was unable to back away, so the guide advised me to stay put. The gorilla sat peacefully feeding for a few minutes before moving on his way, continuing to follow his family. Our time was finally up, and we left the Nkuringo family with regret, but also with joy at the privilege of spending time with one of the planet’s most amazing creatures.
I mentioned before that it was difficult to put the experience of observing mountain gorillas in the wild into adequate words, and I feel I’ve had the same struggle in this blog. What I can say is that it is one of the most profound nature experiences that I have ever had, and is certainly amongst my favorite and most memorable experiences I have had in Africa.
When we returned to the lodge, I enjoyed an afternoon massage which worked the fatigue out of my muscles and refreshed me immensely. The spa at clouds is simple, but the treatments are wonderful. I spent the rest of the afternoon in the lodge reading and talking with other guests. During our sundowner drinks, we were treated to a performance by a local youth community group. They sang and danced for the guests, incorporating the importance of gorillas to the community into their performance. (see performance video on our You Tube channel!)
Next: Arusha and the newly opened Mt. Meru Hotel!