christophe corteau/ NATUREPL Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Never has there been a better name for a national park. It evokes such powerful imagery of thick, dense vegetation, coiling vines and mysterious, eerie sounds. Approaching this impenetrable, primordial forest is intimidating, but you need to get right into its heart to find one of the world's rarest creatures, the Mountain Gorilla. There are no more than 700 living in the wild, and more than half of them are found in Uganda. In Bwindi there are currently four groups of gorillas who have been habituated to human presence and can be viewed by tourists, but only eight people per day may see a group. Tracking permits are expensive and in high demand. It is a physically tough endeavour: not only is Bwindi made up of thick rainforest, but it is tremendously hilly, and horrendously wet. Yet despite these challenges, gorilla tracking is often a ' must do' for visitors to Uganda. Perhaps overcoming all these challenges is part of the appeal. There is no denying the appeal of that pure adrenalin rush: pressing through wet bracken, bamboo and forest, overcoming angry safari ants and thorny branches, arriving in a misty clearing, and seeing your guide put his fingers to his lips. He points. You all stop, breathing hard, scanning the foliage. A grumble. A snapping twig. Out of the grey- green dripping ferns, a hand – a massive, solitary, leathery hand, reaches up through the leaves to pull a luscious piece of bamboo towards a cavernous mouth full of sharp teeth. The silverback. And all the agony of the trek melts away. The impressive lounge with a view at Clouds Painting the Clouds Clouds, the new luxury lodge on the edge of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, has broken the mould for safari lodges. For one, everything is on a large scale: soaring cathedral ceilings with huge exposed beams, big picture windows, guest cottages that all have private sitting rooms with fireplaces… but the clincher is the significant collection of paintings – oils and acrylics – created specifically for the project by nine of Uganda's finest artists. Featured artists include established names like Paolo Akiiki, Taga, David Kigozi, Ronex, Enoch Mukiibi and Daudi Karungi, as well as some up- and-coming artists like Jude Kateete, Edson Mugalu and Consodyne Buzaba. " Their work is tremendously bold and alive," says Jonathan Wright of Wildplaces Africa. " We love it. We wanted to bring it to a wider audience and this seemed the ideal venue for their work." The main lodge and each of the eight guest cottages features the work of one dedicated artist, and the pieces strike a delicate balance between contemporary and traditional. A mythical beast? It feels a little like a journey into the heart of darkness, being poled in a boat through marshlands. The reeds tower above my head. I feel lost, and trust that the guide does not feel the same. We'd cut the motor a while back as the blades were getting tangled in the roots of the water hyacinth, and now all I hear is the shusss of our boat as we press through papyrus, the croaking of frogs and the fluttering of hundreds of tiny wings: kingfishers everywhere. And then, there it is. Standing tall, looking at me sideways, a freakish film over its eye as it blinks at me. The shoebill. It is enormous. It is stunning. It is what the French would call ' belle- laide" ( beautiful- ugly). This solitary bird – looking like a cross between a dodo and a dinosaur – is a rare and endangered species, and the shores of Lake Albert, either in the Semliki Valley or in Murchison Falls, are among the best places in Africa to see it. Mountain gorilla ( Gorilla gorilla berengei) in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, at an altitude of 1880m. msafiri 59
msafiri 60 UGANDA A coat of many colours Uganda is a land of tolerance and cooperation. In a country where the number of tribes is almost too numerous to count and the local dialects could make a linguist shudder, there is a tremendous sense of forbearance. In other parts of the world, wars are raging over ethnicity, but in Uganda, people live and work side by side – regardless of tribe, clan or religion. Kampala is a testament to this sense of acceptance. Built on a series of hills, the capital city has a number of houses of worship crowning the peaks: the Kibuli mosque with its ornate minarets, the honey- bricked dome of Namirembe Cathedral, the solid pillars of Rubaga Cathedral, the crenellated rooftop of the Hindu temple, the gloriously simple circular Bah'ai temple – the only one in Africa – and now, the new mosque on the edge of Old Kampala, glinting gold at sunset, its vaulted roof an architectural triumph. But not only do the Ugandan people live harmoniously together, their warmth and tolerance extends to their visitors – to the tourists that pass through and to the people who make Uganda their temporary home – the expats. A large community of these, a transient society, has been passing through this country for decades. They are American, British, Thai, Danish, Dutch, Canadian, Bolivian, Chinese, Indian, Australian, South African, Nigerian. They have lived abroad for many years, in many different countries and yet when they leave Uganda for a new posting, they are sad to go; reluctant to leave. Uganda is a beautiful country. And the people here are beautifully warm.