My Gorilla Tracking Experience at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda.

I got to tick off one of my bucket list items last month. Yipee! This trip was more than a year in the making, most of the time I was not even sure if we would actually get to do it. Covid and the most recent Ebola scare had us almost canceling the trip but thankfully we did not. H and I did it. Together. Whew!

My husband is much more fit than I am so you can imagine the pressure I had put on myself to make sure I was in tip top shape for a long hike. We had decided to do our trekking in the hilly Nkuringo sector of Bwindi. It is so scenic, and also one of the highest points of the park.Walking up and down our hilly Kampala neighbourhood, HIIT exercises and even a few pilates sessions got me psyched up and in pretty good shape, or so I thought…

Beautiful sights of crater lakes from the air on the way to Kisoro. Uganda is indeed the Pearl of Africa, such a beautiful and scenic country.

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is located in south western Uganda, and is home to the last of the world’s mountain gorillas. The forest is dark, dense, cool, steep, beautiful, lush, sounds wonderful with the birds calling out to each other, and stays true to its name “Bwindi” which I was told means darkness.

Sights of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest from the lodge. Look at how dense it is.

We stayed at the lovely Gorilla Heights lodge, and I will give my experience of the place in a later post. We were warmly welcomed and rested properly the day before the trek.

The Nkuringo sector, where we did our hiking is one of the highest places in the park and home to the oldest and largest habituated gorilla family in that sector, also named Nkuringo. It is quite far from Kampala (about a seven hour drive), so we opted to take a short flight via Aerolink, from Entebbe airport to Kisoro airstrip. This is a great option when you have kids with you so you do not have to spend too much time on the roads that can be tiring for the whole family.

To prepare for the trek one will need:-

  • Well fitting hiking boots.
  • Raincoat /jacket
  • Sunhat and sunglasses
  • Proper and comfortable hiking clothes- long sleeves t-shirt and khaki pants or cargo pants.
  • Gorilla tracking permit- as well as the receipt.
  • Face mask
  • Gloves
  • Walking stick
  • Camera or phone.
  • Packed lunch and some drinking water.
  • Some cash or mobile money to hire a porter.

After an early and hot breakfast at the hotel, we set out for the ranger’s station where we would be assembled with other trekkers and briefed for the hike. The hotel was gracious enough to also provide us with a packed lunch (sandwiches, grilled chicken, fruit and drinking water).

Once we got to the ranger’s station run by Uganda Wildlife Authority, they first confirmed all our permits were in order and took us through the checklist and ensured we were all ready for the trek. This took some time as it also included being briefed about Bwindi forest, how it came to be a park and the various gorilla families found in that sector. The trek involves tracking the habituated gorillas; as they are used to human presence hence safer. The local community has various shops one can buy souvenirs and also offered entertainment via traditional dances to energise us for the hike.

Once the briefing session was over, we got walking sticks and porters for those who wanted and set off on another short 30 minute drive to the starting point of the trek. We were in a group of five tourists, three rangers, one of whom was armed, and all of us had a porter each.

We were lucky to start out in cool weather and no rain. The first few hours hiking were cheery, the air heavy with excitement and high energy as we enjoyed the beautiful sights and crisp fresh air. We passed through several tea plantations that have been planted by the local community, not only as a source of income, but to also act as a ‘fencing off’ strategy to keep the gorillas away from the villages to reduce human wildlife conflict. There are no proper paths one can speak off, we walked across streams, rocks and in trenches on the way. At the same time, our head ranger was communication with her fellow rangers who had been sent ahead to spot where the gorillas were in the forest. Apparently they do not stay in one place too long, or even spend a night in the same place. Once we cleared the tea plantations, we took a breather and time to rest a bit as we took in the forest’s scenic beauty and also prepare ourselves mentally to ascend; we just seemed to be going higher and higher.

Bwindi forest is home to many other animals other than the rare mountain gorillas we were tracking. There are elephants, baboons, various monkey species, hundreds of bird species, and even chimpanzees. We got to hear and spot some birds, monkeys and baboons from a distance. The terrain is rough, slippery, rocky in some places, wet in others and one may have to cross the streams and rivers by wading through. Hence the waterproof gear and hiking boots. The walking stick is important as it helps one maintain balance and also check depth when wading in the water. The long sleeves protect your arms from scratches from the leafy vegetation and the gloves protect your hands from stinging nettles or other plants you may hold on to that may have thorns or spikes.

After trekking for about three hours, I began to tire and slow down. I have never been good with heights and slopes, and as we kept going higher and deeper into the forest my heart was pounding hard and fast. But the thought of being able to see the gorillas spurred me on. The closer we got to where they were, the tougher the terrain, slippery, dense and rocky; this part made me sweat! It was also so quiet, other than the birds and hearing the rangers clear some foliage, the silence was palpable.

We got to a small clearing where we were to leave our bags with the porters and put on our face masks to protect the gorillas from any contagions we may have. We were briefed once more on the need to be silent, take photos and not get too close to the gorillas so as not to agitate them.

My words and these pictures I took with my lil’ phone do not do justice to the experience of seeing the gorillas up close. It was and is still so surreal in my mind. We walked on ahead for a couple of minutes and right there in front of us in the dense forest vegetation was the Nkuringo gorilla family in all its glory.

Mummy, we have some guests.

Some of the gorillas were on the ground, and others in the trees above feeding on wild fruit. The baby gorillas were frolicking about, some were nursing and others practicing their climbing skills. The group had two silver back gorillas. One was on the ground napping, another, the alpha male of the family, was in the trees above, getting some fruit.

If ‘Go away do not bother me” was a person.
Look Mummy, watch me swing!
Rwamutwe the alpha of Nkuringo gorilla family on his way down after getting some fruit to eat in the trees.
Showing us her good side I guess.
Spot the Mama nursing her young right behind me.

The rangers allowed us to have one hour with the gorillas, telling us more about them, letting us take as many photos and videos as we could and all the while ensuring we kept our masks on, didn’t get loud and didn’t get too close to them. We were privileged to spend time with the Nkuringo family which is unique with about 20 members. (You can also read more about the various gorilla families found in Bwindi here).

Nothing like a little afternoon nap after enjoying some fruits for lunch.

The long and arduous trek was definitely worth it to view our gorilla cousins up close. They are so used to humans that some of them seemed to be communicating to the rangers in grunts. A few of the younger gorillas kept climbing up and looking back at us, making me wonder if they were putting on a show for us. Once you are there with them though, you cannot fail to marvel at how big, beautiful and majestic these creatures are. They are so precious yet endangered, with a population of around 1000 found in Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. The biggest risk the gorillas face is human; poachers and encroachment into their natural habitats. The reason they need to kept safe is unlike other gorillas, mountain gorillas cannot exist in captivity The Uganda Wildlife Authority in Bwindi as well as other conservation partners are working really hard to protect this precious species and funds collected from our permits as well as donations go towards their protection efforts.

After an exhilarating one hour or so, it was time to move on and let the gorillas be. We left the silverbacks dozing, the baby gorillas playing and swinging around and a couple of them nursing / being fed by their mothers. This is an experience I will never forget and will forever be grateful for the opportunity to see them up close.

Such a beautiful sight. Sublime.

We headed back to where we had left the porters and our walking sticks and bags and began to head back through the dense forest to the pickup point. The way back was no less arduous, it even seemed more treacherous. We had ascended up steep muddy trenches to see the gorillas and heading down was really difficult. Most of us in the group kept sliding and skidding more than once, even ending up on our bums several times due to the slippery terrain. We were however in high spirits after seeing the gorillas so the falls did not discourage us in the least.

When we got to the first clearing where the tea plantations began, the rangers let us have both a lunch and bathroom break as it was far and safe enough from the gorillas and other wild animals. We however had to eat our lunch in a rush as it began to drizzle and we could see some incoming rain clouds a short distance away. Once sated and energised enough we continued on our way back and then my shoes fell apart!

Yes guys, my precious hiking boots that I had had for a while fell apart. I lost the sole on one boot at first. But could still trek, but as we went over the rocks and wet ground, the inner sole got wet and started falling apart too. Luckily I had two pairs of socks on, but on rough muddy and rocky terrain, it was not easy or pleasing. My porter got a shopping bag and tied it round my foot which worked well for some distance but got ripped in the short sharp tea branches. Bummer!

We had to keep stopping and I slowed the group down as I had to now be careful where I stepped to not hurt my foot. As we crossed one of the streams, I noticed the sole on the other boot had loosened too. Our quick thinking ranger quickly tied my straps under and above it to keep it attached to the shoe, which worked for the rest of the trek. It did lower my spirits as nobody ever wants to slow people down, but on the other hand, I was glad it happened on the way back from seeing the gorillas instead of before which would have surely depressed me. I had to find some humour in it to encourage myself to keep walking but it was not easy.

I was both mentally and physically exhausted and I kept telling myself that after this I never ever want to hike again. Some sections were muddy and squishy and all this was seeping to my toes in my right foot. My bum was sore after a few skidding and sliding down the slopes, my thighs on fire, my ankle paining from places where I had stepped into holes that one cannot tell are there due to the dense vegetation. All I wanted at that moment was to get out of there; but I had to keep walking as it WAS the only way of getting out of there!

H and our porter were very patient with me and encouraging, as well as one of the rangers who kept us entertained with stories of the gorillas and interesting things that have happened on gorilla treks. It did cheer me up a bit to hear that hiking boots falling apart does happen more than one would think.

As we neared the place where we had left the vehicles, the hike seemed even more treacherous, I could barely breathe or think straight but guys I did it! After a lot of positive encouragement I finally made it to the vehicle. We buckled up and settled in for the ride back to the rangers’ office to get our gorilla tracking certificates.

Our gorilla tracking experience took a total of seven hours, and it was worth every single minute. We knew that was the most physically challenging sector but also the most scenic to me. The rolling hills, acres of tea plantations, crisp fresh mountain air, amazing views of the impenetrable forest and if clear, the Virunga mountain range, as well as views of crater lakes on the way to Bwindi, it is truly an amazing and enjoyable experience.

We got back to the hotel, tired, happy and still giddy with excitement of the experience. The kids could not wait to see the photos and videos and were also glad to see that we were back safe and sound. I had to throw away my boots, though it was a pity I didn’t get to take a picture of them in their deplorable state but oh well, they had served their purpose already.

Pretty proud of this certificate.

I was proud of myself in the end. This trip had been a long time planning and seeing it come to pass was an amazing experience and privilege that I cannot take for granted. I am grateful that I got to do it successfully and safely. One of the things H and I have always agreed on is to take advantage of the opportunity to enjoy as much of a place as we can while we are still there. Uganda never ceases to amaze me with all its fertile land, delicious food and fruit, scenic beauty and warm hospitality from its people.

Now on to the next bucket list item.

Love,

Wanjoro.

Kitchen savings.

No matter what part of the world we are living in, prices of everything are going up. From essentials to what we could classify as wants, many of us are looking for ways to reduce costs and adapt to the rising food prices.

Photo by Kampus Production on Pexels.com

Here are a few ways we are trying to adapt to this, and still maintain healthy and tasty meals at home:-

  1. Reducing store bought snacks. Things such as popcorn are much cheaper and easier to make at home than buying store bought packs. Baked or air fried crisps using our traditional starchy vegetables such as arrowroot, green bananas (matooke), and sweet potato taste just as good.
  2. Making juice at home- you get to choose what you can put in it. No sweeteners, stabilisers, fake colours and preservatives that may not be that good for you.
  3. Reducing on deep fried foods. Cooking oil prices are absurd in Kenya and Uganda at the moment. So as much as I love my deep fried treats such as mandazi and chips (French fries), I am not making them as often as I did.
  4. Planning for shopping. Having a list is important and sticking to it will save coins. We prefer doing our shopping once a month for stuff such as dry provisions, toiletries and the like. Fruits and fresh vegetable runs can be done biweekly or weekly.
  5. Frequent grocery runs will have you spending more, so reduce on those by avoiding to go to the store often. Also remember to shop on a full stomach so you do not get tempted to load on junk food.
  6. On the same shopping note, planning meals and snacks around what is in season in terms of fruits and vegetables makes economical sense. Use what is available and more affordable than stretching your budget to accommodate what is pricier.
  7. Compare prices across stores when you can. If detergent is cheaper at a store that may be on a side of town I do not frequent, I can pick up some when I happen to be on that side of town.
  8. Where we live has an interesting dynamic, you had rather walk than drive to the grocery these sides. Also, buying at the green grocer who is a bit further off road and smaller is cheaper than the one who is at the forefront or right on the road side. Most markets are like that back home too so, always head a bit further in.
  9. Using a water purifier instead of water dispenser. Instead of buying drinking water weekly, or boiling water, having a purifier has saved us a heap this past two months. We use this brand that is easy to install, maintain and the water has such a fresh clean taste and cool too.
  10. Eating less meat. Yes I know it doesn’t seem like it makes a difference but it does. Contrary to what many believe, meatless meals can be tasty, colourful, filling and fun to have with your family. I have many meatless recipes up on the blog that are worth a try. From stews to curries to roasted vegetables, they are all delicious. No meat or eating less meat does not mean you stick to just beans, there are many lentils and types of cereals in the market that are not hard to make. Searching for recipes on the internet is so easy to learn how to make what you have never tried before. Experiment a bit more.
  11. Buffering meals with minced vegetables or lentils stretches the meal further and adds more nutrients, so it is a win for all. This works well for casseroles, soups and pies.
  12. “There is rice at home”. I think every African child knows what this statement means. Eat at home as much as you can, it is easier on the pocket.
  13. Are breakfast cereals a must in your house? Breakfast doesn’t necessarily mean loading your kids with sugar filled store bought cereals in the morning. You can discuss with the kids if old enough what options are available that they wouldn’t mind to have in the morning. I make millet or banana porridge sometimes, oatmeal, soup, cocoa or leftovers from the previous night’s dinner can be warmed up or revamped.
  14. If you can, make your own stocks, soups and even seasoning mixes. Once you clean your vegetables and chop, save the usable scrapings, such as the stalks and leftover bits and pieces in a ziplock and freeze. once they are a sizeable portion, make a tasty vegetable stock with them. Same applies for bones and chicken carcasses, instead of throwing out the wing tips and back bone, or fatty bits and bones of your beef, you you can use them to make your own chicken or beef stock. Leftover cooked meat can be reused in soups, salads, stir fries and sandwiches.
  15. By buying my spices whole, I get to grind and blend up my own seasoning as I please. Pilau masala, curry mixes and tea masalas all use ginger, cardamon, cinnamon and black pepper among others in varying quantities. Making my own also ensures their purity and potency. Some commercial brands have been known to add rice flour to boost volume which makes spices less potent. Check out my post here on my preferred spices. I will also do a post soon on how I make my various spice blends.
  16. Trying other less costly brands – this had not been easy for me as I am the type of girl marketers love. LOL. I am a sucker for ads and loyal to brands that have served me well over the years or have great ad jingles. Hahaha. I am however trying, key word trying, to use other brands that cost less than my favourite ones, and get the job done just as well, stuff such as bathroom and Toilet cleaner, glass/window cleaners, bleach etc. Also using vinegar and baking soda has helped in reducing use of commercial brands in our house. Distilled vinegar can be used to clean windows, and most surfaces (diluted please), freshen up laundry and many more uses. Baking soda for the oven, faucets and sinks etc.
Photo by Min An on Pexels.com

By no means should you compromise on quality and safety of what you use, whether to cook or clean, so adapt slowly and researching on substitutes that are friendly to both the family and the environment.

On the same saving note, it is important to teach our children to save and be more economical with what they have. Keep them informed on changes in economies in a way they can understand. For many of us money was a taboo topic while growing up and let us be honest, it has affected (mostly negatively), how we make our financial decisions as adults. Let us do better by our young ones.

There is of course that thin line between being wise / frugal and scarcity mentality. We need to be intentional that we do not cross that line when sharing how to be prudent about not only money but other material things too.

This is not an exhaustive list, just some of the things we are doing to try to maintain our household costs.

What are some of the ways you are coping with the rising food prices and cost of living in general?

Let us share and learn from each other.

Tasty Njahi Patties.

Njahî, also known as hyacinth beans or dolichos beans are a staple where I come from (Central Kenya). They are quite nutrient dense, rich in iron and other minerals that make it a beloved food in my culture; especially for breastfeeding mums as they are believed to encourage lactation.

They are usually soaked, boiled then mashed with steamed green bananas, both unripe and ripe. Very sweet when had with stew and vegetables on the side. One can also have them stewed. I like them with lots of grated carrots or curried with some coconut cream. Very delicious and filling.

These beans are not easily available in Uganda, but my MIL (Bless her), ensured I had enough stock when we came back after visiting home. So look out for some more njahi recipes coming soon.

We had them on simple wraps with a garlic yoghurt sauce, and some vegetable accompaniments.

Let us start with these veggie balls using this bean. It is easy to make, uses what you have on hand, and so delicious. Perfect for lunch, dinner or the kids’ snack boxes.

Ingredients for the veggie balls are:-

About 3 cups njahi, already boiled and roughly mashed.

1 1/2 cup of minced vegetables. ( I used onion, garlic, bell peppers(green, red and yellow), coriander and mint).

Spices used: 1 tsp garam masala, I tsp paprika, 1/4 tsp turmeric, I tbsp toasted cumin seeds.

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

2 tbsp breadcrumbs.

2 tbsp grated cheddar cheese (optional).

1 tbsp vegetable oil.

Method.

These type of beans take long to cook, an average of 3 hours on the stovetop. So I soaked then cooked them on the instant pot to cut on cooking time. (Bean function in high pressure- 30 minutes, then let them release pressure naturally).

Once ready, drain, let cool then roughly mash. Add in the minced veggies, spices, herbal salt and bread crumbs. Last goes in the cheese and form into balls.

Put them in a lined baking sheet, spray with the oil and bake at 180°C for about 20 minutes.

As the beans cook you can get started on the accompaniments.

The whole wheat wraps are quite easy to make. 2 cups atta flour, I cup water, 1 tsp baking powder, 2 tbsp oil, 1 tbsp mixed herbs, salt and pepper. Knead well into a soft dough. Cover and let rest for about 20 minutes, then roll out and cook on a dry pan with no added oil. Keep covered with a clean cotton cloth so they do not dry out.

As for the garlic yoghurt sauce, I used one cup unflavoured yoghurt, 2 heaped tbsp mayonnaise, 1 tsp paprika, one minced garlic clove, freshly ground pepper and freshly squeezed juice from half a lemon. Mix all well and let chill for flavours to blend well.

The vegetable accompaniments were a simple kachumbari and a simple shredded cabbage and carrot salad seasoned with salt, lemon and black pepper.

Kachumbari, sort of like pico de Gallo.
Simple but refreshing cabbage and carrot salad.

Once everything is ready, you can assemble and serve. You can opt to have the balls on a bed of the cabbage salad then topped with the salsa / kachumbari and yoghurt sauce, or on the wrap as shown below.

Either way, they are delicious and filling. The balls hold their shape well after baking and a bit crispy on the outside but soft and moist on the inside. The seasoning is everything in this dish. The minced veggies go well together with the spices used and also add colour, moisture and nutrients to the dish.

How would you like to have yours, in a wrap or just plain with the salad?

I like veggie balls as they are great way to ensure you load up on your veggies in a fun and tasty way. It is all about getting creative. I have already shared how I made lentil balls in peanut sauce here, and also here on couscous with a creamy cashew sauce. Try them all and let me know what you think.

Love,

Wanjoro.

Berry Good Banana Bread.

We love our banana bread in this house, as it is, with chocolate, with yoghurt, with nuts and now with berries.

The best thing about this cake is it works well with whichever berries you have on hand. I have made it with blueberries, strawberries and raspberries and it always turns out great. I have also made with with sugar, and honey and it turned out well too.

Banana strawberry goodness!

This is a perfect treat for breakfast, tea time, school snack, dessert and even as a gift for a loved who loves banana bread.

Let us get started.

Ingredients are:-

1. 2 1/2 cups self raising flour. (If using All purpose flour, remember to add 11/4 tsp of baking powder and 1 tsp baking soda, plus a small pinch of salt).

2. 1 level tsp ground cinnamon.

3. 1 tbsp desiccated coconut (optional).

4. 1 1/2 cup sugar or sweet honey.

5. 4 large mashed really ripe bananas.

6. 1 cup frozen strawberries or raspberries. (I usually let them thaw a bit and mash roughly).

7. 1/3 cup coconut oil (or vegetable oil).

8. 2 large eggs.

9. 1 tsp vanilla.

10. 1 cup strawberry or mixed berry yoghurt.

Method.

1. Preheat oven to 180 °C and grease your baking tin really well.

3. Sift your flour and cinnamon in a large bowl, add the coconut and mix well.

4. In another bowl, mix the oil, sugar and eggs till well combined, then add the mashed banana and berries, followed by the vanilla.

5. Add dry ingredients to the wet as well as the yoghurt. Be careful not to overmix.

6. Add the batter to the pan and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hr, till cake is ready and a skewer comes out clean. I usually lower the temperature to about 160 after twenty minutes, and it takes about the same time to bake.

7. Let cake rest in pan for ten minutes then flip it carefully onto a rack and let cool completely in an airy area.

Baking times may vary as ovens are different so start checking at about the 50 minutes mark.

Looks so good!

Cut a slice and enjoy it!

Tip: I love making it in my bundt pan, but it works well in any large baking tin.

Baked this one with honey, it’s just a bit darker but tastes just as delicious as the one made with sugar.

It looks, smells and tastes so good. It is moist and crumbs beautifully too. Definitely worth a try don’t you think?