Monday, 30 June 2014

A big treat for my 40th year….Mountain Gorilla trekking with The Great Projects in Uganda, Africa - May 2014

Day one - Travel day
The adventure begins! I have packed everything I need in the way of clothes, medicines and a few bits and bobs like stationary for the children that I am going to meet.  I get on the bus outside my house which takes me to Bristol bus station. From there I get the coach to Heathrow, London. After getting rid of my main bag I go through to departures and meet up with Harriet who is running the program. In light of our flight being delayed it would be rude not to have a glass of wine and something sweet to pass the time. When the flight eventually takes off three hours later we are lucky enough to be able to sit together. I end up watching 12 years of slave which was brilliant except I couldn't hear a lot through the crap headphones issued and it was a bit of a dark heavy film. Meanwhile Harriet chuckled her way through several comedy films…good decision!

We arrive in Entebbe and there is a definite "smell" in the air which I am told is the Ugandan "fragrance". Its not overly pleasant but I got used to it. I negotiate the queue for my Visa and then we are taken to our first digs of the trip, a guesthouse in Entebbe. Its nearly two am so its straight to bed before meeting the rest of the group the following day.

Day two - Introductions
I awoke to the sounds of birds outside and voices of people having breakfast. I got dressed and went outside to meet the rest of my group - Max and Andrea from Australia, Betty also from Oz and Ian from Swindon just down the road! We make our acquaintances and I have my first breakfast in Uganda. The surrounding garden is lovely - lush green and full of vibrant flowers.

Later we go out into Entebbe and visit the local supermarket for some snacks and nibbles for the trip. I pick up a bottle of banana gin which costs about $4000 ugandan shillings….a couple of quid in English money. Bargain! The roads are dusty and there are a lot of unfinished buildings around with the dodgiest scaffolding you have ever seen. The Ugandans, especially the women are all dressed in bright coloured garments.

In the afternoon we walked to the Ugandan Wildlife Education Centre. Inside I didn't take too many pictures as I prefer to see animals in the wild than in captivity. The centre was of fairly good standard taking into account the part of the world we are in, where people are not living in the best conditions. I couldn't resist taking some photos of the chimp family who were in a nice enclosure - they were cool! We also saw a Shoebill which was a funny looking stork like bird with a massive beak! Look it up on Wikipedia! The best bit was getting to feed the giraffes. They walked over to the lookout in a sedate manner and as if by magic a member of staff turned up and asked if we wanted to give them some treats! Oh go on then! They had beautiful, gentle big heads with long sweeping eyelashes and the softest noses.

I had worn my crocs which was not a sensible decision as I ended up with blisters. Andrea lent me her socks which made walking back easier and which looked great with the crocs…a new fashion perhaps…NOT! We ordered take out for tea and then we all retired to bed in preparation for a long journey across the equator and down to Kisoro in the morning.

Day three - Cross country
We all piled into the mini bus with all our luggage early in the morning and the journey began. I seemed to have pulled something in my neck because it kept spasming painfully throughout the day. Very odd and very annoying. Again Andrea came to my rescue with a tennis ball later on that day! Worked a treat!

During the bus ride and in-between nodding off I saw the most incredible scenery. The landscape was a lush expanse of green. The rolling hills, forests and fields were different shades of vibrant green and the hills almost looked like they were made of velvet. We stopped off in a few places and I looked down into the valleys which looked like patchwork quilts. The land had been farmed to within an inch of its life, and local people were working on the side of the steep, almost vertical hills which must have required great stamina. As we continued along the road which meandered through this stunning greenness, dotted along the sides were run down concrete shops where the locals loitered, trying to sell their wares and conversing with each other. Again the Ugandan women were brightly dressed and carried their babies on the backs wrapped in a kind of sling.

We crossed the equator and stopped off at the tourist shops in situ. There were traditional African items for sale; wooden carvings, colourful African clothing, paintings, jewellery etc. I bought some of the typical trousers I had seen in purple - perfect for yoga back home!

We eventually arrived in Kisoro which is where we would be staying for the next ten days. Our accommodation in The Golden Monkey was basic to say the least. My first shower was tepid and it was a bit of a shock to the system even though I was prepared to rough it and immerse myself in the local culture! Our booked room had been painted and it was absolutely toxic so we had to bunk down in what could be likened to a cave. No window in the main room and when the door was shut it was pitch black. Our first Gorilla trek is tomorrow and I hope my neck/back is better. I have utilised the tennis ball frequently which will hopefully get rid of the knots. Fingers crossed.

Day four - Gorillas!
Another very early start in the morning. Thankfully my back is better and I did manage to get a bit of sleep in the bat cave! We travelled two hours to reach Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The scenery along the way was just stunning again…steep valleys within valleys, patchwork quilt fields…its probably the most spectacular rural scenery I have ever seen and I consider myself well travelled. As we drove along the top of the valleys I was sat at the window nearest the edge which was a bit scary at times when looking down a nearly vertical drop! The downside of all this beauty was that all the farming had destroyed the natural habitat of the mountain gorillas, pushing them further and further up in less and less space. Thankfully there is now a conservation project in place which is what I am taking part in on this trip.

We all convened at the Rushanga base camp where we acquired a guide and some porters. We also had a couple of armed guards if you like carrying AK47's just in case. After a briefing about safety, and appropriate behaviour in the presence of the gorillas, we set off up a grassy hill. We were tracking Kuhunge's group and were told that they had split up as two silverbacks had been fighting in the night causing the group to scatter. When we entered the bush I could see why it was called the impenetrable forest. The guides literally hacked their way through the trees using machetes. After about an hour of fighting our way through the forest we caught a glimpse of our first gorilla in the trees. It was very difficult to photograph because of the forest light from the densely packed trees. Our next sight was a mother and baby and the silverback tucked away in the trees. He was an astonishing presence of strength, paying us no attention whatsoever and keeping his back towards us in arrogance. Betty and I were so involved with trying to photograph him we didn't see the mother about to charge us as we got too close for comfort! It was amazing literally cutting through the forest to see them as they filtered though the bush. As one point my entire leg disappeared downwards as it was impossible to see where your foot was going to end up. I also landed on my arse at one point! The last gorilla we saw was an adolescent in the trees. I think it was a female. I tried an attempt at videoing her but my batteries died and I may have said a few swear words! I saw her beat her chest a few times - awesome! It was a strange, fascinating experience - we were in the heart of their habitat and they were so tolerant of our presence and the racket we must have made to get to them!

What a great day. I am already looking forward to our next trek - each experience is different. The gorillas were gorgeous and it still hasn't sunk in that I have seen them at such close proximity.

Day five - Children
Today had a different flavour - we moved away from the wildlife and went to visit our first Ugandan school - Mutanda Eco-Community Centre. We sat in on an English class at the primary school. It was a dark classroom with just a few windows. There were simple wooden desks and benches and the floor was dusty mud. Its worth mentioning at this point that I do have slight OCD - I hate touching dirty things and I rarely shake a strangers hand. Initially I could feel the OCD kicking in with the thought that these kids would be lacking in personal hygiene through no fault of their own. However read on!

The 19 year old teacher was very dynamic with a shrill voice which would normally have held the attention of the children. She certainly penetrated my eardrums!! However our presence was distracting and their attention to repeating words and numbers was lost! I sat at the back of the class and watched them. Some appeared cheeky, some shy, some curious. As I observed them something was bothering me. The children were dressed in individual strange outfits. One little girl was wearing a ballet tutu skirt, another boy a smart beige blazer jacket. It took me a while to realise that they were dressed in charity clothes. I found this rather heartbreaking and I was close to tears a few times. These kids have so little yet they had a smile for everyone! A small piece of affection and attention went a long way. After class I played high five with a cheeky, gappy toothed little girl. As we left she held my hand and I acquired another little girl on the other hand as I walked across the field When it was time to say goodbye they both hugged me and the latter girl wouldn't let go of my hand. The OCD disappeared at this moment - how could I not let them touch me or touch them - they needed a simple act that came from the heart.

After leaving the children behind we went to watch some basket weaving - a skill that the locals are trying to bring back. I had a go and I think they were quite impressed by my speed! They made mats and baskets and the amount of time that goes into each one was quite phenomenal. And being sold for peanuts in comparison. After lunch we planted some trees on the beach and then went for a brief canoe ride on Lake Mutanda before being rained off! The canoe was brilliant - made of a hollowed out log. It felt like a scene out of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn! Across the water was the usual triangular steep hillsides with houses dotted about and children playing in the trees. Our first glimpse into true life out here.

On a final note for the day…The food was pretty good at the Golden Monkey although not so great for those veggie and vegans amongst us (Ian and I). When I ordered garlic bread I had a vision of a baguette from home with garlic butter oozing from the centre….I got what it says on the tin; a slice of white bread spread with butter with chopped raw garlic in the middle. Priceless!!!

Day six - More schools
We visited another school today - the children were older. They were really shy and I noticed that they couldn't make eye contact when they spoke to you. We looked at what used to be a classroom, a derelict condemned building effectively. It was like a dusty barn and up to 200 pupils were taught in there. It was quite unbelievable. There was nothing colourful on the walls to assist with learning, motivation and inspiration. The desks were again a wooden affair with a bench attached. Up to 10 children would cram themselves on to a surface area which would only comfortably hold 3 little bums. These desks cost a meagre £60,000 Ugandan shillings which is approximately £15. Honestly the basics for these kids to have a decent education costs nothing. This is when I started to realise the enormity of what we have in the developed world and how much we take for granted.

After a fairly posh lunch we went to a better school -Gizozi primary school, Mgahinga. This one was packed with colourful pictures on the walls and the standard was greatly improved. There were a lot of local children pottering around. They were the epitomy of poverty and I heard the phrase " Give me money" numerous times. It was quite uncomfortable and sad.

Later back at The Golden Monkey was had our meal and a gossip to wind down. I hope Andrea won't mind me including this in my blog. She told us that she had skin cancer and had had numerous tumours removed from her face. I think she was worried about the effects of the scarring and in all honesty I would never have noticed if she hadn't of said anything. And for the record I am full of admiration for her as she has been through some hell and has had to face her own mortality. Here she is on this trip making the most of life, and her story and the things I am experiencing and have seen so far are changing my perspective for the better.

Day seven - Betty
Today we went to the most rural community yet. The scenery on route was as usual beautiful. The village children were filthy. They were an exact representation of what we at home see on TV - dirty African children with flies pitching around their eyes and rounded pot bellies from malnutrition. We met the pillar of the community; an ancient blacksmith. We watched him make a tool from scrap metal and a piece of wood. He created a mini axe. His wife sat in the background working the bellows to provide oxygen to the charcoal fire which was used to heat and shape the metal. He had a great skill that he was trying to pass down in order that it didn't die with him.

As we mingled with the children and adults I noticed a girl stood nearby. She came to my attention as she had some markings down her left arm. As I have a few tattoos myself I showed her mine and we compared. Initially it was a bit of fun. She had the letter A at the top followed by some numbers in a vertical line. I was intrigued as we had been told that the babies of these communities were marked at birth with 3 lines at the top of the forehead using a hot scalpel. This was believed to stop headaches. I took a photo of the girl's arm next to mine. We then spoke to Festo who was our guide. After speaking to the girl he told us her name was Betty and that she was 10 years old. She told him that she had got her friend to "tattoo" on the symbols so that she was identifiable and could not get stolen. This is a common practice in Northern Uganda where young girls are stolen as virgins and forced into marriage. Betty had chosen the letter A as it was the top letter of the alphabet and she wanted to get to the top. We were all so moved by this innocent explanation. Betty radiated an incredible spirit of calm, peace and serenity. When it was time to leave I took her hand and we walked back to our minibus. She asked me my name and we had a brief conversation in English. I gave her a hug goodbye before getting onto the bus. That was the moment that broke me. I wanted to take her with us and get her away from poverty and the fear of being stolen. I had to turn away on the bus as the tears came. We talked about finding out more about her from Festo and I made up my mind that I wanted to help her.

After an emotional morning, in the afternoon we went to Potters village, a baby orphanage who look after the newborns with the aim of rehoming them back into their community with a relative. I was expecting more sadness untold but it was a lovely, peaceful, nurturing environment. We saw all the babies and toddlers and at this centre they had a good start in life despite losing their mothers. My only future worry is when they are reintroduced back into their communities…going from a clean healthy loving place to a potential substandard quality of living. However the good intent was wonderful and it truly is a great project.

At the end of the day we visited the Travellers Rest lodge for a few drinks. It made our accommodation look like a slum!! It was a lovely place, decorated in African artefacts and had a nice safari like feel to it. I took a fancy to a wooden pot on the table which held the nuts we were eating! It would have looked nice in my house. I tried to sweet talk the staff member into letting me buy it but she was having none of it. Bah humbug. The staff at The Golden Monkey were friendlier! Lets go home!! I am starting to feel the effect of too many stodgy carbs and not enough protein. My stomach is like a brick!

Day eight - More Gorillas!
Early rise again this morning and back in the minibus to head towards Bwindi for our second Gorilla trek. It was a misty drive up to the national park which was quite ethereal and mystical. On arrival we had the usual briefing and then set off with our guide David and a porter each. It was a much different trek to the previous one. This time we were tracking the Shongi Mountain Gorilla family. We had to weave our way through the forest on narrow trails. It was a lush, vibrant, green environment as usual; an incredible journey into the heart and soul of the forest. It was a fairly steep climb at times with the sounds of birds and wildlife around us. There were wild elephants in the vicinity and I saw some of their dung as evidence. It would have been impressive to see a huge elephant in such dense woodland, it would have to crash its way through destroying everything in its way to create a path!

After two hours of quite strenuous trekking the trackers ahead had picked up the gorilla trail. We reached the spot another hour later. As we went into the undergrowth a baby gorilla came hurtling out of the bush directly towards us. He was possibly the cutest thing I have ever seen, a soft woolly black ball of fluff! We all sat down and he approached us and touched Betty's leg. How jealous was I?!! I was sat next to her and I almost reached out and touched him. The guides quickly shooed him away and I realised that this was essential for his wellbeing as it would be cruel in the long run for him to become too familiar with humans. However I sooo wanted to cuddle him! Despite being shooed he kept coming back, playing nearby, chucking himself around, and climbing the tree and falling out and rolling over on the ground! He even beat his little chest a few times. He was so inquisitive and mischievous and the look on his face as he tried to work out what we were was brilliant. He looked bemused or puzzled with his mouth open and his dinky teeth on show! Picture perfect! I spent too long trying to photograph him and I missed out on some of his antics. In the end I videoed a short clip then just watched and absorbed this once in a lifetime gift. We all got a bit stuck to our camera lenses trying to get that special photo. His mum, Munini was nearby and dad, Bweza, the silverback was tucked about three metres away in the thick of the bush minding his own business. We were truly in the midst of the gorilla family. After watching the baby frolicking around for quite some time all of a sudden a strange animal noise resonated through the trees. The silverback immediately materialised into the open clearing directly in front of me. My first instinct was to move as he was super close. The guide told me to stay still as the gorilla stared intently ahead listening for danger. He epitomised sheer massive strength, elegance and power. He quietly and discreetly moved his family through the trees and that was the last we saw of the baby.

We tracked the family through the forest using the familiar machete hacking technique. We encountered more females in the group and the silverback remained stealth in the undergrowth, moving on quietly when it suited him. I got some great photos of him though on the rest of the trek. The guides allowed us a bit longer than the usual hour as we ended up so close to him and some of his family. Another older baby made an appearance and he sat with Dad under a tree eating some juicy red fruit. He also had a chew on a tree trunk! Then for the grand finale the silverback climbed the tree and disappeared into the forest rooftop. This majestic huge creature pulled himself up with grace, his silver back glowing through the canopy of green. It was an incredible sight. Mother and elder baby did the same and it was then time for us to leave. It was a long journey back through the bush. At times some of the plants and grasses were taller than me. Due to the height we had climbed to, as we descended we were walking at the same level as tops of trees. Walking through the forest was invigorating and it filled me with its life force. This was as close to nature as you can get.

In all this was a fantastic trek, I could not have asked for more. It was a proper good hike which was fairly technical and strenuous in places and culminated in seeing a beautiful baby gorilla, his family and the mightiness of the silverback. A true blessing and privilege to be at such close proximity to these endangered species. There are only 800 left in the wild and they can only be found in this part of the world. I want to support their conservation as it would be a tragic loss if they were no longer part of this planet.

Day nine - Gorilla projects
The next three days were dedicated to the projects which support  Gorilla welfare through education of the children and helping the locals make a living on the land. Our first visit was to a school where a pedal powered film was shown about gorilla conservation. Students took it in turns to cycle a bike to power the film. We later each chose a student to plant a tree in our name that they would take responsibility for after we left. The idea being to nuture something to help it grow and progress into the future. The children at this school had no access to water from a tap, it had to be brought in. They went home for lunch and some returned with an empty stomach. It hit me again how little these people have and how hard they have to work to obtain the basics in life.

After lunch we visited the Kisoro market. It was a typical market of tightly packed stalls full of what I would call junk! There was an array of locally cooked food and fruit and veg. The women carried their purchases on their heads sometimes with a baby strapped to the back as well. It's a man's world over here.

Once we had strolled around the market and sampled some freshly cooked bread we went to another school and the children here just blew me away. It was a good school and the students, in their early teens, were well dressed and well educated. We met teacher John who had a typical wide, bright African smile. The students put on some presentations for us, including singing and dancing to welcome us, and reading and acting out poems. Teacher John obviously played a significant role in the passionate performances of the students, they genuinely believed and felt every word said and every dance step displayed. One girl stood out as very determined and with a strong spirit. She later told me that she wanted to be the president and I think she would be perfect. I would vote for her. Education in  the UK is taken for granted and over here it is the difference between having the bare minimum and changing your own life and others in a significant way. One poem that was read out was about the tree that cries. Two girls acted the words and made that tree seem like the most important thing in the world. They appreciate more than us the importance of looking after the environment and the catastrophic impact that deforestation is causing. It was the simplest message conveyed with sincerity and it  was precious.

Day ten - The heart of the land
An interesting day visiting some more local projects. Firstly we met some of the Batwa people and saw the initiatives given to them to help them re-aquire land and to grow food. We then visited two organic farms, one being run by a single mother. The only downside to this was how their goats were being kept. Being a huge animal rights person I didn't like to see the goats tethered up in a small space barely able to turn around. This was so their urine and droppings could be collected and used as fertiliser. Its all about survival over here and human life comes first.

Lastly but by no means least we visited some bee keepers. We were given a talk about how the Queen bee is formed and then saw some hives. All good so far. Then we visited another set of hives and just as I had got a close up photo, all hell broke loose! The bees started swarming and as I tried to retreat I got stung in the arse. The next thing I knew we were all trying to run back to the minibus. There were angry bees everywhere and I had two on my neck whilst someone threw a coat over my head. It was crazy! Harriet was yelling to get onto the bus and for the driver to drive. When I got on there were bees everywhere and I got stung again. There was a few seconds of mad panic and chaos as we didn't know whether to get on the bus or stand our ground. We all ended up on the bus leaving poor Harriet behind. Once we had all reconvened Andrea had to check my bottom in broad daylight to make sure the sting was out. I reckon the locals had a good laugh about watching the white people being chased by bees, killer bees no less, for weeks! Who would have thought bees could be so scary!

After that experience we thought a trip to the Congo border would be tame! Arguably one of the most dangerous borders currently in the world, it was a bit hairy to start with being there knowing there were armed guards hidden about with AK47's. There was a space of no mans land in-between and then the tarmac road turned to a Congolese dirt track. It was strange looking over to a land which is mysterious, dangerous, and completely feral. I would love to go there one day if it ever becomes safe.

When we returned to our digs Festo had compiled some information about what we would need to do to sponsor Betty. He had found a boarding school and had an itemised list of the cost to kit her out with all the stuff she would need for a new term and school fees. Divided into four it would cost us about $100 per year each. Total peanuts to ensure a better quality of life for her, education and hope for the future. We have discussed this as a group and are going to meet Betty and her grandmother tomorrow before we leave. If we go ahead she would start the following Monday.

Day eleven - Last project
Today we went to a special needs school which catered for children who were blind or deaf (some partially) and three albino children. Again the students put on wonderful performances for us. Again they sang and danced with passion. The deaf children danced to the vibration of the drum on the ground…incredible. We each took a child into Mgahinga National Park as a treat. My little girl was deaf and was the cheekiest little monkey. She had a big smile and kept breaking out into a high pitched laugh. It was a privilege to escort them into the park although unfortunately we didn't see any wildlife which was a shame for them. I particularly enjoyed meeting my little one and although she has a disability, I have no doubt that she will get what she wants in life. In the little time I spent with her I saw how resourceful, cheeky and savvy she was. Thankfully this school will give her a place in society. I hope someone sponsors her.

When we got back we met Betty again and her grandmother. Both were dressed nicely and grandmother was wearing a very glam black and silver dress. Through Festo we explained our intentions and made it clear we wanted Betty to want this opportunity. Its always difficult when you weigh up taking a child from her community with giving her a more western opportunity to get an education. Betty said she wanted to go and her grandmother was overwhelmed with gratitude towards us. It was a humbling moment and I am pleased to say that Betty went to school and is so far doing well. I think we are all committed as a group to see this through and I hope one day to write to her and hear that she has achieved her dreams.

Our last night at The Golden Monkey….I had got used to the basics! The food was good, the staff were lovely and accommodating and I had struck up a rapport with the communal shower where I was able to get clean under a line of hot water! Where there is a will there is a way! And I just remembered I haven't mentioned Bonnie and Blanket the resident dogs. They were awesome and many a left over titbit was donated towards them! It was sad saying goodbye - hope the next guests treated them well!

Day twelve - On safari
Today we travelled up to Queen Elizabeth National Park for the last part of our adventure. Unfortunately I have picked up a dodgy stomach which couldn't have come at a worse time whilst we were out on the road and going bush. Public toilets here are pretty vile enough said. The scenery outside the bus changed dramatically from steep, vertical , farmed mountains and valleys to flatter land - the savannah. During the journey we drove through vibrant green tea plantations and saw baboons on the side of the road. As we got closer to the park the land opened up and it stretched as far as the eye could see. Glorious. The roof of the minibus was put up and I spent the rest of the journey standing up with my head out the top, wind blowing through my hair. I felt so alive! I love going on safari! We saw our first elephant on the side of the road and then many more to follow. Before heading to our accommodation we went to look for a male lion that had been seen recently. We didn't find him but we saw a well camouflaged lioness in the long grasses and under the shade of a tree.

Our lodge was right in the middle of the bush and was totally rustic -fab! After tea in a nearby bar we were driven the short distance back as there was potentially hippos around the house and elephants on the loose! Lo and behold a family of elephants crossed our path and a few hippos were nearby. We all sat on the veranda out the back and soaked up the nightly sounds and atmosphere of being totally in the bush!

Day thirteen - Hippos galore
The weather turned a bit rubbish and it rained a lot. Nevertheless on our game drive we saw elephants, loads of buffalo, waterbucks, antelope and warthogs. No sign of the lions though :-(. The heavens opened up as we got to the crater and we sheltered under the huts and perused the goods for sale. I bought a nice picture of an elephant for my hallway!

In the afternoon we went on a boat trip down the Kazinga channel. I sat on the top deck and saw hippos galore. It was cool seeing them floating about in the river. They look a bit like the lochness monster! I was after a photo of a hippo with its mouth wide open. I got a few! And I saw a bit of a ding dong between two in the water. There were a few babies who were cute - now I can see where the moomins comes from! Along the riverbank were more buffalo and some crocodiles lazing in the sun. A nice peaceful way to the spend the afternoon.

Later on we were due for a posh dinner at the posh lodge down from our lodgings. Betty and I went back to our digs to freshen up. Just as I was getting dressed Betty came to tell me there was some elephants in the back garden!! I went out and sat on the veranda and watched at point blank range as they passed through the garden and munched on the bushes and trees. I got a great shot of a young one materialising out of a bush. We sat and watched them for ages. At one point I was so close to a large male on that I thought it best to move. Previous experience has taught me that they can be very aggressive and can move quick so I didn't want to risk getting trampled. A whole herd eventually turned up and we migrated out to the front to watch them. There were a few babies who were so cute. Somehow we ended up having a stand off with the big bull. I was stood in our doorway and he was about two metres away. And he was proper pissed off. We eyeballed each other and his ears were stretched out to the side moving back and forth. I said to Betty that he was going to charge at any minute. I actually wondered if he would be able to take out the hallway! I retreated in and Betty carried on filming! The bull also retreated slowly with his ears continuing to flap. He got his whole family behind him. We then heard the sounds of the others coming back and tried to warn them. The next thing I knew the bull had trumpeted loudly and took a couple of running steps towards the others. He was not happy. The group then got a bit confused and ended up running around getting more angry and trumpeting. We found Sheba our guide asleep in the minibus..he had missed the whole thing! We all got escorted to the lodge and left the grumpy elephants behind! When we got home later there was a hippo pottering about. Cool! The night sky was beautiful and clear and I was pleased to be able to see the Southern Cross again which reminded me of my travels in Oz many years ago.

Day fourteen - Forest and pampering
We went to the Karinzu forest today to trek for chimpanzees. I saw a red tailed monkey and that was it! Four hours of fairly hard core trekking in the humidity and we saw diddly squat! Was a bit gutted but thats the nature of the wild. I love being in wood and forest so it was a great walk. I discovered some really cool shrubs which had bright blue seeds on them in the shape of small round balls. Harriet and I collected loads. They were so pretty with an incredible sheen to them. Will do something creative with them when I get home.

The rest of the day turned into a comedy of errors. We had all booked a few pampering treatments at the posh lodge and I was so ready to have a nice wash and blow dry and a manicure after living like scrubber for the last few weeks. The manicure was lovely whilst it lasted…about 10 minutes! The hair wash was lovely until he started trying to dry my hair straight. After putting in about one whole can of mouse he then parted my hair into sections. The first section was under the hairdryer for about 10 minutes. My scalp got burnt. The second section was going the same way until I eventually cracked and told him to stop. I generally don't complain at hairdressers and I have sat in the chair in fear a few times with what they are doing to my hair. Need I mention thinning scissors ….I tried to explain that he had probably given me a third degree burn on my scalp and that my hair was going to be ruined by his techniques - steam was coming off my hair. To cut a long story short I ended up having to wash it myself again and style it myself. Needless to say I didn't pay for the privilege. And now my hair was the driest it had ever been in its life.

This put me in a bit of a bad mood after. I should have opted for the massage that everyone else had had. I chilled out when watching a group of African dancers putting on a show. It was really traditional music and dance and was great to watch. Dinner was nice and after an incident in the toilet which completed the comedy of errors (a girl tried to get into my toilet before I had even come out) we went back to our lodge for our last nights sleep in Queen Elizabeth National park.  I have to say now after the disappointment of my severe lack of pampering I was looking forward to getting home and enjoying a bit of luxury…like a proper hot shower and my own bed! A long days travelling tomorrow.

Day fifteen - Journey home
We had a nice breakfast at the posh lodge then we hit the road. I was shattered so dozed the morning away. We had lunch at the Equator and I bought another pair of those African trousers. When we hit Kampala, the capital, it was traffic chaos. I have to say Kampala was a bit of a dump; dirty, dusty and no order on the road whatsoever. The highway code most definitely does not exist here. We eventually made it back to the original lodge that we stayed in which seems like a long time ago now. The electricity had gone again so we had dinner by solar lamp! Very romantic!!

My flight was late so when I turned up at the airport I was pretty tired. I got talking to some people and told them about my adventures. One was a Ugandan lady and I suddenly felt proud and privileged that I had had a fairly good insight into her country. The plane was delayed for an hour (sorry BA but you are shite) which made things very tight the other end when I had to get myself put into business class for landing (I looked a right scrubber against all the posh business folk!), to get off the plane first, to run through customs with all my luggage, to get to my bus…which was late!

In summary: This was indeed a trip of a lifetime. I hold a special affinity towards Africa and this adventure has added to that. The scenery was stunning. Being fortunate enough to see the mountain gorillas on both treks and spend a small amount of quality time in their habitat is something I will never forget. Meeting the children was a humbling experience and has changed my perspective on life. I feel blessed in all the things that I have and I hope never to take for granted these blessings. I hope to see Betty one day again and see her well educated, with a good job and above all happy. I am also looking forward to my next trip to the African continent whatever and wherever that may be.

Many thanks to Harriet and The Great Projects for organising the itinerary and for allowing us to support some valuable community projects alongside our desires to see the mighty Gorilla in the wild.

Andrea, Max, Betty and Ian - thanks for a great trip and maybe our paths will cross again one day…!!

Here come the photos!