The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park is one of the toughest hikes I have ever faced -
from walking the trails of Kibaale and Mabira forests to conquering the first part of the Rwenzori Mountains.
The thick forest blankets tens of hills covered partly in mist and fog and there is nothing you can see beyond a certain point.
The forest is located in Uganda’s south western region near the DRC and Rwanda borders, and is one of the homes of the rare mountain gorillas. The other place where you can find gorillas is the neighbouring Mgahinga Forest.
Bwindi is famous for gorilla tracking, the country’s biggest revenue earner. There is now an option to take a nature walk through the forest, not purposely to see the gorillas, at a cost of Ush30,000 ($8). The cost of a permit to go gorilla tracking is $600.
I joined a group of Ugandan media colleagues, under our umbrella network Conservation Media Camp, on a trip to Bwindi.
We were attending the launch of the area’s first Batwa Cultural Centre built by local NGO Change a Life Bwindi.
The Batwa are forest people and one of the oldest surviving tribes in Africa, but their culture, identity and language are under increasing threat.
The areas where the Batwa lived and hunted were mainly forested areas between Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The land was taken over in 1991 for conservation projects to protect mountain gorillas. The Batwa now live in small communities near the forests.
The host for our trip, the Ihamba residence, is located on top of a hill that overlooks the forest in the east, from where one can see the vast Queen Elizabeth National Park and Lake George.
The hill has tea plantations on its slopes, as this is the only crop that can grow here without primates from the park destroying it.
About 15 of us inexperienced hikers decided to take on the forest nature walk, which involved going up and down forested hills with thick undergrowth.
We went in single file through the tea plantations. After a briefing of the ground rules, which included carrying at least two litres of water each, keeping our voices low so as not to scare away animals and not to litter, we set off, breaking the silence rule as we occasionally broke into song and cracked jokes that threw the entire group into laughter.
Ahead of the line was a machete-wielding colleague who had some geographical knowledge of the forest.
Using the machete, Michael Otti cleared a trail by cutting away small branches and clearing undergrowth.
Behind us was a gun-wielding Uganda Wildlife Authority ranger whose job was to scare away dangerous animals and to keep us out of trouble in case we came across poachers.
The forest has duikers, elephants, several snake species, baboons, monkeys and other animals that we were eager to encounter.
The hike usually takes six hours, but we took eight.
The trek starts with downhill the from Ihamba residence to the base of the forest. The hill was so steep that several colleagues abandoned their walking sticks and slid down on their buttocks.
We walked through thickets, jumping over fallen logs and across small wooden bridges on streams running through the forest with thunderous noises of their water falls.
We spotted rare birds, butterflies and other insects.
“You all need to keep quiet so we can listen ‘to the sights and sounds’ of the forest,” Tina Katushabe, one of our group, said.
The air was fresh, and we could hear a distant waterfall that was our final stop. Birds chirped in the swaying trees that were taller than any I had ever seen.
We continued like this for a few more hours, exhausted and hungry because we had underestimated the hike - we took a few rests until we realised that it was about to rain.
Since we didn’t want to be drenched, we diverted to an alternative route out of the forest that set us two hills away from our starting point. The forest walk was done, but we still had two more hills climb to get to our place of abode.
Despite all the obstacles and our exhaustion, the whole experience is something I would recommend.