The other foreigners we ran into in Kabale used the town only as a way station on their safari to Zaire to see the gorillas. They paid for a visa and visited the gorillas over the border with a tour group. A gorilla encounter intrigued us, but we didn’t want to go on another group tour, and the high fee was out of our budget. We also hadn’t procured our visas for Zaire earlier because of the unstable political situation at the time. Officials in Zaire were contemplating imposing martial law. American, British, French, and Belgian citizens had been advised to leave the country. The travelers we met who had journeyed to encounter the gorillas said they hadn’t experienced any problems. Most of the political upheaval was in the capital, Kinshasa, which was hundreds of miles away.
Instead, we set off on our own exploratory bike ride to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest without gear, taking only a few snacks and our cameras. We took Kisoro road, which everyone warned us was twenty-five miles uphill. They told us we would have to push our bikes and that we would never make it. We cycled over rolling hills and through valleys with terraced farms. There was one long, steep summit but nothing drastic. Often other people’s perceptions of the road ahead were very different from what we encountered.
We met up with other cyclists—local men on one-speed bikes—who marveled at our ability to cycle in low gear up the hill while they needed to walk their bikes. Many of them transported loads of bananas or household goods for sale. We chatted and biked with them for a mile. One of the men had also left from Kabale and was going to the Echuya Forest, a vast expanse of bamboo near Kisoro. We were uncertain which forest to explore. The cyclists directed us to the ranger station ahead, and we stopped there to ask for advice.
The Ugandan ranger in charge greeted us. “Welcome!”
Derm wiped his brow. “Hello! Thank you. We are trying to decide whether to go to the Echuya Forest or the Impenetrable Forest. What do you suggest?”
The ranger’s face lit up. “Both forests are interesting, but the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest has more plant and animal species. There are gorillas, mountain elephants, and over four hundred species of plants.” He gestured toward a poorly maintained, dirt road. “It’s only five miles that way.”
“Gorillas!” I said.
“Yes. Right now, we are working to condition them to humans. In a few years, supervised groups will be able to visit them.”
His information tipped our decision toward the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Our extra efforts to reach the forest boundary were well rewarded.
No other humans walked through the dense forest that day. Bushes and trees grew so thickly alongside our road that we couldn’t even see signs of a path leading into the forest. We walked about two miles on the dirt road to better savor the sounds, smells, and sights of nature. Insects buzzed around us in the heavy, humid air. Vines draped across the trees and into the thick undergrowth. The forest stretched farther than we could see, going over the mountains and on into Zaire and Rwanda. We walked quietly, hoping to catch a glimpse of wildlife.
A deep-throated sound resonated from the trees. I stopped and grabbed Dermot’s arm. “Shhh. Did you hear that?”
Dermot peered into the thick forest beside us. “Was that a gorilla?” His voice was hushed.
“Either a gorilla or another large animal.” I shivered with fear and excitement.
I took a step forward, but Dermot pulled me back to him. “Let’s listen for a moment longer,” he said.
We never saw the source of the sound, so we couldn’t say for sure, but we like to think we heard a great ape.
Gathering clouds formed a thick, gray wall above us. The wind blew, swirling leaves in the air. A flash of lightning lit up the darkening sky.
I paused. “Wait, Derm. Let’s count the seconds before we hear thunder and calculate how far away the storm is.”
“One, two, three, four, five—”
“It’s five miles away,” I said.
“Let’s continue a few minutes more. I want to see if we can find out what animal made that noise,” Derm said.
The first drops of rain fell—time to turn around. We put on our rain gear, covered the camera equipment, and headed back for Kabale at four o’clock. Although the rain didn’t pour down in torrents, it did rain enough to turn the rough dirt road into a quagmire. Red mud covered our bikes and our bodies. Our tires locked up with the thick coating of earth. We skidded and slipped the last half hour to the graded road. The worst of the storm was over, and we continued on in semidarkness. Since we reached the town after nightfall, we were fortunate not to encounter any traffic. We nearly missed hitting several cows and goats that crossed the road in front of us, hidden in the darkness.
Back at the hotel, we rinsed off our bikes with pitchers of water. There was no running water that night, so we did the best we could. We luxuriated in our hot bucket baths. A warm meal of spaghetti with tomato sauce finished off a wonderful day. Dermot had received a bottle of vodka as a gift the day before, so we drank shots with cola after dinner. We reflected on our day’s ride and decided it had been one of our best riding experiences in Uganda. The terrain had been splendid from Fort Portal to Kasese with rolling hills, green fertile valleys, and terraced fields. We wished we could have stayed in the forest and explored deeper in. We could have gone onto the next ranger station four miles farther up the road. We would have liked to see the Echuya Forest as well. I decided that I wanted to return one day and spend more time in the area.