20th August– As dawn broke, I realised why so many people say this is one of the most spectacular lodges on the planet. Built on a hilltop, it has a 360 degree view, with Mount Muhabura to the north and the rest of the Virunga chain of volcanoes stretching off to the west; far below to the south lie the twin lakes of Bulera and Ruhondo, surrounded by shambas – small plots of land, each of which supports a family or two. The rooms are beautifully furnished, simple but stylish with luxurious touches here and there, and with eco-loos and solar powered lights, the carbon footprint is minimal.
Volcanoes Safaris also run sustainable development projects with the local communities, and at breakfast I enjoyed Virunga Honey – harvested from bee-hives kept along the edge of the park so the bees can forage in gorilla habitat. Recently a bee-keeper was smoking one such hive to extract honey when the fire got out of control and spread into the park, burning up the slopes of Muhabura. Fortunately, it did not get near any known gorilla habitat, but it was a stark reminder of how fragile an island of forest this is.
The border with Uganda opens at 7.00am, but Uganda is in the next time zone so walking a few yards cost me an hour. A taxi met me as arranged and, after a tyre change in Kisoro, we were climbing northeastwards towards Kabale where I hoped to catch the express bus to Kampala. The taxi for the first stage was necessary because I had to be there by 5.00pm for another press briefing/reception at 5.30 at Makerere University, organised by the British High Commission.
We pulled into Kabale at 10.45 and no-one had seen the express bus pass. Was I in luck? Three colourful buses were revving their engines and honking their horns, vying for passengers, and I tried to establish which one would arrive in Kampala first while agents from each tried to lure or man-handle me onto theirs. I went for the blue one, whose driver said he was leaving right now, then watched the yellow one pull away. Never mind, I thought, the chap on the back seat holding a rather fine brown hen would make an interesting interviewee once we got under way.
These thoughts were interrupted by a dramatic melée in front of the bus, where a fist fight had broken out. Fortunately, even though the protagonists (two versus one) were squaring up to each other like bare-knuckle prize-fighters, they were better at dodging than landing blows and no serious damage was done, except to the under-dog’s shirt which was ripped right off. Like any playground fight, the crowd comprised those trying to separate the fighters, those just curious and those who couldn’t resist throwing a gratuitous punch at the backs of any fighter coming their way (you see the same behaviour in several social species). Entertaining though this was, the driver’s “right now” had lasted half an hour and so I picked up my bags, got off and stood in front of the bus, telling the driver I’d get on when “right now” happened, but until then, I’d try to flag down any kind of vehicle actually moving towards Kampala.
The timing was right because a couple of minutes later a 4WD pulled up, driven by a well dressed businessman going to Kampala. It turned out his business was carrying people and goods, so we agreed on a price and zoomed off at 11.17. Within an hour we overtook the yellow bus (Yesss! I thought), and apart from stopping to buy some vegetables we were making good time. I was getting worried calls from the British High Commission at intervals, so when he slowed down to pick up more passengers, I said, “How much to buy all four places?”. His foot went down on the accelerator and we agreed terms – he knew the University and would take me straight there.
We crossed the Equator at 4.15 and when the BHC rang next, they figured they’d have to serve drinks and canapés until I arrived, fully expecting me to be an hour or two late. Luckily with schools on holiday the evening traffic was kind to us and I had the satisfaction of arriving precisely at 5.30pm to meet the diplomats, reporters, dignitaries and conservation colleagues assembling on the lawn by the refreshment tent.
The Hon. David Ebong MP spoke first. As Chairman of Uganda’s Parliamentary Forum on Climate Change, he was very aware of the forest issues behind the YoG campaign (see ‘More than Trees’ in YoG downloads and www.4apes.com/carbon). It was dusk as I began my Powerpoint presentation, and just before I spoke about the role of gorillas as seed-dispersal agents, a fine pair of hornbills glided low over the audience to their evening roost, reminding us that they too are seed dispersal agents for smaller seeds.
Gorillas, however, are second only to elephants in both the size and number of seeds dispersed each day, so if we want healthy, bio-diverse tropical forests in the future, we must protect the gardeners of the forest today. The CEO of Uganda Wildlife Authority, Moses Mapesa, helped take some of the Uganda-specific questions from the press. It was a lively discussion, partly because illegal settlers have recently been evicted from some of Uganda’s forests, and the struggle to balance forest conservation and the aspirations of communities in and around forests is neither easy nor simple.
I pointed out the fact that in the UK, National Parks are full of farmers, but they have to follow rules designed to maintain the habitats on their land to maintain biodiversity and the beauty of the landscape. The challenge in tropical forests is to find ways of allowing communities therein to develop, but in ways that are compatible with maintaining the health of the forest – and payment for the global eco-system services provided by these forests – such as carbon sequestration and storage – should be a part of it.
The evening had been a great success, if a close run thing at the start, and as I rolled up the YoG banner the BHC kindly donated for future such events on the tour, I couldn’t help but wonder what time the blue bus finally arrived in Kampala…
Coming soon –
21-24th August Coughs and chills might kill gorills, but ebola wipes out populations – thoughts from the Great Ape Health Workshop, Entebbe
25th – 27th Journey to Kinshasa