May 22, 2010- It’s a long and somber drive from Queen Elizabeth National Park to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. My driver is emotional when he picks me up after breakfast, his voice catching as he explains why we saw no lions the previous day. “They have been killed, the whole family. Local farmers thought a lion may have eaten one of their cows, and set out poisoned meat for revenge. The entire pride is dead.”
I feel sick, and I can’t look this poor man in the eyes. I can tell he’s choking back tears, and there’s zero chance I won’t cry, too, if I look at him. We had planned to take another game drive through the preserve before heading to Bwindi, but I don’t have to tell him I don’t want to go.
The farmers who have killed these beautiful, endangered animals have broken the law, and theoretically could face fines or imprisonment, but they won’t.
We arrive on the outskirts of Bwindi before noon, and it is immediately apparent why the name “Impenetrable Forest” was chosen.
Unlike the rest of Uganda, Bwindi is dark and cool and misty. Even when the sun is out, it doesn’t feel hot and miserable. You feel like you’re in the middle of Gorillas in the Mist and you wouldn’t be at all surprised if King Kong went swinging past your little thatched-roof hut any second.
I’m staying at the Buhoma Rest Camp and am lucky enough to score one of the coveted bottom-of-the-hill bandas with an amazing view of the forest and mountains. There’s a little private porch on the front of my cabin and it feels like I’m the only person on the planet when I sit outside, unable to see any of the other bandas or hear any human noise. The forest is alive with chirps and hoots and other unidentifiable noises, and I understand why the employee who checked me in cautioned me not to leave the door to my room open, lest I find myself with a chimpanzee or other uninvited guest making itself at home.
As with most places I’ve stayed in Africa, the camp’s restaurant is a large, open-air space with a thatched roof. This one has the added feature of incredible views of the mist-covered mountains. I notice at lunch I’m not the only person just staring out at the view, mesmerized. Today’s lunch options are either pasta *or* spaghetti with tomato sauce. I’m feeling wild, so I order the generic “pasta”. And wait. And wait. There is no such thing as fast food in Africa. I’m so hungry, I’d walk a mile for a can of Chef Boyardee and a candle.
Two hours later- I have no idea what that was, but it wasn’t tomato sauce. V8 mixed with spinach and grass clippings, maybe. I start obsessively daydreaming about Oreos.
As soon as the sun starts to dip behind the mountains, I take back every unkind thing I’ve said about the unrelenting African heat. I want it back. I’m freezing to death. I’m wearing everything I packed, wrapped in two threadbare blankets, and still shivering.
Showering here is an ordeal. First you have to let the water run long enough to get hot, but not so long you miss the 3.5 seconds of hot water you’ll get before it runs out. Then you have to fill up a handy plastic bucket with water and use it to drown the baseball-sized spider lurking under the wooden pallet that makes up the floor of your shower. Then, for good measure, take the random plastic pitcher that’s in there and smash the spider’s guts all over the floor. Do this while naked and screaming for maximum effect. Then, shower with flip flops on so you don’t step in spider gut slime. Once you finish all that, you’re free to scald your sunburned arms and scalp under the boiling water (no showerhead, naturally) and do a half-assed job of shaving in the dark while keeping an eye out for more “wildlife”. Don’t forget to save enough hot water for washing out your unmentionables- no laundry facilities for 300 miles!
Sufficiently clean and mildly traumatized, I make the hike up to the top of the hill again for dinner. Tonight’s offerings are: warm Bell lager, French onion soup, some kind of roasted pork something-or-other, and an unknown dessert. I’m ravenous, so it all sounds amazing.
I wonder if the other people in the restaurant think I’m writing some kind of deep “Snows of Kilimanjaro” shit in my diary all the time. Nope, just making lists of all the American food I can’t wait to gorge myself on as soon as I get home. Pizza Hut. Dunkin Donuts. Cracker Barrel macaroni and cheese. Non-instant coffee!
So, um, when has French onion soup ever been yellow? My hopes for the pork whatsit have fallen dramatically, and they weren’t that high to begin with.
I still really want some Oreos.
I hear a chimpanzee screech close outside the open restaurant walls and decide to stop whining. I am the luckiest person I know.