Jo Gordon reports on her two month sabbatical to Uganda and Rwanda
Author: Jo Gordon
Uganda (‘The Pearl of Africa’) and Rwanda (‘The Land of a Thousand Hills’) are tiny equatorial landlocked countries in Eastern Africa which between them border Tanzania, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Suda, Burundi and Kenya. They are without a doubt the two most unusual and beautiful countries that I have ever been lucky enough to visit: luscious and green in colour with undulating terraced hills that seem to go on forever.
This was to be my home for May and June and from the moment I touched down in Entebbe I knew I was going to enjoy it. I had been given the chance to take two months out of the office to cook in a few of Volcanoes Safaris’ lodges out there which was nothing like I had ever experienced before. Part of the deal was that I travel extensively throughout the two countries and also get the chance to go gorilla tracking.
In complete contrast to the billions of humans on this crowded planet, there are only some seven hundred gorillas left on the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and DRC and so to see our closest living relative in the wild is truly an amazing and breathtaking experience.
My adventure began in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest which is famous for being home to almost half of the remaining gorilla population. Bwindi Volcanoes Lodge where I stayed has fantastic views over the thick canopy of the jungle where you are able to sit for hours and watch the prolific bird life, not to mention the black and white colobus monkeys. One morning we were even fortunate enough to actually be tracked down by the gorillas themselves.
My first trek in Bwindi, shorter than some, only took about four hours. This is not to say it was easy - the climb was up and down almost vertical hills on very slippery and rough terrain. It is most certainly is not for the faint-hearted and one of our group gave up before we even got into the jungle. The altitude here does make the whole experience a lot harder, whether you are fit or not.
It is impossible to imagine quite how big and intimidating these endangered animals are. We spent an hour with them watching them sleep, eat, swing in the trees and play. It was truly incredible.
I was then driven to the southern part of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest where I enjoyed a wonderful afternoon’s tracking. We had only been walking casually for about half an hour before spotting the first figure in the thick of a tree. The superb views of Mount Gahinga and the fact that I was in a small group of only four made this a really memorable afternoon.
My next stop was Virunga Lodge, which is about 45 minutes outside the entrance to the Parc National des Volcans. This lodge is incredibly special with the most spectacular views on a clear day over the lakes and all six volcanoes. The scenery just seemed to be getting better and better. I have to say that I think this was definitely my favourite trek -the walking was the easiest, and as the gorillas were in a clearing the viewing was a lot better. I went to see the Susa Group which is the largest gorilla family – and with 39 gorillas’ (four silverbacks and plenty of babies) I felt constantly surrounded. Everywhere I looked they were there swinging through the trees, munching on bamboo, or rolling around intertwined on the ground.
The last part of my adventure took me to Kigali (the Rwandan capital) where I got the eye-opening chance to go and visit the genocide museum. This was horrific, though I am extremely glad to have seen it. I was amazed by the people of this country - from all that they have been through, they are willing to accept and move on.
Away from the gorillas, I really enjoyed my time helping in the kitchens. The chefs all have the right idea and were so eager to learn. I wrote a simple guide book for each kitchen to make it easier to follow recipes and to help the chefs to be creative with the limited ingredients available in Kampala and Kigali. Presentation was also a bit hit and miss – the local delicacy is boiled goat with a mountain of matooke (plantain bananas which are boiled in a sauce of peanuts, fresh fish, meat or entrails) and local beans – so I encouraged them to grow herbs in their gardens which will help to brighten up the dishes. My overwhelming memory is of what they do manage with very limited facilities and never again will I take my hand-held whisk or Magimix for granted.