Gorillas, gin - and genocide

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Indy Lifestyle Online
UGANDA'S Bwindi National Park is a silent, beautiful place. Remote enough to shelter half of the world's remaining 600 mountain gorillas, Bwindi's tangled jungle highlands are nevertheless accessible enough to attract tourists from around the world.

Louise France went in search of the mountain gorillas in October 1994. Rwanda had been in the news but seemed - as far as she recalls - to be quiet. But the road between Kampala and the tourist camp showed all the signs of the conflict - Red Cross vehicles had left huge pot holes in the dirt track which they had to swerve around every few yards.

Staying at the Buhoma Camp - the base used by Abercrombie and Kent - is not camping as most of us know it. "The tents have single beds, dressing tables, flushing toilets. A boy comes in the morning to pour hot water into the bucket for the shower and deliver a cup of hot chocolate," recalled Louise.

"There's a larger tent for dinner where everyone sits around a long trestle table. I don't remember there being any padlocks on the tent zips. Certainly I never used one. There is very little lighting around either - electricity is banned in the forest for fear of scaring away the gorillas. There were no discussions about security. I don't remember anyone ever discussing the political situation in Rwanda. Tucked away in the hills, beside a camp fire, with a gin and tonic in your hand, the idea of genocide going on a few miles away seems hard to imagine."

The gorilla tour starts at dawn. Groups of six are taken up the mountainside with a couple of guides and boys to carry the bags.

"It's incredibly tough terrain - we were walking uphill through dense undergrowth for about six hours before we found a family of gorillas: a silverback male, two females, and about six little ones. We were allowed to watch them for about an hour before we clambered back to the camp."

When their visit to the gorillas is over, the travellers return to their tents in the valley below. At 2,000 metres above sea level, the equatorial nights are cool, and tired legs make sleep come easy.