BY JOE AND DEBBIE KARP
Many of you know that we enjoy learning about wildlife and have spent some of our limited time away from the office visiting various wildlife hot spots. Joe marvels at these opportunities, as his father’s 7-day-a-week job in a candy store ruled out even the most modest of family vacations for the Karps. How life changes!
This January we were off to Uganda, our second trip to Africa. The journey was especially meaningful for Debbie, having been cancelled once due to her illness, and yet again this past September because of the untimely and sudden passing of her brother, Herb. Herb would have been happy that we finally made it. He, too, was an avid lover of nature and animals, making his home in a remote corner of the Adirondack Mountains – even in winter.
So why Uganda? The animals! Uganda offers much, from chimps in Kibale Forest, to elephants on the Kazinga Channel, game animals in Queen Elizabeth National Park and Lake Mburo, to the holy grail for ecotourists: Bwindi Impenetrable Park, home to some of the 700 remaining mountain gorillas. (Unlike lowland gorillas, these primates cannot survive in captivity; you must go into the wild to observe them.) Mountain gorillas live in families and we “visited” with two families on two different days. The gorilla families were charming hosts.
(Side note: We find it most unfortunate that since our trip, Uganda has passed extremely harsh anti-gay legislation. The West, including the U.S., has widely condemned these actions. Yet we found the Ugandan people at the grassroots to be extraordinarily tolerant, open and accepting of all kinds of people and lifestyles. For example, intermarriage between Muslims and Christians is commonplace. There is even a small Jewish community, the Abayudaya, living in peace with its neighbors in the eastern part of the country. Our very articulate guide and driver espoused liberal attitudes; his father is Japanese, his mother Ugandan, and he also has roots in Norway. He told us he never encountered a shred of discrimination growing up there. One has to wonder who is pushing this agenda of intolerance and for what purpose, since the people themselves are so easygoing…)
Back to the trip. Understand that we are no mountaineers, just determined day hikers. But traveling through Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, true to its name, is no day hike. There are no trails. You follow rangers who machete vegetation as they go; wade streams; hoist yourself over slippery muddy slopes. And did we mention dodge stinging nettles and safari ants? Fortunately, both of us had lost a lot of weight last year, worked out on an elliptical machine to build up muscle strength – and brought along plenty of insect repellant. It wasn’t easy, but we made it – incredibly, without so much as a muscle ache the next day!
We also experienced the human part of Uganda, visiting a local village, touring a school, and chatting with passersby. Poverty is widespread, but without exception, we found everyone, from shopkeepers to people we met along the road, welcoming, gracious and big-hearted.
The average life expectancy in Uganda is a mere 54 years, so one does not see many elderly people, and the country does not face the same problems we have as result of a dramatically aging population. And providing care for the few who are long-lived is not the same challenge, either: since the birth rate is 9 children per woman, there are always people in the extended family who can provide care.
With all its problems, Uganda appears to be very serious about protecting its remaining natural areas and wildlife from the poaching and deforestation that characterized the last decades. Tourists bring in much-needed revenue, and the mountain gorillas are – well, cash cows. We never felt unsafe, not once, even wandering around solo. The Ugandan Army is vigilant at the borders it shares with its volatile neighbors. The areas of Uganda visited by foreign tourists are probably the safest places in the country, and perhaps among the safest on the continent.
Believe it or not, the most difficult part of the journey was at the end, stateside. After 20 hours of travel we arrived at Hartsfield, bleary eyed and eager to be home… and completely unaware that one inch of snow had paralyzed the Atlanta airport. The flight to Florida was cancelled and no one knew when it would take off. So close and yet so far!
Debbie and Guide/Driver Mike Ohguchi