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Nancy, Nate, and my brother, Vince at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda
What a diamond in the rough!
As is the case with virtually all the countries we have seen in Africa, there is a mixture of unbelievable beauty, both from the land, itself, and from the people who inhabit it. Similarly, there is privation and poverty that must be seen to be believed.
But there are unseen qualities about Africa that pull you back, draw you in, again and again, and that 'pull' is not to be denied.
We landed at the airport in Entebbe, picked up my brother (who was joining us after completing a climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro), then drove a short distance to a small, private airfield. We got out of the Land Rover and into a small plane, which we adapted on the spot to allow us to put the dune buggy wheelchair aboard. Adding motors to the chair has made it much easier to use on the one hand, much more difficult to transport on the other hand, as it is no longer collapsible.
Taking off on the grass strip, we flew at low altitude over lush countryside, noting very few roads below us. Nearly all the roads were unpaved. We climbed higher to fly over a group of volcanoes, none of which, fortunately, was erupting.
After perhaps two hours, we landed on another airstrip, actually, just a flat, cleared field in the middle of nowhere, where the pilot first flew very low to the ground to scare off any animals who were grazing. When we landed, we saw that the entire village had gathered around the field, some to help us unload, but most just to welcome us and also to satisfy their curiosity.
The pilot told us that, to his knowledge, none of them had ever seen a wheelchair before, and the crowd grew considerably as word spread back to the villagers who had not earlier come to the strip about a woman in this strange thing with wheels. Some children came closer for examination, as children everywhere are prone to do, and one or two actually touched it- a feat of great courage, I think!
From the plane into another Land Rover, we drove for about an hour, through one or two villages of no more than a few hundred people; and several other villages that were considerably less populated.
And then, straight out of the opening shots in the movie, "King Kong", we arrived at the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda, where we had come to see the famous "Gorillas in the Mist".
We discovered that Nancy is the first person in a wheelchair to visit this magical place (as was the case in Antarctica/Wilde Point.) As such, the manager of the venue where we stayed, King, in conjunction with the director of the park, Ghad, the governor of the province, and the Minister of Information for Uganda intelligently used this opportunity to expand public knowledge of this valuable resource (the gorillas), electing to use Nancy as a "Poster Child" for their country.
They spared no expense to make whatever arrangements were necessary to insure our visit would be unforgettable. They built a special sedan chair to transport Nan through the jungle, and the park director himself led each of the two treks we made into the jungle to see the gorillas.
Photo: Testing out Leopold King's special sedan chair
We were accompanied by a team of at least 16 porters, armed protectors, and assorted other personnel, whose performance in getting Nancy into and out of the jungle was nothing short of unbelievably phenomenal.
The sedan chair they built for her, designed by Leopold King, the man who runs the lodge, proved to be virtually flawless in its application. There is no way we could have used the wheelchair, motorized or not, to go more than 10 feet in any direction.
Hacking through the Impenetrable Jungle with Nancy in special sedan chair. Two guards, each with a high powered rifle, are behind her.
On the second day, we went straight for an area where Silverback Gorillas had been seen. These are the largest of the species, and it was a unique opportunity, not to be missed.
Fortunately, we had been dropped off by truck not more than a couple of hours hike from where these magnificent animals had been located. But those few miles felt like a thousand; it was the most difficult terrain I have ever trekked.
Porters had whisked Nancy ahead, cutting trails by machete as they went. Young, strong, and speedy, they were, so that five minutes into the trek I was already twenty minutes behind!
My brother and I (with four guards in tow) were the last to arrive on the scene, easily three-quarters or an hour behind everyone. As we came to within a few yards of where everyone else was gathered, I heard a rustling of leaves slightly behind and to my right. I turned, and faced a head, a HUGE gorilla whose skull was four times the size of mine, whose body was estimated to be some 1,500 pounds. He wasn't more than six feet away from the very spot where I was standing.
You know how they tell you you aren't supposed to show fear?
I was so scared I could have peed in my pants, except that I was too afraid to do anything!
And then he started to move toward me.
Hearing a noise nearby, I saw this massive gorilla- I was scared out of my mind!
I suddenly remembered what the guides had told us earlier about not confronting male gorillas, and I looked down at the ground and bowed slightly forward in as submissive a way as possible.
He halted, probably thought about swatting me aside, decided I wasn't worth it, then turned and headed away.
I was a mess, unable to calm down until later when someone reminded me that gorillas are vegetarian! And yes, I DID get a picture, but the really close one (perhaps four feet?) is badly blurred. I was shaking so badly I nearly dropped the camera.
The final day we spent at a nearby village, providing us with a non-tourist experience worth the trip in itself. At the end of the day, the villagers all gathered and performed several dances and sang songs for us. It was incredible.
Members of a nearby village welcome us with song and dance.
However, what I remember most, the photograph I treasure above all others I have taken, is the photograph I did not take at all:
Coming back to our lodge from one of the treks, I saw a young boy perhaps six or seven years old, walking along the road. His head was slightly too large for his body, I thought, and appeared even more so because his hair was clipped very, very close to his scalp.
With his right arm, he carried a bunch of bananas, which he clutched to his chest. In his right hand, he held a jug for water.
On his back, he was carrying his brother, who could not have been older than three or four, and he supported the younger child with his left hand under his brother's rear end.
He was on his way to the river to fetch water, a journey of about five miles, each way.
I barely began to raise my camera, getting ready to take the picture that embodied the very heart and soul of Africa. And just as I started, his eyes met mine.
I smiled slightly. He did not. His eyes were almost vacant. Haunting.
I nodded to him, then lowered my camera. I did not take the photo, not wanting to impose myself on him, or make him feel self-conscious.
As we drove on, I started thinking about the things I was doing when I was six or seven years old. Whatever they were, I was certainly not loaded with the responsibilities that young boy carried...
HOW IT WAS DONE:
AN IN-DEPTH 'PRIMER' FOR PLANNING THE TRIP TO UGANDA
This story draws heavily on several recurring themes in our travel book. The first theme is not to let yourself or others limit your imagination. The second theme is the value of working with professionals. The third theme is, "If we can do it, YOU can do it."
We had originally planned to return to Africa in August 2004, but I sustained a severe back injury that forced us to cancel. I was bitterly disappointed because we had enjoyed our first African trip 'to the max', and wanted to do it again. So, as soon as I felt physically able, I began anew with plans to make the journey, but this time, I added a country we had not considered before: Uganda.
I wanted very much for Nancy to be able to see the "Gorillas in the Mist", made famous by Jane Goodall.
This would become the most arduous and physically demanding trip we have ever taken, and required the most money, time, effort, and collaboration. There is no way we could have done this trip without an enormous amount of help from a fairly large support staff. And it cannot be done on-the-cheap by someone physically challenged. This is because the distances involved require the chartering of small private aircraft, increasing the cost considerably.
By mid-September, 2005, feeling strong enough, I sent this e-mail to our travel agent in England:
"... I write now because I have made enough progress to be certain we will be able to travel once again. To that end, I want to re- set the African trip we were forced to cancel, but with some modifications. Rather than go to Mala Mala again, let's replace that with Uganda. We would love to see the "Gorillas in the Mist" and whatever else you feel will make the spectacular trip you had planned for us even more spectacular."
Our agent contacted the appropriate people in Uganda to see if such a trip would even be possible, and relayed their reply message to me:
From Stephen - We can certainly help your client with a wheelchair, as long as we can address three areas: Getting the client to and from Bwindi - We can transfer the clients by air, although we may need a larger aircraft than normal for this. The Camp - The Gorilla Forest Camp is not currently accessible, but I am pretty sure we can convert Tent no 1 to make it accessible, and to put ramps in between this tent and the public areas to make sure the client can get around when she is in camp. We will, however, have to carry her up and down the main steps of the camp from the road.
The Tracking - Ironically, this may be the least of our problems. We can have the client carried up and down the mountain on a stretcher-like device, and all we need is a relay team of about 10 porters to make this work. This will add to cost, but is possible. Please let me know what your client thinks from my comments. In my experience, we have always relied on our disabled clients to advice us on what ideas work best for them.
I wrote back to our agent:
"I am so 'psyched' about this possibility! Please relay these details to your people in Uganda:
We have experience with Canadian bush pilots and flying in small DeHavilland aircraft. When we went to Churchill for the Polar bear migration, we were easily transported in a 6 seater plane from which one seat had been removed, to allow the access to get Nan into the plane, then replaced the seat so there was no sacrifice of available space for other passengers. It was slow, but no problem.
Because of the distances, there is no question we would fly into the camp, rather than brave the less expensive, but interminably longer car transport.
On the first African trip, we stayed in Chobe Chilwero for 4 days and nights, in unmodified quarters which were most comfortable 'as is'. Though it was not a tent, the construction, that is, raised with steps, appeared similar to those we are apt to encounter in Stephen's camp.
In Chobe, they furnished us with a length of 3/4" plywood, reinforced underneath, which we used as a ramp both to enter our bedroom as well as to get into the dining hall. It worked well, yet there was always staff to help me up and down stairs if the need arose.
I am currently working with a fellow attempting to motorize Nan's 'dune buggy' wheelchair. If successful, this modification should make things much easier for us. It is being done in consideration of my recent back injury- which I refuse to let irrevocably alter our traveling mobility.
As for using porters, the wheelchair has a frame that is easily able to have long poles lashed beneath it, suitable for carrying like a sedan chair. Fully assembled, the chair weighs 35 pounds, and Nancy adds another 138 pounds at her heaviest. The wheels can be removed and carried separately, thus reducing the weight by close to 11 pounds, making the overall weight approximately 160 pounds. I assume the porters will be local people, paid according to local scale, which should not be excessively expensive, so visiting "Misty Gorillas" is something sounding more and more possible."
Then, I received the following e-mail directly from the camp, and answered the questions they asked within the text of the e-mail. My responses are marked by #####:
From: Patrick Shah [mail to:email@example.com]
Sent: 21 September 2005 15:03
To: Colette Ingledew; 'Steven Mukiibi'
Cc: 'The Far Horizon (The Far Horizon)'
Subject: RE: Berger
Thanks very much for your reply. Some questions I need to ask so we can begin preparing a proposal: In the aircraft, does Nancy need to sit in her chair and have this lashed down to the floor, or will she sit in an aircraft seat with the chair stowed?
##### She will sit in aircraft seat. Wheelchair is easily collapsed and stowed. Could we have a picture of the chair, especially the mounting points where the poles are to be lashed to it?
##### Please go to www.landeez.com to see picture. I envision removing the wheels and placing poles through the horizontal rectangle of the seat frame, or lashed to its side. Carrying the wheels with us, whenever we get to final destination, remove the poles and set wheelchair on the wheels.
What is the nature of Nancy's disability?
##### She had a series of strokes 18 years ago. Since then, we have traveled the world, and have made 8 landings in the Antarctic in this wheelchair.
Does she carry any specialized equipment with her, and does she need a separate dedicated care giver?
##### She carries only personal gear, nothing specialized. I am her dedicated care giver.
The track can take up to 8 hours in physically demanding terrain (thick bush and steep slopes) with high humidity and high temperatures. Does Nancy think she will be able to cope, albeit in a sedan chair?
##### She is unable to walk, save for small distances and a few steps. More than that taxes her limits. She is otherwise quite physically fit: She rides a stationary bicycle for 32 minutes daily, averaging 10 miles or more each time. You will agree- that is impressive.
August is a good time, and we do have availability during that month The main areas that we will have to build in extra costs: A larger private aircraft rather than just the standard 2-seater
##### I may not be understanding you correctly here. Do they not have 4 seater planes wherein Nancy and I could fly together, along with the pilot and a third passenger? Otherwise, I could get her into the other seat of a Piper Cub in a true two seater, but I would have to show you how to get her out at the other end. It is not insurmountable.
More porters and an extra guide on the track Possibly a specialist guide for the disabled throughout (not absolutely necessary)
##### We have never needed a specialist guide, and do quite well within small groups.
A private vehicle for transfers
##### We can transfer into ordinary autos- as we do at home. Our car is not specially fitted, and Nancy can get into a step van if supplied with a small stool. It bears repeating, she is not paralyzed, just limited in the use of her legs. We really do get on quite well in situations you would not think possible for a person using a wheelchair.
Please revert back with any questions you have- and many thanks for extending yourself to help us make this dream come true!
Nancy and Nate Berger
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