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GORILLA WAR; YOU CAN NOW RE-LIVE THE FILM GORILLAS IN THE MIST WITH A TRIP TO UGANDA, THE LATEST COUNTRY TO OFFER SAFARIS. AS JACQUELINE VASS FOUND OUT.

As we hacked a path through the dense vegetation with machetes, our guide motioned us to stop. There before us was one of the rarest creatures on Earth. His name was Ruhondeza, which means "He who sleeps a lot". He was sitting on his haunches munching fistfuls of leaves.

"Don't make eye contact," our guide whispered. "And if approached, do not run away. Adopt a submissive posture." Ruhondeza's eyes flicked up. My eyes flicked down.

I was fighting my way through Uganda's Impenetrable Forest and Ruhondeza is one of just 650 mountain gorillas left in the world. Of the 350 who live here, just two groups are accessible to humans. Ruhondeza, a giant silverback, leads a group of 13, and the other has among its number a younger silver-back, who caught Ruhondeza napping and ran off with one of his females. The eloping couple have produced a baby gorilla.

Our trackers made grunting noises which gorillas, they said, find reassuring. Ruhondeza half-heartedly brandished a stick at us and then moved up the steep bank. The trackers did some frantic chopping and we found him again, sitting under an avocado tree. And then, magically, his family started to reveal themselves from beneath the huge fronds to gather round him. The playful juveniles chased and cuffed each other and rolled down the bank towards us - just four feet away. Ruhondeza obviously felt we were not a threat. He lay down, scratched his thigh with a huge, hairy arm and, living up to his name, fell asleep as cameras clicked. If you fancy yourself as Sigourney Weaver in Gorillas In The Mist, just six pounds 112 gorilla permits are issued daily. This special pass entitles you to see these majestic creatures, but you can spend only an hour with them, so they are not put under too much stress. And that's if you actually find them. Gorilla spotting is one highlight Uganda offers a growing band of tourists. The country is remembered for two things - Idi Amin and the daring Israeli raid on Entebbe to free hostages more than 20 years ago. While bombed- out buildings can still be seen at the airport, tyrant Amin is long gone. Today this beautiful scenic country with its green, fertile hills, unsurpassable panoramas and friendly people is enjoying relative political stability. We travelled 750 miles from the capital, Kampala, down to the south-west - most of it on rough, dirt track roads. I was grateful that I'd packed my sports bra as we bumped our way through Ishasha Forest. As we rattled along, bushbucks raised their heads and baboons and monkeys stared from the trees. In the small villages, children came running from thatch-roofed mud huts to wave. When a wheel came off our jeep, we spent an hour with one friendly family who giggled as we used our make-up on their faces. We spent five nights in two tented bush camps. One was at Kachira in Lake Mburo National Park with views over the water. The other at Bwindi was spectacularly pitched on top of a hill with breathtaking views.

It was while sitting around a blazing camp fire overlooking Lake Albert in Queen Elizabeth Park that I saw my first hyena. It casually strolled by - not more than 10 feet away - and stopped to warm itself for a few minutes before sloping off again.

We also stayed at Mweya safari lodge high on a buff overlooking the Kazinga Channel and Lake Edward and watched the elephants and buffalo far below. We took a water safari past scores of semi-submerged hippo and visited a sad little island where a group of nine orphaned chimps, rescued from poachers, had been given refuge.

At Mweya I fancied a swim, but the lodge's pool was curiously devoid of water. The manager told me it had been cleared in an attempt to discourage a hippo who regularly plunged in. The source of the River Nile lies in Uganda and it is here that we shot The Big One - a series of nine awesome rapids where the rushing water rises to a deafening roar as you approach. Our seven-man crew put on life- jackets and hard hats and tried to absorb a few instructions before paddling furiously towards the boiling foam and going over the top. In those seconds before a wall of liquid power hits the raft and hurls it into the air, you make ridiculous promises to God about being better and doing work for charity. You forget all this the second the swirling white water swallows up the raft and spins and turns you where it wants to until you emerge breathless and thankful on the other side. It's traditional then to whoop and wave paddles in the air. One Australian started a new tradition by diving under the water and sticking his bare backside in the air to prove how he'd lost his strides in the onslaught. We left the bemused locals and reluctantly returned to civilisation.

FACTS Alliance Air (0181 944 5012) are the only company to provide direct flights from Heathrow to Kampala, from pounds 450 return. Carrier Tours (01625 582 006) offer five-night gorilla safaris from pounds 1,022 including accommodation, transfers and meals. White-water rafting is from pounds 65 a day. For more information contact About Africa (0181 747 0177).
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Vass, Jacqueline
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jul 19, 1998
Words:887
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