Monday, November 13, 2017

Intrepid Game Parks & Gorillas - review and advice

Keep in mind that the Intrepid Game Parks and Gorillas tour I did in November 2017 is unlikely to be offered in the same format in future since Rwanda, having already doubled the price of a gorilla permit this year, is rumoured to be planning further increases. They know there’s a demand, and they’re going for the upper end of the market (they already have a permanently-full lodge there that costs USD3,000 per night – a staggering sum by African standards).

But I can give you an idea of what it’ll probably be like to do the new-version Intrepid tour to view the gorillas from the Ugandan side. So will the website’s Trip Notes, which pull no punches and warn about long days on bad roads in an un-airconditioned truck, variable toilet/shower facilities, putting up your own tent, and chipping in with the chores.

In reality, it’s even more rugged than that. The truck – which, to the credit of its carer – didn’t break down or even get a flat tyre, is rough, battered and pretty irritating in a number of ways. Even simply the steps into it: all different heights, just made to catch you out. Despite the big sign about fastening seatbelts, they’re all dodgy: either too loose or too tight, the buckles sometimes too stiff to use, at least one clip missing. The seats are padded, but not adequately for African bumps, so it’s a good idea to sit on a rolled-up mattress. That’s also helpful to lift shorter folk like me high enough up to see over the intensely annoying window-pane edging and reinforcing bar which are exactly at eye level. Further, the window glass is old and dirty, covered in tiny grains of whatever that make it impossible to wash them clean (I tried). When the prime reason for your being here is to see the country, I reckon that’s unforgivable. So a lot of time, the windows were down (they’re arranged horizontally) – but only if your neighbours behind are ok with the draught. It’s really frustrating for photographers. Having said all that, other companies use the same trucks, so it’s not purely an Intrepid feature. The main necessity is for the vehicle to be able to cope with the challenging roads, which ours did – it’s hard to imagine a fancier bus making it unscathed along this route.

The tents are sturdy, straightforward to erect and offer good protection from rain (as long as you remember to zip up your windows, sigh) – but they are heavy to haul around, and the clips that hold them to the metal frame can be really stiff and hard to operate. Some are better than others. Inside, it’s a snug fit if you’re sharing, and you won’t be able to store much gear in there – safer to use the truck’s lockers, anyway. On this tour, the maximum number is 16 (gorilla visiting parties are limited to 8) so, since the truck seats 22, there are surplus mattresses in the locker – thus it’s possible, by stealth or negotiation, to use two, which is much more comfortable.

The campsites varied a lot, but the common feature for most was disappointing facilities: we had, variously, no water, cold water, muddy water and, now and then, lots of nice hot water. Take wet wipes. There was, on the other hand, free wifi more often than not, although usually pretty slow of course. There were often upgrades available, into dormitories or rooms, and the prices were usually pretty reasonable though it does add up. That doesn’t, by the way, guarantee you good facilities – some of them had no bathrooms, and others were just as challenging, light- and water-wise, as for the campers. One, though, was enviably luxurious.

The food was substantial and healthy although fairly monotonous: lots of salads and vegetables, stews of various sorts, and fruit for dessert. It did, though, get pretty boring by the end, and though the veges were tasty, the stews were invariably on the tough side. To our cook’s credit though – and due in large part to his authoritarian manner re hygiene, no-one developed anything inconvenient over the entire 16 days. We all took our turns, according to the rota, at preparing the vegetables, and washing up dishes and pots (also, sweeping/mopping out the truck daily). The system was good, and efficient, and flapping (the dishes dry) soon became second nature.

As far as equipment is concerned, don’t stint on your sleeping bag, because it does get cold at night in some places along the route. Some people even brought proper pillows, which were comfy both at night and in the truck. Be prepared for your body, clothes and shoes to get dirty and stained orange with Africa's dust/mud. Leave the good stuff at home, and your standards. Wear things multiple times, don’t worry about clashing patterns, or buying up Kathmandu. Just have something beige/green for the gorilla day. Game drives don’t matter because you’re tucked inside the truck. A head torch is essential. For the gorilla trek, boots are a bit over the top – most people managed fine with trainers, and some appreciated gaiters because those big stinging nettles they have there in the jungle are truly vicious and can bite through fabric. If I ever did it again, though, I would wear gumboots/Wellingtons like the guides do – as long as they have soles with good grip, you’ll be fine, and they’re so much easier to wash the mud off after. I really wished I’d brought my Hunters.

The optional activities added some variety to the trip. The chimpanzees were a universal disappointment: because of cool weather they stayed way up in the tree tops, so that was $70 pretty much wasted. The boat cruise in QE National Park was really good, with lots of hippos and birds. I recommend the horse ride at Jinja – lovely horses and a good guide, and you needn't be experienced. Other people enjoyed the white-water rafting and quad-biking there, though some of them were relieved when it was over.

More than anything else, though – and this here is a counsel of perfection that, personally, I fell short of - you need to make sure you bring along quantities of patience and tolerance, and a sense of humour. Travelling in a biggish group of strangers, you’ll be tested in many ways. Try to stay positive and concentrate on the good bits, and rise above the irritations. The gorillas will be worth it, I promise.

Final verdict: I’m glad I went, though there were a couple of serious disappointments. Our guide Edwin was useless and didn’t tell us any more than he needed to and sometimes not even that, sitting silently down the back of the truck day after day. Someone more forthcoming would have enriched the experience immeasurably. But the other guys, Ben the driver and OT the cook, were excellent and professional and did a great job. Retracing so much of the route after the gorillas seemed kind of a waste but I don’t know if it’s possible, road-condition-wise, to do a circle route. I was prepared for it to be rugged, and was resigned to a monotonous menu, so that didn’t matter. The gorillas were exactly as promised, super-special and worth the money and effort. The cavalcade of African life past the windows every day meant even those long, long days on the road were fascinating and never boring. I never felt unsafe and, Edwin apart, everything else was professionally organised and reliable. I think you should do it. Even the rough stuff will give you great stories to tell back home.

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