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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

On This Day, 9 October; 50th Ugandan Independence Day

A couple of years ago I had the very great pleasure of nearly 3 weeks in Uganda, travelling with the excellent Rockjumper Birding Tours. I loved Uganda and Ugandans; I felt comfortable and welcome at all times and would recommend it to anyone. It is hard to believe that these cheerful, courteous people who ask how you are and mean it, have come through the unimaginable darkness of the Amin years.

Today is the 50th anniversary of its independence from Britain.

It's not sensible to try to summarise a country in one brief posting, so I'll settle for describing one simply wonderful day in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in the far south-west, right on the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We were there primarily for the gorillas, though the forest itself is worth visiting. It's not a cheap process; there was a fee of US$500 for the privilege, and there were rumours that it was going up. I dithered over whether I could afford it, but in the end I decided, quite rightly, that this was an opportunity I couldn't justify missing. Three groups of the Buhoma area Eastern Mountain Gorillas have been habituated to visitors, but restrictions are tight. There are limited visits, and groups can spend only 60 minutes with them. The money goes to the local people - who also benefit from employment - and directly to conservation. 
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park rainforest from my verandah,
Engagi Lodge, Buhoma.
It was a tough day; I'm in reasonable nick, but I felt seriously tested. The climb up to the ridge above - then even more precipitously down again - was as steep and rugged, with rocks, dense bracken and spiny trailing creepers, as anything I've ever done. Thank goodness for the coffee wood stick I was provided with - light, strong enough to take all my weight, and flexible. I was torn between supporting the local economy further by employing a local porter to carry my pack and push me up the hill, and simple pride. The latter won out, not necessarily to my credit.
Florence, trekking guide extraordinaire; she lives with her mum and three-year old daughter Blessed.
Porters Joseph and Mary (true!).
After the brutal climb Florence, continually in contact with the trackers, told us that the gorillas had scattered and that we wouldn't be able to catch them in time. We descended more or less vertically, to try the fall-back plan (which isn't advertised) of another group much closer to headquarters. These we found easily and the 60 minutes with them flew much too quickly.

As ever in rainforest, light is difficult for photography (no flashes of course) and moving to a better angle isn't always possible.

Young Eastern Mountain Gorillas, above and below. One of these stopped in passing (we weren't to
approach them, but the rules don't apply to them!) and tugged at my trouser leg. A special moment.
 
When I first saw the pale fur of the huge old silverbacked male through the foliage, I thought I was looking at his mighty back. I was shocked to realise that it was actually his head!


But my overwhelmingly abiding memory is of this female with her 18 month old baby, calming watching us and suckling for a long time.

I'm not going to make anthropomorphic claims - but take a good look at those eyes. I'll just repeat that this was one of the most memorable and special days of my natural history life.

And more on Uganda in posts to come.

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