We're about to take a walk in the woods. Assu is carrying an AK-47 in case we're charged by forest elephants. The morning is heavy with tropical heat – a close, sweaty brew of vegetal scents and cicada-drone – and we have a six-hour jungle hike ahead of us. Assu slings his gun across his shoulder, starts walking and tells me that he's an Arsenal fan. Insert your own joke about the quality of his shooting here.
I've come to the excellently named Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda's southwest corner, a rainforest-smothered chin of land that juts up against Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Bwindi has been a national park since the early 1990s, and is chiefly known for its mountain gorillas. Around 99% of tourist visits here incorporate some form of gorilla experience, but more on the park's limelight-basking super-simians later. I'm staying in the area for the next four days to see what else its primeval hills have to offer.
Plenty, as it turns out. I'm beginning with a hike through the western portion of the rainforest, a long bush yomp between the villages of Buhoma and Nkuringo. As well as Assu, I'm with Richard, a local guide who proves his credentials within minutes by mimicking the call of a white-tailed ant thrush, hidden somewhere in the dense canopy. It whistles back. "Bwindi has 350 different types of birds," he tells me, casually. "Maybe even more. This jungle has been here forever."
He's not far wrong. By most reckonings, Bwindi has several million years under its belt, and its thick tangle of lost-world peaks gives the impression of a landscape entrenched in a different time. It's a feral cosmos of its own, 128 square miles of wild contours, misty slopes and a knotted infinity of tall, shaggy trees. There's a darkness to it, even during the day. Impenetrable? Put it this way: you wouldn't want to get lost here.
We're following a marked trail, a dirt path that snakes its way through the rainforest. Shortly after setting off, the jungle totally hems us in. The views won't re-emerge for several hours, but there's much that does appear: red-tailed monkeys teetering in the fig canopies; blue butterflies spilling across the path; laddish baboons watching with disdain as we pass by; a duiker antelope skipping delicately over a stream. In the depths of it all, we meet a local man heading the way we've come, carrying a colossal sack of passion fruits on his head.
the jungle totally hems us in, and the view won't re-emerge for hours, but we do see butterflies, baboons and antelope
Walking becomes the theme of my time in and around Bwindi. I'd been expecting the focus to be squarely on the rainforest, but over the following two days the emphasis shifts onto the communities that live in the mountain villages that are situated around the park. I'm staying at the Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge, a carbon-neutral, locally owned, solar-powered retreat looking out towards the volcanoes of Rwanda. In the dust of the afternoon, their silhouettes come and go like ghosts.
The next day, a long walk down to Lake Mutanda with Richard takes us through a succession of villages along the valley. It's the end of the dry season, and the hills swell out of the landscape in yellows and pale greens. The area is alive with family smallholdings, ambling goats and children tirelessly greeting us as we pass. We catch a church service in full song; watch a football game that's being played on a hilltop; see chameleons tight-roping along the slenderest of branches. When the lake arrives, it's as a hazed vision of reflections and islands.
An hour in a hollowed-out eucalypt boat brings us to the far shore. The town of Kisoro is in full market-day madness: battalions of honking mopeds, scrums of shoppers, mighty mounds of tomatoes. The whole day – hills, lake, market and all – is a rich whirl of moments, but tough too. I don't once feel unsafe (unless you count being mobbed by sweet-demanding toddlers), but the realities of life here, the disparities between the haves, the have-nots and the have-nothings, are sobering.
One of the clearest ways in which travellers can help, of course, is simply to be here, buying from locals, putting money into the community. The trickle-down effect of the tourist dollar is in evidence twice the following day, firstly on a hike to a towering forest waterfall – somehow hidden from view until a banknote to a local farmer ushers us to its beautiful base – and secondly on a guided tour of a reimagined Batwa, or pygmy, forest village.=
This is cleverly done, and poignant. Until the early 1990s, the diminutive Batwa lived here in the jungle as they had done for centuries. When Bwindi was awarded National Park status they were compulsorily and controversially evicted, having to largely abandon their way of life. That the timescale is so recent makes this Batwa-led tour, which covers everything from hunting methods to shelter-building, all the more important. "Elephants were a problem, and buffalo were too, but we never had a problem with gorillas," an elderly Batwa man tells me. "We saw them as our cousins."
Which brings us back to the poster-boys of the region. I join the rangers just after dawn the next morning. There's an hour of climbing, lots of machete-hacking, then – thrillingly – the gorillas appear, monoliths black-as-coal in the deep green belly of the jungle. They grunt. They strut. They stuff their mouths with foliage. They are swaggeringly nonchalant and enormous.
Need to know
Explore (01252 744 823; explore.co.uk) offers a 10-night Gorilla and Chimp Safari tour in Uganda that includes Bwindi National Park , Kibale National Park, Queen Elizabeth National Park, the Rwenzori Mountains and Lake Mburo. From £3,855 per person including flights, 10 nights’ accommodation with most meals, and an Explore Tour Leader throughout. For those travelling independently, Explore can arrange other activities in and around Bwindi, including those detailed in this feature.
At one point there's a reclining, 200kg silverback lying so close that I can see the individual marks on his fingernails. Resting on shaggy Popeye arms and staring into the middle distance, he looks like he's pondering some desperately profound truth. I daresay he is. There are fewer than 1,000 mountain gorillas left on the planet: to see them here – or anywhere at all, for that matter – is no ordinary wildlife experience.
The hour in their company goes too quickly. It zings with life, this far-flung pocket of East Africa, and it bowls you over. As I head north the following day, I recognise Assu at the roadside. "Hey!" he shouts, before again bridging the miles between Bwindi and Britain. "Arsenal! Arsenal!" And maybe, all things considered, it's not so far-flung after all.