When most people think of Uganda, it is of a country left shattered by its former despotic ruler, Idi Amin.
But despite widespread poverty and infrastructure problems, Uganda has emerged from the dark days of Amin to enjoy several years of stability and economic growth under President Yoweri Museveni.
Its people are among the friendliest we encounter in east Africa – children wave and shout hello to the mzungus (white people) and everyone is happy to help a hapless tourist. The country also boasts some of the most stunning countryside in east Africa – fields of tea, rice paddies and rugged forest, which we marvelled at as we headed towards Uganda's biggest tourist attraction, its mountain gorillas.
My long-standing dream to see these amazing creatures in their natural habitat was about to be realised – and I didn't even mind the predawn wake-up to make it to the camp trekking briefing at the stunning Lake Bunyonyi.
As did neighbouring Rwanda, Uganda recognised the potential of gorilla tourism many years ago. But also like its neighbour, the government has put strict limits on the number of tourists a day who can visit the 340-odd mountain gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in the country's south-west. Permits are restricted to 56 a day and cost $750 – a rise of $250 from June 1 – and groups are limited to eight people.
While tourism is encouraged, the briefing made it clear that the protection of this endangered species is paramount. Any sign of sickness and you would be barred from the trek. We were also encouraged to buy a walking stick made by local villagers to give them another source of income besides setting traps for other animals in the forest – traps that often ensnare gorillas.
Our group, Mushaya, was named after its silverback leader, the biggest gorilla in the forest.
The trek started at a nearby village and it took about an hour of climbing before we reached the edge of the national park. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is aptly named. As we walked deeper into the dense jungle, tracks became a novelty, leaves were constantly swiping our faces, nettles attacked our legs and red ants made for our boots in the hope of getting a up a trouser leg – which was why tucking pants into socks was mandatory, no matter how silly it looked. My boyfriend decided against it and was sporting a trail of dead ants down his leg as a result of smacking them when they stung.
After more than two hours of walking through sweltering forest in air so thick you could almost chew it, Mushaya's 13-strong troop had still eluded us. The trackers had been following signs of the gorilla group since 7am and our guide, Wilbur, assured us the trackers were closing in and we would see gorillas today.
We trudged along, with Wilbur "penetrating the impenetrable" jungle with a nasty-looking curved machete called a panga. Suddenly he motioned us to be quiet. The trackers had indicated we were minutes away from the group.
This was where the rules kicked in. You can't talk, eat or drink for the hour you are with the group. And that hour is also strictly enforced to ensure the gorillas are disturbed as little as possible.
We left our backpacks with the porters and followed Wilbur and the trackers further into the forest.
The first sighting of Mushaya was mesmerising. Even the most talkative person in our group lost the gift of speech at the sight. Mushaya had parked his 250 kilograms under a tree and was eating the leaves, ripping them off with hands the size of shovels. He turned and looked at us, his eyes as impenetrable as his forest home, until he was satisfied we were not a threat.
And then he moved. Like a Sherman tank, he mowed down the vegetation in front of him and then abruptly disappeared, swallowed up by the impenetrable forest. All we could hear was a rumble like low thunder – Mushaya talking to his group.
We had seen Mushaya for all of five minutes of our allotted hour, but Wilbur assured us that this was not the end. Using their pangas, he and the trackers followed Mushaya into the jungle, imitating his growl to reassure him that all was well.
Mushaya appeared again – he had found a more tasty green treat, a small portion of the 25 kilograms of vegetation he would eat in one day – and behind him we spied a female and her baby. It was Mushaya's four-month-old offspring, with its sex yet to be determined, Wilbur said.
The mother and child vanished into the forest, but it was not the last we would see of them. Above us was another of Mushaya's children (these animals are so disturbingly human it seems natural to refer to them as we would our own families), this time a two-year-old, its sex also undetermined.
He stared down at us calmly, safe in his tree, as he fed on leaves. And then in front of us we spied the female and her baby, who had also sought protection up a tree. The baby frolicked on the branches as its mother looked on. At one point the baby seemed to be playing peek-a-boo with us, peering out then ducking back behind its mother. It was difficult not to laugh.
We were lucky enough to spy a fifth member of the group just before our hour was over – a six-year-old blackback. At 15, he would become a silverback and possibly fight Mushaya for control of the group, or leave to find his own.
Our time with the mountain gorillas was over all too quickly, but I happily faced the long walk back through the forest, with a long-held wish fulfilled.