After months of planning we finally board a pre-dawn flight bound for Uganda in east Africa. I’m with the actress Anna Friel and her eight year-old daughter Gracie. As part of our Virunga campaign, we’re going to see how people make a living from their natural environment at a time when oil exploration threatens the region – and the critically endangered mountain gorillas we hope to catch a glimpse of.
That’s still a few days away but there’s plenty to talk about on the eight hour flight to Entebbe airport on the shores of Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake. They’re both really excited the next morning as we meet WWF supporter and filmmaker Adrian Steirn, and his crew, who will document the journey.
It’s raining as we head to the WWF office in the capital Kampala where the WWF team talk about how the abundance of natural resources – namely oil – under this part of east Africa has brought it to the attention of oil companies. Anna’s shocked that anyone could even think about exploration in such a precious place.
Meeting over we hit the road and head for Queen Elizabeth National Park. Along the way there are breath-taking views of the snow –capped Rwenzori mountain. The highlight comes as we pass the equator (and stop for obligatory photo) then see our first herd of elephants idly crossing the road.
Anna’s very down to earth despite being an international actress. Over a glass of red wine that evening she can’t stop talking about bad reactions to mosquito bites and seeing the gorillas.
The next morning we visit a fishing village inside the park to see how people and wildlife rely on the lakes here. Back from a night on the lake fishermen unload catfish and tilapia whilst a group of hippos wallow in the shallows.
Gracie’s a bit overwhelmed by the attention of local children whilst Anna picks up a smiling child. We speak to Swalleh Katuramu who says he can catch up to 200 fish on a good day. Swalleh’s been doing it for over 20 years and the income helps pay for his three children’s education.
Across the other side of the lake is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where oil exploration in Virunga National Park, a World Heritage Site, threatens its future. These identical landscapes contain over half of all mountain gorillas. We wanted to go there but it wasn’t possible because of the security issues.
Later on Lake Edward, Anna and Gracie are so amazed by the scenery and wildlife. Gracie looks worried as we gently begin to drift towards two hippos coming to a halt 20 feet away. Eventually we’re rescued but Anna and Gracie have more excitement before bedtime when they discover a brightly coloured frog in their tent. But they’re good sports and take it all in their stride.
Day three brings more examples of the wealth of diverse landscapes and species. We pass a leopard on the roadside and Gracie is the only one who gets a picture putting the professionals to shame. She’s also coping extremely well with the travelling. Not once has she complained or said, ‘Are we there yet?’.
The following morning our trip through Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is possibly the most breathtaking any of us have ever experienced. Anna and Gracie feel like they’re on a very long funfair ride as we slowly climb the bumpy track to 2600 metres above sea level with volcanoes as a babckdrop.
We’re all starting to look a little wild and unkempt high in the mountains. Anna hasn’t washed her hair for a few days. She says that she looks like the wild woman of Borneo! It’s certainly different from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and film sets but Anna’s really loving the trip and is trying to find ways to stay longer.
Unfortunately, Gracie’s too young to go gorilla tracking so goes on a nature walk. Meanwhile, we huff and puff our way through thick vegetation with all the film kit. Excitement builds when a guide whispers that they’re close by. There’s a noise and sudden movement ahead as a large black shape moves towards us with an accompanying scream. Anna looks shocked but does what our guide told us to do if a gorilla charges – stand still and act ‘submissively’. Thankfully, it’s all a bluff and after the incredible show of strength he re-joins the group.
We follow the gorillas – there are 23 in this group – to a river in a stunning valley. Adrian and his team film Anna describing the experience. There are tears in her eyes as she talks about how she feels. It’s hard not to become emotional when you encounter a species whose global population is less than 900 and frustrated when you think of the threats to their survival.
Back at the lodge everyone relives their adventure. Gracie tells us about her own close encounter with a yellow viper on a wildlife walk.
Then at the airport the next day, Anna makes a promise to Gracie that they will come back when she’s old enough to go gorilla tracking and experience what she has seen. As we wait to board the flight Anna tells me that she hopes and prays they’re not all gone by then.
Sign up at wwf.org.uk/virunga
Throughout October, Anna Friel will feature in Virunga, a short film screening in ODEON cinemas about the battle to protect Africa’s oldest national park. The film will be screened throughout the UK, in front of selected films.