ROUTES AFRICA: Airline Executives in the Mist!

Senior airline officials joined our Routes Africa host in search of endangered mountain gorillas.

As we scrambled down the steep slopes of the Bwindi impenetrable forest towards the band of gorillas, we spotted a mature female with a young baby.  Perhaps sensing our arrival, perhaps having been warned, the silverback came charging at the group to challenge us.  One hundred Kilograms of pure muscle sprinting towards you is a frightening prospect, but the wardens were not fazed.  Once they picked themselves up, they spoke with the Silverback, expertly soothing and reassuring him.  Within two minutes, he was lying down with his back to us without a care in the world.

This experience illustrates the fact that this experience is truly real and breathtaking.  We travelled to the Bwindi impenetrable forest following the conclusion of the 8th Routes Africa forum.  Routes Africa attracted representatives from over 35 airlines and 50 airports who came to meet and discuss the future of air transport in Africa.

“Spending such quality time with the Ugandan CAA has allowed me to forge strong relationships and enjoy meaningful conversations that will inevitably lead to the launch of services to Uganda by Fastjet.”

Richard Bodin
Chief Commercial Officer, Fastjet

Once the formal business programme was over, additional opportunities were available to some of the key airline delegates in attendance and representatives from low-cost carrier Fastjet and major network carrier Etihad Airways embarked on a truly remarkable Hosted Airline Programme, organised by the Ugandan Civil Aviation Authority, Uganda Tourism Board and the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA).

The excursion centred around visiting the endangered mountain gorillas.  There are less than 800 of these magnificent creatures in the world today and nearly 50 per cent live in the lush and remote national parks of Uganda.  The delegates were flown close to the national park by Aerolink on an eleven-seater Cessna Caravan and then made their way up to the UNESCO World heritage site, the Bwindi impenetrable forest.  This location is exactly as the name suggests; Bwindi means darkness and impenetrable rather speaks for itself.

After a briefing from the UWA on the safety aspects of the trip and what to expect the following morning, it was time to retire for the evening in the impressive Kitandara luxury tented campsite, complete with hot running water and some excellent local cuisine.  The following day at 6am, the real adventure began.  A two hour drive across some of the most spectacular scenery in the world was made even more enjoyable by the local schoolchildren waving and receiving pens and just about anything else the delegates were carrying.

Arriving at the Ruhiri base camp, the delegates underwent a final safety briefing and headed off into the forest.  The going was tough but with the expert wardens carrying machetes and clearing the way, progress was quick. However, the swaying trees above us and moving undergrowth ahead of us, it was clear that the gorillas were aware of our presence.  

After the silverback’s charge it took some time for our heart rates to return somewhere close to normality but the subsequent 60 minutes were the most magical of our lives.  We were given a front row seat to life in this forest and the gorillas seemed keen to want to show off to us all.  Their mannerisms were incredibly human- the adolescents climbing trees and antagonising each other, whilst the King of the jungle, the silverback, sat back and observed.  It was clear to me that these gorillas were not disturbed by our presence and the wardens were careful to ensure this remained the case.

Having read ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ and always had a fascination for the species, I wondered what my reaction to seeing a gorilla in the wild would be.  After all, we share nearly 99 per cent of the same DNA and I certainly felt a connection.  The allocated hour went by too quickly and we reluctantly scrambled back up to the ridge, each one of us elated and feeling privileged to be one of the 3,000 visitors that have this opportunity each year.

But this visit was more than just about the chance to explore the amazing spectacle but the opportunity for the Routes Africa host to develop stronger bonds with some of the airline partners it is seeking to work with in the future.  And this appears to be just the case as on his return to Kampala, Richard Bodin, Chief Commercial Officer, Fastjet told The HUB: “Spending such quality time with the Ugandan CAA has allowed me to forge strong relationships and enjoy meaningful conversations that will inevitably lead to the launch of services to Uganda by Fastjet.”

As the delegates have now headed back to their respective homes, there is little doubt that they will always remember their experience at Routes Africa and hopefully new air services generated at the event will allow many more to enjoy the other magnificent activities available in the Pearl of Africa.