Walking with Giants: Gorilla Tales and Trails
The gorillas are spotted
“That’s it, the gorillas have been spotted”, exclaims Sobaan our guide, as he strides purposefully into the forest. The trackers have been out since the wee hours, following on from the last known whereabouts of the gorillas. Within seconds of finding them, they ring our guide to communicate the exact location of the family.
Before the gorillas are spotted, our group of eight trekkers, guides and porters stroll through Bwindi impenetrable forest in Uganda, making tentative way towards the allocated gorilla family. For half an hour, we have been on a narrow but perceptible dust trail through bushes and overhanging trees. On hearing the good news from our trackers, we instinctively begin making brisk, adrenaline-filled strides through the thick foliage towards the gentle apes.
The term ‘impenetrable’ sinks into my boots as we turn into a steep slope with no grip and no trail. Our guides are hacking their way through with machetes, while my petite porter, a young girl, is holding my hand, guiding me through the spongy forest, slippery with old leaves and bark. We are sliding down the mountain slope, deep into the valley, in a straight line towards where the Mukiza family are currently feeding.
We reach the base of another slope, where our instructions are delivered succinctly, “Bags and sticks down. No food and water when the gorillas are around. One hour with the gorillas, only cameras in hand”. Duly noted.
I clamber up the slope to a narrow clearing, all senses alert and rife with anticipation, and can count five dark figures around me. One of the guides taps my shoulder, pointing out the boss, a powerful, muscular silverback on a ledge. We settle down to admire him, keenly aware that only a little over a thousand mountain gorillas exist in the world today. The silverback’s gentle brown eyes look around, cameras click…
This was 17th August 2018 – day two of gorilla trekking in Bwindi impenetrable forest.
We reached Bwindi two days prior, after a two-hour drive into the mountains from Kahihi, a small dusty town in Uganda. We stayed at the Trekkers’ tavern cottages in the Ruhija sector of Bwindi. A good dinner and sleep were much in need of preparation for the next day.
The first trek
16th August, 2018, day one of our gorilla trek.
It was a short drive to the rangers’ centre where our passports were handed in and the guides crowded together to choose gorilla families for their travellers, while one of the rangers briefed us. He told us about the habituation programme that makes gorillas accepting of human presence, the rules of staying 7 metres away from gorillas and stepping back slowly if they approached. He encouraged us to take porters who would carry our bags and help us with the terrain. This was a great way to help the local economy and engage the local population in gorilla tourism.
We were allocated the Oruzogo family, accompanied by our local guide, Elishya, and an armed ranger. An armed ranger is protection against the rare wild elephant, pigs and the ‘unhabituated’ gorillas. Dangerous elements are frightened away by firing shots into the air.
We drove 15-20 minutes on a dusty road to descend into the forest, where we were allocated our porters. Armed with hardy sticks, we went off into the deep forest at 9:30 am, descending on soft slippery ground from the edge of the road.
It was 1 pm when we sighted our first gorilla on a slope above us, a black figure that swung from tree to tree. We left our bags and sticks with the porters, took a last drink of water, and with only our cameras, trudged up the steep slope behind the trackers.
We first saw a middle-sized adult chomping on leaves 10 metres away from us, and a mother and baby in a leafy cove. The prized view, however, was the boss – the alpha male, a magnificent silverback. His rippling muscles and a line of silver hair gleamed underneath a tree, even as he glanced over at us with his thoughtful liquid brown eyes.
He suddenly rose, beating his chest King Kong style and charging towards us. We froze (regretful that our videos were off!), and Elishya kept whispering – stand still, don’t run. He stopped, and plonked down again, his eyes sizing us up. We were being tested on strength and will power. We had passed.
The second trek
17th August 2018, day two, we were allocated the Mukiza group.
We started off from near the rangers’ centre around 8:45 am with our guide Saaban, rangers and porters. The trackers sighted the gorillas by 9 am, and this time we were with them by 10 am.
The Mukiza family were having a party. A mom with a wrinkly baby on her back was bent over a stream, hands held at right-angles to the sides, both dipping their faces into the water for a long drink. A toddler swung in a branch above our heads giving an acrobatic exhibition. We settled down to watch the ‘boss’ – the dominant male silverback who sat back chomping on leaves, looking around with a laidback, relaxed gaze.
For five minutes, peace prevailed. Then, he suddenly reared up, and grunted his way directly at our group with fluid grace and a rolling loping movement. Too stunned to react and too restricted by the narrowness of the ledge to move, I watched in frozen awe as he came closer. He passed between me and another gentleman, shoving the gentleman on his back. His face passed within a breath and his knuckles pushed gently but firmly against my hip to make way for himself. I rolled to one side unhurt. Boss continued on his way, unperturbed.
Like the day before, this hour elapsed too quickly. The family moved away from the spot in one direction, and our guide and rangers led us the opposite way. The trackers would follow the family until evening in preparation of tracking them again the next day, an unending cycle.