It is before sunrise as we set off from the scenic Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge for the hour drive to the Rushaga Gate of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. Our goal is to find the critically endangered mountain gorillas. We are traveling on an unpaved and (according to Google Maps) an “unknown road”. This is not an uncommon occurrence for us; these are the roads where you see the real countryside – it is rough, it is raw, mountainous, and breathtakingly beautiful. Chris and I converse with the other woman in our trekking group, Kat, who is a chatty young Australian mother living in Kigale, Rwanda. The hour goes by quickly.
We meet the rest of our trekking group. Steven is the ranger who gives us a short briefing about the trek itself and the gorilla family we will be visiting – Mishaya Gorilla Group. He explains that in order to safely allow human visitation, some of the fewer than 800 remaining gorillas in the world have been habituated – they have slowly been exposed to humans and have been deemed comfortable enough with our presence so as not to feel threatened and therefore become aggressive. Benson is our able porter who (thankfully) carries our backpack full of rain ponchos, bug spray, our lunch, and lots of water. Two trackers will precede us to locate our gorillas and communicate with Steven to guide us to the gorillas. Bringing up the rear is a UPDF (Uganda People’s Defence Force) soldier armed with an AK-47 in case we encounter poachers…err, I mean elephants (either one is dangerous and conceivably will be scared off by a shot into the air).
I look down at my watch. I have heard that it can take anywhere from 45 minutes to 6 hours to reach the gorillas (and an encounter is not even guaranteed). About an hour and a half into the trek, conversation becomes non-existent as we head up a steep (it might have even been vertical!) incline. The “path” is thickly vegetated and slippery. At times, we are walking on a dense mat of vines and freshly macheted branches and leaves, several inches off the forest floor. I am hoisting myself up using vines and if I falter at all, Benson grabs me by the wrist to boost me the rest of the way. I use a bamboo walking stick to give myself traction on the downward portions of the trail. We use stepping stones to keep our feet relatively dry from the small streams along the way, but occasionally our feet get suctioned into the mud anyway. It is often difficult to see the person who is hiking just a few feet in front of you. My glasses are steamy and wet with humid condensation, sweat, and rain; my ponytail is dripping. I ask for rest stops as my heart is pounding from exertion and altitude. We are deep in the aptly named Impenetrable Forest; Chris and I realize that this may be the most physically challenging experience of our lives.
Eventually we stop so Steven can get an update from the trackers; “they have found the gorillas, but they are still moving. We will take a “shortcut” (those are MY air quotes!) to try and intercept them. We should be there within an hour”. After trekking a total of 3 ½ hours, Steven tells us to leave our walking sticks and backpacks with our porters. We have reached the gorillas!
I follow a tracker down over some vines, as he is making soft grunting noises, and then get a glimpse of silver. I feel myself breathing hard and feel so excited that I literally get tears in my eyes. The massive Silverback patriarch is right there. Chris and Kat are right behind me as we try to avoid the hill of stinging ants. We follow the 400 pound Silverback down the hill with a hint of trepidation and respectful distance until he stops in a brushy area to munch on some leaves. As we swat the few vicious ants that have made it up our pant legs, we spot a young gorilla climbing a thin branch; he twirls toward us as if if he’s momentarily pole dancing. The branch bends under his weight; he jumps down and scampers off. We freeze in place when we suddenly hear a loud scream as a medium sized female several feet up the hill from us stands up and bolts past us. Eventually we settle in with the Silverback about 7 or 8 feet from us as he snaps twigs, chews leaves and occasionally, and somewhat disinterestedly, looks our way; after he has had his fill, he rolls onto the ground, closes his eyes and has his post-meal nap (we can hear an occasional snore). As he rests, the baby and baby momma gorillas are close to him. The baby climbs aboard his Silverback daddy to play, eat, groom, and pound his young chest.
In a short hour, it is time to leave the gorillas; I want to savor one last moment with these beautiful creatures that have a human quality to their faces, so I linger and feel grateful. We trek an hour back to our car wet, muddy, satisfied. The incredible Ugandan mountain gorillas have shared part of their day in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest with these fortunate human beings.