On Saturday a silverback mountain gorilla charged at us in the wilderness. He was massive and angry. We had invaded his turf. Just another day in Africa.
We awoke at 4:30 AM Saturday morning and clamored about our room packing our day packs with bottled water and chocolate bars, attempting to shake off a few too many Nile Specials a la Friday night in the Nest (a cozy open-air, cushion-filled gathering space on the rooftop terrace of our hostel). Our friend Moses had somehow worked his local magic last week to secure permits for us to join a group of eight others on a gorilla tracking adventure in Bwindi Inpenetrable National Park. Very lucky for us, given that the others in our group had likely obtained their permits six months or more in advance, which is the norm. We don’t ask questions.
Moses had also offered to drive us the approximately two hours to Bwindi starting at 5 AM. He is really an amazingly helpful and nice guy and we are forever grateful for his generosity (hi Moses!). As a result of the aforementioned Friday evening beers we mostly slept while Moses drove, whistling along to Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton on the tape deck (and we rely on each other… uh huh…) and when we weren’t sleeping we were feigning sleep to avoid glancing out the window to the cliffside abyss not two feet from our left tires. The roads in Uganda are mostly unpaved, often winding perilously along mountainsides with little to no barrier separating terrified tourist from certain death. Luckily Moses is a careful driver and we made it safe and sound to the Uganda Wildlife Authority base camp in the eastern part of Bwindi NP. Almost half of the approximately 700 critically endangered mountain gorillas left in the world call Uganda’s Bwindi National Park home.
We were to spend the day tracking the Rushegura gorilla family. At 8 AM the trek began innocently enough as our group (plus porters to carry the lazy European’s day packs) followed our guide Christopher down a well worn path surrounded by lush greenery. A small group of trackers had set out at dawn to locate and follow the Rusheguras and help guide us to them via walkie talkie communications. The park is enormous and we were warned that it may take anywhere from 15 minutes to over 8 hours to find the gorillas. The real adventure started as we turned off the path and began to descend into the forest– suddenly instead of following a trail we were climbing over fallen trees, scrambling up steep slopes and weaving our way through dense vegetation, including masses of tangled vines and poisonous stinging plants, with the help of a machete (Heather can explain in detail why it is ill advised to accidentally sit on said stinging plants). As a side note, we had luckily gotten some practice hiking and climbing the week before (when we did an 11 mile, 9 hour, 2500 meter climb in the hills surrounding beautiful Lake Bunyoni) as well as the previous evening when an ordinary business meeting with Edirisa’s Ugandan counsel turned into a pitch-black nighttime trek to a village in a remote valley inaccessible by car to serve legal papers on a fugitive headmaster who had embezzled several million shillings from a local school (a story for another time).
About 2.5 hours into our hike/climb/scramble Christopher turned to us and signaled to be silent. A loud, gutteral roar confirmed that we had, in fact, found the gorillas. There are no words to describe the first time you make eye contact with a massive, beautiful, gentle silverback gorilla. We were frozen, awestruck. He sat about ten feet from us munching on a stalk of bamboo until deciding to move down further into the forest in search of the others in his family. He led us first to two more silverbacks, two blackbacks and one juvenile male. We moved quietly and slowly about their territory, stopping to gaze through the trees or shoot a photo or two. At one point the juvenile ran past our guide and swatted him on the arm. Christopher laughed and explained that this act was not aggressive at all– just like human kids,young gorillas love to play. That makes sense when you consider that gorillas share over 97% of their biological makeup with people.
Gorillas live in tight knit family groups containing between ten and 30 members. The Rushegura family has 11 members (including two females and two babies). We found the women and children a few meters uphill being guarded closely by the dominant silverback. As we approached the five of them the male suddenly charged our group while beating his chest aggressively, baring his (very long, very sharp) teeth and roaring loudly. We got the sense that this one wasn’t playing. He stopped about five feet from us, dug his black-clawed hands into a fallen tree stump that tenuously separated man from beast and hostilely stared us down with his intense black eyes for what felt like an eternity. Clinging to one another (as if that could help), neither of us moved a muscle or even breathed for about two minutes until the gorilla slowly backed away and Christopher warned sternly that it was now time to stop following the gorillas and to head back to base camp. It is rare for habituated gorillas to confront humans aggressively and it is unclear what provoked that particular silverback. He may have had a fight with the other silverbacks in the family and been driven from the group (in which case he may have been attempting bravado in order to convince the females of his continuing dominance). Whatever the reason, it was a truly heartstopping experience that neither of us will ever forget. It took us over two hours to make our way out of the dense vegetation and back to headquarters, giving us time to reflect on our experience and recover from the minor heart attack.
Note that gorilla tracking is severely expensive (it was certainly not in our $50 per day budget), physically challenging and perhaps psychotic (stalking wild gorillas?!?! Really?!?!) but we think it is worth every penny, hassle, sore muscle, stinging backside and heart attack. It may also be viewed as dangerous. Only certain family groups in each park are habituated to human contact and there is the risk that you will encounter some of the truly “wild” mountain gorillas. It was also in Bwindi National Park in 1999 that eight tourists were kidnapped and subsequently murdered by rebels. However there is now a significant army presence within the park and it is generally considered safe, although this isn’t necessarily true in nearby DR Congo which, along with Rwanda, hosts the world’s other remaining mountain gorillas. In DRC it’s a bit easier to secure a permit to track the gorillas, but also more likely that you’ll have an unwelcome encounter with militant rebel gangs that call the Parc National de Virungas home). To ensure our safety, each tracking group is accompanied by an AK-47-wielding bodyguard (AK-47? No biggie).
We are happy to report that poaching has been stopped in Bwindi and the Uganda Wildlife Authority undertakes huge conservation efforts to protect the endangered gorillas (the Rushegura family bred a new infant in June 2008!). Finally, note that the demand for tracking permits each year greatly exceeds the supply, so book well in advance (up to one year) unless you have a secret, magical local Ugandan friend to pull some strings…
We still can’t get over the most insane and amazing experience of our lives. Video coming soon!