It was an unforgettable moment. Our group of four had travelled through dense dripping forest and found ourselves amongst a family group of 30 mountain gorillas. That’s us, with 5% of the world’s population of mountain gorillas, while they ate, played and snoozed in the dense vegetation on every side. The huge silverback lumbered elegantly by – not an easy thing to do, elegant lumbering – and a youngster cavorted past, rolling and running till a mother or sister called him over, cradling the infant in a very human fashion. For an hour we sat entranced as these regal creatures stripped off branches for their lunch, chattered, scratched and played.
I’d always wanted to meet the world’s greatest primates, and Bwindi impenetrable rainforest in Uganda met all my expectations.
Getting there was half the adventure. Set in southern Uganda near the mountainous border with Rwanda and Zaire, it is a full day’s drive from Kampala, the capital. But unlike some long African drives, this one is full of interest. Set nearly a thousand metres above sea level, Uganda is a stunning country. A dramatic landscape testifies to its volcanic origins with hills, lakes and fields dotted with villages and simple mud dwellings. Women walk by, bright with African colours, balancing huge loads on their heads, children and animals are everywhere and I saw more birds, in Uganda, than I’d ever seen before. Lush and green, Uganda is a far cry from the plains of East Africa, and Western visitors a far less common sight. Everyone smiles, everyone seems to have time.
Settling in to Bwindi Volcanoes Lodge was easy. It had a very local atmosphere – one of the managers used to farm the land that is now the lodge’s garden – with vervet and colobus monkeys swinging about the surrounding trees.
The next morning our trek started at the Park Office where we met Joseph, our guide, and he led us up a hill, thick with long grass as he told us more about the gorillas. Then we entered the forest itself, lush and green with huge leaves and trailing lianas everywhere. It was a wonderful experience, and I started to hope we wouldn’t find the gorillas too quickly. But an hour later we found where the gorillas had spent the previous night: huge nests hollowed out of the ground cover. I started to get an idea of how large these creatures are – and realised just how many there were in this group – and the excitement of the chase set in.
Tracking the gorillas took longer, and it was only Joseph’s skill that read the signs – small broken branches, torn leaves, scratches and spoor – and led us into a dense patch of jungle where – Joseph held his hand up for silence – something stirred. He waved us to the ground and we crouched as the gorilla family rustled close, catching glimpses of black fur, smelling the distinctive scent, watching and listening, every sense alive. The group came close and we started to see shapes: the small bundles of juveniles, determined looking adults, nursing mothers. And then the alpha male, a towering silverback with unmistakeable authority, rose up out of the undergrowth and swept our group with a powerful glare. Seemingly satisfied, he looked away and scratched, and I started to breathe again.
You’re allowed to spend an hour with the gorillas. It went past incredibly quickly, but was certainly worth it. We returned to camp exhilarated, all tiredness gone, and bombarded Joseph with questions. He was very proud of his work, guiding visitors but also taking part in the daily habituation process. It takes a year to habituate these gentle giants to human contact, visiting every day and assuring them there’s no threat. Now a new, fourth group has been habituated in the south of the park, opening up the experience to a few more people every year.
At the end of our gorilla tracking Joseph thanked us for our support. I think we all felt that it was we who should be thanking him
Before you go gorilla tracking walking sticks are provided – very useful when walking over springy undergrowth that might keep you three feet off the ground, or for negotiating muddy paths. Old clothes are recommended for tracking, with a change essential for the evening. It’s also a great idea to take gardening gloves that make it much easier to reach out and catch a branch to help balance. Cameras and video cameras are allowed, but flash is not: take very fast film as there’s much less light than you’d expect below the forest canopy. (If you’re using a digital camera make sure you set it accordingly). Finally, try to keep healthy. Gorillas are fully able to catch colds and flu but more likely to die of these human diseases. At any sign of a sneeze or sniffle wannabe trackers will immediately be turned back.