The level of doubt increased as the eyes scanned upwards. Up…up…up…up. The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, seemed just that, impenetrable. The rain had stopped, the humidity had taken a strangle-hold on the forest, and now it looked like it was smoking as the mist seeped out of the trees. It really was going to be gorillas in the mist.
The seeds of doubt had been getting stronger each day as we got closer to our destination, Bwindi Uganda. Had I done enough training? Was the training up Mt Lofty steep enough to prepare me? What if we have come all this way and we don’t get to see the gorillas, after all there is only a 98% chance that we will see them? What if we are the 2%? Why is it that everyone else in our small group appears to not have done any training whatsoever? Maybe I shouldn’t have the desert – ok, just a little piece, I’ll walk it off in Bwindi?
The main purpose of this trip was to see the mountain gorillas in Uganda. Everyone’s focus was on “the gorillas”, so there was a feeling that all the travel days and experiences prior, as good as they were, were just filler for the main event. There are only approximately 850 mountain gorillas left and as there arent any in zoos, the only place to see them are in the jungles of the African “corner” where the countries of Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda meet. This was going to be a rare experience.
After a fun-filled few days in and around Queen Elizabeth National Park and Ishasha Wilderness Camp seeking out, and spotting game such as elephants, tree-resting lions, the elusive leopards (not to blow my own trumpet, but I spotted 2 in one day…ok, I’m blowing my own trumpet), baboons, the strangely cute warthogs, chimpanzees, hippos, buffalo and lots and lots of kopi we headed towards Bwindi.
The drive wasn’t too far, but it took a few hours due to the rain and the muddy, pot-holed road conditions, as well as a few toilet stops. Even though this was the rainy season, we hadn’t had a lot of rain, and when we had, it generally cleared by the morning. Today was different as the rain had been persistent for most of the day and it was steadily coming down as we arrived into Bwindi.
Bwindi as a town was unusual in that it was our first encounter with “crass tourism” in Uganda. It was only a small town with a main street full of a few little ramshackle bars and tourist shops selling gorilla trinkets, gorilla carvings, gorilla t-shirts, gorilla statues, gorilla keyrings, but strangely no gorilla fridge magnets. I was later informed by our guide Steffi, that most Ugandan homes do not have a fridge, so the concept of a fridge magnet was foreign to them. The town also had a school and a hospital, the latter being somewhat of a comfort in case something happens on the gorilla trek.
The view of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest from our hotel, Buhoma Lodge, was breathtaking, beautiful and daunting, all at the same time. Breathtaking, because the elevation of Bwindi is approx. 1900m above sea level, whereas the average altitude in Adelaide is 50m and flat. You could feel that your lungs were working harder to get enough oxygen. This did not bode well for tomorrow’s trek when the altitude would be even higher. Daunting, because our hotel rooms were located clinging to the side of the hill. My room was located at the top and by the third steep set of stairs my left knee was telling me “enough!”. This did not bode well for tomorrows trek when we would climb even higher through rugged terrain. Beautiful, because the rain and humidity caused the mist to billow from the jungle making it appear mysterious and forbidding. This did not bode well for tomorrows trek as the humidity in Adelaide is almost zero and the body isn’t used to it. At this point I just hope that it doesn’t rain as the trek is going to be difficult enough as it is, I can’t imagine what it would be like all muddy and slippery. Actually, yes I can….It wouldn’t be good.
The afternoon was spent acclimatising by going for a walk and resting. Before dinner we had a briefing on what to take, wear and the procedures for the trek. Dinner was a fairly sombre affair as everyone was trying to suppress their excitement, or their nerves.
The now customary coffee wakeup call was on time at 6am. Having a hot pot of fresh coffee delivered to your door is the perfect way to start the day. After a 2 cups of coffee, a shower and a nervous wee, I was ready to meet the others for breakfast. Breakfast consisted of some more coffee, toast and another nervous wee. We collected our pre-packed lunch and had another nervous wee before the short walk to the Ranger Station.
There was a hive of activity at the Ranger Station as other groups arrived, porters and guides also turned up. We were escorted into a room that had the feel of a small classroom, and told to sit in chairs that were placed along the wall in a semi-circle facing an old tv. Maybe this room doubled up as the school? A video was played about how the gorillas help the community and how we help the community by paying money to see the gorillas. So flying half way around the world to see the gorillas was less about me, but about being philanthropic and noble. I was doing my bit for conservation and the preservation of these endangered primates.
After the video, we were taken outside and split into 4 groups of six with each group assigned a gorilla family. This is when we met Medi, our head guide, who explained the make up of our gorilla family and answered many of our questions… such as “bush toilets”. It was explained to us that they had sent trackers out in the morning to discover where the families had camped overnight so that we knew where to start the trek. We were told that we might be trekking anywhere from 1 hour up to 6 hours in the jungle.
Reminiscent of a school-yard pick, we got to choose our porters. I chose one, but he got reassigned to the tallest member of our group and I ended up with the smallest porter whose name was Justice. The hiring of porters was encouraged as the USD$20 helped to feed families, bring dollars into the community, help pay for schooling etc. While the others may have got a porter for altruistic purposes, I know I was going to need one to not only carry my day pack, but to help me get up the mountain.
Briefing finished, another nervous wee finished, and we all piled into the Jeep to drive to the starting point. We were only in the car for about 5 minutes as our trek would begin on the edge of town at the base of the mountain. I got out of the car and came face to face with a wall of a mountain. My eyes scanned up, up, up, up. Oh fuck! It looked even more intimidating being this close. I started muttering under my breath…”Please don’t let this be the 6 hour group”.
With walking poles in both hands, and Justice by my side, we took off in single file along a trail. The first 10 minutes was about trying to get some rhythm to my breathing and walking. Ok, this isn’t too bad. And, then the trail starts to steepen. It’s a this point that Justice takes one of walking poles and grabs my hand and starts to lead me up the mountain. After about 20 minutes I experience the “majestic push” for the first time. Through a particularly difficult section, with Justice pulling me along with a vice-like grip, I feel a hand on each of my butt cheeks pushing me up the mountain.
After we had been walking for about 40 minutes and the rest stops are becoming more frequent, the breathing is becoming more laboured and the terrain is getting steeper again. It was now so steep that if you stood fully upright, you were in danger of overbalance and tumbling down the mountain. We had now been told that our group was going to see the closest gorilla family. I knew that I wasn’t going to have to endure this for another 5 hours, but I was still questioning how long I was going to be able to keep up with everyone.
The next 15 minutes was a blurry cycle of sweat, climbing, huffing, puffing, scrambling, resting…repeat. Then a mood of anticipation takes over the group as we come upon the advance party trekker guides which mean that the gorillas are close. Just we pass through a tea plantation (what! someone makes this climb every day for work??) the porters stayed back, as they are not allowed to be near the gorillas, and we are called forward. There in the bushes is a gorilla. The undergrowth is so thick that I can’t see anything and all I can hear is the clicking of cameras. Surely I haven’t just trekked for an hour to see the backs of people’s heads and moving green foliage? And then the gorilla was on the move, and so were we. It’s amazing how adrenalin takes away all the pain. We were now scrambling and climbing in pursuit with agility not seen since the first minute of the trek.
Soon we meet up with the same gorilla again, and sitting a little higher up the mountain is the Silverback. He is sitting upright in a clearing, watching the action; the sunlight behind him is making him appear ethereal. We get to watch them for a few minutes before they are on the move again. Thankfully this time they are traversing around the mountain, but the jungle is getting thicker. In my mind, like the videos online, we were going to sit in one place for an hour and watch a family of gorillas frolicking happily in front of us in an open clearing. In my mind there was also going to be a beach ball bouncing back and forth, but I can see now that won’t be the case. Now we are hacking our way through thick forest trying to keep up with them.
I never felt threatened as they appeared to be quite docile, but you could sense their awesome power, except for the time I ended up on the path in front of a gorilla. As it was heading my way, I’m staring at it as I’m struggling to remember what they said at the briefing. Then I remembered they said not to look threatening, avert your eyes downwards coyly and keep a distance of 6 metres from them. Problem was, as it was coming closer I couldn’t take my eyes of her, and I had nowhere to go. She may have ignored me, but I couldn’t ignore her. And then the unthinkable happened….she grazed my leg as she lumbered past me. She touched me.
Let that sink in…I. HAD. BEEN. TOUCHED. BY. A. MOUNTAIN. GORILLA!
Not only do very few people on this planet get to see a Mountain Gorilla, I had been one of the very few, of the very few that has actually touched a mountain gorilla. I assume I am now a member of an exclusive club. I wonder when and where they hold the meetings.
The next hour or so was spent climbing, traversing, sliding, scrambling, crawling, slipping and tumbling through the dense jungle as we followed these imposing beasts. You don’t really notice how difficult the terrain is when you are “on the hunt”. The energy levels are high, the adrenalin is still surging, all the senses are on hyper, and the anticipation is extreme. When the gorillas stopped, we had time to sit quietly and observe (once we stopped taking photos, of course). We watched them play, climb trees, fall off trees, rest, eat, but mainly we watched them crawl on all fours then sit, crawl then sit, crawl then sit (actually that might have been us). Our family seemed to be spread out as we never really saw more than two together at the one time. They didn’t make much noise, except the Silverback let out a huge fart as he readied himself for a nap. Well we assumed it was the Silverback. It could have been any one of us as our diet on the trip had consisted of many 3-course meals of very rich food!
As the gorilla family had their mid-morning nap we were led away and started our descent. Due to the steepness, I found it less strainful on the knees, and less chance of falling, to slide down the mountain on my butt. And, it was a hell a lot of fun as well. Halfway down, on a particularly steep part of the mountain, we stopped to eat our pre-packed lunch. Overlooking Bwindi and the valley, still buzzing with excitement, we chowed down on sandwiches and fruit as we delighted in our collective experiences. It was a great moment.
Surprisingly, it took us a while to make our way off the mountain. Bwindi didn’t look too far away, but even as we (I) slid down the mountain; it never seemed to get any closer. I think it was the mountain’s version of a desert mirage. The view was spectacular, but I think we were all ready to get back to the lodge to clean up.
Once down off the mountain we said our good byes to our porters, paid them their well-earned money (seriously if they had cost US$40 each they would still be worth it) It was at this time that I noticed that one of the female porters was pregnant (not just pregnant, but looked like she was ready to give birth at any moment). I can’t believe that I hadn’t noticed before, but more importantly, I can’t believe that she did this trek a few times a week! I now felt really inadequate and stupid with my huffing and puffing, my walking sticks, my hiking boots, and my appropriate moisture-wicking and breathable trekking clothing.
We were met at the bottom of the mountain by a beaming Steffi, who we couldn’t wait to tell him our experiences. We were like little kids wanting to get the attention, and approval from our parents. There was a lot of chatter in the car as we drove back to the Ranger’s Office. I was very excited to receive my “Gorilla Trekking Certificate”. If I had a Pool Room, it would go straight into it and hung with pride.
The afternoon was all about the “come down”. After a champagne celebration back at the lodge, the group did their own things to process the morning’s experience with either therapeutic massages, resting and napping, sorting and sharing photographs, writing social media posts, but nothing could wipe the smiles off our faces and the warm glow of achievement.
It was an experience of a lifetime.
We all had seeing the gorillas as a bucket list item. Sometimes you build these items up to such a level that the reality is a disappointment. This was not one of those times.