Uganda

Gorilla tracking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

We woke at 5:30am on Sunday and dressed ready for our jungle adventure. We were tired and anxious to get to the Nkuringo gate on time for the 7:30am briefing. After an extremely quick breakfast (we took the rest with us to eat on the road) we set off for the 45-60 minute drive from Rushaga (where our guest house was) to Nkuringo (where our permits were for). The road was extremely bumpy, and although my rally-driver boyfriend got me to Nkuringo gate on time, I subsequently felt extremely car sick, and most probably, altitude sick too… Fortunately, we got there early enough for me to hug the toilet a bit and be sick a few times before settling down just in time to start the trek.

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We felt prepared with the amount of water and snacks we had andclothing, so we didn’t feel like we needed a local porter to help us, but our guides Alex and Emanuel sold the porters well, telling us that they are all local people, some from villages displaced when Bwindi was declared a national park. Apparently the waiting list for being a porter is quite long and sometimes they only get hired by tourists once a month. We said yes and got assigned another Alex, a young man from the local village.

At around 8:20am, we set off on our adventure… Pete and I, a retired American couple, a UK couple on their honeymoon, a German couple, our 2 guides and 4 porters.

The trek started easily enough, and for the first hour or so was all downhill, down pretty steep hills into the valley of Bwindi. I was already dreading coming back up this hill…

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Right at the start of the trek
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Alex, our porter
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Looking out over the jungle
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Emmanuel and his AK47

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We passed through Alex’s village, and his little girl ran over to say hello! Alex said he is a digger when he is not being a guide and helps his uncle on his farm and with his Ankole cattle.

Just 30 minutes into the trek, our group encountered a problem, the American couple on our trip were already struggling and holding the group up as we had to continually wait for them to catch up. After about 45 minutes, they finally gave up and called for 2 ‘helicopters’. During the morning briefing, we were told that a helicopter rescue from the bottom of the valley was possible if anyone got ill or injured, like a twisted ankle etc. The helicopter was actually 16 porters and a stretcher who carry you between them. If you’re badly injured, this is free, but you could pay $300 to have this if you were tired or wanted one… Both the Americans got one… it was a pretty embarrassing really, but it enabled the rest of the group to continue at our own pace.

Once we got into the bottom of the valley, we entered the jungle. The vegatation was thick and our guide Alex at the front had to cut a path through the vines and ferns. My porter Alex suddenly became invaluable, helping me with the slippery mud and wet ground and also picking good lines for us to walk along. We crossed the river and radioed the trackers. The trackers stay with the Gorillas until 5pm the previous day and then head out earlier in the morning to try and track the family from their last known spot. They were up the mountain into the jungle across the river. We started our ascent, through the dense foliage. It was crazy. I didn’t take many photos as we didn’t have time to stop, we were going so fast to try and catch the family before they moved. The climb was steep, and it was not a trail. We were literally machete-ing through the jungle. A few people slipped and a few some metres down the slope. I had Alex, who held my hand the whole way and told me where to step. The pace was intense, I had no time to catch my breath. My lungs and my legs were burning, all while I worried about slipping down the mountainside…

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Being sick in the morning was not helping my state, after almost 90 minutes of uphill climbing through the jungle I was completely exhausted. We could hear the trackers whistling in the distance, communicating with our group where to go. We had to be fast, as the gorillas move quickly…

They had come down the mountain… we had walked up there for nothing…

We started the decent and it was twice as scary. You could see how long the drop was. The ground was so slippery and there was no safe place to put your hands. I put my hands on a branch once and was instantly covered in hundreds of black ants, Alex and Pete helped me get them off my sleeve. We came slipping and sliding back down the mountainside to the river again. Only it was deeper here. The porters from the helicopters had already dropped the Americans off, so they used the stretchers to help the group cross one-by-one. Pete walked across on the semi-submerged stones, getting water up to his knees and soaking his shoes. We had reached a point almost back to where we had come from… and then… Screams…

”He knocked the guy over! He’s attacking the American” was all I heard Pete yell.

”Who?”

”The silverback, he charged the Americans!”

The American couple on the helicopters had made it to the gorillas first, the porters more nimble and able. Pete and I were at the back of the rest of our 8-person group, looking through the tress trying to see what had happened… We got there once the commotion had died down. Guide Alex was saying, “he’s safe, he won’t attack, he is just trying to scare you”. Apparently Bahati, the 500lbs silverback mountain gorilla, and head of this family, had charged the group and knocked the American couple over with his forearm in a “normal” display of dominance…

Everyone was scared. And I mean, actually scared.

The group was cowering behind bushes and trees, trying to take stealthy photos. I hadn’t even had time to get my phone out! I was too concerned with watching what was happening.

Bahati stood on his back legs and beat his chest in another display of dominance. The noise was chilling. We all backed away and cowered some more.

”He’s fine, get closer, here is a good place for a photo” – Our guide Alex said as he pointed to a space directly in front of him in a small clearing.

“No thanks, I’m good here”

“You haven’t taken a photos yet though Libby… don’t you want a memory?”

I slowly made my way out towards the clearing to get a better view. He reared and beat his chest again. The sound reverberating off the trees and scattering jungle birds from the area. Needless to say, I stayed put and found a good photo spot behind some cover instead.

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Nothing could have prepared us for his sheer size, the loudness of him beating his chest, or how close we would get to him.

He chilled out after a few tense minutes and eventually sat down to enjoy some fruit from the surrounding bushes. After about 10 minutes he moved on and we managed to see the rest of his family, including one of the infants. However, before he settled again, he charged some of the 32 helicopter porters, who were ironically, keeping back out of the way.

He climbed a large fig tree and stayed there for the rest of our allotted hour. Whilst the rest of the family stayed close, they did move around and our group followed the mother and infant. However, by this point I was literally running on empty. I had trekked for 4 hours with no breakfast and after throwing up several times. Alex made me a nice ‘seat’ from some ferns and we sat and watched Bahati in the tree.

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After our allotted hour we started making our way out of the jungle valley. The climb was steep again but fortunately, shorter this time. I walked at the front to try and set the pace at my level. We entered a grassy area with the grass above our heads. It felt like a scene out of Jurassic Park, I half expected a velociraptor to pounce on us any minute…

We reached a clearing on the crest of a hill and had a short break to reflect on what had just happened. The whole group was in a strange mood, adrenaline still coursing through us. “Was that normal for a ‘habituated’ gorilla group?”, “Was this ethical?”, “Were we encroaching on nature for our own enjoyment?”… But also “What an incredible thing to have witnessed, a wild mountain gorilla family in their true environment”, “Surely this helps towards their protection and the local people”…

We weren’t sure how we felt, but I knew one thing. We weren’t at the top of the trail yet… We had 2 hours of pure uphill climbing left in front of us. The group set off mainly in silence, contemplating the questions raised. One of which was also “What type of person thinks it’s ok to get 16 local people to carry them on their shoulders on a stretcher just because they cant be bothered walking the trek themselves?” And the answer is…

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The rest of the trek was uneventful. We stopped for our much-needed lunch when we were far enough away from the gorillas and the continued on our path back to the starting point. I was struggling and eventually Pete and I found ourselves at the back of the group with just Emanuel sand our porter Alex for company. On the positive side, the slow pace enabled me to take more photos of the beautiful landscape. We also took the time to chat to Alex and learn more about the local people and area.

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The group just after the gorilla encounter
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That’s Alex’s house!

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Alex and Emanuel

We arrived back at Nkuringo lodge with absolutely nothing left to give. What an adventure, what an experience, what a day. Possibly the most physically difficult thing I’ve ever had to do, even more so than when I snapped my ACL climbing Rinjani! It was also mentally challenging and, at times, pretty scary. We gave Alex double what the usual price was, but even that didn’t feel enough given how invaluable he was.

One thing we said to each other before this trip to help justify the $1200 price tag was that this is a once in a lifetime experience… But based on the experience we had, we are now looking at returning to Bwindi in a year or so to do it again. Although I think we’ll try for permits in an easier region next time 😉

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