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The Greatest Hour of My Life: Tracking Mountain Gorillas in Uganda

Sarah Duff | AFK Travel   in 
October 17, 2015

For a moment I locked eyes with the 200kg silverback, and felt a chill run through my spine. I was on foot and only two meters away from a wild animal the size of a giant Buddha statue. He stopped chewing the plant stem he held gingerly in his huge hand, paused for a few seconds and then walked towards me, getting within a hair’s breath as he lumbered past up a hill to find something else to eat. This was definitely worth the 4:30 am wake up call.

Coming face-to-face with one of these giant, gentle creatures in the central African rainforest is one of the most thrilling wildlife experiences on the planet, and something that should be on every nature lover’s bucket list.

There are less than 1,000 mountain gorillas left in the world, and they are only found in two places: in a volcanic mountain chain that spans southwest Uganda, the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and northwest Rwanda; and in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, which is home to half the population.

Mountain Gorilla in Uganda

To get to Bwindi, I’d flown five hours from Johannesburg to Entebbe in Uganda (via Kigali in Rwanda) and bounced around in an overland truck for 10 hours to reach Lake Bunyonyi in the southwestern corner of the country. The night before the trek I’d barely slept; I was overcome with excitement, like a kid the night before Christmas.

The pre-dawn dark saw our group of eight pile into minibus taxis (organized by the overland tour operator) to drive us to Bwindi to start the tracking adventure — a two-hour journey of winding hillside dirt roads and the sudden entrance into a thick forest vibrating with the sound of tweeting birds and hissing insects.

Gorilla permits had been purchased from the Ugandan Wildlife Authority months before by the tour operator and our group had been allocated the Ruhija section of the park, which is home to two habituated gorilla groups. The group we were to track was Bitukura (named after the place where they were first habituated) with 13 individuals.

After a short briefing by our lead guide, John Tugumisirize, we set off into the forest, walking sticks in hand, flanked by two guards armed with Kalashnikovs (for the forest elephants, we were told) and with a troop of porters carrying our bags.

The hike started easy enough, on a well-worn gently sloping path shaded by tall trees. We rambled along for about an hour, stopping to take photos of the beautiful forest, which reminded me of the jungle in the movie Jurassic Park, minus the T-rexes. Then our guides heard a call from the trackers who were on the gorilla group’s trail (trackers are aware of where gorillas make their nest the night before, and pick up their tracks in the morning), and we veered off the path into thick undergrowth. This is where things got a bit more adventurous — not to mention sweaty and muddy.

The forest became so dense that you couldn’t see another person’s body a meter in front of you. Guides hacked through thickets of stinging nettles with machetes as we slipped and slid our way down a steep hill, grabbing onto vines to stop falling. We’d only just made it to the bottom of the ravine before starting to ascend the other side, the sound of our rasping breaths becoming the predominant soundtrack. I’d just steeled myself to accept the fact that we might be hiking like this for hours, when, without any warning, we suddenly came across the gorillas. We felt them before we saw them: a few of them were up in the trees, dropping pieces of bark on our heads as they climbed around.

Our first sighting was of what looked like a black blob sliding down a tree trunk just in front of us and disappearing off into the forest before anyone had even taken cameras out. Feeling unbelievably thrilled and excited, we quickly made our way further up the hill where the dominant silverback sat on his own, munching away at a pile of vegetation. Cameras clicked away as he ignored us, seemingly completely unbothered by the group of khaki-clad tourists in a photo frenzy. A few meters from him, a 10-month old baby that looked like a teddy bear with shiny button eyes was clinging to its mother’s back and staring at us with more interest. Another adult female walked right through our group, touching my leg as she went past and plonking herself down a few feet away from where we stood.

Rare Silverback gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda (Shutterstock)

Despite the size of the gorillas and the fact that the silverbacks could rip me in two in a matter of seconds if they wanted to, I didn’t feel scared or threatened in the presence of these apes. Mountain gorillas are generally peaceful unless their family is threatened, and these groups are habituated to human company so they are totally relaxed around tourists.

For the next hour we were transfixed by these magnificent animals, whose human-like behavior was fascinating. One gorilla seemed quite bored by our arrival and sat on his haunches with his arms crossed as if to say “And? What have you got that’s of interest to me?” Another had decided it was nap time, so he stretched out on his side and lay his head on his arm, looking like he was on a lounger at a beach resort. Two males lay on their backs in a sunny spot and played lazily before rolling over onto their sides like toddlers in a playground. The most photogenic moment was when the 10-month-old baby got off his mother’s back and walked up to his father, the dominant silverback, who was lying on his stomach propped up on elbows, and curled himself up in the gorilla’s baseball mitt-sized hand.

It was hard for the guides to tear us away once our time was up: the “Just one last picture!” pleas only worked for so long. It felt like the shortest hour of my life. Of all the safaris and wildlife encounters I’ve had, tracking mountain gorillas in the wild was by far the most magical. If you’re a nature lover, this is one experience that should be at the top of your bucket list.

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