When I decided on Uganda as my next travel destination, the first thing I knew I wanted to do outside the UWEC was see the gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest ... one of the last places on Earth where mountain gorillas still live in their natural habitat. There are three habituated groups in Bwindi (gorillas that have been conditioned to tolerate human presence). When I found out how much it costs to do this activity, I had to take a step backward. Whoa, Nelly. But I decided it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; who knows if I will ever be in that neck of the woods again. In my financially unsavvy mind, this is exactly what credit is for. I will tell the story of how I got to the park in a roundabout way below, but if you just want to skip right to the gorillas, scroll down a bit to where the pictures start.
So … because of the financial burden, I decided to place my trust in a fellow I “met” on couchsurfing and with whom I had arranged to stay at Lake Bunyoni during my independent travels. He claimed to have a different, backdoor method of securing me a permit, and that it would cost me more like $350 rather than the traditional $500 flat fee. He came to Entebbe once during my month there and we met and I hesitantly gave him a $200-cash deposit to secure my trek. … Well, after that, my FB friend who books gorilla treks and safaris for tourists expressed skepticism at the legitimacy of this, and as I tried to keep communication with my couchsurfing friend via email, all kinds of fishy-sounding delays and excuses came in for not yet having placed my deposit with the trekkers. Finally, I decided to accept that I’d misplaced my trust. I told this guy that I would accept the loss of my money, but to please come straight with me if he was going to keep it for himself so that I could try to obtain a legit permit elsewhere. It was more important to me to get the opportunity to see the gorillas than to get that $200 back. He insisted all was good, no worries, I’m set to go tracking.
So ... then I’m staying with him and the day arrives for my trek. He told me the night before that his contact at Bwindi texted him that the other people signed up to trek that day had all canceled, probably on account of the rainy weather that had prevailed all that week, but that I was still good to go, it would just cost me more money since I was the only one. Having been nickel-and-dimed nearly to death over the preceding few days, again my stomach turns at the sound of this unusual fishy news. But at that point, what can I do?
When my friend actually got up at 5:30 a.m. on the day of the trek and his cook and boatman, Bruce, handed us a sack lunch, I started to feel a little better. Even if I was going to be swindled for a fortune, surely he wouldn’t put on this charade if there was no real chance to trek. It’s a half-hour boat ride to where we could pick up a car to drive 2 hours to Bwindi. In absolute darkness, we stepped into the boat. Bruce started the motor and we puttered through the lake. Bruce obviously knows it and its narrow channels by heart. There is no electricity around the lake until you reach the far side and no light on the boat. The sky was clouded over. So I’m not exaggerating … we parted those cold waters in pitch blackness.
The drive to Bwindi was excruciatingly slow. There was a heavy fog, the road was very curvaceous, and my friend was not adept at taking the corners. So we crawled along through the fog. Already running late, he then tells me his brakes are barely working and he needs to stop to find out who can fix them. (“Now?” I'm thinking … “Really?”) So we stop at a lady’s house he says he knows. He gets back in and says he will pick up a guy on the way to Bwindi who will fix the brakes while I am trekking. We continue.
Finally the sun begins to thin the fog and we turn off the rare nicely-paved highway onto a dirt road. But now it’s only ½ hour before I am supposed to be at the park. He picks up speed to a rather alarming rate on the narrow rocky path laden with pedestrians and livestock who are sent scattering to the edges ahead of our honking horn. I’m somewhat confident now that he is truly trying to get me there in time for something. Sure enough, we stop and pick up a guy along the way. And we arrive at the gate ½ an hour later than planned, but in the nick of time for the rangers to still accept our arrival.
Still, despite the slightly epic travel to arrive there, I remained worried that I would get to the desk and be told I’m not registered to go or that it’s going to cost me thousands of dollars. So, it turned out that yes, I was the only person to trek that day – highly unusual. And in the end, I believe it cost me more than $500, but less than $600, so nearly the same fee as a regular permit. I was thinking to myself, well I went through all this anxiety and stomach-aching to try to save money; I could have just bought a regular permit to begin with, and was feeling just a wee bit sour.
The sky had cleared completely by the time my ranger guide and I set out. The first thing he said to me was, “You are very lucky! Usually there are 8 people on a trek. You are the only one! This will be very good for you, you’ll have the gorillas all to yourself.” I immediately brightened up. And apparently, I learned, with the traditional permit, it was unlikely that you would be given a trek all to yourself. You have to wait until there are 7 or 8 people in the group. Same way they operate public transport … you only leave when it’s full.
My guide was pleased with my ability to keep up with him at a good pace. “You’re a good walker!” he said to me several times. We found the gorillas sooner by at least a couple hours than it would have taken with the typical group of 8. In case you’re wondering how impenetrable the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest really is … I refer you to my guide with his curved machete, walking in front of me like Captain Hook. The trails were muddy and slippery and sometimes so overgrown we weren’t even stepping on the ground.
The guide kept in contact with the actual trackers who had gone out early in the morning to find where the gorillas were and direct us over walkie-talkies. So at some point, at the tracker’s direction, we had to leave the trail and head overland. The gorillas were down in a ravine, so we headed straight down a steep slope, my guide hacking our way through. This was seriously an adventure in and of itself. This is the hillside across the ravine; we came down through that exact same density of forest on our side. It's hard for me to know if you are sufficiently impressed by how difficult it is to make your way down that slope.
My guide stopped abruptly and told me to put all food and water away and get out my camera. Then I heard the tracker in the bushes. We took a few more steps and my guide parted some leaves with his hook, and there they were! My first gorilla in the wild:
The first sighting included three gorillas and I couldn’t believe how close they were to us. We were literally right on top of them.
So now let me list all the lucky things about my experience as pointed out to me by my guide who was very pleased for me.
(1.) Quickly reached the gorillas. And after the allotted hour was up … all permits are good for only one hour of viewing … we got back to the park entrance quickly. This was good because (2.) It was clear sunny skies for precisely the period of time encasing my trek. Sun broke through as I began, first rain drops fell as I walked back into the base camp.
(3.) I was taken to see the one group of gorillas that was completely habituated. (4.) Typically people only see one silverback; I saw two. And they are seriously impressive fellows. If one of those guys started running at me, I would pee my pants and probably faint. There's really no way to capture their heft and gravity in a photo, or even a video.
(5.) The gorillas are usually more hidden among the impenetrable forest and the typical photo op involves only various body parts of the gorillas -- their heads or backs or arms; my gorillas had bedded down areas in the ravine and stretched out their whole bodies in full view. Can you spot the gorilla below? This is the more typical scene:
(6.) I saw both the eldest member of the group, at 38 years, and the youngest member, at 3 months.
(7.) When my hour was up (shortest hour of my entire life), I got bonus time because just then a gorilla toppled part of a tree nearly on top of us and came ambling down to sit just in front of us. My guide and tracker let me stay another 5 minutes to commune with this fellow.
(8.) Above all, being the only person allowed me unimpeded photographic access, without 7 other people vying for the prime shooting spots (or indeed, given the thick cover, vying for any shooting spot), and unprecedented “communion” time with the gorillas. Nobody else there making noise with their voices and their rustling clothes and their clicking cameras. Just me. My guide and trackers were silent and I spent as much time with my camera down as with it up, just silently soaking up the presence of these amazing creatures. The guide told me I can look them in the eyes except if one is charging … then absolutely do not do this.
As I mentioned in my post about the chimps as current-day postscript, at this time I had only a consumer-grade camera with a 250 lens and a polarizer a friend had given me without explaining when I should and should not use it, haha, so it slowed down my shutter speed in this dense setting and I could have gotten crisper photos without it. But oh well! I watched them groom each other and move their ponderous weight through the thick brush; munch munch munch on the leaves; young gorillas climb up the trees; and most precious of all, the mother suckling and cuddling her 3-month old.
First glimpse of the baby suckling. The mother is extraordinarily large. The guide says no one here has ever seen a female this large; she is the same size as a male. And then, mom is exhausted ... "what a day!" she's saying with her hand over her brow.
I love the baby's tiny feet sticking out underneath the mom's arm. Presumably the toddler beside her is her child also.
It almost makes me cry now to think back on how cool it all was, that hour that passed in a wide-eyed minute. Quite an incomparable experience.