Our adventure began at 5:30 am, when we filed into three white vans and headed off down the dark mountain road.
It was like we had been loaded into a tin can. The windows were all fogged up with the morning mist, and I couldn’t see anything but darkness beyond our small vehicle. We shook like we were in a tin can, too. Every bump we hit sent us bouncing. The mountain roads were littered with potholes and speed bumps. And in Uganda, 1 speed bump is not enough. There are frequently 5 speed bumps in a row, and our van vibrated violently with each one.
We drove up winding mountain roads, and I had to close my eyes, scared to see the drop off immediately to my right. As we got higher, the mist got thicker. We could see the sun rising, an orange ball shining through the fog.
It was a 2.5 hour drive from our campsite to where we picked up our trek guide. Then another 1 hour drive to the start of our trek. We were all shaky and slightly nauseated from the drive, but excited for the day.
We had been briefed about the gorilla trek, being told that it was a hard trek that could take all day. For around $300 US dollars, you can hire guides to carry you in and out on a stretcher… should the need arise. We were organized into groups based on what van we drove up in, and each group was assigned a gorilla family to track.
Uganda is home to over half of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas. Reformed poachers now track the animals, and a small number of permits are sold daily to visitors wanting to see these animals. The money goes toward conservation of this endangered species.
Ten families of these gorillas live in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. It is not hard to tell how this forest got its name. The fog is impenetrable, the road is impenetrable, and we were about to learn just how impenetrable the bush is.
Our group was all eager to get going. We rolled our eyes slightly when the guides told us we needed to pick a walking stick. That walking stick became my best friend.
To say that the walk was hard would be a gross understatement. I have never done any hiking even remotely like this. First we walked uphill forever at a steep incline. I was embarrassed at my slow pace, not wanting to hold up the group. Eventually, though, everyone began to slow down a little.
The path then cut into the impenetrable forest. Our guides communicated with trackers deeper in the woods, and began forging new paths with their machetes. We followed with much less skill and sure-footedness. I tripped over nettles, got my shoelaces caught on branches, slipped down a muddy slope, stepped in holes… I was a muddy mess and I wasn’t the only one. We literally hacked our way down the side of the Ugandan mountain.
We hiked in for 3.5 hours, stopping occasionally for food and to contact the trackers. Finally, our guide said, “They’re close.”
Our guide collected our walking sticks, so that we would not appear to be carrying weapons when visiting the gorillas. He then sent us to follow the trackers.
We had not gone far when we saw the first gorilla. There she was, sleeping in the bush, only a couple meters away! She was huge, and beautiful, and right there in front of us.
We were on the slide of the mountain, holding onto roots and branches to stay upright while we took photos.
This gorilla awoke, looked over at us, stretched lazily, then meandered off into the forest.
We followed and soon we saw a baby gorilla scrambling in the tree branches. She was up there with her mom, wrestling and having fun. This little gorilla just melted my heart. They were only a few feet away, and her big brown eyes looked right at us. When she opened her mouth while wrestling with her mom, I could see how sharp all of her teeth were.
Eventually mom and baby began scrambling closer to us. But then the tree they were sitting in fell down. We all sat there with shock and concern until the trackers started to snicker and mom and baby scrambled up through the fallen tree, safely.
We watched a number of the gorilla family sit in the trees, munching on leaves. Our guide explained that the male gorilla that was sitting right in front of me weighed a massive 240kg. As cute as the gorillas were, I respected the fact that they could kill us in an instant if they so chose. These gorillas are wild animals.Luckily they were not concerned with us. We watched them, and they were content with snacking and watching us.
We saw the silverback of the group through the trees and he was massive. He easily made all of the other gorillas look small. His head was larger than the baby gorilla.
We spent an hour with the gorilla family, watching them eat and play. Then we had the arduous task of climbing back up the side of the mountain. Down was easy. Gravity did the work. Up involved grabbing logs and branches to haul ourselves up.
We had a 2 hour trek back to the village, meaning we were in the forest for a full 6.5 hours. We were exhausted when we got back to the village. Our guide presented us each with a “graduation” certificate and congratulated us on managing the trek.
We were all tired and happy and ready to go back to camp for some of John’s nightly soup.
First we had to pile back into our tin can and endure another bumpy couple of hours.
Back at camp, everyone shared stories of their gorilla treks. It was an incredible day. One I won’t forget anytime soon.