Gorilla tracking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
25.07.2012 - 27.07.2012 24 °C
So this is why they call it Bwindi Impenetrable Forest!! We are two hours into a gorilla hike in the borderlands of Uganda, DRC and Rwanda, and our group of eight tourists is advancing at a snails' rate of about one metre per minute. At the front, our ranger is cutting his way through dense jungle vegetation with a scythe. We are making our way up a slope as close to 90 degrees as either of us has ever seen, and underfoot is mud, slippery vines and fallen branches. Every step has to be taken cautiously to ensure we don't fall into hidden holes in the mountainside. At one point Grant is taken out by a fellow tourist and both plunge head over heels into dense jungle undergrowth. All this in the name of spotting mountain gorillas!
We booked a couple of spaces to see mountain gorillas several months ago, given that these things book up very quickly. There are only 700 mountain gorillas left in the wild, half of whom are in Uganda and some of whom are "habituated" to humans, and can therefore be visited by small groups. On the morning of 26 July we joined several other eager gorilla-spotting tourists for a briefing on gorilla etiquette, all looking exactly the same: white Westerners with hiking boots, trekking trousers in brownish colours , equipped with big cameras. After the briefing , we set off into the jungle to find our group, the Kahungye.
Stunning scenery around Nkuringo Gorilla Camp, where we stayed
At the briefing before hitting the jungle where we met our guide and AK-47 wielding guard, who would keep jungle elephants and "non-habituated" gorillas at bay
Things started off easily enough in the open farmland of the foothills, but soon enough we found ourselves following a dry river bed up into proper jungle territory. The path was at best narrow and extremely strenuous to follow; at worst non-existent and being cut by our guide as we went.
Welcome to the Impenetrable Forest of Bwindi - don't come in here without a good scythe and an AK-47
Trackers had been out since early morning to locate our gorilla group, starting from the last location they had been in the day before. Worryingly, for the first three hours of our trek, they reported to our guide by radio that they had not yet located our gorilla group. By the time they did locate them, we had already been hiking up and down dense jungle terrain for several hours, and taken a couple of wrong turns. As we moved through the jungle our guide called out regularly, seeking a response from the trackers. Nothing but silence greeted the calls (apart from the usual humming of the jungle) and our group was beginning to worry that we might be the first group this year not to see gorillas.
We passed an "African helicopter"on the way - for those who can't handle jungle and need to be carried
An Italian guy in our group was really struggling. He kept falling behind and calling out desperately in Italian. His friend did what he could to encourage him and our guide left the front to go with him and cheer him along. When he asked him how he was doing we could hear his response: "I am dead! I am dead!". But obviously he wasn't and he bravely pushed on (and he also made it back, without an African helicopter).
Our hopes grew as we started to find gorilla droppings on the trail we were following, then a group of gorilla nests; grass and branches laid out on the jungle floor showing signs of having been slept in. Finally, four hours after we had started, our guides call to the trackers was answered by the trackers somewhere down the slope from where we were. By 2pm we had met up with the trackers and were moving as silently as possible through a swampy valley area deep in the jungle. Every fifty metres the tracker would stop and scan the dense greenery on both sides. After 200 metres or so, he stopped and pointed to some movement in the overgrowth to our right. Suddenly, a senior male silverback gorilla emerged, lumbering down the slope on all fours and heading to a nearby tree where he sat pulling vines down and eating. As we stood on the other side of the swamp around thirty metres away, we suddenly saw that the hillside was full of the Kahungye gorilla group as the gorillas began moving. They are not exactly camouflaged animals, but their habitat is so dense that you could easily walk right past one and never see it.
Can you spot them? A couple of members of the Kahungye gorilla group emerge from the greenery
Now that we had located them, we got to hang out with the family for well over the allotted hour, probably because our guide and the rangers pitied us for the unusually long hike. Our guide led us across the swamp and onto the hillside where the family was stealthily moving through the undergrowth, eating as it went. We advanced slowly, following the family as they moved. The guide and trackers made low growling noises as we went; apparently a way of comforting the gorillas about our presence on their turf.
Glimpses of gorillas in their natural habitat, where they are not always easy to spot
We got to watch the baby of the gorilla family playing in small trees and then hopping on to his mum's back to be carried off. We got particularly close to the silverbacks, who were clearly the most comfortable with human attention. Nonetheless, when one of the tourists stepped onto his path, he charged loudly to make clear no-one should stand in his way!
Silverback on the move!
A beautiful young male sat staring at us with our cameras for about ten minutes only a few metres away; close enough to watch the thoughts running through his head as his eyes scanned our group with interest.
This young male seemed almost as interested in us strange humans as we were in him
All too soon our time was up. We watched as the Kahungye gorillas lumbered through the vegetation and disappeared into the jungle ahead of us. We felt incredibly privileged to have shared some time with them in their natural habitat. It was past three o'clock and we paused to eat our packed lunches before leaving. By that point we had all been bitten to numbness by thousands of tiny mosquitos that swarmed all over the swamp area. It felt as if the gorillas had picked the most insect-infested part of the jungle for us to find them in just to spite us!
We walked another 3.5 hours to get out of the jungle and back to the car park, thankfully by a flatter path than that we had come in on. We had left the car park at 9h30 in the morning and it was after 18h30 when we returned. Some groups had taken two or three hours to locate their gorilla groups that day; our outing was a nine hour round trip. We considered we had got value for money!
Beautiful views as we finally emerged from the jungle and into the open mountain scenery of the south west of Uganda
Some people say gorilla tracking is an artificial activity where tourists get to snap photos of "stage managed" families. Others bemoan the high price of permits as a reason not to go. Our experience was only positive: while the groups you can track are "habituated" to humans, they are very much wild. They are not fed by humans and it is never known where they will be. The trackers and guides are not only very skilled but also extremely sensitive to steering tourists into position to view the gorillas without it feeling intrusive. Above all, the tourist permit system has apparently eradicated poaching of gorillas not only by keeping close track of gorilla groups and preserving their habitat but by ploughing money into the local economy that gives alternative revenue sources to potential poachers. Gorilla numbers are now slowly increasing after decades of decline.
The experience of spending time in the presence of our distant cousins in their native territory was a truly unforgettable experience and well worth the sore legs and uncountable mosquito bites!