In some ways, I suspect what I post here will not be much different from other people who have posted about seeing the gorillas. If you’re into it, which you must be if you’re willing to pay the price, it really is almost magical. My dad asked me ‘why’ and I’m not sure I can articulate it any better than anyone else. There’s just something about being a few feet away, in the middle of the jungle, looking into faces so much like your own (technically they’re our second-nearest living ape relative, after chimps), seeing them amble around utterly uncaring about you staring at them … I don’t know, it is just pretty incredible.
To begin, we meet at the ranger station around 8am, where we
get one of our many, many preparation talks about the fragility of the gorilla immune system, eco system, and how to behave in their presence. If you are feeling ill and bow out then you get a 50% refund (permits are in theory $500, which is what our tour companies charge us, but in fact they had all been purchased before the prices went up from $360 a few months ago). If you go on the trek and get ill and the guide sends you back, no refund. If you go on a trek and don’t see a gorilla, you get a 70% refund, but that has only happened twice in the last 2 years.
I am in “H” group (the largest), which involves driving about 45 minutes to an hour away before beginning our trek. In my group are 6 brits (three couples in their 40s), the gay italian couple (one maybe in his 30s the other I’d say late 40s or early 50s), one nearly 70-year-old aussie (a “tough old bird” as she calls herself) and me. I was concerned about “L” the nearly-70-year-old, and in fact she had a really tough time of it, slipping and falling three times. But that was as much from the fact that she didn’t wear proper shoes (hers had no tread whatsoever) as to her age, I suspect.
When we get to the spot where we begin to walk we are advised to hire a porter, for $10 USD (plus tip). I certainly do and they are very helpful. If you’re reading this planning on going trekking, HIRE ONE. They are instrumental in helping you climb the very steep slopes. I had mine assist L some of the time, as she needed more help than I did. She probably should have hired 2, but we all agreed she should have the biggest porter, who I’d say was well over 6 feet. My porter was named Charles and was small but strong, and very solicitous to make sure he got thorn branches out of the way before I passed by.
The climb up is very very steep and for a lot of the time you’re not on any trail at all. The guide is just hacking away with a machete and you’re trying to climb over tree trunks and stay upright. I should point out that there are trackers and guards who stay with the gorillas and pick up the spot they left the previous day. Once they find them in the morning, they radio the guides to tell them where to go. The guards are there in part to protect the tourists from what happened in 1999, and in part to protect the gorillas from poachers and others (see earlier post about what’s currently going on in Congo). There isn’t much risk in this area, but Uganda depends so much on money from gorilla tourism, that it is worth it for them to invest in many armed guards to be safe.
It turns out the gorillas were very close to the road and we only had to walk about 20 minutes to get to them (of course you would never know there was a road that close by, the forsest was so thick!). Nonetheless, the 20 minutes was pretty crazy steep. I had read it is good to bring garden gloves and though I was the only one who had them, I was really glad I did. They keep you from getting blisters from the walking stick you must use to help with the steepness, and you grab vegetation a lot and quite a bit of it has thorns. I bought mine at Target for like $2.50 so I recommend bringing some if you can. I left them behind when I was done (as I did my rain poncho). It rains VERY hard there, but fortunately it didn’t rain until after we were done. Climbing that mountain in the rain would have been tough going indeed!
About 5 minutes from where the gorillas are they have us switch the order of our line so the slowest person is first (read “The Goal” about Herbie the Boy Scout to figure out why) but it didn’t make too much difference, we got to the first gorilla in a few minutes and then all fanned out to see him.
So what’s it like? You’re walking in this thick woods and then you see this black-as-black lump sitting on the ground and you realize “oh my god that’s a gorilla” and he turned to look at us and he just … looked at us, and sat up, and just kind of lazed around. (This blackback was named Maynara, but I’ll clarify names later). Throughout our time there the guide was hacking a new path in the forest, very loudly, but the gorillas didn’t even seem to notice or mind.
After a few minutes of us just enamored with him (they say you shouldn’t look into the eyes of the gorillas, but when he locks eyes with you it’s really hard to turn away), I look up the hill and there’s another black lump only a few feet away.
Upon closer inspection we see a female (this was Runyoko, again spelled wrong) and her five month old male baby. Oh my god the baby was this the cutest thing on the planet!!! The baby (not yet named, just called “Runyoko baby”) loved showing off for us so he would climb into a tree about 3′ off the ground and just swing back and forth as we were all ga-ga watching him. He then walks over about 10 feet and we realize one of the silverbacks is sitting against a tree. The “H” group has 2 silverbacks, the main one and a 2nd one, who may be either the brother or son of the main one. This was the 2nd-in-charge silverback, but is probably the father of this baby as he and Runyoko are very tight.
The baby went up to him and started climbing on him and he started playing with it, letting it climb on his hand and climb over him to get to swing some more. After about 20 minutes of us just looking at them, we notice a whole bunch more up in the trees above us. At some point, just as we’re about to move on to a different area, two of them come crashing down to the ground with great speed. I thought they might be pregnant, but no, they are just really big animals.
As we start to move on toward the other part of the group where the other silverback is, Runyoko picks up the baby, puts him on her back, and starts walking toward us. THe guides tell us to get back, but moving around this rainforest is not very easy at all. Eventually she passes by us, maybe 3 feet in front of me, and with putting two of the men in the group between her and the silverback, pretty much the exact place we were told never to be. As soon as she passes the guys hot-tail it over to the rest of us, fortunately the silverback didn’t get upset.
WHere we are we see maybe 8 others up in the trees, and we see the other silverback at the base. At one point L falls again, and slides a bit down the hill so she walks over to a tree to upright herself. But that little bit of space put her into ‘the gorilla zone’. We say L, you need to come back, you need to come back. She a bit dazed from her fall and says “I just need to rest a minute here” and I say “there’s a gorilla which has just slid down the other side of that tree and is about a foot away from you.” The frozen look on her face was pretty indescribable. I grab onto one of the italian guys with one hand, he lowers me down a bit and I grab onto L with my other hand. We pull her back up, but the gorilla which had slid down the tree went further down the hill away from us.
We watch this part of the group for another 15 or 20 minutes, but they move off into an area that is too thick for us to follow. In all, we were probably with the gorillas for about 1.5 hours. You’re allowed 1 hour with them, but we were with two different subgroups for about 40 minutes each.
You are not allowed to photograph the gorillas with a flash, and my camera isn’t really cut out for high quality work like that, so very few of my hundreds of photos came out but I’ll post them as soon as I can.
After returning to our cars we sat on the ground and had boxed lunches. We then went to go, but were kidnapped into visiting a presentation by local kids. This is sort of the “price” you pay for visiting the gorillas, in addition to the actually fees. You sit through many many dance sessions by kids in order to get money. On the one hand, they desperately need the money, and because all the people viewing are associated with the gorillas, it helps remind them that the gorillas are more valuable alive than poached, but it’s a hard lesson. People need food, they need farmland, and they aren’t very keen on the concept that people pay more for 1 hour with the gorillas than they probably get in income over a decade.
Anyway, we watched the kids danced, we looked at their goods for sale which range from baskets to carvings to “artwork” (one british couple bought two crayon drawings of gorillas which we heartily laughed about on the way back, as being their priceless refridgerator art). It’s all good, but there’s a little part of me that feels the kids are as much ‘on display’ as the gorillas and I’m not comfortable with that.
In fact, part of my ‘official’ tour was to include a visit to a pygmy village which, when my driver X told me about, I absolutely refused. Others tell me they feel this is a way to keep a culture alive, I feel it’s exploiting people, and was the same reason we didn’t visit a Masai village in Tanzania. Granted, they make good money from it, but I still can’t help feeling that it makes them no different than the monkeys or gorillas in the forest we pay to gawk and and commune with, and that to me is not acceptable. Its the line that separates people and animals, people are not be treated like zoo objects, looked at and photographed simply because they “are”.
In sum, I was on a gorilla high for the rest of the day. I have the picture of that baby swinging from the branches, and of that first blackback we saw, just seared into my brain.
Gorilla Photos, finally!
Tags: Africa, Bwindi, Gorillas, Travel, Uganda