Gorillas in Uganda
Here's a short account of our trek to see the mountain gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda
This from the Uganda Wildlife Authority website can probably describe the Bwindi Forest better than I can:
“Bwindi actually means 'Impenetrable.' This double warning is apt, for Bwind is all but impenetrable; 327km2 of tangled vegetation draped over a deeply fissured landscape of steep, slippery valleys and high, draughty ridges. But if the terrain is far from easy to negotiate, it is well worth the effort. A trek thruogh this, one of Africa's most ancient rainforests, in search of the endangered Mountain Gorillas, ranks among the world's premier wildlife encounters”
We’d heard that treks could last up to 9 hours so had come mentally prepared, but it was a great relief to hear that the group was not too far away. The ranger said that on one occasion they’d had to send someone back to the village to get torches because they’d walked so far that they were returning in the dark.
We set off through the maize fields along a narrow path – not difficult at this point, although the path was narrow and a bit muddy. When we got to the trees we followed a steeper path and had a few logs and vines to clamber over. We were lucky to find the group within 45 minutes. We didn’t imagine we’d get so near, the gorillas were totally relaxed. We couldn’t get the required 5 metres away if we tried because the vegetation was so dense. I had a heart-stopping moment when the silverback stood up in front of me, did a mock charge and did the full grunt/bark and chest beat – and no I didn’t get a photo, I was too busy legging it! (it wasn’t aimed at me by the way, but at another gorilla behind me, which I didn’t realise at the time). One of the little ones ran right in front of me, it was lovely to see they were so unafraid. After about 30 mins the group started to move slowly off, when the silverback decided to move. The guide said they would probably be moving into a more open area to feed and we would try to follow. Apparently November is a good time to track them because food is abundant and they don’t have to range too far to feed. There was no path at this point so the rangers hacked a way through the undergrowth to keep us as near as possible. The smaller ones entertained us with their antics in the trees, the older ones settled down to sleep or feed.
We spent a good hour with them, and then a little bit longer since 2 blackbacks had settled down for a kip and cut off our retreat so the rangers had to hack a new way out. This meant scrambling over trees and pushing through vines and bushes again. The walk back up the mountainside was much more difficult than I imagined at high altitude.
Photography was difficult in the thick vegetation but frankly I just enjoyed being there. The rangers did everything possible to ensure that we got as clear a view as possible, I couldn’t believe how tolerant the gorillas were to have these men with machetes hacking away at the undergrowth in front of them, then have us peering at them. It was interesting to hear that if we had picked up a machete or a stick, however, they would probably have seen us as aggressors and possibly attacked, they clearly trust the rangers implicitly. One silverback attacked and killed 2 hunting dogs recently, and sent the poachers packing, so they are clearly capable of doing serious damage to anything/anyone which disturbs them.
It was one of the best, if not the best wildlife experience I’ve ever had, it was one of those occasions to just put down the camera and take in the experience instead of looking through a lens. I probably got one good photo out of the visit, blown highlights and dark shadows everywhere, but for once it didn't matter!