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  • Day36

    Gorillas in Uganda

    October 21, 2019 in Uganda ⋅ ⛅ 22 °C

    So, after much deliberation about the substantial costs involved in seeing the gorillas (and getting our permits arranged last minute through the manager of our accommodation one day in advance), here we are: heading into the gloriously-named Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. This is home to a significant population of the tragically rare mountain gorilla.

    At 7am, we gather at the reception centre, where we are treated to a traditional dance by a local women’s group. We are also briefed about our gorilla encounter. The rangers stress that although the chances of seeing the apes is high, they are wild animals, so it is not guaranteed. They also tell us what we should and shouldn’t do during our encounter. Most importantly, we should never, ever run, no matter what happens. If we are threatened by a gorilla, we should act submissive. I naïvely dismiss this as standard health and safety talk, but it will turn out to be very prescient advice.

    We are divided into groups, based on which gorilla family we are visiting. Looking around, it appears as though this division is based on physical fitness- the older visitors are grouped together, and we are with the youngest, fittest looking group.

    This means that we are sent to the most remote gorilla group. To reach them, we drive 20 minutes to the edge of the forest, then start a 2-hour climb directly up the mountain. It is strenuous to say the least, and one of the older members of our group- the father of a German family- genuinely looks like he is going to have a heart attack. The ranger then takes the opportunity to inform us that, should we not be able to make it, we will have to hire an “African helicopter” (two local lads with a stretcher) to take us to the gorillas and back. The price varies on the weight of the struggling individual, but can be as high as $500. Hearing this, the German father perks up and is able to make it to the top of the mountain.

    It’s not quite the end of the trek though- we now have to push into the impenetrable forest, which is very aptly named. It feels like a lost world, full of lush vegetation, dense mist, and the distant hoots and calls of far-off animals.

    At one point, the ranger excitedly stops the group and asks for our binoculars. I hand them over, apologising for the quality and explaining that you can only look out of one eye because they are terrible. The ranger looks deep into the forest and exclaims that there is a forest elephant way off in the distance. I look through the binoculars and only see a roughly-elephant-shaped-rock. We tell him that it’s just a rock. “No, it’s definitely an elephant”. “But it hasn’t moved at all.” “It’s very still”. We press on.

    All of a sudden, the ranger’s walkie-talkie bursts into life- the trackers have found the gorillas, and we are very close. The excitement levels soar to the highest point since seeing that rock. We pick up the pace, and, with a sense of purpose, make our way deep into the bush, the ranger hacking a path through the densest sections. He turns back to me and points ahead: “There are biting ants here”, to which I respond by pointing to our feet “There are biting ants here, too”. “THERE ARE ANTS ON THE TRAIL, EVERYONE MOVE QUICKLY”. Gathering our energy, we sprint through a giant colony of ants, and come out the other side, picking the safari ants off our clothes and skin.

    Then, all of a sudden, there’s the grunt. The guttural, powerful grunt of the gorilla. We peel back the bush, and there it is- curiously peeking out at us. It is unreal- being just feet away from this huge, charismatic, endangered beast. Our hearts skip beats and we have to catch our breaths. We head in, and a new mother is cradling a baby gorilla. She looks us each dead in the eye, and theres a sense of familiarity and connection that we haven’t had with any other animal. She proudly shows us the young one, which is one of the most adorable things we’ve ever seen.

    We head in further still, and there’s a family of about 7 gorillas playing in the trees. We are marvelling at these incredible creatures, when all of a sudden there’s a large rustling, and without warning the giant silverback charges out of the bush, directly at us. The rangers shout urgently to remind us “DON’T RUN!” The silverback runs at the German daughter, and raises himself on his legs. He is gigantic, all muscle and fangs and roaring. He is King Kong, and he is screaming at us, beating his chest furiously. “DON’T RUN!” “DON’T RUN”. And we don’t. And we try our best to look submissive but probably just look completely terrified. But it works, and, satisfied that he’s shown his dominance, the silverback charges back into the bush, leaving us be. It is terrifying, it is adrenaline, and it is the wildest, most extreme experience of our lives.
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