On the 11th August, we woke up very early and got in the cab which took us to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda. The drive was bewildering. The sunrise was hidden by the trees and a thick layer of mist hovered over the canopies which carried back as far as we could see. As we rose higher above sea level and deeper into the forest, I became perplexed by how close neighbouring farms had been built to the gorilla’s natural habitat.
When we arrived we climbed up a steep hill to the briefing. There were several tour groups awaiting the start of the same briefing; there must have been a hundred people there. We were told about the work they do there, how they monitor this endangered species to support its survival and about the equipment that we were likely to need. There was an opportunity to hire gloves, socks and even a porter to carry your bags for you. We were welcomed to tip our guides and trackers, should we wish to.
The Hike begins
I picked up a walking stick and followed my guide, Paul, up another hill. It was littered with fallen tree trunks and the occasional pile of animal droppings. The higher we climbed, the more impressive the views with acres and acres of trees as far as you can see and purple and white wild flowers. Everywhere I looked was truly beautiful. Paul was frequently communicating with our trackers, Patrick and Jonathan, who were already with the gorillas.
We finally went off the track. We clambered downhill into the trees; the walking sticks were a welcomed support. Although some people seemed to struggle at times (Vicky frequently went down on her bum!) I thought the hiking was so much fun! I found the initial uphill climb quite tricky and I became breathless quickly. I also felt pressured when people didn’t leave a few paces either in front of or behind me so I decided to hang back and climb at the end of the group for this part, but when we came off track I felt really stable on my feet and am quite proud to say I didn’t stumble once! After about an hour, we stopped to rest! We had a snack of Pringles and water before heading off again.
After another hour, Paul told us that the gorillas were moving, and were heading towards us. For this reason, we had a shorter hike then most other groups. He encouraged us to sit on a log, but I was too excited to sit. I paced in a small circle and no sooner had some members of the group sat down, than they were told we were moving again! I was now at the front of the group and had my eyes peeled.
I heard it before I saw it. A deep, quiet grunt. A rustle in the leaves. A snap of a branch. Then I saw a tall, thin tree being pulled down from the sky. The tracker I was closest to returned the grunting noise, as my eyes fell upon a great black hand, with strong, thick, defined fingers grasping a branch of a tree. The silver on his back glistened in the sunshine and I marvelled at the size of this beautiful, intelligent creature. I heard movement to my right and turned to see a black backed juvenile disappearing in the thick of the bush. I turned back to the silverback and adored the way it selected each branch with those large, human-like hands and was amazed at how peaceful this gentle giant seemed.
I was then told to “follow that path”. The path was non-existent! It was bushes, trees, twigs, leaves piled high, no different than the foliage that surrounded the gorilla! Still I scrambled across the ‘path’ after the tracker, followed by the others in the group. The trackers helped create an easier route with hooks and machetes. Here, I saw the juvenile again. There were two of them, munching on leaves, much like the silverback.
Then I heard awws from the other girls as we noticed an infant, just six months old, climbing down a tall tree, peering towards us. He climbed confidently and competently down and moved towards its mother. By now, the silverback had moved, and we saw a great sight of mother, father and infant sitting in a line. The infant proceeded to lull around on its back, with his feet in the air, picking at his toes. It made my heart melt when he lost his balance and toppled to the side. He then jumped up and climbed on his mother, who nonchalantly allowed her little one to poke at and chew her fingers, occasionally poking him back.
Every now and then, the trackers would decide they wanted a different member of the group to have a closer look. I remember on one occasion he took my hand and pulled me up and over a tree, through a bush and left me no more than two metres from the silverback. I also had to suppress my laughter when I saw him do the same to Sarah, except her ‘path’ was basically vertical; despite the exasperated look on her face, it was clear she now had a great view!
After just one hour of admiration, photos and gorilla selfies later, it was time for us to
leave the family in peace. We only had a 45 minute hike back to our pick up point. Although it went quite quickly, Nikki aggravated an old knee injury, so the two of us took the hike slower than the rest of the group. We spotted a grand colobus monkey swinging in the trees as we crossed a stream below.
I have never experienced anything like seeing these animals in their natural habitat. Before the trek, I had prepared myself by watching and reading Gorillas in the Mist. It became clear that much of the information I had learnt from Dian Fossey’s work has now been updated, but it is a fantastic starting point on which to build foundations of understanding about the gorillas. She dedicated her life to fighting to ensure the survival of these creatures and when I was among them I was not surprised that she fell so deeply in love with them. They are one of the most wonderful, intelligent and beautiful creatures I have ever encountered and feel blessed that I have done so.