Gorillas!

Trip Start May 04, 2012
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Trip End May 16, 2012


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Where I stayed

Flag of Uganda  ,
Sunday, May 13, 2012

Well here it was the highlight of the holiday the day we were to trek gorillas . It was an early start so we picked up our walking stick from reception and our packed lunch and David came to take us to the Buhoma ranger station where we would be given a short briefing. We were the first to arrive and we were sat down to watch a long video about the gorillas. It was 1 hours but we didn't have time to watch it all thankfully, we wanted to see the real thing and that was what we were here for.
 
We were taken outside and divided up into our trekking groups. Only two groups were running that day as it was out of season. We all tucked our trousers into our socks so that those dreaded ants didn't climb up our trousers while the ranger went through a few safety points. The most frightening being if a gorilla charges you, you must assume a non threatening position hunched with your head down. I admit I felt quite nervous and wondered whether I was up to a 5 hour trek if we needed to.

Only 6 people can visit a group at any one time and you must remain 7m away , however they can get closer to you which they often did. The Habinyanja group was habituated in 1997 and are very used to tourists. The name Habinyanja comes from the root of the Rukiga word for ‘body of water’ (nyanja). The original group was first sighted near a two pond swamp in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The trackers keep tabs on the gorilla groups until they settle down for the night. Gorillas sleep in specially created nests that are created by pulling together branches and leaves and are usually created on the ground. This way the trackers know where they are so that the group can be relocated the next day and this can be relayed to the guides.

We were following the 'H’ group or the Habinyanja gorilla family that numbered 18 individuals including a 3 day old baby. We had to go on a 40 minute car journey from the ranger station to take us closer to where they were, I have to admit I was mighty relieved we weren't walking it. 

We ended up losing the other car for about 20 minutes with half our group in it because they had taken a wrong turn and I began to feel worried that by the time we got there the gorillas may have moved on. Finally they found us again and we got to the drop off point. Here the porters and rangers were waiting for us. Some were armed with rifles, as we were told the elephants in the area were not that friendly but I am sure it also has something to do the volatile history of the area with their neighbouring country the Democratic Republic of Congo.

We decided to hire a porter to carry the backpack and we started off on quite a steep hill. I obviously looked as though I was struggling even though I felt I wasn’t as one porter was pushing me from behind while another pulled me by the hand. I wasn’t sure whether this was really helping but I was certainly making good headway up the hill. After 20 minutes the ranger heard over the radio that the group were coming this way. In fact we caught up with them in another twenty minutes. My first sight was a black shape in the thick vegetation. Ahead of us a tracker carved out a path in the dense vegetation with a machete while following behind us were the rangers armed with rifles.

Soon we could make out individuals the ranger guided us to spots where we could best observe the gorillas and stray vegetation was chopped down by machete. It was quite difficult to photograph as they were often obscured by bushes and the lighting wasn't good. Then all of a sudden one would turn to face you their eyes appearing to look straight into yours and you cannot describe the feeling you have.    

We followed the group as they made their way through the forest. It was difficult going as the floor of the forest was slippery and there were various obstacles to get over mainly broken trees. The area isn't flat and  I found myself using the branches of trees and bushes to help myself along and to prevent me slipping on the wet leaves that carpetted the forest floor. I could see why they call it impenetrable.

The silver back Makara was huge and as he came into view he immediately broke down a small tree as though to remind us all that he was number one here. You could particularly see his bulk when he turned his back on you, his huge shape silhouetted against he forest vegetation. They can weigh up to 400lb and he couldn't have been far short of this.

We could see some of the babies riding on their mother’s back like tiny jockeys. Their large eyes dolefully looking back at us. Everywhere we looked the gorillas were feeding, ripping down branches and devouring the leaves. They appeared to be eating incessantly, plucking the best shoots and leaves and stuffing them in their mouthes.  It seemed incredible that these huge animals feed exclusively on vegetation. The forest branches shook and were continually moving as individuals passed through, sometimes only feet from where we stood. At one point there was a thundering past us and I thought for a moment one of us had fallen but it was a young male charging through close enough to almost touch us. Strangely at no point did I feel at all frightened, just an overpowering feeling of amazement and an appreciation of this wonderful experience. They appeared almost totally oblivious to us a testament to the work carried out to habituate these groups and provide us with such an experience. We heard that some silverbacks are even able to tell when an hour is up and immediately move the group on.

Each gorilla looked very different and within a short time you would  be able to distinguish the different individuals quite easily, certainly the rangers all knew them by name. They also told us a little about their different personalities, commenting that a particular individual was naughty or shy. Much of a gorilla's appeal is that they are so like us in their actions and movements and their faces are incredibly expressive. watching them and the way they interacted with each other was like watching a throwback to our ancestors.

We were lucky enough to see the latest arrival in the group Nyamuhango ‘s 3 day old baby. The baby was so tiny and being carefully cradled by her mother. It was such a thrill to see such a tiny gorilla.

A couple of times we heard the sound of males thumping their chests. It is an amazing sound that echoes around the forest and was often accompanied by shreiking as small disagreements broke out in the group.

All too soon the hour was up and we were making our way back out of the forest. I felt really lucky to have experienced this and could see why it is rated the number one wildlife encounter. It isn’t cheap each gorilla permit costs $500 and I believe they are going up. However, for me it was worth every penny. What isn’t widely known is that even if you are infirm or disabled there is no reason why you cannot visit the gorillas. For $350 the porters will carry you up to see them.  For most people of reasonable fitness it isn’t that bad, the sticks are useful giving you another leg and I would definitely recommend getting a porter to carry your bags and cameras. It can be humid and the air is thin but if I, an overweight 50 year old can manage it then I think most people can. It is worth taking a waterproof as you don’t know whether it might rain but you don’t want anything too hot and cumbersome so one of those cheap plastic capes would suffice. Mahogany Springs supplied us with one for free. It is a good idea to have sturdy boots and you definitely need long trousers and long sleeves just to protect yourself from the scratchy vegetation.

Here are a few interesting facts about gorillas. The name comes from the Greek meaning hairy women! There are only about 720 mountain gorillas left in the world and they are only found in 3 countries - Uganda, Rwanda, and Democratic Republic of Congo. Half of the mountain gorilla population is in Uganda in Bwindi. Incredibly they even have individual fingerprints like us and their DNA is 98-99% identical to a humans. Male gorillas can eat up to  54llbs of food a day!

We made our way back to the lodge and ate our packed lunch on the balcony . Almost immediately there was an incredible rainstorm and for a few minutes you could hardly make out the mountains. We were so lucky that this hadn’t happened in the morning as it would have made trekking very difficult and it would have been hard to have taken decent photographs.

David suggested that in the afternoon we watch the children dancing from the local school. We hadn’t realised that we would be the only visitors so felt a little like royalty and slightly embarrassed. The dancing was incredible and they performed a dance from all the different regions of Uganda. They explained to us that when tourists first started to visit the area to see the gorillas there was a lot of begging and they felt that this was not how the community wanted to be portrayed. It was decided that they would put on cultural activities and create crafts that tourists would pay for and get money for the community in this way. I ended up buying a fantastic drawing of a gorilla done by one of the pupils at the school. We would have bought more things but we knew our bags were fit to bust so we gave a donation.

Since coming home we have decided that we are going to support both the Bwindi hospital and the school.

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