An acrobat appears in the forest
FORT PORTAL, Uganda – It’s 7 a.m. and time to rise. Did my routine and went for breakfast. Then I went over to the guides’ hut. We were split into groups according to the information on our permits. Six per group, one guide, and two trackers sent out in front of us and three armed guards, two in back and one in front. We were told not to be alarmed by the guards that they were there for our safety. You must know that this is the exact place where in 1998 Congolese rebels swept into the “gorilla’s rest” camp – the super high-end one – and took white and black hostages and marched them toward the Congo. They killed eight and the rest were released when the Army came. Now there is a strong army presence at Bwindi and thus, the armed guards. I was put in a group with four Dutch and one Canadian gal. The Canadian was extremely well traveled. She had been to Africa several times and new her way around. The Dutch, however, were a different lot. There were two girls about 20, a boy about the same age and a guy who was maybe 30. The girls talked and laughed non-stop all the way up and giggled and laughed at the steep slippery terrain on the way down. Even when one fell quite hard they continued laughing. It was very distracting for me when I was carefully plotting every step and very tired.
A hole in the jungleWe started out on the same trail we took yesterday which was gentle and well cleared. Then we came to what I can only describe as a hole in the jungle. We dove in following our guide and wandered though ferns and other plants on fairly flat ground. Then we dropped over a ledge down to a creek and up the other side. There was a trail of sorts. Then our guide took off up the mountain – no trail just dense under growth, ferns 5 feet to 8 feet high and tangling vines everywhere, some with thorns. We were climbing straight up the mountain side. Try to imagine Highline on Vail Mountain covered with a dense tropical jungle. Now imagine climbing straight up. That’s what it was like. I assumed that they didn’t traverse because of the amount of vegetation. We were three hours in and on our sixth or seventh rest stop, largely on my account, when the trackers came back to our guide and said they are there.
Joseph, our guide, said to get our cameras ready. Then we went through the densest possible vegetation with the tracker using a machete to clear the way. Swinging and hangingWe hadn’t walked more than 50 feet when I first saw a mountain gorilla. It was a baby, about 4 months old. It looked like a small child in the forest. As we got closer there was a female, then another baby, then a large male. We were as close a 7 feet from the baby and 10 feet from the adults. The vegetation being as dense as it was made photography challenging. The baby began to climb a small tree directly in front of us. He played and swung around till he slipped. Then he grabbed a vine above him and began an acrobatic routine that cracked us up. Swinging and hanging upside down. We could not get a good look at the silver back. We could see him behind a tree however. His hands were huge. Easily four times the size of mine. His arms were like tree trunks.
I did get a video of his face briefly, but our hour with the mountain gorillas of Bwindi was up. It was time to head back. But what an experience. It is truly indescribable what it is like to look into the eyes of a huge primate in the wild, at close proximity. There was a connection there, although a weak one. Nonetheless, it’s one I will never forget. An emergency? After a long hike back we were at the guides’ hut again. We were thanked and given a nice certificate that said we have gone gorilla tracking at Bwindi. I returned to my camp and showered. Boy, did that feel good. I took a small hand towel on the trek with me and wrung it out twice. It was filthy and soaked, as were my pants and shirt.
I waited for my Austrian friends to return. After half an hour I asked a guide about the group. He said that they had not located the gorillas yet and that it would be three hours before they returned. Yousef was itching to go. I wrote them a note thanking them for taking me into their group and befriending me. I left it with the camp manager and we hit the road. We were back in Ft Fort five hours later. Of course this is with Yousef’s driving in mind – 60 to 80 kilometers per hour on gravel and 90 to 100 on pavement, horn beeping and lights flashing all the way. You would have thought it was and emergency of the highest magnitude. It’s just the way he drives. I’m surprised he has never had an accident, or maybe he has, just with me not in the vehicle. Well I’m typed out for now. I am going to try to send this today.Vail, Colorado