The tracker used his sharp machete to clear away one final vine and there, sitting calmly in the dense green trees, was an enormous silverback gorilla. This beautiful mountain gorilla was grabbing branches off the nearest tree and stripping the leaves off to shove in his mouth. If he was aware of the 10-plus humans standing within feet of him, he showed no sign of alarm or distress. He calmly gazed at us and kept on munching. I was trembling with delight. Our incredibly difficult hike had paid off with this exquisite sight.
Our trek began in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park at 8 a.m. that morning after an educational briefing about our specific gorilla family, the Mubara Group. Mubara is a family of 12 gorillas led by the calm silverback Malaya. Mubara was the first gorilla group in Uganda to be habituated for tourist trekking in 1991. The process of habituating wild gorillas to humans takes several years; expert guides carefully spend increasing amounts of time with the wild animals so that they become accustomed to humans.
Omax, our lead guide, explained how important it was to keep our distance from the gorillas, for our safety, as well as theirs. Gorillas and humans share over 99 percent of their DNA, and so even a common cold or traveler’s diarrhea could affect the gorilla population. Children are not allowed to gorilla trek; childhood diseases are too dangerous for the gorillas.
Trekkers go out in groups of eight tourists plus a lead guide, an armed guard, and whatever porters are hired to carry gear and help along the trek. The armed guard is necessary in case we encounter wild mountain elephants who can be quite dangerous and will charge; if that had happened the guard would have shot his gun into the air to scare them away. Several hours ahead of us was our group of trackers who had left at first light to find the gorillas, beginning their search where the gorillas were last seen the day before. The trackers were in contact with our lead guide the entire time, so we could be directed to the gorilla family’s location.
The trek was very difficult. While we were on a worn path most of the time, the incline was steep. We hiked for well over two hours through dense forest, stunning fields of thistles whose leaves were bigger than my head, and, finally, we walked along the top of the ridge among soaring Mahogany trees.
The group eased in and out of the foliage, helping each other get great views of the gorilla and even better camera shots. The energy zinging between us was exhilarating. The silverback lounged on to his stomach and called to one of the female gorillas, who then came over and leaned over him, combing her fingers through his back hair, grooming him.
As the gorillas moved, we moved with them, following them along pathways or through dense underbrush. We had just stopped along a pathway to watch the gorillas strip more leaves off the trees for lunch when I squatted down on to the jungle floor to take some shots of a female about 20 feet in front of me. She slowly turned and started walking towards me. When she was about three feet from me I put down my camera and just watched her as she kept walking, glancing up at me and then literally brushing right past me. I put my head into my hands, my heart beating rapidly, and then looked up to make sure she was well past me. I had just come face-to-face, body-to-body, with a wild mountain gorilla. It was thrilling. My husband Josh managed to capture the whole encounter on film and the look on my face as I stood up says it all — “That was remarkable!”
There was only one moment during our entire hour with the gorillas when we felt any fear. All eight of us were crouched on the jungle floor as the silverback pursed his lips and cooed to a nearby female. It was a new sound for all of us and quite enchanting, so unique and beautiful that several of us had our video cameras rolling to capture it. But just as soon as he stopped making the sound he started running through the undergrowth, snapping twigs and making quite the ruckus. The sudden movement and loud crashing noises terrified all of us as we fell back and scrambled, in vain, to get out of the way. But Omax, our lead guide, stayed still and entreated us to do the same. You can hear his voice on my video repeating calmly, “sit still, sit still, this is just part of their normal behavior.” In fact, the silverback was not being aggressive, but rather, playful. He quickly settled down and the female came to him and, again, started grooming him. Later, with a small grin on his face, Omax told us all, “you may as well stay still and not try and run, these gorillas are so fast and so strong there is nothing you could do anyway.”
We spent our allotted time of one hour with the gorillas and begrudgingly turned down the path and down through the jungle back to base camp. On our slow hike down, I reminded my husband Josh that I had convinced him to go gorilla trekking, stating, “it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” Obviously, now that we had done it, I renegotiated that concept: we will be back to trek again.
Mountain gorillas are heavily protected, and the government carefully monitors their exposure to tourists while also using the cash influx from tourism to further protect these wild beauties. There are a limited number of gorilla permits sold each year and they require advance purchase. Uganda is currently the least expensive place to trek for gorillas since Rwanda recently doubled its trekking permit prices and the Congo is mostly closed to tourists for the foreseeable future due to safety issues. Bwindi gorilla trekking permits are $600 per person, per day in Uganda.
From Entebbe, we took a small, single prop airplane across verdant farmland and landed an hour later on a dirt airstrip in Kihihi, Uganda. From there it was a bumpy hour-long ride on red dirt roads through villages, rolling hills, tea plantations and fields of livestock. If you go, count on spending three full days in or near Bwindi with one day of trekking. Although we came to see the gorillas, we equally enjoyed the community tour and getting to know the locals. When we go back, I hope to spend four full days there — two to spend with the people and two to go gorilla trekking.