Tracking Gorillas in the Wilderness

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Deep in Uganda’s south-west lies the forested region of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. There are numerous ways to access the nearby town of Kisoro but the most popular option is an adventure on its own.

I make the ten-hour journey from Entebbe in a four-wheel drive. The road is long, dry and bumpy, my driver jokes about the free African massage. There is no air conditioning and with the windows wound down a film of orange dust settles on my bare arms.

Uganda’s climate is perfect for growing fresh food and there is an abundance being sold at kiosks along the dusty road. Whilst the food bowl is full, there is still a lack of access to fresh water and therefore women and children in the searing heat walk for kilometres balancing plastic yellow containers above their head.

I spend the night in Kisoro but I am anxious as I can’t wait to head into the jungle to search for a Silverback Gorilla.

The morning begins with an education session. The essential number one rule is “whatever you do, do not run” – okay that sounds easy enough.

After leaving the education room, a guide explains the topography that consists of three volcanoes nicknamed “the guide,” “old man’s teeth” and “small pile of stones.” I umm and ahh in agreeance. Our self appointed guide discusses re-forestation and the lack of education about soil and regeneration within local villages. As interesting as it is I have one thing on my mind. He weighs over two hundred and fifty pounds and an arm span of about two point three metres.

The weather conditions are fine and our guide is confident that the trackers know the general area of the gorilla’s whereabouts.

We begin our trek through the dense forest. Our guide uses a machete to help us weave through the thick growth of vines, stinging nettles and harshness of overgrown vegetation. Heading uphill it’s quite an exhausting walk but fortunately after only an hour and a half we hear rustling in the distance. I can barely breath at the distinct sound of an animal. A resonating roar and the crushing of leaves echoes through the mountain.

My heart is pounding under the pressure of excitement and fear. I pause to see what is happening. By standing still I have unintentionally broken the group into two and exposed myself to the path of a wild male silverback gorilla. His monstrous knuckles thump the ground. Barking and pounding he seems irate.

Without warning the giant silverback leaps directly in front of me. Arms poised in defence, standing still in my tracks I recall the number one rule ‘whatever you do don’t run.’

At the pinnacle of my fear I turn my back towards him. The ape swings his 2 metre arms at me. With only a camera bag strapped over my back for protection, the gorilla raises his enormous hairy hand and I feel the wrath of his anger on my tush!

My saving grace, gorillas are easily distracted. My good fortune is another’s terror. A training guide who has accompanied us on the trek dashes down the side of the hill, the Silverback turns towards her. Fortunately she slips and again he loses interest. Phew we’re all still alive.

Shaking, I struggle to gain my breath. I am standing next to a German who appears strong and tough. I show him my trembling hands and he replies with “I think I pooed my pants, seriously” I nervously laugh, scared but yearning to see more.

With an air of in trepidation we slowly, quietly walk through the jungle observing these incredible creatures in the wild, they’re human like faces are filled with emotion. All up we see a family of 9 including a few playful youngsters eating and playing they are mostly unfazed by our presence.

But that doesn’t last for long as again we hear the rustle and roars of the tussle of gorillas. Nearing the commotion we realise that two of the gorillas are engaged in a scuffle. The commotion is right in front of us. At first it appears they are play fighting but I am reminded by how fierce these creatures can be. Once the silverback notices us he stands at full height. This time the guide tells us to stop and back away.

Instead of running away I slowly walk backwards until I am safely nestled against a tree. Breathless but intrigued I watch as the silverback mimics a scene out of King Kong. With nostrils flared he displays his long fangs, the roars are spine chilling. With fists clenched he raises his elongated, muscle-clad arms high above his head. Fists clenched he beats his chest. I don’t know if it’s through fear, astonishment or pure entertainment but nobody moves, not even to reach for camera. Just like the previous encounter the gorilla loses interest, lowers his body and with knuckles clenched bounds back into the jungle on all fours.

Still reeling in the close encounters we move away from the gorillas and trek along another unspoilt path until we are safely out of the jungle.

At the end of our tour our guide assures us that we have not upset or aggravated them in anyway. They are usually happy for tourists to observe and take photos, and it’s not uncommon especially for the babies to be quite playful. On our visit a silverback was protecting his family from an intruding male who was rummaging on his turf.

To spend just an hour or in our case and hour and a half observing and seeing these amazing creatures in the wild is one of the most incredible experiences you can have. It also made me appreciate how important it is for them to remain in a protected environment, out of the harmful way of their biggest predator – humans.

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