Gorilla tracking at Bwindi was more than I ever expected it to be. I wonder why I hadn’t done it before, especially since its just a few hours drive from my hometown. This lush forest is a place which some of the greatest creatures on earth call home, and cohabit peacefully; the Mountain Gorillas, Chimpanzees and Human beings!
Sharing 97% of the same DNA as well as the same land of my ancestors, turns out I was actually going to visit some distant relatives of mine! The Oruzogo family is a recently habituated group of gorillas based in Ruhjia, a part of the forest within the Park, and consists of 16 members, including a silverback in its 30’s and recently two babies!
Armed with specially carved walking sticks, 2 liters of water each, a packed lunch, cameras, along with our guide Augustine and two porters (one armed with a gun incase we had to scare off some wild animals) to help my Mum through the Forrest (and if it came to the worst carry her out) we set off to track down the Oruzogo family.
We started our trek at an indistinctive part of the road, and began making our way through secondary forest. By the time we reached primary forest, you couldn’t see the ground, it was just green, everywhere, and the only mark of a path was signs of trampled plants, broken or bent branches and twigs. This is unlike any forest I had ever been in. The infinite shades of green, and the (400) species of plant life was overwhelming! There is also a variety of other animals; 350 species birds, 200 butterflies, 28 species of amphibians and reptiles, 120 species of mammals, of which we spotted the black and white Colobus monkey and a glimpse of a darting Golden Cat. There also Forest Elephants, (which are very aggressive and the reason porters have to carry a gun) and once upon a time, Leopards, which were all killed off by the locals in my great Grandparent’s times (Most old people in my village have leopard hunting stories and sometimes old dried up skins hung up as trophies in their homes).
As beautiful as this wild forest is, trekking through it was extremely challenging, and our guide often had to hack through the tangle of draping vines, giant leaves and low hanging branches to create a way for us.
After about an hour in, Augustine’s walkie-talkie cracked with a message from another group of trackers. They reported having run into a wild group of gorillas in the area we were in, which had confronted the Oruzogo family that we were tracking. The Silverback then led his family away from the area and into safer ground in the highlands. This is when the trek turned hardcore.
We quickly retreated from the area in order to avoid running into this wild group, and followed the same path that the Oruzogo family took. This was fascinating because you could see the Gorillas use of logic and reasoning in the trail they created. For instance, there is a point where the trail lead to a stream, and then continued along it until a point with some stepping stones, which shows that the Gorillas didn’t simply cross haphazardly, but actually searched along the stream for a place where they could all safely cross.
We climbed up and down numerous slopes, until we found our first nest with fresh gorilla poo. I’ve never been so happy to see poop! After about 3 hours, we finally caught up with the other team of trackers, who had located the Gorilla family. After a short water break, we slowly began closing in on them.
The first time I heard them, I thought it was distant thunder. When you first set your eyes on that hulking, shadow like figure, cloaked in the forest, you can’t help but feel a shudder of fear. Not the distressful kind, but the respectful, in awe kind, like when one witnesses something of an almighty God like nature.
We hesitantly moved in closer, and sat about 5 meters from them. We spent an amazing hour watching them eat, interact, and curiously peek at us watching them. Watching them in the wild is definitely totally different from watching them on the telly! Here 6 new things I learnt about Gorillas from my own observations and from Augustine the guide;
1) They carry their babies on their backs in typical African style.
2) Their laughs sound human! There was a moment when the three babies were tumbling around in play, and you could hear a low, gaspy chuckling sound. Our guide explained that they were laughing!
3) Although they look the same at first glance, once you peer closer and get used to their faces you notice that they actually each have different and distinguishable facial features, particularly around the nose. (I suppose its similar to how people say that “all people (of a certain race) look the same” when they’re not yet used to their faces/facial features)
4) They enjoy a good meal, and even make grunting sounds when they are really enjoying it, same way we might smack our lips, slurp and go “Mmmmm…nom nom…yummy”. They also pick at their teeth at then end of it!
There was a moment where one of the trackers was hacking away at some branches that were blocking our view, and one of the gorillas near by stood up in a terrifying roar, and grabbed at the branch. He thought we were trying to steal his food, and was in no mood to share! No one likes their meal picked at by an uninvited stranger!
5) Despite his colossal size and cold hard stare, the silverback is not as scary as its made out to be. Once you get used to being in its presence, you discover that he’s actually a mellow and a dedicated “family man”. He’s got a big family, and so has to be pretty fierce and strong to protect them all, but when he senses no threat, he’s calm, and has an air of righteousness about him. Seated with the babies playing carefree around him, with their mothers close by.
6) The other adult males, known as black backs, encircle the main family (silverback, mothers and babies) at strategic positions, similar to guard watch posts. None of the other males mate with the females within the family as they are either sisters or mothers. They respect that, and don’t inbreed. When one wants to start his own family he leaves and finds unrelated females of bear offspring’s with and begin to grow his family.
After an hour we begin to overstay our welcome and the Gorillas begin to get irritated by our presence, after all no one likes to be starred at all day. So we made our way out of the thick ancient forest. Since we trekked such a long way in, our guide suggested we trek up to the trackers campsite which was closer, where we can then call for the car to come pick us up.
So the endless climb and decent began again. Exhausted, we stopped momentarily to have a picnic lunch by a stream. We eventually reached the camp in about an hour and a half’s time, said our goodbyes and our way down to the road, where we waited for the car in a tea plantation, watching the evening mist eerily roll in over the hills.
We trekked approximately 9 Km of virgin forest in all its wild glory, climbed peeks of 2000m and almost ran into a dangerously wild group of gorillas. When they state; “the ultimate gorilla trekking experience” on the entry signboard at the gate of the park, they mean this quite literarily. It really was an “ultimate” experience. My mother, whose been gorilla tracking before at Mugahinga said it was “child’s play” in comparison to the experience at Bwindi.
Now I know that everyone’s experience is different, and sometimes you don’t have to walk deep into the forest to find the gorillas. Sometimes you can be done with it all in just two hours! But seeing the Gorillas is only half the experience, otherwise you could have just gone to a zoo. The trek into deep uncharted forest is just as memorable and seating with the Gorillas.
I usually prefer savannah type dry forests, but after the trek in Bwindi I fell in love again with the wet rain forest, as treacherous as it can be, with all the thorns, traps of entangling vines and roots, and safari ant trails, it has an enchanting comfort about it. I loved the way it sort of wraps around you, intimate, like a hug from mother nature.
Exhausted as I was, I was on a natural high all day! I’m looking forward to the next time I go into the rainforest to visit my distant relatives, hope next time you’ll come along.
1) Take those walking sticks they offer you. You will need them especially when climbing down slippery slopes and to help find your footing on unstable mushy ground, but they are also useful for pulling yourself out of quick sinking deep mud, pushing through the bushes and branches that will be whacking you in your face.
2) Take plenty of water, at least two liters each, endless climbing and descending slopes 2000m above sea level can really tire you out.
3) Take your time and enjoy the diverse forest, there’s more than just Gorillas in there!
4) Take a porter, even if you’re completely able to complete the trek by yourself, let them carry your bags. They have been living in this area before it was declared a National Park, and now most make their living by helping tourists trek through the forest as guides, park rangers and porters. Plus it’s only $15 USD. You wont regret it, because there will be times when you could need a helping hand to pull you through the difficult trail.