Monday, 12 October 2009

Magical gorillas

Leaving the township of Kibale we head towards the forested hills on the horizon. Here the road disappears leaving a narrow, muddy track that, like a thin ribbon, cuts through the trees and encircles the hills. On one side are steep drops; on the other, a steep cliff baring the scars of rock falls.

We come across tiny villages. Here the children wave or beg asking for money, pens or food as we pass. The poverty here is all too clear.

The ride is particularly rough. Eight of us are crammed into a small minibus. The suspension has seen better days so we bounce, jerk and scrape our way up the hillsides for the next 5 hours. Twice we get stuck in mud and slip-slide our way through getting perilously close to the edge of the road and the sheer drop. At one point we hear something detach itself and our driver jumped out to fix it.

A long 5 hours later and we arrived at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest ­– home to 350 of the remaining 710 mountain gorillas in the world. Our afternoon was spend wandering about Bwindi village where we came across a number of school children who followed us about and conversed with us in broken English. They were from a local orphanage and they invited us to watch their evening dance performance. We decided to go and headed down to a small open air, ramshackle ‘concert hall’. Here one of the founders of the orphanage explained how a western man had arranged for an orphanage to be built to house some of the many orphans in the area, to ensure their education and to help prevent them from begging on the streets.

Each evening after school the children perform traditional dances to tourists and sell pictures or carvings they had made during the day. The entertainment was free but by making a donation to the organization or by buying an individual’s piece of work you could contribute to the project.

After a great dinner (which we didn’t have to cook), we were all exhausted and headed to bed extremely early amidst a tropical downpour. I, unfortunately, made the mistake of clambering into my tent with my head torch on. This resulted in around 200 midges following me in. Out into the downpour I went again to find someone who had fly spray to hand. 5 minutes later I coughed my way to sleep with the taste of fly spray still in the air.

Following a leisurely breakfast and we headed to the national park entrance. Here we watched a short video and were given a complete briefing about how to track gorillas. We were told that the tracking could be tough and could take a lot of time or could be relatively quick depending on where the gorillas were.

We were split into three groups. My group was made up of 7 people. In our group was also an older dutch fellow who we nicknamed ‘silvertop’. Unfortunately, having noted his rotund stature, the guides allocated my group to the family of gorillas closest to the village. Whilst I thought they’d be close, I didn’t bank on them being so close as to be at the bottom of a local’s field of tea. Our entire gorilla tracking experienced lasted little over five minutes before we came across the bizarre snorting, snuffling, grunting and farting of mountain gorillas thoroughly enjoying their morning feed.

The family we were tracking was 17 in number including a couple of babies. As we inched closer to them through the undergrowth, cameras at the ready, their powerful scent filled the air. Barely noticing our presence, they sat either low in the trees or on the ground just metres away from us pulling at branching and scraping the leaves off with their teeth and lips.

The silverback approached us and sat directly in front of us, eyeing us with interest as he tore branches from the trees. His harem encircled him, their stomachs bloated. On their backs clung two small infants. Every now and then a long, contented groan would emanate from one of them. Occasionally, one of them farted. It was a truly magical hour we spent sat in the undergrowth watching them. I took hundreds of photos but still took plenty of time to put my camera down and just soak up the experience of being in the presence of these rare and mystical creatures with which we share the best part of our DNA.

My only disappointment of the day was not being able to travel further into the forest to track the gorillas as the other groups did. Despite this, it remained an awe-inspiring, magical and truly amazing experience that I hope I’ll never forget.

Unfortunately, after the high of the morning, we were back in the minivans for an uncomfortable 6-hour ride to Lake Bunyonyi.

1 comment:

  1. Just caught up on the last few days of your travels. Sounds amazing! And here is me stuck at home, ill.