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Gorilla tracking – Uganda

7 February 2012
 

On our two month trip around Africa with Acacia on the Ultimate Overlander, we made our way to Uganda for a Gorilla trek.  The permit alone costs $500 but we felt that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and took the plunge.   Problems with the truck on the way up to Uganda and with the roads meant that we had to leave our main truck (with most the gear) behind and spend a night without sleeping mats at Mbararu University camping grounds and then another slight change to our itinerary left us with the option of camping outside a hotel called the Little Ritz (perhaps more aptly “Little like the Ritz”) the night before trekking.  Fortunately there was also the option of upgrading to a double room for about $6 each.  As we had to get up at 4:20 before trekking, we chose the upgrade for two nights, which worked out very well because it gave us a good chance to sort out our gear, charge batteries and get a good night sleep.  I had bought a £5 travel pillow for the camping and it proved very good value for money so I was also grateful for the proper pillow!

 

Rising through the mist.

We left for the trekking about 5:20, running a bit late after our guide slightly overslept.  However, for Africa, that is quite a minimal wait!  It was just over a two hour drive from where we were staying to the Bwindi National Park, otherwise known as the “Impenetrable Forest”.  Sunrise is very quick in Africa, almost like the flick of a switch, and so it was dark for much of the start of the journey.  However, as it became light and we ascended into the mountains we rose out of a mist and had the classic view of the valleys wreathed in mist with the mountains popping out of them.  I was surprised by the amount of cultivated land on the hillsides, very much like English fields separated with hedgerows, giving the mountains a patchwork appearance but without a flat surface to be found!

 
Could almost be English countryside

We arrived about 7:45 and were briefed to tuck our trousers into our socks (to avoid collecting ants), not to try to outstare the gorillas, not to sneeze or cough in their direction for fear of infection and to carry plenty of water.  I got quite low on energy the first day of my recent cycle trip to Amsterdam so we had made sure to stock up on jelly beans, Mars bars, Cadbury’s Top Deck (which I have only seen in Australia before and I wish could make it to the UK – a Cadbury chocolate bar which is half milk chocolate with half white chocolate on top) and a big bag of peanuts split into sandwich bags.  Added to this, Acacia had given us enough food for two packed lunches (including boiled eggs and jelly beans) and we took 1.5 litres of food each.  As you may have guessed, much of this ended up in my bag, with a smaller bag of “essentials” being carried by Anna, my girlfriend. 

 We tried to minimise on weight so I only took one of my SLR lenses, thinking also that it would be difficult to change anyway, but with hindsight wish I had taken the other lens, always choose the zoom telephoto lens when tracking animals, a mistake I will not make a gain, although I think I still have some decent photos.  Although we were given rough walking sticks I donate $10 and got a nice wooden one with a carved Gorilla on top – a born tourist sucker but I thought it was quite nice.

 The stick (and the tourist sucker)    

The Gorilla trek is well organised, with trackers going out before you even arrive.  They go to where they last saw the Gorillas and then track them to their location and report that to your guide to direct you to them.  You are also accompanied by a guard with an AK47 which is apparently for scaring off forest elephants if you encounter them on narrow tracks.  We trekked for about 1.5 hours and the guide told us that the trackers had not been able to find the particular family that we were trekking.  There are four families of Gorillas that have been habituated to human presence in Bwindi (although they are still wild) and the family that we were tracking was about 40 strong.  Although they say that there is no guarantee that you will see Gorillas and refund half the money if you don’t see them, this was the first time that we began to think that we would not actually see any Gorillas.  Fortunately, shortly after that, the guide said that the trackers were on the trail.

The trail for the start had been fairly easy, a regular path, but as we got deeper into the forest the guide started getting more creative with the route.  These were quite muddy in places from, amongst other things, the frequent rainfall and forest elephant urine, and we often had to hopscotch from fallen logs, branches and rocks to avoid a soaking. 

The terrain was quite dense.

We were winding along a rough muddy track which had deep, wet, holes alternating along the path.  I saw a compact pile of straw and confidently informed Anna that we were following elephant tracks.  She thought I was joking but when these holes eventually left the track and entered the river, to emerge on the other side she realised that a forest elephant had really been walking along the track before us.  Amusingly, as we were coming back, the guides pointed out a cluster of butterflies over some of the tracks and gave us a quick lecture on butterflies – apparently they don’t eat but get energy from the Sun and seek out nutrients and minerals from the rock and, amongst other things, animal urine…  The cluster of butterflies erupted from the path as we approached and, rather comically, one of the girls on the trip fell straight into the sludge!  Anna also managed to go up to the ankle in the elephant urine and was quite serious about cleaning her shoes after that (spending about an hour in the bathroom doing so, which then became galling because everyone else paid 50 cents for a local to clean them).

Anyway, once the Gorillas had been located, the guide informed us that they were the other side of the mountain that we had been trekking around.  But, he knew a shortcut…straight up the mountain.  This involved him hacking out a route, which he did remarkably well, leaving footholds and handholds but it was still rather arduous and slippery going!  We scrambled up for an hour or so, popping a handful of nuts or a mouthful of water whenever we had the chance to pause for breath and then encountered two rangers.

Our guide’s English was not particularly great, apparently we could ask him anything about Gorillas but deviate slightly from the usual questions and there was clearly a communication barrier.  Still, his English was much better than my Ugandan…  We gathered that the rangers meant there were Gorillas nearby and that we should make sure our cameras were off flash.  He reiterated that we would only have an hour in the presence of the Gorillas and that, if threatened, Anna should not run screaming from the silverback.  Once we had managed to understand everything and had our cameras ready, he pointed at a tree towering above us and sitting in it, alternating between grooming and watching us, was a large black back (junior male) Gorilla!

The sentry had been supervising the briefing.

We were still on the side of the mountain and had to scramble across and down the hillside but the guides took us through the Gorilla family, seeing three silverbacks (the grown males, the largest of which is the dominant male), several females and a few juniors.  The undergrowth was very thick so most of the photos are still obstructed by multiple branches and trees but we could easily make them out and most times were barely seven metres from them.  They did not seem overly concerned at our presence, at times just lazily looking over at us and mostly grazing on the vegetation but they moved downhill every few minutes (usually just as I got in position for a good shot in our jostling group of humans) and so we had to track down.  We spent the last few minutes watching a pair of small (but still very large) male gorillas sort of wrestling each other and then the experience was over all too soon.

 

     

We trekked away in silence until a safe distance and then collapsed for lunch to charge our batteries for the journey back.  This was the truly hard part, climbing may be strenuous but keeping your feet on the way down when you’re already tired is always more demanding.  I kept a look out for monkeys (I had seen one in the distance and a few in Kenya but wanted to see some properly in the wild), elephants (lots of dung, footprints and urine but no actual animals…) or chimpanzees (perhaps the most optimistic on my checklist), but we were not that lucky.  However, we were very happy to get back and eager to get into the truck, no matter how bumpy the journey and get back to our beds, definitely worth the $6 upgrade!

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