Meeting Uganda’s mountain gorillas
The mountain gorillas of Uganda are the world’s largest living primates, and a meeting with these stunning and familiar creatures is a spine-tingling moment that is hard to replicate. Recently, I was lucky enough to enjoy a trek to see the gorillas – here’s my account of that incredible experience...
I was awake before the Ugandan dawn chorus on that morning, having struggled to sleep through the sheer excitement and anticipation of undertaking a childhood dream. I was about to set off in search of Uganda’s mountain gorillas.
Having adorned my specially prepared attire – sturdy walking boots, thick socks, long trousers and a rain jacket for the predictable afternoon showers – I headed out into the African jungle. First we checked in to gorilla trekking headquarters at the base of the mountains, where an experienced ranger was allocated to us, along with two trackers to lead our group of eight.
The ranger, a man who had spent over 20 years with the gorillas, strongly recommended individuals hire the help of at least one local porter, along with taking a long walking stick to assist with balance. Fighting the alpha male voice within my head saying “you don’t need help”, the gentler, pragmatic voice won through and convinced me to accept. My local porter, Robert, was a 21-year-old who was studying business at the local university and assisted with treks twice a month. Robert would prove to be invaluable throughout my trek, pulling and pushing me up the jungle paths whilst taking some rather artistic (and some might say unflattering) photos of me along the way.
We started our trek in search of the mountain gorillas by walking through some local tea plantations, with the moist morning dew enveloping my trusty boots. The trek then quickly proceeded into the steep mountain jungle and forests of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, where our rangers (10 metres ahead) were cutting a clear path for us to tread.
We were advised that much earlier that morning two further rangers had set off in search of our band of gorillas, starting where they had left them nesting the night before. These searching rangers were in constant contact with our lead ranger guiding us towards their location.
Our trek to the gorillas took three hours in total, through some stunning scenery and what must be said, some quite challenging terrain. There are numerous bands of gorillas who are constantly on the move making every trek different, however the expert rangers assess each group of passengers and assign the trek accordingly.
“All of a sudden our lead ranger stopped in his tracks and turned around with a glint in his eye. “We’ve located them,” he advised. ”
We were given 10 minutes to sort our camera equipment out (and if the truth be known, also compose ourselves), then we started to make our approach. There was a deafening silence amongst the group with a profound sense of anticipation; we tried our hardest to float across the jungle floor so as not to disturb our hosts. Then the moment happened.
We spotted a young female descending a nearby tree in a less-than-graceful fashion. We stood in amazement, as this is what we’d come to see. But then, like raindrops from the canopy above, gorillas of all shapes and sizes started sliding down tree trunks to the jungle floor, the youngest making a real game of it. The family then ever so slowly meandered to an opening on the ground, where they settled for what must have been their brunch.
Moving around to be in a favourable position, we stood and watched these magnificent creatures interact and play – we were around five metres away. Naturally a lot of attention was given to the babies and toddlers of the family of gorillas; they were so comical in their approach and had the instinctive need to play.
At one stage, a brother and sister of around one-and-a-half years were enjoying the age-old game of rolling down the hill through leaves, and this is when it happened. The toddlers had rolled all the way down onto my feet and started playing with my boot laces; I could not comprehend what was happening. Then, within a flash, the mother’s protective instincts kicked in. She assertively strode down the hill, placed her hand on my right shoulder and scooped up her two babies. Although it felt like my heart had stopped during this split second, at no point did I feel threatened – it felt like a mother saying: “we’ve all had enough fun now”.
Shortly after this event, the quickest hour of my life came to an end. After bidding our farewells to our more than hospitable hosts, we started our return. Our descent was much quicker, owing to the fact that we were no longer tracking gorillas, but instead our lunch. Stories of our experiences flowed on the way back to the gorilla trekking headquarters. The whole trek in total took around five-and-a-half hours.
Something stirred inside during my time with the gorillas and has had a truly profound impact. You are sitting with a wild creature with which we share over 98% of our DNA and countless similarities are apparent. My time with these magnificent creatures just felt right and without wanting to cause offence, I felt like I connected with a distant relative. This is a journey which will live with me forever and one I will never forget.
Our 'Great Apes of Uganda' tour includes an exhilarating trek in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, in search of its gorilla inhabitants, as well as chances to observe the chimpanzees of Kibale National Park and spot the abundant birdlife of the country’s Queen Elizabeth National Park.
Phil has a love for wildlife and often finds himself being drawn back to Africa to search those ever-active plains. He recently returned from visiting the gorillas and chimpanzees of Uganda – a life-affirming experience and one which created memories that’ll never fade.
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