Perhaps it is the uncertainty that keeps my heart pounding right from the time we enter the forest. I am not scared, only a tad nervous about how the day ahead will pan out. I have heard that it’s wise not to make eye contact with the gorillas, but David, our guide at the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in southwestern Uganda, ridicules the idea. “That’s nonsensical. Gorilla families are accustomed to human presence, and you can fearlessly look at them and click pictures. But be submissive in case a gorilla gets agitated or aggressive.”
David forewarns our small group of eight that the trek could be anywhere between one and eight hours. Before starting off, he offers us the use of a porter to carry our stuff and help us through the dense, slippery forest terrain. I think to myself that I’ll decline the offer, but when I realise that this is a vital source of income for the local communities, I decide to take along Mukasa, a young Ugandan girl, who turns out to be great company, and additionally ensures that I get vantage views of the gentle giants.
While trekking through the dense forest, Mukasa points out signs of previous gorilla activity, including dung, chewed bamboo shoots, uprooted trees and broken branches. We even manage to spot the Red-tailed Monkey and the Red Colobus Monkey, jumping agilely from one tree to the other. Lichens, moss and massive ferns cross our path; I brush away what feels like a cobweb from my face and feel a trickle of sweat: anticipation laced with a bit of anxiety, I guess. David and his team of trackers are superfast in locating the Mubare family of gorillas. We are asked to speak softly and leave behind our walking sticks (apparently gorillas get rather upset if they see walking sticks because they bring back ugly memories of the times when they were persecuted by humans) and backpacks and to drink sufficient water in order to hold out for an hour or so. It’s all building up, the gorilla fever.
Scrambling over wet boulders and scrub bushes, through the dense rainforest, I fervently hope to catch a glimpse of these endangered creatures. My eyes are scanning the thick forest cover; I want to settle for nothing less than the silverback, and then, oh my god! Suddenly, there he is! Swinging from a tree branch in true Tarzan style, but only for a flash of a moment. The branch comes crashing down, unable to sustain some 300-plus kilograms, the average weight of the silverback gorilla. Clearly unperturbed with the fall, he chomps away at the tender fresh leaves of the branches. What follows next is an amazing 60 minutes of gorilla delight. I can sit and watch them forever, but we have only an hour’s audience with the primate under the rules of the Uganda Wildlife Authority.
I have barely recovered from my first view of the silverback, when Mukasa softly taps me on my shoulder and turns my attention to the other side of the jungle. Dream or reality? Now I’m less than five feet away from the gentle giant! I pinch myself, but, yes, indeed we are that close! Unbelievable. The gorillas do not abide by the statutory rule that requires a distance of seven metres to be maintained between them and humans. They walk next to us, so very close that I have to restrain myself from reaching over and hugging the infant that is observing me closely. The baby is clinging to his mother, and in close proximity is the other female gorilla, who has only one eye because of an injury caused by a fight. A faint rustle of foliage announces the arrival of the silverback, who has been literally following us around. Now, in the last ten minutes of our allotted ‘one hour’, he comes even closer, sending a clear message that we are welcome in his domain.
At the Silverback Lodge, where I am staying, I had the opportunity to meet up with biologist Ingrid Bez who works for the Jane Goodall Institute in Europe. She tells me that a silverback is typically more than 12 years of age, and is named for the distinctive patch of silver hair on his back, which comes with maturity. And black-back is the name for young males. When they age, their hair turns silvery too. “This is the time when males leave the troop in search of a new one that they will lead.’’
David elaborates a bit more. “Family means everything for the gentle giants and they bunch up together in groups of eight to ten members. The silverback is the don, making all the decisions for the family, solving conflicts, planning the movements of the group, where to forage for food, where to sleep…basically taking responsibility for the safety and well-being of the entire family.’’ David is the most knowledgeable and sensitive wildlife naturalist and guide I’ve ever had, and he calls me ‘Mama’, an African term of endearment. He reminds us to frame the ‘gorilla certificate’ and put it up proudly, instead of leaving it around, so that more like-minded people can be made aware of the incredible experience that Bwindi offers.
Making the most of our hour, we continue to amble around the gorilla family—or perhaps it is they who continue to amble around us. David’s team whacks the undergrowth with a machete, clearing the path ahead constantly. There is barely any place where we can walk on steady, even ground, but not wanting to lose our ‘family’, we scramble along, balancing precariously, clinging on to low-lying branches. I hear David whispering and, once again, I feel the pounding of my heart. He gives me a hand and I climb a bit higher only to come almost face to face with the silverback, just two feet away! Mind and camera do not work in such a situation: that’s just what happens to me. Meet Kanyonyi, the don of the Mubare clan. He sits down and ponders a bit before he resumes his lunch, which consists of shoots and leaves, while one of his ‘ladies’ climbs up a tree, for a better perspective of things, I guess.
My eyes remain pressed to the camera, but nothing is as perfect as the pictures and memories in my head. I decide that enough is enough and put my camera away to enjoy some last moments with my gorilla family. After a while, the gorillas seem to sense that our hour is almost up. Kanyonyi walks away, disappearing into the folds of the jungle. Taking the cue, one by one, the entire clan moves on and out of our vision. My eyes follow them for as long as possible. It’s the final farewell; this time, we will not amble along.
The gorillas are touchingly like ourselves, which is why even an hour walking with them has such a heart-warming impact. It’s a time when the line between us and them is blurred, and it’s almost like leaving behind a part of your family in the jungles of Uganda.
Getting there: Qatar, Kenya Airways and Emirates connect to Entebbe International Airport in Uganda. Round-trip economy fares start at about Rs 45,000.
Visa: On arrival, for free.
Currency: The local currency is Ugandan Shilling (UGX); Re 1 = 55.6 UGX. But it’s best to carry US dollars, which are widely accepted.
Where to stay: Silverback Lodge in Buhoma (doubles from $300 high season and $237 low season; www.marasa.net) is located in a prime spot overlooking the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The Lodge is 60km from Kihihi airstrip, and transfers are built into the packages it offers. Kihihi is an hour’s flying time from Entebbe, and the Lodge can make bookings for local flights by Aero Link.
What to see & do:
The gorilla experience
Park permits cost $500 per person, only 500 are issued annually; so make travel plans at least six months in advance. These permits are only valid for a particular date and time, and are non-transferable. Permits can be booked through the lodge/travel agent. Gorillas can be seen throughout the year, but the best season is August.
Waterfall Trail: Hike through lush forest areas that include a profusion of tree ferns, orchids and Bwindi’s colourful array of butterlies. The Bwindi Batwa Trail: A new project that supports the local Pygmy Batwa community. Visit traditional pygmy dwellings. This tour is led by the Batwa community leaders of about 70 to 80 years of age.
What you need
A tracking permit ($500) issued by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (www.ugandawildlife.org), a rain jacket, hiking shoes that serve in rainy weather, yellow fever vaccination (mandatory for entry into Uganda), and mosquito repellent.
Roads are bad in Uganda, so a four-wheel drive is recommended. The Gorilla Experience is not child-friendly. You need to be fit for tracking the gorillas, as you may have to trek for anywhere between two to eight hours through dense jungle vegetation. Gorilla trekking requires a huge commitment of money, time, energy and effort. But few go back without a magical experience. It is best to reach Bwindi a day in advance. Lodges there charge $50-200 a night.