Monday, June 20, 2011

Tracking the Mountain Gorillas of Uganda

Daryll writes:

On our ride into the Overland Camp on Lake Buyoni which is also Uganda’s deepest lake at 6,200m, we met a German rider (Rita) on a Transalp.  She had visited the gorillas the day before and had warned us against taking our bikes as it had taken her 5 hours to do just 100km, over and above the fact that it rained heavily in the area the night before and the roads would be all churned up by now.  Together with our permits, we also arranged for a driver to take us to the starting point of the hike and once we were on the road, we were glad that we paid the extra.  We were in a little 4 wheel drive Toyota and Able the driver was very good in controlling the vehicle from sliding over the edge of the steep cliffs as we headed towards Bwindi National Park.

There are around 700 Mountain Gorillas in the wild and 345 of them live in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda.  The other half live in Rwanda and roam between the borders of Rwanda and the DRC.  Due to poaching and encroachment of their habitat, they are slowly disappearing.  We were up at 4am, had our staple breakfast of oatmeal (which is getting old now) followed by coffee and were on the road by 5am.  We finally got to the briefing point at 7:30am and had to wait around so that we could pay and get our trek briefing from the guides.  Only 8 people are allowed to see a particular group/family per day and you are only allowed an hour with them.  The family that we were allocated to was the Mashia Group, so we set off to find them with a guide in the front and a ranger with a loaded AK-47 picking up the rear.  Charley the Ranger was a friendly guy and had advised us that he was there to protect us against the wild mountain elephants as well as from the gorillas if they attacked.  He was only allowed to fire warning shots in the air though in case of an attack and could only fire open an animal if the animal had a human in their clasp.  Interesting information.


Prior to us setting off with our guide, 2 trackers set off 2 hours earlier to find the specific group and radio their location in to the guide.  At the briefing, we were warned that we could find the gorillas within an hour of hiking or it could take up to 8 or 9 hours before they were found.  As we climbed the hills leaving the little village of where we had started behind, I silently hoped that we would stumble upon them within a few minutes of entering the forest.  It’s not called the Impenetrable Forest for no reason.  As we followed our guide, we entered a thick mass of jungle.  I couldn’t see beyond the person in front of me.  The guide cut a path using his machete as we moved forward.  We stopped for a few breaks, but they were kept short as the guide had heard from his trackers and the family was close, so he wanted to push on.  Once we got to the trackers, all radio’s were turned off and you could only hear the machete cutting down the branches to make a path for the 8 enthusiastic tourists.  As we got closer, you could hear the chomping sound of a gorilla feeding and as the branches in front of us were cleared, the mighty male silverback came into view.  It was incredible seeing him in his natural habitat.  He knew that we were there as he turned around suspiciously a few times.  This particular silverback was in a fight with another male and hence the scars and bruised on his face.  After a few more tears of the foliage around him, he was on the move again and we started to follow and find the rest of his family.  A mother feeding on the ground and her baby high up in the tree.  Normally a male will eat up to 30kg of foliage a day before resting.  We followed the group deeper into the forest and it made it difficult to maintain a proper foothold as the undergrowth was wet and mushy.  The trees around us were thorny and at times, I was forced to hang up to the prickly branches just to stay upright.  Suffice to say, I have several bruises on my hands.  This is as close we we could get with an unobstructed view.



We watched the family for our allocated 60 minutes and then it was time to say goodbye and head back down the mountain.  I was so looking forward to seeing the gorillas as I hadn’t come this way on my previous trip to East Africa and this was going to be the highlight for me.  It didn’t disappoint and despite the huge expense of the permits, it was an absolutely amazing experience.  I would do it again in a heartbeat.  Probably this time, get the permits in advance as compared to just turning up.
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