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Gorilla Tracking


Sliding out of my tent, taking care not to wake my tent mate – too early, still an hour before the sun came up. Shrugging slightly I stepped out into the dark night air, the dampness of the dew cresting over my warn leather sandals. I couldn’t sleep and had grown tired of tossing and turning, “Christmas morning” comparison would rain through out the day, but I had no one to talk with this early. Lingered effects of last night’s party we’re washed away by sheer anticipation, quietly thankful I wandered back to my tent early. Celebrations come and go in East Africa, traveler culture does little to distinguish one day from another, I think last night it was David Beckham scoring to lift England into the World Cup, the night before, it was just Saturday night. Who needed a reason here?

Mgahinga Gorilla park was only hours away, I wandered from our old canvas tent nearer the truck, the grass wet and cold in the early morning, 6AM, me up at 6AM I laughed silently to myself. Stranger things had happened I’d suppose. Kicking about for ten minutes produced a kettle, fire and a step-by-step process to acquire coffee, wouldn’t everyone love me? I sat stirring the red embers of the small fire, last night’s coals sparking easily as I’m sure the last stragglers wandered to bed less then two hours ago. Wanderers, I was at home again, the subculture of travelers the safety net of my life. I’d hopped an overland truck in Kampala to arrive on the border of Zaire, Rwanda and Uganda near both Bwindi and Mgahinga Gorilla parks on the Virunga Volcano range. Rainforest territory produced the everyday afternoon showers and a wet morning refreshing compared to the dust I’d had to endure on the Serengeti for the past two weeks. Besides, it was Africa and warmth was never a problem.

A guided tour took six people into Mgahinga each day at about 10AM (Bwindi took eight). The gorilla family they tracked had been habituated to tourists arriving each morning and sitting with them for an hour. The Trek would start by hiking to the spot they had been found the day before and following their daily migration to where they set up their nests for the evening and then breakfast and on to wherever they’d stopped for a mid morning break. I’d listened to other’s retell their tales upon returning to the camp yesterday and the day before. Drawing straws relinquished me to the last group, I didn’t mind, especially today. Coffee was ready, I wandered over, pouring boiling water and instant Nescafe into a small mug, at least there was always caffeine.

Kisoro had grown tiresome over the past two days. Rwandan rebel activity put a damper on plans to trek through the Virunga Volcanoes. I’d attempted to buy permits for Muhavura and Gahinga two days ago but tourist safety, thankfully takes precedence. Although admittedly I was a little bummed out, thoughts stroll through your head about the sheer unlikeliest of encounters, but it is Rwanda and Zaire. As a North American you still feel invulnerable even prior Sept 11 activities. I think I sulked for the morning complaining silently about bureaucratic crap ruining my holiday before it finally dawned on me that those unfortunate travelers in Bwindi in ’98 would have traded Gorilla trekking for red tape at this point in time any day. I settled down and hung out in the only pool hall in town for one day. The second day, England Greece football game at the only hotel, killing time with Nile Special and learning Cricket would to do for now. Besides, hanging out at Rugagana campsite was definitely safer; and the views from the base of all three mountains were spectacular nonetheless.

Puttering around the campsite did little to reduce the anticipation of the morning’s hike, I was thankful to see movement in from a tent as I was dieing for someone to talk to, the third cup of java I was sipping only added to my hyper activeness. Jean wandered over to the campfire area sleep wiped from her eyes long ago as well. “Couldn’t sleep either?” she asked, bountiful energy mimicking myself.

“Yeah, Christmas morning and I’m six years old again!” I laughed – we’d both been making the comparisons last night at the bar. “If you want a coffee theirs still water in the kettle. I’m sure it’s still hot.”

“Cool, thanks.” She smiled pouring herself a mug of hot water. “Who has the permits?”

“Me, I took them last night, figuring I’d be the least likely to sleep in this morning.” “Apparently you we’re right.” She laughed quietly, sitting on the stool next to me. We traded stories of excitement as we waited for the others and the transport to the park, 8AM I believe we were supposed to leave at. It seemed days away as we watched the sun crest over Mt Muhavura, mists growing near the valleys of the Virunga Volcanoes.

Trekking

First of all, hiking with 20 guards armed with AK-47’s is an experience in itself. Rwanda rebel activity has created intense security in both Bwindi and Mgahinga since ’98 and we we’re witnessing the apparent precautions. Political instability and posturing in neighboring countries created problems for both the Mountain Gorillas and the tourist trade in East Africa, which received hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to showcase these rare creatures. Twenty minutes into the trek though you mind wandered back to the fact you were tracking mountain gorillas and the guards went completely unnoticed.

Our guide tossed facts and fauna information throughout the walk. The rising sun beat down upon us before entering the dense Ugandan rainforest, threats of rain that had only slightly dampened spirits of our fellow travelers looked far from realization. The Virunga Volcanoes loomed closer then ever as we entered the intense green vegetation of the rainforest. The trail was completely overgrown, rain forests not known for their compliant nature; each day they engulf as they continue to grow outwards. We trudged through mud and overflowing streams flooded from the beginnings of the rainy season. We cut back vines and branches, tossed aside only to re-root and grow again in mere days. At times we were forced to crawl along the sodden path, vegetation too thick to penetrate with simple machetes, where were those AK-47s now? Excitement continued to escalate with each step, each moment crawling on our stomachs, anticipation mounting as we trudged forward.

Mgahinga continues to have extremely strict regulations over entry permits to the park. Obviously since the Bwindi tragedy, security has tightened immensely, as apparent from the 20-armed guards. Gorilla safety was even more regulated, even with the amount of money tourism represented to these small countries. The slightest cold or cough prohibited you from entering. Any virus passed from humans to the Gorillas could completely wipe out the entire family in weeks, and with 600 remaining in the wild, Ugandan government had extreme pressures from the western world not to let that happen. Gorillas share between 98 and 99% of Human DNA, depending on where you get your stats and are extremely sensitive to human illnesses.

An hour and a half in, water stops the only slowing point of our transit across the forest, we entered the area where they had nested the night before. Numerous large, almost bird-like nests scattered a small clearing. The odd nest built in the joining point of a series of trees. They built new nests each night to sleep upon, defecating in them for warmth during the night. Not surprisingly, Gorillas slept alone, one to a nest. We wandered slightly around the resting place of this small pack, similar to wolves these animals stayed together for long durations, Silverback Males looking over the entire group.

We finally entered the Rugano (or Bamboo zone) of the Rainforest. Memories of the sun we’re all you had as the extreme canopy shielded most of the day light from the forest floor. We stumbled through the darkness as our eyes adjusted slowly to the new found surroundings. Each area of the rainforest differed slightly; the Bamboo stalks provided 90% of the Gorillas food source and traditionally each morning they would be found in a section of the Rugano.

Breaking through the forest walls, I caught a glimpse of the large silverback sitting almost waiting for us to show up. He looked over, apparent recognition almost across his face. Obviously this was a set routine as he looked over at two smaller gorillas and then back at us. If he had checked his wrist I’d have thought we were late. They were definitely expecting us. Other then the sheer size of the Silverback (as he stood over six feet and more then 500lbs) I was completely surprised at the look of intelligence in its big brown eyes. This was as far from a typical animal encounter as you could expect. Completely surreal, I stopped moving and sat captivated as this massive creature basically gave me the once over before settling back into his mid morning snack of bamboo.

Looking around the dark forest floor, others could be seen in the distance, each taking a moment to acknowledge, if not to us, then at least to themselves; our group. A female sat watching over her two children, both wrestling in front of her. She stopped monitoring them for a second, glanced over her shoulder at me and smiled. A look of acceptance on her blunt leathered face. The darkness of the forest floor and the ban of flash photography prevented and quality photo ops, but that did little to discourage any of us. Each of us sat awestruck, interacting with one or more gorillas, we were forced to remember the five-meter barrier, as a baby gorilla obviously hadn’t read his translation of the instructions. We backed away slowly, unsuccessfully attempting not to alarm anyone.

If you’ve ever seen a Silverback growl and beat its chest you’ll remember it always, if not, imagine swallowing your heart in your throat and crouching paralyzed with panic, while attempting not to show fear. It jumped from its resting spot so quickly I couldn’t move, arms pounding, it screeched at us for a moment before side charging and then settling back down to eat. I’d learn later that was he communicating his standing in the circle. There were no challenges emulating from anyone I’d hiked in with. But almost as quickly as the statement was made, it was calm again, a sense of peace and tranquility refreshed as we settled back into participatory audience mode.

Above us a young male climbed across the canopy of the forest, glancing down, he also smiled, showing off. You could also see the anticipation of audience acceptance across his face and body language. They we’re definitely used to travelers entering their domain, and to be honest I think they genuinely enjoyed the interaction almost as much as we did. Each gorilla (and there were supposedly ten in all, but movement of each prevented me from gaining an accurate count) looked at us, smiled or frowned and continued to recognize our presence for the hour that we sat with them. One of the females would take time from watching her young to look back over her shoulder at us time and time again, every once in a while flashing us a massive toothy grin. I’d met far less accommodating hosts at restaurants. Their entire attitude showed the acceptance of our presence. Other then the first indication of who was in control by the larger of the two silverbacks, the pack was incredibly open to us watching them. They grunted slightly at each other, attempting verbal communications to match their non-verbal attempts with us.

I sat apart from my four friends, watching a small female devouring piece after piece of bamboo. The odd glance back at me, or towards the small male still climbing in the trees above, her only diversion from her meal; her carefree attitude marked her as younger then the others. She hadn’t reproduced yet nor did she share any of the burdens of watching the two young babies. Her time was drawing near, and if I could guess I’d say eventually the male climbing would claim her. Each silverback picked a dominant female in the pack that they mated with more often then the others. Their generation would hopefully come soon. Tourism and other forms of conservation would supposedly keep Uganda’s National Parks safe for years. Rwanda, which owned portions of this park, has also committed to the conservation efforts. Time would be on their side as they attempted to re-populate this incredible species.

Pick up Truck Traveling

Standing in the back of the small pickup truck darting over potholed filled dirt roads paled in comparison to the days’ earlier adventures. We stood near the cab, grasping slightly to the roll bars placed over the cab, quite possibly for this situation. We were about thirty minutes from camp, each of us grasping at words to describe both the entire trek and the hour spent with or hosts. The truck stumbled through small villages of screaming children waving at us as we spun through the mud on our way away from Mgahinga. We waved back, genuinely appreciative of the attention. Each turn produced more smiling children appearing from almost everywhere. We each tried to wave at as many as possible; the overriding mode of utter euphoria still permeated our small group of wanderers.

The truck bounced across the third world version of a road as memories and pictures were all that remained. Excitement of our experience would be shared for the next few days, and looking back weeks later its still something you take with you. The next day others’ would go in and spend a similar encounter with the same gorillas, the same complacent accepting hosts of Mgahinga National Park. Each day would be different as travelers wandered away with a variety of unforgettable experiences. I’ve learned a completely different respect for the similarity between gorillas and us. The absolute acknowledgement of every action and reaction was completely surreal.

 

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