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Gorillas in the Dark


“What do you do if the silverback charges at you?” Our guide, a fairly serious looking chap who seemed to be extremely displeased that we were to go into his forest to see his gorillas, had just gone through the dos and don’ts of the trek, and was now taking us through the potential health risks of a rampaging, 350lb, male gorilla.  

“Run like hell!” I said with a stupid smile on my face, hoping to get a bit of laughter from the group and maybe lighten the guide’s mood. I got neither.

“No!” he yelled with a look that told me to shut my stupid, western, know-nothing mouth. “You must never run from a gorilla. He will catch you, he will kill you. You must stand absolutely still and pretend to be eating a leaf or stick from the ground.”

I wasn’t going to say anything because the guy already looked like he would happily run me through with his panga (a scarily large knife), but this seemed like a ridiculous idea. Standing still while a giant silverback charges at you is surely the least intelligent thing to do. However, I decided to trust him as he had been working around the gorillas for 15 years, and I was a stupid, know-nothing westerner.

We had finally arrived at the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park at 8.00 the previous night, after setting out at seven that morning. I’d been told the journey would only take about ten hours, but that of course had not allowed for the phenomenon of ‘Africa Time.’

An unnecessarily long stop at the equator, a blown out tyre and some near impassable mud tracks, that saw us slide about like we were being driven by a drunk rally driver, had contributed to the three extra hours of travelling, but we’d finally got here. And today, we were tracking gorillas.

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is in the southwest of Uganda, on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. The park covers over 330 sq km, and is home to a wide variety of wildlife: Colobus monkeys, chimpanzees, various species of reptiles and birds, and most importantly, 300 mountain gorillas: half the world’s population of the severely endangered ape.

The first time you actually get to see Bwindi, whether it is when you arrive or the following morning like me, you immediately get the feeling you’re somewhere special.

The setting is awesome. The air has a wonderfully fresh, crisp feel to it and on all sides the camp is walled by high hills lined with a blanket of trees that knit together so perfectly its impossible to see beneath their canopy. The shrieks of the chimpanzees and the buzzing and clicking of the insects give the only insight into what this amazing forest contains.

Bwindi has three gorilla groups that can be tracked, and on he morning of the trek you are broken into three parties and assigned a group that you are to follow. I was to be tracking the Mubare group with the most miserable Ugandan I’d met on my trip, (you would’ve thought that if your job was to wander around a spectacular rainforest and watch gorillas, you would be able to crack a smile every now and again.)

Mubare is the smallest of the three habituated groups with 16 gorillas and only one silverback. Unfortunately this was the only information our second guide managed to tell us before we heard, “We go!” and Captain Cheerful (a nickname given due to the absence of any real name), marched off up a hill.

Our group comprised of three tourists: myself, a friend I was travelling with called Vicky, and a geeky looking American guy called Steve. As well as us there were two guides and two stern looking men from the army.

Security has been stepped up at the park since the kidnap and murder of eight western tourists by Rwandan rebels in 1999. There is still a plaque at the camp in memory of the eight that were killed in the forest, among whom were four Britons. Armed protection is a necessity now.

We walked for two hours before we even got to the forest edge; up and down the sides of near vertical valleys, passing locals that lived, even farmed on this extreme terrain. It seemed to amuse them to see a group of Wazungu (white people), struggling and crawling up the same paths that they have marched up and down on every day of their lives.

The scenery (when you have enough energy to lift your head and look) is simply stunning. Its like somebody has dropped you onto the set of The Lord of the Rings: spectacular hills and valleys, carpeted by the forest and rolling off into the distance like a vast green ocean. It was all very beautiful, but it wasn’t what I’d paid the best part of £300 for. I wanted to see some gorillas.

The trackers had already gone out ahead of us and were radioing through to our guides about the location of the Mubare group. Finally we were told they were nearby.

“Gorillas, just here.” The Captain informed us before pointing his panga in the vague direction of some trees.

I was slightly disappointed that they were so close to the edge, I’d hoped to see chimpanzees as we trekked through the forest, but we were only going in about 100 metres.

“Leave bags here, no flash,” the panga was now pointing slightly worryingly, at us (flashes on cameras are banned around the gorillas). Once he was satisfied we’d heeded his warning, Cap (I felt we were getting on more friendly terms by now) turned and started hacking his way through the undergrowth. Bwindi it seemed was penetrable. Just.

The word bwindi in local language means ‘a place of darkness,’ which as I found out, is a perfect description. The undergrowth is so thick, and the canopy so closely knit, that there is very little light at all. Its difficult to spot anything in the trees and when we were suddenly stopped and pointed to the right, it took me a good five minutes to actually see what we were supposed to be looking at.

When I did see, I was unable to move my gaze for some time. Despite not being quite as big as I had imagined, the silverback was still an incredible sight. He was just lying there, about 10 metres away, legs crossed and his arm behind his head like a dad watching football on a Sunday afternoon. If he was aware of us, he showed no concern, he just wanted to relax.

After a while he began to rise and I realised I’d been wrong about his size. He was huge. He stood there on all fours for a moment, showing off his mighty arms and shoulders and finally turning his head our way, before slowly turning his greying back to us and moving off into the undergrowth.

It was then that we heard the rustling in the trees and saw the others. There were three adult females, one carrying a baby on her back, and the dominant male moving was obviously a signal that they were all to follow.

I have to be honest about my ignorance here, I had never realised that gorillas could climb trees. They always seemed to big and whenever you see them on TV they are on the ground, but these three came swinging down with the dexterity of their smaller cousins, and moved off after the silverback.

“Come, we follow.” The second guide beckoned us forward. After struggling though the undergrowth, we emerged into a large open space with shrubs and bushes that were gradually being demolished by the whole Mubare family. It was obviously lunchtime.

The silverback, once again, barely seemed to acknowledge our presence as he sat presiding over the rest of the group. All around him the females ate and youngsters played. It was amazing to see how like us they were. Chimpanzees are famously the closest ape to humans genetically, but it seemed to me that gorillas can’t be far behind. The young played like human children do: play fighting, chasing each other, one was even clapping his hands.

It was also noticeable how peaceful they seemed. They obviously had the potential to do us serious damage if we even looked like we would pose a threat, but they didn’t seemed concerned at all. I think some even enjoyed us being there. One female happily climbed up onto a bush to ‘pose’ for photos, and one of the smallest of the youngsters (barely bigger than the silverback’s head), repeatedly tried to stand up in front of us and beat its tiny chest. Unfortunately his legs hadn’t developed quite enough for this trick, and more than once he ended up flat on his backside.

By the end of our allotted hour we had thrown out the rules and were barely three metres from the nearest group of females. Everybody had been captivated by these fascinating creatures, and I was extremely grateful that I’d had the chance to visit some before they disappear completely. Even the guide, who had seen them almost everyday for the last 15 years, couldn’t take his eyes off them. I think I even saw him smile.

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