It was still dark as we set off from Kisoro town for the mountains. The road was rocky and slippery, enough to keep your head spinning when the vehicle stops moving – an African massage – as they call it over here. The sun was slowly rising over the mountain ranges; I looked down into the valley as the clouds flowed through between the mountainsides, stunning. We were on our way to Bwindi National park in the southern part of Uganda, one of the three homes in the world for the Mountain Gorilla. I had a rare opportunity to trek into the depths of the jungle and catch a glimpse of these incredible animals.
It was an hour drive from Kisoro to the tourist-briefing center. James, one of the head rangers of the park, gave us a briefing on the area and the endangered status of the Mountain Gorilla. There are only 750 of these large primates left in the wild, 350 of them live inside Bwindi National park – Uganda, which borders onto Rwanda. We were divided into groups of eight people and designated a Gorilla family to track. I was assigned to the Kahugye family. There are 16 gorillas in the mix including two dominant silverbacks. We were to be lead through the jungle by a park ranger named Jones. Two other rangers baring rifles supported him. They use the weapons as a defense mechanism, to scare off any elephants or gorillas that may become aggressive if they have young around them.
With Jones in the lead, baring a machete to cut away the jungle in our path, we set off. The Gorilla families move location each day so we were unsure how long it would take us to find them. Each morning a team of trackers heads out to try and find where they have migrated to and using radios, they communicate back to our team, explaining to Jones where the Gorillas are. Our guides aggressively cut away at the thick jungle, making our path to the gorillas as direct as possible.
It rained during our first hour of trekking, making the path ahead extremely muddy and slippery. Following several slips and falls; we began to look like wildlings that have been stranded in the jungle for months. I had my pants tucked tightly into my muddy socks, protecting my upper legs and crotch from any estranged safari ants that attempt to make their way up. As we ventured deeper into the valley, I began to get really excited, it felt so vividly remote, there I was in the middle of the Ugandan Jungle and about to stumble upon a family of extremely rare animals. The trek was not easy, the mountainside was extremely steep, and we found ourselves using all fours to negotiate our way over fallen trees or rocks. My shoes found their way into many hidden holes and puddles of water, but it was worth the struggle and pain.
After three hours of trekking, we found them. I sat silently in awe, the gorillas were mere meters away, peacefully eating the foliage and showing no sign of being bothered by our presence. We had an hour to spend with them, observing and appreciating their existence. As we watched one disappear into the greenery below, another would appear at our side. Two baby gorillas could be seen below, climbing a tree. The large silverback male makes a low growling noise, our guides respond with a similar low growling. They have some sort of communication worked out. I felt like I needed to pinch myself to work out if this was reality or a dream. As the Gorillas moved, we would follow them, clambering our way through the bushes. Watching the Gorillas live in such a safe and protected environment created a sense of tranquility amongst us. A moment I will never forget.
Once our time was up, it was a three-hour trek back out of the park, equally as difficult as the way in. Our jelly legs were thankful to find their way back inside the van on our drive back to Kisoro. This experience has given me a lot of appreciation for the Bwindi rangers, those who work tirelessly to protect this endangered species and their environment, working alongside researchers and passionate activists to restore the population of the Mountain Gorilla. It felt like a once in a lifetime experience and one that I will treasure forever, if anyone is ever to consider visiting the Mountain Gorillas of East Africa – there should be no hesitation. Do it!