Gorillas –2010


I was more excited than a fat kid in a cake shop as I travelled the eight hours down to Lake Boynonyi to meet up with Daley and Jess. Trekking to meet the largest primate in Africa was on my bucket list and I was not far from seeing them. I waited on the bus stop for over three hours for the bus waiting for it to fill up to over capacity before the further eight hours of torrid bumpy, dusty, stop start journey. I arrived in Boynonyi in style on the back of a Boda Boda (motorbike) after clinging on for dear life for half an hour from the bus stop over steep hills and narrow passes. Buynonyi is one of the highest and deepest manmade lakes in Africa and it was like a scene from Lord of the Rings with step banks and terraced fields plunging into hidden bays.

We were staying in a beautiful lake side guesthouse for two days before we headed into Bwindi Impenetrable Park to meet some big black hairy apes. A very chilled couple of days were spent watching football, canoeing, swimming, sunbathing and sleeping! The day of the trek we were up at 4am to catch a lift to the edge of the Park. We were so keen in our arrival that we arrived two hours early. At eight am we were briefed by our guides on the dos and don’ts (which were mainly don’ts) of Gorilla trekking which included – Don’t –

1.use flash photography (you don’t want to startle a 180kg beast)

2. eat anywhere near them,

3. talk when near them,

4. get too close

5. drop litter

6. get separated from the guides

7. look at the Gorillas in the eyes or point at them and never run away if they charge you

Do’s – take as many photo’s as you want!

The trek was going to take anywhere from two to four hours each way and we were going to trek to where they saw the Gorillas the previous day. There were five of us on our group, the maximum allowed for each trek was limited to eight per day and the time with the Gorillas is limited to one hour maximum. We were trekking the Nsonga group, a family of around 30 Gorillas and the largest group in the park.

Only 750 Gorillas remain in the wild due to poaching and de-forestation and Gorillas are native to Africa and now sadly only in Uganda and Rwanda. It is popular conception that humans evolved from these mountain Gorillas more than 2 million years ago. A group of Gorillas travelled far from the lush mountain vegetation and further into the drier, parse Savannah, stared standing on their hind legs more and thus sprang forms of early man as their diet, lifestyle and skeletal form changed. Gorillas and humans share around 97% of the same genetic and DNA make up so its esy to cast comparisons.

The Bwindi Impenetrable Park was surprisingly easy to penetrate as we set off on our trek. Easy flat paths guided us into the forest and with four guides and an AK47 we started one of many ascents up the steep hills. The AK47 was for our protection against charging elephants, not that any of us thought we were on a game shoot. After half an hour we had diverted from the main path and the forest was hanging in all around us and it started to live up to its name. It seemed that we were going up hill forever and at 60 degrees mixed with the heat it was tough going. After two hours and few breaks we had reached the summit and where the Gorillas had been the previous day. The guides then started cutting through the dense green forest and we were all told to hang back while they located the Gorillas. Gorillas move slowly through the forest making camp in bundles of grass and leaves never venturing more that 300m( in their 20sq mile home range) from their previous nights camp.

Word soon spread that we had found them and after a few more words of do’s and don’ts we encountered the beasts! Within 20m of hacking through the undergrowth like Bear Grylls the Gorillas made contact with us by charging at us and shaking a tree. It was a show of strength and frightened the living daylights out of us. Standing on its back legs with arms flaying the Black back (juvenile male between 8 – 12yrs old) was at least 7 feet tall, solid, body and arms and tough as teak. We stood our ground and then he looped off back into the dense undergrowth. This sudden encounter made us all realise how powerful these beasts were and how weak we were in comparison.

The guides had managed to cut a small path for us now where we spotted the rest of the group. In all there were 19 Gorillas all around us, most of them uninterested in us and munching away on shoots and leaves. The mothers put on a little show for us by mock fighting and rolling around in the leaves whilst the young ones played in the branches above them swinging around and beating their not as an act of aggression but using the sounds to communicate to the group. The females only have around 6 infants in their 30 year life span, caring for their young for around 4 years before mating again, but you can see how gentle they are with their young as the little ones frolicked in the trees and around their mothers. Something that your not supposed to do is to look directly into their eyes as it can be confrontational but it was hard not to do. They were so human like with their large heads, broad flattened noses and flarrd nostrils and their expressions and mannerisms. These Eastern Gorillas (only Western Gorillas are found in Zoo’s) have thicker and glossier coats than their lowland cousins and are well adapted to there surroundings of thick vegitation. Before we left the guides managed to track down one of the silver backs of the group and this fellow was massive. Even crounched doan and huddled on all fours this guy was solid.

As there is only one dominate male in each group and unfortunately this male was showing signs of a recent scrap with another silverback. He remained stationary (thank goodness) throughout our 10 minutes with him with the occasional glare at us. We were lucky as we had managed to spend around an hour and half with this family as normally only an hour is allowed so the gorillas don’t become too humanised. At a cost of $500 it is expensive but at least you know your money is going directly to help conserve this endangered species which is shown by the slowly growing numbers of families. It is sad to think that (as with sharks in Jaws) Gorillas portrayed in King Kong, mankind has exhibited these mammals as vicious man killers whereas gorillas are gentle mammals. Anyone who has looked into their eyes cannot be helped to feel a connection with them – intelligence, gentleness and grace something that shows this ancient connection. The continued conservation will continue in the hope that other people can appreciate one of the best experiences of my trip so far.

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