The last time that I was in Africa, someone whose advice I really trust told me that I absolutely had to see the mountain gorillas on my next trip, so when I arrived in South Africa in February I already had gorillas on my must-do list. But when I actually got around to planning my mountain gorilla trek a few months ago, I found that it (like so many things in Africa) was easier said than done.
Before I go any further, let me jump ahead for a minute to the good stuff for those of you who are too impatient to read to the end.
Okay, now let’s rewind — My first challenge was securing a permit that would allow me to see the gorillas. You can’t go without one. Mountain gorillas are critically endangered or “just” regular-endangered, depending on which list you consult, but either way, there aren’t that many of them to see — fewer than 800 left in the world.
Those 800 gorillas are grouped into families of 8-12 members, so around 80 families, fewer than a quarter of which are locate-able and safe for humans to observe at close range. On top of that, the gorillas are very sensitive to the presence of humans, both emotionally and physically (they are susceptible to human illnesses since they share most of our DNA but don’t always have the antibodies to fight off even a common cold), so visitors are limited to groups of eight and each family will only have one group of visitors for one hour per day. My point is, getting a permit is not easy, especially during the high season (now). The tour group that I planned to travel with wasn’t able to find a permit for me at all, but luckily, they were able to refer me to another group that had permits available.
Once I had the permit, I was good to go, until a second challenge presented itself just a week or two before I was scheduled to leave: Ebola outbreak in Uganda. Luckily again — for me and my gorilla aspirations, but more importantly, for the people of Uganda — the outbreak seemed to have been contained very quickly once it was identified, although many Ugandans were still waving to each other instead of shaking hands when I was there, even hundreds of miles away from the site of the outbreak.
So in the first week of August, grateful to be permitted and even more grateful to be Ebola-free, I set out with seven other members of my tour group to see a family of mountain gorillas. It was about a two-hour drive from where we were staying to the park where the gorillas live, and there were four of us cramped into a three-person back seat around five in the morning, so I can’t say it was one of the best drives of my life, but it was already worth it once I saw the views as we got closer to the park (you can really see in the last photo where the “mist” part comes in).
We got permits for a family of gorillas living in a Ugandan park with the somewhat-ominous-sounding name of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Bwindi is home to between half and a third of the population of Mountain Gorillas; the rest live in the Virunga volcanic region, which straddles the borders between and among Uganda, Rwanda, and the DRC.
The name of the park brings me to my third gorilla obstacle: The Hike. I am not exactly in the best shape of my life at the moment, and I was a little bit concerned about the “trekking” part of the “mountain gorilla trek.” As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about — the hike wasn’t easy for me, but it was perfectly manageable, and we were luckier than the groups that had gone the days before we did (we hiked around 4 hours there and back, while the previous groups had hiked 5-6 hours).
You can probably conjure up some idea of what the park looks like just by hearing its name, but I’ll still give you some photographic evidence of its impenetrability — and its beauty.
We left for our hike at around 8:30. To make our lives easier, the trackers had left over an hour before that. They hiked to the spot where the family we were supposed to visit had been seen the day before, and then followed the gorillas’ tracks (their literal tracks as well as their droppings, crushed vegetation, and partially-eaten tree bark) to figure out where they had moved to (a family of mountain gorillas will usually move around a mile each day looking for food). Once they found the family, they radioed our guide and told him where we should be going. So for the first hour and a half, we were walking on trails — hilly, slippery trails obstructed by fallen tree trunks, colonies of biting ants, and stinging nettles, but still, trails. Once we diverted our path to get directly to the gorillas, we walked through pretty densely-forested areas, where our guide sometimes used a machete to clear a path for us and where we walked on a thick carpet of vines that liked to trick you into thinking that the ground was solid. I am proud to say that I only fell once, thanks to the hiking boots that were generously lent to me by my roommate, who had climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro a few weeks before.
Our first glimpse of an actual gorilla might have been underwhelming if it wasn’t so, so exciting.
After that first glimpse, we got to see seven more gorillas, so eight out of a family of twelve, including all four silverbacks in the group — the old grandpa (the big guy in the first few photos), the dominant male, and two others — plus some younger males, a female, and one baby.
I’m not quite sure what else to say except that it was amazing.
Also, there were a lot of flies. Flies apparently love gorillas.
Also, at one moment I thought that I and two other lagging members of my group might be killed by a charging gorilla (but I still managed to take a photo of him, albeit a blurry one).
Also, it was still really amazing.