Bwindi Impenetrable National Park was just 50 yards from our lodge, Lake Kitandara Bwindi Camp. Our driver, Matthieu, escorted us to the park gate, where we signed in and met the park staff and other trekkers. We showed our permits – a whopping $500 apiece – and were led through orientation. The head guide was a female, something of a surprise in this male-dominated part of the world.
We were informed that there were three groups of gorillas, and that we would be tracking the Rushegura family of 18. We were reminded to manage our expectations, as sightings are not guaranteed; while one of the previous day’s group was charged by a silverback, another group from that day trekked into the jungle until 3 p.m. with no sightings.
Our instructions were simple: We were to tuck our pants into our boots to protect them from red ants, we were to talk at a whisper, we were to observe the gorillas from a distance of no less than 50 feet, and we were to carry only our cameras. Porters, dressed in camouflage like the guides, would follow behind at a distance, carrying our daypacks, which contained items such as water bottles, binoculars, etc. One armed guide led our expedition from the front, another from the rear.
Professional trackers were in the jungle ahead, scoping out the scent. We paired up with a porter and became acquainted with one another while waiting for the trackers to radio in. My porter, an enthusiastic young man with kind eyes, dreamed of one day opening his own auto repair shop. Mark and Miles made small talk with their own porters as I looked around to size up the rest of the group. I recall there being eight trekkers in total, including a senior couple who trekked with another group the day before! (They were in the group that was charged by the silverback, and said that the encounter was singularly thrilling.)
We received the green light after just ten minutes of waiting, and started on our way. We followed a level access road for some distance. The road was encroached upon by jungle on both sides and blue sky overhead. Our guides led us to a tracker who pointed towards a particularly dense swath of forest. We blazed our own path into the brush, being mindful of tree roots and watchful for red ants, snakes, and the like.
It seemed that Mother Nature was smiling upon us that morning, for in no time at all we found a gorilla “bed” from the night before. Palm fronds were laid flat on the forest floor, with an obvious weight indentation from having been slept on by some heavy animal. We continued past the bed and headed towards the sound of a stream. Less than five minutes had passed when we heard a noise in the trees, looked up, and saw a young gorilla swinging in the trees above!
The sound of the tree branches swaying from the gorilla’s weight were drowned out by the commotion of six camera shutters snapping in unison. The senior couple who were on their second gorilla trek didn’t take any pictures, but merely sat back and observed. Speaking only for myself, I could take a lesson from them.
The young gorilla watched us for a few moments, then resumed his Tarzan act. We followed him through the jungle foliage, and he occasionally glanced back at us, as if to ensure that we were able to follow his trail. One of the guides whispered that we were nearing a precipitous slope, and we slowed down. The stream was louder. The gorilla disappeared from sight, but it turned out that he was merely climbing higher into the trees to signal his relatives that the tourists had arrived for the daily viewing.
We inched closer to the edge of the ridge and the stream came into view…along with 17 mountain gorillas!
Time stood still. Youngsters frolicked in the stream, wrestling and splashing water at one another. Parents supervised the goings-on from the brush on the opposite side of the stream. An adult picked bugs off of its mate’s fur. Some mugged for our cameras, as if on stage. One ape beat on its chest like King Kong. Another, seen below, appeared humbled in prayer.
Our lead guide whispered that she had been visiting the gorillas for eight years, and that this was the first time she had ever seen an entire group gathered along a streambed. The only notable absence appeared to be the silverback, and then someone spotted him: higher up the opposite slope, at a distance from the others, half-hidden in the brush. He was magnificent.
We learned later that every family has one dominant silverback – the oldest male in the group. I neglected to ask if it’s possible for there to be more than one silverback per group. Logic tells me that it is possible but unlikely, courtesy of the same macho histrionics, petty jealousies, and male rivalries that exist in humans. Gorillas are our closest relatives, after all.
After precisely one hour, the silverback retreated deeper into the jungle and the others followed. I mention the passage of time because our $500 permits allowed us one hour with the gorillas. It was as if the silverback was wearing a stopwatch, and said “Time’s up!” Our guide let us linger longer, and even led us carefully down the slope and across the stream to see if the gorillas left any trace of their visit. The site of their picnic was pristine – perhaps the finest example of “leave no trace” wilderness practices I have yet seen.
We took a final look around and, seeing no sight of the great apes, headed back to the park entrance. I was the last one to climb the steep slope that led up from water’s edge. As I pulled myself to the top by using a tree root as a rope, I heard a branch snap, followed by a “Shhh!” from someone in my group. I steadied myself and looked to my left. Just ten feet away, practically at eye level, was the 18th gorilla – the one that had originally led us to the 17 others before disappearing from sight.
He was staring directly at me.
I paused for a moment. The forest grew silent. The gorilla appeared inquisitive, not menacing, so when he turned his head slightly to his left, I raised my camera and snapped the following picture:
I was the only person in our group to get this shot, and the only one to get so close to a gorilla in the wild. From a technical standpoint, I’m unsure if the photo above is my best wildlife shot, but it certainly is my favorite.
TO BE CONCLUDED