By Nat Hab Expedition Leader Matt Meyer
The day started like any other at Buhoma Lodge in the northern region of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest with a few wisps of cloud cover, low hanging mist over the canopy tops and the sounds of the forest waking up. Our two groups had been assigned to two different gorilla families for our morning treks and both were set to start after a steep incline through the neighboring village. As we ascended, escorted by our AK47-wielding park rangers (for the group’s protection, mainly as a loud deterrent for elephants), the local children gathered to say hello and give us a wave of encouragement. Led by their trusted porters (some of whom had shoes held together by duct tape and others wearing nothing more than flip flops), each guest climbed further and further towards the top, stopping along the way to admire the views and catch our breath. Going at our own pace we made good headway until a young boy escorting a single cow overtook us on his way up the mountain to look for fresh grazing for his animal. When the groups neared the top, we split up and went in opposite directions, approaching the edge of the forest we would enter in search of our day’s prize—gorillas. The forests of Bwindi are surrounded by local villages and communities and their livestock and crops, which in this region is mainly tea. Tea plantations create a natural perimeter around the forest as gorillas do not like the taste of the leaves nor do they like to walk through the scraggly bushes. This leads to a dramatic landscape and change of vegetation as one steps from in amongst the tea bushes no higher than one’s waist into a forest with a canopy extending higher than four giraffes standing on each other’s shoulders (how’s that for a visual!).
Not long after entering the forest, we met up with the trackers who had been out since sunrise looking for the family we were set to view, the Rushegura gorilla group. After a brief safety talk, we left our porters with our bags and made our way a little deeper into the undergrowth where we discovered most of the members of the family laying around taking a break from their morning of foraging. This group is unique in that there are not one nor two but three silverbacks present (typically a gorilla family will have a single silverback). There is still a hierarchy within these three with one being dominant, but it is still not common to have more than one alpha male. Two of the three silverbacks were lying in close proximity to one another and were surrounded by juveniles and subadults playing around and getting up to mischief. After their short break, they continued along feeding while moving, young ones jumping on each other, and all the while the dominant silverback kept a watchful eye on our group of travelers in tow. When one treks gorillas, they are not allowed to spend more than 1 hour with the gorillas as this reduces the threat of transmission of diseases and allows the gorillas to retain their natural behaviors. That hour goes by sooner than you realize and after what seems like only a few minutes the guide is giving you the “only 5 more minutes so take some final pictures”. As if on cue the gorillas all began to climb into the treetops in search of food and to say goodbye to that day’s group of travelers.
However, then began the group’s next challenge, getting out of the forest and back down the mountain to our local guides and vehicles. No sooner had we rejoined our porters and started out of the forest than the first rumble of thunder was heard. Rain jackets were donned as we emerged from the forest and cameras put away in anticipation of the shower to come. We scoffed down our jappati wraps (a delicious local flour wrap one could compare to a small burrito) to fuel us for our descent. We had only reached about halfway down the mountain when the skies opened and drenched even the most well rain proofed members of the group. Slipping and sliding our way, we made it down and into the shelter of the vehicle but not before all of us were soaked to the core. I asked our guide how long ago the other group had come down as they were meant to have the shorter of the two treks, to which his response was a large grin, a head shake and a chin point to the top of the mountain. They were still up there…at the top of the mountain…in the pouring rain!! It later turned out they had only reached their gorilla family when we were leaving ours and although their trek might not have been longer, it was just as tough. The rain began at their “5-minute mark” and they not only had to come down the steep trail in the rain but also navigate their way out of the forest in the torrential downpour. They reported that at some points the terrain was so steep and so muddy that a few of them went down onto their bums and slid down the pathway to avoid the inevitable of slipping and falling. In areas, the porters made human chain links to get past seemingly unnavigable sections of the trail and after a brief respite in the shelter of a local hut, they realized the rain was not going to let up any time soon and decided to push through and down the steep mountainside path which was now no longer a path but a shin-deep, flowing river. Eventually, they made it down to the bottom and no sooner had they done so when the rain seized and the clouds opened up.
Trekking is tough at the best of times but in conditions like this, it would be impossible without the assistance and guidance of the guide, rangers and porters. So impressed by the skill and assistance given to them by the porters, some of the group took off their own boots and in a gesture of gratitude gifted them to their new friends. Rejoined at the lodge, the two groups shared many laughs and hugs as stories were told of the day’s adventures and how they weathered the best the rain forests of southwestern Uganda had to throw at them. Memories were made and friendships forged in what is truly one of the most remarkable and unforgettable adventures one can undertake in the natural world, to trek mountain gorillas in the rain forests of Africa.
All photos © Matt Meyer