The ascent starts immediately. You stare up at the mountainside and know that the next few hours will be a strain and exertion on your legs and chest. The moist heat of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is bearing down, laying a thick blanket of humidity on the nape of your neck. The beads of sweat begin, first on your forehead, then on the small of your back. Your pack is loaded with water and food but feels weightless due to the excitement.
You climb past the local schoolhouse, then onward through a small community embedded in the side of a hill. Goats, cows and chickens litter the landscape. Barefoot children stare out their doors as you pass by, faces displaying a quizzical look mixed with the purity of youth.
The path begins to narrow as you climb, and the forest begins to thicken with each step. The switchbacks soon enter the picture. This carries on for an hour before the trail disintegrates into the forest and becomes an exercise in bushwhacking, following the path of least resistance. Maybe an African elephant has come by in the last few days and created a trail of downed trees and trampled bushes, which allows you to conserve energy and literally follow in its footsteps.
Soon, your Expedition Leader decides to redirect you, based on the calls from the trackers ahead, meaning you are now headed into the thick and dense bush, being opened seconds before you pass by with a swinging machete. The experience is unique; the feeling is wild.
Trekking to see the mountain gorillas of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda is not a choreographed experience. Trackers head out early in the morning in the direction of where the gorillas were last seen the day prior. Sometimes, they can be as close as 30 minutes away from your starting point. If the gorillas are feeling active, they can be as far as six, or even eight hours away. You won’t know until the trackers find them, which is then radioed down to the ranger that accompanies you on the trek.
Our trek on this particular morning took two hours from the time we departed until the time we heard the first calls of the gorillas while approaching the ridge of the mountaintop. As there were only two of us in our group, they put us on the advanced path, reserved for those the park considers the most fit. This trek is the most difficult that Bwindi has to offer, but the anticipation one builds along the way makes all the exertion a complete delight.
When our trackers radioed back that they had found the mountain gorillas, we were within range to hear their calls. Our ranger put out mock gorilla calls as well, signaling that we were en route and would be arriving shortly. When we finally came upon the gorillas, we dropped our packs, took our last sips of water, grabbed our cameras and set the clock. You are given one hour with the gorillas, and they move fast and often. It’s important to be lightweight, mobile and nimble as there are no trails, no designed walkways and no particular paths or patterns the gorillas follow. The gorillas are in an extremely dense part of the mountainside and move wherever they want, however they want. While they are wild gorillas that have been habituated to humans, they do not sit still and pose. They are wild animals, behaving like wild animals in a wild environment. The authenticity of the experience is unparalleled.
We quickly got right into the thicket and pulled down branches and leaves to clear a path to take photos. The window of opportunity may last only a few seconds, before the gorillas start down the hillside, come rushing past you or move to higher ground. As you follow them, you slide down embankments, get covered in spider webs and have bugs falling down on your shoulders and neck from the trees and bushes above. Your shirt gets caught on thorny nettles, your feet get tangled up in twisting vines and the sweat continues to build as you move.
It’s suggested that you keep a distance of 7 meters so the gorillas will not feel threatened and to reduce the possibility of them charging. When keeping a safe distance, they will move right past you, calling to one another and sometimes even pushing you as they move by. Gorillas are exceptionally strong, but their physical power does not really register until the 500-pound silverback saunters past you and then begins to sprint downward, pulling down small trees and tearing off limbs and branches as it goes. A silverback gorilla running through the jungle at full speed sounds like a Ford Escort barreling down the side of a mountain, crashing into trees as it falls. It’s no joke.
As you move with the mountain gorillas from location to location, one becomes hyper-aware of the situation and how unique this adventure travel opportunity is. You move at a rapid pace and contort yourself into positions that offer the most advantageous shots. You kneel, squat, lay, bend, slide, twist and stretch to find the right angle. Every moment of that hour is special, unique and sustained. The excitement never abates; it never quiets down. The thrill of being among wild mountain gorillas in their natural habitat is like no other. It is raw, visceral and awe-inspiring; it is an awakening.
There were several moments throughout the experience where I found myself just a few feet away from these incredible creatures and had to put my camera down to study the folds of the skin on their face, the wrinkles on their fingers and the formation of their toes. We are worlds apart but share some humbling characteristics. This reminded me very clearly of how we have evolved through millions of changes over the generations and how we didn’t climb out of the muck of the ocean as fully formed humans. We are part of something so large, so great and so unique. Humanity in its current form is a metaphorical miracle, and it registers deeply when you stand next to a creature that shares some of the same facial expressions and mannerisms as you.
The silverback gorilla was without a doubt the most fascinating of the group. His enormity, his control, and his effortless motion as he walked within 2 feet of me as he passed by kept my eyes glued to him for much of the time. He was majestic, courageous and animated in his own way. And while I thought I’d feel nervous in his presence, I actually felt quite calm. Something about being within 5 feet of a creature that could tear my face off, but chose not to due to habituation, made me feel even keel and comfortable.
My partner, Catherine, was nervous and several times, primarily when the gorillas would run past or call out, I’d reach out to let her know it was okay and to remind her to breathe. In the end, she did wonderfully, and I was delighted that she faced this experience with her head held high.
As our hour with the mountain gorillas wound down, we bushwhacked through the thickest brush and plant life of the day, literally pushing down the thicket, trampling it and creating a path for those behind us. The gorillas had moved into an area so dense that we could only hear them, but as we got closer, we managed to see the shaking of the surrounding plants, giving away their location. We started pulling the plants back, bending branches and opening up a small alleyway to take our final photos before departing. As we did this, one of the trackers reached in further than the gorilla cared for, and the gorilla reached out and swatted at him, narrowly missing his arm. Standing next to him, I gave him a pat on the back, and we both shared a nervous laugh. The silverback then came down to join in the feeding and passed by me once more, within a distance of 2 feet. Exhilarating!
The last of the gorillas came down with a baby on its back and playfully smacked the leg of one of the trackers as she passed by. This was our cue that our time with them was up, so we set to work by blazing down through the thicket once more to find the closest trail in order to descend the mountain.
I’ve lived a fairly full life to date and can claim with confidence that I’ve taken some chances that have paid off. I’ve also taken a few that have not. When it comes to wildlife viewing, seeing mountain gorillas in Uganda is the crown jewel in my experience, and it was worth every chance I’ve taken to find a way to get here. I’ll do my best to continue to count my luck daily because I’m fully aware of how extraordinary this experience was. Any way to recalibrate your existence is an exercise in growth and something that we should thrust ourselves into. Life is too short to allow growth to pass us by.
This guest blog post was written by Natural Habitat Adventures Adventure Specialist John Holahan. All photos © John Holahan.