Sitting in Uganda’s highest lodge, (aptly named Clouds) in the south west corner of Bwindi forest, the talk at dinner was all about tomorrow’s gorilla trek. The notorious steepness of the Nkuringo Valley and rumours of 10 hour treks made me hesitate before accepting a third glass of red wine to wash down my Ugandan steak – but only briefly.
The following morning, after steaming coffee and freshly baked biscuits enticed me out from under my warm duvet, I found myself at the park headquarters for a short briefing from our ranger. “The Nkuringo gorilla group is the hardest and most difficult group to trek in Uganda,” he said. “Don’t look the gorillas directly in the eye, no sudden movements, no loud noises, no flash photography. And if they charge, don’t run. It will encourage them to run after you.”
Thinking of all the things that could go wrong and after a short drive, we arrived at the boundary of the park where 6 slightly nervous but excited tourists stood in Gore-Tex walking boots, waterproof trousers and hi-tech jackets, wobbling under the weight of day packs stuffed with more rain gear, binoculars, camera, lenses, video cameras, lunch and water. Opposite stood our porters – wearing overalls and gumboots. After handshakes all-round I was introduced to my porter, Silver and after he had kindly shouldered my bag, we turned to face the spectacular Nkuringo Valley. Tiny mud baked huts and a scattering of people warmed themselves in the early morning sun on slopes that fell away into shadow. Beyond that lay the park itself – our final destination.
Whether it was the thought of our challenge ahead, the early start, or simply the spectacular view, we were all very quiet. Our porters gestured for us to start; patient and encouraging with an intuition that comes from having seen countless tourists come and go, paying a kings ransom, for an experience that lasts an hour. I asked Silver what he does when not helping people realise a lifelong dream. “I plant vegetables for my family,” he said. “And for the market. Mostly beans and bananas, but on the steep slopes it is difficult.”
As we passed through the villages, it was clear the porters are minor celebrities, every person we squeezed past on the overgrown paths knew them. “That is my sister,” said Silver, another shouted, “That’s my cousin,” and with every passing person, relaxed greetings were made, gossip was traded and there was good-natured laughter at my attempts at Luganda. Sound carried in the stillness of these hills and conversations carried on long after we had disappeared from each other’s view – the voices and chatter mixed with the sound of birdsong, goats and the chopping of wood.
As we crossed the first river, we passed a very a surprised looking woman washing her smalls. We entered the buffer zone of the park itself, trees felled to plant bushes that discourage crop raiding gorillas – necessary I was told, but another small destruction of the gorillas habitat. I wondered if this really does keep gorillas at bay – I asked Silver. “Not really,” he smiles, “They still come but we chase the gorillas off with a big stick.”
An hour or so later, we met the trackers, who would have risen at first light to pick up the trail of the gorillas themselves, a sign that they are about 20 metres from where we stood, just inside the thick wall of vegetation marking the forest boundary. As requested, we left our bags behind with the porters and took with us only what we needed for the next hour we were to spend in the gorillas company. We stepped gingerly into the forest, cameras at the ready, and we almost stepped on one of the world’s rarest great apes before we even saw him. A young juvenile quietly stripped a stem of wild bamboo, pausing briefly mid chew, to give our group the once over, before carrying on without a care.
After a flurry of camera clicks, we settled down and look around as the forest revealed a silverback appearing from the undergrowth, glancing at us before retreating back half in shadow, a casual, but Obvious breaking of thick bamboo letting us know who the guest is.
A young female rolled on to her side, showing us a tantalising, but all too brief glimpse of a two week old baby, who blinks sleepily at us before another round of camera clicks breaks the stillness. There was a group of around 15 gorillas in all and as we stared in silence, huddled together on the uneven forest ground, the only sound the crunch and snap of the gorillas eating and my heart pounding in my ears.
Some of the younger gorillas were curious and sneaked up to us before running past quickly as if playing dare and I tried desperately to stop taking pictures and enjoy the moment but failed miserably as a young gorilla yawned next to me.
Before we knew it the hour was up and we returned to our porters where cold drinks were opened and packed lunches devoured. Whilst we sat around contemplating our encounter, Silver was already shouldering my bag and carefully checking zips (I am notorious for losing things) before we left the gorillas in peace. I offered Silver my last piece of lunch, a banana which he politely refused, telling me, that (of course) he has a whole plantation of them back home – this was probably one of his.
africageographic.com - by Steppes Travel - November 19, 2014