Rough Guides Managing Editor Keith Drew heads deep into the heart of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest on the trail of the magnificent mountain gorilla.
It seemed simple enough. Just two things to remember: stand still and look down. But even simple goes out of the window when instinct kicks in, and instinct definitely kicks in when you’ve got 200kg of pumped-up mountain gorilla charging towards you.
The silverback stopped short, of course, just like my guide, Agustine, had said he would, the message that we were getting a little too close for comfort well and truly understood.
But by that time, I had hurled myself half way down the hill and was sheepishly apologising to one of our party’s trackers for trying to use him as a human shield.
We were in a remote corner of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, in a remote corner of southwest Uganda, several hours into the Uganda Wildlife Authority’s new Gorilla Habituation Experience, a once-in-a-lifetime kind of day spent tracking some of the last remaining mountain gorillas on Earth.
In the last census that Bwindi’s park rangers carried out in 2010, the park’s thick swathe of afromontane forest was found to shelter 408 mountain gorillas, just over half of the world’s entire population.
The other half roam the Virunga Mountains, the nearby peaks of which are visible from Bwindi’s upper slopes as they trail out of Uganda and into Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Bwindi’s gorillas are divided into 36 different groups, each one a miniature society consisting of a dominant silverback male; younger males (or blackbacks); a hierarchy of females, whose status is based on how long they’ve been with the silverback; and a motley crew of assorted youngsters.
A third of these groups are habituated to humans, a patient process that takes around four years of daily contact to complete.
At first, the park rangers spend just a few minutes with the gorillas, keeping their distance but letting them know that they’re there – and, through a series of soft low grunts, reassuring them that they mean no harm.
Then they spend a little longer with the group each day, gradually building up an understanding of their behaviour and getting to know the quirks of individual characters until eventually they’re considered to be habituated to human presence.
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Bikyingi, the group that we tracked, were not one of these. They were still a good 18 months away from habituation, and therefore – as I embarrassingly found out – that much more likely to charge.
They’re also more likely to retreat to the furthest reaches of the park and to seek refuge on the steepest slopes and in the densest thickets. Bwindi is not carelessly named.
The path that winds up from the tracking trailhead near Rushaga is easy going and open, offering expansive views of terraced fields and purple mountaintops as they emerge from the fuzzy light of dawn. But we were soon wading knee-deep through stinging nettles and bracken ferns, ducking creepers and climbing up into a green wall of “impenetrable” foliage.
Our trackers, three local men dressed in combat fatigues and armed with AK-47s to ward off the resident forest elephants, had to literally hack a path through the vegetation. There were many times when I couldn’t even see them, and I was just following the crack of splintering bamboo and the swish of a blade scything through leafy branches.
As we moved deeper into the jungle, the going got tougher, and I needed a trekking pole to balance myself against the undulating terrain, the ground beneath my feet regularly giving way and plunging me into a soup of rotting leaf litter.
I was thankful for the gardening gloves that I shoved into my rucksack at the last minute, though the thorny spikes that cover the stems of towering palms still cut through the leather and gouged at my hands.
We stopped in the occasional clearing, where whole trees had been uprooted by grazing elephants and boggy patches revealed the delicate deer-like footprints of black-faced forest duiker cast in mud.
But there was no sign of the gorillas yet.
After another hour or so, an outbreak of excited chatter up ahead signalled that we’d found their overnight camp.
Dr Okwir, a gorilla doctor from Rushaga who had joined us for his monthly inspection, quickly set about counting the nests, each one carefully crafted from overlapping branches and built a couple of metres off the forest floor.
Tell-tale silver hairs and a stack of sizeable faeces (duly measured by the doctor) were a clear indication of which one was the dominant male’s, but he also showed me where the infants had slept, pointing out the little imprints they had left in the leaves.
Mountain gorillas move fairly slowly, sometimes covering less than a kilometre a day, and we hadn’t long been following a trail of broken branches and chewed-up shoots before the trackers beckoned me forward. The forest was very quiet – there wasn’t even any birdsong – and so as I pushed aside an enormous fern to see a family of gorillas tearing off strips of giant salvia, I could actually hear the silverback’s chewing.
It’s a surreal moment, a momentous first contact, and we spend a good ten minutes watching them, the adults devouring hefty shrubs in just a few quick chomps whilst their infant plays tag with a hanging vine.
Over four hours, we followed the group as they munched their way through the forest. At one point, we caught a fleeting glance of a female cradling her three-day-old baby carefully to her chest. Later on, a young blackback climbed up a nearby tree in search of fruit. The group moved, ate, rested and moved again.
The silverback was a little wary of us at first, but aside from his early warning charge, he seemed fairly indifferent to our presence. On a couple of occasions, we exchanged glances, and I remembered to look down – but it was still long enough to see deep into those soulful brown eyes and feel a powerful mix of intimacy and trepidation.
The last time I saw him, he was sat sentinel on a thicketed ridge, surveying the forest before him. He didn’t move for what felt like an age. And then he turned his great silver back on me and ambled off into the undergrowth, his enormous torso melting into the shadows within seconds.
Kenya Airways flies daily from London Heathrow via Nairobi to Entebbe. Steppes Travel is one of only a handful of operators that offer the weekly Gorilla Habituation Experience, their six-day trip including a full day tracking one of Bwindi’s two groups of mountain gorillas currently being habituated; permits are limited to 4 people per trip, so book well in advance. Steppes can also create tailor-made trips that feature gorilla tracking as part of a wider itinerary that takes in some of Uganda’s other spectacular destinations and activities.