A Walk With Giants
Aloysius leaned over from the front seat, his priestly garb long since retired in Kampala over 10 hours ago. “Back to Congo” he said while gesturing to his smartphone’s GPS on Uganda’s ridiculously impressive mobile network. There may not have been electricity, paved roads, or running water, but even here on Uganda’s border with the DRC we were never without a mobile signal. Villagers gathered around solar panels to charge their cells for a few shillings were as common a sight in the Ugandan bush as the massive potholes that dotted the slivers of red dirt in the impossibly green jungle.
Night had long since fallen, and my legs ached from the 10 hour-car ride. A washed-out bridge had lengthened our already long journey from Entebbe to our destination: the gates of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Long referred to simply as the “The Impenetrable Rainforest”, the jungle was renamed Bwindi Impenetrable after the former moniker was found to be too imposing. In actuality, the origin of the name is darker still. Legend has it that around a hundred years ago a family from Kisoro attempted to cross the swampy regions at the southeast of what is now Bwindi. The swamp looked absolutely impassable and the family prayed to the spirits for guidance. They were told that they would be granted safe passage only if they sacrificed the most beautiful of their daughters, Nyinamukari. They resisted at first, but after struggling to cross for several days, relented and threw their beloved daughter into the swamp to die. Since then the locals have called the area Mubwindi bwa Nyinamukari meaning “dark place of Nyinamukari”. When the area became protected the authorities decided that impenetrable sounded less ominous than dark place, although the words are very similar in the local language. However, as darkness fell and the trees closed in thick around the road, impenetrable seemed a very apt title indeed.
The road forked and Paul, one of our guides, pointed to the path to our right: “2 kilometers to the Congo border” he said as he guided the Toyota Prado expertly around the boda boda motorcycles that peppered the roads even at this late hour. The Prado was filled to bursting with the Captain and I in the middle row, Paul and our friend Aloysius in front, and Paul’s apprentice Simon wedged in the back against the luggage for our two-week expedition. “Have you ever been into the DRC?” I asked as the border crossing faded in the Prado’s taillights. Of the three Ugandans in the car only Paul had. “Once” he replied.
“After dropping a guest off in Bwindi, another guide offered to buy beers for us at a bar he knew across the border. He said he knew the guard on duty and that we’d have no trouble crossing. Sure enough, we crossed with no problem and started drinking at the bar. After an hour or so I wanted to head back, but the other guide convinced me to stay a while longer, insisting his friend would wait for us at the border. When we finished our drinks, we made our way back to the border crossing only to find a different guard on duty, this one quite drunk. While downing a whiskey, he cocked his AK-47 and loudly announced that anyone who crossed the border on his shift would be shot. It wasn’t until another guard came on shift that we were able to cross back into Uganda. I never went back”, he added with a disarming laugh.
Just before midnight, we arrived at the northern edge of the park near the village of Buhoma. The camp we were staying at was actually inside the park gates, so we had to clear a Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) checkpoint before checking in. We saw Father Aloysius to his cottage for the evening, while the captain and I headed further down a steep embankment to a safari tent a mere ten feet from the solid wall of jungle.
We couldn’t see much in the dark, but the forest was alive with sound. Bwindi has one of the highest densities of biodiversity in the world, with many species found nowhere else on the planet. One species in particular, however, had brought us here: the mountain gorilla.
Listed as critically endangered, there are less than nine hundred of these magnificent creatures left in the wild, all of them found in the mountainous border regions of northern Rwanda, western Uganda, and the eastern DRC. The morning dawned with a thick blanket of mist curling around the edges of the tent. Having not yet seen the jungle in daylight, I was rendered speechless as the Captain pulled back the canvas flap of the safari tent revealing an impenetrable wall of deep green. The sun gleamed above the mist-shrouded mountains, impossibly steep without a gap to be seen in the thick vegetation.
After a light breakfast the Captain, Aloysius, and I grabbed our camera equipment, walking sticks, gloves, and water and headed to the UWA checkpoint to meet the rangers who would guide us into the forest. The briefing was surreal. The rangers (all well armed as the UWA is a paramilitary organization) covered a variety of topics from exhaustion, to safari ants (keep your pants tucked into your socks), to aggressive bonobo monkeys that would necessitate them shooting their AK-47s in the air to scare them off: “It may look like we’re going to war”, our ranger intoned, “but I assure you that’s not the plan!” The time it would take to find the gorillas varies as they are completely wild and can roam across borders and up the mountain slopes in search of food. Our ranger said he had a very high success rate, only failing to find the gorillas twice in nine years with the time to finding them ranging from as little as two minutes to as long as two days. I was already feeling the effects of the altitude and some of our group voiced concerns about the length of the trek. The rangers assured us that they try and get everybody through, but some people don’t make it and they then have to pay a porter to carry them back to camp.
There were three main groups of gorillas on the north side of Bwindi, and the travelers gathered at the checkpoint were divided into three smaller groups of about 8 a piece. The Captain, Father Aloysius, and I were assigned the Rushegura group. Dominated by a large silverback named Mwirima (meaning darkness), the Rushegura group consisted of around 19 individuals, all of varying ages. One of the rangers unofficially told me that they assign the gorilla groups based on their assessment of the physical fitness of the people in the group and the hiking difficulties (low, moderate, and high) of the last known locations of the gorillas. There were two slightly older ladies in our group, but the rest were young and fit. Based on that, we were assigned into the moderate difficulty group.
We made our last-minute preparations including stocking up on food, water, and hiring a porter (highly recommended) and set off into the impenetrable rainforest. It proved aptly named, as the vegetation seemed to swallow us whole, leaving every trace of civilization in its deep green wake. We crossed a rickety bridge over the Mubbi River (meaning thief, as a flood years back stole many lives) and headed up the mountainside.
The going was tough with vines and hanging branches obscuring the trail. I was glad to have the company of our rangers as the trail quickly faded and the route became a more labyrinthine zigzag through the trees. The air was thin and I began to get winded as we worked our way higher uphill. I had heard stories of how common it was for the tracking to take many hours, but just as I began to think that the older ladies would never make it, our lead ranger veered sharply northwest and headed back down the slope.
The going downhill was easier but more treacherous, especially given the recent rains. We soon made it back to the banks of the Mubbi, albeit further north than the bridge we had crossed earlier. The water was too high to cross safely, as some of the local men from the village were in the process of blocking a natural tributary to increase the flow of the main branch. Our rangers persuaded them to temporarily remove the dam, allowing the waters of the Mubbi to surge violently down the tributary and lessen the flow of the main river so we could cross. As soon as we scampered up the opposite bank, we were in for a surprise. We met another of the rangers who informed us that the gorillas had crossed the Mubbi that morning and were already on the western shore, only a few dozen meters away from us! We abandoned our walking sticks and left our gear with the porters, keeping only our Canon photo gear and a GoPro.
As we fanned out into the jungle led by the rangers, they reiterated the key points of an encounter with wild mountain gorillas:
1. Try not to get separated from the group
2. Try and keep at least 7 meters away, but be aware that the gorillas will likely get much closer than that
3. Avoid sudden movements
4. If a gorilla charges, keep low to the ground and don’t make eye contact
I tried to keep that in mind, but as we rounded a bend in the jungle it was hard not to lose my breath. A fully-grown mountain gorilla parted the undergrowth looking simultaneously graceful and unimaginably powerful.
I will remember that forever.
It paid us little mind, but the rangers made low guttural sounds to make sure they were aware of our presence. We proceeded after it into the thick undergrowth, led by rangers who used machetes and scythes to clear a path. The ranger I was following soon stopped abruptly, pointed deep within the bush, and whispered “silverback…” It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the shadows, but there was Mwirima; steeped in shade but still massive and intimidating. My shutter clicked rapidly, but I made sure to take time to put the camera down and just enjoy the moment of being so close to these wonderful animals.
I pressed closer to Mwirima with the Captain close behind, but when I looked off to my left I noticed that two of our company had wandered away from the group and towards some of the female gorillas that were eating leaves in the trees upslope. Suddenly with a chest-shaking grunt, Mwirima lept forward and shoved the leading ranger out of the way! He heading toward the two outliers and passed less than 10 feet in front of me.
I felt the Captain’s hand on my shoulder pressing me down into the undergrowth as the rangers shouted at the two to stay put and look down at the ground. Reassured that they were no threat, the great ape simply walked by and on up the hill. The Captain grinned at me and whispered that he supposed it would be more chivalrous for him to walk in front the next time I approached a giant gorilla.
But no more than ten minutes later, it was the Captain, Aloysius, and I that found ourselves isolated. Mwirima was at the southern edge of a worn path and the three of us were in a line parallel to him across the path and inside a thicket of trees. With our attention focused on trying to get the best picture of the large silverback with minimal interference from the undergrowth, our hearts collectively froze as we heard a loud screech just west of us. With a terrifying rush, a large female came crashing through the forest straight at us! I fell backwards down to the forest floor vaguely hearing the ranger’s commands not to look up. I heard Aloysius and the Captain hit the dirt beside me and focused on the leaves beneath my feet as the giant primate stopped a scant three feet in front of us. One of the rangers grunted loudly and smacked a nearby bush with his machete. Languidly, the female gorilla wandered back into the jungle and we returned to our feet. Aloysius laughed and the Captain grinned broadly as the ranger told us she was simply making us aware of her presence. Charges borne of aggression or when they truly feel threatened are apparently even scarier!
The rest of the sole hour we were allowed with the Rushegura group flew by. The gorillas grew increasingly interactive and at one time I had to actually move my feet to avoid being stepped on by a baby gorilla as it ambled past to join its guardian. I couldn’t believe it when the rangers announced that we had actually been in their midst for almost 80 minutes. The hike back was short as ironically the gorillas had moved west upslope and were less than half a kilometer away from our tent! I felt incredibly fortunate to have interacted with such magnificent creatures in their natural habitat, and incredibly humbled by their evident intelligence and grace. Africa has held some of the most magical moments of my life, but few more so than that one quick hour.
Wild is one of the more common words used to describe the African continent, but even in its deepest reaches it needs protection to stay so. There are less than a thousand of these great apes left on the planet, and their low reproductive rate means that any population growth will be slow. Awareness and conservation are these gorillas best defense, so wherever you are in the world, avoid purchasing illegal animal products, do what you can to support wildlife conservation agencies, and raise a glass with me to toast that the slopes of Bwindi may remain wild for many, many years to come.