Gorillas in the Mist

9 12 2008

Posted by: Laura

Travel dates: 9.26.08

If you step directly in the footprint of the person in front of you, then you’re less likely to slip. Chris has large feet and made deep prints in the muddy tangle of vegetation that sprawled across the jungle ground, so I  easily stepped in the imprints of his hiking boots. We were walking through Bwindi Forest in southern Uganda only a few miles from the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Bwindi literally translates as Impenetrable, an accurate description of the dense green surroundings. Once we found the gorillas, I wasn’t sure how we were going to see them through all the foliage. Our group consisted of seven tourists, two guides, and two armed guards, for protection in the unlikely event that we would encounter members of the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army), a rebel group operating in northern Uganda.

laura

Before we entered the forest, we had walked for an hour through farmland of banana trees and fields of tea leaves. Children with runny noses and dirty faces smiled and waved as we passed their mud huts. We hiked up a few hills and got fantastic views of the lush green hills and terraced farmland. Our guide led us to the top of a hill so we could make radio contact with our tracking team. This group of men left a few hours before we were even awake to find the gorilla family and radio the location to our guide.  Technically, they were tracking and we were just trying to dodge vines and roots.

chris-leaves

Once our guide got the location, we turned off the main path and walked single file into the jungle. The two guides swung a machetes to clear a path for us. Since we were bushwhacking our way through the jungle, we progressed slowly. After thirty minutes of navigating down a muddy hillside, one of the guards tapped me on the shoulder and pointed across the ravine.  I saw a branch shaking. About fifteen minutes later, we found the gorillas.

Although mountain gorillas are terrestrial, spending most of their time on land, they climb trees to feed on leaves and fruit. When we arrived, the entire family of gorillas was still enjoying breakfast. The trees were alive with activity as the gorillas swung from one tree to the next. We sat down to wait for them to come down.

Chris and I had been sitting on a log for forty five minutes, when the male silverback dexterously descended from the tree directly above us. We tried to scurry out of his way, when our guide told us it was too late, just sit still. Chris and I found ourselves 30 feet from a 450 pound silverback gorilla. The rest of the group slowly crept up behind us.

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Although we had been on two safaris, this experience was different. I was not securely locked in a four wheel drive jeep. I was sitting in the forest staring at a large muscular primate. While his stature was impressive, I was most surprised at how human looking his eyes were. He almost looked like someone dressed up in a gorilla suit. I had to remind myself that the tough skin on his chest was not plastic. Our guide had told us not to make eye contact with the silverback, but the moment the gorilla sat down 30 feet from us, I forgot everything he had told us.  I watched his human like expressions as the rest of the group joined him.

Before the silverback descended he gave his group a sign so the other 25 members came down from the trees to rest. Three younger males who had not yet begun to grow the distinguishing grey hair walked past us on their knuckles and hind legs. These members will some day challenge the current silverback for control of the group or leave their family to form their own group. Each group has a well defined chain of command. Our guide pointed to the ones who passed and explained where they were in the hierarchy. Four mature females walked past us with babies clutching their chests. The rest of the group consisted of younger males and females. I was surprised at how much larger the silverback was than the rest of his family. Some of the smaller females looked like giant stuffed animals. Until they looked at you with their eyes and then the looked human.

As we slowly moved around the periphery group, the guides would show us where to walk and would whack down stray branches so we could get pictures. You can’t use the flash on your camera since it could irritate the silverback  so most of the pictures turned out very dark.

The highlight of the gorillas was watching the younger ones play. The toddler sized gorillas playfully fought with each other. Occasionally they would ambush one of the adult gorillas who swatted them away with one hand. The youngest ones swung from the low branches of bushes. They had not learned the coordination of the silverback and would often fall from branches that broke under their weight. They would swing from one branch to the other, miss their handhold and tumble to the ground. Unfazed, they continued to play.

A mother cradling a three month old baby to her chest lay down near the playing youngsters. The baby continuously fidgeted and grabbed at its mother. At one point, the mother reached down to get something out of its eye.  She allowed our group to get about 15 feet from where she lay.

After our allotted hour of watching the gorillas, we began the trek back. As we walked, Chris humored me as I began playing a game “Who would win in a fight a gorilla or a lion? Who would win in a fight a gorilla or a….”

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