Dian Fossey gave her life protecting these gentle animals and as I sit amongst them, observing the way they play, interact, eat and take power naps between the trees, I have a strong sense that I would do the same. I’m in Uganda’s Impenetrable Bwindi National Park, fulfilling a life long dream to see gorillas in the wild. For as long as I can remember this experience has headed up my wish list and now, here I am, overcome with emotion.
My time in Uganda begins with an overnight in the capital Kampala. Roads are slow and traffic gathers in patient piles near and in the bigger centres. Our first day has us opting for a tour of the city.
The road trip from Kampala to our campsite on Lake Bunyonyi, takes most of the next day. Our reward is green landscapes, rolling hills, the occasional hub bursting with consummate traders, goats and Ankole cattle with their impressive horns. This is the Africa that I belong to.
Yet nothing could have prepared me for the surprise of Lake Bunyonyi. Meaning ‘place of little birds’, this is one of the deepest lakes in the world, is home to 29 islands and has a calm dark water idyllic for swimming and kayaking. Tents up for our three nights stay, reality hits. The day is finally here – gorilla trekking day!
Accessing Bwindi from Bunyonyi is on a mountain pass through thick forest, at base camp we are kitted out with walking sticks and briefed by our guide John. Only about 800 gorillas are left in the wild, with 11 habituated families in Bwindi, which is home to about 400 of them. Visits are capped at three groups of 8 people per day and permits need to be bought well in advance, that’s no more than 24 people on the mountain at any given time. There is a chance that you won’t see the gorillas, although trackers go up to find them on a daily basis, as much for their protection as for our convenience. Correct behaviour is key. Be quiet, keep a respectable distance, do not try and touch the baby…
The family that we were to track was BituKura, a large group with an impressive silverback. There are only three habituated families in this part of the reserve and my heart started to pulse at the magnitude of the moment. I was to see one of them.
Walking stick in hand we followed our guides onto the mountain, taking an established path for the first hour or so before turning into dense vegetation, which the guides cut back with machete to make way for us. Three hours of heavy walking though the muddied forest floor, ferns and fungi, under a canopy of tall trees and with a sweat and breathlessness to match, we came upon the tracker who pointed us to the family.
Hugging the ridge and moving slowly forward, we caught a glimpse of our first gorilla and all but the joy of the moment was forgotten.
The time with the gorillas is limited to an hour. We followed them, watching as they chomped on bamboo and headed slowly towards a clearing amongst the trees. A mother and her baby stole our hearts and the silverback the show, as he walked right past where we were sitting. If I had been without common sense, I would have reached out and touched him.
There are no adequate ways to truly describe the surreal sense of privilege and emotion that I was overcome by in their presence. As an animal lover and advocate, I knew that to sit only a few meters from mountain gorillas and watch the sweet albeit awkward interaction between a 10 month old baby and the silverback, was a memory that I would always hold on to.
Heading down the mountain for a picnic in a clearing and a chance to excitedly share impressions of our experience, I understood Dian Fossey and have nothing but admiration for her followers who daily put their lives at risk for something greater than us. This giant yet fragile animal that man is yet to learn to respect.
From there, mud underfoot and hearts aglow we continued our days in Uganda, visiting the Queen Elizabeth National Park on the DRC border, chimpanzee trekking in Kalinzu Forest and eating street food in remote villages. Winston Churchill called Uganda ‘The Pearl of Africa’ and I for one agree.
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