Visiting the mountain gorillas of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in south-western Uganda remains one of my most memorable, thrilling, intoxicating and exhausting journeys to date.
My first attempt to visit Bwindi was March 1999, towards the end of a six week tour of East Africa. A week before our arrival, guerrillas attacked a truckload of international travellers just like us. The remainder of our itinerary was adjusted to avoid this area altogether. Bwindi closed for 18 months after this event. When travelling anywhere in the search for wildlife, one will need a patient and flexible attitude and safety must always come first.
I waited for Bwindi to re-open and finally by October 2000, I had returned to Uganda to fulfil my dream of meeting the Bwindi mountain gorillas. Please forgive my photos here … this is the year 2000 – I was still shooting with 35mm film.
On arrival our group were split into two. We were reminded each group will spend one hour only with the gorillas. This is the limit humans may spend with them each day to avoid dependency, and reduce the risk of us sharing any illnesses with this endangered species. I was allocated group two, and accepted I could wait one more day before seeing them.
Group one returned in time for lunch, with excited tales of a one hour trek up the mountain, to see the Bwindi population in a clearing. They watched the Silverback mate with a female during their hour visit. The perfect scenario … I wished the same for my group tomorrow.
We started our trek up the mountain, following, and followed by, park rangers and trackers holding shotguns, for safety … and machetes, to clear the forest path for us.
An hour or so later we were towards the top of the mountain, the trackers found broken and flattened foliage. This explained there must’ve been a fight between gorilla groups here last night. No sign of gorillas. We tracked them half way back down the mountain to another clearing of broken forest. No sign of gorillas. We tracked them across and down then almost back up to the top of the mountain. No sign of gorillas.
We trekked and tracked for 6 hours. Eventually, we found a group relaxing in thick forest … with no sign of the Silverback. The one hour visit began.
Babies sat and rolled around on the ground one metre from my feet. Mothers and juveniles sat in tree branches munching on afternoon tea. Amazingly awesome … I am speechless. There are not enough superlatives to use here for this experience. I quickly forgot the previous 6 hours and enjoyed my time watching the group interact with each other.
Towards the end of the hour, I started to worry we wouldn’t see the Silverback at all. Then as if on cue, he entered and walked through his group from one side to the other, and hid again in the thick foliage. I quietly asked him to come back out … and he did!
The Silverback re-entered and sat under a baby gorilla swinging from a thin tree branch. He reached up to the branch with his massive arm, and pulled. The branch snapped and we watched the baby fall onto the ground and roll in a little black ball down the hill. The Silverback exited, and that was our cue to leave.
The 6 hour trek was hot, tiring and challenging … The 90 minute trek back to camp was exhausting … But I would do it all again for another hour with these breathtaking, beautiful giants. Next time, I wish to be allocated group one with the one hour trek, but will be prepared for a 10 hour trek to have the privilege of sitting with the gorillas again.