Thursday, 29 January 2015

... Gorillas in the Mist: King of the Jungle

My alarm went off at 425am. Doesn't that sound like fun! Thankfully there was no need to pack away my tent like I had on so many other ungodly early morning starts, I merely had to drag my behind out of my sleeping bag and up a couple of flights of stairs. I felt like a roast chicken upon waking. When arriving at the camp last night a lady, whom had been residing here for several days already, had told us it had rained every single night since her arrival. So out came the rain cover which of course I didn't end up needing and instead I cooked. Like it wasn't already hot enough without the cover! It's rather disgusting waking up with a pool of sweat in your suprasternal notch.

Still, you soon forget all of that with a couple of wet wipes and the realization that today is the day that this trip is basically all about. At 530am I began a 2.5hr drive from Lake Bunyonyi to one of the entrance gates of the nearby national park. Today I was going Gorilla tracking!

It is said that the mountain gorilla evolved with the rise of the volcanoes half a million years ago. They adapted to the differing terrain to their lowland relatives by becoming larger and having thicker fur. Tragically less than 800 mountain gorillas exist in the world (as of Dec 2014), however that number is increasing thanks to conservation efforts. In Uganda they can be safely visited in two national parks: Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. We are able to do this thanks to a procedure known as primate habituation (the same applies with chimpanzees). This long process is where a group of primates (or other animals) are exposed to human presence, albeit slowly, to the point where humans are regarded as neutral. Of course these are still wild animals but they are less likely to flee deeper into the forest or, worse, become aggressive and attack unlike those that are unhabituated. It takes two to three years for a gorilla group to become habituated and even longer for chimps (around 7). It is achieved by a group of rangers with a lot of patience, and a good dose of bravado, spending time with a group every day to eventually win over their trust. This is done by mimicking their behaviour: pretending to eat the same food at the same time, grunting, beating on one's chest. The first few weeks are risky for the rangers with repeated charges commonplace. Having now seen a huge silverback male that was easily over 200kg and with the strength to rip you limb from limb, I can imagine how scary being charged at must be.

Habituation has been taking place for a long time - it allowed scientists to study them. Then of course someone had the bright idea of charging tourists, like me, $500USD a pop to take part in viewing them in the wild. Is this a good thing? There are lots of heavily enforced rules and regulations that you have to follow to be even considered.  If you are sick on the day then you won't be going - the Ugandans are fiercely protective of their primates and any signs of as much of a sniffle and you'll be refunded your permit money and sent on your way. Only 8 people are allowed at any one time to visit a group per day and your time with them will be an hour - and they follow this to the last second as I found out. You are not allowed any less than 7 metres away from a gorilla and if one approaches you you have to slowly back away from it to maintain that distance. Of course deep in the bush that might not always be possible but the Rangers will do whatever they can to keep your distance, they do speak gorilla after all. Bottom line is that had there been no habituation then the subsequent tourist trade the likelihood is that mountain gorillas would've been wiped out by poachers years ago. I felt incredibly honoured that I was being given the opportunity to go and visit a family.

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park was established only in 1991 and became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994. It covers an area of 331 sq km and the jungle forest, one of the richest ecosystems in Africa, is only accessible by foot.  Bwindi has 11 habituated gorilla groups in total and is home to half of the world's population of this critically endangered species. The Mubare group have been habituated since 1993 and the most recent are 4 groups in 2011. One of the 4 gates, Rushaga Gate, in the southern sector of Bwindi is home to the largest number of habituated groups: Mishaya (2010), Nshongi (2009), Bweeza (2011), Kahungye (2011) and Busingye (2011). It also has occasional visits of elephants. Bwindi itself has at least 350 species of birds too not to mention many butterflies and insects and species of trees.

If you like the outdoors, don't mind getting very hot and sweaty with a strong possibility of at least some part of you caked in mud (so leave the designer gear at home, also no bright clothing allowed), aren't fazed by the loud whack of machete hacking or thorny bushes and have an interest in spending time viewing one of the most magnificent animals I have ever had the opportunity to see then Gorilla tracking might be for you! It will likely be one of the most surreal yet amazing experiences you will ever be a part of. Whilst this literally is a "walk in the park" it also isn't. Don't underestimate how steep some of the climb will be or how thick the bush is. If you have issues with fitness then this may not be for you. I also had to forgo my fear of "creepy crawlies" for this one as you fight your way through the dense jungle. Slap on the sunblock, Deet, gators, good hiking boots, long trousers and, when needed, a good pair of gloves (gardening or leather, I used my cycling gloves) to protect your hands from the thorns - there will be times you will reach out to grab something to steady yourself, even though you also have a walking stick. Local porters are for hire if you feel you need someone to carry your stuff (I didn't so can't remember the minimum price quoted) and by stuff I mean at least 1.5L of water, snacks & a packed lunch and then your camera gear plus any rain gear you may need, this is the jungle after all. You could be hiking for as little as half an hour or up to 8. These are wild animals remember! Trackers are already out in the bush following the group you are assigned to from a distance and your job is to catch them up. Our guide together with two other rangers carrying guns and a couple of porters took 6 of us off into the forest in the hope of catching up with the Nshongi group.

I hoped I would see a couple of gorillas but what I ended up with was beyond my wildest dreams. I knew it would be a challenging hike, but would you expect me to want to do anything less? It was well worth the effort and the cost of the permit. After about an hour we were told the trackers were with the group. It was just a question of how long it would take us to get to them, it's not like they sit and wait around for us. After a further 50 minutes I had to make sure I was seeing what I thought I might be seeing. In the not-too-far-distance as bold as brass there was a gorilla climbing up a tree. Now we just had to get to him!

Some serious bush-whacking ensued before we stopped just short of where the Nshongi group were feeding. You could hear the crunching. Gorillas are primarily vegetarian but will occasionally eat ants. We  left our packs with the porters and the two rangers with guns then carrying just what we needed (cameras/iPhones/GoPro's, no food or drink allowed) followed our guide and the two trackers. Swinging from a tree without a care in the world was a baby gorilla. He didn't care that we were there either, in fact I think it encouraged him to put on a show. I was mesmerized. He would occasionally try approach us but the trackers would start making grunts to basically tell him to move away, and he would obey. Still that said, I'm pretty sure he was closer than 7 metres at some point although we were pretty boxed in by the foliage. There was a deep low pitched rumble. I switched my line of sight to lay eyes on the back of an adult male silverback. His silver stripe was almost cumberband-like. We weren't even acknowledged as he sat there eating, only moving to reach out to pick more food. All around us bushes were moving and we knew we were not alone with just these two. Sure enough as he moved to find a better spot, he'd make a noise and the bushes would move again towards his general direction. We would follow and as a result during our hour with the group we were able to watch 3 adult females as well as this male and the baby, who kept reappearing again and again to put on a show. He even beat his chest for us to show us his future aspirations perhaps. The group consists of 10 gorillas in total. To be able to spend one of the best hours of my life with these amazing creatures I can't even do it justice with my words. When it was time to leave the group and make our way back I actually started crying. Why? It was admittedly a little bit overwhelming. But the main reason was that to witness their expressive thoughtful faces and their cinnamon eyes watching you watching them was an experience I will forever be truly grateful for the opportunity to be able to do.

Our total hiking time was about 3 hours not including the hour spent with the gorillas. The drive back was slightly faster than the drive there at 2hrs, likely because it was now daylight. It made for a long day but, in case my sentiments aren't yet clear, it was totally worth it. I can say I "penetrated the impenetrable".

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