When we got back to the Uganda Wildlife Authority office Tuesday afternoon (6/5), after a grueling but satisfying 7 hours of tracking 14 of the remaining 700 mountain gorillas left in the world, one of our ranger/guides conducted a brief, corny ceremony in which she read each of our names and handed out ornate gorilla-tracking certificates. Steve and I and the 50-year-old Dutchman and his lanky 18-year-old son had finished the trek earlier than the 4 Sri Lankans who were the other members of our party. We stood up and applauded each other as we received our certificates. It was cute. Then the Dutchman spoke, and somewhat to my surprise, I almost burst into tears. He thanked the guides not only for doing such a good job in leading us to the gorillas, but also for the work they're doing to preserve this place: the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. It is one of the rarest and most beautiful places on earth, and having the chance to walk in it was profoundly moving.
For Steve and me, the chance to see the forest was at least half of what made the day so spectacular. Probably for more folks, it's all about the gorillas. I've never been ga-ga about them; never found them as enchanting, for example, as bonobos (pygmy chimps) or chimpanzees. But even for us, the chance to see these animals in the wild was intoxicating enough to make us want to pay for the permits required of anyone tracking them. Those permits not only are expensive, but securing them was daunting. I wired off the (non-refundable!) money for ours back in February, and then the date was set in stone. Had anything gone wrong, we simply would have been out of luck. Once we'd gotten ourselves to this distant (southwesternmost) corner of Uganda, the challenge was hardly over.
Here's the way the tracking works: mountain gorillas live in two of Uganda's national parks, but Bwindi has the largest concentration (about 300). They live in family groups, and about 10 of those have been habituated to humans. But only four of the 10 can be visited by tourists (I guess only scientists get access to the others). Moreover only 8 tourists are allowed in any group at a time, and they can only spend one hour with the troupe. Which means that — at most — 32 tourists may interact with Bwindi's gorillas on any given day — IF they find the gorillas at all.
In our case, we were reasonably confident we'd find them. We'd been assigned to the Nkuringo family — 14 animals (8 male and 4 female), one of the troupes most accustomed to humans, and one with a reputation for being tolerant and even curious about visitors. I think we were designated to track them partly because I got my permit so early and partly because we're old (for once, that felt like a delicious advantage!) Still finding any troupe is never a certainty. Our lead guide (named, comically, Modern), told us once he didn't find them till 2:30 in the afternoon; he and his group didn't get back to the base camp till 11 p.m. (something I find almost unimaginable, given that by 7 p.m., it's always dark in this forest, which is also home to elephants, unhabituated gorillas, jaguars, pythons, and other deadly vipers.) Modern said just 6 months ago the rains were so torrential the gorillas were virtually invisible, hiding in the underbrush. Visitors slipped in the muck; they broke bones.
At the other extreme, Modern told us he's found the gorillas 40 minutes down the trail. In such cases, the visitors still can only spend one hour with the troupe; they never get to see the forest at all.
Steve and I were gloriously lucky. We set our alarm for 5 a.m., ate breakfast at 5:30, then set off from the Traveler's Rest by 6. We reached the park headquarters (elevation: 6,850 feet) around 7:45, where our group assembled and was briefed. At 8:30, we departed: not only the 8 tourists in our group, but also Modern, two guards armed with AK-47s (to scare off any random elephants!) and several porters. I felt a bit like Deborah Kerr setting off with Stewart Granger in search of King Soloman's mine's.
The weather was cool and cloudy at first, perfect for hiking. Almost immediately, we began descending into a deep, deep valley, as green as anything I've seen in Ireland. Modern was communicating with two tracker-rangers who'd preceded us and gone to where the gorillas had been the day before. (They usually don't move more than a kilometer or two per day.) Very soon, the trail become not only steep but encrusted with treacherously slippery pebbles. Over and over again, I thought about how peeved I would be if I fell off a ledge or twisted an ankle or otherwise screwed up, now that we were finally so close. Rarely have I been so grateful to have my hiking poles.
After an hour and a half of this, we turned off the path that skirts the forest, to enter Bwindi itself. If our chimp tracking in Kibale last week didn't feel like a jungle adventure, this more than made up for it. The “impenetrable” in Bwindi's name is no exaggeration. This is as thickly tangled, buzzing, twittering greenly amazing a place as I've ever seen (except perhaps courtesy of Hollywood.) Instead of pebbles underfoot, there was oozy muck. Two and a half hours after leaving the trailhead, we reached the spot where our trackers had homed in on the group. We left the muddy trail. Underfoot was springy, compressed vegetation, the like of which I've never walked on before.
The next hour was magical, though our first gorilla was a recalcitrant young silverback known as Stubborn. He was lying on the ground with his back to us, and he never so much as turned to look at us, despite our noisiness and the fact that we were close enough to reach out and tickle his toes. We ventured on, with the rangers directing us where to go and how to behave. Ultimately we were able to approach 12 of the 14 members of the family. Two of the smallest ones even came out into the open, cuddling and grooming each other.
I could go on, but I'm afraid only a Jane Goodall would be interested in reading much more. I'll wrap up with just a few final observations. At one point, the number of mountain gorillas in the world had plunged to 200. It has more than tripled since then, but their future survival is far from assured. At this moment, though, they're out there, foraging, sleeping, playing, mating, giving birth. I'm a witness, and a deeply grateful one.