Yesterday, July 14th, my granddaughter and I–along with 2 friends–went on a Ugandan gorilla trek. WOW. This is one travel day that I will never forget.
We started our trek in the mountains west of Kabale, located in southern Uganda. The mountains in this area are not particularly high, but they are very steep. Despite this difficulty, farm fields cover the mountainsides from top to bottom. After a long, scenic ride on a gravel road, which frequently traversed the crests of the mountains, we arrived at the start of our trek, and the beginning of the Impenetrable Forest National Park.
The first hour involved a 1,500-foot descent into the canyon. From near the canyon bottom, we headed into the rainforest. After another hour of hiking on a crude trail (with lots of ups and downs) that stayed just above the canyon bottom, we started to bushwhack. That is our guide bushwhacked, we followed. Because of the steepness of the terrain and the density of the vegetation, this was not an easy task. We frequently slipped on the wet ground, or got our feet entangled in the rain forest vines.
After a short stretch of bushwhacking, we encountered our first gorilla, part of a 14-member pack that has been habituated to short periods of human contact. The first ape was sitting in a tree, our guide indicated that he was the lookout for the group. After this first sighting, we soon encountered other members of the group. I had not anticipated how close this encounter with our evolutionary ancestors would be.
We were able to get within a few feet of several of the gorillas, some weighing more than 500 lbs. I sat near one and we just stared at each other.
While I was watching one of the females eating leaves, a large male came up behind me. He was interested in the shirt that I had tied around my waist. At first he fingered it, and then he tried to chew it. After a few moments, he lost interest and moved slowly away.
Gorillas are vegetarians (except for ants and insects), they spend much of the day eating leaves, and nuts and fruit (when in season). Our group was very busy eating leaves.
According to the literature provided by national park officials, there are only 700 mountain gorillas left in the wilds. About 300 live in the Impenetrable Forest, and the rest in a nearby park that borders Uganda, Rwanda, and the Congo. If the 700 number is accurate, that means that we had a close encounter with 2 percent of the total population.
We were allowed to spend 1 hour with the mountain gorillas. There was only the 4 of us, plus the guide, a guard, and a park ranger. I cannot express in words how cool this was. It was an experience that I will never forget. No cages, no bars, no moats, no glass, no physical separation of any sort, just us and gorillas. WOW.
While we were moving around, a baby gorilla was playing in the trees overhead, occasionally stopping to eat ants. The last gorilla we encountered was a silver back, the dominant male of the family/pack. He was sitting quietly, eating leaves. I suspect, he weighed close to 500 pounds. Our presence hardly disturbed him.
Unfortunately, our hour was up way too soon. And it was time for us to head back up the mountain. I was in trouble, but that is another story.