Lily in Uganda – Meeting the Gorillas

Our intrepid explorer Lily is in Uganda trekking through the rainforest to see the rare Mountain Gorillas.

I thought I would start today’s blog post with some information about Mountain Gorillas.  Did you know that gorillas share 98% of their genetic composition with humans? I think it is this close connection that makes us humans so fascinated by gorillas.

Gorilla Information

There are currently about 800 mountain gorillas left in Africa of which 480 are in the Virunga Volcanoes region which straddles Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC. Of these 480 gorillas about half live in Bwindi National Park.  There are roughly 36 family groups and 14 solitary silverbacks distributed across four different protected areas. However the gorilla watching programmes are quite limited because of  the natural movement of these gorilla families. For example the. Mgahinga National Park group of gorillas in Uganda to the south of here often move around and cross over the borders into the DRC and Rwanda. The unstable politics of the DRC mean that their gorilla groups are not always accessible for security reasons. There are currently six habituated family groups in Uganda available for daily viewing.

 

Usually the males are about twice the size of the females and can grow up to 6 ft tall and weigh between 350 – 500 pounds. New born babies weighing about 6lb only so that is a lot of growth! They are exteremly strong, with long arms (stretching to 7 feet) and very muscular.  The males are referred to as silverbacks because as they mature the hair on their back turns somewhat silver, hence the name.  The strength of the males is ten times stronger compared to the strongest human athlete! The other members of a gorilla family are females, immature males known as ‘blackbacks’, juveniles and youngsters. Mountain Gorillas possess longer plus darker hair compared to their lowland counterparts because they stay in colder climates and higher altitudes.  Their life span is thought to be between 25 and 30 years.  They mainly live on the ground although occasionally climb trees that can support them – the young gorillas regularly play in trees. Mountain Gorillas are vegetarians and eat large quantities of flowers, leaves, fruit, roots, bamboo and shoots in season.  The adults can consume up to 75 pounds each day.

 

We begin our trek

 

Bearing in mind that the gorilla trek costs quite a lot of money I do think it is vital that anyone going on a trek is well prepared and ready to make the most of this once in a lifetime experience!

 

We set off up the wide track with our rear guard armed scout (just in case of forest elephant encounters) and Gad told us that the Bitakura gorilla family had been sighted in the deep valley below but were on the move.  I had my small Panasonic camera round my neck and that was all – blissful not having to carry anything! We turned off the track, walking carefully as there were roots which caused one or two ‘trips’ on a steep downhill route through fairly open forest and as we walked I noted some pine trees (despite being almost on the Equator!) and elephant droppings!  Underfoot was dry in contrast to the uphill slog which awaited us! Sunlight filtered through the trees and we were all very excited and filled with anticipation of the imminent gorilla sighting… However then word came through by walkie-talkie from the trackers that the gorillas were headed up the other side of the valley, in the opposite direction to us! We reached the valley floor, crossed a stream and boggy area and started the ascent up the other side which plunged us into a different landscape altogether.  Tropical rainforest with all its attendant thick undergrowth meant that we had to cute a path through with a machete. We spent a lot of time sweating, panting, crawling and clambering up slippy paths with steep drop offs.  The Impenetrable Forest is aptly named – it really is a riot of green where things grow on top of other things in layers of ferns, mosses, creepers and lichens. As the valley side got steeper and steeper my porter came into his own, carrying my rucksack and helping me up with the odd ‘push’ if he noticed my foot slipped even a tiny millimeter! At first, I was a little cross as I wasn’t used to being aided but as time went on and the route became increasingly difficult and we were grabbing any available branches/roots/ferns, his assistance was much appreciated! Sweat dripped into my eyes and mouth and I wondered if we would ever reach the top.  I fixed my eyes on a chink of daylight far above through the tall forest trees.  As the chink got bigger and brighter, I knew we were heading closer to the top! Then suddenly, almost before we had realised it, we burst out from the forest into an area which was almost montane in first appearance. There were giant ferns and small shrubs and it was at last flat! In fact we were all so relieved to be walking on level ground that it took a few minutes for us to realise that we had company!!

 

My First Gorilla!

 

As I looked into the vegetation I saw something black and it dawned on me I was looking at my first ever gorilla. It seemed incredibly that we had managed to arrive right on top of the Bitakura gorilla family who were enjoying a jolly good ‘feed’ on the surrounding vegetation. They were very unconcerned at our presence which I was pleased to note and I was happy to feel that we weren’t encroaching on their normal daily routine.  Across the track from us was a silverback who gave me a withering look of total disinterest!  The Bitakura family consists of 4 silverbacks, 2 blackbacks, 3 females, 1 juvenile and 2 infants.  I think that we saw most of the family although it was hard to say as they kept appearing from different directions including three of them who had been up in the trees. One young gorilla gave wonderful child-like display of rolling on the soft forest ground then running off of hide behind a tree… or so it seemed to us. We made very little eye contact as we had been told not to and the gorillas certainly seemed to ignore our presence at all times.  We were able to wander around keeping our distance and I actually moved down the track away from the silverbacks whilst filming. Then I had a great moment of luck when the two silverbacks came out of the ferns and loped down the track towards me.  I kept on filming walking quickly backwards and suddenly felt myself being steered to one side (by a ranger) as I’d been about to walk into a tree.  They told me to keep filming (which I did!) and I got some interesting footage at close range.  It was an incredible moment for me and one I will be able to treasure forever.

 

The rangers were very strict that we should not get closer than 3 metres. Although it appeared that some of our group didn’t understand this too well!!  It is important to give the gorillas their space or they may take it as a threat when approaching too close.  Gad and his team of rangers and porter were very sensitive to our needs and helped us make the most of the experience, showing us where to stand for best views, photos and movie footage.     

 

My main surprise about the gorillas particularly the silverbacks is that they aren’t as tall as I was expecting – although this could be something to do with the fact that I recently viewed the Hollywood movie King Kong! It is said that looking into the eyes of a mountain gorilla is a life changing experience but personally I found the whole experience life changing! From the very first moments starting with the drive up into the mountains from Lake Victoria to Bwindi, staying in the idyllic location of Mountain Springs, rising at dawn, the stunning but lumpy drive to the Ruhija area, the meeting with the fantastic rangers and porters and even the obligatory ‘man with the gun’ in case of forest elephant encounters. Not forgetting the tough trek up hill and down dale to eventually come face to face with these very rare primates, a silverback mountain gorilla and his family. The moments that really stand out for me was my silverback filming encounter and thanks to my camera zoom a close up view of a young gorilla carefully scrutinising a leaf with the delicate touch of his four fingers which were so human like.   

 

After our allotted hour with the gorillas, we then sat down by the edge of the forest and had a snack and some water before setting off up the track by the edge of the forest. I think we were all very relieved that we didn’t have to return by the same demanding downhill/uphill route.  We walked for about 30 minutes along the high track then over cleared land where potatoes and other crops were planted.  A Land Rover was waiting to take us back to the Ranger Post with a short 20 minute drive.

 

Back at the headquarters we were given our certificates as proof of having done the trek – these are included as part of the gorilla trek package. We also treated ourselves to some T-shirts “I tracked the Gorillas in Bwindi!” and some carved gorillas too.

 

Back to the Lodge

 

We finally left this incredible place and headed back to the Buhoma area and Mahogany Springs Lodge.  We had a great sighting of 3 black and white colobus monkeys leaping between trees by the roadside as well as the constant stream of locals walking down the road. We arrived back at the lodge by 3pm all tired but euphoric after our gorilla encounter. The lodge was lovely and comfortable and I just wish I had had more time to enjoy relaxing there and even take the scenic walk to the nearby waterfall. However I can’t complain as I had just had one of the most  unforgettable days of my life with the Bitakura gorilla family in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park.  

 Posted by Lily

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