Trekking Mountain Gorillas: I choose the real world!
Movies have the ability to seep into our souls. To shape us as children and inspire us. They can set out a path for us and as adults we can find ourselves reflecting on what we learnt from them. As a child, Gorillas in the Mist was one of my favourite movies. As an adult, Gorillas in the Mist is one of my favourite movies. Is it any wonder then that I studied Environmental Science and found my way to volunteering with the orange apes (Orangutans) of Borneo, Malaysia.
Despite this, seeing a Mountain Gorilla in the wild has been a life long dream. It was at the top of my ‘List’ – a list that never seems to shrink – but only recently was I able to hike the mountains of Uganda to find them. So how does real life compare to the movies?
The opening sequence
I was so nervous! You hear stories from so many people – it’s so hard, it’s so easy, the hike was long, the hike was short, we had babies, we had Silverbacks, etc etc. How to prepare yourself for such a moment when your mind is swirling like a storm inside (wow, a quote from Frozen, I guess you now know another of my favourite movies 😉 ).
Anyways, my hike started with the promise of hard work for about 1.5hrs and then a reward of the largest family of gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (intimidating name much?!). The first 45mins was directly uphill and the 1hr or so left to hike was ahead of us. “Downhill”, “straight”, “soon” – all these words were thrown at me by the guides and trackers. I felt I was tantalisingly close….
I. WAS. WRONG.
We “hiked” for about four hours. Yep FOUR HOURS. Through IMPENETRABLE forest. The lead guide’s machete would swing left and right clearing a path for us. Every now and then a guide would holler out and hear a call in response, leading us in the direction of our family. They were on the move you see, and the more they moved, the more we had to move. We were no longer following trails or even faint paths. No no no. Now we were scaling mountain sides, we were pushed and pulled and hauled and heaved up the side of the mountain only to reach the point of no return, push on and come back down on behinds and vines and ground that seemed to vanish beneath your feet. One wrong move would end in a slippery slope down the mountainside and no doubt a stretcher ride out!
Lights. Camera. Gorillas.
Four hours later we were hushed. I had ended up at the front of the line and was told “just up there, they are just up there”. The nerves returned! Before I could go much further a small baby came swinging on vines into the clearing above. It took my breath away. There they were, a gorilla was right there in front of me. I got off one photo before my guide interrupted me.
He started buttoning up my shirt… a strange thing for a stranger of a man to start doing. He then pointed above and quietly whispered “wasps”. A GIANT wasp nest was hanging precariously from the tree above my head. It would have been at least a metre long and apparently the wasps are attracted to black – the colour of my singlet and the reason the man was trying to button up my over-shirt. Clothing situation sorted, he pushed me ahead and I saw my first Silverback.
Let the Hollywood drama unfold
He was GINORMOUS! One of three silverbacks in the family and the most dominate. We were encouraged closer and closer until I felt I was peering directly into his eyes, his soul, my soul. I feared to breath. He was so big. In one moment I was photographing his face, in the next, he ripped up a large branch that we happened to be standing on, threw it down the side of the mountain and huffed away into the bush. I scarcely had time to jump before the first shreak ran out… I looked to my hiking buddies and saw the wasps decending on their bare flesh. The guides were telling us to ‘go, go’ and any small tentative step was met with a shove and cry of “GO!”.
I got hit three times – my god the pain! My hand, my arm and my head. Forget trying to climb down safely, we were dashing for open space a good distance from the nest. The calm after the storm had everyone comparing war stories, before we reaslised we were SURROUNDED by gorillas. We had found our family of 18.
Getting to know the characters
Our guide pointed, and there, right there was a Silverback. Not the most dominant from before but a younger one, not yet ready to strike out on his own. The trackers cut back more vegetation allowing us a clear view and urged us closer and closer still. It was too close and just as I clicked my camera, he launched!
Teeth bared, fists pumping his chest; he propelled himself from sitting to four legs and up to two within a moment. I resisted the urge to run from his charge, but my heart was again in my throat. The thump thump thump echoed in my ears, competing with the realistic HUMPHS from the tracker. The next blink and the gorilla was thankfully not any closer. The tracker continued his own snorts and beat on the ground and our now semi-subdued Silverback turned his back in response. Whilst I caught my breath and wondered if a change of pants was necessary, he retreated into the shrubs and we moved on to see the mummas and babies.
The following hour passed in peace. We were able to creep in close to some beautifully peaceful female gorillas to watch them feed on the plants around them. Just before our time was up, the guides ushered us to yet another Silverback sitting in the open feeding happily. I felt I had enough photos and wanted to enjoy these final moments just BEING with the gorillas.
Hearing a noise behind me I turned, and saw the trees and bushes swaying. I gestured to the tracker, two people over, and said “I think we have company”. He paid me no heed, until the Silverback in front of us started grunting. Turning around again, the dominant Silverback – the first we had encountered – had made his way over to the family. The only thing separating the two males was myself, a fellow hiker and a tracker. The submissive Silverback launched – towards the dominant one and thus towards us. My friend panicked and ran causing scenes of chaos and shouts from the trackers and guides to “stay still, stay still!”. A moment later, the two males had made their peace, thankfully without a physical confrontation and I could breath again.
The closing scene
My final view of the gorillas before we started the hour long trek out, was of the dominant male as he moved off, confident of his position. He vanished from sight only to reappear momentarily as he walked slowly and purposefully across a fallen log over a river. A waterfall cascaded gently behind him. The rest of the forest was silent. It was the perfect ending.
So how does real life compare with the movies? It doesn’t. The real world is so much better. Better and brighter and more life-changing. My tip for you is to get out in the world and find your movie moment. Find it, live it and make it real!
The Footprint Scale
Trekking Mountain Gorillas: 2/5 Footprints.
The effort of getting to Bwindi Impenetrable Forrest increases the carbon footprint, but the work that is done in conservation and research is incredible. The forrest is maintained, the Gorillas are protected.
If you loved these photos, check out more on my Face(s) of East Africa page!