Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

The day came at last, my much anticipated visit with wild Mountain Gorillas and boy howdy, did it deliver in spades as you will soon see.  Ever since I saw the movie, Gorillas In The Mist, back in the 80s, I’ve had a notion to visit them and here I am, 37 some odd years later.  

OK.  Let me walk you through the day.  

Herbert and I arrived at the southern entrance to Bwindi at 7:30am. While he registered me, I and the other permit holders watched the locals perform dances, attended our overview briefing, and received our group assignments.  There are 8 permit holders assigned to a gorilla family along with two armed Rangers and one machete laden Guide.  The Trackers have been out all night with each Gorilla family, so can let the guides know where to go with their group of permit holders.  Best I could tell, there are 3-4 armed Trackers assigned to each gorilla family, 24/7.  Each group of permit holders will hike to wherever the Trackers are with their assigned gorilla family. 

At the persistent urging of Herbert to hire a Porter to carry my bag and otherwise assist me, I begrudgingly did (thank the good Lord), collected a suggested walking pole, and hopped into our van with Francis the Porter and the two armed Rangers for our group to head to our starting point about 15-20 VERY bumpy minutes away.  Our group gathered at the assigned rendezvous point, received another, more specific briefing, and off we set up hill on an ever decreasing trail.  We walked for about an hour and a half through often quite tough conditions before we found the Trackers and our gorilla family.  I have to say, while out of shape at present and still recovering from the remains of a virus I caught in Egypt, I consider myself an adept hiker.  Well, I’ve never hiked Bwindi!  My legs felt like rubber bands by the time we found our gorillas and my face was so red, Francis and Innocence kept asking me if I was OK.  I was, but barely.  🙂

A little aside…one never knows where the gorilla families will be.  They can be as close as a fairly easy 20 minute walk to a VERY steep climb for 2-3 hours.  I learned later I had been assigned to a group in the later category, but Herbert lobbied hard on my behalf to get me changed to the group in which I ended up.  Thank you Herbert!

While it isn’t terribly common, it also isn’t uncommon  for a muzungu (white person) to “fail” during their trek.  This is the term they use and it carries no judgement.  It just means someone cannot go on and needs to be carried up and/or out under someone else’s steam since they have no more steam of their own.  Enter what is known as “the African Helicopter”.  Porters are called to come with a stretcher to carry the muzungu either forward to the gorillas and/or back to their vehicle depending on where they failed.  This service costs $300usd.

I met a lady in one of my traveling FB groups who has progressing MS.  It has been a lifelong dream of hers to visit the mountain gorillas.  How wonderful it is she will be able to do so because of the African Helicopter!  So, its there as a necessity for failed trekkers as well as for those who couldn’t otherwise enjoy such a magical experience.  Yay!

OK, moving on with the day…  below you’ll see a tourist vehicle in front of us at the southern entrance to Bwindi.

Below is a photo of Francis, my Porter in blue, and one of the Rangers whose name I could never pronounce.  Our leader and Guide was a lovely young man named, Innocence. He has been guiding in the Forest 3-4 days a week, 52 weeks per year for many years.

The way we walked through the Jungle Forest was single file with a Ranger in the lead, then 4 Muzungu, then Innocence, then 4 more Muzungu, and finally a Ranger in the rear.  I will mention here, Innocence put me in the lead position behind the first Ranger because I was the oldest and therefore perhaps the weakest link in the group.  Ha!  Given this, he wanted me to set the pace for the group carefully explaining to everyone who may wish to sprint to the gorillas, we arrive as a group and depart as a group. 

As I said, thank the good Lord for Francis because I don’t think I could have done it without him.  He carried my pack with water, lunch, camera etc, but mainly he pulled me up so many steep sections, steadied me too many times to count, and basically made sure I made it.  That was his job and he performed admirably staying by my side ready to assist the entire time.  Thank you Francis!  That’s him below walking on the “trail”.

We are on our way out in the photo above, but I wanted to show the environment we walked through to and from the gorillas.  This was the trail.  Rarely could I see below my chest. Once we found the gorillas, we left the “trail” and really got into the Jungle where there was rarely anything solid underfoot, but instead some mixture of vines, bushes, downed trees and limbs, moss, and more vines.  Once a leg of mine dropped into a hole up to my hooha and I had to be pulled out!  I was laughing much of the time because it was not dissimilar to trying to walk around on a small boat lurching about on the sea.  

I’m sorry to say I am having difficulty linking my videos to the body of this article, so hopefully you can click the YouTube links to watch them (volume up/screens bright).   The upcoming video is of our first sighting of the family, well, really the second sighting, but all we could see in the first sighting was bushes moving at various places up and down a nearby slope. 

Note the 3 sets of gorillas.  The two at the bottom, the one quickly moving up the slope on the right in the middle, and the big daddy silverback at the top.  Please also note the dense vegetation and steep slopes.

Each tourist group gets exactly one hour with the gorillas.  The clock is supposed to start once the group has gathered and the family are in view, but Innocence did not start our clock at that point because the family kept moving once we found them.   We followed best we could with specific direction from Innocence and the Rangers who were using their machetes to help us by clearing some semblance of a path through the dense vegetation. Once the family more or less stopped in a general area to feed, Innocence started our clock, which really gave us an extra half hour or so following them through the steep and thick jungle. 

We moved about with them in this general feeding area, watching and taking tons of photos and video.  Take a look.  Here’s a Mama and her baby.

And another female eating roots and shoots (gorillas are vegetarian).  The family must eat as much as they can when they can because they don’t know when the Silverback will give the signal to begin moving again.

The life expectancy of these gorillas is about 50 years.  The mature female seen in the final video is 21 years old.

Speaking of the silverback, here he is in this quick video clip having a little snack before rolling away, giving us a glimpse of his silver back, click here.

It really was a most incredible and magical experience being so close to these gorillas. The Guide and Rangers really try to give us the best experience possible given the amount of vegetation. It is so very thick, if it weren’t for them hacking some of it away, we would never see the gorillas up on those slopes even if they were 5 feet from us, so when one would settle into a spot, they would try to clear the branches so we could see. 

At one point, the Silverback did give a very big, very loud, and quite scary growl/screech/scream when the Rangers got too close with their machetes.  Speaking for myself, my flight or flight kicked in at the sound and it’s laughable to try to get away quickly in all that vegetation.  What happens is, you take one step and fall down!  So much for a speedy getaway.  Ha!  Please remember this little bit of foreshadowing for later in the post.

After that bit of audio drama, we had many an opportunity to see him up close and more out in the open.  

Our family of gorillas consisted of 14 members.  2 Silverbacks (one dominant), I think 5-6 grown females, 4 babies, and the rest sub adults of both sexes.

Let’s take a look at some of the babies.  This first one is sitting close to it’s Mama, scratching an itch.  You can see all the flies around the gorillas.  They did not seem bothered by them and mercifully, neither were we.

Next up we have the hanging babies.  They were SO cute and ended up getting us 5 extra minutes in addition to our hour since they showed up right as we were leaving.

And here’s a video of a Mama with her baby in tow.  I was between the Silverback and them.  Everything was so cool about this experience. 

Here I am with one of the females.  Prior to Covid, folks were asked to wear masks if they were in anyway sick.  Since Covid, it is mandatory to wear masks no matter what when with the Gorillas, Chimps, and Golden Monkeys of Uganda.  They are so closely related to humans, it wouldn’t take much to wipe out a family with a human introduced virus. Happy to oblige.  Point of note for those of you who noticed my mask isn’t covering my nose.  😉   Due to the heat and humidity, my glasses were fully fogging over when wearing my mask properly, so Innocence suggested it was fine to wear it only over my mouth which kept the fogging down to a manageable level.  Thank you, Innocence!

I guess it’s time for the big reveal, so to speak.   The big surprise.  The rare event which Innocence hasn’t seen in over 3 years and never with the accompanying chest beatings.  

OK.  I’ll set the stage.  At somewhere near the midpoint of our hour with the gorillas, we were gifted with the sight in the photo below.  The dominant male silverback sitting quietly in a fairly accessible area with a mature female very nearby.  Our entire group gathered nearby and delighted in watching her feed and him sit, stare, and occasionally scratch an itch.  Isn’t he impressive?  And huge?  Those arms!

We sat quite close by watching for what felt like a full 5 minutes.  We were all sort of in a line a bit behind and to his right leading away from him and toward my camera.  I was at the far end of the line and with the Tracker’s permission who was next to me, I angled more into his line of sight and closer to the female trying to get a better photo around that branch hanging in front of his face.  

Directly in front of me down low was the 21 year old female maybe 4 feet away.  She was down in a sort of vegetation hole, eating to her heart’s content.  I was taking a video of her when all hell broke loose.  To see the drama, check out the video below (volume up)

 

Boy Oh Boy!  It happened so fast.  Maybe 2 seconds?  Since I had angled over, I was in his direct path and he headed straight at me.  He reached out and tagged my leg on his way by!  As soon as I saw him coming, I tried to get out of his way with the help of the tracker, but of course was too slow to move and as soon as I did, I fell over by which time he was long gone anyway!  My Oh My.  WHAT AN EXPERIENCE!  I don’t know anyone who has been charged by a full grown silverback mountain gorilla!  This is one for the books for sure.

Innocence says charging among these semi habituated gorilla families is very rare.  He has not seen it in over 3 years and has never seen one with the chest beating, which is apparently quite rare indeed.  I’ll say it again, My Oh My, I Love My Life!

I was completely unharmed, but needless to say, was a bit shaken up and also thrilled by the experience.  I felt his handprint on my leg for the rest of the day.  SO EXCITING!

To say my Gorilla Trek in Bwindi was a success, feels like a bit of an understatement.  Ha!  I love it!  I love it!  I love it!

If you go, train your uphill leg muscles and do lots of cardio beforehand and don’t be proud, go ahead and hire that porter!

Once our hour and five minutes was up, it was time for the long trek back to the vehicles which was quite a bit further since we had moved with the gorillas away from the cars.  I’ll say thank goodness again for Francis.  He really earned his money getting me out of the thick jungle, back on the “trail”, and up that final hill to our lunch spot.  While we were eating our lunch, in my daze of exertion, I realized everyone was talking about the charge and what a shame it was no one got it on video.  Ha!  I let them know I happened to catch it and they were all so excited, coming over to see it and air drop it to their phones, right there in the Impenetrable Forest.

I don’t know how long it took to get back to the cars, but we all got certificates showing a successful trek and boy, was I wiped out.  There was absolutely no way my legs could do the same again the next day even though I had already purchased another permit.  So as to not fall victim to failing and needing an African Helicopter, I tried to give the permit to Herbert, but while he was eager to accept, he said he could not get the necessary official transfer without arranging it through the head office which was closed, it being a Sunday. And while he did call his boss to see if there was a workaround, there was not, so alas it went unused.  I feel ok about it though because I feel very complete and full with the experience I had.

So that wraps up my day with the Mountain Gorillas of Bwindi and I’m very happy to share it with you.

Currently I find myself in the big city of Kigali, Rwanda, awaiting my 10:30pm flight on Rwandair to Johannesburg.  It’s billed as a 3 hour 50 minute flight on the same type of plane (737-800) EgyptAir used to fly me to Entebbe, something circa 1970s with armrest ashtrays and overhead smoking/no smoking lights next to the seatbelt lights. I’ll arrive Joburg at 2:20am.  

I have more photos and stories about my Golden Monkey Trek, the Weaver Birds, and the odd miscellaneous Ugandan experience.  Perhaps I’ll cobble together another blog article, but at the very least I’ll take the much easier road and post it all on Facebook.  Either way, I’ll do that before beginning my South African adventure, so stay tuned.  And, as always, I am not inclined to edit and proofread yet another time, so please forgive typos, etc.  🙂

Until next time…

22

Comments:

  • Mary Lou & June

    January 10, 2024

    Yikes !!! I was scared !!!
    I know you are amazing happy. Please stay safe❣️❣️

    reply...
  • hill

    January 10, 2024

    Another excellent post Margie…full of entertainment and adventure! What an experience!! Unfortunately the video links aren’t available for me.

    reply...
      • Anonymous

        January 10, 2024

        The videos are working just fine now! How cool is that?

        reply...
  • Nancy Kaiser

    January 10, 2024

    Oh Marge, what fabulous memories you’ve created. The pictures are extraordinary. I got all teary when I saw them. I felt the connection with each of them that you captured. Thank you so much for sharing this. Maybe someday, but will definitely work on the fitness before considering. Can’t wait too long at my age. LOL

    reply...
  • Kara Patrick

    January 10, 2024

    How exciting! Appreciate the immersive experience for us far, far away.

    reply...

post a comment