Our tracking entourage consisted of 5 tourists, a guide, two armed guards (for the forest elephants they say) and our porter. Later we would be joined by two "trackers", rangers who went out ahead of us who used the last known gorilla position from the day before to essentially find the gorillas in the jungle and direct our guide to where the were, though nobody is exactly sure how long this process will take. So our entourage began making their way up the rather steep wide, dusty road and along the beautifully green terraced farm fields. Now we were warned to wear long sleeve
s and long pants tucked into your socks (to avoid the safari ants crawling up your pants which seemed excessive because, really how fast could they be before you would notice they're there-I would later learn that, ya they're fast) because of the "thick forest" so this trudging uphill in the wide open sun on a dirt road wasn't quite what I had pictured of tracking in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest! We were huffing and puffing up the hill nonetheless.
Mom had opted for the tracking stick and says it was helpful haha.
Eventually we reached the actual entrance to the forest and continued in a forested but still wide path, by this point having shed my long sleeve for my tank top because it's freaking hot and feeling good about it because no branch scratches yet.
The whole time we were making our way through the forest the guide was on his radio communicating with the trackers. Once we got to the top of this grueling hill we finally started to descend down into the forest.
Until we stop...because the guide said that the trackers found fresh gorilla tracks BUT they seem to be going in all different directions. Which, evidently, means that there is one habituated group (i.e. used to having people around so tolerant and non-aggressive) in the area but also one non-habituated group (i.e. wild, not used to people, potentially aggressive and for sure terrifying...ok like our Ugandan guide actually said they can be very dangerous and Ugandans aren't afraid of much. Except rain, but that's another story) in the area. So basically we had to stop in our tracks and sit in one place in the forest waiting for the trackers to figure out which group was which so we didn't accidentally "track" the wrong, scary group. Consequently this was when I found out that Bridger's phone can take panoramic shots so we entertained ourselves nicely...
Once we got word that the trackers had found the right group, we continued on the relatively wide path until we found the trackers, waiting for us at the top of a steep embankment of sheer jungle. Because mountain gorillas don't neatly stay where established paths go, this was the point that we stepped off the path. Ironically it was also the time that the rangers with big guns stopped following us and left us alone with the guide...seriously, aren't the guns there in the first place to protect us against any unexpected acts of aggression from animals?!
Anyways, with a multi hundred dollar investment on the line, I'm not about to roll it in just because we lost a little muscle (though I seriously considered the possibility!) so we literally bushwhacked our way through some of the thickest forest in the world moving towards the gorillas. The guide and trackers literally hacked through anything in our way as we moved through the rainforest.
The forest floor was not ground per se but more thick brush such that we were walking on thick layers of damp sticks and leaves, essentially moveable ground, most of the time on a downward slope. Bridger kept having these epic wipeouts and was actually on the ground most of the time having worn stupid slippy shoes because he refused to bring proper hiking boots with tread. Actually I think this was like the first time doing anything where he didn't actually wear his flip flops so I guess this could be considered a step up...or down if you will ;) Between the slippy ground, trippy vines and soggy logs, it was definitely a challenge for all of us to move through the forest without getting acquainted with the ground.
And then we saw our first silverback, the older dominant males with a characteristic grey patch across their back.
The silverbacks are the biggest members of the gorilla family and the ones entrusted with the primary goal to protect the group. Turns out the group we were assigned to track had 3 silverback gorillas in it, an unusually large amount. But mountain gorillas are known to be quiet, docile, herbivores which is why it is perfect safe to go follow them around in the forest. So sure you can follow them wherever you want but still, the silverbacks will be sure to let you know who is the boss in this operation...
The 5 of us and our guide just sat and watched this silverback for awhile a bit in awe as he just sat there and casually ate plants about 12 feet away from us.
And then he, equally casually, got up, looked at us and slowly started to saunter towards us. It is always a little unnerving to be noticed by a huge, powerful mountain gorilla man so we didn't really know exactly what was up. No sooner than he started his casual saunter towards us did he break out into a full lope, charging directly towards us roaring that terrifying roar that I can only describe as like a train screeching along the tracks only less screechy and more hollow like your voice when you have a chest cold. Yea that's right, we got charged by a fully grown angry mountain gorilla. Pretty fucking scary! As he barreled towards us the guide shouted "don't run!" which as it turns out was pretty redundant as both Bridger and I, already standing precariously on a slope and totally taken off guard by this charging man-beast, had already slipped and fallen and were on the ground. Mom, having seen us fall, assumed the guide had said "get down!" and had also dropped to the ground. At which point the guide, rather hurriedly directed us to "stand up" which we miraculously managed to gather our feet and do. In the end it was a bluff charge (as it almost always is) and he ground to a stop 2 feet in front of us and veered off. Oh my god! I don't think my heart has ever beat that fast in my life! At this point the guides and trackers were laughing, obviously having enjoyed the game of chicken we had just played with this 300-400 lb giant.
Pretty well immediately after this creature made me fear for my life, he dropped himself in the foliage and calmly started to nibble away at leaves, at times rolling lazily onto his back like a big baby, occasionally casually checking back over his shoulder to see where we were at. You'd never know it was the same guy who just charged us, angrily reinforcing his dominance over us mere mortals. It's also mind blowing that these big, powerful creatures just hang out all day eating leaves of all things! They are seriously so slow and lazy! All very calm and peaceful, though my wildly beating heart would make one think otherwise.
We watched him for awhile because, as the guide explained, we needed to wait until he was finished eating there and moved before we could follow him. This eventually happened and we followed him though the forest to yet another silverback who once again, just as my heart rate is starting to return to normal, does the all too familiar casual saunter towards us before charging towards us with the all now too familiar roar. For the love! This time he didn't come nearly as close as the last guy. Again the guides are chuckling while I'm seriously left wondering if they are not very clearly telling us to go away! On our gorilla track, it ended up being that the 3 silverbacks of the group kept a pretty heavily reinforced perimeter and we followed them as they moved and then collapsed and ate for awhile before repeating the process. I got the sense that the guides were careful to have us pull up the rear and not accidentally get in the middle of this trio and the rest of their female and underage family. In the remaining hour we had with the gorillas, we also saw two little yearlings playing with each other in a tree as well as another month old baby climbing on his mothers back...flipping adorable!
All while the guides continued to hack away the forest to give us the best view of these amazing creatures.
Just as our hour was about to come to a close, for old times sake, we were charged, once again, by a silverback who this time took a wide U as he darted towards us so unnerving but slightly less scary than the first two. WTF, 3 times we were charged in one hour!!! I'm starting to wonder whether we actually found the habituated group or whether the trackers just threw in the towel and sent us into the other group!!!
After our hour was up it was time to start ascending that super steep hill that we had just descended...way up was much more arduous than the way down chasing gorillas.
It was a pretty strenuous, humid and sweaty hoof up but at the top we were rewarded with time to eat our long awaited lunch, weirdly, with all the tourists lumped together and all the Ugandans lumped together in another spot. Odd. But on the plus it gave us the opportunity to talk to each other about what sort of tips were appropriate to dole out on this big money activity where tips would be not optional, but heavily expected and anticipated by the crew. It took us way shorter to hike down the mountain than it did to hike up which was welcome. I guess some people can track into the jungle for like 4-6 hours to actually find the gorillas making it a really long day. At about 1.5 hours of tracking in, I felt like we had the perfect amount of time to get to experience the forest and get our money's worth but not so long to get too wiped out.
We made it to the base of the hill where we stopped and the guide ceremoniously presented us each with a certificate of accomplishment for finishing your gorilla tracking while everyone else in the group including the guides/trackers/porters clapped for us as we received it. It was all very awkward and embarrassing for me, though I think mom loved it! This was also the awkward part where everyone stood around until you passed over your abundance of tips to the guide, porter and trackers "who worked really, really, really hard today to find your gorillas", again, the expectation for this high budget, "luxury" activity. At this point we finished walking to the bottom of the hill where a ravenous lineup of vendors selling everything from "I saw gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest" t-shirts to wood carved gorillas. Bridger and I passed through, feeling like total dickheads, but felt a little better when mom purchased a t-shirt. Haha I think she actually bargained up the price instead of down in the end but she was more than happy with her new souvenir as were the locals who she bought it from, so win all around!
It was wonderful to spend the afternoon at the lodge on the edge of the rainforest, just puttering, reading, writing and chatting with the Dutch couple in our group who had miraculously, caught a video of the charging gorilla (which unfortunately to this day, we've never seen despite giving them our email address and strict orders to email it over!). On a related note, did you know that Dutch people are seriously like the best people in the world?! We've met so many on this trip and every one of them has been so lovely...not just nice and funny but they have this like, wonderful overall demeanor that is warm and gracious. Very likable people anyways. At one point while we were sitting around, the hotel staff came up and said "the children from the orphanage are here to perform for you in 5 minutes out front". Wait, what does that even mean?! As soon as the lodge staff left, the Dutch couple groaned and said they had asked them yesterday if they wanted to see a performance by the orphans but they had declined. We were also cringing a bit but realized we pretty well had no choice because they were already here. I guess I should tell you that this sort of thing is quite common around here where local businesses partner with community projects that are supposed to benefit from the tourist dollars coming in. All very smart and admirable, however, we are always very skeptical, especially when it comes to "orphans" because to be frank, orphans are like money making machines and orphanages are big money makers around here (and all other developing countries) and there are some pretty rampant cases of exploitation of children for tourist dollars. The groans from all had to do with the fact that we were not naive enough to think that a) this is just a fun performance to entertain us with no other motivation and b) these children were all actually, truly orphans. None of us kidded ourselves, this was definitely going to be a peer pressured opportunity to give good PR to the lodge as well as grab donations from tourists who would undoubtedly "want to help the orphans" as white people tend to blindly do when such things are paraded in front of them. As we headed out to our 5 wooden chairs placed perfectly in front of the crowd of orphans, we were all on the same page about our expectations of the event.
The performance itself was really sweet and entertaining and involved children between about 6 and 16 years playing a big yellow empty jerry can drum, dancing and singing in traditional African styles, tailoring their program to welcome the "visitors from Canada and Holland".
At the end of the performance the owner of the lodge stood up and made a big speech about how 1/3 of the money from the lodge goes to supporting this orphanage and how they're supporting building a local library. Again, if all is as they say, great project but my gut just wasn't settled about the whole thing. I can't exactly identify why I felt that way but something just felt a bit "off" and a bit "Slumdog Millionaire-ish" with the little "orphans" and their "music coach" cheering (and sometimes glaring) them on with the "uber philanthropist" hotel owner singing his own praises and I just couldn't help wondering if these kids were truly orphaned and/or if there was any small truth that they were being exploited as money making tools a bit. And then as predicted, the donation basket got passed around, not that we really had a choice about whether we would throw in some money or not. We only put in like 20 000 shillings, 7 bucks between the 3 of us because I just didn't know and not sure that I could feel ok about dropping more money into a project that I just didn't have enough info re: the legitimacy of. And then the Dutch couple threw me for a total loop when they dropped in 100 freaking 000 shillings, like 40 bucks because "they were just really moved and thought it was incredible"...wooooah change of tune!!! So really not sure about what went down...same scene, two totally different interpretations of it so really don't know what the truth is. But I usually consider myself pretty intuitive about the behavior of people so I had to stick with my gut on this one.
The generator electricity is supposed to be on between 7-10 pm though that evening is was only on from 7:45-8:30 because the generator broke! Surprise, something is broken in Uganda. So we got nothing charged and were plunged into complete darkness and silence in the jungle by 8:30. So we just ate the rest of our dinner in the dark by solar jar light and went to bed. Over the course of this trip I have really come to be so grateful for consistent electricity. I equate electricity with light as does, I'm sure, most people. Not only does having lights on make me feel good and be very happy (it's the endless battle between Bridger and I--lights on/lights off and the other classic, "AC on/AC off") but it is far easier to get around and just go about day to day life with light. And light keeps the spiders away. Sidenote, actually I've been consistently blown away by how few spiders and bugs there are here. I expected head size spiders everywhere because, you know, it's Africa but I haven't seen a single problem spider and barely even a non-problem spider. Not only that, where many roofs in homes/restaurants are covered in webs in Asia, those here are super clean. It has been a glorious reprieve! Anyways, onwards, the byproduct of electricity that I also never thought about before this trip is...refrigeration. Seriously, without electricity you don't have a fridge that works which means that you don't have cold drinks and you can't store anything, including meat which means you need to buy it the day you cook it. Daily grocery shopping, my nightmare. And also without electricity you can't charge your electronics which, let's face it, drain daily. And you need to have a gas stove to cook which, I found out along the way, is what most "have" people have instead of a plug-in stove (the "have nots" seem to be still using charcoal).