January 26, 2012
Lake Bunyoni Overland Camp
Wake up call was 445am for our gorilla adventure! I’ve spent the last 3 months imagining what today would be like. The mountain gorillas inhabit Bwindi Impenetrable Forest which is located in Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda and are the real motivation behind choosing this particular trip. The Ugandan government is super protective of the gorillas so they only allow 8 people per day to visit each family, for only 1 hour. The idea is that even though the gorillas are habituated they want to minimize the exposure as much as possible and if you show any signs of illness you’ll be refused (for fear of infecting them).
After breakfast we all boarded separate vans depending on which family we had been assigned. I had the Nshongi family, who is made up of approximately 24 members. The drive to the forest took 2 hours and we had a quick briefing which included receiving our tracking permits (at a whopping $500 a piece) and getting instructions on how to act around the gorillas. You cannot show any signs of aggression, like speaking loudly and if you are charged you should avoid eye contact and crouch into a ball. The guides and trackers all know the gorillas well and can ‘speak their language’ by grunting and tell them we are only there to visit, not to harm.
I had been warned and prepped that the hike to see the gorillas could be anywhere from 1 – 9 hours…and that doesn’t count making your way back to civilization. I also knew it could get quite wet so I had waterproof pants, a rain jacket and waterproof cover for my backpack, though I didnt need any of it because the weather was beautiful.
I did split a porter with one of the girls I’ve been hanging out with, the porter took the pack with all the water (6L total) and Sara and I alternated carrying the pack with the cameras and lunches. Elastus, our porter, was a super sweet guy from the local village who we were totally happy to have along.
Early in the morning a couple trackers went out to find where our family of gorillas were today and based on their radio contact we knew where to look. Our trek started in a small village on the side of a large hill and we headed down. It was super steep and winding with loose rocks and gravel.
Along the way we met some adorable children and super dexterous cows. It took a while but we finally managed to make it down into a gorgeous lush valley where we crossed several bridges made of nothing more than strategically placed logs.
We passed a pygmy women in a small hut who’s job was to protect the valley from wandering elephants and later we passed several large elephant footprints.
After about an hour and a half of hiking we met up with the trackers who told us the family was in the next clearing. We grabbed our cameras, left our bags with the porters and quietly crept into a dense, leafy area. And then we saw him, the silverback. He was partly up a hill in front of us munching on some leaves. The bushes to the left of us rustled, then the ones on the right and slowly we began to see dark shapes shifting within them. Over the course of our hour with the gorillas we saw almost all the members of the Nshongi family. We witnessed an almost fight between 2 silverbacks, several females and a couple babies. At one point the group of 8 of us stood in a small clearing surrounded on all sides by gorillas. It was amazing to watch them eat and climb and play.
I had to remember to put the camera away and just enjoy what was happening around me. We were extremely lucky to have this day in front of us. We had a relatively short hike and got to see roughly 19 gorillas in beautiful sunlight. The experience was so much more than I thought it was going to be and it felt amazing to stand so close to these gigantic animals. When our hour was up our guide took us back to our bags, we moved to a small valley and had lunch before heading back to the van.
The climb back up was far worse than the hike down and everyone was panting when we finally made it to the top. Our guide and trackers congratulated us on making the journey and we all received certificates authenticating our experience. It was truly a perfect day and once in a lifetime experience.
Breakfast: bread, cereal, banana, pineapple, coffee/tea
Lunch: packed lunch, sandwich, banana, pineapple
Dinner: mushroom soup, pasta, meat sauce