Chasing Silverback Gorilla’s: Uganda’s Impenetrable Forest

The drive was long and winding.  The countryside is quite beautiful, with lots of farmland and untouched forest.  There is an essence of simplicity that is hard to avoid noticing, it’s almost enviable.  From my conversations with the locals, there is nothing outside of their village, nothing outside of their territory, nothing outside of Uganda, for that matter that gives them a care in the world.  It makes me feel at ease. 

The land, the markets, the roads are all clean, with little to no trash.  The amount of unfinished or in-progress construction is staggering.  It is the lack of completeness that gives the country a 3rd world feel, for them, time is of no concern, so a simple 3 room house may go uncompleted for years. 

While driving through a slow area, we passed an extremely comical sight.  There were 3 cars pulled over to the side, and all of the passengers in the car were stuffing leaves everywhere!  Into the grill, through the windows, into the trunk and the top luggage carrier…everywhere!  I had to ask! 

Steve laughed and then smiled.  He said they were football supporters; going to game that was being played.  Huh? Where does turning your car into a bush, yes bush, qualify as being a sports enthusiast?  Well, I’ll tell you how.  On game days, everybody is looking to get a ride from someone, a friend, family or taxi, so much so that there just aren’t, so instead of getting extra drivers, they just pile more people into the cars. 

By having your van stuffed with leaves, shows the police that they are football fans, so they won’t get pulled over!  Brilliant Idea if you ask me, now if we only implemented this in the US and Europe.

I had not done any research on Uganda and learned that the British colonized them.  All of the outlets were British and the car and roads were all left-hand driving.  I didn’t ask but I assumed that the British colonized for mining of some sort.  Uganda has had its independence for 55 years.  In 1979, the Ugandan president expelled the colonized workers, many of them were Indians sent there to build the railroad, which had long since been completed.  My driver was explaining that there were 2 BA flights a day taking the expelled Indians to the United Kingdom and there was still not enough capacity to get them out of the country.   Their call for independence can clearly be seen today though, as there is absolutely no diversity as we know it today.

The main road has small villages about every 5-10 miles.  You can see people walking between the village, often carrying some large load of sticks, coal, or jugs of unknown content, oftentimes on their heads.  Motorbikes, also known as boda boda, would always have multiple people on them.  Most of the traffic, if any, was trucks carrying cattle, or soft drink trucks.  There were the occasional local buses carrying people from the city to their homes, and taxes vans, just like the one I spent 2 long days in, except I had the van to myself.  The situation reminded me very much of India, a sad truth about the lives of locals versus tourists. 

The tourist stops points are obvious but I didn’t mind them.  The food was good, generally, a large variety of traditional African food, mixed with some random western foods.  The storekeepers weren’t overly aggressive trying to sell you something, and they kind of wrapped them into touristy-type attractions, the main one being the Equator line.  I can officially say that I have stood in both the northern and southern hemispheres at the same time! 

On the journey back I learned that all of the cars that are available for Uganda are from the Japanese.  Fun fact, the latest available car model that is available for them is 2004.  Yes, you read that right, 2004 is the newest cars they can get, meaning they are already over a decade old.  These “newer” versions are also considered quite a luxury, as most of the car models on the roads today are from the mid to late 90’s.  It’s less apparent when you’re driving in the countryside because the exhaust and the burn of the diesel fuel are pretty thick and heavy when you get in towards the city.  My driver aptly noted that the government spends so much on conservation and the environment in different policy spending, but the cars made available dispense an immeasurable amount of pollution into the environment, there is clearly an oversight in how they are practicing sustainability.  

I learned a lot in the short period of time and it has left me wanting to learn more.  I look forward to getting to visit again.

Day 4: The Gorillas!

Despite the fact that Steven and the other guides were saying 100% guarantee, we’ll see gorillas, I was still super nervous about it!  It never occurred to me that one day of trekking wouldn’t be enough.  At the Rushaga Gorilla Environmental Lodge, I was greeted by two locals, Diana and Jane, with hot towels and some fresh fruit juice.  I walked into the reception/dining area to wait for instructions on where my room would be.  Through the windows, I could see an incredible view overlooking the Impenetrable Forest.  It was just before sunset and there was a massive storm cloud rolling in.  Instinct kicked in, photo-op!

I stepped out onto the balcony and noticed there were other guests.  I snapped a couple of  photos quickly and turned to the guest, and excitedly said “this rainstorm is gonna be incredible to watch!”   It wasn’t long after I said that when the lightning started to light up the sky, and then the rain started to pour.  I ask Diane for beer and formally introduced her to the other guest, Bryce. 

Bryce was also traveling alone.  He’s a kiwi currently working at a resort on Seychelles.  He was great fun chatting with, he has worked in hotels for the past decade or so and like myself has found himself relocating from country to country about every two years, the last of which was Oman.  He’d been to 133 countries and today was his first day (of 2) with the gorillas, and I could tell that he was super stoked about it!  Hell, I was just as stoked for him seeing them because I knew that tomorrow was my day! 

We chatted most of the evening but we both decided we needed to shower before dinner.  We asked the servers to seat us together because for no good reason they sit everyone at separate (massive) tables, so it was Bryce and his driver Apollo at one table, me and Steven at another, and a German couple, Prisca and Simon, at another.  This made no sense, so we consolidated. 

Dinner was absolutely delicious, the pumpkin puree soup was delicious and the chicken dish I got was, soooo good!  I cleaned my plate and then some and I didn’t feel bad about it because I knew the morning would be the trek of a lifetime.  After dinner, the group of us all chatted about Uganda and were asking the drivers about their take on conservation and tourism and I’m sure a couple of other obvious topics.  Hearing them speak about their country, political issues, and how to best preserve the wildlife was fascinating, and so full of passion.   It was very refreshing to hear how fervently they cared about protecting the gorillas and the forest.

The alarm went off at 5 am.  Ugh!  5:30 breakfast, leave before 6…..Why do all of the best things require waking up super early!   I had laid out my outfit and packed my bag the night before so I was ready to go.  Breakfast was meh, all I could think about was getting to sleep on the car ride to the Ranger office, short in comparison but still an hour and a half drive.  I tried to sleep as best I could but the “roads”  that wind around these mountains are dirt and rubble.  It was hard to keep from getting thrown around a bit. 

Steven hurried me into the ranger’s office briefing room.  The room was full of eager people waiting to catch their first or possibly a second glimpse of the silverback gorillas in their natural habitat.  The briefing was quick but informative.  If you need to go to the bathroom, let your porter know, they will form a shield as you pop a squat in the wilderness.  If you have to go number 2, the porter would dig a hole for you, aim well, and cover your hole.  Socks over trousers unless you have specific trekking guards.  Don’t look the male gorilla in the eyes.  Don’t use flash photography and don’t use mosquito spray once you’ve left the ranger’s hut. 

They walked us through the cost of the porter $15 per porter, plus as big a tip as you’d like, and believe me, they earn their tip!  Their rescue option, or as they refer to it, the African helicopter, cost an average of $300, based on where the rescue takes place and how big you are.  The African helicopter is about 20 porters plus a stretcher basket, who, god only knows, come sprinting down the mountain, and I do mean sprint, and carry you back up.  It took these guys a quarter of the time to sprint down AND carry the person back up.  OUT OF CONTROL!

Anyways, let the trek begin.  Now hopefully you’ve seen some of my photos of the landscape we were trekking, but if not here are a few fun facts.  We started at about 2600m and at our lowest descended to about 1000m.  The forest is called impenetrable because it wasn’t until the white man brought chain saws that they were able to create any type of path.  Today there is only one of these paths left (and we weren’t using it.  We started the downhill climb weaving through the small but steep footpaths used by the local farmers.  If you wanted to take in the scenery you needed to stop, because walking without looking was not an option.  Between rocks, random trickling streams of water that created mud and slipperiness, the narrowness, and the sudden drops from one step to another is was definitely best to watch your footing.    

The only way were we able to find the gorillas was through trekking rangers.  They leave an hour or two before us and stay out an hour or two after the group leaves to keep some kind of bearing on where they will be the next day.  We had made it about halfway down the mountain before our lead Ranger wanted us to stop and rest while we waited to hear from the guides where the gorillas might be. 

I’m not sure if it’s a game for them, but it sure felt like they were keeping us in suspense on purpose.  I had it so ingrained in my mind that I would see one, I wasn’t sure how, or if I would cope with not seeing one!  100% Steven said man would I kill him or someone if our group was the first in 5 years to not see them.  A bit of patience paid off.  We started our trek again, continuing along the farm’s path, moving slowly, slowly, further, and further away from the ranger’s station.

We paused about every 15 minutes to check in with the trekking rangers.  They had said they thought the gorillas were moving towards the community lands, which would have been GREAT for us because they would be right out in the open and less trekking.  But then word hit, the gorillas were spotted!  And that meant that no matter where it took us, we were getting down the mountain and into the forest to get to see them by any means necessary. 

The lead ranger quickly halts the direction we were going in, shuffles past us to change direction, then all of a sudden there was no more path.  We were now barrelling down the steep slopes of shoulder height weeds, reeds, and marshy land, going as fast as possible making a few zigs and zags on our way down so we didn’t tumble head over heels.  My garden gloves were officially on!  Easily 30 minutes of steep downhill trek and in what appeared to be a completely different world, we had reached the bottom of the valley.  The crops that we had just plowed down were now nowhere in sight and we were in a canopy of the jungle.  Humid, dense air coupled with plants and insects all around us, we were all starting to question our judgment, “what have we gotten ourselves into!”

We paused for a quick minute to catch our breath, have a sip of water, then continued to plow through the jungle brush, deep and deeper into the forest.  I was towards the back of the single-file line that was being hacked through the vines, trees, and brush, so the path was someone clear by the time I was passing through it.  This meant that I benefited from the people who were falling ahead of me.  I got to take extra caution when I was stepping down the slippery ledges. 

I don’t recall how much time passed before we all of a sudden came to a halt!  A guy with a machete pointed ahead, and there was the first gorilla sighting of the day!  Cameras came out at the speed of light.  I was kicking myself for not testing my new lens out sooner because it took me about 30 shots before I got a clear one of the females sitting next to the tree, but in hindsight, it was just giving me some practice for the silverback male. 

The silverback was all I could have ever imagined!  The brown eyes were super intense.  You are not meant to look him in the eyes, but the enormity of him makes it nearly impossible to not gaze back into his brown eyes.  Looking into his eyes left a feeling of paralysis.  Once he locked eyes, you truly couldn’t look away.  I tried to capture that emotion through my photos but the feeling of being in the presence of super an incredible, massive and powerful animal in close proximity, with no barrier is hard to translate into words. 

Finally managing to break eye contact, I was snapping away pictures.  I had gotten so lost in the male’s presence I had almost forgotten about the 10+ other female gorillas and babies that were lingering in the jungle brush close by.  There would be a rustle of leaves and a gorilla would appear to the side of the group, then another rustle and there were two more behind us, and another in front of us.  It was hard to count how many we had actually seen at the point but the number didn’t matter, the sight of them peacefully eating and lounging around was just incredible. 

You are meant to spend an hour watching the gorillas before you head back to the base, however after about 20 minutes or so the male started to get aggravated with the group.  There was a flare of the eye and staunch change in posture that caused most cameras clicking to cease immediately.   The rangers were visibly tense.  If I hadn’t been already drenched in sweat, I would definitely be sweating now!  The tense moment seemed to last a lifetime, but as the gorilla turned its head away from us, there was an instant sense of relief. 

Most tours, once they find the gorillas, do nothing but get to watch them eat but our male had something different in mind.  He stood up to pee into the river and made a call to the females in the group, they were on the move.  Once the male called out the females reacted immediately and one by one, they slowly started to cross the river.  Most of us in the group thought that this meant that our hour was going to be cut short, oh how wrong were they! 

Our troop of rangers and porters stepped into action and before we knew it, they were being carried, literally, across a river with quite a bit of white water, and a 5 ft waterfall awaiting anyone who may fall!  Fortunately, that didn’t happen to anyone, but these porters sure do work for their money.  Most of these porters are relatively short and skinny, and here they are carrying across a wide arrange of people!  The videos I took show it all, haha.  (they also had to carry us back.) 

Once we were across the river, this is where the real trek started to begin.  No carve path except the broken branches that the gorillas have left behind.  It was beyond a scramble to get through the brush, with porters pushing and pulling people up!  Once I managed to scramble up the wall of mud, the trees and branches got thicker and the terrain got steeper.  I am surprised I didn’t get any blisters from having my feet jammed into all sides of my shoes. 

Many of the trees have thorns covering the entirety of the trunk.  My hands would have been torn to shreds if I hadn’t brought gardening gloves.  Up and up and up.  The sweat was pouring off of me.  I was horribly out of breath as we continued to climb the mountain and gain more altitude.  I felt myself nearing the point of passing out, when I heard it!  The gorilla was roaring again and the trees in the near distance began to rustle aggressively.    We found the gorillas again!

Our up hill climb once across the river!

A sigh of relief hit me, knowing that the gorillas were at least in close proximity.  The trekking up wouldn’t be for too much longer!  When I finally arrived at the spot of the tree rustle, I looked around, and there were no gorillas insight.  A look of disappointment and exhaustion must have been on my face, because when I managed to pry myself from up from a hunched position, the tracking ranger looked at me, and point up with his machete!  There was a female gorilla seat directly above me! Yikes!  No need to be disappointed when you have a gorilla perched aboved you! Talk about up close and personal.

Several trees down the mountain the male gorilla was sitting perched on a branch as if he were a bird, breaking the branches of the tree as if they were toothpicks and eating his way through the treetops of Uganda.  I strategically removed myself from underneath the female gorilla and gazed up in awe at everything we were witnessing.

Time seemed to stand still as we continued to click away with our cameras.  At one point the male gorilla climbed down the tree and started upwards towards us again, but he clearly had food on his mind, because he scaled back up a closer tree and continue munching on the tree foliage.   The females were sitting in all different trees, and a couple were on the ground.  As the male gorilla moved, the baby gorilla started to climb the same tree, presumably to be closer to dad, but the male had a one-track mind and that was food.

The excitement with the gorillas was starting to wrap up when the thunder started to sound throughout the valley.  The rain had managed to hold off this far but the thunder and darkening sky was the trigger that ended our session.  The river we crossed to chase after the gorillas must be re-crossed to get back, and if it rained the river would flood, preventing us from re-crossing.  The ranger did not want to linger for any longer as the sky continued to darken because the only option if the river flooded would be a 5 miles trek to get around the river, and then we’d still have to climb up the steep slopes that we had taken down to get back to our drivers, so we all willingly obliged.  

No one liked the sound of that option, so as quickly as possible we slid and stumbled our way down the steep mountainside.  After a quick and relatively plain meal on the other side of the river, we all slowly started our long, winding, and treacherous trek up the mountain to get back to base.   Two people from our group needed to be rescued and a third from another group needed to be rescued by the “African helicopter”, haha.   I can’t recall if I’ve already mentioned this, but this is no real helicopter. Once word reaches the team of a “rescue” a crew of 6-8+ men came running down the mountainside with a stretcher in tow to help carry you back up the mountain. This costs $300 on average depending on how far away from base you are and how heavy you are. 

The Rescue Squad was literally running down the mountain to collect several people from the bottom of the steep slope.

The poor locals today had their work cut out for them.  The largest girl in our group, probably weighing about 250 lbs, outweighing all of these local guys needed to be the rescued.  I wouldn’t want to be carrying that load. Hopefully, she left a large tip for them.

I barely stopped during the trek up and kept my pace very slow and steady.  I managed to make it up to the top ahead of the rest of the group.  I didn’t waste any time taking my shoes off, man my feet were sore.  I knew my whole body was going to be sore from this trek but keeping my mind on the gorillas kept my focus away from the pain.  No sooner than reaching the top, the sky opened up and the rain began to pour rain! 

The African Helicopter

I received by Gorilla certificate and changed into some much-needed dry clothes!  Thank god Steven told me to bring some, else it would have been an uncomfortable 1.5-hour drive.   The drive back was long, painfully long.  The rainfall on these dirt and rock roads turned into mudslides, slippery road surfaces, and a terrifying journey back to the hotel!  One van ahead of us hit a bump the wrong way and broke its suspension belt.   The couple in the van were lucky enough that were behind them because we were the last van to leave the base, which would have meant if we didn’t stop they would have all been stranded on the mountain for who knows how long.  We gave them a ride back to their respective hotels.

Steven said that one of the couples who did the trek today had their car break down and they had to walk 2 miles uphill with all of their luggage to get to their hotel, nothing like a pre-mountain trek before the day of gorillas.  After dropping off the couple at their hotel my bladder was about to explode!  Winding through the mountaintops, I couldn’t wait any longer.  I asked Steven how much further but no matter what the answer would have been, the bumpy roads meant that unless we arrived already, this can’t wait.  He pulled his car over, I hopped out and with basically no coverage, except for the car, I let loose. 

That was when, what appeared to be all of the local children in the neighborhood, started to come around the bend of the corner.  This was just my luck.  Talk about giving the locals far more than they bargained for; I was midstream and couldn’t stop now.  As the kids ran closer, of course recognition of what I was doing set in and the laughter and pointing began.  I think it’s pretty safe to say that this was the first time they had seen a mendzoogu (foreigner), especially a female popping a squat in the middle of the road.  I tried to make sure that my private bits were covered from seeing, which resulted in me peeing all over my pants.  Beyond the point of embarrassment at this point, I just smiled back at the kids and laughed with them. 

All I could say was “when you gotta go, you gotta go!”  Let’s just say I chose not to take the pants with me on the next leg of my trip.   Allison’s #adulting in Uganda.  You can’t make this stuff up.  

Back at the Lodge a river of mist runs through the Impenetrable Forest