By David Beaumont
While Diane Fossey and David Attenborough worked hard to put them on the map, vicious levels of poaching have nearly caused their eradication, but now the mountain gorillas of Uganda are making a remarkable recovery in the impenetrable forest of Bwindi. Recent surveys show their numbers have gone from 750 to nearly 900 in the last 18 months. Reassuring.
Having trekked from Buhoma for seven exhausting hours, rest was vital before repeating the exercise and the Nkuringo Gorilla Camp provided the perfect environment. A comfortable bed, plenty of nourishment for dinner and breakfast were fully embraced before our meeting at the gorilla trekking headquarters at 8am.
Lucky strike. The six Italians due to trek with us didn’t show which meant that we had a private trek which according to locals, is unheard of.
The licence to trek gorillas is not cheap at US$500 each, but the income, huge by local standards, goes a long way to preserving these endangered primates. Benson briefs us for twenty minutes before setting off, following trackers who have left camp an hour before to find the Nkuringo family and its 14 members. They all have names and having been introduced to them on paper, we can’t wait to meet them face to face…hopefully. Nothing is guaranteed; failure is not an option.
The two of us are a small element in a team of ten, guides, porters, trackers, two gentlemen with rifles. We spend three hours trekking downhill and while straining with hiking boots and sticks, locals pass us by at twice the speed with sacks of potatoes on their heads and no shoes. Humiliating!
Two hours in, and word comes through that the family has been found. Relief spreads across the team.
An hour later, and the reason the forest is called impenetrable becomes clear. Our helpers turn off the narrow but worn path and slash away at the undergrowth with their pangas while we struggle, now unable to see the ground and therefore our footing any more. After 20 minutes scrambling, the bush opens up and the trackers smile a warm welcome. The heart beats fiercely with exertion with great expectation.
We dump bags, water, sticks (gorillas don’t like sticks we’re told) and everyone except Benson and one tracker. Clutching the camera rather too tightly, we are ushered to a nearby bush. Inside is the alpha male called Rafiki, (meaning friend). No closer that seven to eight metres we were told, as we can transmit our diseases easily and they don’t have the same immune system as we do, and can therefore compromise their health. This benign but vast 180kg creature is just two or three metres away, separated from us by a few branches and leaves. The heartbeat and camera click away at about the same speed. It’s a close encounter but it’s so placid and silent and not at all scary which is not what one would expect. The silverback’s serenity is infectious.
The $500 only buys you an hour with the family, so after 10 minutes with the head honcho, we move on to find mother and daughter, Kasotoro (the hill’s name) and Tabu (problem) who are visibly affectionate. They groom each other, cuddle and even kiss. It’s enchanting and it’s familiar.
After precious time with them, it’s time to move on to meet the previous dominant male called Safari (one who walks a lot). He’s around 40 years old, on his own and may only have another half a dozen years or so to go. After a while, he strolls off on all fours in the opposite direction and his silver back gleams under the midday sun.
The final encounter is with a blackback. He’s a teenager called Christmas (that’s when he was born) whose back will shortly turn silver. As we sit with him, rejoicing in the present, he moves towards me. Sitting just a few feet away, I can feel his body heat and his breath is clearly audible. I am frozen in the equatorial sun.
As we climb a thousand feet back to our very welcome hotel, cold beer and warm bed, we reflect in silence.
Uganda is a simply stunning destination but, above all, the gorillas must not be missed.