During my Uganda trip in April, I spent two days visiting the amazing Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, which hosts the largest number of mountain gorillas in the world. These are different than the ones you see at the zoo, which are Lowland gorillas. Mountain gorillas are protected by law, and Uganda has done a spectacular job at warding off poachers and protecting these highly intelligent, family-oriented animals. With limited numbers of passes each year, I was lucky to get one and view two different families. Below is my experience with one of them.
When our guide told us that gorillas share 98.8% of our DNA, I was shocked. I wondered, can gorillas get hemophilia? I imagine they could. There are less than 1,000 of them, living in four national parks in three countries. If 1 in 5,000-10,000 human males are born with hemophilia, perhaps there are no gorillas with hemophilia… yet?
Thursday, April 28, 2016 Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
The rains are bathing everything in moisture, which heightens the colors of the emerald forest and yellow flowers. I hear birds repeating their songs, the constant background of cicadas, the gentle rains. Every now and then one of the workers at the Gorilla Forest Sanctuary—Nicholas, Eli, Judith— stops to see how I am, and how the day was. It has been a marvelous day.
I awoke this morning in my safari tent to the distinct three-note sound of a local bird, and the whirring crickets. It’s peaceful here. The day was overcast and cool. After breakfast, I skipped down the red stones of the Sanctuary, took a left on the gravel road and within a few hundred feet reached the sloping driveway of the Ugandan Wildlife Authority. I was the only one from our lodge; a few people from other outfitters joined us, milling about on the lawn. We were to track the “Rushegura family” of apes. This is an active group, on the move, comprised of 19 family members. (Read more about this family here)
Our group was: Stephanos and Leeza from South Africa; Ali, blonde, from the UK, who had asthma and was probably my age or a bit younger; a young woman from Israel; Gladys from the UK, who had a swishy ponytail and riding boots that looked wrong for this kind of hike; a tall guy, my age, with glasses and was very happy; and a German lady, tall and blonde.
Our guide was Gad, a dark-skinned man with a chiseled face and thin mustache, small but wiry, donning his army green wildlife outfit. As we set out on a long, flat dirt road for 30 minutes, we had a chat. I asked him how long he had been a guide. He replied 19 years, which seems a long time. “You must have been here pretty much when the forest was opened, right?” I surmised. “Yes, back in 1997. I know a lot of stories about the gorillas.” I asked if he then knew of Thor Hanson, author of The Impenetrable Forest, which I had just read.
“I know him!” exclaimed Gad. “You know when he writes about that family whose bananas were being eaten by the gorillas?” Yes! I told him, Chapter 16. The gorillas kept raiding the village farmers’ field, particularly banana trees, as they love the pulp (and not the bananas, contrary to pop culture). It was delightful to share my enthusiasm about the book (which is well written) with someone. He shared some stories about him being attacked by a gorilla, and still carrying the puncture wounds. We fell in to chatting quite a bit, and I told him he should write a memoir about his years: how the forest has grown as a tourist business; who were some of his memorable guests?
We started hitting dense forest after an hour. The gravely dirt road became a trail, and the real hike began. I have never experienced any hiking like this. For the next two hours, we hacked, stumbled, slipped, hauled, crawled and grabbed our way up the mountainside.
“The gorillas keep movin’,” one of the guides said, translating from the walkie-talkie conversation he just had with the trackers. The four trackers—armed with machetes for the undergrowth, and rifles for the wildlife— were far ahead of us, scouting for the Rushegura family. This meant we would have to follow them up the mountainside. It’s not called the Impenetrable Forest for nothing. The trail very quickly turned into a 45° hike, through thick vegetation designed by Nature to keep trespassers out. The light chitchat that bounced back and forth between the trekkers petered out, as each person focused on where each foot would land. It was an exercise in pedestrian strategy: if you put your foot on a root as a launch pad, you might slip from its slimy covering, or it might twist suddenly free and ensnare you. If you fall, you crash on more roots, downed branches, wild vines. You put your foot up on the hill sideways (you can’t often go straight on because the angle is too steep), ducking to avoid creepers, vines, branches above you and at face-level; you reach up, dig your walking stick with the carved gorilla head on it into the muddy ground above you, pull and push, then steady yourself by grabbing a tree to hoist yourself. Ouch! The trees are covered with moss and usually thorns from some of the creepers. You quickly learn which trees and creepers to avoid. All the while you ascend, more and more, higher and higher. Sweat pours off you, the trees above drip on you, the mud splatters you. “Trampled Underground” played in my head.
The trail, barely qualifying for that title, is strewn with rotted vegetation: brown leaves, moldy green ones, moss, and a cat’s cradle of vines that twist and ensnare. At times you lose your balance, and start to waver downwards. When you overcompensate and pitch forward your foot most likely is entrapped in the vines and roots, holding you back, so you start to fall faster into the muddy hillside. I lost my balance many times and once fell forward on the narrow and treacherous hillside trail, but couldn’t right myself because anywhere I put my hands I hit thorns. “Give me a hand up,” I pleaded to the South African couple near me and they righted me. We then had to stamp on the vindictive vines until my foot was free.
This was just one small step for mankind. We still had two more hours of this just on the way up.
As each of us focused on the botanical traps at our feet, we were surrounded by a primeval forest, which only knew how to attack and defend. Creepers encircled trees, trying to reach the top of the canopy to get sun, and strangling some trees over time. Certain trees grew immensely big, while saplings sprung up like mushrooms underneath. Every type of green thing known to humankind seemed to grow here, with no inch spared for space, except for what we hacked.
The trackers thwacked away with their two-foot long machetes, called pangas; branches lopped off trees in seconds. It seemed horrifying to watch them mutilate trees this way; in the States we try not to harm our trees. But you soon want a machete yourself to protect your arms and hands from the insidious thorny trees and stinging nettles.
I saw a sort of slo-worm, plump, blind and primitive, lying on the sodden trail. I pointed it out and our guide told us it was a neera. To amuse and shock them I picked it up; it worked. Suddenly my hands felt stinging and I hastily put it back. I couldn’t imagine why it stung me until I saw the safari ants crawling all over it. Later I saw a white shell, a smaller version of the ones we find at the beach, curled over and over to form a funnel. It was empty, and once belonged to a snail, probably a long forgotten victim of the safari ants as well.
We stop only once briefly, to catch our breaths as we are all heaving now, to sip water, and to listen to the walkie-talkie chatter of the trackers ahead. Gorillas still on the move. We wipe off sweat and start again. There is no small talk from anyone now; we are in our own little endurance trek. Ali leaned against a tree, seemingly defeated. We still have an hour to go. “Altitude sickness,” she says, but I’m not sure that’s it. We are up a high mountain for sure, but not the 13,000 feet where this sickness would manifest. It’s just a very strenuous hike and someone should be relatively fit to tackle it.
The hired porters kindly hold hands with the women in the group. My porter, Stifa, is a girl younger than my youngest and I hired her as a community investment. Local porters depend on tourist dollars to help their community.
Eventually we meet up with the trackers on flat ground, and they look as exhausted as we do. Now we are all gathered in a small clearing; there are big potholes of mud around us. “Elephant,” one of the trackers said. Yes, elephants live up this wild mountain! Now the trackers hack the vines and branches trying to keep us from the gorillas, with a vengeance. They feel the gorillas are close by. Another 30 minutes of hacking, stepping, climbing.
At long last, after three solid hours, we hear the grunting of the gorillas. Sure enough, around a tree caged with vines and smaller trees, is a lone gorilla, stripping leaves off a branch with his teeth. We circled about and watched as he munched. He was not concerned with us; behind us, the Rushegura group. The silverback, “Mwirima,” lay on his back, one foot high in the air. Two babies, just a few months old, their wobbly heads trying to focus on us, lay in their mothers’ arms. One had a wildly wooly mane of hair. The struggle to get here took the wind out of us, and the gorillas were somnolent and lazy. But we stood about, snapping photos, quiet and respectful. None came near us. They are habituated to humans, meaning that over time, the park rangers have approached the group every day for an hour, for years, to get them accustomed to humans. They are wild, no doubt, and dangerous. One gorilla could easily kill you. The silverback weighs about 400 pounds. But they have been trained to be in the presence of humans and tolerate them. To visit them you must be quiet, move slowly, don’t go near them (though they might come near you), do not set off any flash photography (it frightens them, reminding them of lightning). And you can’t trek to see them even if you have a bad cold. Because gorillas share 98.8% of our DNA, they are susceptible to catching our germs. This made me wonder about hemophilia; can they develop it? No one seems to know.
The gorillas had feasted on the forest and were sleepy. Only the infants tried to break away and were very curious about us. Each time they tried to climb down off their sleepy mothers, the mothers gently took their arm and placed them back in their hold. The mothers were incredibly tender towards the infants.
A crackling noise revealed Ali made it after all! I quietly congratulated her and she immediately credited Gad for getting her there. “I have been a guide for 19 years,” reminded Gad. “I know people want to come see the gorillas. So I know how to make them come up the hill.”
Eventually, thunder burst overhead, warning us that a downpour was imminent. Gad politely suggested it was time to move. We all donned rain gear, which would prove useless within minutes. We bade the gorillas silently good-bye and began a slow march down the mountain. It took us only 90 minutes, half the time, but was every bit as treacherous. The rain burst like water sliced open from a huge camelback bladder in the sky. It hammered us relentlessly. My hood—I had forgotten to flip it up after I put on my trekking hat. When I did, of course it was filled with cool rainwater, which slid down my back uncomfortably. Within 15 minutes we were soaked to the skin, and soon no one cared anymore that we were wet. We had to focus on our feet again. Gravity pulled us, but the roots and vines weren’t done yet. Somehow I sped ahead of the group, keeping up at all times with the trackers. Through the rain, I watched as the lead tracker followed a series of yellow slashes on the trees, and neatly halved saplings; these were his markings for finding our way out. Otherwise, how would he know? They don’t use GPS or even compasses.
At one time he held onto a sapling as he walked, pulling it toward him then releasing it suddenly. It snapped back and whipped my left thumb painfully. Another time, I slipped in the mud—no surprise as now a stream of mud, clogged with decomposing leaves, became our trail, and the sudden thought that these beheaded saplings could easily impale someone. I vowed not to fall again.
There was time to enjoy the beauty of the rainforest. Everywhere you look, there was green: jade, emerald, forest… all shades and types. Ants crawled on the ground, birds occasionally chirped, but mostly the forest was deathly quiet, except for the rush of rain. The stinging nettles still caught on my pants relentlessly, and you released them like a cat’s claws, pulling them back first and then letting go. All of our clothing had minute holes in them from the nettles, and the next day, I would awake with dozens of small bumps on my legs, itching furiously where the nettles stung.
I descended rapidly, well ahead of the group. We eventually came to the waterfall, about 40 minutes from the Uganda Wildlife Authority building. The rain tapered off and we took photos in front of the falls. The falls pounded the rocks like white foamed fists. Nicholas had dashed ahead of us, and had stripped off his shirt to clean the mud off him in the pool. He looked so happy, and there was a certain simplicity about everything. Wet, muddy, sweaty, we were happy. Gad wanted to know what we wanted to do: eat lunch in our raincoats, in the rain, next to the waterfall, or continue? I wanted to continue on, not interested in eating. Everyone stood about, not able to make a decision. I simply said, all in favor of eating lunch here? The South African couple raised their hands hopefully. All in favor of moving on? Everyone else raised their hands. “Sorry!” I offered not apologetically. On we trekked!
The rest of the excursion was easier, even in the now light rain. The trail evened out but remained muddy, rocky, slippery, serpentine. It eventually spit us out on the main road again, that led to the UWA. Gad exclaimed, “You’re fast! Do you want to be a tracker?” Of course, I replied!
When we got back to the main building, I thanked Stifa, gave her most of my lunch, a big tip and pay, and then walked back to the Sanctuary, soaked, muddy and sweaty… and thrilled.
See photos of the gorillas here.