Gorilla Trekking

Gorilla Trekking in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

Guest Blogger Cheryl Breen shares her adventure!

Day Eight – Sept. 26

And this is why it is called Bwindi Impenetrable Forest! Well, we did it!! The gorilla trekking was everything that I had prayed for! We started our trek at 8:30 this morning, meeting just up the street from our lodge. We were joined by the family of 5, who were staying at our lodge, who are from San Francisco and Sacramento. We were given a brief orientation and told that there were 3 or 4 “trackers” who had been on the mountain before us tracking the gorillas and found them. So, they told our guide, Mele, who led us through the jungle, along with 2 armed guards in case there was trouble.  We were tracking 1 of the 3 gorilla families that are habituated here at Bwindi. The family was composed of 13 members, including 1 silverback, 9 females, and 3 babies.  There had been 4, but one had died they think from falling from a tree.

We had 2 porters, Isiah and Frida.  Frida (a woman) was officially assigned to Paul, but since she followed me she spent a lot of time pushing my keister up the hill while Isiah held my hand and pulled.  Paul and I were the oldest in our group of 7, and the most out of shape. So, we needed to rest quite frequently. The others were appreciative actually because the day before they were with a group that was going really fast and they were exhausted. We climbed to an elevation of roughly 6,000 feet, walking precariously up the thick mountain forest at about a 65 degree angle, for about 2 1/4 hours, stopping for 5 minute water breaks when needed. It was grueling! Paul and I were really huffing and puffing and I could feel myself getting really overheated. The guides took one look at us and said we needed another water break. Paul kept asking how much further and our guide really never answered the question. He would tell us that the trackers were with the gorillas and they were up ahead at the top of the mountain and we had to just moving forward. We were almost ready to give up, but the family support was wonderful. They kept reminding us of the reward up ahead, to see the mighty silverback and his family, and that it would all be worth it.

We were almost upon them and were given last minute etiquette notes and then we quietly headed towards them. We passed by their nests where they slept for the night, and each had a mound of fresh poop next to it. I guess that is how they start their morning before they venture out into their day, just like us! We had to walk carefully to avoid stepping in it, as we were climbing up higher and higher and then….it happened!  We encountered the silverback! He was sitting on the ground nestled among the foliage, his back to us. The guides encouraged us to come around to the front of him, for that special Kodak moment and they made some clucking notes to keep the gorilla calm as to let him know we were not a threat. We are supposed to not get closer than 7 meters (about 22 feet), but we were able to get within 10 feet of him! Gorillas tend to put their backs towards humans, a combination of being shy, protective, and nonchalant. We breathed in his majesty, as he stood on all fours, his silver back glimmering in the sun and his head bowed. Then he looked in my direction and our eyes met. It was magic, as he acknowledged our being in his world. Just by his mannerism, the guides knew that the silverback had enough of us and wanted to move. He decided to go and chose the path immediately in front of me! The guide told me to remain still. He stepped in front of me and brushed Paul’s leg with his magnificent body as he passed us! The guides said he was leading us to the rest of his family, so we followed closely as he meandered through the jungle. He broke branches and vines as he stepped, and our guides used machetes to widen the path for us to follow. We felt that the gorillas were probably laughing that we had to use iron tools to break the vines when they snapped them with one hand!

The rest were nearby, perched in the trees. They were eating leaves and swinging from tree limbs, periodically speaking to each other. The guides were imitating their grunts and interpreting them to say, “this is delicious!”  “Are you satisfied, yes, I am.” One of the mothers held her baby on her side, away from us, protecting it in case we would cause harm, but baby would show her face and peek out to see us.  When mom decided to move from one branch to another, we heard the branch snapping from her weight, and we all held our breath and simultaneously said, “oh no!  Be careful!”, as we all were afraid for their lives and the long pending drop from this very high perch to the earth below! Luckily at the sound of the snap, she stood perfectly still and then turned her direction to reach another branch that was more safe. She was talking to another gorilla below her, almost to say that she was safe and all was well.  Whew!  A sigh of relief for all of us!

We were able to squat or sit, albeit precariously on the edge of the mountainside within about 20 – 30 feet from most of the gorillas. We had to be very mindful of where we planted our butts as there were fire ants and other insects galore walking alongside us. I was so proud of Paul. With his acrophobia, he held up surprisingly well. There was one scary moment where we had planted our feet and sat, but the earth started to give way. We thought we were sliding down the slope, but luckily the guide was there to help us reposition before we slid too far.  After our scheduled hour of viewing these beautiful gentle giants we had to take our leave. That was the saddest moment of my journey. I hated to say goodbye as we had only just said hello! But the park has strict rules, to protect the gorilla’s privacy and way of life. We were the only ones who would visit this family today, and tomorrow other sets of eyes would capture their Kodak moments of encounter.

Our exit out of the forest was more swift, going down was certainly easier than hiking up. However, we still had to be very careful, our walking sticks firmly planted into the earth as we made our way back down to our starting point, which took about an hour. Once there, we were given our graduation certificates and asked to share our experience through social media and display our certificates proudly at our offices and homes as ambassadors for this great World Heritage Site.

Once home, we had a fabulous massage to work out the pains of our trek. We met new trekkers who had just arrived at the lodge and shared stories during dinner of our gorilla encounters, perking their excitement for their day ahead. A restful sleep, with all the memories of the day swirling in our minds… what an incredible and life-changing experience!!!


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